FROM 3,500 FEET, the clear August afternoon offered an exceptional view of New York’s Catskill Mountains. The light breeze over Greene County had been ideal for an afternoon flight, and one private pilot operating a small sailplane over East Windham had decided to take full advantage of it.
Accompanied by a passenger friend (his first time in the air), the aviator and his companion were making their steady ascent. Mountaintops rolled beneath them in the distance, the nearest of which—Windham High Peak—rose out of the landscape just a few miles away to the Southwest.
The flight had been casual, and it remained so even after the pilot’s attention had been drawn away from the view, and down toward a bright object that caught his eye near the treetops below. Rather than being a stationary fixture on the ground, this object appeared to be some kind of small aircraft, moving at a high rate of speed.
“[W]e watched it skimming over the tree tops below and to the right of our flight path. It was moving at a fast speed southwest toward Windham High Peak,” the pilot later stated in a report detailing the incident. “It had a very sparkling appearance like sun shining on a mirror with rainbow colors.”
The pilot and his passenger continued to observe the object, which they were unable to identify, though they believed it to be some kind of unmanned aerial vehicle. The object, by contrast, seemed to show little regard for the pilots above who had now been observing it for several seconds.
That, however, was about to change.
“As we watched the UAV I banked to the left,” the pilot stated in his report, noting that halfway through completing his turn and now proceeding toward Windham High Peak, “the UAV turned around and came toward us at a high rate of speed.” The object, which had already been outpacing their plane as it passed below, was now hurtling directly toward them.
The UAV, approaching quickly and now on a possible collision course with their aircraft, amazed the two observers with its speed, closing a distance of what the pilot judged to have been five miles “in just a few seconds.”
“As I got 3/4 of the way through the turn [the object] was within 50 yards of my right wing, [and] quickly got in front of me and followed me around the turn getting closer until it was off my left wing, probably no more than 25-30 yards away.”
“We had a really good view of it,” the pilot’s report stated, which described the object as having been approximately six feet tall, and between two and three feet wide. The top of the craft “was extremely radiant” with a sparkling appearance that the pilot compared to “sun shining on a mirror with rainbow colors.” Below the upper portion, the UAV possessed a “black half sphere under the radiant top and what appeared to be an antenna under the half sphere,” according to the pilot’s statement.
Whatever the object might have been, it quickly became evident to the pilot and his passenger that the strange UAV had not been traveling alone.
“As it got off my left wing, my passenger looked up and saw two more UAVs come out of the cloud directly over us,” the pilot’s account reads. “At that point I told my passenger we were returning immediately to the airport, [and] I pushed the nose down and picked up speed. The UAVs then headed to the west at a fast speed.”
“We could not see any kind of wings, rotors, or form of propulsion,” the pilot stated in his report.
THE UNNERVING ACCOUNT above is one among several similar narratives, logged in a database of aviation incident reports maintained by one of the most well-known independent agencies of the U.S. federal government: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
In an investigation by The Debrief, several incident reports we obtained that were filed with the NASA-maintained Aviation Safety Reporting System reveal pilot close encounters with unidentified aerial phenomena, more commonly known as UFOs, spanning several decades. A number of the incidents involve observations by pilots and crew members of what appeared to be unrecognized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or other unidentified flying objects operating within unsafe distances from their aircraft, raising concerns about the risks they may pose to aviation safety.
The Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) functions as the Federal Aviation Administration’s voluntary confidential aviation safety incident and situation reporting network. According to a Program Briefing featured at its website, the ASRS is “an important facet of the continuing effort by government, industry, and individuals to maintain and improve aviation safety.” Designed to collect and analyze safety incident reports related to all aspects of aviation, the ASRS maintains an online database described as “a public repository which serves the FAA and NASA’s needs and those of other organizations world-wide which are engaged in research and the promotion of safe flight.”
