Monday, May 25, 2015

UFOs and "angel hair" - in search of evidence

A fall of web like material near Goulburn New South Wales (NSW) on Monday 4 May 2015 allowed me to revisit a mystery that has haunted me since 1969 - did I interact with UFO related "angel hair" back then at Grafton, my old home town, in the northern rivers district of NSW?
"Angel hair" has been adopted somewhat carelessly as a catch all term for strange falls of web like material that behave in apparently anomalous ways, particularly in connection with UFO events.  The usage has earlier origins, but for my purposes I will restrict my discussion to the adoption of the term "angel hair" into UFO lore.
What got me interested in the Goulburn area fall was the chance to carefully assess the nature of the fall, the indication that some of the material may have "disappeared", and to undertake some experiments with the material to see if it at all replicated what I had experienced back in 1969.
From my report:
Report on possible spider web fall (or “angel hair”?) near Goulburn NSW on Monday 4 May 2015
Prepared by Bill Chalker, 
UFOIC (UFO Investigation Centre), P.O. Box 42, West Pennant Hills, )
I received an email from Mariana Flynn, president of UFO Research NSW re “Phone call about “angel hair”" on 4 May 2015:
Hi Bill,
… I had a phone call this morning from a fellow called Ian Watson in Goulburn.  When he went outside today the whole area was covered in what looked like angel hair. To him it looked like more than spider webs. It was all over the washing line as he hung out washing and when he looked up at the sun, he noticed a lot of it floating a good 100 metres up in the sky….some of it like clumps of cotton and others like long thick strands. He said the ants and the birds seemed hyperactive. He did also notice  lots of spiders on his roof and in his garden but he could not equate that with the  amount of fluff in the air. Some of it landed like bundles of cotton fluff on the ground.
Can you give me your opinion? I know you have dealt with angel hair before.
Could such a large quantity of spider webbing be seen in one location? What should the man do?  Collect some of it and freeze it?
Because of my long time interest in UFOs and possible reports of “angel hair” (see below)  I responded immediately:
Ian Watson of Goulburn:  sounds like he may have witnessed an impressive display of nature.  Given he saw lots of spiders on his roof, they well have been spiderlings, young spiders, of the few species that practice web ballooning.  They are often called ballooning spiders.  The spiderlings scatter pretty quickly as riding the web on air currents is they way of getting about and migrating long distances. If the web material was unstable and starts to disappear get some of it into a zip lock plastic bag, put that inside a clean screw top hermetic sealed plastic or glass container.  Pop that inside a large sealable bag, then put that in the freezer.  Video the contents before it goes in to compare qualitatively and quantitatively with what comes out.
Even though it sounds like ballooning spider webs did he video it and could I get his number if he has supplied it.  I'm fascinated by this stuff, but of course would be much more fascinated if it was "angel hair."
I contacted Mariana directly and secured Ian Watson’s phone number. 
I called him and he proved to be very helpful and interested, irrespective of whether the incident was prosaic or exotic.
Based on the information he supplied me during early evening 4 May, I advised him that I felt that it was most likely a fall of spiders web due to spiderling (baby spiders) ballooning activity. As there a only a few primitive spiders (mygalomorphae), but many more modern spiders (araneomorphae) practice ballooning, I felt it was more likely that it was due to modern spider activity.  He thought they were huntsman type, but the photo supplied, while obscure on critical identifying points  (underside and 8 eye format) suggested either large sac spiders or wolf spiders approximately 21 mm length.  Because they were seen in large numbers and he had young children, I advised him that both are capable of nasty bits but they were not lethal.   Given they had got under eves he was planning to do some safe pest control activities.
I confirmed to him that the extensive webbing he observed was most likely due to a very large aerial migration event.
