‘Anyone else seeing these lights?’ — How often do pilots see UFOs?

Mar 6, 2021

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Last weekend, the crew of an American Airlines A320 en route from Cincinnati to Phoenix reported seeing “a long cylindrical object that almost looked like a cruise missile type of thing” flying over the top of them.

At the time, the aircraft was at 37,000 feet in the middle of the day. At that altitude and time of day, the visibility would have been pretty good. So what exactly did they see?

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Keeping an open mind

By definition, a UFO is an “Unidentified Flying Object” and the keyword here is “unidentified.” For the most part, popular culture has associated this acronym with extraterrestrial life, space ships and the “X-Files.” However, if someone throws an object at you from across the room and it hits you on the back of the head until you look to see what it was, by definition, it could be classified as a UFO. It was an object, which flew and you had not identified it.

As pilots, we’re a rules-based community of professionals whose foundation of belief rests upon proven science. When we accelerate our aircraft down a strip of tarmac, we know that if we pull back on the controls at a scientifically calculated speed, the wings will be generating enough lift for us to climb away from the ground into the sky. We can’t physically see this, but we trust in the science to get us safely from A to B each time we go to work.

That said, it would be arrogant to suggest that just because of the science that has been proven thus far, the possibility of change does not exist. As part of my university degree, I studied the philosophy of science and this was a real eye-opener.

From a scientific mindset, if we conduct an experiment 100 times and each time the result is the same, we can therefore prove that the result is correct. However, the philosophy of science raises the point that just because an event has happened one way every time in the past, how can you be absolutely certain that it will be the same the next time? Unless you are a time-traveller, you can not.

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A “UFO” below a plane — obviously this isn’t a real image but what many people imagine an alien spacecraft to look like. (Photo by ktsimage/Getty Images)

For example, you could say that “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” A fairly clear cut statement. Sat in your garden at home, I’m sure that each time you’ve seen a sunrise it has been in the east and each time you’ve seen a sunset, it has been in the west — but how can you be absolutely certain that the same will happen tomorrow? You can not?

A few years ago, I got airborne out of Tokyo for the long westbound flight back to the U.K. As we lifted off the runway at Narita airport, being the middle of winter, the sun had already dipped below the horizon and darkness was settling across Japan. However, as we made our way into Russia and the Arctic Circle, I watched the sun rise again in front of us. I looked at the navigation display to check our heading — pretty much directly west.

No matter what your beliefs, you should always be open to new ideas. Not only is this a great mindest for a scientist, but I also feel it’s a great mantra for life in general. Just because the notion of an extraterrestrial airborne object goes against our scientific beliefs, how can we be absolutely certain that they don’t exist?

What did I just see?

The flight deck of a modern airliner is a complicated place. We are surrounded by buttons and switches, lights and handles. There’s also a lot of glass to enable us to get a good view out of the front and see where we’re going. The windows on the 787 Dreamliner are especially large, sometimes making us feel as if we are in a fishbowl.

It’s the combination of the lights and glass that can cause some interesting side effects.

The way our brains work, our attention is drawn to moving objects in our peripheral vision. We may be looking at one thing, but our eyes are drawn to look at what we detected was moving but when we look at that spot, there is nothing to be seen.

On more than one occasion in my 15 years of flying, my eyes have detected something moving outside the aircraft in this fashion. However, when I looked to see what it was, there’s no longer anything there to see. This is quite often due to flight deck lights reflecting in the windscreen and creating a moving light source in our peripheral vision.

Read more: Don’t panic! What happens if a cargo door opens in flight?

The HUD can create some strange optical illusions. (Image by Charlie Page/The Points Guy)

At the time, these light sources seem to be moving outside the aircraft at incredibly fast speeds, so it’s understandable how these might be identified as something flying past the aircraft. Since I’ve been flying the Dreamliner, I find this happens more often due to the head-up display (HUD), which sits in front of the pilot’s eyes.

