Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cash-Landrum: The Light Pillar Theory Revisited by Wim VAN UTRECHT

Guest article by Wim VAN UTRECHT, a companion piece following his examination of Light Pillars and their possible role in the Cash-Landrum UFO case.
Cash-Landrum Theory & Analysis: Unpublished 2002 Wim van Utrecht Article

See also the article on weather conditions present:
The Weather: Evidence in the Cash-Landrum UFO Case

Some additional notes on the Light Pillar Theory 


Commentators on several lists have raised a couple of pertinent questions about my suggestion that a light pillar caused by a combustion flame was – at least partially – responsible for the CASH-LANDRUM incident. This is an attempt to respond to these posts.

How bright are light pillars in high cloud? 

This issue was raised in my initial draft article. In note 14, I mentioned a bright reflection with an estimated magnitude of -9 (note however that this observer was standing very close to the combustion flame).  My own visual observations - I think I must have observed the phenomenon about 7 or 8 times now - were all from a distance of 8.6 km (5.3 miles), and never as bright as -9.  Because of the pulsating nature of the light source and the continuous changes in thickness of the reflecting cloud layer, the brightness changes constantly.  Perhaps the average brightness of light pillars can best be compared to a spotlight creating a luminous patch on a cloud deck or the moon seen through a layer of stratus cloud. Much depends from the surroundings (my observations were from the centre of Antwerp city where there’s much light pollution). On a dark road bordered with trees I expect a pillar to show up quite bright.  Here’s what I wrote about light pillars and brightness in an article on my website
The brightness depends not only on the nature of the light source and the distance between the observer and the reflection, but also on the type of ice-crystals, their size, the smoothness of their surfaces and the way in which they are scattered within the cloud. A flat horizontal layer consisting of large ice-crystal plates with smooth surfaces will generate a crisp and colourful image, whereas a cloud of randomly scattered oscillating ice-particles of small size will produce an image with diffuse edges and a less outspoken colouring.
In one of the best cases on record, a trained observer, studying a reflection from the glow of a blast furnace converter through a telescope, reported that it looked as if the flames from the furnace mouth could actually be seen moving about inside the reflected image [SPERRA, William E., "A Night Mirage" in Popular Astronomy, Vol. XVI, No. 3, March 1908, pp. 164-167.].
In the case of the North Sea sightings referred to above, a witness who used binoculars noticed that the "object" had "a granular surface, with a large number of small points inside". This is not the only case in which the light reflected off the smooth surfaces of the individual ice crystals gave the reflection the appearance of a luminous structure made up of countless points of light. 
Using data obtained from another witness to the North Sea incident, Erik HØG of the Niels Bohr Institute for Astronomy, Physics and Geophysics department of the Niels Bohr Institute for Astronomy at Copenhagen University, found that the magnitude of the circular reflection observed that night was close to -9 [HØG, Erik, various Internet messages from November 1993 and May 1995.]. By way of comparison: the magnitude of the full moon is -13, that of a bright star -1. Normally, the reflected images are much weaker.
In evaluating the brightness of light pillars from photographs, it should be taken into account that the intensity of the streaks is sometimes exaggerated by the long exposure times needed for clear night shots. 

Actually most photographs of light pillars that are on my website gallery ( are time exposures (exposure time, aperture and ISO are mentioned for most images). Normally light pillars from combustion flames are not that bright, but the strange thing is that how longer you look at them the brighter they seem to get, up to such a point even that it’s easy to make yourself believe that the sky is splitting in two and that you’re looking at a fissure in the sky with a fire behind it. 

Here’s two videos of light pillars that will give a better idea of their brightness:

and more spectacular (but reaching to the ground, so not in high clouds):

Have there every been similar incidents?