From my preliminary phone call interview I ascertained the following information:
Ian Watson and his family live on a 500 acre farm on Gurrundah Road, near Goulburn, NSW (-34.745782, 149.600703) location referred to as Mummel, but is approx. 7 km west of Goulburn)
Monday 4 May 2015 was the first day of bright sunshine after about a week of rain and overcast weather.  He reported a light breeze from about the west  or WSW but emphasized this was only an estimate (Weather details for Goulburn from BOM: 9 am – approx. 6km/hr from WNW temp. 10 degrees C relative humidity 99% 8/8 cloud cover & 3 pm approx. 13 km/hr from NW temp. 21.2 degrees C relative humidity 51% 1/8 cloud cover)
Around 8.30 am Ian noted a lot of bird agitation, lot more bird singing, agitated parrot calling, and what seemed like huge numbers of starlings in agitated motions (possible murmuration activity?).  Ants were observed in very agitated swarms.  It was a sunny morning.  He put out a load of washing on the clothes -line. 
Around 11.30 – noon, he was about to put out another load of washing when he was stunned to see very extensive amounts of what seemed to be spiders web everywhere, over the washing, house, car, ground and in the air.  Most seemed to be very fine spiders web, but some seemed to be more distinctively thicker and like small strands of cotton.  Much of it seemed up around 20 to 30 feet in the air, and he was also able to make out a lot up much higher floating in the air.  Much of the finer material was in long.
The apparent rough ratio of more obviously spiders web to the “cotton like” material was about 50:2, but it was the “cotton-like” material that intrigued him. 2 pieces about 3 to 4 inches long fell into his hand. He held this material in his hand for about 20 to 30 seconds, quickly examining it and  handled it by squeezing it and rolling it between his fingers.  To his excited gaze it appeared to "disintegrate", totally disappearing.  
Thoroughly intrigued he realised just inside the house he had some zip lock plastic bags.  He used one of these to secure a further sample of what he took to be the coarser "cotton like" material.
He then started checking the Internet for information on unusual web falls and came across material on a possible UFO connection.  Although he had not seen any unusual aerial object in association with this fall of material he thought it was interesting enough to report it to a UFO group, in this case UFO Research (NSW), specifically its president Mariana Flynn. 
Based on the descriptions of the circumstances of the fall from Ian Watson, who I felt was a careful and thoughtful observer, I felt that what he described to me was a spiders web fall. 
There was some possible evidence of other "cotton" like material, but this was described as present at the rate of 50:2. It was this material that produced the only really oddity, namely the witness described rubbing one small bit within his thumb & fingers, and felt albeit somewhat vaguely, that the small piece disappeared.  And yet he later secured what he thought was an identical bit that fell onto his open hand - "cotton" like again - this remained "stable" and he was near his laundry and there was an available zip lock bag.  He popped it into this and it remained unchanged.
Photo courtesy of Ian Watson
This fell way short of the apparent sublimation I witnessed back in 1969, and was insufficient in clarity to convince me that there was anything strange about the fall.  The photos of the piece show that it is apparently multi stranded, rather than a thick "cotton like" trend.  I was inclined to think the witness was uncertain on the element of "disappearance."
Ian Watson was very helpful and interested in assisting in clarifying the matter. He followed my instructions about packaging up the sample to increase the quality of a possible airtight seal, and forwarded it to me by post.  I had instructed him to place the bag with the material, inside another zip bag and place this between 2 sheets of cardboard.
Photo courtesy of Ian Watson
In the interim the photos and discussion exchanged between Ian and Ian further convinced me that we were dealing with a spectacular example of nature in action - namely the "gossamer" webbing and spider ballooning activity, that enables spiders to relocate long distances through the area. While this is relatively common, what is less common it the very large and massive "migrations" and widespread dense falls.
Photos courtesy of Ian Watson
By the time I've received the Goulburn sample and initially evaluated that it appeared to be quite stable, I then undertook some videoed experiments with a subset sample to evaluate stability and whether I could reproduce what the witness described - disappearance.  This experiment did not confirm that it was unstable.  I still have both samples - the balance of the original and the subset I experimented with, to replicate what the witness reported, albeit, vaguely.  
