Founded in 2000

Why Don't Pilots See UFOs?

James McDonald, Statement on UFOs to the House Subcommittee on Science and Aeronautics, 1968
Symposium on UFOs

This question may come in just that form from persons with essentially no knowledge of UFO history. From
others who do know that there have been "a few" pilot-sightings, it comes in some altered form, such as,
"Why don't airline and military pilots see UFOs all the time if they are in our atmosphere?" By way of partial
answer, consider the following cases. (To facilitate internal reference, I shall number sequentially all cases
here after treated in detail.)

1. Case 1. Boise, Idaho, July 4, 1947:
Only about a week after the now-famous Mt. Rainier sighting by private pilot Kenneth Arnold, a United Air
Lines DC-3 crew sighted two separate formations of wingless discs, shortly after takeoff from Boise (Refs. 8,
10, 22, 23). I located and interviewed the pilot, Capt. Emil J. Smith, now with United's New York office. He
confirmed the reliability of previously published accounts. United Flight 105 had left Boise at 9:04 p.m. About
eight minutes out, en route to Seattle, roughly over Emmett, Idaho, Co-pilot Stevens, who spotted the first of
two groups of objects, turned on his landing lights under the initial impression the objects were air craft. But,
studying them against the twilight sky, Smith and Stevens soon realized that neither wings nor tails were
visible on the five objects ahead. After calling a stewardess, in order to get a third confirming witness, they
watched the formation a bit longer, called Ontario, Oregon CAA to try to get ground- confirmation, and then
saw the formation spurt ahead and disappear at high speed off to the west.

Smith emphasized to me that there were no cloud phenomena to confuse them here and that they observed
these objects long enough to be quite certain that they were no conventional aircraft. They appeared "flat on
the bottom, rounded on top", he told me, and he added that there seemed to be perceptible "roughness" of
some sort on top, though he could not refine that description. Almost immediately after they lost sight of the
first five, a second formation of four (three in line and a fourth off to the side) moved in ahead of their
position, again travelling westward but at a somewhat higher altitude than the DC-3's 8000 ft. These passed
quickly out of sight to the west at speeds which they felt were far beyond then-known speeds. Smith
emphasized that they were never certain of sizes and distances, but that they had the general impression
that these disc-like craft were appreciably larger than ordinary aircraft. Smith emphasized that he had not
taken seriously the previous week's news accounts that coined the since-persistent term, "flying saucer." But,
after seeing this total of nine unconventional, high-speed wingless craft on the evening of 7/4/47, he became
much more interested in the matter. Nevertheless, in talking with me, he stressed that he would not speculate
on their real nature or origin. I have spoken with United Air Lines personnel who have known Smith for years
and vouch for his complete reliability.

The 7/4/47 United Air Lines sighting is of historic interest because it was obviously given much more
credence than any of the other 85 UFO reports published in press accounts on July 4, 1947 (see Ref. 8). By
no means the most impressive UFO sighting by an airliner crew, nevertheless, it is a significant one. It
occurred in clear weather, spanned a total time estimated at 10-12 minutes, was a multiple-witness case
including two experienced observers familiar with airborne devices, and was made over a 1000-ft altitude
range (climb-out) that, taken together with the fact that the nine objects were seen well above the horizon,
entirely rules out optical phenomena as a ready explanation. It is officially listed as an Unidentified.

2. Case 2. Montgomery, Alabama, July 24, 1948:
Another one of the famous airline sightings of earlier years is the Chiles-Whitted Eastern Airlines case (Refs.
3, 5, 6, 10, 23, 24, 25, 26). An Eastern DC-3, en route from Houston to Atlanta, was flying at an altitude of
about 5000 ft, near Montgomery at 2:45 a.m. The pilot, Capt. Clarence S. Chiles, and the co-pilot, John B.
Whitted, both of whom now fly jets for Eastern, were experienced fliers (for example, Chiles then had 8500
hours in the air, and both had wartime military flying duty behind them). I interviewed both Chiles and Whitted
earlier this year to cross-check the many points of interest in this case. Space precludes a full account of all
relevant details.

Chiles pointed out to me that they first saw the object coming out of a distant squall-line area which they
were just then reconnoitering. At first, they thought it was a jet, whose exhaust was somehow accounting for
the advancing glow that had first caught their eyes. Coming almost directly at them at nearly their flight
altitude, it passed off their starboard wing at a distance on which the two men could not closely agree: one
felt it was under 1000 ft, the other put it at several times that. But both agreed, then and in my 1968
interview, that the object was some kind of vehicle. They saw no wings or empennage, but both were struck
by a pair of rows of windows or some apparent openings from which there came a bright glow "like burning
magnesium." The object had a pointed "nose", and from the nose to the rear along its underside there was a
bluish glow. Out of the rear end came an orange-red exhaust or wake that extended back by about the same
distance as the object's length. The two men agreed that its size approximated that of a B-29, though
perhaps twice as thick. Their uncertainty as to true distance, of course, renders this only a rough impression.
There is uncertainty in the record, and in their respective recollections, as to whether their DC-3 was rocked
by something like a wake. Perception of such an effect would have been masked by Chiles' spontaneous
reaction of turning the DC-3 off to the left as the object came in on their right. Both saw it pass aft of them
and do an abrupt pull-up; but only Whitted, on the right side, saw the terminal phase in which the object
disappeared after a short but fast vertical ascent. By "disappeared", Whitted made clear to me that he meant
just that; earlier interrogations evidently construed this to mean "disappeared aloft" or into the broken cloud
deck that ray above them. Whitted said that was not so; the object vanished instantaneously after its sharp
pull-up. (This is not an isolated instance of abrupt disappearance. Obviously I cannot account for such