The program has its origins in a fatal incident that occurred on December 1, 1974, involving the crash of TWA Flight 514. The flight had been inbound to Dulles Airport under turbulent, cloudy conditions when the plane accidentally descended below the minimum safe altitude, and crashed into a Virginia mountaintop. The crash resulted from a misreading of an approach chart, which the crew aboard TWA Flight 514 had interpreted differently from flight controllers at nearby Dulles.
Subsequent investigation showed that a similar crash had almost occurred just weeks earlier in the same vicinity. Despite measures to establish a reporting system to log such potential threats to aviation, the FAA was criticized for not having been able to successfully collect data from an aviation community fearing the potential legal consequences that might result from filing incident reports.
“Rightly or wrongly, the FAA, both the maker of the law and its enforcer, was not generally viewed as a properly disinterested referee,” NASA’s 1986 Reference Publication reads. The agency “acknowledged past criticism and suggestions and turned to a neutral third party – NASA – to collect, process, and analyze the voluntarily submitted reports that it hoped would now flow in from a supportive aviation community.” On April 15, 1976, the ASRS officially went into operation through a Memorandum of Agreement between the FAA and NASA.
“The ASRS collects, analyzes, and responds to voluntarily submitted aviation safety incident reports in order to lessen the likelihood of aviation accidents,” according to a statement at its website. Once a report is submitted to the ASRS, the author is contacted for additional details about the incident in question, after which the completed report is sanitized in order to remove any potentially identifying information. The anonymous reports are then logged within the ASRS database, where they can be accessed by the public.
ASRS investigators who followed up with the 2015 incident over New York determined that the primary elements of the pilot’s narrative remained consistent, with only minor variations. “The reporter estimated at first visual contact the UAV was approximately 3.5 miles away down the hill,” the follow-up call determined, indicating the object had been closer when it was first observed than the pilot’s initial estimate of five miles distant, as indicated in his original report. “It sped up hill to the reporter’s aircraft at a much higher speed than the aircraft,” the investigator’s report added, also noting that “The reporter estimated the closure took less than a minute and as he accelerated his aircraft away from the craft it followed, maneuvering at a speed much [higher] than his.”
The callback report concludes by noting minor differences in coloration between the three UAVs the pilot and his passenger observed. “Two other similar shaped UAVs also had brilliant tops but colors somewhat different from the first which was a shimmering, brilliant rainbow type light.” The incident was filed under Report Number (ACN) 1287246 in the ASRS database (Editor’s Note: ASRS reports are generated at the time a user searches its databases, which prevents the ability to embed direct URLs. We have provided links to archived copies of the individual reports, each of which can also be viewed at the ASRS website by performing a search with the relevant ACN number).
The identity of the aircraft or objects described in this report remains unclear, despite further details gathered from the pilot during the ASRS callback. Given the descriptions of their appearance, estimated speed, maneuverability, and lack of visible propulsion system, little about their operation appears to match the characteristics of any widely recognized UAV systems, military or otherwise.
The report does convey, however, that the appearance of the objects had been unusual enough that the pilot would have attempted to photograph them, had there been an opportunity to do so safely.
“Unfortunately my camera was stuck in my pocket under tight seat belts and I couldn’t get it out while flying the glider trying to avoid hitting this thing,” the report states. Despite the pilot’s inability to document the incident with his camera, the report conveys that the pilot was clearly concerned about a possible midair collision with an unidentified flying object.
The Debrief reached out to the Director of NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) and Confidential Close Call Reporting System, Becky Hooey, Ph.D., with a request for additional details about the program and its operations regarding encounters with possible UAVs or other unrecognized aircraft. In lieu of a direct response from NASA, Hooey assisted us in arranging for further communication with the FAA about the ASRS, and its protocols regarding near midair collisions and other incidents involving drones or unrecognized aircraft.
“Inadvertent drone incidents can be reported through the ASRS,” read an FAA statement provided to The Debrief. “Operating an aircraft or drone in the National Airspace System comes with a responsibility to operate safely and in accordance with all applicable regulations and/or legal requirements,” the FAA said, adding that drone pilots are advised to visit the FAA website for further information on the safe operation of unmanned aerial vehicles.