Video image grabs from my experiments with the sample:
I was, of course, also out to try to replicate my own 1969 experience.  It certainly didn't replicate my 1969 experience, but rubbing it between the fingers like the witness reported, did ball up the small sample.  Here I suspect he ball it up and may have lost sight of the small sample, "disappearing" not via physical disappearance, but from diminishing in length etc, maybe blowing away, as it was harder to see.  In my 1969 experience, I had a sizeable balled up sample in my hand and I was intently looking at it, without taking my eyes of it, and it faded away on the palm of my hand.  That I found astonishing, because as I had taken to be a fall of ballooning spiders web I was expecting the web to hang about, just get a bit smaller thru balling up etc.  Hence the run for my nearby friends place looking for a sample jar.
I have tried this experiment with spiders web in the period from 1969 to now many times with same results, but not often in the context of a web fall where "disappearance" was reported, even if it was vague and uncertain. 
In this context I was certainly grateful to get this chance to do the experiment again with the May 2015 Goulburn fall material and to have such a cooperative witness, namely Ian Watson, who all along was intrigued, irrespective of whether it was a striking example of nature in action or less likely something potentially exotic.
I communicated these results to Ian Watson, Mariana Flynn and to Keith Basterfield who has undertaken cataloguing activity and research into these sorts of falls.  Keith communicated these results to media in Goulburn, who ran a story, which in turn generated a very widespread media pickup around the world, particularly via the Internet.  See Keith reports here 
Here is my email reply to Ian Watson:
Hi Ian,
I received the sample and have had a chance to look at it.  I feel certain that it is spiders web.  Once I established that the sample seemed pretty stable I separated a relatively small part to undertake a further stability experiment, both to attempt to replicate the indication to you that the "cotton" stuff may have disappeared and also whether I could replicate my own sublimation observations I had in 1969.
You indicated that when you rubbed the first strand between your fingers it seemed to disappear.  When I did this and videoed it, I found that it simply balled up a bit, got a little difficult to see, because of compaction etc but it did not disappear.  So I was left wondering if the disappearance you observed was more of a case of balling up and compaction, making it difficult to see, and then losing sight of the material in the handling? 
In my case back in 1969  at Grafton I made the assumption that it was ballooning spiders web I was looking at.  There was so much there that I was able to roll up a fair bit into a ball and it was while I was staring intently at it in my hand it appeared to gas from solid web like material to nothing, that from solid, to presumably gas.  In chemistry that is referred to as sublimation. As soon as I made that clear observation I tore of to get a sample jar to preserve what did not behave like spiders web.
I am grateful to you for the opportunity to examine the sample and learn from you about the details of the fall.
I would welcome your thoughts on the web disappearance.  Does my suggestion fit with a possible explanation for what you observed.
The thicker nature of the material you described as "cotton" like, appears to be the result of multi-filaments of the finer web strands you also observed.
I think bottom line you have witnessed a wonderful display of nature - spiderlings (young spiders) using one of their amazing ways of getting about - in this case web ballooning.
Best wishes,
Photo courtesy of Ian Watson
Given that Ian had a young family and he observed a lot of spiders at the time, and based on his descriptions and the one photo he sent to me of the spiders involved (unfortunately not clear in some critical identifying aspects), I told him the possible species may have a painful bite, but were not known to be lethally toxic and that caution and possible pest control activities might be required.  He described lots of spider going under the house eves and potentially into the roof cavity.  He was already planning the pest control activity.  I would generally let the spiders carry on and move on, but with young kids there was a possible safety factor to consider.
In response to Keith's media activities I wrote:
You have certainly got the media interested.  Pity they are now labelling spider web falls as "angel hair" where I would reserve it for a much rarer group of events. Media can't seem to help themselves adding flourishes like "add this to the list of terrifying creatures" in Australia, when its a global natural phenomena - spiders web falls.  Plus one has you putting forth the ET was here hypothesis, when you weren't.  Overall all though people may take from this the spiders do rain from the sky and that the web falls are called "angel hair."  The latter is part of the message I wish they wouldn't get and that they might make a distinction, but clearly not from this publicity.  At least the curious might read further and stumble upon better research pieces such as your catalogue review etc
The second season of the "Close Encounters" series made by Newroad media in Toronto included a segment on the famous Oloron France "flying saucer-angel hair" case from 1952.  I was involved with Gildas Bourdais in this recreation.
