Among the more contentious and hotly-debated UFO incidents of the last four decades, the Piney Woods UFO case, often referred to as the Cash–Landrum incident, is perhaps also one of the most troubling, and for a number of reasons.
Here, we are presented with a tale of three witnesses to some strange source of aerial illumination, which was immediately pursued (or perhaps escorted) by a number of helicopters. This seemed, in the minds of the observers, to indicate military involvement of some kind. Further, we find that the victims had reported health problems shortly after the incident, which they believed may have resulted from their proximity to the object as it hovered over the roadway ahead of them. Finally, despite all the seemingly substantive evidence this case provides, barely a clue has emerged as to what the origins of the object may have been, let alone the source of it’s apparent military escorts: a fleet of helicopters which, if they existed, have yet to be accounted for, given their numbers, and the timeframe during which the witnesses described seeing them.
Though the case is well known, a brief summary will be provided here. The incident occurred just after Christmas on the evening of December 29, 1980. Driver Betty Cash, Along with Vicky Landrum and her seven-year-old grandson, Colby, were traveling home to Dayton, Texas in Betty’s Oldsmobile Cutlass. The threesome were on their way back home from dinner, traveling along Farm to Market Road 1485. It was just after 9 PM, and although they had been looking for an open game of Bingo somewhere along the highway earlier that night, all of the usual spots were closed for the holidays.
In the distance ahead of them, 51-year-old Cash first observed a bright light through the trees. Vicky and Colby soon noticed it also, and the group supposed it might be an aircraft leaving nearby Houston Intercontinental Airport. As their vehicle approached the light, the travelers could see that it was very bright, shining through the trees of the Piney Woods that lined either side of the highway. Soon, the object was clearly visible ahead of them; though it appeared to be an indistinct source of light hovering in midair (the witnesses compared it with daylight), later retellings would describe the object is being diamond-shaped, and seemingly producing flame from its base.
Cash emerged and stood outside the car, observing the object the longest of the three. Although Vicki emerged from the vehicle also, she returned quickly to comfort Colby, who was badly frightened by what was unfolding. Landrum, a Christian, would later recount that she had thought this was the second coming of Christ, and had advised Colby not to be afraid. Cash described that the object also gave off a tremendous amount of heat, and recalled being able to stand in the December night air throughout the duration of the experience as though it had been a summer day.
The object continued to hover in the sky, occasionally bobbing slowly up-and-down, and eventually rising to a point well above the treetops. At this time, the witnesses claim a group of helicopters (possibly Chinooks) moved into the same airspace as the object, and assuming a formation around it, proceeded to move out of the area, as though guiding the strange source of the illumination as it left with them. Cash and Landrum said they recalled counting 23 of the helicopters; however, a local detective named Lamar Walker (one of the very few to have come forward later who claimed to have seen anything similar on the same evening in question) told that he and his wife observed 12 Chinook helicopters passing through the sky near Dayton that night.
Upon returning to the vehicle, Cash recalled burning her hand as she reached for the handle of her car door, which had grown hot from the tremendous heat the light had created. Landrum would similarly claim the dashboard of the vehicle on the passenger side was left with an imprint where her hand pressed against it it during this period.
In the days that followed the incident, the three observers—Cash in particular—would claim to suffer from a variety of health effects, which had included irritation and reddening of the skin similar to a sunburn. The witnesses eventually sought medical attention, and subsequently approached Senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower about what they felt had been ill effects rendered after exposure to the object. Under the advice of their state representatives, Cash and Landrum contacted officials at Bergstrom Air Force Base, where they were interviewed. A subsequent law suit against the U.S. Government was filed for $20 million, but judges eventually dismissed the case, based on the fact that a previous investigation in 1982, carried out by Lt. Col. George Sarran of the Department of the Army Inspector General, found no evidence that the helicopters the witnesses claimed to see had belonged to any branch of the military. Further, there were no known operations underway on the evening of December 29, 1980, as this coincided with the Christmas holidays.
The case was championed my many in the UFO community, including John Schuessler,
MUFON founding member and former Director of General Services for the Boeing Company. UFO skeptic Phillip J. Klass similarly investigated the incident, coming to the rather predictable conclusion that based on the lack of evidence, there were credible reasons to doubt the story altogether. Others had not been so quick to dismiss the event and its witnesses, including Lt. Col. Sarran himself who, despite his determination that the helicopters could not be accounted for, maintained that the witnesses (Cash and the Landrums, as well as Lamar Walker and his wife) were credible, and that “there was no perception that anyone was trying to exaggerate the truth.”
The case has maintained a certain appeal over the years, despite the conflicting opinions about what had or hadn’t happened, and whether a case could be made for a UFO incident at all, based on the spotty supporting data. Skeptical UFO researcher Robert Scheaffer has expressed doubts about the case based on the fact that the witnesses ultimately would seek financial compensation, while those more moderately minded, namely independent researcher Curt Collins, have nonetheless come to critical conclusions about certain aspects, though without dismissing the case altogether.
