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Sighting Reports 2004

Analysis of Airline Pilot UFO Sighting
 - Midwestern U.S




In the early evening hours of March 25, 2004 a Northwest (NW) Airlines Airbus 319 on a flight from Milwaukee , Wisconsin to Los Angeles , California radioed air traffic control in Minneapolis , Minnesota and reported two flights of two unidentified aircraft (total of four aircraft).  The pilot said that the unidentified aircraft were about 15 miles in front of him and traveling in a westerly direction.  (The unidentified aircraft were traveling in the same general direction as the airline.)  The pilot and crew had the unidentified aircraft in sight for about 15 minutes until they grew quite small and were no longer visible.  Upon being relieved of his shift the air traffic controller who directed the flight called the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) and reported the sighting.  The FAA controller referred to the craft as UFOs.

The air traffic controller who reported the sighting was to appear on a radio talk show with Peter Davenport who is the director of the NUFORC.  However, the controller’s supervisor did not want him to appear on the radio show.  I first heard of the sighting when Peter Davenport discussed the case on a radio talk show program soon after the event occurred.  I subsequently visited the NUFORC web site to learn more details of the sighting.  I then immediately submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Great Lakes Region.  I requested radar data and an audiotape of the conversation between Air Traffic Control (ATC) and the NW Airlines flight.  I also requested logs for the evening of March 25, 2004 from the Air Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) in the Minneapolis , MN area. 

Sighting of Two Spheres in Toronto Canada - March 25, 2004 - 6:20 PM EST (5:20 PM CST) I recently received a sighting from a witness in Toronto, Ontario who saw two spheres fly eastward overhead.  This sighting is about an hour and 30 minutes before the Northwest crew saw the four objects.  The witness said that he reported the objects to authorities and thought that they could have in turn reported to NORAD.  NORAD told me that they conducted exercises on the day after the Northwest airlines sighting in Canada and South Dakota.  Could both of these sightings be the reason NORAD chose to conduct these exercises?

Results of this investigation are presented via the transcript of the actual conversation between ATC and the crew (see figure 2).  Due to space limitations only significant communications are included in figure 2.  A radar plot of the path of NW 985 is shown in figure 1(see graphic at top of page).  In figure 3 a plot is shown of anomalous radar returns and the position of the NW flight.  (Returns are filtered to reflect only returns at or near the 12 o’clock viewing position from the NW aircraft.)  Other radar plots are not shown due to space limitations, but the plots are summarized below.

The significance of this sighting is that trained observers (NW airline crew) saw four objects that they could not explain.  FAA acknowledged the explanation and also stated that other pilots had seen the objects.  Radar data does not show the unknown aircraft on a continual track 15 to 20 miles ahead of the NW aircraft.  Radar does show some primary returns in the 12 o’clock position from the Northwest flight on several of the maps. The radar map from 19:10 to 19:11 shows returns in the 12 o’clock position, but the returns are about 40 miles from NW flight.  In figure 3 ( 19:11 to 19:12 ) the radar map does show returns that could be interpreted to be very fast moving aircraft that were not transmitting transponder information to the radar.  One of the potential aircraft was moving at around 4 times the speed of sound and the other at nearly 3 times the speed of sound.  If these returns were objects, they would have to have been quite large to be viewed by the crew.  The returns were on the same general heading of the NW flight and were obviously speeding away.  Radar echoes that move rapidly are often referred to as “fast walkers” by radar operators.  This effect can be produced by returns that are off of the scale of the radar scope and do not show up until the next revolution of the radar antenna.  This concept is discussed in the radar section of the MUFON Field Investigator’s Manual.  These fast moving radar returns could possibly be due to weather, but a check of weather radar (see figure 4) shows that rain showers were well into Northwest Iowa at this time and the radar returns in figure 3 were west of Omaha .  Therefore it is unlikely that these returns were due to weather.  Dr. James McDonald said in his 1968 report to congress that a tendency exists to explain too many radar returns as weather, birds, ducting, etc. He further stated that some returns not identified as known aircraft could represent UFOs.  Another point to consider is that UFOs are frequently reported as exhibiting unusual maneuvers, disappearing, and reappearing.  Perhaps this could explain why these craft didn’t leave a continuous path of radar echoes ahead of the airline.  The information that we have indicates that the crew had the craft in sight continuously, but we don’t know that for sure.

According to the U.S. Naval Observatory sunset at this time and location was at 18:42 C.S.T. and civil twilight ended at 19:09 C.S.T.   This means that enough daylight existed to see the objects, but darkness was approaching towards the end of the sighting period.

