|Remember that riveting opening sequence in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when air traffic controllers stared at their boards as airline pilots barely avoided colliding with something nobody wanted to talk about afterwards? A drama that unfolded over America’s northwest corridor in the early evening of Oct. 24, 2017, wasn’t quite that Hollywood. But whatever it was, the thing was flying. It had no transponder but got caught on radar. Then it erased itself and vanished from ATC screens. Immediately after that, at least three airline pilots reported seeing it. Jet fighters scrambled; by time they|
got airborne, whatever it was vanished for good, and the whole sequence probably left a few people who had to deal with it wondering if it was worth the effort.
We know all this thanks to some masterful work from Tyler Rogoway, a military aviation reporter at a non-UFO website called The War Zone. Armed with voluminous details harvested from a Freedom of Information Act request, Rogoway broke the story last November. And the updated results are so cool, De Void anticipates a Congressional suspension of FOIA laws any day now.
On Thursday, Rogoway posted audiotaped real-time chatter from eyewitnesses and official sources. It begins with the detection of an unknown flying object by Oakland Center air traffic control. It popped onto its screens at 37,000 feet, and for more than an hour, the speeding bogey drew swivels from both the Federal Aviation Administration and North American Aerospace Defense Command. It streaked for several hundred miles over northern California and Oregon, northbound. It ended when F-15s from the 142nd Fighter Wing out of Portland were dispatched on a fool’s errand to identify what at least one civilian pilot described as a big white unmarked aircraft, with few additional details.
Three months later, Rogoway has augmented his early reporting with a fascinating narrative presented in four separate videos, some syncing radar maps with recorded participant dialogue. The confusion among FAA operators is unambiguous: “You know that target south of the boundary there, that 0027 code moving very fast at 37,000?” “Yeah, look at that thing.” “Yeah, that’s, uh, crazy.” “Hmm, um, and you don’t have anything on him, huh?” “I got nothing.” “Well, we’ll look.”
Oblivious to requests for identification, the UFO merges into existing air traffic lanes and no longer expresses itself in radar pingbacks. But northbound airline pilots report seeing a distant white somethingorother that paces and maybe passes them, even as it resembles thin air to radar beacons. Although this potentially dangerous behavior fails to trip the planes’ Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems, it does alert a picket fence of other acronyms – DEN (the Domestic Events Network) and WADS (the Western Air Defense Sector, also nicknamed Bigfoot). Somewhere along the way, a command goes out to put F-15s in the sky to get some military eyes on the intruder. When an Alaska 439 pilot requests new info on the bogey, an ATC operator says it may have gone into “stealth mode or something.”
The F-15s hunted for the UFO “with the most capable air-to-air radar set in the world (AN/APG-63VC) and Sniper advanced targeting pods for long-range visual identification,” Rogoway states in his November report. “Their pilots are some of the best in the world and are highly trained in the homeland air defense mission. The fact that they ‘didn’t find anything’ is surprising to say the least. Maybe this was due to the nature of the aircraft being searched for, or the possibility that they launched long after it was first sighted, or that we simply aren’t being told the whole story.”
Rogoway’s FOIAs also produced an after-action audio gem. In this segment, an unnamed Seattle Center ATC Manager In Charge of Operations reaches out to airline pilots and FAA officials to figure out what just happened. All spoken names, phone numbers and emails are literally beeped out; but then, curious stretches of silence punctuate some of those interviews.
We also get a peek into procedural tensions during an exchange between Seattle and the FAA Air Traffic Security Coordinator. Among other things, FAA wants to know who asked for jet-fighter support. Seattle says Oakland sounded the first alert and, as the UFO entered another coverage zone, Oakland told Seattle to call WADS. Seattle said he notified WADS, but he didn’t ask for air support. FAA reminds Seattle that a “request for military assistance has to come through FAA headquarters.” Again, Seattle tells FAA he never made such a request.
FAA: “I explicitly said over the line that headquarters was not in conference with requesting military assistance at that time because I was on the DEN … I had no radar, had no target, I had nothing –” Seattle: “Yeah, we had nothing, either.” FAA: “—from anybody. So I would not send the fighters to go up and, y’know, toodle around and –” Seattle: “Right, flying around. ‘Cause we don’t even know what we’re looking for.”
Afterwards, sounding slightly chastened, Seattle calls Oakland to compare notes. Oakland has Seattle’s back: “But there was definitely something out there.” Seattle: “There was definitely something there, there’s no question, because United 612, it was … off his 3 o’clock, and about 5 to 10 miles for about a hundred miles … so what we’re trying is to reach those pilots of all those aircraft to see if they can write us a little a report about what they saw …”
Oakland: “Our radar did pick up an intruder target coming in at a high speed right toward the southwest …” Seattle: “Southbound? Not northbound?” Oakland: “Southbound. And then it did an abrupt maneuver and just took off northbound. And we’re like, what? He was southbound, now he’s northbound. Weird …”
A new weapon system going out for a test spin? Hey, what if it was North Korean? They do sneaky secret stuff, right? Unfortunately, the FOIA material doesn’t get us anywhere close to an answer. The last audio clip finds Seattle talking with an official with the FAA’s Safety and Quality Assurance Group. She calls the incident “potentially significant,” says it’s “a weird enough thing that there is not a set procedure,” and “It’s not often we hear about an unknown guy up at that altitude.”
Maybe, as Skeptic James McGaha would reassure us, the mystery would solved by now if only the pilots and radar monitors had been astronomers. Anyhow, great reporting. Well done. Stay on it.