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Bizarre Pilot UFO Encounters from the 1950s

Some of the more remarkable UFO encounters on record have involved pilots of various types, both civilian and military. These reports tend to resonate because they come from well-trained professionals with impeccable observation skills, so when they say they have seen something truly strange, people tend to listen. Such reports are actually quite numerous, stretching back through the decades, and here we will look at a selection of particularly notable pilot UFO encounters from the 1950s.

Starting off, 1952 seems to have been a rather busy year for strange pilot UFO encounters. First, we have the case of Commander Edward P. Stafford, of the US Navy, who says that in August of that year he was in charge of a detachment of three Naval patrol planes flying out of an air base at Thule, in northwest Greenland, which was integral to the chain of arctic radar stations called the DEW (distant early warning) line. At the time they were doing what is called “ice reconnaissance,” which entailed flying around the Kennedy Channel looking for large icebergs or pack ice so that this data could be relayed to the supply ships that arrived during the summer. They also had the secondary mission of helping Arctic scientists doing cosmic ray research, by helping them to retrieve the data packages from their high-altitude research balloons when the balloons came back down to earth. They would relay the location of the fallen packages, after which helicopters would go in to retrieve them. Stafford describes these as easy missions, but on this day things would get strange. Stafford would say:

These were easy flights, always in good weather and always at an altitude safely above the tall, cloud-shrouded bergs and coastal rocks we often had to dodge on ice patrol. Each of us had two or three of those “milk runs” while deployed to Thule, and we rather enjoyed the change of tactics and routine, as well as the virtuous feeling that we were helping to advance the cause of science. This is why I was surprised to find one of the other plane commanders as tense and pale on return from a balloon chase as though it had been a hairy combat mission or a close encounter with a berg or a mountaintop. Lt. John Callahan was a salty, steady professional pilot, so I knew when I saw him walking in from his plane that something serious had happened on that flight. “What the hell’s the matter John?” I asked him. “You look as if you’d just survived a midair!” “Ed, you’re not going to believe it. I’m not even sure I do… and I SAW it. And so did O’Flaherty and Merchant. At least most of it. And I don’t think they believe it either.”

The obviously heavily distressed and scared Callahan was then brought into the ready room and began to explain just what “it” had been. He claimed that he had been on a balloon run, flying at 10,000 feet in the clear with the balloon in sight high above and the radio compass needle locked on to the balloon’s transmitter, with he and his co-pilot Bill O’Flaherty occasionally taking turns checking the balloon through their binoculars. It was as they were doing this that they had noticed something very unusual, indeed. On one of these binocular checks, Callahan noticed three bright silver discs attached to the instrument pod of the balloon, and he pointed them out to O’Flaherty, who also saw them. They hadn’t been there minutes before, so both men were baffled as to what these objects could possibly be. Stafford would describe of what had happened to them next, saying:

Callahan took the glasses back and looked again. They were still there exactly as the copilot had described, three shining, saucer-shaped metallic objects clustered on the hanging trail of the balloon just above the black dot of the science package. On the intercom Callahan called the plane captain to the cock- pit and handed him the binoculars. “Take a look Merchant. What do you think?” The captain’s reaction was the same as the copilot’s. “What the hell are they? Where did they come from?” Callahan took the glasses back and studied the strange objects for several minutes while O’Flaherty maneuvered the Privateer to keep the target in sight. Suddenly Callahan sucked in his breath and held it. What he was seeing could not be happening. The three objects had detached themselves from the tail of the balloon and formed up into a compact vee. As Callahan watched incredulously, they executed what looked at that distance like a vertical bank to the left and accelerated to a blinding speed that took them out of sight, climbing in about three seconds. Callahan handed the glasses back to O’Flaherty. “They’re gone,” he said slowly, “CLIMBING from 90,000 feet. Never saw anything turn so tight or move so fast.” Back in the ready room after the instrument pod had landed and its position had been reported, this was the aspect of the phenomenon that most affected Callahan. “Jesus, Ed,” he told me, “from the angle of the sky those things passed through in the three seconds they were in sight, at that distance, they must have been going tens of thousands of miles an hour. They must have pulled a hundred Gs in that turn. And what the hell climbs out, ACCELERATING from 90,000 feet?”

