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Air Misses:

One of the most frequent comment by people unaware of the UFO problem is "If there were UFOs, how do you explain that pilots do not meet them in the air?". Well they do meet. Sometimes pilots wonder if they will not meet just a little too close...

In this section:

Cases of airmisses, a sampler:

Report: Are UFOs an Air Safety Hazard?

By Patrick Huyghe
December 1, 2000

While en route to Boston the pilots of a TWA flight noticed a circular group of twinkling lights slightly below their altitude. Whatever it was, they quickly realized, the "thing" was "huge," "moving in a hurry," and "about to cross in front of, or about to collide with us." To avoid a disaster, the captain "slammed on some power, hauled the nose up, and prayed we'd go over the top of the thing." They did.

This hair-raising incident, which occurred on December 22, 1977, and others like it, also raises a good question: Do UFOs pose a hazard to aviation safety in America today? Yes, they can, is the answer according to a recently published study entitled "Aviation Safety in America, A Previously Neglected Factor," which refers to UFOs as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP).

The author, Richard Haines, is a senior aerospace scientist and a member of the International Society for Air Safety Investigators, which assists the NTSB in accident investigations. The study was supported by a grant from the International Space Science Organization and is the first technical report on the subject of air safety and unidentified aerial phenomena produced by a newly formed organization called NARCAP.

Says Haines, "If government authorities are concerned about low probability events such as winds hear, bird strikes, and lightning strikes, which do not occur very often but when they do they can be disastrous, then they should also be concerned about UAP. The FAA has set up training requirements if pilots encounter wind shear, even though wind shear might occur once in every one and a half careers, which means you might go through your whole career and never encounter wind shear. Nonetheless authorities are taking it very seriously.

"I argue that the kinds of events I'm talking about occur with at least that level of frequency, or more, and can produce significant changes in the readout of cockpit instruments which can effect navigation and guidance and flight control particularly with glass cockpits and fly-by-wire."

In searching through his personal database of 3,400 pilot sightings from the past 50 years, Haines found more than a 100 documented close encounters between an unidentified object and a US commercial, private or military airplane that raised air safety issues. Most involved near-miss and other high-speed maneuvers by the UAP near the aircraft, such as that experienced by the TWA crew in 1977. A handful of these cases have actually involved passenger injury following abrupt avoidance maneuvers by the pilot.

Instrument failures:

In about a quarter of the cases Haines examined, proximity to the unexplained object affected the aircraft's instruments or displays. These involved electromagnetic effects to the aircraft's navigation, guidance, or flight control systems.

In a March 12, 1977 case, for example, a United Airlines flight from San Francisco experienced a uncommanded heading change to the left. When the puzzled crew looked to the left they saw an perfectly round, extremely bright white light as big or bigger than a DC-10 at about their own altitude. Noticing that their three compasses "were all reading different headings," the flight officer uncoupled the autopilot as the object kept pace with them for about 4 or 5 minutes before finally picking up speed and disappearing.

The pilot never filed an official report on the incident. In fact, fear of ridicule or worse prevents most pilots from reporting such encounters; some have even been told not to report their sighting publicly. Haines calls this "the law of diminishing reports," and estimates that "for every pilot who is brave enough to come forward with a case of something he can't identify, there are probably 30 to 40 who don't."

Strange traffic:

Haines notes that those who are brave enough to report such encounters almost always use terms other than "UFO," "UAP" or "flying saucer" to describe their encounters, making it almost impossible to track down these incidents in government databases of the NTSB and FAA.

Instead, Haines believes that pilots often use such generic terms as "traffic" to report these unknowns. "If that's the case," he says, "the numbers of such encounters swells to the thousands."

Haines' study raises questions that should make any frequent flyer sit up and take notice. What if the pilot makes the wrong control input at the wrong time, or otherwise overreacts, during an extremely close encounter with a UAP? What if the pilot is relying on his instruments while anomalous electromagnetic effects are causing them to malfunction? Could close encounter flight performances create cockpit distractions that inhibit the crew from flying the airplane in a safe manner?

No immediate threat:

Despite raising the alarm, Haines emphasizes that "an immediate physical threat to aviation safety due to collision does not exist." Why? Not thanks to the pilots' evasive maneuvers but because of the reported high degree of maneuverability shown by the UAP in such encounters.

What do aviation experts think of this new report on UFOs and air safety?

Andy Turnbull, co-author of "Aviation Accident Analysis," a 1999 NASA-sponsored analysis of US aviation accidents says:

"If his goal to convince people that they need to look at it, that's fine." "Our report is based on the NTSB. If he wants the NTSB to change their accident database, he has to show sufficient proof that the UAP is a significant factor in aviation safety. And he states at the beginning of his report that UAP are not a significant threat to air safety."

Says Haines:

"But they can pose a hazard to aviation safety and should be dealt with appropriately and without bias, whatever UAP are."

Haines recommends several concrete steps to deal with the situation. Aviation officials should take the phenomena seriously and issue clear procedures for reporting them without fearing ridicule, reprimand, or other career impairment and in a manner that will support scientific research.

He also believes that airlines should implement instructional courses that teach pilots about optimal control procedures to carry out when flying near UAP and also what data to try to collect about them, if possible.

Finally, he recommends that a central clearinghouse be identified or established to collect, analyze and report UAP sightings for the continuing benefit of aviation safety as well as scientific curiosity.

"I believe," says Haines, "that we should not wait for a midair collision to occur before we take this subject seriously and do something about it."

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This page was last updated on March 28, 2005.