The pilots must have been small.
Jan Harzan reckoned the craft was about 10 feet long and 3 feet high. He described it as smooth and metallic on the outside, something similar to a water tank, with corrugated metal landing gear. It hummed like a transformer on a telephone pole.
"It's like it had been born as one piece," Harzan said. "I don't know what it was, but it wasn't ours."
Harzan said he first saw a UFO at age 10 while standing in his backyard in Thousand Oaks. The experience, whatever it may have been, stuck with him. The 64-year-old Newport Beach resident now serves as the executive director of the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, an international research nonprofit.
Harzan works out of MUFON headquarters in Irvine, the central hub of a network with locations in all 50 states and about 40 countries.
The organization is marking its 50th anniversary at its annual symposium, July 26 to 28 at Hotel Irvine.
The group has spent decades investigating reports and sightings worldwide, seeking to provide an answer to one of humanity's central questions: Are we alone? But the organization has also acted as a refuge for those who believe they have experienced the incomprehensible and wonder what secrets the sky may harbor.
The nonprofit has investigated more than 120,000 cases. Most end up being drones, balloons, a planet. About 30% of cases go unexplained.
Everything is funneled through the Irvine office. Annual reports are gathered from each chapter.
About four people regularly work in the office. The conference room is filled with UFO-related books. The back wall is lined with dozens of file boxes spanning five decades of investigation.
"The military and intelligence community don't think you or I have the right to know this stuff exists," Harzan said.
Investigators are volunteers. They are trained with a field investigator manual. There are more than 600 investigators worldwide. The ranks are needed as the organization receives about 500 to 1,000 reports a month.
No one else it seems will listen to their stories without presupposition.
"It has had this stigma for years," Harzan said. "Anybody who saw a UFO was considered a crazy person."
Harzan said many of those who come to MUFON are retired pilots who saw something they can't explain but kept quiet for fear of being taken off flight duty.
"Some of the people have been living with it for 40 or 50 years," he said.
Many of the investigators end up at MUFON "have had experiences and they want answers," he said.
Investigator Linda Flechtner started about six years ago out of the Irvine office.
Her territory spans Barstow to Murrieta. Of the 300 cases she's investigated, about 20 of them are classified as unidentified.
"If we are going to say it's unknown we have to be pretty darn sure it's not something else," Flechtner said.
One of her most memorable cases involved a pilot in Apple Valley who encountered what Flechtner described as an interactive orb.
"He chased it, and it played with him," Flechtner said. "He said he tried to get on its 6 [directly behind it] but it interacted with him. Then it took off. I said, 'Well that's pretty cool.' "
Before becoming an investigator, Flechtner worked as a sales representative for Nestle and as a layout design engineer for Broadcom.
Flechtner said she had experiences with UFOs when she was a teenager. She's always discussed UFOs with her brother and sister, who have both been MUFON investigators for nearly 30 years.
"Now I finally have time to do it," Flechtner said.
From 1995 to 2013, Harzan served as a state section director for MUFON in Orange County while working as an executive at IBM, where he spent 37 years.
He attained a degree in nuclear engineering at UCLA to, in his words, better understand what he saw when he was a child.
Movies and the popular mythos tend to depict intergalactic visitations in a negative light. Abductions, all-out war and rectal experimentation abound.
Rather than the warmongering maniacs of "Mars Attacks!" his theory is that aliens are more like intergalactic observers, thoughtfully monitoring the activities of the apes with the nukes.
"They are interested in our nuclear capabilities," Harzan said. "My personal opinion, I think they are watching over us to make sure we don't kill ourselves."
Harzan believes the stigma may be fading as more reports come to light.
U.S. senators received a classified briefing on Wednesday about UFO sightings from the U.S. Navy. The New York Times reported in May that several pilots reported encounters with unidentified flying objects.
"We believe with the new revelations from the government that we are entering a new era," Harzan said. "It's no longer, 'Are UFOs fact or fiction?' It's 'UFOs are real, deal with it.' Now the questions will shift to who are they and why are they here?"
Whether aliens exist, MUFON will remain a sanctuary for the sky-gazers.
"We will stay that place for people who have had those experiences," Harzan said. "Where people can come and get answers."
This article is written by Ben Brazil from Daily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.