It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s fooling a veteran Air Force pilot!


November 11, 2012 by kittynh

My dear friend, and fellow member of the Granite State Skeptics, really blew everyone away with his talk at our Skepticamp about seeing “UFO”. I asked him to please share with the readers here at Yankeeskeptic. If your group is looking for speakers, I can highly recommend the guest author of this blog. He’s brilliant, funny, well educated and beat of all handsome! Please enjoy reading a version of the talk that was the hit of Skepticamp!

A man you can trust,
and one not easily fooled!

A while back, I gave a presentation at the second annual SkeptiCamp in Concord, New Hampshire. Granite State Skeptics, in particular Dale Roy, put this event together. It was great fun, and a lot of really terrific presentations were made. I got up there and did a presentation where I touted myself as a reliable witness, and then related a story that is quite representative of many other stories that we hear. Generally I tend to speak (and write) quite extemporaneously, so I will do my best to reproduce my talk here in written form.
So, the question is, if I related an extraordinary story to you, would you believe me? Let me start off a bit by bragging about myself. I want to really build the case that I am indeed a very reliable and trustworthy witness, and I should know what I saw better than most people.
First of all, I am a retired USAF officer. I served 20 years. I have a TS/SCI (Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information) clearance. They don’t give those sort of clearances to just anyone. I even had an interim Yankee White clearance (for those that don’t know, that is a special clearance that they give to people supporting the President of the United States directly). These two levels of clearance are the highest levels of trust that the government will generally give an individual, and involve very thorough investigations into your trustworthiness and mental stability. In addition to these clearances, I also had what was called a Cogint Figure qualification. As a KC-135 refueling pilot, I would sometimes be called on to refuel Top Secret aircraft (so in addition to my clearances, I also saw airplanes others never did).
As I mentioned, I was a pilot. As a matter of fact, I was quite an accomplished pilot. I had an Instructor and Evaluator qualification in two USAF airframes (the highest level of qualification). In addition to the aircraft I primarily flew (the KC-135R and C-21A), I also flew the T-37, T-38, and various other general aviation aircraft. I have experienced most envelopes of human aviation. During my flying career, I flew all over the world. I have over 3000 hours in jet aircraft (more than many airline pilots even). And as a military pilot, I even got to do types of flying that non-military pilots could never imagine. Air refueling, which means I am flying in close formation with other aircraft and making them touch each other at 500 miles per hour, performing various types of rendezvous, flying on NVGs (Night Vision Goggles), and so forth. It is truly a unique way to fly!
As a pilot, we are expected to be familiar with all sorts of meteorology. We receive a practical and written exam on weather each year to maintain our qualifications. And every time we fly, we even get briefings on meteorology. Weather is a well known area for anyone who s a professional pilot. Furthermore, I am an avid fan and hobbyist of astronomy. I took courses in both high school and college, and keep up with numerous journals and publications on astronomy, as well as physics. Yes, I am like Leonard on The Big Bang Theory! Although I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and received my degree in Aeronautical Engineering (with specialized courses in hypersonic propulsion systems). I quite a bit about science, technology, astronomy, and subject like that. Trust me, sit down with me for a while, buy me a beer, and I will talk your ear off on those subjects.
With these sort of credentials, I would think that if I relate a story to you, you would be inclined to take me at my word. I know what I am talking about, and I have the requisite subject matter expertise to be able to accurately identify anything I see out there. So what happened?
Well, I was doing a mission where we were flying from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. We had left Egypt at Oh Dark Thirty (very early in the morning), and were flying east. About half way to Saudi, we noticed that there was an aircraft about 45 miles ahead of us (we made this determination based on the apparent luminosity and size of the light we saw). Initially it was at the same altitude as we were, and it wasn’t moving in the windscreen (an indication that you are either on a collision course, or training them). After observing it for a short while, we noticed that we had no closure on it, so we figured we were indeed trailing them. Of course, just to be safe, we tried to paint the aircraft with our radar. Well, it never showed up on the radar at all. As we are puzzling over the fact that it is clearly within range of our radar but we couldn’t paint it (45 miles was our determination based on a large aircraft with that luminosity, a smaller aircraft would have been even closer and easier to paint with our radar), we also noticed that the aircraft was climbing. Now we were cruising at about Mach 0.83, at an altitude of FL390. For an aircraft to maintain the same distance (and from the apparent luminosity it even seemed to be pulling away), and also climb was pretty unusual. Of course, throughout this whole time, it just seemed that AWACs (our air traffic control) was unusually silent. They really weren’t talking to a lot of people. Again we re-checked our traffic, and now we saw that they were just incredibly high in the sky. Using some simple trigonometry (who ever said you’d never need it after school?) we calculated that the unknown aircraft was at an altitude of FL800! The only airplanes that operate at those altitudes are either supersonic, rocket powered, or had no business being in the Middle East. What we were watching did not confirm to the performance characteristics of any know aircraft. And it just kept climbing!
