James Oberg Articles

        

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Case Studies In Pilot Misperceptions Of "UFOs"

Reproduced here with the written permission of:
James Oberg (<<jamesoberg@houston.rr.com>>), voice/fax 281-337-2838

© Copyright James Oberg. All rights reserved.

 

   Introduction

   First Case

   Second Case

   End of Page

 

How good are pilots' "UFO reports"? There is some dispute over whether the features they describe are imaginative interpretations of raw visual stimuli (based on their own aviation experience) or are sound renditions of raw perceptions.

Experienced UFO investigators realize that pilots, who instinctively and quite properly interpret visual phenomena in the most hazardous terms, are not dispassionate observers. Allen Hynek wrote: "Surprisingly, commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses..." The quote is from "The Hynek UFO Report", page 261 (Barnes and Noble reprint). (271 in original Dell, Dec 1977) He found that the best class of witnesses had a 50% misperception rate, but that pilots had a much higher rate: 88% for military pilots, 89% for commercial pilots. the worst of all categories listed. Pilots could be counted on to perceive familiar objects -- aircraft and ground structures -- very well, Hynek continued, but added a caveat: "Thus it might surprise us that a pilot had trouble identifying other aircraft, but it should come as no surprise that the majority of pilot misidentifications were of astronomical objects." Dell page 271

Here are two "test cases" that are illustrative: the November 5, 1990 re-entry of the Gorizont/Proton rocket body across northern France and Germany, and the January 28, 1994 launch of Progress TM-21 from Kazakhstan. Both events were observed by airline crews. Arguably, in both cases, the pilots over-interpreted their perceptions and subconsciously introduced "deductions" and "conclusions" to shape their remembered perceptions.

The resulting perceptions look like many other 'classic UFO encounters" reported by pilots, encounters that superficially have a high credibility because of the technical expertise of the witnesses. But both of these man-made events provide a rare opportunity to calibrate pilots' perceptions to what we know was actually being observed, and to raise a caution flag about accepting similar perceptions as gospel.

The first description is from the "Special Report to FSR [Flying Saucer Review} (May 1991)", by Paul Whitehead, Summer 1991 issue, page 10"

"It was a dark, early evening (6:15 pm local time), on November 5th 1990, and a British Airways passenger aircraft was en route to London, flying over the Alps at 31,000 ft. The crew heard a nearby Lufthansa jet report and query 'traffic ahead'. The BA captain peered intently ahead into the night sky. What he saw was hardly what he expected!

"(At the time, the European press reported the incident, and the 'official line' was given: the UFOs were in fact 'space debris from an old satellite re-entering the atmosphere'.)

"Well, MAYBE! But more details have now emerged. An airline pilot, well known to me and based in the UK, has spoken personally to the BA captain who logged the report, at the request of SIGAP (Surray Investigations Group on Aerial Phenomena). SIGAP has agreed to the captain's request not to make public his name, in order to protect him from publicity, and FSR respects that request. The airline pilot who spoke to the BA captain also wishes to remain anonymous.

"What did the BA captain see? Here is his comment.

" 'I looked ahead and saw, somewhat to my surprise, ahead and to the right and higher than we were, a set of bright lights. One of the lights, the leading one, was brighter than the others, and appeared bigger, almost disklike. It was followed closely by another three that seemed to be in a V formation. As I watched, I heard another aircraft crew also reporting seeing lights.

" 'I watched the objects intently as they moved across my field of view, right to left, ahead and high. It was then, on hearing the report from the other aircraft, that I realized I was watching something much further away than I had first thought. The other report came from France.'

"Was it a satellite re-entry? The pilot stated: 'It certainly didn't look like that to me. I have seen a re-entry before and this was different.'

"But it was the BA captain's further comments that are causing amazement and intense interest. SIGAP has released the information to UFO researcher and writer Tim Good, and we hope to have more comprehensive details this year.

