Identified Flying Objects
(or UFOs that could have been)
by Martin J. Powell
Although the expression Identified Flying Object (or IFO) could mean just about anything that we recognise as flying in the sky, the expression is generally taken to mean an object which, having previously been reported as unidentified (i.e. a UFO) has been found to have a conventional explanation after examination of the available data. Most UFO sources cite that around 90 per cent of UFO reports eventually become IFOs after careful examination. The 'careful examination' must often involve a wide range of disciplines, including aeronautics, astronomy, meteorology and even areas as diverse as ornithology and psychology. The way in which people see and report UFOs is crucial to a full and proper investigation of the UFO phenomenon. Pre-conceived ideas by witnesses, imperfect estimates of size and distance, and a poor knowledge of sky-bound phenomena all conspire to confuse the issue.
The following events, witnessed by myself, could easily have been classed as UFOs had they been witnessed in slightly different circumstances. I believe that solved UFO cases are of prime importance to the UFO subject, because they not only tell us much about the problems of human perception and interpretation, but they may also help to shed light upon other UFO reports - past, present and future. Indeed, it is likely that a number of reports filed away in the cabinets of government establishments around the world may be explained away by a similar set of circumstances to those which follow.
November 6th 1998, 6 pm
Whilst looking out of the front window of my house, I was listening to my airband radio and watching the flashing lights of aircraft passing by. There was broken cloud, and stars appeared in the holes occasionally. I glanced towards the North momentarily, and my attention was drawn to a bright light above my head - towards the top of the window, from my viewpoint. I looked upwards and saw the bright light - at least as bright as Venus, I would estimate - and it gradually faded to invisibility after about ten seconds. It was heading in a Northerly direction. I suspected that it might have been a satellite of some kind, catching the sunlight. I looked at my watch - it was 1758 UT.
The author's reconstruction of a string of lights which were observed moving across the night sky
Five minutes later, at 1803, my attention was again drawn to this part of the sky. I had seen what appeared at first glance to be a faint, elongated object, also moving slowly in a Northerly direction. I immediately reached for my binoculars to take a look. To my amazement, there was a line of five equally bright lights moving in unison, the two rear lights somewhat closer together than the others. My immediate reaction was one of confusion, since I could not make any sense of what I was seeing. My eyes tried to find a solid object amongst the line of lights, which might reveal a craft of some kind, but they were clearly separate objects moving in unison. I watched in amazement as they headed Northwards, dropping in elevation and finally disappearing behind the clouds. I resisted the temptation to believe that I had just witnessed a mother-ship from Zeta Reticuli, followed by its scout fleet.
It occurred to me that these two events might have been linked in some way, since they both appeared to be in the same orbit. I then recalled an article that I had read several months earlier in the Sky & Telescope magazine. Entitled ‘Have you been flashed by Iridium?’, it explained how, in the last couple of years, a number of communications satellites named Iridium had been placed in orbit. Occasionally, if one was in the right position at the right time, one of the network of satellites would be so orientated such that its mirror-like panels would reflect sunlight downwards, causing it to flash very brightly for several seconds, and then fade. This appeared to fit quite neatly with what I had seen. The article also mentioned that the satellites had been launched in groups of five, by a Delta rocket. One observer, it explained, had seen a line of five lights pass overhead shortly after they had been launched. They were clustered together in their parking orbit, before separating into their own individual positions. Unfortunately I had no way of finding out whether another rocket had gone up recently, although according to the article a number were due to be launched in the summer of ’98. It was nonetheless a perfect explanation for what I had seen.
It occurred to me how exceptional this sighting had been. There had been a lot of cloud around recently, and clear skies were few. Observers of the flash phenomenon have to be in a very precise location in order to witness the event - precise calculations are required to determine where they will occur. I was indeed fortunate to have been looking out of the window at the precise time the satellites had flown over.
It is worth bearing in mind what I would have contemplated had I not read the Sky & Telescope article earlier that year. The uninformed could have conjured up a whole manner of possible scenarios - they could not have come from this planet! This would have been a flying saucer believer’s ideal sighting, and it would have required considerable knowledge to have unravelled all of the details.
