AUTHOR: Dennis Stacy, Air & Space Magazine
SUBJECT: UFO Sightings by Aircraft Pilots
WHEN PILOTS SEE UFO's
People have been seeing unidentified flying objects in the skies
for years. But when the eyewitness is up there with the UFO, is the sighting
more difficult to explain?
*** By Dennis Stacy for Air & Space Magazine December 1987/January 1988
In the late afternoon of November 17, 1986, Japan Air Lines flight 1628, a
Boeing 747 with a crew of three, was nearing the end of a trip from Iceland
to Anchorage, Alaska. The jet, carrying a cargo of French wine, was flying
at 35,000 feet through darkening skies, a red glow from the setting sun
lighting one horizon and a full moon rising above the other.
A little after six p.m., pilot Kenju Terauchi noticed white and yellow
lights ahead, below, and to the left of his airplane. He could see no details
in the darkness and assumed the lights were those of military aircraft. But
they continued to pace the 747, prompting first officer Takanori Tamefuji to
radio Anchorage air traffic control and ask if there were other aircraft
nearby. Both Anchorage and a nearby military radar station announced that they
were picking up weak signals from the 747's vicinity. Terauchi switched on the
digital color cockpit weather radar, which is designed to detect weather
systems, not other aircraft. His radar screen displayed a green target, a color
usually associated with light rain, not the red he would have expected from a
reflective solid object.
Because he was sitting in the left-hand seat, Terauchi had the only unob-
structed view when the lights, still in front of and below the airplane, began
moving erratically, "like two bear cubs playing with each other," as the pilot
later wrote in a statement for the Federal Aviation Administration. After
several minutes, the lights suddenly darted in front of the 747, "shooting off
lights" that lit the cockpit with a warm glow.
As the airplane passed over Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, the
captain said he noticed, looming behind his airplane, the dark silhouette of a
gigantic "mothership" larger than two aircraft carriers. He asked air traffic
control for permission to take his airplane around in a complete circle and
then descend to 31,000 feet. Terauchi said his shadower followed him through
A United Airlines fight and a military C-130 were both in the area and An-
chorage asked the airplanes to change course, intercept the Japanese 747, and
confirm the sighting. Both airplanes flew close enough to see JAL 1628's
navigation lights, alone in the night sky, before Terauchi reported that the
unidentified flying objects had disappeared. The encounter had lasted nearly
Because it involved an airline pilot and an unidentified flying object that
had apparently been captured on radar, the JAL 1628 encounter attracted a
great deal of public attention. But UFO reports from pilots--private, military
and airline--are not new to the subject of "ufology." One of the best known
cases was a sighting by Idaho businessman and private pilot Kenneth Arnold.
Flying his single-engine airplane over Washington's Cascade Mountains on June
24, 1947, Arnold spotted nine silvery, crescent-shaped objects skimming along
at high speed near Mt. Rainier. They dipped as they flew, "like a saucer would
if you skipped it across water," Arnold told reporters--and thus "flying
saucers" entered the popular vocabulary.
Pilots had reported similar unexplained aerial phenomena before, mainly in
the form of the "Foo Fighters" noted by American bomber crews over Europe
in World War II. But Arnold's sighting, with its accompanying front-page
publicity, struck a jittery, post-Hiroshima nerve in American society and
set off a barrage of similar reports. Skeptics believed that every sighting
had a prosaic explanation, such as mis-identification of stars, planets, or
natural atmospheric phenomena. Others thought that there was more to UFOs,
that they could even be visitors from other planets.
Following the Arnold incident, the Air Force was given the responsibility of
investigating UFO reports from the United States, first as Project Sign (also
called Saucer), then Grudge, and finally Blue Book. Usually understaffed and
underfunded, the Air Force program functioned more like a public relations
office than a scientific investigation, according to the late astronomer
J. Allen Hynek. Hynek himself, who served as a consultant to Project Blue Book
from 1948 until it was dissolved in December 1969, gradually changed from a
skeptic into a believer.
Not even skeptics can deny the subject's popular appeal. Last March, a Gallop
poll found that 88 percent of its respondents had heard of UFOs. Nearly half
of those polled believed UFOs were real, not figments of the imagination or
mis-perceived natural phenomena. Nine percent of the adult population claimed
to have seen one.