This case has been the subject of much comment over the years, and rightly so. Menzel (Ref. 24) first
proposed that this was a "mirage", but gave no basis for such an unreasonable interpretation. The large
azimuth change of the pilots' line of sight, the lack of any obvious light source to provide a basis for the rather
detailed structure of what was seen, the sharp pull-up, and the high flight altitude involved all argue quite
strongly against such a casual disposition of the case. In his second book, Menzel (Ref. 25) shifts to the
explanation that they had obviously seen a meteor. A horizontally-moving fireball under a cloud deck, at 5000
ft, exhibiting two rows of lights construed by experienced pilots as ports, and finally executing a most
non-ballistic 90-degree sharp pull-up, is a strange fireball indeed. Menzel's 1963 explanation is even more
objectionable, in that he implies, via a page of side-discussion, that the Eastern pilots had seen a fireball
from the Delta Aquarid meteor stream. As I have pointed out elsewhere (Ref. 2), the radiant of that stream
was well over 90 degrees away from the origin point of the unknown object. Also, bright fireballs are, with
only rare exceptions, not typical of meteor streams. The official explanation was shifted recently from
"Unidentified" to "Meteor", following publication of Menzel's 1963 discussion (see Ref. 20, p. 88).

Wingless, cigar-shaped or "rocket-shaped" objects, some emitting glowing wakes, have been reported by
other witnesses. Thus, Air Force Capt. Jack Puckett, flying near 4000 ft over Tampa in a C-47 on August 1,
1946 (Ref. 10, p, 23), described seeing "a long, cylindrical shape approximately twice the size of a B-29 with
luminous portholes", from the aft end of which there came a stream of fire as it flew near his aircraft. Puckett
states that he, his copilot, Lt. H. F. Glass, and the flight engineer also saw it as it came in to within an
estimated 1000 yards before veering off. Another somewhat similar airborne sighting, made in January 22,
1956 by TWA Flight Engineer Robert Mueller at night over New Orleans, is on record (Ref. 27). Still another
similar sighting is the AAL case cited below (Sperry case). Again, over Truk Is., in the Pacific, a Feb. 6, 1953,
mid-day sighting by a weather officer involved a bullet-shaped object without wings or tail (Ref. 7, Rept, No.
10). Finally, within an hour's time of the Chiles-Whitted sighting, Air Force ground personnel at Robins AFB,
Georgia, saw a rocket-like object shoot overhead in a westerly direction (Refs. 3, 5, 10, 6). In none of these
instances does a meteorological or astronomical explanation suffice to explain the sightings.

3. Case 3. Sioux City, Iowa, January 20, 1951:
Another of the many airline-crew sightings of highly unconventional aerial devices that I have personally
checked was, like Cases 1 and 2, widely reported in the national press (for a day or two, and then forgotten
like the rest). A check of weather data confirms that the night of 1/20/51 was clear and cold at Sioux City at
the time that a Mid-Continent Airlines DC-3, piloted by Lawrence W. Vinther, was about to take off for Omaha
and Kansas City, at 8:20 p.m. CST. In the CAA control tower, John M. Williams had been noting an oddly
maneuvering light high in a westerly direction. Suddenly the light abruptly accelerated, in a manner clearly
precluding either meteoric or aircraft origin, so Williams alerted Vinther and his co-pilot, James F. Bachmeier.
The incident has been discussed many times (Ref. 4, 5, 10, and 28), but to check details of these reports, I
searched for and finally located all three of the above-named men. Vinther and Bachmeier are now Braniff
pilots, Williams is with the FAA in Sacramento. From them I confirmed the principal features of previous
accounts and learned additional information too lengthy to recapitulate in full here.
These arguments offered by Dr. James McDonald in 1968 are as relevent today as they were then. James
wasn't of the opinion that UFO were necessarily interstellar craft, he simply felt that the question of the
existence of unidentified aerial phenomena had not been adequately examined and deserved the attention of

Dr. McDonald was, by the accounts of his co-workers, a tireless scientist who was interested in just about
everything. Though he worked for the Atmospheric Physics department at the University of AZ in Tuscon, he
was known for delving into many diverse studies of the physical universe. His interests ranged from
determining if a lighter baseball bat swung faster would cause a baseball to fly farther, to trying to identify the
source of a UFO report. He was a dedicated scientist who was widely published both inside and outside of
his discipline of choice, atmospheric physics. For those interested in learning more about Dr. James
McDonald, NARCAP recommends reading "Firestorm: Dr. James E. McDonald's Fight for UFO Science" by
Ann Druffel.

Unfortunately for Dr. McDonald and all of us undertaking this research, the political side of science would
have nothing to do with the UFO matter. His curiousity, which was eloquently expressed through his craft,
was offensive to the science community with respect to UFO matters regardless of his sound arguments and
thorough research.

Please notice the obvious aviation safety issues in some of the pilot reports offered by Dr. McDonald
Why Don't Pilots See UFOs?
Dr. James McDonald,
Statement on UFOs to the House Subcommittee on
Science and Aeronautics, 1968 Symposium on UFOs