When we fly, we trust our lives to the skill and expertise of the pilots, who are perhaps the people with the most experience of what is and isn’t normal activity in the skies. Compared to encounters by ground dwellers, reports of UFOs from seasoned commercial pilots seem to carry more weight.
10 JAL Flight 1628
In November 1986, a UFO was sighted by the crew of Japanese Airlines Flight 1628 over Alaska. This incident made headlines when the FAA announced it would investigate the sighting, which had been caught on radar at the Air Route Traffic Control Center in Anchorage, Alaska.
Captain Kenju Terauchi and a crew of two were on a special flight delivering French wine from Paris via Iceland and the US through the Arctic Circle. Suddenly, the pilot realized there were lights to the left and right of the plane. His initial reaction was to ignore them as probable US fighter planes patrolling the border with the Soviet Union, but then the objects reappeared much closer to the aircraft.
“It was about seven or so minutes since we began paying attention to the lights [when], most unexpectedly, two spaceships stopped in front of our face, shooting off lights,” Terauchi was quoted as saying. “The inside cockpit shined brightly, and I felt warm in the face.”
The captain described the objects as square-shaped spaceships with jet propulsion systems that had horizontal lines of circular exhausts around a dark center. Terauchi reported that the “firing of the exhaust jets varied, perhaps to maintain balance. Some became stronger than others and some became weaker than others, but [they] seemed [to be] controlled automatically.” He also reported some kind of interference with ground communications, specifically a kind of jamming which sounded like “zaa, zaa.”
In the aftermath, Terauchi’s testimony was called into question as he had reported UFO encounters in the past and was overly eager to describe them as spaceships. Also, his interview testimony did not match the records of his communications with FAA controllers on the ground, and his copilot and flight engineer described the objects as nothing more than lights.
The FAA concluded there was no hard evidence to substantiate Terauchi’s claims, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry suggested that the phenomenon was caused by light refraction through ice crystals suspended in clouds.
9 Andrew Danziger
In 1989, First Officer Andrew Danziger was on a flight from Kansas City to Waterloo, Iowa, and had ascended to 4,500 meters (15,000 ft) when he noticed a white disk visible through clouds to the right of the plane. He conferred with the pilot, who also spotted the object. After ruling out the possibility that it was the Moon, a searchlight, or any mundane aerial object, they continued to engage in flight duties, occasionally glancing at the object.
After 20 minutes, Danziger realized that the white disk had been replaced by a massive red ball floating above the cloud cover, which was maintaining a parallel course with the flight. When the plane dropped to 4,000 meters (13,000 ft), the ball descended and vanished behind the clouds. Then there was a burst of multicolored lights within the cloud.
Danziger reported that the cloud itself started to stretch apart “like Silly Putty,” and then the object, lights, and cloud collectively vanished. After confirming with air traffic controllers that nothing had been seen on radar, the pilot and Danziger were asked nonchalantly, “Do you want to report a UFO?” They were given the number to the National UFO Reporting Center, who told them other pilots had reported similar incidents on a fairly regular basis.
Danziger’s story got special attention because he was the pilot for Barack Obama on Election Day in 2008. He also gained some notoriety for arguing that TWA Flight 800 was shot down in 1996 and never suffered from a faulty fuel tank.
8 Guernsey UFO
In 2007, Captain Ray Bowyer was flying an Aurigny plane from Southampton to Alderney when he spotted a number of UFOs through binoculars near the British island of Guernsey. Initially, he described the UFOs as flat yellow disks that he thought were caused by the Sun’s reflection from Guernsey greenhouses.
But then he realized they were something else because they did not hurt his eyes as looking at the reflection of sunlight would. He later described himself as “pretty shook up” by the experience. Allegedly, the objects were also reported by passengers on the plane and other pilots in the area.
