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  a newsletter by |_| j. b. crawford                       home subscribe rss

>>> 2021-03-08 Some UFOs

I have always been fascinated by UFOs. I don't mean to give the impression that I think that there is some extensive government cover-up of the fact that aliens are visiting Earth on a regular basis and that, in fact, the government has been collaborating with the larger alien program of hybridizing themselves with humans, because that is 1) extremely improbable for a variety of reasons, and 2) the plot of The X-Files.

Rather, I mean that whether or not UFOs are a real thing in a physical sense, they sure are interesting. I am an adherent to what people in the UFO community call the "psycho-social theory," which contends that UFOs (as the term is generally understood by the public) are an artifact of culture and psychology, rather than physical visitations by extraterrestrials, but are nonetheless an interesting topic. Put simply, UFOs are mostly misidentified aircraft and planets, but the shaky videos are still fun to look at.

Some UFOs must clearly be actual flying objects, and while they are mostly uninteresting (aircraft, especially uncommon ones), occasionally someone must actually see something rather peculiar overhead such as a test of a as-yet undisclosed military technology. Presumably such incidents are exceptionally rare, but might explain some of the most peculiar observations. While I am far from convinced, fellow Burqueño Tom Mahood's theory that floating, hazy, erratically moving lights often seen about over Area 51 a few decades back were tests of an ultimately unsuccessful directed proton beam weapon is certainly compelling [1].

This is all a preface to say that I swear I'm not crazy, I just felt like writing about a recent incident that seems quite interesting and, if its similarity to some other incidents is not coincidental (a distinct possibility), could point towards a larger phenomena.

The Drive's Tyler Rogoway, which has made himself a bit of a center of UFO reporting lately, has run a series of articles on an incident in which American Airlines 2292 seems to have inquired with Albuquerque center about the nature of a cylindrical white object which passed near overhead.

There are several things which are, well, complicated about this story. The whole thing originated with Steve Douglass, author of UFO blog Deep Blue Horizon and scanner enthusiast. Douglass apparently ran a scanner set to scan a variety of Albuquerque Center frequencies and had a recorder attached. If you are not familiar, Albuquerque Center, or ZAB, refers to the Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center or ARTCC. ARTCCs serve as air traffic control to aircraft which are in transit between airports either under instrument flight plans, over 18,000 feet, or just asking to be monitored by ATC for safety and convenience ("Basic Radar Service" or more commonly "Flight Following"). Albuquerque Center covers a large area spanning the state of New Mexico and portions of most neighboring states, including West Texas.

Albuquerque Center organizes itself based on sectors. The sectors are not especially clearly well documented because operating practice around sectors is adjusted based on conditions and traffic volume. In general, pilots don't contact a sector by consulting their chart. Instead, they contact a sector only when they are directly told to (and given the frequency) by another controller. This is just to say that there aren't a lot of super convenient maps of the sectors although IFR charts do show them. They're subject to change.

Steve Douglass believes that the scanner recorded a very interesting audio clip on either 127.850 or 134.750 MHz. He seems to be guessing these frequencies based on how the scanner was set up and possibly also the position of the aircraft. These two frequencies correspond to sectors called Amarillo High or Borger Low. The flight in question filed FL360 and in any case they weren't likely to be below 23,000 feet, so we can more or less assume that the conversation recorded was with ZAB Amarillo High sector.

Okay, I have accidentally buried the lede too much. What exactly is the recording? A pilot is heard saying the following:

...have any targets up here? We 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 - moving really fast right over the top of us.

The beginning of the transmission, presumably including the identification of the aircraft, is cut off. The scanner must have tuned to this frequency mid-sentence. I am not clear on how Douglass identified the aircraft involved, listening through his original recording I do not hear other traffic from the same pilot (who has a somewhat distinct Texas accent) in which he identifies. It does seem like we get a clip of the same pilot, a bit later on, saying "...sounds crazy." But the scanner often tunes in mid-sentence and moves on whenever the carrier drops, so we have no context and we do not hear the response to the pilot's question.

At the time of this transmission, the aircraft was located in northeastern New Mexico near Capulin, some distance east of Raton. In general, a very sparsely populated part of the state.

Although there was some confusion early on, American Airlines confirmed the legitimacy of the recording and recommended that Further inquiries be directed to the FBI. Much has been made of the comment about the FBI but I suspect that it's useless to read too much into it. A lot of people and organizations would refer any suspicious event to the FBI. Later, the FAA issued a statement on the matter, but there was very little substance to the statement. They simply said that ATC radar did not show any object.

Understanding this well requires some discussion of the primary radar system in use by ATC. It is a common assumption that ATC has complete radar coverage of the entire United States, but this is untrue. Radar coverage is often poor in more remote areas and closer to the ground, even for secondary radar (transponders), but especially for primary radar ("radar" as you think of it, based on reflected radio signals). On the other hand, ATC radar scopes can be adjusted to various display thresholds in order to reduce clutter, and there have been incidents in the past in which objects of interest (e.g. flocks of birds) were detected by primary radar but not displayed to the controller due to display configuration.