The witness then apparently wrote a full report of the incident, but after that it was apparently just sort of buried and forgotten by the higher ups. There was never any explanation given, and the report was never brought up again. The only record of this happening is Stafford’s testimony, which originally appeared in Naval History Magazine, and that’s it. It is a strange case to be sure, but it wasn’t the only incident to happen in 1952. Just the month before, in July of 1952, there was another high-profile case involving a passenger airliner in the United States. On the evening of July 14, 1952, a Pan American World Airways DC-4 with a crew of three and 10 passengers, was on a routine flight from New York to Miami and things were going smoothly until just after sunset, when things would get very strange, indeed. At the time, the plane was on autopilot over Chesapeake Bay approaching Norfolk, Virginia, at an altitude of 8,000 feet, when all three crew members, consisting of Captain F. V. Koepke, First Officer William B. Nash and Second Officer William H. Fortenberry, saw a bright “red-orange brilliance” low near the ground in the distance. None of them could figure out what it could be, it had just suddenly appeared from nowhere, and as they studied the phenomenon it got even weirder still, when they could discern that it was in fact a series of bright objects. First Officer Nash would say of what they saw:

Almost immediately we perceived that it consisted of six bright objects streaking toward us at tremendous speed, and obviously well below us. They had the fiery aspect of hot coals, but of much greater glow, perhaps twenty times more brilliant than any of the scattered ground lights over which they passed or the city lights to the right. Their shape was clearly outlined and evidently circular; the edges were well defined, not phosphorescent or fuzzy in the least and the red-orange color was uniform over the upper surface of each craft. Within the few seconds that it took the six objects to come half the distance from where we had first seen them, we could observe that they were holding a narrow echelon formation, a stepped-up line tilted slightly to our right with the leader at the lowest point, and each following craft slightly higher. At about the halfway point, the leader appeared to attempt a sudden slowing. We received this impression because the second and third wavered slightly and seemed almost to overrun the leader, so that for a brief moment during the remainder of their approach the positions of these three varied. It looked very much as if an element of “human” or “intelligence” error had been introduced, in so far as the following two did not react soon enough when the leader began to slow down and so almost overran him.

The mysterious objects then shot forward at great speed, like “a stream of tracer bullets” approaching to pass under the plane, and the crew all excitedly took up positions that allowed them to look outside to watch them as they did. Nash would say of what they saw beneath them:

All together, they flipped on edge, the sides to the left going up and the glowing surface facing right. Though the bottom surfaces did not become clearly visible, we had the impression that they were unlighted. The exposed edges, also unlighted, appeared to be about 15 feet thick, and the top surface, at least, seemed flat. In shape and proportion, they were much like coins. While all were in the edgewise position, the last five slid over and past the leader so that the echelon was now tail-foremost, so to speak, the top or last craft now being nearest to our position.

The objects then all sped off in formation to the west while making erratic maneuvers like “a ball ricocheting off a wall.” Two more objects they hadn’t noticed then sped under them to join the others, and went out over the darkened bay at low altitude, before lifting off to disappear into the sky. Nash would say of their ascent:

As they climbed, they oscillated up and down behind one another in a irregular fashion, as though they were extremely sensitive to control. In doing this, they went vertically past one another, bobbing up and down, just as the front three went horizontally past one another, as the initial six approached us. This appeared to be an intelligence error, ‘lousing up the formation’—they disappeared by blinking out in a mixed-up fashion, in no particular order. We stared after them, dumbfounded and probably open-mouthed. We looked around at the sky, half expecting something else to appear, though nothing did. There were flying saucers, and we had seen them. What we had witnessed was so stunning and incredible that we could readily believe that if either of us had seen it alone, he would have hesitated to report it. But here we were, face to face. We couldn’t both be mistaken about such a striking spectacle.

It would later turn out that none of the passengers had witnessed the strange spectacle, but when they radioed in their report, they would find that eight unidentified objects in the of vicinity Langley Field has also been seen by another pilot in the area, as well as several witnesses on the ground. In fact, there had apparently been seven additional reports from persons who had witnessed similar incidents within 30 minutes of the encounter in the same area. Air Force investigators would later try to explain it away as five jets that had been purportedly operating in the area at the time, but the crew were experienced pilots who knew they had not seen jets. At the time, Project Blue Book would look at the case and concur that it was likely not jets that had been seen, eventually filing it away as “unknown.” Interestingly, the case would be dusted off in 1962 by the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, astrophysicist Donald H. Menzel, who would conclude that it had all been due to simply a reflection in the cockpit windows, from either an internal or external light source, which had then been misidentified as UFOs. Menzel would doubt the credibility of the pilots, claiming that they gotten overexcited, had exaggerated what they had seen, and made a simple mistake of perception, falling for an optical illusion. This would be challenged by Nash, who lashed out at Menzel in a letter, saying:

Dr. Menzel, regardless of your figures the western horizon was not quite bright, and regarding your “reflection theory,” in the first place the objects were between us and the West. In the second place, they would have had to be damned persistent, consistent and impossible reflections to have manifested in three cockpit windows in exactly the same way. We first observed them through the front window. As they approached and I moved across the cockpit, I kept my eyes on the objects and saw them through the curved window of the windshield, and we both finished our observations looking through the right side window. That is why there is no evidence that the pilots considered that what they saw was a reflection; and you state that we were too excited by what we saw to make the most elementary scientific tests. Again, Doctor, pilots do not excite easily or they would not be airline pilots—please—a little respect for us?

