UFOs have been sighted by pilots and aircraft for decades, yet some of these truly stand out as something special. What has become known as being one of the earliest official UFO reports from a commercial airline crew began as a normal flight. On July 23, 1948, chief pilot Clarence Chiles and co-pilot John Whitted took off for a routine 7-hour flight from Houston, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia, aboard their Eastern Air Lines Douglas DC-3 passenger plane along with twenty passengers. The weather was clear and calm, and both pilots were very experienced, with distinguished flying careers during World War II, so there would have been no reason to think that this would be anything more than a typical, uneventful flight, but this would soon prove not to be the case at all, and it would propel itself into the realm of great UFO mysteries.
At approximately 2:45 AM on July 24, the plane was in the skies near Montgomery, Alabama, at an altitude of 5,000 feet when Chiles’ attention was drawn to what he would describe as “a dull red glow above and ahead of the aircraft,” and he mentioned it to Whitted, who also saw it. They at first took to be a military plane, but it would soon prove to be anything but, as it rapidly closed in on their position with astonishing speed in a horizontal path and silently whizzed by before shooting straight up into the sky while belching forth “a tremendous burst of flame out of its rear.” The proximity of the strange craft had been such that they had been forced to bank in an evasive maneuver, and Chiles would say of the encounter:
We veered to the left and it veered to its left, and passed us about 700 feet to our right and about 700 feet above us. Then, as if the pilot had seen us and wanted to avoid us, it pulled up with a tremendous burst of flame out of its rear and zoomed up into the clouds.
Both men would get a good look at it, describing it as having been a cigar-shaped metallic object 100 feet long and 25-30 feet in diameter, with no noticeable wings or tail section, and they would explain that they had seen two rows of brightly lit windows along its side. It would turn out that only one of the passengers, most of who had slept through it all, had seen anything usual, saying that he had seen an eerie red glow pass the plane. Other witnesses would later turn out to be personnel from Robbins Air Base, near Macon, Georgia, who would claim to have seen the same object shoot through the sky a half an hour before Chiles and Whitted’s encounter.
The plane made it to its destination on schedule, and the pilots wasted no time in reporting what they had seen to the US Air Force, who in turn called in investigators from Project Sign, which was an early Air Force group for studying UFO sightings and sort of a precursor to the more famous Project Blue Book. The pilots were extensively interviewed and they provided sketches of what they had observed, and it was found that their descriptions were remarkably similar except that Chiles claimed to have seen an actual cockpit on the craft, whereas Whitted had observed no such feature. Project Sign also meticulously mapped every known aircraft in the air for the entire southeastern United States in an effort to see if the object could have perhaps been another plane, but there was nothing else officially in the air at the time that could really explain the bizarre sighting. This, combined with the fact that the two pilot witnesses were seasoned professionals and had gotten a good, close look at the anomalous object, made this a very exciting, albeit alarming incident.
The idea that some large, unidentified flying object of this type had invaded U.S. airspace was a sensitive issue at the time, and so the Air Force was scrambling for answers. It was suggested that this could have possibly been some sort of advanced aircraft from a foreign nation, but this was problematic because the technology was seen as far beyond what anyone was capable at the time and nothing like it had been seen before. The detail of the flame shooting out of the rear of the craft was important in this regard, because in those days few aircraft had afterburners, and none of that magnitude. This was more like a rocket, but there was thought to be no conceivable way that such a massive low flying, horizontal rocket had been traveling through the area with the technology available at the time and with no discernible launching point.
Other ideas were suggested at the time as well, such as that the pilots had simply misidentified a particularly brilliant meteor, but this does not explain the object’s ability to make a sudden vertical ascent, nor details like the double rows of windows. Project Sign also briefly entertained the idea that this could have been a brush with a Navy plane called the RV6 Constitution, which could have been on a classified mission and was top-of-the-line cutting edge stuff at the time, and also just happened to be cigar shaped, with the characteristic feature of two rows of windows, but it did not spew long jets of flame and certainly could not perform the radical vertical maneuver that was observed. The Navy, for its part, would also deny that this sort of plane had been anywhere near the area at the time.
By all accounts Project Sign was utterly meticulous and thorough with every aspect of the investigation, leaving no stone unturned and at every turn seeking to exhaust every possible option. In the end they had completely ruled out the meteor theory and had considered the notion that this had been some experimental aircraft highly improbable. In light of this, the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC) compiled all of their findings into an "Estimate of the Situation" report, which allegedly came to the conclusion that the Chiles-Whitted object was an "interplanetary spaceship." The top secret and highly classified report itself has become almost legendary, partly because it would have been the first time a government had ever conceded that UFOs were actually aliens, but also partly because it would shortly after disappear off the face of the earth and into history and the annals of great conspiracies.
The first head of The Air Force’s famous Project Blue Book study of UFO phenomena, Edward J. Ruppelt, would insist that the report did in fact exist, that it was sent all the way up through the chain of command, to land on the desk of General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the chief of staff. The result? Well, Vandenberg apparently was skeptical of the estimate that the UFO was of alien origin, and doubted the evidence used to back that case up. Rather, he was a proponent of the idea held by another faction within the Air Force that believed that the object, and indeed UFOs in general, were the result of top secret aircraft being developed by the Soviet Union, which fit in perfectly with the Cold War paranoia at the time. According to Ruppelt, the report would then be totally dismissed and destroyed, saying:
The general wouldn’t buy interplanetary vehicles. A group from ATIC went to the Pentagon to bolster their position but had no luck, the Chief of Staff couldn’t be convinced. The estimate died a quick death. Some months later it was completely declassified and relegated to the incinerator.
The mysterious report has gone onto become the stuff of legend in UFOlogy, with occasional witnesses saying that they have seen a copy, but no concrete evidence that it ever even existed at all. There are no photographs of it, no known pages remaining from it, it is a specter lost to the mists of time, only reports of purported having seen the report up close. In the aftermath of this, the official Air Force verdict was and has remained that what Chiles and Whitted saw was a meteor. Case closed. Of course, in light of the other evidence of Project Sign’s findings on the case this explanation has been scoffed at and accused of being a weak attempt to obfuscate and blur the real truth, as has the fact that the actual report was apparently disposed of to leave us with nothing.
For their part, Chiles and Whitted would always stand by their account, never once faltering from what they believed was a truly anomalous situation and some sort of unknown craft. To this day the case is discussed heavily, and it remains a very credible one considering the pedigree of its pilots and the very thorough investigation that came to the conclusion that this might actually be something not of this earth. Yet not everyone obviously agrees, and so we are left with questions. If this wasn't extraterrestrial in origin then what was it? A meteor, an experimental aircraft, what? Why would this remarkable and mysterious report make it all the way up through the upper echelons of the Air Force brass to merely be brushed aside and destroyed? Doesn't incinerating it suggest they were merely trying to get rid of it? In the end we don't know what it was, and it is all an intriguing mystery that we very well may never have the true answer to.