Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Spirits in the Sky: Aviation and the Unknown

Aviation and the UnknownInexplicata

By Scott Corrales

Scott Corrales      Much is made this day of the declassification of UFO material by some of the world’s air forces and civil aviation boards, but much of this openness surely mirrors the greater receptiveness toward the UFO subject in society at large. Pilots and workers in the aviation industry who stepped forward years ago with claims of the abnormal could find their flight status revoked or their employment terminated.

We can only imagine the fate of pilot Ricardo France of the LAN carrier, who spoke openly to Chile’s REVISTA VEA in January 1972 about being pursued by a flotilla of UFOs over a considerable length of Chilean territory for nearly 90 minutes. It is likely that he underwent rigorous investigation and medical checkups, even when four days after his experience, five hundred cars in the city of Tandil “were paralyzed by a flashing flying saucer” according to the same publication. These unbelievable cases form part of the collection of ufologist Liliana Núñez.

Pilots in Peril

“The altimeter started to climb and the artificial horizon spun like a top. The gauges all became whirlygig and the readouts on three inertial navigation computers turned to frantic numbers and coordinates. The airliner flew along the indicated parameters, but if the autopilot had obeyed the instruments, we would’ve been killed.”

It sounds at first blush like a line of dialogue from LOST or some television show in which square-jawed protagonists take on the unknown. But this is the testimony of a Mexican commercial pilot whose crew actually had a brush with the bizarre in February 1979 at an eleven thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean. The three man crew – who steadfastly refused to allow their names to be used – spoke to researcher Alberto Montemayor under a promise of anonymity. Had the cause of the confusion on flight deck been ascribed to faulty software, defective hardware or some other mundane reason, they would surely have been less reticent. But as the airliner captain – known only as “F.T.” – told the researcher, the cause for the confusion anguish among the crew was an powerful source of light that appeared to fly over the aircraft for an endless, maddening three minutes.

“F.T.” had no illusions about the experience. “If someone was trying to send us a special message,” he told Montemayor, “all they managed to do was show us that the thing had such power and control over our aircraft that it could have seized the airliner and spirited us away.”

This harrowing experience is among several collected by our friend and colleague Bruno Cardeñosa, host of Spain’s ever-popular La Rosa de los Vientos radio show. Cardeñosa, an acclaimed UFO writer and researcher, mentions another mid-air incident involving a another Mexican pilot on an international flight between Europe and the Americas. The pilot – only known by his initials – said that the flight was going along as planned and that stepped out of the flight deck to inspect the cabin and see how the passenger service was going. He chatted for a few minutes with the cabin crew and some passengers when a flight attendant made a curious observation: the sun’s light was streaming through the wrong side of the aircraft. “I returned to the flight deck for an urgent confirmation. It turned out we were flying toward the O navigation point,” said the pilot, “that is to say, we were heading toward Africa instead of the Americas. We made the appropriate corrections, but the fuel wasted in the inexplicable turn forced us to land in Bermuda. Upon making the corrective turn, I could see a dot of light pulling away from us and throbbing brightly.”

But Mexican pilots have hardly been the only ones with tales to tell. An electrifying brush with unknown aerial “competitors” tested the mettle of pilot Carlos García Bermúdez and his co-pilot Antonio Nieto at the controls of Aviaco Flight 502 between Valencia and Bilbao in early 1978.

Captain García’s flight plan would take him from Valencia’s airport to the Sondika Airport outside Bilbao, a challenging destination at the best of times due to uncertain weather conditions. Dense cloud cover forced Aviaco 502 to be redirected to Santander, from which passengers could reach their destinations by ground transportation. As the airliner made its final descent through the clouds, it penetrated “a particularly dense, lens-shaped and extremely bright cloud formation.” The brightness was such that the pilot and co-pilot put on their sunglasses without giving the situation a second thought.

