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Project Identification and Harley D Rutledge Part 1: Challenges, Opportunities, Synchronicities

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

ID 124145727 Clearwater Lake, Piedmont, MO © Andrea Edwards |

Note: When referencing the text/book of Project Identification I will use italics. When just talking about the field study itself, activities or members, I use Project or Project Identification as is.

After completing the material for the Utah UFO Display, I realized that I’d have to make a really big effort and do a short series on my most favorite UFO book of all time. Project Identification: The First Scientific Field Study of UFO Phenomena (1981) by Harley D Rutledge, PhD.

This study is so important that I’m going to devote three blogs to describing and going through the content. I’ve actually got each chapter outlined so that I can make sure to give you a complete contextual overview.

This first blog is an overview of Project Identification, a brief bio of Harley Rutledge and some of the simple observations that got him started. Part 2 will cover the first phase of Project Identification and Part 3 will summarize phases 2 and 3 of Project Identification, including Rutledge’s closing thoughts on the matter.

I am not alone in admiring this text & study. Gregory Little, who many know through his investigations linking North American paranormal and UFO experiences with sacred sites, has challenged present investigators to go out into the field with our new superior equipment and try to replicate at least some of what Rutledge attempted. A recent blog where Little mentions Rutledge can be found here:

Before the Project was even completed, David Jacobs (before he became an abduction junkie), mentioned it by name in his published dissertation project The UFO Controversy in the United States, (1974).

The book, Project Identification was only printed once and never republished, so the fact that the price of this OP title has soared in recent years may be an indication of renewed interest. I purchased my copy about 5 years ago and paid $65 for it.

Now the lowest prices on Amazon are in the hundreds of dollars—so my recommendation would be to try to get it via interlibrary loan and scan yourself a copy. I have no idea if it will ever be reprinted again for apparently Rutledge’s family seems strictly disinterested—and in the current climate of crazy, I can see why.

My principal contact in Pine Bush, NY, who assisted me in compiling the information for that paranormal Mecca, reminded me of Project Identification (which I’d read years before) during the writing process of my book Mysterious Beauty. He later sent me a collection of articles, news-clippings and presentations that had been assembled by researcher Susan Joy Rennison about Project Identification and Harley Rutledge.

It is from those materials that I’ve assembled some of the biographical information which will be presented below and I am entirely indebted to CBurns, Ms Rennison, Scott Brown of Paranormal News and the Minnesota Chapter of MUFON for archiving some of Rutledge’s work. There is also a summary description of Project Identification in the TimeLife volume, The UFO Phenomenon.

There may also be additional information about Rutledge from other sources that I’m unaware of, so I don’t consider these blogs to be definitive. My goal is simply to provide information about Project Identification and Harley D Rutledge. PhD with the hope that someone, somewhere will be willing to follow up on his good work.

Dr Rutledge was trained in physics and had a good working knowledge of astronomy, electronics, optics, cameras and film equipment. By 1973, he had been working at Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, MO for about a decade and had just become the chair of the department. He was a committed family man who also loved teaching and giving his students extra time and projects.

According to Rutledge’s account in Project Identification, he had always harbored an interest in UFOs and had read the major books about them both pro and con, including Keyhoe, Jessup, Menzel, Klass, Hall and the Condon Report. He was curious about the accounts, but also skeptical and steered clear of contactee reports and the more sensational, conspiratorial aspects of the UFO community.

As department chair, Rutledge was aware that he also needed to make sure his own approach to the topic would not embarrass the academic standing of the college.

When a flurry of UFO reports began to come in from Piedmont, MO (about 75 miles SW of Cape Girardeau), and especially when the close UFO sighting of Piedmont Basketball Coach, Reggie Bone and several of his players made local and then national headlines, Rutledge began to think about how he might organize and conduct a scientifically oriented field investigation.

BTW, Reggie Bone was a beloved local figure who was known for his warmth, openness and generosity. Six months prior to his UFO sighting, Bone was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a condition that forced his early retirement. Although city-slicker reporters tended to portray him as bombastic in an attempt to sensationalize his sighting (which I’ll discuss in more detail in a subsequent blog), apparently, he was not known to exaggerate.

