Saturday, February 18, 2023

Do Pilots Make 'Relatively Poor' Witnesses?

Believe it or not, that is true.

A lot has been happening in UFOdumb these past few weeks. I didn't write about it because the media coverage was omnipresent, and I didn't really have anything to add to the cacophony. On December 3 I noted that the report required to be sent to Congress on UFOs (or "UAPs") by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on October 31 was late. When it was finally released on January 12, it was a huge disappointment to all. As the Canadian UFO researcher Chris Rutkowski noted on Facebook's UFO Updates,

Yes, the long-awaited AARO report on UAP is out. Long on verbiage but short on case details, as I and others predicted. Including the 144 cases noted in the first report in 2021, this new report notes 510 cases were received by the end of August 2022. One significant point is that there are no details or case breakdowns in this unclassified version of the report.... However, we can see that the AARO UFO case data is just as difficult to parse as that received by civilian UFO groups. The AARO report notes: "...many reports lack enough detailed data to enable attribution of UAP with high certainty."


"Long on verbiage but short on case details." Exactly. The Pentagon now has 510 cases of reported UAPs (UFOs). While this might sound impressive, recall that Project Blue Book, which ended in 1969, had amassed  12,618 reports, and none of them amounted to anything significant, or added to our knowledge of any subject, even after more than 50 years of investigation. Project Blue Book listed a total of 701 cases as "unidentified"  (5.6%), many of which have now been investigated and explained by further analysis. (Tim Printy has resolved a lot of these Blue Book "unknowns.")  Most of the cases in the DNI report are supposedly "unexplained," which suggests that the investigators really don't understand what they are doing, and have little or no understanding of UFO history.

Now, we are suddenly in the midst of some Balloon Mania (or perhaps, "Ballonacy"), after a Chinese spy balloon was allowed to cross over all of North America, from Alaska to South Carolina, before finally being shot down, and falling into the ocean. Perhaps because Biden's response to this incursion has been characterized as anemic, or even "wimpy," the administration now seems to be rushing to the opposite extreme: find every unidentified balloon over North America, and shoot it down. 
An Octagonal balloon.
So far, three more "unidentified" objects have been shot down in recent days, not counting the Chinese spy balloon. According to some accounts, all of these objects have been balloons, which sounds very plausible. Other accounts, however, insist that the objects remain unidentified. As noted in a CNN report, "Some pilots also claimed to have seen no identifiable propulsion on the object, and could not explain how it was staying in the air, despite the object cruising at an altitude of 40,000 feet." Do some pilots really not understand that an object that is lighter than air does not need "propulsion" to remain aloft??  One pilot described a balloon he shot down as "octagonal," a common shape for party balloons. It has also been suggested that the Air Force may have shot down an amateur radio "pico" balloon over Canada. Such balloons are only about a meter in diameter, and carry lightweight electronics powered by solar panels.

Yet the pilots involved in the shootdown were unable to identify the objects sighted, even as they fired a $400,000 missile at what was likely a $12 balloon. How can that be? According to Leslie Kean, the New York Times' trusted UFO author (and ghost promoter), pilots
represent the world’s most experienced and best-trained observers of everything that flies… these unique circumstances potentially transform any jet aircraft into a specialized flying laboratory for the study of rare anomalous phenomena.
She seems to actually believe that pilots are some sort of super-observer, whose reported observations cannot be disputed. Unfortunately, that claim is based on assumptions, not on facts. J. Allen Hynek, the scientific advisor to the Air Force's Project Blue Book, had the opposite view. He wrote,

Surprisingly, commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses (The Hynek UFO Report, Dell, 1977, p. 271)

Space writer and skeptic James Oberg gives us an explanation of this:

I just think we need to keep in mind that fighter pilots are NOT 'trained observers', they are 'trained SURVIVORS".  They live to retire  and get their pensions by interpreting all visual cues in the most hazardous possible form, as embryonic indications of somebody trying to kill you.  They 'don't think twice' in such cases, they are better-safe-than-sorry in their immediate instinctive actions. If it turns out the visual cues were NOT dangerous, at worst there is some embarrassment and teasing, but it beats the alternative -- funerals.  I've seen recent cases where they got into dogfight mode over  visual stimuli hundreds of miles away -- AS THEY SHOULD, if in doubt at all.

As Hynek and others have repeatedly discovered, pilots are not dispassionate nature-viewers, they are survival-focused specialists in avoiding lethal hazards in the air, and as such they properly interpret visual stimuli in the most hazardous [and closest] manifestation, AS THEY SHOULD. As early as the 1930s scientists realized that pilots were POOR observers of mid-air objects such as meteors and they continue to be poor observers of missile and space events, and we WANT them to be, in order to enhance the chances of them and their passengers staying alive -- better too many 'false-positive' avoidance reactions, than a single false-negative in a genuine collision-course event.
Oberg cites a 1936 article, Air Pilots and "Meteor Hazards" by H. H. Ninger, published in Popular Astronomy (V. 44, p. 45). It notes,
Press reports lead us to believe that air pilots are subject to a rather serious hazard because of meteors. Recently the newspapers carried a startling account of how a resourceful pilot battled a shower of meteors and by an ingenious series of dips and swerves averted what would have proved to be a major disaster had the plane been piloted by a less dexterous hand. The culmination of this amazing feat of aerial acrobatics was a plunge for safety into a canyon. Thus, by the preservation of eleven lives and a valuable aircraft, a new name was added to the already long list of aerial heroes! Only a few months ago, another keen-witted pilot saved himself and his precious of mail by dipping the right wing of his plane to avoid one of those dreadful blazing projectiles in Nebraska. In March, two years ago, two pilots in the southwest related their hair-raising experiences as they found themselves facing an aerial inferno; but fortunately both of them were spared.
The article relates several such more incidents, then goes on to show that the pilots were many miles from the actual location of these meteors. Also, all such visible meteors occur high in the stratosphere, "far above any height ever reached in ordinary flying." So these pilots' breathless accounts of their narrow escape from approaching meteors are, sorry to say, wildly inaccurate.