Of these claims, pilot reports are the ones that interest Richard F. Haines,
a perceptual psychologist who compiles AIRCAT, a computerized catalog that
lists more than 3,000 UFO sightings by aviators over the past 40 years. Chief
of the Space Human Factors Office at NASA's Ames Research Center in California
Haines is the author of "Observing UFOs", a handbook of methodology for
accurate observation, and the editor of "UFO Phenomena and the Behavioral
Scientist", a collection of psychologically oriented essays on the subject.
-- SKEPTICS R US --
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
(CSICOP) was founded in the spring of 1976, during a meeting of the American
Humanist Association in Buffalo, New York. The impetus for the group's form-
ation had been provided a year earlier by the publication of "Objections to
Astrology" by Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy at the State University of
New York at Buffalo. The manifesto had been signed by 186 scientists, in-
cluding 18 Nobel prizewinners, who feared that the public was confusing
astronomy and astrology.
Today Kurtz is chairman of the loosely knit international organization, which
holds annual meetings and publishes a 25,000-circulation quarterly, "The
Skeptical Inquirer." The journal is devoted to articles debunking psychokinesis
telepathy, clairvoyance, and other psychic claims, the Loch Ness Monster,
astrology and UFOs. CSICOP Fellows include science writer Isaac Asimov,
astronomer Carl Sagan, Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and James Randi,
recent recipient of a "genius grant" awarded by the MacArthur Foundation.
The UFO subcommittee is led by Philip J. Klass ("UFOs--Identified","UFOs Ex-
plained",and "UFOs, the Public Deceived"), James Oberg ("UFOs & Outer Space
Mysteries"), and Robert Sheaffer ("The UFO Verdict"). The subcommittee con-
sists of about two dozen members who operate as an informal network, exchang-
ing articles about UFOs for information and comment. Some members make them-
selves available for local media appearances to counteract what Klass calls
"the popular view of UFOs as extraterrestrial spaceships."
"We prefer to have skeptics, of course," says Klass, "but we don't require
anyone to take an oath of allegiance saying they don't believe in flying
saucers. Basically, we're a mutual education circuit."
-- Dennis Stacy
AIRCAT's cases include Blue Book's declassified files as well as some Haines
collected and research personally. Before joining the Space Human Factors
Office, his research included interviewing pilots about what they had seen
peripherally during takeoffs and landings, data that may one day lead to re-
design of airplane cockpits. "I was interviewing pilot anyway," he says, "and
fell naturally into the habit of asking them if they'd ever seen anything
Haines concentrated on pilot reports for reasons other than convenience. "They
have a unique vantage point simply by being in the air," he says, "if for no
other reason than if the phenomenon is between your eyes and the ground, you
can calculate the slant range, and you're establishing an absolute maximum
distance the object could be away. You can't do that with the object against
the sky background."
"Pilots also have available to them a variety of electromagnetic sensors of
various kinds on board the aircraft itself, which can possibly record some
manifestations of the phenomenon, such as electromagnetic frequency and even
energy content," he says. "They can control the location of their plane so that
they can maneuver to gain the best vantage point, under some conditions.
"Finally," says Haines, "they represent a very stable personality type with a
high degree of training, motivation, and selection. If a pilot comes forward
with a strange tale, I give him a lot of careful concentration because he's
putting his reputation on the line and maybe his job. He's had to have thought
the details out in his mind already, and perhaps eliminated a number of ex-
planations before going public."
He's also likely to request anonymity. Kenneth Arnold, tired of the publicity
following his sighting, later commented, "If I ever see again a phenomenon of
that sort, even if it's a ten-story building, I won't say a word about it."
The feeling was echoed even in the Air Force. When Blue Book's predecessor,
Project Grudge, conducted an informal survey of Air Force pilots in the late
1940s , one respondent said, "If a spaceship was flying wing-tip to wing-tip
formation with me, I would not report it."
The UFO phenomenon got its tabloid reputation at least in part because of the
saucer-busting of active UFO skeptics. Foremost is the UFO panel of CSICOP,
the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
(see "Skeptics R Us," previous page). Led by Philip J. Klass, contributing
avionics editor of "Aviation Week and Space Technology", James Oberg, an
aerospace writer and a manned space operations specialist, and Robert Sheaffer,
a Silicon Valley computer systems analyst, CSICOP exposes hoaxes and uncovers
explanations of UFO sightings.