Menzel would concede that perhaps it had not been reflections, instead changing his explanation to some sort of optical illusion caused by a temperature inversion, or even a spotlight that had been refracted off of a cloud layer, both of which he would hold up as “a highly probable explanation that is consistent with all observations and does not depend on the presence of an extraterrestrial spacecraft.” However, Nash would adamantly deny that this could have accounted for what they had seen, and indeed neither a spotlight nor a temperature inversion seems to have been able to explain every aspect of what was seen by multiple qualified witnesses. To this day the case remains unsolved.

Another report from 1952 comes to us from the Gulf of Mexico, where on December 6, 1952 a crew aboard a USAF B-29 bomber would have a hairy encounter of their own. The bomber was moving out across the gulf towards Texas when they picked up something bizarre on their radar scopes, which appeared to be several unidentified objects moving at incredible speed. The objects rapidly approached the bomber, after which they became visible as they streaked past, much to the astonishment of the crew. These mysterious objects then did a series of acrobatic aerial maneuvers around the bomber for several minutes, before merging with another massive object that appeared, after which this giant UFO sped off at speeds estimated to be in excess of 9,000 miles per hour. One of the crew that day, a 1st Lt Norman Karas, would explain of the incident:

On 6 December 1952, while flying over the Gulf of Mexico towards Galveston, Texas, the flight engineer finished transferring fuel and I then turned on my radar set. I noticed an unidentified target approaching our aircraft at terrific rate of speed. I timed it as best as I could with my stopwatch over a known distance and the instructor flight engineer computed the speed at 5,240 mph. I alerted the entire crew to look for the object visually and some flashes of light were noticed. The closest the objects came were approximately 20 miles. I saw about 20 objects in all, sometimes as much as two and three on the scope at one time. I re-calibrated the set and there was no change. The object was small and possibly round. I also noticed a large return come up to within 40 miles of our tail from behind, and then disappeared. To the best of my knowledge, I believe that this object was real and moved at an extremely high speed and was not a set malfunction or optical illusion. Contact was broken off at 05:35 after a group of the blips merged into a ½ inch curved arc about 30 miles from our aircraft at 320 degrees and proceeded across the scope and off it at a computed speed of over 9,000 mph.

B-29 bomber

What was going on here? Who knows? The following year, we have a 1953 case that allegedly happened near Ellsworth AFB, just east of Rapid City, South Dakota. On August 11 of that year, the Air Defense Command radar station at Ellsworth AFB got a strange call from the local Ground Observer Corps filter center just after dark. It turns out that a spotter about 10 miles from the base had reported a very bright light moving low on the horizon, and ground control also picked it up, reporting the object as being at an altitude of 16,000 feet and stating that it “was well defined, solid, and bright.” A F-84 pilot who had been on maneuvers in the area was diverted to investigate. The pilot made visual confirmation of the object and began to approach, but when he was about 3 miles away it began to pull away and ascend even as the fighter tried to keep up, getting brighter as it did. Captain Edward J. Ruppelt former Director of Project Blue Book, would say of what happened next:

There was always a limit as to how near the jet could get, however. The controller told me that it was just as if the UFO had some kind of an automatic warning radar linked to its power supply. When something got too close to it, it would automatically pick up speed and pull away. The separation distance always remained about 3 miles. The chase continued on north out of sight of the lights of Rapid City and the base – into some very black night. When the UFO and the F-84 got about 120 miles to the north, the pilot checked his fuel; he had to come back. And when I talked to him, be said he was damn glad that he was running out of fuel because being out over some mighty desolate country alone with a UFO can cause some worry.

 

Both the UFO and the F-84 had gone off the scope, but in a few minutes the jet was back on, heading for home. Then 10 or 15 miles behind it was the UFO target also coming back. While the UFO and the F-84 were returning to the base – the F-84 was planning to land – the controller received a call from the jet interceptor squadron on the base. The alert pilots at the squadron had heard the conversations on their radio and didn’t believe it. “Who’s nuts up there?” was the comment that passed over the wire from the pilots to the radar people. There was an F-84 on the line ready to scramble, the man on the phone said, and one of the pilots, a World War II and Korean veteran, wanted to go up and see a flying saucer. The controller said, “OK, go.”

