Nov 02, 2022 I Brent Swancer

Strange and Mysterious Airliner Encounters With UFOs

In the world of UFO sightings and encounters, some of what are considered to be the most traditionally reliable and intriguing of these are those made by pilots. These are those witnesses that know what to expect up there, and have a keen eye for details. Especially with the crews of passenger airliners they are tasked with protecting and watching over their charges, and so must ever be vigilant to any dangers or possibly hostile objects they encounter up there. Due to this, UFO sightings logged by airliner pilots have long held a special veracity and reliability to them that makes them particularly interesting, and here we will look at a selection of such wierd incidents. 

A fairly early case that occurred in the year that the whole flying saucer phenomenon really took off in the public consciousness comes to us from July 1947, just not even a month after pilot Kenneth Arnold saw a string of nine, shiny unidentified flying objects flying past Mount Rainier, Washington and had launched a UFO craze in the United States. On July 4, 1947, pilot Capt. Emil J. Smith was on Flight 105 from Boise, Idaho towards Seattle, Washington, and shortly after takeoff he and his crew saw two separate formations of wingless discs that were “flat on the bottom, rounded on top” over Emmett, Idaho, described as “appreciably larger than ordinary aircraft.” Co-pilot Ralph Stevens then turned on the landing lights, initially thinking the objects were aircraft, but they could soon see that these craft had no wings, tails, or any noticeably propulsion systems. They then radioed for ground confirmation on what they were seeing, and at that moment one formation of the objects sped off with a burst of incredible speed while the second formation took up position above them for some time before also speeding off at speeds well beyond any normal aircraft and then taking up a formation near the plane again. 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. Dr. James McDonald’s would say in a statement on the matter to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science and Astronautics of what happened as follows:

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 traveling 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 Airlines personnel who have known Smith for years and vouch for his complete reliability.

Interestingly, Smith had been rather skeptical of all of the talk of UFOs that had been going on leading up to his flight, even saying “I’ll believe in those discs when I see them” shortly before takeoff. Well, it seems he got his wish, and we are left to wonder what they really saw up there. From October of 1950 comes the case of a California Central Airliner piloted by a Captain Cecil Hardin and co-pilot Jack Conroy, flying from Burbank–Hollywood airport towards Oakland, California. Somewhere between Van Nuys and San Fernando they saw a “lighted object approaching head-on,” around 85 feet long and with an array of six to eight bright blinking lights strung out along the top, coming at them at such a speed and trajectory that they braced for impact before it passed beneath them and disappeared. Conroy would say of it:

It was impossible to say exactly how fast it was going, or how big and far away it was. But it appeared to be large, quite speedy and pretty close—perhaps 500 feet away. It was traveling at a terrific speed, and the thing that was really odd was that it didn’t appear to have any fuselage. We also felt no propeller wash as the object passed under our left wing.

There was no other aircraft scheduled to be in that area at the time, and what they saw remains a mystery. Also from the 1950s is the case of American Airlines Capt. Raymond Ryan and First Officer William Neff, who on April 8, 1958 were flying over Albany, New York, when they witnessed a very brilliant white light that they at first took to be another plane with its landing lights on, but when they noticed it was standing still and sort of hovering they decided to move closer to investigate. It then went through a 90-degree arc and shot off straight to the west. Ryan would say of what happened:

The initial speed l would say probably was 800 to 1000 miles an hour. How fast can it–it’s hard to say, just to compute that speed. Oh much faster, much faster than a jet. Couldn’t be a jet, not at that altitude because their fuel is so critical. It changed color after it got to the west of us, probably 8 to 10 miles. It appeared–the light went out, that’s what had Bill and I concerned. It went out momentarily, and we knew there was something up there, and now here we were with a load of passengers with something on our course up ahead, and what are we going to do, so we watched this where the light went out and this orange object came on–this orange light.

They radioed the nearby Griffiss Air Force Base, who did not have their radar on at the time and could not confirm. They merely told the airliner to keep the mysterious object in sight, and as they followed the object the base was able to get their radar going and detect it, and it was now being seen by several observers on the ground at both the airport and the Air Force Base. Ryan would explain the events that transpired next:

It stayed just that far ahead of us, and they asked us what our point of next intended landing was, and I told them Syracuse, and they wanted to be identified–our aircraft, number and serial number, and they said “well abandon that next landing temporarily and maintain the course and your altitude,” so we did. They were calling scramble. It was low and it was also low for a jet. There happened to be an overcast that evening which eliminated the possibility of a star right off the bat, and the way I understand it a jet burns up three or four times the amount of fuel at low altitude than it does at high altitude. I don’t think a jet could stay down that long without using up a considerable amount of gas.

Then they must have slowed down. “They” or ‘it” must have slowed down. We trailed out as far as Oswego which is right on the south shore of Lake Ontario and we passed up our point of landing at Syracuse and we weren’t sure we should hold the passengers up any longer, and of course we didn’t advise them. We called them (Griffiss AFB) and they said they were “about off, “and that was about 8 minutes and we couldn’t work them any longer, and we turned over with Syracuse tower, and they were giving–relaying the messages back and forth, and it was then about 10 to 12 minutes and they’re still not off yet. And we can’t – -I don't, I just don’t know where the jets were. Why didn’t they get the jets up? It went off, it just went to the northwest and it went out of sight.