Particularly poignant is the fact that the evening of the sighting, Bone was driving two team managers and three of his players home from a very important tournament which they had lost by only 7 points, so the UFO experience was very dramatic and shocking for them.

Also poignant is the fact that Reggie Bone died of his condition in 1977 at the age of 48, only four years after his UFO sighting and within the timeframe of the latter stages of Project Identification. The book Project Identification is dedicated to the memory of Mr Bone.

I mention this because in a podcast that was done a couple years ago (not the one mentioned above), by a podcaster I'm familiar with and that featured the Piedmont UFO flap of 1973, the two broadcasters spend almost 10 minutes making fun of Reggie Bone’s name, implying that it had to be made up by journalists, perhaps because it reminds them of something suggestive.

They act as if the man was just a meme for the sake of small-town jingoistic journalism. In fact, Bone had admonished the players not to say anything to anyone about the sighting, and it was their gossiping that broke the news, which Bone then was forced to confirm.

This is the kind of irresponsible research and presentation that continues to give a bad name to many aspects of the paranormal, and by correcting this perception about Mr Bone, I hope to show that Rutledge’s research demonstrates that the Piedmont UFO flap wasn’t just a bunch of rumors perpetrated by ignorant rural yokels.

No, Mr. Bone was an actual person, who was suffering from a terminal condition at the time of his sighting and who was willing, at a particular point in Rutledge’s research to help in whatever way he could, despite his worsening health.

In his introduction, Rutledge described what preceded his entry into the field to investigate the Piedmont outbreak. Apparently, there had been a small UFO flap in the Cape Girardeau area and across the river in Illinois in 1967. Cape Girardeau (Cape-as it’s called locally) is right on the banks of the Mississippi). Rutledge had paid little attention to the flap although privately, some colleagues told him about sightings they had seen.

In more recent years, the rumor about a possible UFO crash in Cape Girardeau in 1941 has begun to circulate in earnest, but Rutledge doesn’t mention it and probably didn’t know anything about it.

The Piedmont outbreak in March 1973 seemed much more widespread and persistent, and finally, Rutledge, who describes himself here as a bit of an iconoclast, was persuaded that this might be a good time to put together a field study of the sightings.

It was not the relatively good photo of what would become the classic Piedmont nocturnal light captured by Maude Jeffries that persuaded him—but rather the sheer volume of reports, some by his own students, and one specific experience, that eventually moved him to organize Project Identification.

Before getting started, Rutledge had to assemble a team equipped with scientific equipment, inform the college president that some college faculty were going into the field to study something that might bring notice and notoriety, and warn certain members of the press, because he knew they were going to tag along eventually.

Rutledge also knew he needed to find out if he could get any funding, because he wanted the Project to be an actual underwritten undertaking. After some concerted letter writing, he was able to persuade a St Louis paper, the St Louis Globe-Democrat, to underwrite the Project, with the provision that Rutledge would have to present his findings at a scientific gathering and that the paper would have first dibs on the result.

While waiting on final word from his college president and funding possibilities, Rutledge decided to take a couple colleagues to the Piedmont area and do a survey in order to talk to officials (such as the police), locate potential observation points, collect reports and just get a sense of things. By his own admission, Rutledge did not necessarily expect to actually see anything himself.

On, April 6, 1973, Rutledge took along a trusted colleague, Professor Ueleke (you-a-lek), on a scouting expedition to Piedmont. They set up an observation station with some simple but good equipment on Pyle’s Mountain (as a peak is called locally, Piedmont is at the eastern boundary of the Ozark mountains) and over the course of the evening witnessed 5 instances of potentially anomalous lights. It was enough to peak Rutledge’s interest and cause Ueleke some consternation.

Those initial sightings inspired Rutledge to begin assembling a team, which would include, at least at first, two other academic colleagues, graduate students and other friends who had professional expertise they could add, including a pilot, James Drake, who had access to a private plane that would enable Rutledge to potentially “meet” or “pursue” lights in the air.

Project members were limited to those individuals who either had training or degrees in the physical sciences, were conversant with observational techniques and had enough mathematical skill that they could assist Rutledge in determining things like speed, size and distance of any observed anomaly.

It also helped if they knew how to use varied equipment such as cameras (with multiple shutter exposure times), telescopes of various powers and capabilities, and other recording devices (have to remember what tech was available at the time—much of it was bulky and required copious adjustment).