“The FAA conducts extensive outreach campaigns to educate the drone community, including No Drone Zone and Know Before You Fly,” the FAA said. The agency also recently announced its new rules for Remote Identification and Operations Over People for drones will go into effect on April 21, 2021.
Regarding the more unusual reports uncovered during our investigation, The Debrief also inquired about the FAA and NASA’s position on reports submitted to the ASRS that describe unrecognized aircraft or other unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) encountered by pilots.
“An ASRS report collects information on what the pilot saw or experienced,” the FAA told The Debrief in response to our request. “Unless a hazard is reported, information in an ASRS report is not investigated, and the accuracy of the information is not verified.” The FAA provided no further details or assessments about observations of unrecognized aircraft, nor other types of unexplained incidents described in reports filed with the ASRS system, including those where callbacks were made like the incident over Greene County, New York.
Close Encounters with Mystery Missiles
IN RECENT WEEKS, a widely reported incident involving an American Airlines flight detailed the pilot’s observation of an unusual object that passed above his plane while flying over New Mexico. At approximately 1:19 PM local time on Sunday, February 21, the pilot of AAL Flight 2292 was overheard asking air traffic controllers at nearby Albuquerque Center whether there was any traffic in the area, stating that they “just had something go right over the top of us.”
“I hate to say this, but it looked like a long cylindrical object that almost looked like a cruise missile type of thing,” the pilot could be heard saying in audio which later appeared on the Deep Black Horizon blog, operated by photojournalist and self-described “Stealth Chaser” Steve Douglass. The pilot added that the object was “moving really fast right over the top of us.”
According to Douglass, “the issue here is not if it’s a UFO but that it must be considered a threat to safe navigation of civilian and commercial aircraft.” The story was also reported by Tyler Rogoway at The Warzone.
At the time of our investigation, no reports had been filed with the ASRS appearing to describe the February 21 incident. However, according to the ASRS, “In general, a full-form report is not available for search until at least 60 days from the date of receipt.”
The February 2021 American Airlines incident bears similarity to several pilot observations logged with the ASRS over the years, involving flying objects that resemble missiles or other projectiles. One of the earliest incidents (ACN: 346083) involved a commercial aircraft passing over Snow Hill, Maryland in August 1996. While cruising at 41,000 feet, the pilot observed what they described as a missile or rocket that climbed vertically past their altitude within three miles of their position. Air Traffic Control operators were immediately notified, who advised they were not aware of any military or other activity that could account for the object.
Only months later, crewmembers from several aircraft reported seeing a missile while flying over New York on March 17, 1997. The primary report (ACN: 363539) had been filed with the ASRS by the First Officer aboard a DC-9, who stated that he and the Captain both observed a rocket or missile climbing through their altitude off the left wing of their aircraft. The object was visible for close to 30 seconds, and produced a bluish white exhaust plume the reporter described as being “quite large.”
An investigation of the incident by agencies that included the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later concluded that the pilots had likely observed the launch of a pair of trident missiles from a U.S. Navy submarine nearly 2000 miles away off the coast of Florida, which occurred at roughly the same time as the “missile” sightings. Notably, each of these sightings occurred within months of the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, which resulted in the deaths of all 230 individuals on board.
“The missile sightings come amidst persistent—and, investigators say, unfounded—speculation that a military missile test gone awry may have brought down TWA Flight 800,” read a CNN report published just weeks after the 1997 New York missile incident.
However, almost a decade later, incidents involving sightings of missile-like objects seen by pilots and crew aboard aircraft continued. In an ASRS report (ACN: 671401) from September 2005, one of the pilots aboard an A320 traveling east of the Solomon Islands observed a long, tubular object as it passed beneath the plane. The object appeared to possess no wings, and Air Traffic Control had not been aware of any traffic in the area at the time of the observation.