That's a long-winded way to say that the FAA has presumably checked the original radar recordings and did not find any target, which makes it less likely that there was any real object, regardless of what the controller said at the time. It would be very unusual for primary radar to not pick up a large object at such high altitude. This all would have occurred within range of the Mesa Rica Common Air Route Surveillance Radar (CARSR) site and coverage is generally excellent at high altitude.

Curiously, the FAA has still not released their recording of the radio traffic. Unfortunately, ATCLive's hobbyist-driven recording network does not cover the sectors possibly involved.

Many have suggested that the FAA's delay in releasing their ATC recordings (they usually do so fairly quickly) are indicative that there is an ongoing internal investigation. I think that's a distinct possibility, but on the other hand, the northern California/southern Oregon incident that I will discuss shortly seems like a clearer event of military concern but the FAA was still more responsive to the media. All in all, I'm not sure what to make of the slow response from FAA, but we can't discount the possibility that it's some potent combination of COVID-related short-staffing [2] and bureaucratic paralysis.

And that's about all we know. A pilot seems to have seen something, there was apparently nothing on radar, and that may very well be the end of this story if subsequent investigation doesn't make some remarkable find. It's very possible that the pilot was mistaken, having fallen to some optical illusion or brief disorientation.

Nonetheless, there is some interesting similarity to other incidents. An Alitalia flight near London Heathrow in 1991 reported a very similar close encounter with a white cylindrical object and scattered reporting suggests the object may have even appeared on radar, although British authorities apparently investigated and concluded that there was nothing worth discussing.

This incident is also reminiscent of one in October 2017 in which not one but several pilots reported visual contact with an object that looked and acted like a large aircraft [3]... a rather uninteresting event except that said aircraft was unidentified by ATC and did not make contact with ATC at any point. The mysterious object appeared on primary radar but did not provide a secondary (transponder) reply. The mystery aircraft was taken rather seriously by the FAA and F-15s were scrambled to investigate, but the fighter response was fairly late for various reasons and they were not able to locate the object.

There have been a few more similar but less well documented incidents in the last half dozen years. None have received much of an explanation.

Does all of this add up to something? It's possible that it doesn't and this is just a series of unrelated oddities. There's not really any theory I am aware of that seems more likely than multiple pilots having been mistaken, even as unlikely as that seems. Many popular theories have serious defects:

The idea that the military is testing some classified aircraft in open airspace and near civilian aircraft is hard to believe. There is little precedent for such an operation and many reasons, practical and legal, that the military would be unlikely to do so. All press is bad press when it comes to secret new aircraft, especially when it's the kind of press that leads to investigations.

A missile related to test range operations, even errantly directed, is similarly hard to believe. While there is significant missile test activity in New Mexico it is a long ways from this event, at White Sands and Fort Bliss. These tests are very carefully tracked and a missile errantly straying so far from the range, and so close to an aircraft, would be a very serious incident likely to end up in a congressional investigation.

Intrusion into US airspace by a foreign government is hard to believe so far inland - perhaps in the Northern California incident it's a bit more within reason, but even if you wave your hands and invoke the name of hypersonic glide vehicles and nuclear-powered cruise missiles it is hard to see how one would have made it well into US airspace without attracting attention at any earlier point. Maybe the government would suppress news of such an event but that would be exceptionally difficult in this day and age and it's not clear what advantage there would be to doing so. With modern instrumentation, this would not be a situation like the Japanese bomb-laden balloons in which it was hoped suppressing news of their arrival would cause the senders to give up. Anyone who operated such an aircraft into foreign territory would almost certainly know exactly how the trip went. Politically, there isn't much to be gained by suppressing news of what is practically an act of war. All in all, a cover-up just doesn't make much sense.

So, most likely, it's nothing. An interesting nothing, though, eh?

[1] My skepticism comes from the simple difficulty of keeping a secret. The US military has invested in the development of directed energy weapons for some time, and although most efforts have been optical, directed energy weapon research is generally well documented. A lot of it happens here in Albuquerque, in fact, at the former Phillips Laboratory, now AFRL Directed Energy Directorate. I find it hard to believe that there was a testing program of a proton beam weapon in the '80s-'90s that has never reached public awareness, whether successful or (more likely) not. This is especially so considering that I believe the design of the accelerator would have had to be fairly novel at the time and would have taken a very large effort with quite a few people who are unlikely to remain mum in 2021.

[2] COVID has severely affected COVID responsiveness from some federal agencies. Nearly a year ago I personally received a letter from the FAA's contractor handling FOIA requests stating that they felt COVID was reason to waive FOIA response timeline requirements. Similarly DIA has been mum for a good six months on an open FOIA request, which they attributed to COVID in an initial acknowledgment letter.

[3] A number of websites talk about it being "very fast," but they seem to be overstating the speed or repeating information I can't find a source for. Commercial airline pilots who saw the object seemed to consistently think it was moving around the same speed or a little faster than they were. I suppose 400-500 kts is indeed "very fast," but it's not at all unusual for a large turbojet aircraft.