Rutledge also needed to get to know some of the personalities on the ground in Piedmont who might be able to spread the word because local observers might be needed as well. To that end, he connected with Dennis Hovis, a personality on the local radio station, other town officials, and police officers in Piedmont who would be willing to advise and help—also to let them know what they were doing—so that there would be no misunderstandings.

Over time, members of the Project would come and go. Rutledge’s academic colleagues who first accompanied him, left early on in the process because they were uncomfortable with aspects of both the publicity and frankly, with some of what they saw in the field.

Occasionally, other colleagues would accompany Rutledge as time went on and as the focus of the phenomena changed. In the latter stages, Rutledge’s son, Mark, would become involved as a result of his own interest and observations. Rutledge’s wife, Ruth, in a few instances also helped out.

Rutledge eventually went on to include local people and college students as observers who were willing to get some basic training in order to work with Project members.

While the Project collected accounts of non- Project individuals in order to get a sense of context and location, no second-hand reports were included in the final Project Identification total. Only directly observed anomalies by Project members were included in the final tally. Overall, the total project lasted 7 years, and encompassed three stages.

Early on, the Project team divided their sightings into three main categories. Sighted lights or objects were either identified (and the team identified many such sightings, not only for themselves but others), or not.

Unidentified sightings were either Class B or Class A. In Class B sightings, the light or object looked unusual/couldn’t be identified, but was too far away or conditions were such (fog, weather, topography, other mundane lights) that it was impossible to determine whether it was truly anomalous.

In Class A sightings, the light/object displayed very unusual characteristics that rendered it fantastic in some way, i.e. behavior, speed, coloration, shape.

Rutledge chose to ignore Dr Hynek’s famous UFO encounter classifications. In fact, Dr Hynek visited Piedmont early on in the 1973 UFO flap and decided that there wasn’t much going on—he sort of dissed the whole thing, poking fun at Mr Bone in the process. He would not be the first widely known UFO personality to make this kind of mistake about aspects of the Piedmont display.

Rutledge’s dream goal was to set up various observation stations in areas of high incidence and attempt to observe the anomalies as they showed themselves from multiple angles and obviously many witnesses. He hoped the station members could stay in touch with each other via walkie talkie or radio and with the combined data, various aspects of the object/light’s speed, distance and size, could be triangulated and calculated.

The Questar telescope, of which several models were utilized, could calculate distance and speed of close objects (including satellites and conventional aircraft). The team also used various speeds of time-lapse photography and infrared cameras when they could get them (they had to be rented and checked out).

Both black and white and color stock was used in order to render various contrasts, and voice recorders were employed to provide minute by minute records of sightings in progress.

Although there were some instances of equipment malfunction, often the objects/lights were not apparently actually close to enough, most of the time, to directly impact the equipment (much of which wasn’t electric anyway). Rutledge indicates that there were many reports in Piedmont and Farmington, a neighboring town, of television disturbances when the “lights” were about, and he also notes this is a common report of UFO displays generally.

In the first week of Project Identification, the team actually sort of accomplished Rutledge’s goal twice, before snags began to present themselves. The major advantage that Rutledge had in his plan is that, in most cases, the lights/objects are seen and/or recorded by more than one person—and this leads to all kinds of interesting observations.

It will obviously be impossible for me, in this format, to go through every sighting—after all that’s what the book is for and Rutledge does go through virtually everything recorded, highlighting the most extraordinary observations in meticulous detail, with photos, charts, diagrams and a complete run down of all the technology used as well as blow by blow recitations of event sequence, i.e. who reached for what instrument when and what happened then.

The importance of event voice recording became clear early on. Soon, it became very apparent to the Project members that the lights/objects were responding to what they were doing (or even thinking and saying) on the ground. At first, Rutledge saw this as coincidence, but as such behavior became a pattern, it was obvious that one could not just write this phenomenon off that way. Those responses were also data points. Rutledge interrogates himself constantly about this throughout the book.

Before going through the best early sightings during the expedition phase of Project Identification, let me just provide a summary of what the team collected and provide some additional historical context.