“It appeared to be a missile,” the ASRS report says. “The object was gray, had a round nose and [was] cylindrical. It appeared to be travelling fairly fast. I did not see any contrail although there was a layer of clouds beneath the object and my line of sight. I thought about it for a minute or so and concluded it looked more like a missile than anything else.”
Three years later in July 2008, crewmembers aboard an A320 flying over California north of Joshua Tree National Park observed the appearance of a brightly lit flying object on multiple occasions. At one point, the object became intensely bright, and then faded in intensity again as it moved to the northwest. The Captain stated in his report (ACN: 795848) that he had never seen “such an intense, bright, white and silver light in my life,” and that the object “actually had a very defined 360 [degree] halo around it at one point.” Then, the object made a 45-degree sharp change in direction, “and faded away as it went out of view in about 3 seconds time.” Within the next hour, the Captain and First Officer both observed “almost the exact same scenario 4 more times.”
According to the Captain’s ASRS report, “the closest I could describe this point of light would possibly be similar to an airborne-launched missile.”
A long history of sightings of UFOs resembling missiles exists, beginning shortly after the Second World War. During the summer of 1946, a wave of “ghost rocket” sightings occurred over Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, resulting in an official investigation by the Swedish Army. There had been concern at the time that the objects might represent long-range tests of captured German rocket technology by the Soviets. Yet despite the accumulation of dozens of sightings of the objects, as well as multiple observations of them crashing into lakes that year, the source of the strange “rocket” sightings was never determined.
However, the sightings of missile-like objects over Europe did not end in 1946.
“This has been going on up until recently,” says Clas Svahn, a journalist with Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter daily newspaper and International Director at Riksorganisationen UFO Sverige, Sweden’s national organization that investigates UFOs. Svahn cites observations of similar rocket or missile-like objects in recent decades, one of which was seen crashing into a lake in 1999.
“And we still have observations,” Svahn said. One incident he investigated occurred over northern Sweden only a few years ago.
“It was navigating,” Svahn said the witness told him of the rocket-like object’s unusual flight path. “It was turning corners.”
Near Midair Collisions with UFOs
MANY INCIDENTS LOGGED with the ASRS provide valuable data about possible near midair collisions, which are vital for the improvement of protocols and technologies that may aid in preventing these and other aviation hazards.
The FAA defines a near midair collision (NMAC) as “an incident associated with the operation of an aircraft in which a possibility of a collision occurs as a result of proximity of less than 500 feet to another aircraft, or a report is received from a pilot or flight crew member stating that a collision hazard existed between two or more aircraft.”
“A report does not necessarily involve the violation of regulations or error by the air traffic control system, nor does it necessarily represent an unsafe condition,” the FAA’s website says.
However, a small number of reports the ASRS has collected involving possible NMACs also describe close observations of possible UFOs or other phenomena witnessed by pilots.
In an incident from February 2001 (ACN: 500269), a Boeing 727 reported narrowly missing collision with an unidentified aircraft. The 727 was flying from Indianapolis International Airport to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, when it received a Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCASII) alert.
“TCASII alert consisted of a traffic call followed by a descend call,” the report states, noting that the “Captain started evasive action by disconnecting the autopilot and beginning descent.”
As descent was initiated, the First Officer was able to observe what appeared to be an aircraft a short distance away “off our right side approximately 600 feet above and then it descended through our altitude.” The crew notified Air Traffic Control, which confirmed there were no other aircraft in their vicinity.
“Air Traffic Control asked if we wanted to file a UFO report,” the author states, who was further advised to file a Near Mid Air Collision (NMAC) report afterward.
An even more striking incident occurred in September 2013, involving a daytime flight by the pilot and co-pilot of a Piper PA-28 Cherokee from Joliet Regional Airport (JOT), Illinois, to Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA), Indiana. According to the report (ACN: 1119876), shortly after takeoff the duo was handed off to Fort Wayne Approach, prior to which they requested and were granted a descent to 3,500 mean sea level (MSL) in order to avoid a layer of scattered cloud coverage ahead of them. The PA-28 completed its descent to the requested altitude and proceeded toward FWA.