Bowyer described one of the objects as a “very sharp, thin, yellow object with a green area. It was 2,000 feet up and stationary. [ . . . ] At first, I thought it was the size of a 737. But it must have been much bigger because of how far away it was. It could have been as much as a mile wide.” He saw a second, identical object to the west when making his descent toward Alderney.
In the aftermath, Bowyer’s sighting was largely ignored by the international media. Then suddenly, he was contacted by four different TV crews interested in the story, including one from the Netherlands and one from Canada.
At the time, Bowyer commented, “The big question is what has led to such renewed interest that four different groups from different countries on pretty much the same day have wanted to come to Alderney to do this. The odds on it are pretty long. Somebody somewhere has some control over this, and I’m looking to establish who that is.”
7 Xiamen Airlines
According to a potentially dubious post on an Internet forum that favors the Chinese military, a shimmering blue-and-white object was reported by three different pilots in China in 2011. This report was given some validity as it had been reported in the Sydney Morning Herald based on a report in the Chinese newspaper Wen Wei Po.
Apparently, the blue-and-white, oval-shaped object drifted soundlessly across the path of a Xiamen Airlines flight which was descending toward Nanjing. Then the object accelerated and disappeared into the cloud bank.
Supposedly, it was also spotted by the pilots of a Shandong Airlines flight that was 120 kilometers (70 mi) to the north over Jiangsu province. They described the UFO as a “white-blue, skateboard-shaped craft.” The pilot of another plane made a similar report to a control tower 300 kilometers (190 mi) south in Zhejiang province.
In recent years, there has been a boom in UFO reports from China, which are discussed among airline pilots and in the state media without being dismissed as cranks like in the West. UFO enthusiast Professor Sun Shili has theorized that UFOs are interested in China for the same reason they appeared above the US in the 1950s—because aliens are most interested in the activities of the Earth’s leading political power.
6 Bariloche Incident
As an Aerolineas Argentinas flight landed at Bariloche Airport in 1995, it was approached by a luminous disk moving in a way that defied the laws of physics. According to reports in South American and European newspapers, this forced the pilot to take evasive maneuvers. At the same time, there was a power shortage throughout the winter resort city of Bariloche, which was later blamed on human error, the effects of a snowstorm, or both.
There was also a power outage at the airport, which disrupted air traffic for around 10–15 minutes. One Argentine newspaper reported the air traffic control personnel as saying “the control instruments went crazy.” Described as an intense light, the UFO was also seen by personnel on the ground as well as the crew of a gendarmeria (police) plane flying 600 meters (2,000 ft) above.
According to pilot Jorge Polanco:
At 15 minutes of flight from Bariloche, the control tower normally authorized us to start our landing approach. At the moment when I started the last descent, I suddenly saw a white light which came directly on us at full speed in front of me, before instantly stopping at 100 meters (300 ft). When I started the maneuvers again, the object made an odd turn to accompany our descent turn and to pace us.
After a while, the saucer—the size of an airliner—changed color, two green lights appearing at the ends with an orange gleam in the center which ignited intermittently. At the time when I started my last approach, the lights of the track of the airport turned off in a blow. I had to go up to [4,500 meters] by taking an evasive maneuver, still accompanied by the UFO [which] went up at a supernatural speed.
After the craft disappeared, Polanco said he spent the next “five minutes in the cabin with my heart throbbing wildly.”
5 Lake Erie Sightings
In 1995, Cleveland Air Traffic Control received reports from two airline pilots from Air Shuttle Flight 5959 and Mesaba Airlines Flight 3179 about a mysterious light spotted by both crews over Lake Erie:
Cleveland Control: Air Shuttle 5959, is that traffic [there] that you saw earlier? Do you see him out there any longer?
Air Shuttle 5959: Air Shuttle 5959, that’s affirmative, and it’s a light that kind of . . . it goes dim, and it gets bright. I don’t know if we’re getting closer to it or what? But it looks like a rotating light around it, like a Frisbee-type thing that’s going around it.
Unknown voice: UFO.