When moving my head to look around the flight deck, lights reflect off the HUD and appear to move as my head moves. This seems to happen much more often in bright sunlight. The sun catches the HUD at an angle, my head is moving and my eyes then detect a moving light source. Was it a UFO or was it just the sun reflecting?

Sunset and sunrise

We all know how the natural lighting changes during sunset on the ground and these effects are even greater when seen from the flight deck. A few months ago, I was flying from London to the U.S. It was around 1 a.m. U.K. time, so my body was ready to sleep, however, outside over Canada, the sun was just setting.

These are always the hardest moments when it comes to alertness as the visual cues your eyes are receiving are finally starting to tie up with what your body clock expects to be happening. You start to blink harder, flighting off the tiredness. A quick leg stretch or strong coffee normally does the job.

At that moment, something caught my eye outside the aircraft to the right. A bright light seemed to be hovering above the cloud layer, almost motionless. There were no telltale flashing lights of an aircraft or contrails from the engines. It did seem to be shimmering, though.

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I brought the captain’s attention to the light and he seemed as baffled as me. It appeared to be no more than a mile, so we looked at our screens. No other traffic was showing. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it totally disappeared from sight. Had I just seen my first terrestrial UFO?

There was only one way to find out. “Errr, Gander. Do you have any aircraft out to our right-hand side by about a mile?” We waited with bated breath.

“Nothing at a mile but there is 777 traffic 2,000 feet above 15 miles away.” We had our answer.

As we looked closer, the shape of the aircraft became clear again and a contrail started to appear. In hindsight what we had seen was the sun reflecting off the aircraft, making it look as if it was flashing. Due to the distance of the aircraft from us and the angle of the aircraft relative to us and the sun, we were only able to see it when the setting sunlight caught the fuselage.

It all made sense when we had the answers, but at the time I was convinced that I had seen “something else.”

Planets, stars and satellites

The night sky is a spectacular sight which is sadly ruined most of the time on the ground by light pollution from towns and cities. However, at 43,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, the only light pollution comes from the lights inside the flight deck.

Every so often I’ll turn the lighting down lower and let my eyes adapt to the darkness. Looking outside is then a truly humbling sight. Shooting stars, the Milky Way and satellites are all visible to the naked eye, and it’s these which can often cause some confusion.

As mentioned before, our vision is best tuned to picking up movement. With a sky full of stars, very little moves… until our eyes detect that something just did. Most of the time this movement is short and sharp, most likely a meteorite burning up in the earth’s atmosphere thousands of feet above us. Other times, it’s something a little different.

Flying home across the Atlantic one night, I noticed an exceptionally bright light moving steadily across the sky from behind the aircraft, almost following the same track we were flying. I’ve seen satellites before and this just looked like another one. However, another one of these lights seemed to be following the first one. And then another. And then another. What the heck was I seeing?

When over the Atlantic, we are out of radio communication with ATC. Instead, all aircraft listen to a central frequency where we can talk to each other about turbulence etc. “Err, anyone else seeing these lights?” I called.

“Yeah,” came the response from another aircraft. “It’s Elon Musk’s space train.”

I’d read about this space train but had never imagined it would look like this. Bright light after bright light, all equidistant apart, travelling through the sky, exactly like a train. Once again, with the correct answer, it all made sense.

Bottom line

With the incredible number of stars and galaxies beyond our tiny planet, I am not arrogant enough to think that we are the only life form around. However, the number of “UFOs” that I have seen in my time flying airliners, though unexplainable in the moment, all had obvious answers in the end.

I don’t doubt the accounts of fellow professionals, but more often than not, what we thought we saw was actually something quite different. Some military aircraft will not show up on apps such as FlightRadar, and ATC is not always privy to the actions of these flights so long as they remain clear of their airspace. History has shown that what, at the time was classified as a UFO, was later confirmed as military aircraft.

One of the best parts of the job is enjoying views out of the window and just sometimes, we are privy to spectacles that we are quite unable to explain.

Featured photo by Richard Gatley/Getty Images

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