I spoke at length with Collins in July 2015, where we reviewed a number of elements about the case, and its subsequent investigation throughout the years that followed. Chief among the elements in Collins’ review had been initial descriptions given by the witnesses which, as were alluded to earlier, seemed to differ from popular retellings of the story that emerged later. The earlier descriptions of the object, rather than depicting a diamond shaped aircraft, seemed more nebulous, and only described a very bright source of illumination; so bright, presumably, that the illumination itself managed to obscure much further detail pertaining to its source. The famous “diamond shape”, according to Collins, may in fact have been suggested later by young Colby, who we will recall had been terrified, and remained in the back seat of Cash’s Cutlass for the majority of the encounter. Cash, observing the light from outside the car, had also described the movement movement of the light as being similar to something suspended in the air by a balloon.
This is an interesting description, to say the least, since one among the more conservative interpretations of this case involves the notion that the object might have been some variety of flare. This sentiment was mirrored to me by a friend (who requested anonymity), whose background in aerospace engineering led him to the same notion:
“I have wondered if the sighting could have been due to a test of some sort of military flare (used to protect against heat seeking missiles). They had some odd flares back then. But why test it there (why test a purported nuclear system there either)? Also, the flares would burn for too short a period, even ones fueled by jet fuel. Still, these were very bright so might have caused some sort of physiological damage/soften plastic of the car.”
The use of flares in military activity has a long history, and for a variety of applications. As far back as the 1920s, the United States Naval Institute Proceedings of 1921 referred to a new kind of weapon that had been designed for use with flares. The weapon would be tested in a training exercise that involved the decommissioned battleship Alabama, with intention for eventual use against Germain craft:
A “light barrage,” composed of giant aerial flares, each of more than 200,000 candlepower, will be one feature of the attack. Army engineers have submitted such enthusiastic reports on this weapon the larger flayers estimated to be able to 1 million candles have been placed under construction.
Giving a greenish white light, literally “brighter than day,” the flares to be used in the Alabama test will illuminate an area of five square miles and, expert flyers say, should enable the aviators to obtain greater accuracy than in the daytime. The flares are attached to a parachute of white silk, which reflects the light downward with sufficient intensity, it is believed, to Blondie officers and gutters on the ship under attack, so as to demoralize any plan for defense, while keeping the upper air reaches shrouded in gloom.
This is merely one among many examples spanning the last century that illuminate the use of experimental flares in creative ways for military operations. But perhaps of greater interest in relation to the Cash-Landrum case is a U.S. patent (US 3837281 A) filed in April 1969 and subsequently published five years later, detailing a thermal infrared emitter source designed as means for supplying hot gas for the quick inflation of a closed balloon. According to the patent’s abstract:
“A device is presented which emits infra heat rays at specific predetermined wave lengths and defines a particular cross sectional pattern of such heat emission so that the emission source can be both detected and identified by an infra red detector. A hot gas generant is employed to inflate a balloon of known cross section having a surface which is known to emit infra red heat rays within a certain selected range of wave lengths.”
During the discussion with Curt Collins, Cash’s description of the object and its movement through the air as being “balloon-like” does come to mind here. The patent, which saw publication in late 1974, would comprise technology that emerged just six years prior to the incident that occurred near Dayton, Texas, on December 29th.
This is by no means a conclusive “solution” to the Piney Woods Incident, although presumably a device similar to this, with its emission of “infra heat rays”, might be capable of producing some of the photochemical damage reported by Cash after her observation. Certain other effects, such as stomach sickness and symptoms of dehydration that Cash and Landrum reported, might be consistent with a condition such as severe sun poisoning, whether or not prolonged exposure to sunlight had indeed been the cause.
However hopeful one’s attempts at explaining the case may be, a number of questions remain. For instance, how many helicopters were actually seen that night? Had Cash and Landrum miscounted, or perhaps in their excitement, merely exaggerated the number they had seen? Even a fleet of Chinooks numbering half that of what Cash and Landrum reported seeing (which was roughly the number the Walkers said they saw on the same night) would be difficult to account for during the Christmas holidays. As Robert Scheaffer notes, “It ought to be quite straightforward to trace a fleet of 23 Chinook helicopters flying over the United States. Much effort has been expended to trace such helicopters, to no avail. The U.S. military simply didn’t have a fleet of that many Chinook helicopters in one place, nor did any private firm.” It would certainly seem that the number of Chinooks Cash and Landrum reported is impossible. A good question, perhaps, might be to ask whether we should rule out all possibility that a smaller fleet was seen.
However we choose to look at it, we see that the case presents not only inconsistencies, but also a fair number of dead ends. The skeptical interpretation has thus moved further and further from the notion that there may be any credibility to the case at all, while on the opposite extreme, others in the UFO community, namely Stanton Friedman, have argued that it couldn’t have been any kind of a nuclear aircraft of our own (Friedman is, of course, a nuclear physicist). On September 25, 2011 during a debate with John B. Alexander on The Paracast, Friedman noted that, “I worked on nuclear airplane engines back on the late 50s. It seems unlikely… I don’t think it was one of ours.” Thus, the logical turn here which some might take is that it simply might not have been our own; in other words, perhaps it was a more exotic alien craft, after all. Admittedly, this argument seems rather dubious if we are to believe there had been any helicopters involved; even if that number was less than Cash and Landrum reported.
Whatever the case, it has been the debate over such issues that has kept this case so fresh on people’s minds, and even after the passing of so many years. Yes, by definition the object could be called a “UFO”, although even among the more hopeful researchers who have sought to legitimize the incident, the most probable solution would involve something our military had been behind, and of which details still remain obscure. What we are left with are few facts, but a story which nonetheless bears a ring of credibility perhaps unlike most other UFO reports of the last four decades.