A brief account of the 1952 Oloron & Gaillac event:
On October 17, residents at Oloron saw a long narrow cylinder in the sky tilted at a 45 degree angle and traveling slowly in a south-west direction.  What looked like “puffs of white smoke,” appeared to be coming from the top of the cylinder.  Ahead of the cylinder were about 30 objects which looked like red balls with yellow rings around them.  They appeared to travel in pairs, often in “short, swift zigzags.” When the pairs of “saucers” moved apart, “they seemed to be connected by a whitish trail, like an electric arc.  All these strange objects left long trails which disintegrated and drifted slowly groundwards.  For many hours afterwards trees, telephone wire and the roofs of houses could be seen festooned with the remains.”  It was the behaviour of this material when handled that amazed locals, including school science staff.  When rolled up it became gelatinous, vapourise and disappear.  This sublimation process was strikingly attested by many locals.  Interestingly one of the Oloron witnesses was the school local headmaster Yves Prigent who had been trained in meteorology.
Then on October 27 the amazing events were played out again at the town of Gaillac.  This time apart from the cylinder there were about 20 “saucers.”  This time they seemed to come down to a much lower altitude, estimated to be about 300 to 400 metres. They were observed for about 20 minutes before the cylinder and “saucers” disappeared over the horizon.  “Masses of white threads” again began to fall and once again the sublimation effect was reported.  Unfortunately no one at either Oloron or Gaillac managed to try to preserve the material in a sealed container or even the sublimating gas phase. The suggestion that the Oloron and Gaillac spectacles could be explained away as merely airborne spider web seems out of the question.
courtesy of Gildas Bourdais
My own experience at Grafton on 30 August 1969:
Mid afternoon on found me relaxing on a surfboard in the middle of the Clarence River.  My reverie was interrupted when I noticed streams of fine white filament coming down over the river.    I was immediately fascinated as this was a great opportunity to directly sample what I took to be a good example of a fascinating natural phenomenon.  I took the streams to be the floating web of migratory balloon spiders.  I also knew that in UFO lore exotic material of a similar appearance was occasionally linked to UFOs - namely "angel hair" - thought by some researchers to be a by product of whatever strange processes powered flying saucers.  So that afternoon I paddled over to the riverbank where large amounts of this "spider web" were coming down.   I thought that getting a good look at this stuff and keeping samples would be a handy resource or a calibration for the unlikely prospect of coming across alleged UFO related "angel hair" - an exotic item of UFO physical evidence.  
What I was not prepared for was the improbable.   There in my hands was material that did not quite fit into the migratory spider web category.  There were no tell-tale baby spiders.  As the baby spiders can quickly detach themselves from the web, the absence of spiders did not in itself intrigue me.  What followed did.   I began rolling up a copious amount of the material in my hands.  The filaments diminished in size (not too unusual given the viscous changes that can occur in those conditions, particularly with the possible addition of water from my hands), and then the material eventually dissipated into nothing visible and leaving no trace.  It gave the impression of rapid sublimation from solid to gas, but no vapours or odour was noticed.  The properties of spider’s web are well known, and apparently disappearing to touch is not one of them!  
With the realisation that that I may be dealing with something exotic I raced to a nearby friend’s residence to get some sample jars.  The fall of filaments had been quite profuse and much of it had come down along the riverbank.   When I returned a few minutes later there was none in evidence.  While only a very light breeze was apparent, the topography was such that spiders web should have been still in great profusion.  I even entered the water and investigated the riverbank for a considerable distance in the direction of apparent travel.   There was no trace of the filament fall.  The material did not seem to be spider’s web.   So called "angel hair" had the reported characteristic of quickly disappearing.   Was this the apocryphal "angel hair" - the "manna" of the saucers! 