“This is where the story gets interesting,” the pilot’s report then states.
“I was momentarily heads-down checking weather,” the pilot wrote, “while my co-pilot minded the flight controls and watched for traffic. Suddenly he blurted, ‘Did you see that?!’ I looked up, said, ‘No’ and asked him what he saw.”
The copilot replied that he had just observed “what looked like a ‘flat black bar’ flying head-on toward the airplane,” which had “quickly maneuvered and passed under the aircraft.”
Additional details provided by the copilot confirmed that the object “looked like a flat black bar with squared off edges and was extremely long and rigid,” which displayed “No bending of any kind as it dove under us.”
Although the co-pilot maintained he had never observed an object like this before in past flight experience, they proceeded toward their destination as planned since no strike had been evident.
A short time later, “something peculiar began to happen.” According to the incident report, the plane’s fluid compass began to “dip violently in quasi-rhythmic pulses,” and the “azimuth oscillated 20 degrees left and right of course.”
The pilot said that despite the instrumental anomalies, the aircraft had not been bouncing, “and the gyroscopic heading indicator was stable. Only the wet compass seemed to be affected.” The crew said they were able to verify panel equipment indications with backup devices which included a Garmin portable aviation GPS, as well as an iPad using the popular ForeFlight integrated flight app.
“But the compass anomaly continued,” the report states. All on-board electronics were shut off temporarily in an effort to detect whether the interruption had resulted from something creating a magnetic field, but the issues persisted.
“Then another strange thing happened,” the report states. According to the pilot, FWA contacted them requesting confirmation of their altitude, which still read 3,500 MSL. To their surprise, “Approach then said they were showing us at 2,400 and asked us to check our altimeter setting.”
“My co-pilot and I then individually cross-checked both our indicated altitude and the altimeter setting,” the pilot stated, “in order to be certain we hadn’t misread anything. We agreed that we were definitely at 3,500 MSL and we confirmed this back to Approach.”
The aviators were able to compare their altitude to the display on their GPS, clarifying that they had not misread their barometric altitude. They also verified their squawk code with Air Traffic Control and confirmed that Approach had been viewing the correct target.
“Approach reported that they were still seeing us at 2,400 MSL,” the report stated. The pilot and co-pilot were now discussing whether to terminate the flight and request to land, when FWA contacted them again saying they appeared to have returned to 3,500 MSL. At roughly the same time, the aircraft’s compass and other instrumentation began to resume normal functionality. The remainder of the flight proceeded without incident, and the PA-28 was subsequently checked for possible issues related to the disturbance.
“We don’t know and will probably never know what my co-pilot saw,” the pilot’s report states, “or whether it had anything to do with the anomalies we experienced. We’ve speculated that it might have been a UAV (Indiana is currently vying to become a test ground for them), perhaps even some military contractor horsing around.”
“Or maybe it was all just a creepy coincidence,” the report concludes, adding that it was “almost Halloween.”
UFOs: A Potential Hazard to Aviation
“REPORTED SIGHTINGS OF unusual lights and objects by aviation professionals is not a new phenomenon, and it is something that happens around the world on a regular basis,” says aviation safety analyst Todd Curtis, Ph.D., in a statement at his website AirSafe.com. A former US Air Force engineer and Boeing employee, Curtis is the founder of AirSafe Media, an aviation risk management and consultation organization that provides information on all aspects of aviation safety.
“Because some of these incidents include effects that lead to system malfunctions, there are obvious safety implications to these events,” Curtis says, “and it would be helpful to the aviation community if such events were reported on a regular basis to competent authorities.”
In addition to the ASRS, Curtis’s site lists the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP) as a resource for pilots who have incidents involving possible UAP they may wish to report.