Over a 7 year period, from 1973-1980, Project Identification set up a total of 158 viewing stations. The sky was watched for a total of 427 hours, each station observing on average about 2.7 hours per watch. There were 620 total observers, of which 378 were official Project members. This included one of the Deans of SE Missouri State College. By the end of the Project over 700 still photos and an undetermined amount of film was taken by Project members and local observers.

During that period, there were a total of 157 sightings of 178 unidentified objects or lights (most were lights). In these sightings 34 are listed as Class A. In his statistics of Class B sightings, Rutledge tentatively identifies 40 sightings of 42 UFOs as potential conventional aircraft that, due to conditions, they could not eliminate entirely from the unknown category. That, obviously, leaves many Class B sightings.

Along the way, Rutledge and his team also observed other phenomena that are often associated with UFOs, but which are not always discussed in the popular literature, although, if one has actually talked to people in the field, or has been in the field oneself, these phenomena are known and have been observed in other locations.

I don’t know whether Rutledge and Project members actually developed the names for these phenomena themselves, but it is through this text, and the usage of these terms by individuals familiar with his work, that I came to understand to what these terms were referring.

One such term is “strobe,” which is used by Rutledge to describe flashing light(s) that seem to emanate either from the ground, or the sky, in repetitive patterns—like strobes, except that there is no discernable source for the lights. A variation of this is what he calls the “flashlight effect” when the light seems to come from a discrete aerial light, or said light begins to flash on and off.

The strobes would be like lightning except there is no charge, channel or strike and often seem to engage in what can almost be referred to as a call and response pattern—like a conversation. Strobes can also be various colors, white, yellow, or in one instance red. Strobes are not the same as the nocturnal lights, but often signal their eventual appearance.

Another term is pseudo-star, a curious phenomenon that had to be described to me before I realized that I’ve actually had this experience myself a couple of times. Essentially, a pseudo-star is a light that seems to present as part of a constellation, it might even be flickering in the same way as a star.

Problem is, if you know the constellation, you’ll realize that you’ve never seen that star before, or you’ll wonder how you could have missed it, it will often mimic the same magnitude as the stars in the constellation at least as seen from your vantage point.

At some point, the pseudo-star will suddenly brighten, change color, get larger, or begin moving in ways that make it clear it is not a star in the heavens, but something much closer to you that is mimicking a star.

In the instances when Project members could get their telescopes trained on pseudo-stars, they could clearly see a fast-moving directed light revolving or changing colors rapidly (thus seeming to make the light twinkle from the ground). In some ways, pseudo-stars were even more unnerving to Project members than closer lights since they implied that “they-knew” where to sit in the sky to get noticed and could “tell” when observers were present.

As mentioned, most unidentified objects/lights were simply lights, although there were instances when the lights appeared to be connected to much larger, or stranger “objects” that, except for the lights, were mostly unseen.

Triangular formations of lights were occasionally observed, and in some few instances, physical seeming objects of disc shape, or very unusual configuration were seen during daylight hours, including a bullet shaped object that Rutledge saw that really disturbed him.

All in all, for those of us who are familiar with these accounts, the types of lights and phenomena that Rutledge reports are very similar to those found in other places where UFO displays are common, such as in Pine Bush, NY or the Pocono region of Pennsylvania.

This is, in fact, the reason why I used information from Project Identification when providing context and background for the Chapter on Pine Bush, NY in my book Mysterious Beauty: Living with the Paranormal in the Hudson Valley.

Rutledge also provides a little bit of history for the region and indicates that during the course of Project Identification there were reports of Bigfoot and cattle rustling/mutilations in the larger Piedmond/Clearwater Lake area as well as more complex UFO encounter reports which included occupants, contact and possible abduction.

While Rutledge makes note of these accounts, Project members don’t investigate them, so as not to get off track.

For those interested in pursuing possible links between the Piedmont area and prehistoric sites, here is some history to guide you.

The corridor from Piedmont to Cape Girardeau and other points along the Mississippi up towards St Louis (the old site of Cahokia) were originally Indigenous trade routes which linked the river to the northern Ozark Mountains. The whole region is referred to as the “lead belt” because both Indigenous peoples, and later settlers, mined the local lead deposits for varying reasons.

