National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena

"To improve aviation safety and to enhance scientific knowledge"


Aviation Safety in America:
Under-Reporting Bias of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena and Recommended Solutions

(page 2 of 3)

Lack of Knowledge About UAP Characteristics Has Contributed to
Under-Reporting of UAP Incidents.

  The strangeness of UAP observations and incidents is perhaps the single factor most affecting UAP reporting. Aviation professionals do not understand the profile of UAP observations and incidents. This lack of understanding combined with the strangeness of the experience itself and the current skeptical environment within the aviation community negatively effect reporting.

UAP Characteristics

Types of obsevations include:

  • Visual observations of lights or objects that are visible to ground and/or air based radars as targets that do not display transponder codes.
  • Visual observations of lights or objects that may not be not visible on ground or air based radars.
  • Radar observations of objects that may not be visible to the unaided viewer and that do not display transponder codes.

Types of incidents include:

  • Close pacing, sometimes very close. Occasionally erratic movements are reported.
  • Distuption of on-board avionics systems.
  • High-speed passes at sometimes very close range.
  • Near mid-air collisions.
  • Problems (including injuries) resulting from control inputs to avoid near mid-air collisions.
  • Mid-air collisions.
  • Disruption of, electrical systems, lighting, and air traffic near aviation facilities.
  • Downed or Missing aircraft.

Additional Characteristics:

  • UAP are described as single or multiple lights or objects with unusual qualities.

  • UAP often appear as solid balls of white, blue, green, red, amber or orange light. Some will occasionally seem to display multicolored flashing lights, spotlights, colored beams, sparks, etc…. They can be very bright.
  • UAP can appear as simple geometric forms; cones, triangles, cylinders, rectangles, oblate spheroids (discs) and tauroids (donuts). Some UAP are reported to have a bright metallic-like surface.
  • UAP can range in size from 6" to several hundred feet. Reliable radar/visual observations of very large lights and objects have been reported.

  • UAP are reported to hover and to move erratically and at great speed.

  • UAP observations can be accompanied by transient or permanent electrical/avionic system failures.

  • UAP can manifest directly over airport facilities creating a physical threat to aircraft, and can disrupt communications, lighting and other electrical systems.

  • UAP have been reported to divide into two or more lights or objects, release smaller lights and/or objects and recover lights and/or objects.

  A lack of knowledge about UAP combined with the truly unusual qualities of these lights and objects can contribute to confusion and cause a situation to escalate, particularly if the incident occurs in close proximity to airports or other areas with dense aviation traffic.

While these observations can seem quite mysterious, it is appropriate to note that there are several kinds of rare and poorly understood natural phenomena that may be responsible for some of these observations and incidents.

Given these characteristics it is easy to understand the stress these unusual observations can cause to those who witness them. Though these events are not understood, they have occurred over nearly every nation and region on Earth. Regardless of whether or not we understand what is happening, it is appropriate to seek steps to mitigate safety related incidents and to gather more data.

Insensitivity to UAP Witnesses Within the Aviation System Has Contributed
to Under-Reporting of UAP Incidents.

Aircrews, Safety managers, ARTCC personnel, commercial airlines, unions and now, Aviation Security personnel are caught in a paradoxical situation. The image of conservative and responsible aviation professionals conducting serious work to save lives and improve aviation safety is threatened by reporting observations of, or expressing simple curiosity about UAP. There is no momentum within the aviation system to investigate these incidents and make appropriate recommendations.

It is unreasonable to conclude that conservative, responsible individuals do not see UAP. The image of conservative responsibility offered by the airlines may contribute to an environment that is not conducive to reporting unusual observations or incidents.

These unusual observations are rare. Current estimates support the contention that these incidents occur once in every 5-7 careers. Comparable aviation issues might include wind shear, which occurs once every 5 million take offs and landings or about once every 5 careers. It is entirely possible that a controller or aircrew may observe UAP and be faced with reporting it to a very experienced manager that has never seen anything unusual throughout his career and is skeptical of anyone else who may have. This can be an effective barrier against any further discussion or reporting of safety related UAP incidents.

NARCAP is aware of one airman who recently underwent two separate psychological evaluations within three months because he apparently expressed his interest in UAP to the "wrong" co-worker(s). The case was made by his airline management that perhaps the pilot represented a threat to safety because he was too willing to share his opinion on this controversial topic. This pilot had not even claimed that he has seen UAP

  With respect to culpability, one can hardly consider the giving of attention to a conservative and responsible image to be negligent behavior. Questioning the mental health of personnel who claim to have seen a UAP or are "overly" interested in the topic is consistent with what the US aviation system knows about UAP at this point in time.