Sheaffer doesn't agree that pilots are superior UFO observers. "The idea of
pilots as super witnesses just doesn't hold," he says. "The last I heard they
were human like the rest of us, and still subject to all concerns and errors
of human psychology and perception. In fact, they're apt to be less worried
about how bright an object is, or its angular elevation, than in keeping their
plane in the air. Anyone surprised by a very brief and unexpected event is not
likely to report it accurately."
Haines agrees that normal perception isn't infallible. Very bright objects,
for example, can appear to be much nearer than they actually are. Autokinetic
or self-generated, movement of the eyeball can make distant objects like
stars and planets appear to move. "Also when you're flying in a sunny, clear
blue atmosphere," Haines says, "sometimes the eye can focus inaccurately, so
that you're not focusing at infinity anymore, but maybe only one or two meters
in front of the cockpit."
Because the way we see external events depends on the body's perception of it-
self in space, acceleration and inertial forces that disrupt the inner ear's
delicate sense of balance can also lead to optical illusions. Still, Haines
contends that many induced illusions are short-lived and cannot account for
the majority of AIRCAT's cases. "If a pilot describes a disk-shaped airform
with no visible means of propulsion pacing his right wing for 30 minutes,
doing everything he's doing--and I have plenty of cases like that--then that's
not an optical illusion, it's not a bird or balloon or meteor, it's not any of
those prosaic explanations," Haines says. "We don't know what it is necessarily
but we know quite clearly what it isn't."
One sensational pilot-and-UFO case almost certainly had a prosaic explanation.
On the afternoon of January 7, 1948, people near Godman Air Force Base at Fort
Knox, Kentucky, reported an object in the sky that looked like "an ice cream
cone topped with red." Captain Thomas F. Mantell, flying in command of a ferry
flight of four F-51 Mustangs (P-51s had been re-designated F-51s the previous
year), was asked to investigate. None of the fighters were equipped with oxy-
gen, and after three dropped out of the chase Mantell continued alone. "It's
directly ahead and above and still moving at about half my speed," he radioed.
"The thing looks metallic and of tremendous size. I'm going up to 20,000 feet,
and if I'm no closer I'll abandon the chase." A few minutes later Mantell's
airplane crashed, earning him the dubious distinction as the world's first
Project Blue Book proposed that Mantell succumbed to hypoxia, or oxygen
starvation, and crashed while chasing the planet Venus, but later evidence
indicates he was pursuing a top-secret, high-atmosphere Skyhook balloon. The
balloons, designed for upper-atmosphere research, were later used by the CIA
for surveillance. At altitudes of 70,000 feet or more, the translucent plastic
balloons would often be swept rapidly along by the jet stream.
Mantell wasn't the last pilot to die while pursuing, or being pursued by, an
alleged UFO. At 6:19 p.m. on Saturday, October 21, 1978, Frederick Valentich
of Melbourne, Australia, took off from Moorabbin Airport aboard a rented
Cessena 182 bound for nearby King Island. He planned to pick up a load of
crayfish for his fellow officers at the Air Training Corps, where he was a
flight instructor. An experienced daytime pilot with an unrestricted license
and instrument rating, Valentich, 20, was relatively inexperienced at night
flying. He was also a UFO enthusiast who, his father said later, had claimed
a UFO sighting 10 months before his disappearance.
Out of Melbourne, Valentich paralleled Cape Otway before heading over open
water for King Island, where he was scheduled to land at 7:28. At 7:06 he
radioed Melbourne Flight Service, asking, "Is there any known traffic in my
area below 5,000 feet? Seems to be a large aircraft." Ground control asked
what kind. "I cannot confirm," Valentich replied. "It has four bright lights
that appear to be landing lights...[and] has just passed over me about 1,000
feet above... at the speed it's traveling are there any RAAF [Royal Australian
Air Force] aircraft in the vicinity?"
"Negative," answered Melbourne. "Confirm you cannot identify aircraft?"
Valentich replied in the affirmative, adding three minutes later, "It's not
an aircraft, it's ..." At that point there was a brief break in the recorded
transmission that was later released to the Australian press.
"It is flying past," Valentich continued. "It has a long shape. Cannot
identify more than that... coming for me now. It seems to be stationary.
I'm orbiting and the thing is orbiting on top of me. It has a green light
and sort of metallic light on the outside." The pilot then informed air
traffic controllers that the object had vanished. At 7:12 he was back on the
air, reporting his "engine is rough-idling and coughing." Ground control
asked what his intentions were; Valentich said, "Proceeding King Island.