An October 2000 report by Richard F. Haines, formerly with NASA’s Ames Research Center and Chief Scientist with NARCAP at the time the report was authored, examined more than 100 incidents recovered from sources that included NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System and the National Transportation Safety Board. According to the NARCAP report, three varieties of dynamic behavior associated with pilot encounters involving unidentified aerial phenomena or UAP—a term NARCAP helped introduce into wider public use—were identified. These included 1) near midair collisions “and other high-speed maneuvers” conducted by objects near aircraft, 2) electromagnetic phenomena affecting aircraft “navigation, guidance, and flight control systems,” and 3) distracting behavior of aerial objects that may “inhibit the flight crew from flying the airplane in a safe manner.”
Among its most striking conclusions, the report states that there were incidents where passenger and flight crew injury resulted from pilots taking evasive action in the presence of aerial objects in close proximity to their aircraft. The report did not believe any immediate threat to aviation safety existed, however, “because of the reported high degree of maneuverability shown by the UAP.” Nonetheless, it did not rule out the potential for such mid-air collisions, adding that “when anomalous electromagnetic effects are causing [instruments] to malfunction the possibility of an incident or accident exists.”
“Responsible world aviation officials should take UAP phenomena seriously and issue clear procedures for reporting them without fearing ridicule, reprimand or other career impairment and in a manner that will support scientific research,” Haines wrote in the 2000 NARCAP report, which further advised that the establishment of a reporting system specifically for the collection of incidents involving UAP—possibly even within the ASRS—would be beneficial.
“Whatever UAP are,” Haines states in the report, “they can pose a hazard to aviation safety and should be dealt with appropriately and without bias.”
Ted Roe, co-founder and Director of Research at NARCAP, told The Debrief that his organization not only worked with the ASRS in the past, but that some of the NASA program’s past employees were also former NARCAP members.
“We did work with the ASRS,” Roe says. “We briefed their analysts at the Battelle Institute outside of Ames Research Center at Palo Alto, and they assured us that they did get cases that fit the UAP general profile.”
“And they do get the cases,” Roe told The Debrief, adding that in years past NARCAP was often notified about ASRS reports involving possible UAP by members who worked with the NASA program.
“A lot of this came through Dr. Haines because he was working at Ames Research Center for so long,” Roe told The Debrief. Haines, who co-founded NARCAP with Roe and authored the 2000 report and several others, retired from the organization in 2015.
Roe believes that pilots might feel more inclined to file reports involving possible UFOs with the ASRS on account of the anonymity it ensures.
“Because [the ASRS is] confidential, they are a better place for pilots if they want to report these cases without recrimination,” he says. “It’s the safest way to do it.”
NARCAP recommends that pilots report incidents involving UAP to the ASRS in the Advisory for Pilots it makes available at its website, although Roe says that he doesn’t think incident reports involving UAP are investigated or studied by the ASRS or the FAA beyond callbacks some of the incidents receive.
The FAA told The Debrief that any reports the ASRS receives may help identify future potential safety issues. However, despite past cooperation between the ASRS and NARCAP, presently NASA and the FAA do not have any special reporting system or other criteria for collecting and processing pilot encounters with UFOs.
In responses to our inquiries, the FAA also did not comment specifically about incidents involving unrecognized aircraft or other aerial phenomena, nor did they provide details about how the data it gathers could help to mitigate potential hazards to aviation presented by UFOs.
“While information reported to the ASRS may be effective for identifying hazards, accidents precursors, and safety issues for further analysis, it is not used to determine distribution or trends,” the FAA said.
In Roe’s opinion, improving the ways government agencies handle the UAP topic may actually begin with broader awareness of UAP-related incidents in the aviation community.
“If we can change the aviation community on this subject,” Roe told The Debrief, “we can change the subject. We can change how it’s dealt with.”
“Once they take it seriously, then science has to move forward.”
Pilots who believe they have encountered unidentified aerial phenomena (or UFOs) are encouraged to report their observations to the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP), the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), or the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). The author can be contacted at micah [at] thedebrief [dot] org.