After the second plane was in the sky the mysterious light proved to be very evasive and elusive, foiling all attempts to get near it, climbing, diving, and generally maneuvering in a way that was well beyond the capabilities of the fighter. Ruppelt would explain of this cat and mouse chase:

In a minute or two the F-84 was airborne and the controller was working him toward the light. The pilot saw it right away and closed in. Again, the light began to climb out, this time more toward the northeast. The pilot also began to climb, and before long the light, which at first had been about 30 degrees above his horizontal line of sight, was now below him. He nosed the ’84 down to pick up speed, but it was the same old story – as soon as he’d get within 3 miles of the UFO, it would put on a burst of speed and stay out ahead.

 

Even though the pilot could see the light and hear the ground controller telling him that he was above it, and alternately gaining on it or dropping back, he still couldn’t believe it – there must be a simple explanation He turned off all of his lights – it wasn’t a reflection from any of the airplane’s lights because there it was. A reflection from a ground light, maybe. He rolled the airplane – the position of the light didn’t change. A star – he picked out three bright stars near the light and watched carefully. The UFO moved in relation to the three stars. Well, he thought to himself, if it’s a real object out there, my radar should pick it up too; so he flipped on his radar-ranging gunsight. In a few seconds the red light on his sight blinked on – something real and solid was in front of him. Then he was scared. When I talked to him, he readily admitted that he’d been scared. He’d met MD 109’s, FW 190’s and ME 262’s over Germany and he’d met MIG-15’s over Korea but the large, bright, bluish-white light had him scared – he asked the controller if he could break off the intercept. This time the light didn’t come back.

Ruppelt claims that every aspect of the case was subsequently looked into, but no rational explanation was every found, leaving it to be filed as “unknown.” A similar aerial chase occurred in August of 1956, this time in the region of Bentwaters AFB, in the UK. On the evening of August 13, several radar operators at two military bases in the east of England, one of these being Bentwaters, picked up multiple anomalous objects that moved very rapidly and performed inexplicable maneuvers. These objects were showing some very strange behavior, and seemed to converge on one very large object described as “several times larger than a B-36 aircraft,” which then continued to fly out over the countryside at a speed of around over 12,000 mph. Other objects were picked up as well, all of them moving at speeds of between 4,000 and 6,000 mph. These objects were also visually confirmed by a C-47 twin-engine military transport plane over Bentwaters, which reported that “a bright light streaked under my aircraft travelling east to west at terrific speed.” It was all enough to scramble a deHavilland Venom jet interceptor, which streaked off to investigate, and a later report filed by a Captain Edward L. Holt would say of what happened next:

Pilot advised he had a bright white light in sight and would investigate. At 13 miles [20 km.] west he reported loss of target and white light. Lakenheath radar vectored him to a target 10 miles [16 km.] east of Lakenheath and pilot advised that target was on his radar and was ‘locking on.’ Pilot then reported he had lost target on his radar. Lakenheath GCA reports that as the Venom passed the target on radar, the target began a tail chase of the friendly fighter. Radar requested pilot acknowledge this chase. Pilot acknowledged and stated he would try to circle and get behind the target. Pilot advised he was unable to ‘shake’ the target off his tail and requested assistance. One additional Venom was scrambled from RAF station. Original pilot stated: ‘Clearest target I have ever seen on radar.

The jets would lose the object and it has gone on to become a very puzzling case. It would be thoroughly investigated by The Condon Report, which was a Air Force-funded study at the University of Colorado under Dr. Edward U. Condon, the case remains unexplainable, and would conclude:

The probability that anomalous propagation of radar signals may have been involved in this case seems to be small. One or two details are suggestive of AP, particularly the reported disappearance of the first track as the UFO appeared to overfly the Bentwaters GCA radar. Against this must be weighed the Lakenheath controller’s statement that there was “little or no traffic or targets on scope,” which is not at all suggestive of AP conditions, and the behavior of the target near Lakenheath – apparently continuous and easily tracked. The “tailing” of the RAF fighter, taken alone, seems to indicate a possible ghost image, but this does not jibe with the report that the UFO stopped following the fighter, as the latter was returning to its base, and went off in a different direction. The radar operators were apparently careful to calculate the speed of the UFO from distances and elapsed times, and the speeds were reported as consistent from run to run, between stationary episodes. This behavior would be somewhat consistent with reflections from moving atmospheric layers – but not in so many different directions.

