Among the thousands of UFO reports gathered by investigators and civil or official agencies, perhaps the more compelling ones are those involving aviators, because it is generally assumed these highly trained individuals have observational skills above those of the average witness, and their long hours in the air have also exposed them to all sorts of atmospheric and natural phenomena; so when a pilot reports an anomalous object during a flight, there’s a higher chance the case involves something beyond conventional explanations.
Some of the most famous close encounter cases fall into this category: The ‘dogfight’ over Tehran in 1976, Japan Airlines flight 1628’s encounter with a giant UFO over Anchorage in 1987, Captain Ray Bowyer’s observation of an equally enormous object over the English Channel in 2007, etc. Leslie Kean’s New York Times best-seller book is a great source of reference, filled with 1st-hand testimony of brave men who have not hesitated to put their career and reputation at stake, in order to reveal a truly disquieting truth: Our skies are the domain of what sometimes appear to be mysterious craft under intelligent control — and these intelligences seem to be very interested in our own planes, which are clearly no match to their superior speed and high manoeuvrability.
In her book, Kean briefly mentions a case that has attained by now an almost legendary status in the annals of UFOlogy: The disappearance of private pilot Frederick Valentich, during a night flight over the Bass Strait between Melbourne and King Island on October 21, 1978. My good friend and colleague, Micah Hanks, has grown more interested over the years about Valentich and the circumstances surrounding his unresolved evanescence, and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the idea of a UFO abducting a hapless pilot in mid-flight both alluring and terrifying, but the story is also charged with a certain romantic aura due to Valentich’s young age, and the fact that he was completely alone when he apparently had an encounter with an extremely bright “large aircraft” that looked as if it was “playing with him.” A game that, as far as we know, turned out to be fatal for the novice Australian pilot.
A few years ago, when the official report on Valentich’s case was published online by the Australian government, I spent an entire Saturday afternoon poring over the digitized copies of the faded and sometimes illegible notes, written by the agents who interviewed both Frederick’s parents and his then girlfriend. I remember telling Micah that for me, the most interesting thing I found out through the report, was the fact that Valentich had had an apparent interest in unidentified flying objects, and he had also been very impressed with the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which had been released the year previous to his disappearance; during a conversation between he and his girlfriend, the young woman told the investigators, the subject of UFOs was brought up and Frederick told her how he would like to take a ride inside a flying saucer, “but never without you.” I didn’t realize how deeply moved Micah had felt by the account, until he released a song inspired by this very phrase:
Yes, the Valentich’s case remains interesting and worthy of further inquiry, despite some debunkers’ attempts to downplay it. And yet I think there’s an even more important close encounter case involving a pilot, that hasn’t gotten the level of attention it rightfully deserves: The harrowing story of Carlos Antonio de los Santos Montiel, a young Mexican pilot who once found himself at the complete control of three anomalous objects surrounding his aircraft; unlike Valentich however, Carlos returned from his face-to-face with the unknown to tell the tale.
It was the morning of May the 3rd, 1975, and Carlos was a 23-year-old pilot working for a private company, eager to attain more experience and more flight hours under his belt; you could say the ‘need for speed’ was in his blood, both his father and older brother were also pilots. On that day, the memory of which would haunt him for the rest of his life, young Carlos was returning from Zihuatanejo (a coastal city in the southwestern state of Guerrero) to Mexico city. He woke up very early, had a good breakfast, fuelled the Piper PA-24 with registration XB-XAU he would pilot, detailed the flight plan, and took off for the Benito Juárez International Airport on what should have been an easy and uneventful flight.
Just a few seconds after he passed the VHF Omnidirectional Radio Range (VOR) beacon located in Tequesquitengo and corrected his course, Carlos had an eerie feeling, as if someone, or something, was observing him. Not an unusual sensation if you’re sitting in a crowded bar, but certainly unexpected when you’re flying thousands of feet above the ground! And that’s when the pilot glimpsed something out of the corner of his left eye, he turned to observe a wingless craft of a dull grey color. The object, which had a shape of flattened rugby ball, was smaller in size than Carlos’ plane, about 3 to 4 meters in length, with a cabin on top equipped with a windshield made of what looked like ‘polarized’ dark glass, was flying silently just above the Piper’s left wing. He immediately had the same weird feeling coming from his the other side, and saw a vehicle with the same characteristics flying over his right wing.
Carlos had no time to react, because a third UFO appeared right in front of the cockpit, and this one plunged to the underside of his Piper at a 45 degree angle. Fearing a collision and acting out of pure instinct, the pilot pushed the controls forward to dip the nose of the plane; the object dove in and loudly scraped the lower part of the fuselage, damaging the landing gear.
That’s when he realized it: The aircraft was not responding. He had lost all control over the airplane.