I subsequently found out that at the same time, a number of Grafton people, including my own parents, had seen a possible UFO, described by some as an elongated white mass", traveling in a trajectory that would have passed over my river position but in a direction at right angles to the aerial flow of material I had witnessed.   Perhaps the "UFO" may have been a more compacted mass of the filaments I had seen traveling in a different direction?   I have since wondered if the “UFO” was even connected with what I saw at low height above the riverbank.  I did some checking and found that there may have been a HIBAL Ashcan high altitude balloon launched the day before from Wilcannia.  It may have also been seen at Kyogle, as reports were also made on the same day or the following day.  This may suggest that the “elongated white mass” could be explainable.  What I handled – the web like material that appeared to sublimate, cannot be as easily explained.  While tantalising the experience with this strange material was ultimately frustrating.  I had it right there in my own hands.
I had one other "close encounter" after the fact with UFO related "angel hair".
The UFO mystery often delivers great déjà vu moments particularly for those who are caught up in the seductive embrace of the alien sirens in deep and compelling ways.  One of those moments came when I learnt of an intriguing event that occurred at the northern NSW town of Quirindi.  Here was a UFO display strikingly reminiscent of the extraordinary events played out at Gaillac and Oloron, France, in October 1952. 
When two “dumbbell” type cylinders and many smaller spheres along with falls of “angel hair” type material were seen over the outskirts of Quirindi on 10 August 1998 by local woman Eunice Stansfield, her husband and daughter and they reported they had preserved a very small amount of it I was very excited at the possibilities of examining a situation like my 1969 experience, and even more so like the classic 1952 Oloron-Gaillac events.  
Here after 29 years I had the opportunity to examine material that might be identical to my own experience from a local event that in fact better approximated the extraordinary events that occurred back in 1952 at Oloron and Gaillac in France.  Eunice Stansfield had forwarded to Sydney area researcher Moira McGhee of the Independent Network of UFO researchers (INUFOR) the sample in a yoghurt container sealed with cardboard glad wrap and a rubber band.  While this sounded far less than ideal I was prepared to use my chemistry background to examine the material and see if it was worthwhile to undertake further extensive testing.  I received the sample on 15 August.
Critical to my investigation and analysis was the chain of evidence and the nature of the sampling.  I spoke to Mrs. Stansfield a few days later to get a clearer picture of the circumstances of the sampling.  She said that she had originally placed 2 strands of the material each about a metre long into the container with a piece of glad wrap over the top.  Because it appeared to become smaller in size, apparently evaporating or sublimating, Mrs. Stansfield went outside a few hours after the aerial objects had disappeared to see if any of the white fibrous material was still around.  She found what she thought was some of the material, however it was no longer generally evident around the area as it had been immediately in the wake of the UFO event.  Nevertheless she placed this in the container.  The original sample was apparently nearly gone.  This did not sound very promising in terms of whether any of the original material was still in evidence when it came to me.  Still I conducted a series of examination and sampling protocols in case I was dealing with an unstable material that may sublimate, including refrigeration and using a syringe sampling through the glad wrap to preserve any gas phase material.  The material evident after getting down below zero degrees centigrade was only about a millimeter in width.  Later I would find that the material was quite stable and appeared to be identical with control samples of spider web I hand gathered.  This was confirmed following detailed examination under a video microscope setup.  
 The Quirindi sample & comparisons with spiders web 
- images by Bill Chalker
I presented these finding at the September 1998 UFO conference in Sydney.  It appeared that if there had been “angel hair” material in the container it was lost in the process of initial re-sampling at Quirindi during the evening of August 10 or up to receipt in Sydney – an unfortunate lost opportunity but still an interesting and compelling UFO episode.  Later I undertook a detailed on site investigation at the Quirindi location.  
Reference: “Quirindi NSW Angel’s Hair Incident 10.08.0” Reported in the Australian Ufologist, Vol.2 No. 3 & 4, December 1998, pgs 66-70.  Investigators: Moira McGhee, Bill Chalker, Bryan Dickeson, Peter Turner, Diane Harrison & Robert Frola.
An often apocryphally caste aspect of the UFO mystery – “angel hair” appears to be a very real aspect of the UFO phenomenon.  


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