There are a number of Hopewell and Mississippean mound sites in the area including complexes that have survived on private property and in the townships of Lilbourn, Dexter and Sikeston (all in the New Madrid earthquake zone). In later periods, the Osage nation occupied the Ozarks, which encompasses much of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas (where they’re often referred to as the Blue Mountains).

European settlers in the Ozarks included many Scottish immigrants who desired to live in more isolated settings (as in the Smokey Mountains). They brought many of their traditional practices and beliefs with them, as paranormal investigator Eugenia Macer-Story discovered while exploring the roots of her own Scottish heritage.

It’s also important to remember that Missouri was originally a southern slave state, so that aspect of culture exists as well. Missouri fought in its own small version of the Civil War beginning as early as 1854 as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska territorial compromise.

The Ozark mountains provided means of escape for fugitives, fleeing slaves (as part of the Underground Railroad) and shelter for those who desired to flee the war altogether (recall, Mark Twain actually fled the state entirely in his youth to avoid fighting on either side).

As the Civil War conflict began here, so it also dragged on here, long after the official guns were silenced, which is what the Clint Eastwood movie, Outlaw Josie Wales, is really about.

As a result, there are many places in Missouri which one could safely say are haunted, haunted, haunted, and Rutledge briefly mentions this level of cultural folklore as well as a backdrop to the Piedmont UFO outbreak.

As mentioned, Rutledge went on several exploratory expeditions from April to mid-May 1973 in order to provide scope for any field study. In fact, the results of one such survey (April 13, 1973) was reported to the media by Mr Hovist who noted that one of the physicists in the group (it wasn’t Rutledge—there were actually several physicists in his initial group at the time), just couldn’t be convinced they weren’t simply misidentifying satellites.

However, the sighting that cinched the importance of and need for Project Identification for Rutledge was his lengthy observation, on April 11,1973, of a total of 10 amber and white objects/lights, moving, blinking on and off and clearly reacting to him and the plane during an overview flight with James Drake in his Cessna. Rutledge’s detailed and diagrammed account, which is almost a chapter in length, was so astonishing and disturbing that he was convinced a full-fledged study needed to be done.

Audio reading of Rutledge account begins at 49:13 of vlog

Parts 2 and 3 of this blog will go into Phases 1, 2 and 3 of Project Identification in more detail, but for now, we’ll close with the final disposition of Rutledge’s study.

Once Project Identification was closed in 1980 and the book published in 1981, Rutledge made little public effort to continue this work, after fulfilling his contractual obligations to the St Louis paper, although there is some evidence, he kept up his observations privately. In 1986, Rutledge spoke at a MUFON Symposium, I believe the only time he did so, and said the following:

“At the moment I personally have seen 160 UFOs, 42 of them directly from my yard or

close to home. I’ve seen seven “ships” [physical objects], including two discoid apparatus.

One of the disks I have watched in broad daylight from my office in Southeast

University [SE Missouri State College]. In four cases out of seven there were from one to three witnesses that can confirm that I have not imagined.”

“I am often asked: ‘Why do you see so many UFOs?’ It is rather not a question but an

accusation. The fact is, that I don’t sit in a chair but work in the field, spending hours

and days in the place of UFO activity. This work is comparable to waiting for a

meteorologist who wants to see a tornado, or an astronomer, waiting for a new comet.

No matter how much equipment and people at your disposal. Night after night, you get

nothing until there arises a subject of research. I’ve seen everything except the little

men, but I still have no definitive hypothesis about the nature of the phenomenon.”

In 1992, at the age of 66, Rutledge had to retire from teaching due to health reasons. After he left, a new Dean removed all references to UFOs or the Project Identification study from official college documentation and no further inquiries into the subject were entertained. Rutledge died in 2006 at the age of 80 having never realized his dream of having a full UFO study undertaken by a reputable academic institution.

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1 Comment

Barbara Fisher
Barbara Fisher
Jan 19, 2023

So, I haven't been as active on FB these past couple of weeks. So, I hadn't caught up with these blogs. (I also like to wait until your blog series' are written and posted so I can read them all the way through. I don't like cliffhangers! ;-) Anyway, today I started typing notes from a book for my current research project and there's Greg Little in the forward/intro and he's talking about Harley D. Rutledge......Only one in a string of synchs from today....

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