The young pilot felt like he was losing his mind: He had never taken the issue of ‘flying saucers’ seriously before, and neither had his dad or his pilot friends ever mentioned them. Now he was surrounded by not one, but three unidentified flying objects mere inches away from his fuselage, with Carlos completely defenseless and at their mercy. It was as if some mysterious force or energy emanating from the objects was guiding the plane and keeping it on the air. In a rage, he frantically tried to ram the object to his right, but all his manoeuvres were to no avail. The plane kept its original course, but it was gaining altitude, and Carlos Antonio feared that if it went any higher he would die because his cabin was not pressurized.
Crying, Carlos proceeded to do the only remaining thing in his power: He radioed a mayday message to the control tower in Mexico City to alert them of his situation. Below is a clip containing a fragment of the original recorded transmission.
00:14– [C] Mexico Center, from the Extra Bravo Extra Alpha Union (XB-XAU) Mayday Mayday Mayday!
00:19– [MC] Go ahead XB-XAU. What is your emergency?
00:28– [C] Mexico Center, from the XB-XAU, I’m surrounded! Mayday!
00:32– [MC] XAU XAU, proceed
00:37– [MC] XAU, Mexico Center, proceed
00:41– [C] XAU I’m apparently flying without control, the plane is without control, I’M NOT CONTROLLING THE PLANE!
00:48– [C] I have three unidentified visual objects flying around me
00:54– [C] I have three unidentified visual objects flying around me
00:58– [C] One of them rushed toward the plane and it hit me on the lower side of the plane
01:02– [C] It stays (close to) the landing gear
The control tower instructed him to decelerate, but the controls remained unresponsive. The extraordinary ordeal lasted approximately 18 minutes, which surely felt like an entirely lifetime in the mind of poor Carlos, who with each passing moment felt more sure of his inevitable doom. Surely he must have felt under such incredible circumstances as the loneliest man in all of history.
Suddenly, the UFOs ‘detached’ from his plane, and fled toward the Mount Popocatépetl volcano at a speed greater than 900 km/hour, and performing an impossible turn of 270 degrees on a very reduced radius of action of just 3-4 miles. It is important to point out that the majestic volcano, located some 72 km to the southeast of Mexico City, has been the scene of numerous UFO sightings throughout the years, some of which have been recorded by cameras intended to study the mountain’s volcanic activity.
Carlos realized that he was once again in control of the plane, and quickly notified the control tower of the objects’ departure. He also made the operators know that his landing gear remained retracted, due to the impact with the third object. The airport authorities quickly organized an emergency landing, deviating all incoming traffic to clear the route for the Piper PA-24 plane. The tower authorized Carlos to land on the five-right airstrip, but because the emergency system to lower the plane’s landing gear didn’t work, he was forced to circle over the airport 11 times. He then opened a tool box he kept inside an used a large screwdriver as a makeshift lever to force the gear down.
The young pilot’s tenacity paid off, the landing gear extended and he was finally able to land. Carlos was in such a state of shock that immediately after the plane touched down, he fled out of it without even bothering to turn the engine off! Perhaps he was still fearing those three objects might still come after him.
An ambulance driving towards the battered Piper eventually caught up with him and the medic calmed him down and drove him to the airport’s headquarters. The nightmare was over… or so he thought.
The unnerved young man was taken to the clinic inside the airport for a checkup and was given some sedatives to calm his nerves. A day later he was examined by Dr. Luis Amezcua, chief of the airport’s medical services, who determined the pilot wasn’t under the influence of any substance which might have altered his perceptions. The physician confirmed his good health and gave him permission to continue flying. As a possible explanation for Carlos’ extraordinary account, Dr. Amezcua tentatively suggested he might have suffered from hallucinations triggered by hypoxia.
That would have probably settled the matter for all the authorities concerned and completely ruined the young man’s career, were not for the testimony of Julio Cesar Interián Díaz and Emilio Estañol López, the two radar operators working that day on the control tower. The radar operators observed a fast-moving echo on their screens departing from Carlos’ location at a speed of approximately 400 to 450 knots, making the exact same manoeuvre he observed from his cockpit. Their affidavit was recorded in an official minutes of the General Directorate of Civil Aeronautics, by the Office of Aeronautical Authority for the International Airport of Mexico City, on May 8th of 1975.
Furthermore, the examination conducted on Carlos’ plane confirmed it suffered an impact which blocked the landing gear’s mechanism. Such a collision could have only happened in mid flight.
But aside from Carlos and the two radar operators, there were other witnesses to this astounding case. While he was still flying under the control of the UFOs, the Mexico city control tower radioed a second plane, a Learjet owned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, registration XC-SAG, and asked the pilot to attempt to make contact with Carlos and try to assist him. The pilot visually confirmed the presence of the unknown objects and informed the control tower, but could do nothing further.
Initially the aeronautical authorities prohibited the radar operators to make any public statements concerning the case, but because of the pressure by the press to demand the reasons why the international airport had been shut down for over an hour, their superiors relented and three days later Interián Diaz and López gave their version of the events. The story became national news overnight, and was carried on the front page by most newspapers in Mexico.
So far we’ve numbered some of the reasons why the Carlos Antonio de los Santos case is far better than that of Frederick Valentich, or many other UFO encounters with air pilots for that matter. To summarize:
- Unlike Valentich’s sighting, the case did have radar confirmation, which was noted and added to the official investigation.