"That same night, a colleague of the captain, in another BA aircraft, reported two 'very bright, mystifying lights' while flying over the North Sea. Two days later, an RAF Tornado pilot told the captain that on the same evening (5th November) his Tornado -- while flying with another squadron aircraft, had been 'approached by bright lights'. The lights, he reported, 'formated on the Tornadoes'. (This expression 'formate' is apparently used to indicate a deliberate intent)

"The accompanying Tornado pilot was so convinced that they were on collision course with the lights (apparently nine of them were seen) that he 'broke away' and took 'violent evasive action'. This same pilot later added that he thought he was heading directly for a C5 Galaxy, a giant US transport plane. The formation of UFOs carried 'straight on course and shot off ahead at speed -- they were nearly supersonic. Some C5!', he said, indicating that they were going faster than the speed a C5 can achieve.

"The pilot known to Paul Whitehead commented, 'This is all a good true story, and could do with an explanation. All the pilots are adamant that what they had seen was definitely not satellite debris -- and they should know,'"

Further details were reported in the National Enquirer, March 12, 1991, page 50: "Airline pilot in chilling brush with giant UFO", by Fleur Brenham. Has photo of "Veteran pilot, Capt. Mike D'Alton. He's convinced it came from outer space."

"A massive glowing UFO stunned a veteran British Airways pilot and his crew when it shot in front of their Boeing 737 on a night flight from Rome to London -- then zoomed out of sight at fantastic speed"

The newspaper quoted the pilot: "This thing was not of this world," declared Capt. Mike D'Alton. "In all my 23 years of flying I've never seen a craft anything like this."

More: "Capt. D'Alton says he's convinced the mysterious craft came from outer space because: It was traveling at tremendous speed, but caused no sonic boom. . . it had a bizarre shape like nothing he'd ever set eyes on . . . and it made a sharp turn while flying at high speeds -- an impossible maneuver that would rip any man-made aircraft to bits. Just as incredible, when Capt. D'Alton checked with area air traffic controllers, they hadn't detected a thing! 'There was nothing on the radar screens of any of the control towers it was flying over,' he said."

According to the article, "The encounter began at 6:03 p.m. last November 5 as Capt. D'Alton's airliner was flying over Genoa, Italy. 'The rest of the crew saw it, too,' he said. 'What we saw was one large, fairly bright light. Ahead of it was a formation of three fainter lights in a triangle. Another faint light was behind the large light and was slightly lower.'

D'Alton continued: "The craft was flying level, going much too fast to be a man-made aircraft. I've flown all over the world, and I know this thing wasn't a shooting star, space debris or the northern lights."

Said Bob Parkhouse, the flight's chief steward: "The UFO was moving from left to right across the horizon. It was a sight I'd never seen before!"

"The crew watched the craft for two minutes, said Capt. D'Alton. 'Then it took a lightning-fast right-angle turn and zoomed out of sight.' Other pilots, including a Lufthansa German Airlines captain, reported a UFO sighting around the same time. Capt D'Alton said. 'It had to be something from another planet -- because it was definitely not man-made!' "

 

Still more details from Tim Good's "UFO Report 1992", pp. 136-7.

"5 November 1990: Genoa, Italy/North Sea -- British Airways Captain Mike D'Alton reported sighting a UFO during the night flight in a Boeing 737 from Rome to Gatwick, describing it as a silver disc with three faint points of light in arrow formation and a fourth light behind it.

"Captain D'Alton said the object was visible for about 2 minutes over Genoa. 'I've never seen anything like it before and can't explain what it was. My co-pilot and I called in two cabin crew to see it and then it went out of sight. Ground radar couldn't pick it up, so it must have been travelling at phenomenal speed.' (Sunday Telegraph, London/Sunday Mail, Glasgow, 11 November 1990)

"That same night, another BA captain reported two 'very bright mystifying lights' while flying over the North Sea, and later spoke to an RAF Tornado pilot who, together with another Tornado from the same squadron, had been 'approached by bright lights' which 'formated' on the Tornadoes. The accompanying Tornado pilot was so convinced that they were on collision course with the lights -- apparently nine were seen -- that he 'broke away' and took 'violent evasive action'. The formation of UFOs continued 'straight on course and shot off ahead at speed -- they were nearly supersonic. . .'

"(These incidents were confirmed to Paul Whitehead of the Surray Investigation Group on Aerial Phenomena via another airline pilot, who had spoken with the BA pilot involved in the North Sea incident, and reported to me by Paul in April 1991. . . . In addition, the following report may provide corroboration.)"