As with the Mexican flight described earlier, the airliner’s equipment went haywire. Compasses, weather radar, VHF channels fluctuated wildly as the flight odometer started counting kilometers backward. According to Captain García: “We could neither receive nor transmit over the VHF band, and we later learned that both Bilbao and Santander were constantly trying to reach us. This situation lasted seven minutes.

Flight 502 eventually emerged from the anomalous cloud and communications were restored. To their shock, they were in the same position as they had been before entering the cloud – twenty-two miles from Bilbao. The forty miles they covered while in the cloud had apparently never existed and the aircraft had made no forward progress for seven minutes. Cardeñosa remarks that “it was as if the cloud had pulled them out of space-time.”

Weirder things have happened: according to the March 13, 1992 issue of Mexico's reputable El Universal newspaper, a sudden encounter with a UFO on March 6 of that year caused an airliner to become invisible.

The Aeromexico airliner allegedly departed from Mexico City at 11:30 p.m. enroute to Monterrey. The pilot dimmed the cabin lights and passenger began falling asleep for the short flight, until they suddenly found themselves staring into the night sky and the bright stars in the heavens if the entire fuselage had been lifted away. "We were flying in space, seeing the skies and stars without the barrier of cabin walls, which were still there and detectable to the touch, but completely invisible," said a witness to this sudden phenomenon. "We could even see the pilots in the cabin, at the controls of an aircraft that none of us could see, only touch."

One would expect to see passengers gripped by panic, but this was not the case: the startled passengers tried to make sense of the phenomenon until they suddenly became aware of a glowing object shaped like two "inverted bowls" stuck together flying alongside the aircraft.

The newspaper account states that the broadcast media reported the disappearance of the Aeromexico airliner from radar screens in both Monterrey and Mexico City for ten minutes, along with the corresponding gap in communications.

Strange Encounters in the Southern Cone

Ever since the days of the "Stendek" affair in the 1960's (solved in recent years when the wreckage of the aircraft was found in an Andean valley), the UFO phenomenon has shown an interest in commercial aviation and has even interfered with routine flights, as has occurred elsewhere in the world.

The February 17, 2001 issue of Chile's "El Mercurio" newspaper ran an interesting story which demonstrated that this disturbing attraction to airliners wasn't a thing of the past: at 11:30 a.m., the crew of LAN Chile Flight 560 established visual contact with a shining ovoid object "of considerable size" which prompted the pilot to report it to the National Air Traffic Control Center in Santiago de Chile. Although civilian radars reported that the contact was not on their screens, the 5th Air Brigade in Cerro Moreno (Antofagasta) and the regional airport of Calama in nothern Chile managed to track it.

Confirmation for the event was received five minutes after an Avant airliner had taken off from the Calama airfield--its crew corroborated the LAN Chile information, adding that the object was stationary and remained visible 10 minutes after the initial sighting.

The military air station at Cerro Moreno placed the object 40 miles over the town of Mejillones and at an altitude of 60,000 feet, thus ruling out the possibility that the strange object could have been a weather balloon -- the usual "culprit" in these cases--due to the fact that said meteorological artifacts were launched from Cerro Moreno on a daily basis early in the morning.

Across the Andes, Argentinean pilots have had a long history of facing the unknown.

Researcher and author Carlos Iurchuk takes note of two early incidents from the early days of the UFO phenomenon: In August 1958, private pilot Raul N. López took to the skies in his Piper PA (LV-XJW) on what he described as “a glorious day” marred only by the smoke arising from agricultural burning. Flying from Machagay to Resistencia in the Chaco, López became aware at 11:16 hours of a glowing “something” at 2400 feet, when his small aircraft was 180 degrees from La Verde. Within seconds, the unknown light had ascended to an estimated thirty six hundred feet and at twenty kilometers’ distance. Intrigued, López changed course to get a better look, only to find that the light had exactly the same intentions.