  However, aviation professionals who are confronted with these incidents and observations are facing enough difficulty as they try to cope with what they may have seen. Without a supportive and respectful structure in place to receive these reports with the seriousness they deserve, aviation professionals are underserved and even betrayed by their own profession. This situation is detrimental to morale and contributes directly to a bias against reporting any observation or incident involving UAP.

  To be fair, NARCAP conducted an aircrew survey of an entire commercial airline in September 2001 (NARCAP Technical Report 5, Haines and Roe, 2001). There were no difficulties promoting our survey, gaining permission to conduct our study, or pursuing the actual study. The pilot who submitted our request for permission to conduct this study was not adversely affected. Clearly some U.S airlines are more sensitive about the issue than others.


  The idea that UAP not only exist but are also a credible threat to flight safety may make aviation executives and their insurers uncomfortable. While UAP related incidents may be rare, morally and ethically there is no better way to manage the issue than in the most honest and forthright manner possible. The current situation is stifling reporting, and research and is compromising safe aviation. The following suggestions for resolving this situation should be considered:

  1. Modify current incident reporting forms in all of the incident databases of the FAA and the NTSB to include questions addressing UAP incident profiles.
  2. Implement a program to capture data across all aviation systems and bureaucracies. A straightforward reporting policy, contained within the day-to-day standards and practices manuals of those organizations and businesses directly affected by the phenomena is critical to minimizing stress within the aviation culture and developing base metrics.
  3. Develop base metrics including Frequency of Occurrence to be used to develop incident profiles and identify research paths leading to procedural or technical solutions.
  4. Implement a basic education program on the topic of UAP for managers and airmen across all aviation systems. This program should include, but not be limited to educating aircrew, ATC and managers of UAP characteristics, reporting procedures and under reporting bias.
  5. Train psychological specialists who are participate in commercial aviation corporate Employee Assistance Programs and other mental health programs to support the aviation community. This is an essential step for total management of the issue.
  6. Change the taxonomy of the phenomena from Unidentified Flying Object or UFO to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena or UAP.

There are several specific issues that will determine the ultimate success of such a program. These issues are a direct result of the lack of attention given to these incidents to date and could be considered a reason for the lack of accurate data regarding these phenomena.

Successfully managing this matter requires an organizational model that is transparent and open to both public sector scrutiny and scientific debate and focused on acquiring accurate data from un-intimidated observers and reliable aviation sources and which is capable of presenting that data credibly to the aviation community and the general public. This organization should remain focused on examining the relationship between these observations and aviation safety.

  It is common knowledge that there is a debate in science and in the public regarding the potential that some of these phenomena may represent incursions by extraterrestrial intelligences. The relationship between an organization studying these unusual lights and objects and this debate should be managed responsibly and conservatively. From the standpoint of the research conducted by NARCAP, the debate exists and still remains unresolved, however the primary focus of the research is to mitigate unsafe flying conditions caused by unidentified aerial phenomena.

1. Credibility

The FAA, the USAF, NASA and a great portion of the rest of the aviation/aeronautics community have taken great pains to avoid discussions regarding UFO/UAP. In some cases these responses to inquiries have been mild, in other examples the response from official sources regarding inquiries into UFO/UAP have been dismissive, demeaning and derogatory.

It is appropriate to note that popular culture is rife with claims of government-based obfuscation of the "truth". So-called"conspiracy" theories regarding these phenomena reflect this lack of belief in government information on UAP. In the public eye these concerns are very real and contribute to a further erosion of trust and respect for government officials.

An appropriate approach is to officially recognize an independent, public, transparent organization whose sole mission is to address aviation safety related issues with respect to UAP. This organization should be considered the central data point for all UAP reporting, investigations, and research across all US aviation administrations, bureaucracies, and businesses within the US aviation system. Further, this organization should handle all media issues, public inquiries, etc., in a respectful and conservative manner.

2. Risks

  A failure to address these issues on the part of the aviation community may result in the following consequences:

  • Continued under-reporting bias and the resulting inaccurate and un-reviewed data will contribute to a failure to mitigate a known hazard.
  • Confusion, fear and lack of initiative when aviation professionals are confronted with the presence of UAP will contribute to unsafe flying conditions.
  • There will be continued and increased reports of transient and permanent avionics and electrical systems failures when UAP incidents are reported. As aircraft become ever more dependent on microprocessors they become more vulnerable to electromagnetic interference.
  • There will be continued reports of "near midair collisions" with unknown and objects and incidents including injuries, catastrophic failures and even casualties.



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