Good then describes a case labeled "5 November 1990: Near Rheindalen, Germany/North Sea", and writes:

"According to a highly placed RAF Germany source, two terrific explosions were heard on two separate occasions at night in the Rheindalen area. After the second explosion (at 22:00) the crew of a Phantom jet reported UFOs headed north in a 'finger' formation.

"Separately, two Tornado jets over the North Sea encountered two large round objects, each with five blue lights and several other white lights around the rim. As the Tornadoes closed to investigate, one of the UFOs headed for one of the jets, which had to take violent evasive action to avoid collision. The two unknowns then headed north until they were out of sight. Nothing showed on the radar screens of the Tornadoes."

A third report was labeled "5-6 November 1990: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland", and Good wrote:

"Mysterious aerial objects, variously described as orange balls, triangles and points of light were reported during the night by hundreds of witnesses in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. Some described a moving shape comprising three, five or six brilliant points of light. Experts in Munich and other countries suggested that a meteorite or satellite re-entry was to blame.

"But in Belgium, dozens reported a triangular object with three lights, flying slowly and soundlessly to the south-west, and the air force said it was studying the reports in liaison with neighboring air forces. Several crew members of civilian and military planes also sighted UFOs, including a British pilot, who reported four objects flying in formation over the Ardennes hills in south Belgium.

"In France, Jean-Jacques Velasco, director of Service for the Investigation of Re-entry Phenomena, said an investigation would be launched, and confirmed that several airline pilots had reported sightings but that no radar contact was recorded in French airspace. One Air France pilot told a radio interviewer: 'We were on a flight to Barcelona at about 33,000 feet at 19:03 hours when we first saw the shape. It couldn't have been a satellite (re-entry) because it was there for three or four minutes'.

"In Italy, six airline pilots reported 'a mysterious and intense white light' south-east of Turin. Pilots also reported five white smoke trails nearby. Police in Bavaria were swamped with calls from people reporting streaks of light with tails of fire at about 19:00 on 5 November (Glasgow Herald, 7 November 1990)."

Now, what can we make of these impressive testimonials? The satellite reentry was occurring right before their eyes, and these pilots made many, many perceptual and interpretative errors, including:

1. In FSR, the anonymous BA pilot (obviously D'Alton) recalls: "One of the lights . .. was brighter than the others, and appeared bigger, almost disklike." It was just as light, a piece of burning debris, and the "disk" interpretation was a mental pattern conjured up from previous experience, not from this actual apparition. Note that later, Good alters this comment to have the pilot unequivocally call it "a silver disc".

2. The main light "was followed closely by another three that seemed to be in a V formation," according to the pilot. Referring to a "formation" is an assumption of intelligent control. The pieces of flaming debris were scattered randomly in a group and stayed approximately in the same relative positions, but the pilots misinterpreted this to mean they were flying in formation.

3. FSR reports the pilot saying "I watched the objects intently as they moved across my field of view, right to left," but the objects' actual motion was left to right, as reported elsewhere correctly. Either the FSR writer, or the pilot, jumbled this key piece of information.

4. The pilot did not believe the apparition was a satellite re-entry because "I have seen a re-entry before and this was different." These re-entries are particularly spectacular because of the size of the object, and the pilot was speaking from an inadequate experience base here.

5. The RAF military pilots in the Tornadoes concluded that "the lights 'formated on the Tornadoes', which is the kind of thing a fighter pilot is trained to detect and avoid, not dispassionately contemplate. The lights, of course, never changed course, but the pilots who were surprised by them feared the worst.

6. The accompanying Tornado pilot was so convinced that they were on collision course with the lights that he "broke away" and took "violent evasive action". This move would be prudent in an unknown situation, but there's no need to believe that the perception of dead-on approach was really accurate. Since the flaming debris was tens of miles high, no real "collision course" ever existed, outside the mind of the pilot.

7. D'Alton in the National Enquirer is quoted as claiming " it made a sharp turn while flying at high speeds -- an impossible maneuver that would rip any man-made aircraft to bits. " Again, the actual object never made such a turn, and the pilot's over-interpretation of what the object MUST be experiencing was based on mistaken judgments of actual distance and motion.

