Article: Unexplained Aerial Phenomena

  • Stock image of flying UFO

    by Chris Rutkowski
    Summer, 2009, Altitude

    It was 1534 hours on April 16, 1953. A Department of Transport inspector flying with Maritime Central Airways was piloting an aircraft at 9,000 feet over Chatham, New Brunswick on a heading of 009, almost due north. The plane’s airspeed was 170 knots.

    Visibility was more than 15 miles and there were two layers of scattered cloud, one at 5,000 feet and the other higher at about 25,000 feet. Wind at 7,000 feet was about 320/20, while surface wind was ENE at 4 mph.

    The pilot was also an experienced bush pilot and a one-time RCAF transport pilot. Needless to say, he had logged many hours in the air and was familiar with pretty much anything that was in the sky. His co-pilot was also experienced and employed by Maritime Central in Moncton, New Brunswick.

    As they flew on a steady course between the cloud layers, both pilot and co-pilot saw an object ahead of them. Its bearing was almost due north as well and was estimated to be three to five miles away when first seen. It was judged to be at an altitude of about 7,500 feet, not far below their aircraft. It was approaching at an estimated speed of 150 knots.

    Although there is no record of their conversation with air traffic control operators in the area, it is very likely that they queried local airports about the object because it was uncomfortably close to their flight path.

    Within 20 seconds from the time it was first seen, the object was close enough so that both the pilot and co-pilot were able to get a good look at it. Both agreed it was a round disc with “a metallic shine,” and about 25 feet in diameter. As it neared, the pilot noted that the object took on more of a “dull metal shade.”

    The object passed beneath and behind their aircraft coming within 1,500 feet if their estimate of its altitude was correct.

    We know this incident occurred because it is one of hundreds of reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) that can be found in the files of the National Archives of Canada. This report was originally classified “confidential” by the Department of National Defence, but unclassified at a later date. It was one of many sightings of “flying saucers” (as the description fits this case quite neatly) catalogued by “Project Second Storey,” a Canadian counterpart to “Project Blue Book,” the American military study that began operations in 1952 and closed in 1969. Its closure was stated officially to be because UFO investigations had no value to national security or to science.

    The New Brunswick report includes a few details about the investigation of the incident as well. The pilot was interviewed by radio or telephone upon landing in Chatham, by an “interrogator” named S/L G.C. Campbell who relayed questions from “Capt. Thomas B. Hennessy, USAF, Int/l at ADC HQ RCAF,” stationed at Moncton.

    The pilot was noted as being “very reliable.” He and his co-pilot were convinced they had seen something unusual and outside of their experience as pilots. The investigation report noted: “Both observers are quite definite in stating that the object was NOT a balloon.” (Emphasis in original.) The report added: “The object passed nearly over Chatham, but has not been reported by any other witnesses.”

    The sighting was taken seriously by the USAF as part of its Blue Book commitment. At this late date, it is impossible to determine what the two airmen had seen, but one could probably rule out a balloon, which is about the only other thing it could be. It’s certainly possible that they were completely mistaken, of course, and that it was simply an aircraft they were somehow unable to identify despite years of training and hours of flying experience.

    This case is one of hundreds of filed reports of unidentified flying objects seen by pilots and airmen. In popular culture, the term has come to mean “alien spacecraft,” but this is simply an interpretation of the facts and not anything proven beyond doubt. It’s unfortunate that the term UFO has an associated stigma attached to it because when a pilot sees an unidentified object near his aircraft he is naturally reluctant to report it as a UFO, even though that’s what it is. He or she doesn’t want to be labeled a “kook” or be known as someone who has seen “little green men.”

    The trouble is that one of the questions most often asked by skeptics as a challenge to those who “believe” in UFOs is: “How come pilots don’t report seeing UFOs?” After all, each day, thousands of flight hours are spent by pilots and other aircrew looking out cockpit windows and watching the skies. If UFOs were real, surely they would see them. Since it is assumed that pilots aren’t reporting UFOs regularly, then UFOs must not exist.

    The fact is, however, pilots do see UFOs and report them, often at the risk of their reputations.

    In a 2001 survey, all pilots employed and flying for one commercial American airline company were asked if they had ever seen anything they could not identify while in flight. A remarkable 23.5 percent responded to the survey (a very good rate for surveys in general), and of those, 23 percent said they had seen an unidentified object. However, of those who indicated they had seen an unidentified object, only one in four actually reported it to authorities.

    While this shows that many pilots have seen UFOs, most did not report their sightings. There seems to be reluctance of pilots to report UFOs.

    Since the 1980s, Dr. Richard Haines, a psychologist and former NASA consultant has examined UFO sightings and sightings by pilots. His book Observing UFOs is a textbook on the optics and psychological aspects of UFO reports. He and colleague Ted Roe created the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP) as a way in which pilots could confidently and confidentially report their observations of UFOs and also to facilitate the study of such reports. The number of military, airline and private pilot UFO reports cataloged by NARCAP is currently around 1,500; they come from all corners of the world, seen over all continents.

    Haines has documented how pilots face a great deal of peer pressure not to report their UFO sightings. Fear of ridicule, fear of having one’s competence questioned, fear of losing one’s career, fear of government reprisal, even fear of the phenomena itself are all cited as reasons why pilots are not officially reporting many observations such as close passing and near mid-air collisions, and even alleged collisions with unidentified aerial phenomena.

    Curiously, this atmosphere that discourages pilots from reporting UFOs is completely opposite to the current vigilance desired in our post-9/11 world. Even during the Cold War when a Soviet attack on North America was of major concern, having all pilots, civilian and military, report sightings of possible enemy aircraft was most desirable. In 1954, military and commercial aviation officials produced the Joint Army, Navy, Air Force Publication 146 (known as JANAP 146). A companion set of directives giving Communication Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings (CIRVIS) was produced later and is still in effect today in a slightly modified form. In no uncertain terms, it instructs both civilians and military personnel that:

    CIRVIS reports should be made immediately upon a vital intelligence sighting of any airborne, waterborne and ground objects or activities which appear to be hostile, suspicious, unidentified or engaged in illegal smuggling activity. Examples of events requiring CIRVIS reports are:

    • unidentified flying objects;
    • submarines or warships which are not Canadian or American;
    • violent explosions; and
    • unexplained or unusual activity in Polar regions, abandoned airstrips or other remote, sparsely populated areas.

    DND Flight Information Publication —GPH 204. Flight Planning and Procedures, Canada and North Atlantic, Issue No. 57, Effective 0901Z  20 May 1999.

    In other words, it is considered in the best interests of everyone to report UFO sightings, and certainly of interest to the Department of National Defence. Similar directives exist for the United States, and there is no reason to believe that such policies are not in effect in other countries around the world. (Given recent news reports of suspected Russian activity in the Canadian Arctic, reporting unidentified submarines and aerial objects would seem to be desirable.)

    JANAP 146 evolved with time and other official bodies such as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), FAA and NASA became the centres for collecting information on midair events such as near-misses and accidents. Over time, the term “unidentified flying object” became unworthy of inclusion in the databases and so there was no official place to report such observations. Ironically, the term UFO was adopted in the 1950s because the original phrase “flying saucers” was considered too leading.

    Image of Government of Canada UFO sighting report document, c 1950s

    About the author: Chris Rutkowski is a science educator and author who is best known for his media comments about UFOs. His most recent book on the subject A World of UFOs, is now in fine bookstores everywhere. He blogs at:
    This story originally appeared in the Summer, 2009 of Altitude.


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