November 28th 1998, 7 pm
It was dark and I was looking out of my front window, watching out for aircraft flying past whilst I listened to my airband radio. This was a particularly quiet evening in the air. My radio scans through many frequencies every second, covering the entire region North and South of Cardiff, and on this night there were extensively quiet periods. Indeed, one American Airlines pilot saw fit to check his radio in case he had been cut off, because, as he said, it was so quiet tonight and he had heard no communications at all on his frequency.
After having heard and seen a few trans-Atlantic flights go by, I heard the Virgin flight 009 checking in on its new frequency, some distance West of its departure airport Heathrow. The pilot was advised to turn on to a direct course for his Atlantic entry point at 51º North, 15º West. Shortly afterwards I became aware of a bright star just North of East, about 5º high, between two trees. The night was magnificently clear, with some hazy patches, a rain front having passed over the country earlier that day. Stars were visible very low down on this night. This must have been a very bright star, I thought, to be so bright at such a low altitude, so I decided to turn my binoculars on it. It did indeed display the classic twinkling one would expect of a star, apparently changing colours very rapidly. This must be Sirius, I thought, the brightest star in the sky, just having risen. The Pleiades was a short distance above it, which allowing for the rising angle, seemed to confirm my identification.
It then occurred to me that it could not be Sirius, because its rising position on the horizon was too far North. Sirius has a Southerly declination and so it would rise South of East: this star was just North of East. As I was trying to resolve which bright star it might be, it then occurred to me that the star had moved quite noticeably. It was now near the top of the tree, whereas previously it had been around the middle of it. Furthermore, it was moving to the left as it rose, and not to the right as one would expect in the Northern hemisphere. This was certainly an unusual object, and it seems it was not a star after all. It must be an aeroplane, I thought, flying over the city a few miles away. And yet there was no sign of navigation lights or strobes, which one would expect if the aircraft was that close. I continued to look at it through my binoculars, and I began to resolve two white lights rather than just one: it was now looking more like an aircraft. Then, as I watched through the binoculars, the light suddenly dimmed and disappeared!
The mystery could have been left unresolved there and then, had I decided to head downstairs for my tea. I stayed, however, and continued to look for any trace of the object through my binoculars. Moments later I began to see strobe lights, typical of an airliner, roughly heading from where the light had been. Then it dawned on me: it was Virgin 009! I continued to watch it as it approached, heading directly towards my house, and subsequently flying directly overhead. Against the dark sky, I could resolve the classic shape of the 747, a row of windows blazing along its side.
Earlier, when the Jumbo had established contact on the new controlling frequency, I would estimate (from past experience) that the aircraft had just passed the radio beacon at Compton, about 34 miles West of Heathrow, and about 85 miles East of Cardiff. The aircraft then turned directly towards Cardiff as it headed out towards its Atlantic entry point. By chance, on a clear night, the aircraft was on a head-on route during the entire journey from the Compton beacon to Cardiff city. What I had probably seen, when the lights had disappeared from view, was the pilot switching off his landing lights, resorting simply to the standard navigation and strobe lights for the trans-Atlantic journey. At 85 miles distant, even the brilliant strobes had not been visible from my location, but the brilliant landing lights had been. It took a while before even the strobes had become visible. This must qualify as the greatest distance that I have ever seen an aircraft!
This case demonstrates a frequent phenomenon in UFO observations: co-incidence of events. On average, only about one night in five has a clear sky in the British Isles. Aircraft are rarely seen travelling head-on for any distance, and even a slight deviation in their route can cause their very directional lights to become lost from view. Furthermore, aircraft are rarely assigned direct routings from a point so close to Heathrow as the Compton beacon. I can only assume that he was able to do this because the skies were so quiet.
On this night, all of these events had occurred together.