There are several incidents in my collection of possible light pillar sightings that have elements similar to what was reported in the CASH-LANDRUM case. One of these concerns a phenomenon observed by none other than earthlight researcher Paul DEVEREUX.  On pages 11-18 of his 1982 book on Earthlights there is a description of an event that marked the beginning of his work on Earthlights. The incident took place when DEVEREUX was studying fine arts at the Ravensbourne College of Art near Bromley, Kent, UK. Together with some fellow students DEVEREUX spotted a strange luminous display in the NNW sky one evening in May 1967.  I quote from my catalogue:

Description: a pulsing, preternaturally brilliant orange light in the form of an upright rectangle; moved towards the college, then came to a halt in the sky, a few hundred feet above the fields; remained stationary; it had the proportions of a door, crisp edges and corners; impossible to determine whether the shape was fully three-dimensional or somehow flat; suddenly the glowing phenomenon began to decay, the crisp rectangular shape collapsing into amorphous, organic configurations that kept churning in the sky; like a sort of animated, glowing Rorschach test in which many forms could be fancied; not a machine, but like some happening out of the Old Testament; moving within itself like a time-lapse film of a billowing, boiling cloud, albeit a small and glowing one; at one point the shape of a human form suggested itself with its arms outstretched, like a Christ-like or angelic glowing silhouette; a rosy cloud could still be made out a quarter of an hour later, until it resembled a vague smudge of rouge in the sky

When I first read about DEVEREUX’ experience, I wondered if this pulsing, orange vertical shape could not have been a mirrored image of a flare. Possible candidates were flares at the Beckton Gas Works or the Shell Haven Refinery, but these were not in the NW but in the NNE and NE. A fire was another option. In an attempt to get to the bottom of this, I sent DEVEREUX a letter asking to indicate the exact line of sight on a map. He never responded.      

A second spectacular case from the UK concerns an incident reported by three youngsters driving a car near Felixstowe, Suffolk on September 20, 1965 (at around 10h30 p.m.).  Here’s the story as told on

A group of joyriding youths consisting of the driver, 25 year-old Geoffrey Maskey, and his passengers, Mavis Fordyce and Michael Johnson had decided to pull over on the curb near a tree lined Walton Avenue.

The youngsters were engaged in lively conversation when Johnson abruptly opened the car door and walked out into the murky night.

Fordyce and Maskey were perplexed as their friend vanished into the blackness of the forest, but assumed that he must be answering “nature’s call.”

Just moments after, the youths began to overhear a “high-pitched humming” sound.

Fordyce grew anxious as the disconcerting sound began overwhelming them and Maskey leaned out the window to try and ascertain the origin of the annoying noise.

The youths spied an oval-shaped, orange object suspended in the sky over 90-feet above his car; and it was glowing so brightly that it bathed the surrounding countryside in its eerie orange glow.

Without warning, the humming object shot away from the vehicle and vanished beyond the trees. The pair stared at each other in silent astonishment, when it suddenly dawned on them that Johnson was still in the woods… and that he might no longer be alone.

The apprehensive duo — both of whom were reticent to leave the car and wander into the forest wherein the UFO and their friend were lurking — began shouting their Johnson’s name to no avail.

Johnson then suddenly emerged from the wooded area.

He staggered into the road with a dazed expression adorning his face. Maskey hoped that he was just having a go at them, but as soon as Johnson collapsed in the middle of the street he knew that this was no laughing matter.

Fordyce and Maskey wasted time in exiting the vehicle to their friend’s aid even though they were frightened and in shock.

They found Johnson laying motionless on the asphalt, totally unconscious.

Fordyce and Johnson with the friend they rescued sped away from the forbidding forest and the strange orange light toward the nearby Felixstowe hospital.

 Once at the hospital Johnson regained consciousness, but he was suffering from amnesia and could not recognize the friends who had rescued him, much to their dismay.

The doctors on duty diagnosed Johnson as having succumbed to a serious shock.

Johnson also sustained physical trauma from the UFO encounter.

Doctors noted that he had unusual burn marks on the back of his neck and a contusion above his right ear.

The alarmed doctors decided to transfer Johnston to a better equipped hospital.

The doctors then decided that it would be prudent to transfer Johnson to the hospital of Ipswich, which was far better equipped to deal with Johnson’s injuries and psychological condition.

The following day Johnson recovered his senses and when his friends came to visit them he told them of his harrowing encounter with an ostensibly alien entity in the woods.

Johnson claimed that when he abruptly got out of the car the night before he was compelled to do so by an unknown “force,” which insisted that he go into the woods.