So the next time you hear someone say that the accounts of unidentified aerial objects told by pilots must be assumed to be accurate, remember that the correct answer is: not necessarily!




  1. Some other useful links -- pilots misperceiving missile/space events...

  2. Several years ago, I described the ‘questionable foundation’ of Leslie Kean’s book as the naïve and unverified faith in pilot reports. She has insisted the UFOs show intelligent purpose based on their perception of the nature of their witnesses, since they behave differently when seen by military pilots than when seen by civilian pilots [when the more common-sense explanation is that different pilots report observations in terms of what they expect from their own different experience bases]. The data archives she touts as ‘unexplainable’ pilot sightings [such as the French ‘Weinstein Report’] can easily be shown to contain numerous pilot misinterpretations of unrecognized space and missile activity around the world, so who knows how many other prosaic explanations were never found by the ‘investigators’? See here:

  3. Pilot misperceptions examples:
    Case Studies In Pilot Misperceptions Of "UFOs" (

  4. And as usual you completely miss the point. Taking this incident as a cue to rehash ancient arguments about some well-worn bone of contention you've known by heart for decades, you trot out dreary old statistics from sources going back to 1936, have a go at a UFO book published in 1977, and generally conform to the groupthink of your clique while boring everyone else rigid.

    Here's the point that really matters. UFO obsessives would have us all believe the US government has known since 1947 that at least some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Now we have a situation where an administration which wasn't too popular to begin with has been made to look like a bunch of wimps for taking so long to shoot down an object known to be an unmanned Chinese spy balloon. Therefore they've not only finally gotten around to downing the naughty balloon, they've adopted a shoot first and ask questions later policy regarding all UFOs!

    Which would logically tend to suggest that the US government has absolutely no reason whatsoever to think that any of these objects have the slightest chance of being extraterrestrial starships. No flying saucer debris or dead aliens squirrelled away in Hangar 18. No back-engineered War Rocket Ajaxes in Area 51. Apart from the inevitable obfuscation when it comes to sightings of mysterious objects with some highly classified military significance unrelated to ETs, they're not hiding anything, and they know as much about the subject as you do.

    So which matters more? The fact that if the tinfoil hat crowd are right, the Biden administration is knowingly risking an interplanetary war we cannot conceivably win just to scrape up a little bit of positive PR before the next election, which doesn't seem likely even by ufological standards? Or the fact that statistical analysis of aeronauts' observations of German observation balloons in the Great War proves that Royal Flying Corps pilots are... Oh dear, the audience have left, apart from a couple who fell asleep.

    By the way, isn't it time you redesigned this blog so that it doesn't look as though it was cobbled together by a teenager who couldn't be bothered to finish it? Hint: using the entire width of the screen makes text easier and pleasanter to read, grown-up blogs generally have black text on a white background even if they're about gee-whiz spacey stuff, and filling most of the screen with cross-hatched nothingness just makes it look as if you don't give a monkey's. Though on the plus side, at least it isn't Tim Printy's SUNlite WebZine. Someone really ought to stage an intervention there, starting with the name.

  5. One more specific pilot case from not long ago, that may be more typical than Count Otto Black would like to admit:
    Minsk airliner 2009

  6. I would say I'd like to know what the atrabilious "Otto" has contributed to these UFO discussions. But I must fall back to the Null hypothesis: With or without Otto, these flying-saucer talks only amount to a history of human folly. So the positive REALISTIC narrative remains the most plausible. And any verminous whinging by the cartoon Count is irrelevant and read only for laughs.

  7. I don’t mean this to be derogatory, but here in the UK, American pilots have a reputation for friendly fire incidents. In the 2nd Iraq war, the British Army had to put orange tarps on their mini-convoys, to avoid getting bombed by the USAF. The Iraqis soon realised this and used orange tarps on their own gear!
    I must say I have learnt more on this blog in a couple of days, than I have in 1 year of listening to a few (skeptical leaning) UFO podcasts per week.
    So I’ve just bought Bad UFOs, and I’m reading Robert’s other book on 😃

  8. From an incident in 2011: A pilot of an Air Canada flight mistook Venus for an oncoming aircraft, and then put his plane into a steep dive because he thought a collision was imminent.

    "Fourteen passengers and two crew members on board the flight suffered various injuries, and seven were sent to hospital after the plane touched down in Zurich."


Keep your comments relevant, and keep them civil! That means no personal attacks will be allowed, by anyone, on anyone. Commenters are welcome to disagree with me, or with other comments, but state your arguments using logic, and with a civil tone. Comments in violation of these rules will be deleted, and offenders banned.

Comments should be in English, although quotes from foreign-language sources are fine as long as they're relevant, and you explain them. Anonymous postings are not permitted. If you don't want to use your real name, then make up a name for yourself, and use it consistently.