The PIREP Corner by Paul
Kinzelman - Unidentified Aerial Phenomena
are, at 35,000 ft, an hour from your final destination and
kicking back, because you are relying on your trusty
autopilot. It's pitch dark out there, nothing to see but
sky above and sky below. Suddenly, you see a brightly lit
disk off your left wing. About the time you and your
co-pilot begin mouthing "What-the...", your DC-10 flux gate
compass commands your autopilot to turn your aircraft 45
degrees toward the light. To make things worse, ATC has even
seen the deviation. The radio crackles with "United, where
are you going?".
A bad dream? A sadistic simulator instructor? Probably,
unless you are Capt. Neil Daniels, the pilot of the DC-10
over Albany, NY, and the date is March 12, 1977. Then it's
After manually disconnecting the autopilot and exchanging a
few "Did you see that?" comments, Capt. Daniels flew the
plane back on course. A few minutes later, the light took
off at a high rate of speed, and the avionics went back to
normal. No residual effects were found. After an uneventful
landing, Capt. Daniels mentioned the event to his boss. The
response? "Bad things happen to pilots who see things".
Capt. Daniels and his crew kept silent until contacted years
later by Dr. Richard Haines, a retired Chief of the Space
Human Factors Office, NASA, Ames Research Center.
By that time, Capt. Daniels had retired and was willing to
go public with the sighting, but the other two crew members
(one of whom is also retired), will not, even now, publicly
make any statement about their experience. Something is
wrong with this picture.
Understanding the Phenomena
Dr. Haines initially became interested in phenomena
affecting safety of flight (such as the occurrence above)
because he was sure the sightings could all be explained.
He believed that all the sightings resulted from
conventional causes, and he could explain them all by using
his knowledge of visual perception, optics, and
physiological processes; in other words, he was a confirmed
Unlike many other skeptics however, he followed through by
investigating a number of reports of sightings by very
credible witnesses. Many of these sightings were more than
just "lights in the sky"; they affected aircraft avionics
and guidance systems, thus affecting safety of flight. He
became convinced the phenomena could not be understood
using conventional explanations, and more importantly, the
phenomena were a significant potential threat to air safety.
As a result, he and executive director Ted Roe founded an
organization in 2001 that focuses on Unidentified Aerial
Phenomena (UAP), called the National Aviation Reporting
Center For Aerial Phenomena (NARCAP).
NARCAP defines a UAP as a sighting of an unfamiliar object
or light in the sky. The appearance and/or flight dynamics
indicate that the sighting is not a known or conventional
object. The UAP remains unidentified even after close
scrutiny of all available evidence by technically capable
NARCAP's mission is focused on the study of UAP's that pose
a potential threat to the safety of everyone who flys.
Reports for the NARCAP database come from pilots and air
NARCAP is interested in the source of the phenomena only to
the extent that the understanding contributes to increasing
the safety of air transport.
There are many organizations that are interested in other
types of sightings and aspects; none are devoted
exclusively to the safety of air transport.
NARCAP's primary goal is to provide researchers with a
source of reliable data for study, for instance, in
quantifying threats to air travel, or what a pilot can
expect from an encounter with a particular type of UAP.
NARCAP has created a reporting system similar to the
NASA-administered Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS -
http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/), so that aviation
professionals can anonymously report sightings and
experiences without fear of reprisals against their
livelihood. Reports received by NARCAP go into a database
and are publicly accessible for study.
The NARCAP database contains over 3400 unexplained cases,
some of which go back over 80 years to the 1920's. More
than 30 of these cases pre-date the famous Kenneth Arnold
sighting near Mt. Baker, in Washington State, on June 24,
1947. The newspapers coined the term 'flying saucer' while
reporting what he described.
More than 100 of these documented close encounters between
UAP and commercial, private, and military airplanes were
determined to be potentially hazardous to flight due to
either a potential mid-air collision or failures of
avionics or other flight control systems at the time of the
The reports are drawn from several sources including Dr.
Haines's personal files. Other reports were prepared by the
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the NASA-ASRS
To those of you who might be thinking that most UAPs are
merely misunderstood normal or natural phenomena, or are
otherwise not unusual, you are correct (but with emphasis
on "most"). Studies indicate that from 75% to 80% of UAPs
are eventually explained. However, this leaves at least 20%
of UAPs that do not resolve to a known phenomenon after
close scrutiny by technically competent investigators. And
it takes only one UAP to cause an incident or accident.
Interestingly, a U.S. government source illustrates the fact
that pilots either don't report their UAP sightings at all
or, if they do, they almost never use the term UAP, UFO, or
flying saucer when reporting their near-miss and/or
in-flight pacing encounters. The Director of the NASA ASRS
program, Linda Connell, has acknowledged that there are
indeed cases in their database that fit the UAP profile and
that she simply does not have the resources to examine them
Scientists and scientific journals are not officially
interested in studying the phenomena, and often reject the
idea that unknown phenomena might exist. However, Stanford
University Professor Peter Sturrock surveyed astronomers in
the 1970's, and found that 70% wanted to see serious
studies of the phenomena funded and published in scientific
journals. In other words, most scientists won't risk
ridicule by publicly expressing an interest, but in private
they are quite interested.
In most fields, scientists have the luxury of designing an
experiment and making measurements at their convenience,
often by flipping a switch. In other fields, like in
astronomy, scientists often must wait for a specific event
to occur - such as an eclipse. The study of UAP falls into
the latter category. The data exists, but can't be called
up at will. Nevertheless, scientists can apply a range of
scientific tools to the challenge.
Unfortunately, most pilots do not bother reporting weather
pireps that could help their fellow aviation professionals,
and filing a pirep is viewed as innocuous, not as
potentially career-limiting. Thus, it is easy to understand
how difficult it is for any serious researcher to get good
Arming our pilots with the best available information about
the phenomena and how to deal with it requires collecting
data and seriously studying the phenomena.
The NARCAP web page contains two reporting forms: "Pilot
Report Form" and "Air Traffic Controller/Radar Operator
Report Form". Those without web access can call or write
NARCAP for more information.
NARCAP's web page (http://www.narcap.org) has, among other
things, a paper by Dr. Haines titled "Aviation Safety in
America - A Previously Neglected Factor". In this document,
Dr. Haines describes these kinds of characteristics of UAPs:
(1) Near-miss and other high speed maneuvers conducted by
the UAP in close proximity of aircraft.
(2) Transient and permanent electromagnetic effects that
affect navigation, guidance, and flight control systems
onboard the aircraft.
(3) UAP flight performance that produces cockpit
distractions that inhibit the flight crew from flying the
airplane in a safe manner.
(4) Circumstances in which passengers become very afraid or
NARCAP has representatives in many foreign countries, where
the host governments and mainstream press are far more open
and interested in understanding the phenomena than their
counterparts in the United States.
The NARCAP web page has contact information for its
representatives in foreign countries.
How You Can Help
You can assist NARCAP by getting the word out, and by
contributing to the NARCAP database if you have a sighting.
NARCAP is a non-profit organization, privately funded by
members and founders, with official 501(c)3 status pending.
Support and donations from foundations and individuals
would be greatly appreciated. Checks may be made payable to
We also have members available for speaking to your
Address: NARCAP, 235 Louisiana St., Vallejo, CA 94590
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