Inquiries were made to NORAD and Strategic Command (STRATCOM) regarding the unidentified aircraft sighting on March 25.  STRATCOM did not note any unusual aircraft activity on March 25.  NORAD also said that no anomalous aircraft were noted on March 25, but that exercises were conducted over South Dakota and Canada on March 26.  On March 27 equipment testing was conducted. NORAD said that the equipment testing was classified.  NORAD did say that exercises encompass “scramble-type maneuvers.”  One has to ask the question:  Did the sightings on March 25 over Nebraska and Iowa influence the decision of NORAD to conduct these exercises?  We do know that the FAA controller contacted NORAD on the evening of the sightings.

A check of the ARTCC logs for March 25, 2004 did not reveal any mention of the sighting.  Several briefings were held after the sighting, but it is not known if these briefings are routine.

What could these unidentified aircraft be?  The weather balloon explanation has long been used to explain UFO sightings.  A weather balloon was launched from Omaha , NE at 18:00 C.S.T. This was about an hour before the sighting.  The winds aloft at the flight level of 35,000 feet were from WSW at about 50 knots.  For this reason the balloon explanation doesn’t hold because if the crew had sighted the balloon, it would have been moving towards them and ascending.  The crew reported that the craft were heading in the same general direction (WSW) that they were and were speeding away from them.  The crew also stated that they saw four craft.  The crew didn’t report any contrails from the craft.  According to the atmospheric temperature profile contrails would have formed above about 28,000 feet, but would have rapidly dissipated due to the low humidity conditions (per studies by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). (The NW flight was flying at 35,000 feet and the crew said that the objects were at a higher altitude than they were.) However, if the aircraft were conventional, contrails probably should have been briefly seen.

 A check of astronomical data shows that Mars and Venus were quite bright in the evening sky in late March, 2004.  Venus could have began to be visible towards the end of the sighting (sunset was 18:41 C.S.T. and civil twilight began 19:09 C.S.T. at Omaha ).  Bright stars and planets begin to be visible at the beginning of civil twilight (source U.S. Naval Observatory).   Venus was quite bright with a magnitude of -4.4 (MUFON Journal).  Mars was dimmer with a brightness of 2.2.  Mercury was also visible.  Mars and Venus were positioned in the WNW and were close together.  Mercury was positioned in the WSW at the time of the sighting (close to Mars and Venus).  Could the pilots have mistaken bright planetary objects for UFOs?  The three planets were close together and positioned in the approximate direction where the pilots saw the objects.  Based on astronomical data it appears that Venus could have been visible towards the end of the time period of the sighting.  It is quite doubtful that the other planets would have even been visible during the time period of the sighting.  Pilots are trained observers and I think it highly unlikely that they would mistake planets for aircraft.  The pilots likely would have flown this same route during the period when the three above planets would have been visible in the above positions and time.  Also the crew said that the objects were moving away from them throughout the time period of the sighting.  The planets should have been getting brighter as darkness increased.  For the above reasons I doubt if the crew misidentified the planets as flying objects.

Conclusion/Final Remarks
In conclusion we have an airline crew who sighted four objects that they couldn’t explain.  Some evidence also exists that other pilots had sighted the same objects according to the discussion between the controller and the FAA supervisor.  A check with NORAD revealed no unexplained aircraft on the date and time of the sighting.  However, NORAD related that exercises were conducted on the following day (March 26) over South Dakota and Canada .  We learned that these exercises involve “scramble-type” maneuvers.  Could these exercises be related to the sightings?  Also NORAD was contacted by the FAA flight controller regarding the sighting.  Why did NORAD say that they were not contacted by anyone regarding any unidentified aircraft sightings?  Radar showed some primary returns at the 12 o’clock position from the aircraft, but the returns did not show a continuous path of movement.  At 19:11 C.S.T. radar indicated two potentially fast moving objects about 40 miles ahead of the NW flight.  These echoes were in the 12 o’clock position from the Northwest flight and were heading in a WSW direction (same general heading as the Northwest flight).  However, we don’t know for sure if these returns represent aircraft and the 40-mile distance would mean that the craft would have to be very large to be visible to the crew.  Therefore the radar data provides little support to the sighting.  The FAA controller said that radar did not detect the craft.  Several studies have indicated that UFOs are frequently not visible on radar so the absence of radar visibility in this case does not reduce the validity of the sighting. 

In summary we can say that reliable observers saw four objects that they couldn’t identify and other pilots also likely sighted the objects.  During brief intervals in the duration of the sighting radar showed some returns in the direction where the pilots made the sighting.  Finally NORAD conducted exercises in the general area of the sightings on the next day.