Cleveland Control: Mesaba 3179, do you see the same thing?
Mesaba 3179: Ah sir, I saw it coming out of Detroit, and I wondered . . . all I saw was just a couple really bright flashes of light and it almost looked like lightning and it caught my eye. And then I kept watching it and then it looked a little bit less bright. But it looked like it was underneath the cloud deck to me. And this was just as we were coming out of Detroit.
The Mesaba pilot even tried to communicate with the object by blinking the lights of his aircraft, but there was no response. Cleveland Control could not detect anything on radar and suggested that the pilots might be seeing the reflection of a beacon. The pilots responded that the light appeared to be pulsing at 3,000 meters (10,000 ft) and that it wasn’t a beacon but was definitely weird.
Cleveland expressed an interest in getting a picture of the phenomenon, and the Mesaba pilot delivered:
Masaba 3179: I just want you to know that I took a picture, as captain on the left side. I also took (unrecognizable) of some of the stars above, so the lowest light on those pictures. The only single light at the bottom of the picture should be what you’re looking at. And you might be able to get a position with the sky if you want to go that far.
Cleveland Control: Ok, great. That’s a good idea, I appreciate that.
Masaba 3179: It was an instamatic camera. Good night sir.
Cleveland Control: Good night.
4 Chiles-Whitted Case
In 1948, one of the earliest UFO encounters reported by commercial pilots occurred when Eastern Airlines pilots Clarence Chiles and John Whitted, en route from Houston to Atlanta, spotted a strange object flying at an altitude of about 1,500 meters (5,000 ft). At about 30 kilometers (20 mi) southwest of Montgomery, Chiles spotted a light ahead, which was approaching the aircraft at a speed much faster than a jet.
According to testimony given at the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in 1968, both pilots agreed that the UFO was a vehicle with no wings or empennage. However, both were surprised to see two rows of windows or openings which emitted a bright glow “like burning magnesium.”
According to the pilots, the vehicle had a pointed “nose,” and there was a bluish glow along its underside from the nose to the rear of the craft. A long, orange-red exhaust shot out behind the UFO. The pilots said the UFO was approximately the size of a Boeing B-29 but twice as thick.
While in the air with the UFO, Chiles made a sharp left turn with his aircraft, which was buffeted by turbulence as the object passed 20 meters (70 ft) to the right. One passenger reported seeing a “strange, eerie streak of light” but could give no further details.
There were also reports of a strange streak of light from a crew chief at Robins Air Force Base in Macon, Georgia, and a pilot flying near the Virginia–North Carolina state line. Initially, the incident was explained as a mirage and later as a meteor.
3 Nash-Fortenberry Incident
In 1952, a Pan American World Airways DC-4 was flying on a routine run between Miami and New York. The aircraft was on autopilot with First Officer William B. Nash and Second Officer William H. Fortenberry when a brilliant orange glow appeared near the city of Newport News.
Nash later described what they saw:
Almost immediately, we perceived that it consisted of six bright objects streaking toward us at tremendous speed and obviously well below us. They had the fiery aspect of hot coals but of much greater glow, perhaps 20 times more brilliant than any of the scattered ground lights over which they passed or the city lights to the right. Their shape was clearly outlined and evidently circular; the edges were well-defined, not phosphorescent or fuzzy in the least, and the red-orange color was uniform over the upper surface of each craft.
According to the pilots, the objects appeared to be in an echelon line that was “tilted slightly to our right, with the leader at the lowest point and each following craft slightly higher.” The lead disk slowed suddenly, and two disks following it wavered, as if they hadn’t expected the maneuver. The procession then shot out across the Chesapeake Bay toward the aircraft and performed a new maneuver as Nash and Fortenberry tried to keep eyes on them from the cockpit windows.
The objects flipped on edge, appearing to show a coin-like shape. Their bottom halves were not illuminated. The objects were then joined by two more disks before they all shot off to the west in a new formation and performed a maneuver like a ball ricocheting off a wall. The lights of the objects blinked out, only to reappear later at a low altitude over the bay before steeply rising and finally vanishing one by one.
