By Leslie KeanDuring one late afternoon at Chicago's bustling O'Hare Airport, pilots, managers and mechanics at the United Airlines terminal saw an odd, disc-shaped object hovering silently overhead, just below the dense cloud layer.
A pilot announced the sighting over the radio; a United taxi mechanic moving a Boeing 777 heard radio chatter about the craft and saw it; so did a pilot waiting to take off who opened the cockpit windscreen to get a better view. Minutes later, the wingless vehicle shot straight up at an incredible speed and disappeared, leaving a crisp hole through the clouds with blue sky visible at the top.
It was definitely not an airplane, witnesses said of the Nov. 7 incident, many of them shaken by what they saw.
"I immediately called our operations center to confirm the sighting, and the FAA was contacted while I drove to the other concourse to talk to the witnesses," a United management employee wrote to the National UFO Reporting Center.
On Jan. 1, the Chicago Tribune published the story, by transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch, which received more than a million hits on the Tribune's Web site, more than any story in the site's history. "The witness credibility is beyond question, and safety was a big concern," says Hilkevitch, who has interviewed dozens of witnesses.
The O'Hare UFO incident even had its day on national television networks. CNN interviewed a nervous United employee, filmed in shadow so he wouldn't be recognized. So far, all witnesses have remained anonymous.
When Hilkevitch began his investigation, the FAA and United Airlines denied knowing anything about the incident, but taped calls and other evidence revealed their communications about the sighting at the time it occurred.
At first, the FAA attributed the incident to some kind of weather phenomenon, and United Airlines advised its employees not to talk about it, according to the Tribune.
"If this had been a plane, it would have been investigated," Hilkevitch says. "The FAA treats the smallest safety issue as very important."
NASA aviation expert Brian E. Smith, a former manager within NASA's Aviation Safety and Security Program, says, "The safely implications of any vehicle operating at low altitude over a major airport outside the authority of air traffic control are obvious. Managers should want to hear about such vehicle operations before they become accidents or disasters."
FAA spokesperson Tony Molinaro says the "absence of any kind of factual evidence" precludes an investigation. "There was nothing on radar."
To explain the witnesses' reports, he offered his best "guess." They may have seen a "hole-punch cloud," he said, which is in "a perfect circular shape like a round disc" and has "vapor going up into it."
These unusual natural cloud holes form only at below freezing temperatures, according to climatologists. It was 48 degrees at O'Hare that afternoon.
John Callahan, Division Chief of Accidents and Investigations for the FAA during the 1980s, says it's not at all surprising that the O'Hare UFO was undetected on radar.
Radar technology cannot always capture objects at extremely high speeds. A hovering object wouldn't necessarily show up either. "If it did, it would be a small dot, and air traffic controllers would not give it much concern," Callahan says.
The government response to the O'Hare incident is predictable, says Callahan, who conducted an investigation into a 1986 UFO sighting over Alaska. "The FAA will offer a host of other explanations, as if wearing a blindfold. It's always something else so it can't be what it is."
Official policy spells out FAA disinterest in reports of anomalies. The agency's Aeronautical Information Manual, providing the fundamentals required for flying in U.S. airspace, states that "persons wanting to report UFO/Unexplained Phenomena activity" should contact an organization such as NUFORC.
If "concern is expressed that life or property might be endangered," it says, "report the activity to the local law enforcement department."
Sometimes, pilots and crew report these incidents anyway. Richard Haines, a former NASA scientist who is head of the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena, has collected thousands of reports by aviators and aviation professionals of unidentified aerial phenomena inconsistent with known aircraft or nature. More than 100 of these involve safety hazards caused by an aircraft's proximity to unfamiliar flying objects or inexplicable brilliant lights.
Given the number of airline personnel reporting this unknown object hovering over a major airport, how could our government not be interested? What about national security? Or passenger safety? Or just plain scientific curiosity about an unexplained phenomenon?