When Ball Lightning Strikes: New Perspectives on the Abduction of Travis Walton


Perhaps most famous among all the great UFO abduction reports is that of Travis Walton, who claimed to have been spirited away into the starry Arizona skies by an alien spacecraft one evening in November of 1975. The investigation that followed Walton’s five day disappearance (encompassing the time he was alleged to have been kept aboard the spacecraft) would lead to a series of lie detector tests, and even an examination of the payphone Walton claimed to have called for help from upon his return which, interestingly, bore none of Walton’s fingerprints. The convolution surrounding Walton’s odd disappearance has for decades stirred speculation over what may actually have happened during the time he was missing. Is there any possibility that Walton indeed had a close encounter, but instead of with an alien technology, perhaps some kind of naturally occurring earthbound phenomena?

I have always felt that if indeed extraterrestrial contact is plausible, Walton’s case may be one of the most likely instances of such. But could there have been contributing strange phenomena that occurred the night of his disappearance in 1975 involving something other than UFOs and aliens? I began to wonder about this, not in an effort to debunk any of Walton’s claims, but merely to try and draw parallels between two quite different kinds of phenomena and see what common ground may remain present. To begin with, let’s take a brief look at the initial story for the sake of review:

The night of his disappearance, Walton and his coworkers had been clearing trees in a forested area of Arizona late in the day, and upon leaving the site in a pickup truck, they encountered what they described as a 20ft wide and 8ft high glowing disk hovering over a clearing. The excited Walton leaped from the vehicle and ran directly under the craft, which he later described as having made “strange rumbling sounds.” From this vantage, a bright light was cast from the object onto the ground below, encompassing Walton. Suddenly, after the craft appeared to “wobble in midair”, Walton described hearing a “crackling or popping sound,” followed immediately by a “numbing shock… like a high voltage electrocution.” Walton’s friends, who remained behind in the truck, described seeing a bluish green “bolt” of light lift him into the air, knocking him several feet backwards. Assuming Walton had been killed, the terrified crew left the site with haste, placing a fair distance between themselves and the site of the encounter before crashing their pickup truck into a mound of dirt. Upon gathering themselves, they had the presence of mind to go back and search for their fallen comrade, but found the clearing empty with sign of neither Walton nor the craft they had witnessed.

After five days, Walton reappeared amidst great confusion, and his account of awaking in a room of “fetus-like aliens” aboard an advanced spacecraft only added to the speculation as to what had actually happened. Several years after the fact, Walton maintains that what happened is true and accurate, in spite of the mixed results of two separate polygraph tests he agreed to take, as well as other speculation surrounding the investigation. At the heart of the matter, we’re left with Walton’s astounding testimony of contact with beings from someplace far away, but could there be other explanations for what occurred?

What seems especially interesting to me about Walton’s own account was the crackling and popping he heard just before being struck by the “numbing shock” which incapacitated him. Whatever the circumstances may have been, this does sound reminiscent of electrical activity similar to a massive static discharge. It also brings to mind an interesting encounter I came across which was reported on the opposite side of the United States in the Lineville Gorge of Western North Carolina, home of an elusive phenomenon called the Brown Mountain Lights. These strange illuminations have long been referred to categorically as “ghost lights”, as they often appear as strange glowing orbs of light appearing to hover above the flat ridge of Brown Mountain, making the adjacent 181 overlook a popular vantage point for those hoping to catch a glimpse of the eerie phenomenon.

There are a handful of people who, over the years, have claimed to get an even closer look at the lights, and at least one man claims to have touched one, as described in a report received by author and researcher Joshua P. Warren. Joshua is president of the L. E. M. U. R. research team (of which I am an investigator), and is a Western North Carolina native who has studied the lights with great interest for over a decade. He believes the lights are most likely plasmas similar to ball lightning; evidence of which is indicated in many ways in the story he shared with me from his notes taken during the conversation he had with his contact, who claimed to have come into close proximity with one of the lights.

On Friday July 13th, 2001, Josh spoke with Tommie Hunter, a Western North Carolina resident who two decades earlier on an August or early September evening had visited the 181 overlook. It was particularly misty, and a light drizzling rain fell. Hunter described how at one point two bright, luminescent objects, each about three times the size of a basket ball, emerged from the valley between the overlook and the adjacent Brown Mountain Ridge, bobbing along slowly “about the speed of a lightning bug.” The lights would seem to follow him if he moved away from them, but also move away from him when pursued, so once Hunter allowed one of the orbs to drift close enough to him, he touched it, which caused a painful shock.

