C a s e E x a m p l e
" C l o u d c i g a r " o v e r S a i n t - P r o u a n t , F r a n c e
In his second UFO book Mystérieux Objets Célestes, published in 1958, UFO pioneer Aimé MICHEL dedicated some space to a peculiar type of unidentified aerial phenomena which has since become known as "the cloud cigar" (in French: "le grand cigare des nuées"). By cloud cigars is meant: a big, cigar-shaped object or light, often in a vertical position, and either cloud-like in appearance or surrounded by cloud-like structures. The idea is that the UFO produces these clouds in order to camouflage itself, a technique that, considering the large number of such incidents, does not seem to work very well... Cloud cigars are sometimes accompanied by small, disk-shaped lights (the so-called "scout-ships") that either seem to emerge from or enter into the parent object (the so-called "mother-ship").
While some reports of nocturnal cloud cigars can be explained as misperceptions of the crescent Moon seen through semi-transparent clouds, we suspect that many of the reported vertical cigar-shaped lights were actually triggered by artifical light pillars created by gas flames, fires and searchlights. But, what about the dozen or so daylight sightings? One of the most intriguing reports from MICHEL's book is certainly the one in which hundreds of witnesses, scattered through half a dozen villages in Western France, observed a "cloud cigar" over some fields in the afternoon of September 14, 1954. One of the witnesses to this event was Georges FORTIN, then 34 years old. At the time, FORTIN operated a farm at a place called La Gabellière, a little village of 300 inhabitants near Saint-Prouant in the department of Vendée, about 400 km (250 miles) southwest of Paris. This is his story:
It was about five in the afternoon. I was working in the fields with my men when all at once, emerging from the thick layer of clouds that looked like a storm coming up, we saw a sort of luminous blue-violet mist, of a regular shape something like a cigar or carrot. Actually, the object came out of the layer of clouds in an almost horizontal position, slightly tilted toward the ground and pointing forward (like a submerging submarine).
This luminous cloud appeared rigid. Whenever it moved (and its movements had no connection with the movement of the clouds themselves) it did so all of a piece, as if it actually were some gigantic machine surrounded by mists. It came down rather fast from the ceiling of clouds to an altitude which we thought was perhaps a half mile above us. Then it stopped, and the point rose quickly until the object was in a vertical position, where it became motionless.
During this time, the clouds went on scudding across the sky, dimly lighted from underneath by the violet luminosity of the object. It was an extraordinary sight, and we watched it intently. All over the country-side other farmers had also dropped their tools and were staring up at the sky like us.
All at once (by now we had been watching for several minutes) white smoke exactly like a vapour trail came from the lower end of the cloud. At first it pointed toward the ground, as if spun from an invisible shuttle falling free, then it gradually slowed down while turning around, and finally rose up to describe around the vertical object an ascending spiral which wound it up in its coils. While the rear of the trail was dissolving rapidly in the air, carried off by the wind, the beginning go sharper and finer all the time, as if it were gradually drying up at its source, but without any slowing down of the unseen object that was continually spinning it into the air.
It thus went on up, turning around, up to the very top of the vertical object, and then started to come down again, turning in the other direction. Only then, after the smoke trail had vanished entirely, could we see the object that was "sowing" it, a little metallic disk shining like a mirror and reflecting, in its rapid movements, flashes of light from the huge vertical object.
The little disk almost immediately stopped turning around the luminous cloud and went down toward the ground again, this time moving away. For quite a few minutes we could see it flying low over the valley, darting here and there at great speed, sometimes speeding up, then stopping for a few seconds, then going on again. In this manner it flew in every direction over the region between St-Prouant and Sigournais, villages about four miles apart. Finally, when it was almost a mile from the vertical object, it made a final dash toward it at headlong speed, and disappeared like a shooting star into the lower part where it had first come out. Perhaps a minute later, the "carrot" leaned over as it began to move, accelerated, and disappeared into the clouds in the distance, having resumed its original horizontal position, point forward. The whole thing had lasted about half an hour.
During a follow-up inquiry carried out in 1968 by two members of the then highly rated French UFO group GEPA (Groupement d'Etude de Phénomènes Aériens), Mr. FORTIN provided the investigators with a slightly different version of the facts. The "object" is now described as "a bizarre cloud, the shape of a carrot, white-yellow in colour, descending slowly from the sky, inclined at 45°". The description of the "white smoke" is the same, but the disappearance of the object and the small disk is described somewhat differently. Mr. FORTIN: "After it immobilized, the cloud dissolved bit by bit and a brilliant ball of light, 35 to 40 cm across, became visible (...) At the end, the ball rose brutally in the air were it disappeared from sight".