- Because of the radar operators testimony, the pilot’s career was unharmed.
- The objects were visually confirmed by a third witness.
- The plane had physical evidence of an impact which could have only taken place while on the air, further negating the hypothesis that the objects were hallucinations triggered by hypoxia.
- The UFOs exerted some sort of ‘electro-magnetic’ field on Carlos Antonio’s plane, which rendered the control instruments inoperable, while allowing it to remain airborne. It’s also interesting how the radio still worked during the whole event.
- Although this case falls neatly into the ‘nuts and bolts’ category of UFOlogy, Carlos Antonio’s strange feeling prior to his awareness of the objects’ presence, is suggestive of how the phenomenon might have also had an influence in the witness’ consciousness; however, it must be pointed out that at no time did he experience any sort of non-verbal communication (i.e. ‘telepathy’) with the UFOs.
- And finally, the thing that propels the case above Valentich’s: The pilot safely returned to tell his tale. Carlos Antonio kept flying unhindered in his career or reputation until 2002, when old age finally forced him to hang up his wings.
If that’s not enough to make this a truly exceptional close encounter of the second kind, there’s icing on the ufological cake: Carlos Antonio initially received threats when he tried to go public with his story. The first appearance he was scheduled to make was in the TV show Un Mundo Nos Vigila (A World is Watching Us), hosted by Pedro Ferriz, the father of Mexican UFOlogy; the hour to go live came and went, but Carlos never arrived to the studio.
That night, when Ferris phoned the young pilot to complain about his missing the TV appointment, Carlos explained that on his way to the studio his car was intercepted by two black-painted, Ford automobiles bearing diplomatic license plates, and out of them came four individuals wearing black suits.
The men had blonde hair, Caucasian features, no facial hair, and, even more strikingly, they all looked completely identical.
One of the ‘Men in Black’ stuck his head inside Carlos’ car and said “if you appreciate your life and that of your family, don’t say anything;” his face was inexpressive, and the words were said with a perfect Spanish accent, although with a strange ‘mechanical’ tone.
The seasoned UFOlogist assured the frightened young man that, although the identity and origin of MIB was still a mystery, their threats never amounted to any actual harm to the UFO witnesses they intended to intimidate. To be fair, Nick Redfern’s book Close Encounters of the Fatal Kind was still several decades over the horizon
Ferriz convinced Carlos Antonio to try again for another TV interview, which he bravely accepted. Ferriz also arranged for a private meeting with his good friend and colleague Dr. Allen Hynek, who had traveled to Mexico expressly to interview the witness of this exceptional case in person. They met in Hynek’s hotel room, and questioned Carlos for almost eleven hours. A final reunion was convened for the next day at 9 AM to go over some final details before Hynek’s departure, but Carlos Antonio never arrived and the American UFOlogist returned to the States.
Three days later, the pilot phoned Ferriz to confirm Hynek’s suspicions that he had been threatened a second time and indeed, Carlos told the Mexican investigator how he had been intercepted in the hotel lobby by one of the same fearsome individuals he’d met before, who reminded him that this was the second time he had been told to keep his mouth shut. With a cold, penetrating gaze, the MIB ordered Carlos to turn around and leave, which he did. As a result of this, Ferriz thought it best not to seek the young man for a while.
Fortunately for Carlos Antonio de los Santos, the MIB never bothered him again, and to my knowledge this is the only time they’ve ever threatened a UFO witness in Mexico. As for Carlos, he continued with his piloting career, which speaks highly of both his mental and emotional resilience. He is still alive, enjoying the company of his wife and family, and doesn’t shy away from interviews to retell his fascinating story, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, remains one of the most solid close encounters in the annals of UFOlogy.
Still, it’s difficult not to wonder: What was the purpose behind the objects’ taking over of his plane for 18 minutes? Was this an open sign of hostility from an intelligence in possession of what appears to be capabilities far exceeding our technological development, even by 21st century standards?
In 1977, Carlos was invited to speak before the First International UFO Congress, organized in Acapulco. Dr. Hynek and other luminaries of the time like Jacques Vallee, William Spaulding and Ray Stanford attended the event. It was Stanford who apparently first proposed to Carlos that perhaps the UFO’s intentions were not nefarious. One thing I hadn’t mentioned yet, is that prior to his flight from Zihuatanejo to Mexico city, his Piper PA-24 had suffered some mild electrical problems. The airplane in fact, was almost 20 years old when Carlos encountered the UFOs. What if, Stanford suggested to Carlos, like some benevolent Gremlins, the objects created that electromagnetic field around the plane because they ‘detected’ it was about to suffer a catastrophic malfunction?
It’s a rather speculative and unsubstantiated hypothesis, but it seems that over the years this explanation grew on Carlos. Who knows? Perhaps relying in such a comforting idea is just what he needed in order to continue with his career. Hopefully you won’t judge him too harshly for it, especially if you yourself happen to be reading these lines at 30,000 feet…