What was going on here in this weird incident? Who knows? The following year brings us a perhaps more well-known case that allegedly occurred on the evening of February 23, 1959 over Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The key witnesses are Captain Peter W. Killian and First Officer James Dee, who at the time were flying an American Airlines DC-6B nonstop from Newark to Detroit on a clear night with bright stars and no moon when they noticed three bright lights they thought were stars. However, the lights then moved towards them to pull ahead of the wingtip and at this point they knew these were no stars and no normal aircraft. They contacted two other American Airlines planes in the area to find out that the other crews had spotted the objects as well, and meanwhile the UFOs occasionally pulled ahead and dropped back to their original position. Throughout the incident, the objects reportedly continuously changed brightness, flashing and dimming, alternating in color between yellow-orange to a brilliant blue-white. When they landed in Detroit, they learned that several other airline crews had reported being similarly followed around by the objects, yet the Air Force was quick to write it off as a refueling operation involving their planes and American Airlines would dismiss it as other aircraft as well. Captain Killian did not agree, saying:

If the Air Force wants to believe that, it can. But I know what a B-47 looks like and I know what a KC-97 tanker looks like, and I know what they took like in operation at night. And that’s not what I saw.

Our next case comes from February 28, 1968, when a Captain Robert F. Reilman, Flight Officer A. J. Farmer and Safety Officer Rick Morrison were flying an Eastern Air Lines ferry flight from St. Louis to Miami and noticed a string of red flashing lights that came at their plane so fast and aggressively that they were forced to take evasive action. When they tried to make their report they were told that radar could not confirm any aircraft or weather balloons in the area, and they were told by the airline to drop it and not talk about it. 

While this incident was not confirmed by radar, our next case was not only confirmed, but the crew would actually claim to have seen the occupants of the craft. On February 14, 1973, an airline DC-8 cargo flight was en route from St. Louis to Dallas when the crew saw an object below them that they first assumed to be another aircraft, which seemed to be matching their speed and pacing them. As they observed the mysterious object, they found its “steady amber light” to be “unconventional,” and then it suddenly and without warning quickly rose straight up “like an elevator,” then made a sharp turn and approached the plane. The crew could now see that it was a silver, metallic disc-shaped craft with a transparent dome on top. The pilot trained the weather radar on it, and as soon as he did the object shot straight up and went over the DC-8 and briefly out of sight before reappearing, descending straight down, and taking up a new position just below the leading edge of their left wing. They could now look down directly into the dome to see “two or three shadowy entities moving around.” The object then shot ahead, carried out a series of “oscillatory motions,” and sped off out of sight. Ground control would confirm that they were able to track the object for 50 miles before losing it.

Moving along into the 1980s, on July 4, 1981, a Captain Phil Schultz was flying TWA flight 842 over Lake Michigan from San Francisco to John F. Kennedy Airport when he saw descend from above a “large, round, silver metal object with six jet black portholes.” The object came down so fast and so close that Schultz and his first officer braced themselves for an impact, but then it suddenly made a high speed turn and departed. The speed and maneuverability of what they saw astounded them, and UFO researcher Richard Haines would explain more of the object:

The object traveled very smoothly during the five or six second-long encounter. The UAP was about 2.5 times wider than thick with six jet black perfect circles (“portholes”) aligned and equal-spaced around its circumference. Centered on the bottom surface of the circular disk was a single, jet-black circle. The UAP traveled along an approximately parabolic course and performed a high speed turn (calculated to be approximately 20 g) relatively near the aircraft before departing in a gradual climb to the north and leaving a darkish wavy trail behind in the sky. Its approach and departure speed was calculated to be about 1,000 mph. No shock wave or turbulence was felt at any time. Capt. Schultz remembered seeing a fan-shaped region extending outward from behind the object which was “of a much darker blue than the rest of the sky.” The aircraft’s autopilot remained coupled throughout the encounter and no E-M effects were noticed.

When Captain Schultz called Chicago Center to ask about other possible traffic in the area he was told there was none. He did not report what they had just seen. Before this sighting Capt. Schultz did not believe in UFO at all. His extensive jet combat experience during the Korean War and afterward had left him with the strongly held belief that such objects “simply do not exist.” This encounter instantly changed his view and, when I asked him what he thought the object was he quickly replied. ’We have nothing that can do what that object did.’

Our last report here supposedly occurred on August 9, 1997, when Swissair 127, a Boeing 747 with Swiss national registration piloted by a Capt. Phil Bobet was flying in the vicinity of Kennedy Airport, New York on its way to Boston in clear weather. At some point, an object flew fast right over the plane, startling the crew and causing Bobet to radio into ground control. He would say:

l don’t know what it was, but it just over flew just like a couple of hundred feet above us. I don’t know if it was a rocket or whatever. But incredibly fast. Opposite direction and the time was two-one-zero -seven [5:07 p.m. local time]. It was too fast to be an airplane.

Here we have looked at just a few of the many supposed UFO encounters experienced by airliner crews. What is it that they are encountering up in the skies and how can these things so convince them that they have had brushes with the odd? After all, these are seasoned pilots trained to recognize anything they might encounter up there, so what are we to make of these cases in which they have seen something they truly can't explain and for which their knowledge, training, and experience have no answers? It seems in recent years that the skies are becoming increasingly more active with such cases, so whether it is foreign nations with advanced tech, tall tales, or aliens from another star remains to be seen, and in the meantime pilot reports rank among the more reliable and intriguing cases of UFOs there are. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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