Josh also spoke to Tommie’s sister Roberta, who along with several other family members had joined Tommie and his wife Catherine the same evening at the 181 overlook. She agreed that Tommy had indeed touched one of the orbs, which she described as having shone “as bright as the moon”. Prior to the moment of contact, several of the children who were present there with the family had wanted badly to touch one of the lights, but were not allowed. It was after this had been discussed among the relatives that Hunter approached the nearest light himself and touched it, which caused an instantaneous shock upon contact. Roberta mentioned that the orb dimmed slightly when in contact with Hunter, which according to Warren must have “created a different ground for the energy, changing the brightness of the light.” Once Hunter retracted his hand from the object, it illuminated again.

Warren noted many interesting aspects about this encounter in L. E. M. U. R.’s Report on the Cause of the Mysterious Brown Mountain Lights (which can be read in its entirety here). “At such a close range, eyewitnesses say the lights move away from them when approached, but often follow them when the viewer moves away, displaying a clear interaction between the viewer and the sphere.” Referencing the work of Dr. David Hackett of the Oakridge National Observatory in Tennessee, Warren also said that “plasmas would indeed interact with nearby observers since the plasma field would be influenced by the field of a human body.”

Of the electrical shock Hunter claimed to receive, Warren noted that “the light did not dissipate, but simply moved away” according to the witness, where in traditional electric theory a discharge should have taken place, diminishing the electric potential of the “source” (which, in this case, was the free-floating light he touched). If indeed the lights are plasmas, Warren suggests that such lights are not truly self contained, but are simply the only visible portion of “large columns of intersecting electrical discharges following pathways partially determined by electromagnetic nodes” stemming from beneath the ground. Could this explain how the ghostly light might have remained instead of dissipating after shocking this poor fella, suggesting that his “close encounter” was with nothing more than a very elusive (and naturally occurring) phenomenon known as ball lightning?

To even further complicate the matter, I am suddenly reminded of one of the unique physical properties regarding a laboratory experiment L. E. M. U. R. conducted with NASA scientist and inventor Charles Yost several years ago. In an attempt to recreate the conditions that cause the illuminations on Brown Mountain, we were able to produce a single, hovering blob of purple plasma within a vacuum chamber. To our surprise, the plasma we produced (see photo to the right, courtesy of Joshua P. Warren) eerily resembled a wavering, saucer-like object! So if, when conditions are right, globes of light or even “plasma saucers” like we produced in the lab might somehow manifest in nature; and if indeed these plasmas (being electrical in nature) could easily emit a numbing spark, then how likely is it that Travis Walton may actually have been “attacked” by a naturally occurring electrical phenomenon himself?

Altogether, we’re still left with Walton’s testimony regarding the actual alien contact while he was presumed a missing person for the five days after his encounter. However, this too might be consistent with the effect an electrical shock might have had on Walton. In their book UFOs and Ufology: The First 50 Years, authors Paul Devereux and Peter Brookesmith said of Walton’s encounter that “What is described about the encounter itself is consistent with electric shock caused by close proximity to a glowing plasma, causing an initial brief mental blackout and seizures within Walton’s temporal cortex with concomitant hallucinations, partial amnesia, mental confusion and further blackout periods… Could Travis Walton have wandered about disoriented for five days in the woods, alternately hallucinating and lapsing into unconsciousness, oblivious to night-time cold and hunger?” They go on to mention that “it is known that people can perform quite complex tasks such as driving a vehicle for quite long periods while in an unconscious, entranced state. But what exactly happened in Travis Walton’s case must remain an open question.”

Similarly, the 1988 British case dubbed “The Quantock Horror” involved a man named Tony Burfield who, while taking photographs on the Quantock hills in Somerset, England, claimed to have been approached by a huge flying craft with “bat-like wings”, which he photographed. Investigators described the object in the photos as resembling a hang-glider, but this wouldn’t prevent later “attacks” by little men who would appear in Burfield’s home, shooting at him with “painful rays”. In reality, Burfield, who lived close to a row of high tension electricity pylons, suffered from an extreme allergic sensitivity to various aspects of his environment, especially those involving electrical equipment. According to British researcher Albert Budden, this likely stemmed from a devastating electrical accident which Burfield later revealed had occurred in his past, also noting that electrical accidents are often common among those reporting abductions and similar phenomena occurring in their lives. Again with Burfield, we’ve seen a glimpse as to what effects large amounts of electricity can have on the brain.

Whatever the circumstances, I’ve always personally been fascinated with the case of Travis Walton; I still consider it the likeliest to be true of all the best known abduction reports. However, from time to time it’s healthy to also consider the alternatives, for if they bring any weight to the opposing argument, we may need to re-think the very nature of the alien abduction phenomena as a whole; especially until we’ve further explored the extent to which our environment can affect the human mind and body.

One final technical note: I’d like to give a very special thanks to Lesley, the blog-master of this fine new endeavor by UFO Magazine, for inviting me to add my two cents on this blog from time to time. That being said, cheers!

-Micah A. Hanks