 

Visual mirage at Bentwaters seems to be out of the question because of the combined ground and airborne observations; the C47 pilot apparently saw the UFO below him. The visual objects do not seem to have been meteors; statements by the observers that meteors were numerous imply that they were able to differentiate the UFO from the meteors. In summary, this is the most puzzling and unusual case in the radar-visual files. The apparently rational, intelligent behavior of the UFO suggests a mechanical device of unknown origin as the most probable explanation of this sighting. However, in view of the inevitable fallibility of witnesses, more conventional explanations of this report cannot be entirely ruled out.

What was going on here? It is hard to say. In our last case here, we have one more case from 1956, concerning a Navy R7V-2 transport, a 4-engine Constellation, that was flying west across the Atlantic Ocean at the time on its way from Newfoundland to the Naval Air Station at Patuxent, Maryland. The aircraft was under the leadership of the very experienced Commander George Benton, who had made more than 200 flights across the Atlantic, and flying under incredibly clear, ideal conditions at the time. Along for the ride were nine Naval personnel returning home from foreign duty, and along with Benton’s regular and relief crews there were nearly 30 airmen-pilots, navigators and flight engineers aboard, many of whom were asleep when things began to get strange.

It started when Commander Benton noticed “a cluster of lights, like a village” on the sea ahead, which should have been completely dark. He verified this with his co-pilot, Lieutenant Peter W. Mooney, who also also saw the lights and said they looked “like a small town.” There was not supposed to be land there, so at first they thought that they had somehow gone off course, but a check of their navigation instruments showed that this wasn’t the case. They then thought that perhaps they were seeing a fleet of ships, but they didn’t look like ships, and a radio enquiry showed that there were no known such shipping operations scheduled in the area. As the aircraft approached, several colored rings appeared to spread out from the lights, and it appeared to get larger. They could now see that it was one massive object, 350 and 400 feet in diameter, apparently metallic, and it was hovering over the water below.

As they all tried to make sense of what they were seeing, the object began to rise towards their plane. It was much larger than the aircraft, and moving at such a clip towards them that they took evasive action to avoid a collision. As they braced for impact, the enormous disk tilted and veered off, only to circle back around and pace them. It was then that they could get a clear look at it, and in a report on the incident made by Major Donald E. Keyhoe, of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) he says of this:

Its sheer bulk was amazing; its diameter was three to four times the Constellation’s wing span. At least thirty feet thick at the center, it was like a gigantic dish inverted on top of another. Seen at this distance, the glow along the rim was blurred and uneven. Whether it was an electrical effect, a series of jet exhausts or lights from opening in the rim, Benton could not tell. But the glow was bright enough to show the disc’s curving surface, giving a hint of dully reflecting metal. Though Benton saw no signs of life, he had a feeling they were being observed. Fighting an impulse to dive away, he held to a straight course. Gradually, the strange machine pulled ahead. Tilting its massive shape upward, it quickly accelerated and was lost against the stars.

The men would subsequently be interrogated and debriefed, with the Air Force apparently keenly interested in what they had seen but refusing to answer any questions by the crew as to what was going on. It was then sort of just brushed under the carpet. Then, a week later, there would be a new and rather strange development, of which Keyhoe would say:

Five days later, Commander Benton had a phone call from a scientist in a high government agency. “I’m informed you had a close-up UFO sighting. I’d like to see you.” Benton checked, found the man was cleared by the Navy. Next day, the scientist appeared, showed his credential, listened intently to Benton’s report. Then he unlocked a dispatch case and took out some photographs. “Was it like any of these?” At the third picture, Benton stopped him. “That’s it!” He looked sharply at the scientist. “Somebody must know the answers, if you’ve got photographs of the things.” The other man took the pictures. “I’m sorry, Commander.” He closed his dispatch case and left. At the time when I learned of this case, I had served for two years as Director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.

These are just but a few of the pilot reports from the era, and they paint a rather amazing picture. These are reports that come from very trained witnesses, with the phenomena viewed by multiple people and often with radar corroboration and reports from the ground. What are we to make of such reports? Just what is going on here and can it so readily be written off? Why were so many of these reports buried by their superiors in order to fade away into the background? This is also just one era, a few reports in one decade, but such accounts expand well beyond this, right up into the present day. It is all a very sobering look at a phenomenon we barely understand, and which seems to be relegated by those in control to the shadows. Whatever truth there is to any of this, and what it all means, looks likely to remain hidden from us for some time to come.