So what was it? Would you believed me if I had claimed that based on what I know about a myriad of subjects, and my level of technical expertise and knowledge, that I could eliminate any technology possessed by mankind. And it was clearly an artificial object in the sky. Thus by process of elimination that it was an artificial object that couldn’t have been made by mankind, it therefore must have been a UFO? After all, my story appears very similar to a myriad of other such stories told. After all, I am a reliable witness, right?
Okay, I’ll fess up. I was actually looking at Venus! Yep, the best excuse for the Men in Black! So, why would someone who has such an extensive data-set of information and knowledge at his disposal make such a classic mistake? To put it bluntly, it’s because our brains suck!
Maybe you want a few more details than just that? Okay, there are many factors at play here, and hopefully I can articulate them all for you. First of all, when you are flying and looking out the front window, the thing you are looking for, and expect to see are other airplanes. They are the “threat” out there, and it is your default position. You have an expectation to see something, and you generally know what to look for. Even at 45 miles away, if you were heading straight at each other at jet speeds, you would only have about 12 seconds of useful time to make a determination of danger. Also, our brains evolved on the plains of Africa. The environment we are suited to is having our eyes about 5 feet off the ground, and moving at a speed of about 2 miles per hour. Given our technology, we are quite often outside that performance envelope. Also, our brains will try to make sense of the visual input we get, and will assign references to it, even if they aren’t there. In this particular case, we all know Venus can be quite bright. However, we can’t really judge distances at night, especially when there are no other features to compare it to. So in this particular case, my brain, as well as the brain of the rest of the crew, all saw something with an expected luminosity of a large aircraft, and assigned a value of 45 miles to it. We are generally experts at that sort of determination, but in this particular case, since it wasn’t actually an aircraft, we got it quite wrong. There are many, many other factors at play with our brains in this story, and I only covered the very few basics of them. For instance, there is a well known phenomenon where you can focus on one thing so hard, that you don’t notice other more startling or shocking things. If anyone is not familiar with the video where you need to count the number of times a team with white shirts pass a basketball back and forth (while there is also a team with black shirts doing the same thing), I recommend you have someone find it for you (By the way, I think I got the correct number of passes in that test!). Also, as soon as our brain receives data that it can’t quite make sense of, it will attempt to force that data to make sense. That is why “eyewitness” reports are generally not that good. We actually are horrible observers of the world around us, and we are constantly filling in details and just plain letting our brains make stuff up for us.
So you see, our brains do suck in many ways (and of course, it’s still quite good in many other ways). The cautionary tale here is not that you should throw out all eyewitness reports of everything. Just take it with a grain of salt, and of course question the conclusions that the eyewitness made based on what they saw. Thankfully for me, we did finally figure out what it was that we were looking at, and our crew managed to avoid embarrassment had we filled out a SAFIRE report. It is interesting that we did discount our instruments (radar, TCAS, etc.) that told us that there wasn’t an object at 45 miles away. Again, we were fixated on it (see the story of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 for a perfect example of fixation), and because it could have been a threat to us, the lizard part of our brains took over and drove our perceptions from that point on. It took us consciously telling our brains to shut up and allow other data to influence us before we were able to correct our mistake. And of course, being willing to accept that fact that such highly trained and smart people like us could make a mistake also played into us discovering that we were indeed mistaken.
If anyone has any other questions, or wants to talk more about this (or any other skeptical subject), I can be reached at or you can find me stalking the web at places like JREF, Bad Astronomy, Skeptics StackExchange, and of course Facebook.

A man smart enough to fly this….

…can still be fooled by this!

6 thoughts on “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s fooling a veteran Air Force pilot!

  1. Thanks for putting this up Kitty! It was a lot of fun giving the presentation, and as you said, I am always open to giving presentations at other places.

  2. Whitney Adams says:

    Fifth paragraph, second to last sentence. There’s a word missing. Other than that tiny error, this was an amazing read! I love that our brains can ‘suck’ and be incredible all at once.

    • Whitney Adams says:

      Also, instead of ‘trailing’, the text in parentheses reads, ‘training’.

    • Thanks for catching those. My spell-checker wouldn’t catch those sort of mistakes. And Kitty kept hounding me to get this done, so I may have got a few homophones in there! 🙂 I think I also saw another mistake in there (although now I can’t find it).

  3. By the way, there is additional discussion about this over at the JREF: Feel free to join in there.

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