Johnson told his friends and doctors that he was forced to walk into the dark forest — although he was unable to recall exactly how far — where he encountered what he described as a humanoid being with the large sloping eyes that were glowing in the darkness.

The odd creature was engulfed by orange flames. It was at that point that he blacked out.

I added this anecdote to my catalogue because it was suggested at the time that the youngsters had taken a flare from the nearby Propane Gas Plant at Felixstowe for a UFO. I have no idea if that theory was based on any investigation. 

A third one, directly from my catalogue:

Hellemmes, Lille (Nord) France - June 28-29, 1974 (at about 02:00 a.m.)

Description: (1) intense light lighting up the entire sky; all houses in the surrounding streets seemed to be engulfed in flames; in the sky there was a reddish cylinder which resembled melted steel; seemed to be falling from the sky; (2) like the sun in the morning, but with fusion going on in the centre; (3) blinding light.
Duration not given, but at least several minutes.

Sound: explosion followed by a scary whistling noise that filled the sky

Note: dogs barking furiously throughout the sighting; car battery found to be flat the next day; zinc terrace roof found to have been pierced over a rectangular area of about 10 cm a few days after the incident as if the zinc plate had been worked over by an oxy-acetylene torch;   

- PACAUT, René, Ils ont rencontré des extra-terrestres, Editions Alain Lefeuvre, 1978, pp. 162-164
- Gazet van Antwerpen - 12 July 1974  

Nearby chemical plant: Lille and Dunkerque

Here too, no sign of any investigative report worthy of that name.

One more:

Nantes, Loire Atlantique, France – December 15, 1979 (at about 03:00 a.m.)

Description: enormous luminous shape (about 10 times the full moon); like a vertical cigar, four times longer than wide; yellow; at the bottom there were rectilinear, vertical elements of yellow and orange colour, moving up and down fast; at the beginning the contour of the object was imprecise but it soon became sharply defined; after a while it glided to the right, growing smaller and smaller; when 1/3 was still sticking out of the buildings the phenomonenon suddenly extinguished

Note: light was so bright that it hurt the eyes  

Sound: soft alternating noise; "bchh-bchh-bchh”

Source:  Lumières Dans La Nuit  Vol. 24, No. 203 (March 1981),  pp. 19-21 

Nearby chemical plant: Industry on the south bank of the Loire

The problem is that these extreme cases are to be regarded as pure anecdotes and that, as far as I know, no attempts were ever made to document the experiences in a scientific way. So probably we will never know if light pillars were involved or not.

However, there’s one case from Vitrolles, France, that WAS investigated shortly after it had occurred (that was on January 19, 1981, at 3 a.m).  The investigation was conducted by the local gendarmerie and the country’s official UFO investigative probe GEPAN (now GEIPAN/CNES) 

Description: very bright glow; UFO moving about in the sky; pink glow getting very large and very small; large patch of diffuse light, lighting up the sky and the entire plant; fiery orange; shaped like a cigar

Note: tens of witnesses, also from surrounding communities, called the local police, who went to the site and witnessed the phenomena for themselves; photos taken but not published; vibrations felt; windows shaken over a distance of several kilometres  

Sound: loud humming noise; very intense dull sound; like a helicopter in slow motion, heard over distances of several tens of kilometres

Source: Note Technique No. 14 - Mini  enquêtes en1981 et 1982, Toulouse, GEPAN, 1983,  pp. 1.0-1.13 (now also available at

Identification: incident with a new cracking unit at the Shell Petrochemical plant at Etang de Berre

I could cite dozens of examples of vertical “cigars” and “cylinders” that were successfully identified as light pillars from flares, but the majority of these are less spectacular. Often the veracity of the purported side effects seems to depend on who spotted the lights and who investigated the sightings.  