Testimonies from other witnesses were also collected. All give a similar account, except for the detail of the shiny disk, which was observed only by Mr. FORTIN and his farm hand.
- MICHEL, Aimé, A propos des soucoupes volantes - Mystérieux Objets Célestes, Editions Arthaud, Paris, 1958, pp. 32-37. Published in the U.S. in 1958 under the title Flying Saucers and the Straight Line Mystery.
- JAY, Dominique & METAYER, R.P., "Le 'cigare' de Saint-Prouant n'était-il qu'un nuage ?" in Phénomènes Spatiaux No. 18, December 1968, pp. 26-28. Phénomènes Spatiaux was published by the now defunct GEPA.
- TAYLOR, Herbert S., "Cloud cigars: A further look" in International UFO Reporter Vol. 30, No. 3, May 2006, pp. 10-12.
All witnesses that were interviewed describe a cigar or carrot-shaped object emerging from a thick cloud layer. In essence, this is a perfect description of a funnel cloud, a term used to designate a tornado that is not in contact with the ground (for pictures of funnel clouds see VO-FU-01 and VO-FU-02).
MICHEL rejects this obvious explanation by arguing that "il n'y a pas eu de cyclone dans cette région le 14 septembre 1954, ni nulle part en France" ("there was no cyclone in that region on September 14, 1954, nor in any other part of France"). MICHEL confuses a cyclone with a tornado. While a tornado is a localized, rotating column of air emerging from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud, the term "cyclone" is used to indicate a much larger area of low atmospheric pressure characterized by inward spiraling winds. There may not have been a cyclone over Western Europe that day, but a local tornado or land spout is never to be excluded.
The white smoke, "exactly like a vapour trail" was probably just that: the typical, rope-like cloudlets of water vapour that are often seen swirling around the main condensation funnel of a tornado. These vapour trails, also referred to as "satellite tornadoes", have been filmed and photographed on numerous occasions . The downward and then upward motion of the white smoke is explained by the fact that the air flow inside the funnel is directed downward, while in the - often transparent - outer shell, the air is spiralling up.
As for the "luminous blue-violet mist" that surrounded the object, there exist several descriptions of nocturnal tornados either having a distinct bluish or blue-white appearance or having a blue aura around them .
The "flashes of light" that came from the object or cloud are another element in favour rather than against the tornado hypothesis. In close encounters with tornados, witnesses have often described streaks or flashes of lightning inside tornados.
The "little metallic disk" that shone "like a mirror" and is described as "a brilliant ball of light" in the 1968 interview, points to a rare but not unprecedented phenomenon that sometimes accompanies tornados, namely ball lightning. The scientific literature mentions several cases in which witnesses describe "flames" or "balls of fire" that are ejected from the base of tornado funnels.
Also, we should not forget that the incident at Saint-Prouant took place in the midst of a major wave of "flying saucer" reports that hit France in September and October 1954. Grotesque misidentification of natural phenomena and common airborne objects were a daily matter in that period. In those circumstances, a rare and impressive meteorological phenomenon is bound to stir the imagination. In this case not so much the imagination of the witnesses (who seem to have described what they saw truthfully and to the best of their abilities), but rather the imagination of the journalists and flying saucer writers who reported on the events.
A luminous funnel cloud, accompanied with a rope-like condensation trail and ball lightning.
 A fine example of an impressive cigar-shaped funnel cloud that persisted some 40 minutes and had rope-like condensation funnels (waterspouts) developing and decaying around it, was photographed in the Skagerrak waters, south of Norway, on September 8, 1986. See Weather Vol. 42, No. 8, August 1987, p. 241.
 See for instance: VONNEGUT, B. & WEYER, James R., "Luminous Phenomena in Nocturnal Tornadoes" in Science, Vol. 153, 9 September 1966, pp. 1213-1220, but also VAUGHAN, Otha H. Jr., & VONNEGUT, Bernard, "Luminous electrical phenomena associated with nocturnal tornadoes in Huntsville, Ala., 3 April 1974" in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 57, No. 10, October 1976, pp. 1220-1224.
[The drawing, scanned here from the May 2006 issue of International UFO Reporter, was originally published in the French paper France-Dimanche not long after the events.] Another rendering of the "cloud cigar" published by France-Dimanche in the autumn of 1954.
[Image scanned from the May 2006 issue of International UFO Reporter]