8. After two minutes of flying straight, said D'Alton, ". . .it took a lightning-fast right-angle turn and zoomed out of sight." But we know that the actual observed object never made such a maneuver, but D'Alton remembered it clearly when trying to explain in his own mind how it disappeared so fast.

9. The newspaper account, quoted in Good's book, has D'Alton claiming that "ground radar couldn't pick it up, so it must have been travelling at phenomenal speed." Actually, the speed would have had nothing to do with radar failing to pick it up, but the actual distance -- which D'Alton misjudged, leading to subsequent erroneous interpretations -- did.

10. The Tornado pilots described the flaming debris as " two large round objects, each with five blue lights and several other white lights around the rim." Since they were used to seeing other structured vehicles with lights mounted on them, when they spotted this unusual apparition, that's the way they misperceived and remembered it.

11. "In Belgium, dozens reported a triangular object with three lights, flying slowly and soundlessly to the south-west," but these were separate fireball fragments at a great distance, which witnesses assumed were lights on some larger structure. Their slow angular rate was misinterpreted to be a genuine slow speed because their true distance was grossly underestimated.

12. "A British pilot . . . reported four objects flying in formation over the Ardennes hills in south Belgium." The pilot may have been over southern Belgium, but the objects he saw didn't have to be, they were hundreds of miles away. And despite his instinctive (and wrong) assumption the lights were "flying in formation", they were randomly-space fireball fragments.

13. Note that Good writes that "Jean-Jacques Velasco,. . . said an investigation would be launched," but Good saw the results of that investigation before his book went to press, and he neglected to tell his readers that Velasco proved the lights were from the satellite re-entry.

Such selective omissions make many such stories appear far stronger than they really are.

14. One Air France pilot told a radio interviewer: '. . . It couldn't have been a satellite (re-entry) because it was there for three or four minutes', but such reasoning is groundless since near-horizontal re-entriers can be seen for many minutes, especially from airplanes at high altitude. The pilot didn't know this, and rejected that explanation erroneously.

15. "In Italy, six airline pilots reported 'a mysterious and intense white light' south-east of Turin. Pilots also reported five white smoke trails nearby." They may have been near Turin when they saw the lights and assumed incorrectly they were 'nearby', but the lights were far, far away.

Hynek's assessment of the accuracy of "UFO reports" from pilots appears to be right on target. It is not meant as an insult to their intelligence, integrity, or professional competence. It does, however, reflect the training their minds have gotten from years of flight experience.

A second case is the so-called "Tajik Air" UFO, on January 28, 1994. It is based on message from the American Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (Mr. Escudero), Jan 31/0310Z. Selected passages follow:

"1. Tajik air chief pilot, amcit [american citizen] ed rhodes, and his two american pilot colleagues reported jan 29 that, on january 27, they had encountered a ufo while flying at 41,000 feet in their boeing 747 at lat 45 north and long 55 east, over kazakhstan. They first encountered the object as a bright light of enormous intensity, approaching them from over the horizon to the east at a great rate of speed and at a much higher altitude than their own. They watched the object for some forty minutes as it maneuvered in circles, corkscrews, and made 90-degree turns at rapid rates of speed and under very high g's. Captain rhodes took several photos with a pocket olympus camera and will send copies to the embassy and tajikistan desk (lowry taylor) in the department, if they come out. After some time, the object adopted a horizontal high-speed course and disappeared over the horizon.

"2. As it was dark when the object was observed, the crew were unable to discern its shape. They described the light it emitted as having a 'bow wave' and as resembling a high-speed photo of a bullet in flight, in which a very small object gives off a much larger trailing wave of heat/light. Some forty-five minutes after the initial sighting, as the sun was rising, the aircraft flew under the contrails which the object had left behind. The plane was making over 500 knots. Rhodes estimated the altitude of the contrails at approximately 100,000 feet, noting that there is too little air/moisture at that extreme altitude to enable the creation of contrails by the propulsion mechanisms of ordinary aircraft which might be able to reach that height. The paths of the contrails reflected the maneuvers of the object, i.e., circles, corkscrews, etc.