Location of a possible candidate for the hypothetical flare

The fact that the CASH-LANDRUMS were able to see the “vertical light” in the rear mirror when driving east to Dayton rules out oil refineries south of Houston as the cause of a light pillar. What we need is a big flame much closer to where the CASH-LANDRUMs left the Huffman-New Caney road and took the turn towards Dayton.  Historical Google Earth maps show that there was (and still is) a chemical plant near Sheldon Road, Channelview, Texas. It is now called LyondellBasell Industries (formerly Lyondell Chemical Company and before that Lyondell-Citgo). The new plant was established in 1985 from facilities belonging to the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO Chemical). This site is a good candidate I think. It is exactly in the continuation of the stretch of the Huffman-New Caney Road where the bigger part of the incident took place. It is also not too far south. A reflection in the sky of a flare at this location would have been visible in the back of the witnesses when they were heading East to Dayton.  The plant is 34.4 km (21.4 miles) south from where the fiery streak was first spotted. 
1978 Houston area satellite photo with the UAP and chemical plant locations. 

Note: a light pillar of a big flame 21.4 miles further down the road reflecting in 13,000 to 16,000 ft high cirrus (the average altitude for this type of optical phenomenon to occur) would have been visible at an elevation of roughly 13 degrees (centre of the reflection).

Light pillars cannot display lateral movements

An (valid) objection to the Light Pillar Theory is that the sighting set off with “a light” that came from the left over the tree tops. In his recent December 4 interview at, Colby repeated this. But on page 4 of SCHUESSLER’s book, which was the main source for my draft article, there is no mention of an object coming from the left. Just a “glow on the horizon” and “a vertical streak of red” that “appeared to be miles away” and “appeared to be getting larger”. 

This again is different from what we read in the article SCHUESSLER wrote for the Winter 1981 issue of UFO Report, namely: 

Suddenly they observed a large light above the pine trees some distance ahead. Although the light was extremely bright, they dismissed it as an airplane en route to Houston Intercontinental Airport and continued to drive back to Dayton.

When they rounded a curve and entered a long straight stretch of highway FM 1485, they again saw the bright light. At this time it approached the road and seemed to float down into the opening between the trees lining each side of the highway”

If the witnesses themselves dismissed the light they spotted in the East as an airplane, I see no reason to contradict this. It may well be that this light - shape and colour are not mentioned - was unconnected to the fiery streak that came into sight as the car rounded the curve. As for the object coming to a stop in the middle of the road, a very simple illusion can explain this: as Betty turned right on the road, the trees on the left will have glided past the car from right to left, making it look as if a distant stationary object sailed over the trees in the opposite direction. In other words it will have looked as if the fiery streak came from the left and settled above the road. So the movement of a plane en route for Houston, and the illusion of a light pillar gliding over the trees in the same direction, could easily have created the impression that the two were one and the same object.  
The important thing at this stage is that the flame-coloured vertical streak appeared stationary from the moment the witnesses were on the straight stretch of the FM 1485 that runs south.  

The problem is with what happened next, i.e. after the panic took hold of the trio. The movement to the right at the end of the “close encounter” is much more difficult to explain in terms of a reflection from a stationary ground light. One explanation would be that, as the flame slowly extinguished, another flame, located at the same plant but closer by and a bit more to the right, flared up for a short moment and created the illusion that the “object” moved upward and to the right. Two flare stacks alternatingly producing a big flame is not unusual  I’ve witnessed this on several occasions here in Antwerp and this has also been photographed on two occasions. See photos below: 

Were the weather conditions favourable for light pillars to appear? 

Thanks to Tim PRINTY we now have the weather data for three places bordering the sighting location. One important piece of information is missing though: the type of clouds and their altitude. A low cloud cover may not be ideal for light pillars to appear because it would prevent the light from the flame to reach the ice-crystal clouds higher up (the clouds in which light pillars appear are usually high-altitude cirriform clouds).  So if there were low clouds, a reflection could only have been visible through gaps in the cloud.  

Fragment of 12/29/1980 area weather data supplied by Tim Printy.

The weather situation on the ground can be very different from one light pillar observation to another. What we really need is data from a weather balloon. Tim and I tried to get these through, but only to found that there are no soundings available for Fort Worth, Shreveport or Corpus Christi. The closest meteorological stations that did publish soundings for December 29th are Lake Charles (112 miles E of Huffman) and Little Rock (379 miles NNE of Huffman). That's all quite far away.  Moreover, these balloons were launched at 18h00 local time, i.e. almost three hours before the sighting occurred.  But our search may not have been totally in vain: a quick look at the data from Lake Charles tells us there was a rather strong temperature inversion in the lower regions of the atmosphere (with temperatures rising with 5.6 deg Celsius between 10 metres and 55 metres and another 5.8 deg between 55 m and 887 m). Inversions are not required for light pillars to occur, but they may be instrumental in spreading the falling ice-crystals into a flat horizontal layer, much like a giant mirror. 

