In a recent AMA (Ask Me Anything) post on Reddit, a father-son team of air traffic controllers going by the handle alexinedh, shared a fascinating first hand account of what it’s like handling a pilot’s UFO sighting. This particular incident, which was reported several pilots occurred in the 90’s and, surprise surprise, ended with the tapes of the radio chatter confiscated by the government.
The thread began simply enough, as a way to talk about what it was like working at a RADAR facility on 9/11. When user “ThisIsTheHoneyBadger” asked if either of them had seen something on radar that they couldn’t explain, the floodgates opened. The following is the response from alexinedh:
I’ll go ahead and answer this one since it’s directed towards me. UFOs are a common occurrence in a RADAR facility. Before you start telling your friends “I TOLD YOU SO!” remember that a UFO is defined Unidentified Flying Object. In ATC, a lot of the UFOs you would encounter aren’t even flying. How RADAR works, is a radio wave is sent out from our transmitter, hits a target, reflects the radio wave back towards the transmitter, and identifies that something is there. Now, every aircraft has a transponder, a computer that identifies what it is. Almost all transponders these days are equipped with MODE-C, meaning it transmits altitude. This may seem like a necessity for aircraft today, and it is. The only aircraft not required to have MODE-C are VFR (visual flight rules) aircraft who don’t enter class B airspace (busy airspace around high volume airports). So, all you need to have a UFO is the radio waves being returned from an object without a transponder. This happens all the times as trucks are climbing mountain passes. They return the radio waves, but since they are trucks, they return a signal which is shown on our RADAR, with no information. A controller knows their airspace enough to know where highways and interstates are, and rule these out immediately as a nonfactor.
He has also experience what he and many pilots out there believe to be a true UFO, i’ll save that story for another person who asks, and when my dad is here. I’d hate to get the story wrong. But I’ll let you know, both my dad and I believe there is life in the universe other than us. They might not be among us, but we are believers.
Clearly, no one is going to just leave a tease about a “true UFO” alone, and after dozens of responses to elaborate on the story, alexinedh spills the beans on the event that made him a believer in alien spacecraft. The details are an interesting insight into why so many pilots have a fear of formally reporting unidentified flying objects, leading to so few records of their interaction with consumer airlines. Though it would seem that reporting the sightings doesn’t matter much anyway, when the National Transportation Safety Board just confiscates the tapes.
This was in the late 90’s, during the Clinton administration. I was working at Oakland Center, around 4pm in the afternoon. Conditions were clear, with visibility 10+ statue miles. Bill Clinton had just flown through our airspace in Air Force One, leaving from a trip he had made to San Francisco. Now, when special aircraft such as Air Force One travel through our airspace, they’re given special treatment. This mainly means that we aren’t allowed to give them delays, or vector them around other traffic. Bill Clinton had traveled through our airspace, and we had handed him off to the next controlling agency.
Now, since we had been controlling Air Force One, Secret Service had visited our facility to ensure everything was running smoothly, and there was no interruption of service. I get a situation report from an aircraft saying he had close proximity traffic. I check his position and see no traffic around him for at least 10 mines, despite his announcement saying unknown type aircraft, same altitude, 3 miles, speed greater than 400 knots. Again, nothing was showing on the scope. I ask other aircraft in the area to make position reports on the UFO. We get various reports of UFOs traveling faster, and making wild climb/descents within a close proximity of the aircraft. I call my supervisor over, as protocol. All the other controllers start shifting eyes towards my area to see what is going on. We continue to get reports of unknown aircraft (never described as flying saucers or even having wings). 10 minutes later, we have every off duty controller around my scope, and have my frequency playing out the speaker. I don’t know what to do, because my scope isn’t showing anything moving like the numerous pilots are reporting. We have pilots start asking for lower/higher altitudes to stay away from the traffic. I approve their requests, and they state the traffic is following. We aren’t clear how many UFOs are spotted, but there were more than 4. At this point, all radio etiquette is out the door. We have pilots talking to other pilots (which NEVER happens, EVER) trying to verify the number of UFOs. The secret service checks with all military bases to verify they aren’t running missions outside of MOAs (Military operating areas) thinking they were stealth aircraft. There were no stealth aircraft in the skies of California that day, as most military aircraft were dealing with the President and maintaining TFRs (temporary flight restriction radiuses around important events, such as presidential visits, the super bowl, etc.)
When the pilots start breaking the chat etiquette, people start to freak out, and start making humor of the situation to ease some of the tension. We had a couple pilots ask me to tell their wifes they love them, should something happen, although they wouldn’t identify themselves. One man said “You are now entering a world of imagination, next stop: the Twilight Zone.” 35 minutes after the first UFO appeared, the reports stopped coming in. Every pilot lost sight of their aircraft and reported no problems. Not one of the pilots, when asked, wanted to file a report.
Now, when a pilot makes a call for a UFO, the controller has to check for traffic, and verify whether it is or isn’t a controlled aircraft. If it is confirmed as a UFO, the pilot has the right to either make a report, or not make a report. When you make a report, it has the obvious implications that all UFO reports have; it makes you look crazy. For a pilot, the exceptional consequence to making a report, is you have to file paperwork with the FAA, and subject yourself to hours or even days of interviews. Everything you say on the radio is recorded on the controllers side. This brings scrutiny to every move you made while flying your aircraft. If you did something against FAA regulations, by bending a rule even the slightest, such as not reading back a clearance correctly or descending/climbing 100 feet past your assigned altitude, you’ll be interrogated by it. Your flight license can be revoked or suspended, and you can lose your job. There is so much risk in pilots filing UFO reports that they are so very uncommon.
While I wasn’t interviewed for this event, my supervisor made me sign a paper the next day verifying that I was told the tapes were being submitted to the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) for investigation. I wish I was able to get a copy of those tapes, this event made me a believer. It truly would take a UFO to make so many adult pilots, who have nothing in common, act frightened the way they were. I wish I had proof to show you guys, but part of my job is that I can’t access some information. I hope this story was worth the wait.
For more eyewitness accounts from air traffic controllers, pilots, astronauts, and even presidents, check out this amazingly detailed response from “OtherWordly”.