When interviewed, the pilot noted that the intruder hac come within seven kilometers of his position and was shaped “like a flat dish with a dome in its middle, and it was golden-yellow in color. Its external section was thirty meters in diameter and spun quickly, shooting off greenish-red sparks.”

The physical proximity of the unknown object soon began exerting physical effects on the Piper PA: López noted a rapid increase in the engine’s RPMs as the golden disk rose into the air, losing itself in the blue sky. López remarked that he was startled to see that without having touched the controls, the tachometer indicated a return to cruising speed after the intruder had taken its leave. The Raul López case was featured in Hector Anganuzzi’s “Historia de los Platos Voladores en la Argentina”

A year later, an Aerolineas Argentinas DC-3 piloted by Nestor del Blanco also ran into unknown traffic over the Chaco.

Flight 757, scheduled service to Buenos Aires, departed on time from Roque Sáenz Peña in the Chaco on 16 October 1959 on a 205-degree heading and at altitude of 7,900 feet. The DC-3 was well on its way toward a refueling stop in Sauce Viejo (Santa Fe Province) when Captain del Blanco noticed an unusual cloud formation on the horizon. Upon closer inspection, he noticed to his surprise that the cloud formation was actually “a spindle-shaped object” that was soon joined by three similar ones.

In subsequent statements, the pilot noted that the strange objects “had the color of lead” and were not self-luminous. They changed intensity according to the sun’s brightness. At this point, the captain alerted Officer Manso, his co-pilot, and both men witnessed the curious intruders as they engaged in horizontal maneuvers. One of the objects – described as “voluminous” – disgorged three saucer-shaped objects that flew off, becoming mere specks in the horizon.

The DC-3’s radio operator, Miguel Villafañe, was a third witness to the uncanny spectacle: he contacted the tower at Resistencia Airport to see if the objects could be seen from the ground, but all efforts were negative.

A Pilot Goes Public

A memorable scene in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind shows the moment when an air traffic controller asks two airliner captains who have just reported a UFO encounter if they wish to file a formal report--both men refuse, one of them saying unequivocally, "I don't want to report one of those!"

One can well imagine the penalties that a professional responsible for safety of hundreds of passengers and a multi-million dollar aircraft might face if he or she admit to seeing "flying saucers". Fortunately the silence imposed on airliner crews is now being broken as many pilots retire and no longer face being grounded for good. Juan Lorenzo Torres is one of them.

Torres, who retired from the Spanish carrier Iberia at the age of 65, had an illustrious career that included forty years of flying military and civilian aircraft. Born in Madrid and the son of an Air Force general, Torres served in the military with Spain's King Juan Carlos and is presently the director of an aviation academy. "The day I saw a UFO from my aircraft," he told interviewer Pedro Madueño, "I wasn't able to sleep, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it all this time."

But why would a man with such an illustrious background and career wish to enter the UFO fray? "I think many people would like to know that my crew and I saw something that no one has been able to explain to this very day."

On the fourth of November, 1968, at 18:23 hours, Torres was flying a Caravelle 6-R along the London to Alicante route (Iberia Flight 249). This routine flight proceeded normally until the Barcelona tower ordered the aircraft to descend from an altitude of thirty one thousand feet to twenty eight thousand feet, ostensibly to compensate for the transit of another aircraft on the same corridor. "Well, I had already ordered dinner and the trays were in the cabin," reminisces Captain Torres, "but a that altitude we were shaving the clouds, which produce a slight though uncomfortable turbulence. Having one's dinner that way was thoroughly disagreeable. I asked my co﷓pilot to visually monitor if the opposing traffic could be seen, in order that we could return to our proper level to have a peaceful dinner."

Within seconds, the pilot said that the incoming aircraft was in sight, but it wasn't another airliner: instead, the Caravelle's crew saw a flash of light heading toward them at full speed and on a collision course.

"We dumped the trays and our jaws dropped, since that blinding light was nothing we'd seen before." he explained. "We called the stewardess to witness the thing. None of us knew what it could be."