An inversion layer may also explain why the witnesses could hear noises of flaring activities many miles distant (inversion layers refract sound to the ground and the long road bordered by trees may have acted as a large tunnel directing the noise to the witnesses). The “deafening roar” and “intermittent beeps” reported by Betty and Vickie are the typical sounds that can be heard when flaring takes place. 

There’s one problem though: according to the weather data from Houston, Galveston and Beaumont, the wind was blowing from the N to NW during the evening (wind speed was around 10 miles/h, i.e. moderate). Normally, a northern wind would have carried the sound away from the witnesses, unless – and this is clutching at straws a bit – there was a localized inversion around Lake Houston encompassing the chemical plant and the Huffman-New Caney Road but not the surrounding areas.  It is known that the air beneath an inversion layer may be completely cut off from the air circulation of the weather system moving through the region, creating a “lake” of stagnant air. But we need a meteorologist to tell us if the weather situation on December 29 could have created such an situation or not. 

How can an optical phenomenon account for the medical traumas suffered by the witnesses?

Obviously it can’t. But perhaps air pollutants from flaring operations can.

After I sent him a copy of my draft article - that was in 2009 -, veteran researcher Matthew GRAEBER called my attention to Brad SPARKS’ analysis of this aspect of the CASH-LANDRUM incident, An Analysis of the Cash-Landrum Symptomatology. Brad - and APRO consultant Dr. Richard NIEMTZOW agreed with him on this - concluded that there were sufficient indications to accept that the symptoms suffered by the CASH-LANDRUMs could not be due to ionizing radiation. Instead, Brad’s findings showed that many elements of the case indicated that the witnesses had suffered a chemical agent exposure. 
Brad’s findings would be in line with Vickie’s recollection of a smell that reminded her of lighter fluid (but, if I remember well, this detail only surfaced under hypnosis so we might not want to take that too seriously). If there was a localized inversion over the lake that night, and the flare stack was below the inversion layer, we could speculate further that the inversion not only trapped the sound but also the poisonous gases from the flaring activities and perhaps even the heat emanating from the flame. On the other hand, we don’t want smoke to spread too far in the direction of the witnesses as that would have prevented the light from the flare to reflect in ice crystals suspended halfway the flare and the witnesses. So probably not a good idea. Anyone?


By way of conclusion, I would say that the light pillar explanation is still an option, nothing more, nothing less. For the theory to be upgraded to the status of plausible explanation, we need more proof, like a confirmation that flaring was in effect taking place at the old ARCO Chemical site that evening. But it’s not clear to whom such a request should be addressed. And if we do find someone who has access to these 33 year old archives, it’s far from certain that he or she will be prepared to consult them for a request like this. During my own inquiries, now more than a decade ago, I learned that petrochemical companies are very reluctant to give this type of information. They automatically think that some kind of pollution problem is being investigated. 

And finally, I can’t help but compare the CASH-LANDRUM incident to a pseudo-religious experience. Belgium, which is where I live, has a long history of religious apparitions. In many of these instances, the events were triggered after the percipients had seen a luminous shape in the distance that looked unusual to them. In a previous message I already pointed to the Dutch case of January 7, 2007, when a bright light pillar caused by a flare at a chemical plant in Terneuzen was interpreted by accidental observers as a sign of the second coming (see photo and caption pertaining to this incident at  

It is not a coincidence, I think, that the CASH-LANDRUMs were “very biblical” and religious people. Perhaps their religious background helped transform a light pillar into a “chariot of fire” coming out of the sky.  Experienced investigators of UFO reports know how a bright star or planet can trigger a spectacular UFO encounter. If astronomical bodies can create such grotesque misinterpretations, a much stranger light pillar will do the job too, certainly if it’s spotted on a lonely dark road together with a fleet of helicopters.  

(December 2013)

Thank you Wim for, continuing to investigate and explain your findings. 
Thanks also to Tim Printy for his participation and interest. - Curt