"3. To our suggestion that the object might have been a meteor entering and skipping off the earth's atmosphere, rhodes and his crew were adament that they had seen thousands of 'falling stars' and other space junk entering the atmosphere in their years of flying passenger aircraft for panam. This, they insisted, was nothing like a meteor. On the basis of its speed and maneuverability, rhodes expressed the opinion, which his crew seemed to support, that the object was extraterrestrial and under intelligent control."

Rhodes appears to be a sincere witness who's convinced he saw a true UFO. But to understand the case we need some more relevant data and comments. First of all, this is the key: The Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome (space launch center) is located at approx 46N 66E, east of the Aral Sea in independent Kazakhstan.

The regularly scheduled unmanned supply ship Progress M-21 was launched toward the Mir space station at 0212 GMT on January 28 (a Friday) aboard a "Soyuz" (SL-4) booster. It blasted off and then pitched over on a slightly north-of-east course, and nine minutes later achieved orbit about 140 miles up, 1200 miles down range, at a speed of 17,600 mph. During ascent it followed a straight course on a constant heading. However, at about 2.5 minutes into the flight the four strap-on boosters separated and fell back to Earth still trailing smoke.

The "Tajik Air" report does not provide direction of eyewitness view or direction of motion of the airliner. However, if one assumes it was flying eastwards, the launch would have been seen directly in front of them and they would have passed under the booster exhaust trail (NOT a jet engine "condensation", or CONtrail) much later.

These booster plumes are known to last 40-60 minutes after a launch, which would explain the air crew's feeling that they observed the UFO for that long. The plumes are twisted into corkscrews and zig-zags by the varying directional winds in the upper atmosphere.

Since this is the obvious visual stimulus for this apparition, we can see that this air crew made many, many perceptual mistakes, including:

1. A "bright light of enormous intensity" must be calibrated with a pilot's dark-adapted yes in a dimly lit cockpit. From hundreds of miles away a rocket is indeed a "bright light" but it it is hardly dazzling, blinding, or "of enormous intensity".

2. They concluded the UFO "approached them from over the horizon" when it merely rose and grew brighter as it was at all times flying away from their reported position. They mistook "brightening" for "nearing", an extremely common UFO witness error.

3. They claim to have watched "the object" for forty minutes, although the rocket would have been out of sight in four or five minutes. The smoke plumes, sunlit in the pre-dawn upper atmosphere, would have been visible ahead of them in the sky for forty minutes, but there was no "object" there.

4. The pilots reported seeing "circles, corkscrews, and 90-degree turns" but the actual rocket did no such maneuvers. However, the smoke trail would within half an hour have portrayed such a path, so the pilots could have simply assumed they were seeing an accurate history of the object's original path, instead of a smoke trail distorted by winds. They could NOT have actually seen the UFO performing these maneuvers, but in hindsight they could easily believe they did.

5. The UFO maneuvered "under very high g's", according to the pilots. But that rests on assumptions of actual distances and actual speeds, as well as the erroneous belief that it really changed course as reflected in the smoke trail.

6. The pilots recall that "after some time, the object adopted a horizontal high-speed course", when the rocket had been flying essentially straight and horizontally away from them since early in its flight. Their report of a non-existent gross change in course and speed must have been a rationalization to explain its eventual disappearance.

7. The pilots "were adament that they had seen thousands of 'falling stars' and other space junk entering the atmosphere in their years of flying. . . . This, they insisted, was nothing like a meteor." While true, it mis-aims attention at one explanation while omitting the other, a rocket launching.

8. The pilots concluded that "on the basis of its speed and maneuverability, . . .the object was extraterrestrial and under intelligent control." One last erroneous interpretation based on all previous misinterpretations and imaginations.

These recent examples are consistent with the experience of UFO investigators for more than fifty years. Reports of UFO maneuvering, intelligent flight formations, responses to witnesses, and other 'inexplicable' narratives can be engendered from prosaic, simple, but unfamiliar phenomena. In these cases, "UFO reports", even from pilots, did not need a "real UFO" to create them.

 

© Copyright James Oberg. All rights reserved.

 

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