Astrophysicist Donald H. Menzel would later offer this theory for the sighting:
A temperature inversion can lead to a sharp concentration of haze, ice crystals, smoke, or other particles in a relatively thin layer. [ . . . ] Multiple layers of such haze are not unknown, stacked one on top of the other. A sharply focused searchlight shining at night through a series of such hazy layers will show up as a series of disks. As the searchlight moves, the disks will appear to spread out, exhibit perspective, and, as the searchlight turns around, the disks will appear to ricochet.
2 BOAC Labrador Incident
In 1954, a British Overseas Airways Corporation Stratocruiser was flying between New York and London when it encountered a large, shape-changing UFO surrounded by smaller objects off the left wing while over Labrador, Canada. At a refueling stop, the crew was questioned by members of the US Air Force, and the encounter became a media sensation.
Captain James R. Howard, a former RAF pilot, claimed that the strange formation of objects had followed his aircraft for 130 kilometers (80 mi). Apparently, the objects were also tracked on radar at the USAF Cartwright Air Station in Labrador.
Howard gave this report to the British magazine Everybody’s Weekly:
It wasn’t exactly a flying saucer. What I saw . . . was more of a flying arrow, I guess you’d have called it at one stage. It seemed to keep changing its shape as it flew beside me, much like a jellyfish assumes varying patterns as it swims through the water. Or maybe the apparent changes in shape were due to the different angles we viewed it from as it banked and turned. [ . . . ] Whatever it was—a giant flying wing, jellyfish, or saucer—of these things I’m quite certain: It wasn’t a trick of light or a figment of the imagination. It wasn’t any sort of electrical, magnetic, or natural phenomenon. And it certainly wasn’t a mirage.
Various shapes adopted by the largest object resembled a pear, an arrow, and a telephone receiver.
Belgian researcher Wim Van Utrecht suggested that the sighting may have been a large flock of starlings backlit by the setting Sun, which would explain the shape-changing behavior. However, the birds would have been flying at an unusually high altitude. Also, it would have been impossible for starlings to keep pace with the aircraft for the 18 minutes that the alleged object did. US researcher Brad Sparks suggested that there may have been an anomalous bird migration affected by freak climatic conditions.
1 1952 Washington Sightings
In June and July 1952, there was a slew of UFO sightings over the US East Coast, several of which were reported by airline pilots. On July 19, 1952, air traffic controllers at Washington National Airport saw a cluster of strange blips on their radar and contacted nearby commercial aircraft to see if anything unusual had been seen.
Casey Pierman of Capital Air Flight 807 radioed back that he had observed bright lights resembling “falling stars without tails” moving rapidly up, down, and side to side. Captain Howard Dermott on Capital Air Flight 610 radioed in two hours later to report a light was tailing his aircraft as it approached its destination. F-94 jets were scrambled from Delaware’s New Castle Air Force Base but encountered nothing unusual.
A week later, the blips appeared again on the radar at Washington National Airport, again prompting the military to launch their jets, whose pilots saw strange lights moving quickly away from them. Pilot William Patterson reported: “I tried to make contact with the bogies below 1,000 feet. I was at my maximum speed but . . . I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking them.”
Some reports allege that Harry Truman gave the air force authorization to shoot down flying saucers but that his order was rescinded when Albert Einstein and other scientists warned that “extraterrestrials would certainly look upon an attack by the primitive jet firepower as a breach of the universal laws of hospitality.”
The US Air Force and UFO skeptics have stated that the blips seen on radar were most likely temperature inversions, in which cold air pockets become trapped under warm air during hot summers. This phenomenon can cause radar beams to bounce and make objects on the ground such as automobiles or telegraph poles appear on radar as if they were thousands of feet in the air.
David Tormsen is someone or something on the wing. Email him at [email protected].