Article: Unidentified Flying Phenomena–Fact or Fiction?

  • Summer, 2009, Altitude

    Project Second Storey

    It was 15:34 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.

    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.

    A Flying “Saucer”

    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.

    At the time, the sighting was taken seriously by the USAF as part of its Blue Book commitment. Of course, 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.”

    Seen But Not Reported

    In a 2001 survey, all pilots of an American airline 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.

    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.

    But They Exist

    Since the 1980s, Dr. Richard Haines, a psychologist and former NASA consultant has examined UFO sightings including sightings by pilots. His book Observing UFOs is a textbook on the optics and psychological aspects of UFO reports. He co-founded 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.

    This post was edited from an original article that appeared in the Summer, 2009 edition of Altitude, written by Chris Rutkowski. 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: dundurn.com/ufos

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