In March 2018, a month after the fact, the FAA released a radio broadcast of what CBS News called an “out-of-this-world incident.” Actually, the UFO, seen by two separate civil aviation pilots flying over Arizona, has a very, very likely real-world explanation.
The object was first reported by the pilot of a Learjet operated by Phoenix Air, who contacted air traffic control to ask, “Was anybody, uh, above us that passed us like 30 seconds ago?” The object was verified by a second pilot, from American Airlines Flight 1095, after being queried by the controller: “Yeah, something just passed us. I don’t know what it was, but it was at least two, three thousand feet above us” (Gajanan 2018).
The controller could not verify that any other aircraft was present at that location. He joked to the Learjet pilot, “Maybe a UFO,” provoking a laugh. The American Airlines pilot said he could not identify the object but that it was traveling in the opposite direction and was extremely bright.” He was asked if it might have been “a Google balloon” (i.e., one of a network of balloons about eleven miles above Earth intended to provide Internet access to rural areas). He replied, “Doubtful” (Gajanan 2018; Mazza 2018).
Not long after the incident, Bob Tracey of Phoenix Air Group spoke with the Learjet captain who told him he had been flying at approximately 37,000 feet and that the unidentified object was several thousand feet above. “The glare was so intense,” said Tracey, “they couldn’t make it out.” The American 1095 pilot confirmed the effect, stating, “Couldn’t make it out whether it was a balloon or whatnot. But it was just beaming light, or could have had a big reflection” (Windsor 2018).
I contacted my friend and colleague Major James McGaha, USAF retired. A former Special Operations pilot, as well as an astronomer (he is director of Arizona’s Grasslands Observatory), he has a unique knowledge of the sky. Using several online sources, I researched the case, anticipating some of the information he would want.
The sightings occurred near the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (Tucson) at about 3:30 p. m. local time on February 24. Although the object was reported flying in the opposite direction to the planes, that would also appear to be the case if the object was relatively stationary. In fact, neither pilot could be sure of the object’s actual motion or lack thereof. The Learjet pilot did insist, “It wasn’t an airplane” (Mazza 2018; Gajanan 2018).
McGaha pointed out that whenever a very bright light source is seen during the daytime, it is most likely a reflection of sunlight off an object. Given the time and place of the sighting, and therefore the angle and azimuth of the sun, he says, the Arizona UFO is fully consistent with this scenario: a reflective, slowly drifting object at high altitude, very brightly lit by the sun.
Given these findings, McGaha says, together with the corroborative evidence provided by the two pilots, the mystery object can be identified as very likely some type of balloon—such as a high-altitude research balloon—inadvertently, in this instance, doubling as a UFO.
Gajanan, Mahita. 2018. Two Commercial Pilots Had Close Encounter…. Online at http://time.com/5220209/pilots-ufo-arizona-plane/; accessed March 29, 2018.
Mazza, Ed. 2018. American Airlines Pilot Reports UFO with ‘Big Reflection’ 40,000 Feet over Arizona. Huffington Post, March 26.
2 Airline Pilots Report Seeing UFO While Flying over Arizona. 2018. Online at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/airline-pilots-ufo-sighting-arizona/; accessed March 29, 2018.
Winsor, Morgan. 2018. Pilots Report Close Encounters… Online at http://abc7news.com/pilots-report-close-encounters-with-ufo-over-arizona-something%20-just-passed-over-us/3276910; accessed April 2, 2018.