Unknown aircraft now hovering on top of me." His radio transmission ended
in a jarring 17-second metallic noise. Neither pilot nor airplane has been
seen or heard from since. Some have attempted to explain away the incident
as a hoax or a suicide, while others have suggested that the inexperienced
night pilot, overcome by vertigo, may have turned upside down and seen the
reflections of his own lights before the engine of his Cessna failed.
Haines has published a book about the Valentich incident, "Melbourne
Episode: Case Study of a Missing Pilot," and he is in the midst of another
compiling all of AIRCAT's cases. Most are variations on ufology's two
major themes: daylight disks and nocturnal lights. The first involves what
appears to be objects in the shape of disks, spheres, or elliptical forms.
Nocturnal lights normally appear as single, continuously visible white light
sources. Sometimes the lights are also detected by ground or airborne radar
and less frequently, accompanied by radio static and brief engine interruption,
such as that experienced by Valentich. Most sightings involve two or more
witnesses and last slightly more than five minutes, long enough in most cases,
says Haines, to eliminate a number of explanations, such as meteors and
One case from the AIRCAT files involved a pilot--call him Captain Gray--who
had logged more than 21,000 hours in a 31-year career. On July 4, 1981, he
was piloting a passenger flight in a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, cruising on
automatic pilot at 37,000 feet. The flight was bound from San Francisco to
New York's Kennedy Airport, approaching the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
The lake below was obscured by clouds, but ahead and above the sky was clear.
Suddenly, from ahead and to the left of the aircraft, a silvery disk "splashed
into view full size...like the atmosphere opened up," Gray said later. He
leaned forward, blurting out, "What's that?"
Appearing at first like a sombrero viewed from the top, the object rolled as
it approached the airplane along an arc that carried it toward and then
abruptly away from the L-1011. From the side, the disk appeared ten times
wider than it was thick, with six evenly spaced, jet black portholes along its
edge. A bright splash of sunlight flared off the top left end of the object.
As it disappeared, seemingly in a shallow climb, Gray noticed what looked like
the dark smudge of a contrail.
"Did you just see anything?" Gray asked his first officer. "Yes," he replied,
"a very bright light flash." The flight engineer, his view blocked, had seen
The overriding question for ufologists is whether a sighting like Captain
Gray's is a natural phenomenon or an object that displays evidence of in-
telligence. "As a scientist I have to be cautious," says Haines. "But when
AIRCAT is made public, I think the technical-minded can read between the
Skeptics would disagree, "I think there are more than enough ordinary
stimuli floating around to create the UFO phenomena, the UFO social event,
of the past 40 years," says CSICOP's James Oberg. "Because of imperfections
in human memory and perception, coincidences and so on, there'll always be a
small residue of unsolved sightings. A small percent of airplane crashes,
murders, and missing-person cases don't get solved either. But you don't have
to invoke alien airplane saboteurs, murderers, or kidnappers to explain them."
Haines retorts that Captain Gray was a skeptic before his own UFO confront-
ation. But afterwards, "there was no doubt in his mind whatsoever' that what
he had seen was an extraterrestrial spacecraft.
Captain Terauchi of JAL flight 1628 was equally convinced that he had encount-
ered an extraterrestrial craft in the skies above Alaska. Skeptics are not so
sure, citing the fact that Terauchi had reported seeing UFOs on two previous
occasions--and would report yet another sighting the following January, again
over Alaska. (He would later explain his second Alaskan encounter as city
lights reflecting off ice crystals in the clouds.) CSICOP's Philip Klass
thinks that ice crystals in clouds played a significant role in the November
encounter. He theorizes that moonlight reflecting off the clouds accounts for
the initial sighting, and that when the crew later saw Mars and Jupiter, bright
in the autumn sky, they assumed the planets were lights from the original UFO.
The signal on the on-board radar, Klass believes, could have been reflected by
the same ice crystals (although ice crystals, unlike rain droplets, are very
poor reflectors of radar energy). The FAA analyzed the ground radar and con-
cluded that they had been uncorrelated radar signals, a common phenomenon that
occurs when a radar beam bounced back from an airplane to a ground station
doesn't match up with a separate signal sent by the airplane's transponder.
That pilots, as well as ground observers, have seen something in the skies is
undeniable. The question of what they have seen has yet to be satisfactorily
resolved. Maybe it never will be. It may even be irrelevant. As Jacques Valle,
who has written several books on the subject, once said, "It no longer matters
whether UFOs are real or not, because people BEHAVE as if they were,
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