UFO convention lands in Florida

Channel 4's Scott Johnson learns about close encounters, local sightings

ORLANDO, Fla. – Experts on unidentified flying objects from all over the world picked Orlando recently, to come together and discuss the things we see in the sky and where they may come from. So Channel 4's Scott Johnson took the trek into the unknown, to hear stories and find out more about everything from close encounters to UFO sightings in our area.

The annual event is with the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON for short. Morgan Beall, state director of Florida for MUFON, describes the network as the world's oldest and largest UFO phenomenon investigative body -- bringing in people and speakers from around the globe.

"We're still learning the physicality of the phenomenon, you know. What it is, what it does, its characteristics. The witnesses actually have, you know, very extraordinary claims," Beall told Scott.

A few hundred show up to the Hilton just outside of Walt Disney World for something the group doesn't feel belongs in Fantasyland.   

"We try and stick to serious researchers, scientists," said Beall. "People with heavy backgrounds. People who have really taken this phenomenon serious."

Scott doesn't know what to expect when he gets there, and at the beginning of the event, he tries to relate as best he can.

"Nanu, Nanu," said Scott to the crowd.

Well, he tries.

"Have you ever been to a 'Star Trek' convention?" Scott asked Robert Powell, MUFON's director of research.

"No, but I am a 'Star Trek' fan," he answered with a smile.

"So, do you like the new 'Star Wars'?" Scott asked Cheryl Costa, a writer from New York who tracks UFOs.

"I loved the new 'Star Wars'! I saw it last night at Disney Springs," she told Scott.

 "So, could ET feasibly have phoned home?" Scott asked Morgan Beall. 

"What? No," he responded.

 'So, you a Kirk man or a Picard man?" Scott asked Rich Hoffman, who describes himself as an IT strategic planner for the Army.   

"Oh, I like Kirk. I go back quite a ways," Hoffman answered.

"Area 51, what is it?" Scott asked.

"I've always felt Area 51 was nothing more than an Air Force ground. Has nothing to do with aliens," Hoffman told Scott.

It takes a little bit, but Scott moves beyond the sci-fi chats into what MUFON studies -- things like tracking the number of UFO sightings globally.

While Cheryl Costa is a writer and UFO tracker now, she says she spent 32 years in the aerospace field.

"(In) 2012, someone published an article that said that UFOs have been on the decline since the 80s, and maybe they were all an urban legend. And that didn't sound right," said Costa. There's a standard formula for breaking these things down, maybe only about 20 percent are what they call the exotic stuff."

'That would be something from other worlds?" Scott asked.

 "Perhaps, other worlds or other dimensions," Costa answered. "We're not sure where they come from."

Since Costa tracks UFO sightings, Scott asked her for sightings in our area. According to Costa's research, in the past 15 years in Florida, there have been 7,787 UFO sightings across the state. Locally, Duval County had 258, St. Johns County had 111 and Clay County had 48.

Scott said one of the things that lamented at the conference was the difficulty in getting the news media to cover it. MUFON said it has had some success with local media in the past, but with the national media, it can't get coverage.

From what Scott can tell, he and his photographer, Travis Anthony, are the only media at this Orlando event. So, at a briefing for the news media -- with a dozen or so experts gathered for a panel -- Scott is the only one there to really ask questions.

He speaks with many of them, including Rich Hoffman. He told Scott there are a lot of unexplained UFO sightings that he's personally investigated for almost half a century, but add most are explainable.

"You'll get reports from planets, Jupiter.  Depending on time of evening, you get satellites. Not as much now.  The International Space Station when it goes across, is a very fast moving satellite," explained Hoffman.

But Hoffman told Scott something others at the conference also said to Scott: They struggle to get the scientific community to take them seriously. In fact, they often hear from UFO believers, but in hushed tones or in hallways after meetings, when no one is around to listen.

"No one wants to go on the record," said Hoffman. "There's a lot of social pressure. I just got a case today from an individual who said, 'Look, I saw something. I'm 78 years old, I told my wife, they think I'm a nut.'"

Kathleen Marden is also at the MUFON convention. She wrote the book "Captured." She told Scott it's the story of her aunt and uncle's close encounter, when a UFO hovered above their car.

"Betty and Barney had gone on brief vacation to Niagara Falls in Montreal, Canada, in 1961," she explained. "He and Betty heard a series of buzzing sounds that seemed to be striking the trunk of the vehicle, caused the vehicle to vibrate and a tingling through their bodies. The next thing they knew, they were 35 miles south of previous location and had very little memory of what happened in the interim."

These are the kinds of tales that make skeptic scoff.

 "Rarely is it taken serious," Beall said.

But they said we need to keep an eye on what's going on in the sky.

"Whether the government keeps an eye on UFOs, I think they have to by definition.  Any object that shows up on radar is unidentified, so they have to," said Powell.

While Scott leaves the convention wondering what's really out there, he gets one final laugh and smile.

"Well, thank you, Rich. I hope you live long and prosper," said Scott.

"Thank you," Hoffman said, laughing, shaking Scott's hand.

It's been years since MUFON has met in Florida, and they likely won't be back for a while. Organizers move this event to different locations every year.