The stellar appearance of the landing lights can probably be explained by simple geometry. The landing lights on a Jumbo jet are positioned on the leading edges of the wings, a short distance from the fuselage, and they are about 12.5 metres apart. There are two pairs of lights on either side. At 80 miles distant, to an observer seeing them head-on, they would appear just 18 seconds of arc apart, or 0º.005. Since the eye’s resolution is typically only 1 minute of arc (ie. 60 seconds of arc) the two lights would appear to merge into one. In an astronomical context, they would appear as a double-star with two equally bright components. My binoculars have a ten times magnification and they were just able to resolve the two lights before they extinguished.
It is worth speculating how other eyewitnesses might have interpreted this situation. If someone had given up the observation when the light had extinguished, its claim as a UFO would have been substantial, and it would have been difficult for any investigator to have determined the precise location of Virgin 009 at that instant. Local air traffic controllers would obviously claim that they had seen nothing on their radar screens: after all, 85 miles away is hardly a local observation! However, the light looked much closer, and a poor distance estimate is all that would be required to intensify the mystery. Binoculars added little to the early observation, and even if the strobes had been seen later, an eyewitness would not necessarily have realised that they were one and the same object, because they looked so different. Besides, the strobe lights would not have become visible to the naked eye until several minutes later, by which time any sense of its originating direction would have been lost.
Early June 2001, 5 am
I was watching a couple of aircraft fly over as they came in from their overnight trans-Atlantic crossings. The sky was very clear, with only small patches of cloud. I identified one of the aircraft through my binoculars as a Federal Express (FedEx) MD-11. It was easily recognisable by its white coloured fuselage and purple coloured tail. Further away, and at a lower elevation, I could see a four engined jet airliner, predominantly white in colour, although it was too far away to identify the airline. Both aircraft were travelling Eastbound along a well used Atlantic arrival airway, so their flight paths were parallel to each other. My viewing direction was towards the Northeast, where the Sun was about to rise. The brilliant white planet Venus, rising ahead of the Sun, had disappeared from my view during the last half hour or so.
A trans-Atlantic airliner passing overhead, filmed on video camera by the author
I watched the planes for several minutes as they headed into the distance, increasingly needing binoculars to spot them. They were leaving predominant jet trails behind them, although these did not stay around long before they dissipated. The FedEx jet continued to head Eastwards until all I could see was a faint jet trail. This eventually disappeared in the haze of the early morning twilight. The white airliner, however, made a turn towards the Northeast, presumably on an arrival routing into one of the London airports. The aircraft itself was no longer visible, even in my binoculars, but the jet trail was still plainly visible. I them became aware of a flashing point of light at the front of the jet trail, resembling a strongly twinkling star. It was, no doubt, the airliner itself, reflecting the rising sun off its metallic belly. It twinkled all the different colours of the rainbow, just as Sirius (the brightest star in the sky) appears to do. The plane was so far away (probably around 60 miles or more) that it was too small to resolve, other than a point of light - just as a star appears. The twinkling effect was brought about by the same reasons a star twinkles - by the dense and turbulent air between the aircraft and my observing location.
I removed the binoculars from my eyes, and looked carefully low down in the sky for any trace of the aircraft and its jet trail. The jet trail had long disappeared from view, but lo and behold, just above some distant trees, was a twinkling "star", slowly moving from right to left across the twilit sky. Despite its distance, the reflected sunlight from the aircraft's belly was so bright that it could be seen from tens of miles away.
Summer 1997, daytime
I glanced out of the window and my eye caught sight of what appeared to be an elongated white object moving parallel to the horizon in a Northward direction. I only saw it for a couple of seconds or so, and I was immediately tempted to think that it was some kind of metallic flying disk reflecting the sunlight. I stood up and walked towards the window, but I could no longer see the object. What I did see, however, were a number of seagulls flying around across the other side of the river. It then occurred to me that what I had probably seen was simply a seagull, whose white belly had briefly caught the sunlight, whilst its dark upper wing surface had blended perfectly with the dark clouds behind it and so could not be discerned. The seagull’s belly had perfectly resembled a metallic flying disk!
Copyright Martin J Powell June 2001