The petrified crew witnessed how the object stayed some ten meters away from the Caravelle's nose cone, moving up and down and sideways, but always returning to its position in front of the aircraft. Torres made an effort to contact the object in English and Spanish with no success; contacting the Barcelona tower was fruitless, since area was beyond its radar coverage. The next thing he did was to initiate an emergency broadcast "on the 121.5 channel, so that all nearby aircraft could communicate with us."

Torres recalls turning on all of the aircraft's lights in an effort to begin a rudimentary form of communication with the object. "I told it in Spanish: "On and off twice means no, on and
off once means yes." When asked by the interviewer if there had been any success, he replied that "there had been logic" in the intruder's movements.

"That night we all slept poorly, as my crew told me the next day. We all made a pact of silence, but lieutenant colonel Abreu of the Barcelona tower, called me when I landed at El Prat and told me that the radar coverage for eastern Spain had recorded those "UFOs". I asked for a copy of these records and he gave me one." This valuable bit of evidence would be lost later on in a series of events.

"Four months later, another Caravelle piloted by commander Ordovas had another sighting in the area, flying with the same flight engineer, Jose Cuenca! The news made it into the media because one of the flight attendants had a boyfriend who was a journalist. Journalists began calling and four months later Lt. Col Ugarte and a lawyer showed up and the copy was confiscated. After reporting the sighting, Lt. Col Ugarte concluded that what the co﷓pilot, engineer, flight attendant and I had seen was in fact Venus! Venus was stuck to my plane's nose, and I never realized it!"

Captain Torres' remarks go to show that unidentified flying objects have always shown an interest for our passenger airliners, and some have humorously suggested that the smaller unidentified objects may be attracted to jumbo jets like baby whales to surface ships in a misguided imprinting event

Few cases in Spanish ufology have achieved the level of angry pro-and-con discourse that characterizes the so-called Manises Incident, in which a Mirage F-1 fighter pursued a UFO for an extended period of time with full authorization from ground control. The military component of the case often overshadows the civilian aspect, which is hair-raising enough, as we shall see.

On November 11, 1979, Captain Javier Lerdo de Tejada, a senior pilot with eight thousand hours of flight time under his belt, was flying a Super Caravelle belonging to the TAE airline on a flight between the Austrian city of Saltzburg and the Canary Islands, where over a hundred passengers hoped to spend a sunny vacation. After having been aloft for less than half an hour, the Super Caravelle began to pick up an odd distress call on the emergency band, being informed by ground control that it emanated from a point 40 miles northwest of the coastal city of Valencia. Captain Tejada remarked that it was as if the party sending out the distress signal had no knowledge whatsoever of Morse code.

At 23:47 hours, flight engineer Francisco Rodriguez reported the presence of a pair of red lights at a lower elevation and to the left of the airliner. The Barcelona control tower insisted that their flight was alone in the night sky and that no other traffic was in the area.

The object began closing in on the Super Caravelle, causing consternation among the crew, since it was flying within less than the 10 mile safety range. The lights, spanning a diameter of two hundred meters, practically made a bee line for the airliner, coming within half a mile of its wing. Certain that a collision was imminent at this point, Tejada broke his flight plan and began an emergency descent to the Manises airport outside of Valencia; the pursuit ended only when the approach maneuvers were initiated. “This was the first time,” writes Spanish ufologist Javier García Blanco, “that a passenger airliner was forced to change it flight plan in order to avoid a collision.”


Ufology has always set a high bar for witnesses, preferring the testimony of "trained observers" over reports from the average citizen. Airline pilots, entrusted with the care of human lives and very expensive equipment, surely occupy the highest tiers of reliability. The cases in this article suggest that regardless of the hypothesis one may favor to explain the phenomenon, unidentified flying objects have interacted closely us "up in the wild blue yonder" all over the interaction that shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

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