Approaching Manchester airport, England, on the evening of 1995 January 6, a
British Airways Boeing 737 with 60 passengers on board was buzzed by a bright,
fast-moving UFO. The first officer ducked instinctively as it flashed past. The
conversation between the pilot and Manchester air traffic control was as
Pilot: “We just had something go down the right hand side just above us very fast”
Manchester: “Well, there’s nothing seen on radar. Was it an aircraft?”
Pilot: “Well, it had lights, it went down the starboard side very quick”
Manchester: “And above you?”
Pilot: “Just slightly above us, yeah”.
At the time of the incident, which occurred at 18.48 pm, the Boeing was
descending through 4,000 ft altitude about nine miles southeast of Manchester.
Visibility was over 10 km, it was dark and the Boeing was flying in clear air
above cumulus cloud on a northerly heading. The UFO was moving in the opposite
direction and was visible for about two seconds. There was no apparent sound or
wake. No other pilots reported it, nor was it seen from the ground, presumably
because of the intervening cloud.
The incident was considered so unusual that the pilots submitted a report which
was investigated by the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) Independent Joint Airmiss Working Group. Their findings were published in February 1996.
In his report to the CAA the pilot described the object as having a number of
small white lights, like a Christmas tree. While he was convinced that the
object itself was lit, the co-pilot differed, describing it as a dark
wedge-shaped object with what could have been a black stripe down the side, and
thought that it was illuminated by the Boeing 737’s landing lights. (In fact this is unlikely, since the object was above and to
the side of the Boeing). The co-pilot was convinced that it was not a
meteorological phenomenon, balloon, or any other craft they were familiar with,
including a Stealth aircraft.
“If you’ve never seen a UFO, you’re not very observant. And if you’ve seen as many as I have, you won’t believe in them.”
Arthur C. Clarke
In its investigation the CAA considered the possibility that the UFO could have
been another aircraft ranging from a hang glider or microlight to a military
flight, but found no evidence to support such suggestions. The CAA
investigators did not consider other possible causes since they were outside
their remit of air safety, but remarked that “almost all unusual sightings can be attributed to a wide range of well-known
natural phenomena”. They concluded that the incident “remains unresolved”.
Had the CAA chosen to consider astronomical explanations, a likely answer would
not have been difficult to find. From the captain’s description, the object sounds like a bright fireball, and in view of the lack
of a radar return or a wake there is no good reason to suppose that it was
anything else. Such a misidentification by experienced pilots is not unusual,
as we shall see from what follows. In fact, another British Airways pilot and
two RAF Tornado pilots had described a satellite re-entry in similar terms in
1990. But, in the annals of UFOlogy, the Manchester case has gone down as a UFO
officially endorsed by the Civil Aviation Authority.
What causes UFOs?
Amateur astronomers know more about the causes of UFO sightings than most
so-called UFO researchers. Arthur C. Clarke, not a man with a closed mind, once
said: ”If you’ve never seen a UFO, you’re not very observant. And if you’ve seen as many as I have, you won’t believe in them.”
To see what he meant, we need to look at some statistics. Astronomical objects
are by far the main causes of mistaken UFO reports. In a classic analysis of
1,300 UFO reports made to the Center for UFO Studies in the US, published by
Allan Hendry in The UFO Handbook (Sphere, 1980), just over half of all identified nocturnal lights were accounted
for by astronomical causes: stars, planets, meteors, the Moon, artificial
satellites, and satellite re-entries.
An astronomical solution should always be uppermost in a UFO investigator’s mind, but few UFOlogists have even a rudimentary understanding of astronomy
What’s more, astronomical objects also featured prominently among the identified
daytime UFOs, those involving apparent corroboration by radar, and the various
classes of close encounters, including the celebrated Third Kind in which
occupants are supposedly sighted. In short, an astronomical solution should
always be uppermost in a UFO investigator’s mind, but experience shows that few UFOlogists have even a rudimentary
understanding of astronomy and so fail to weed out even easily explicable
How stars become UFOs
Why should simple lights in the sky cause such confusion? As amateur astronomers
know, most people are totally unfamiliar with the sky. Highly credible
witnesses such as teachers, policemen and pilots (yes, and astronomers) can
still be surprised by the unexpected appearance of a bright star, planet,
meteor, or satellite.
Usually, a description such as “it seemed to hover for an hour” is diagnostic of a star or planet (people get fed up watching after about an
hour, or the object sets). Often there are other descriptions such as “flashing coloured lights” or “it appeared to be rotating” which is how bright stars appear when they are twinkling, notably Sirius on a
cold, frosty night. Binoculars do not always help identification if they happen
to be cheap and with optical defects that produce spurious colours and shapes.
Additional information such as “it wasn’t there before” or “it appeared to move slowly” or “it dodged around” are still consistent with characteristics of stars and planets. Many people don’t realize that stars rise and set during the night. Thin clouds can make stars
appear to dim and brighten, as though they were receding or approaching. And,
when seen between scudding clouds, stars really do appear to dodge around.
A more subtle effect is known technically as the autokinetic effect. In this, natural movements of the eye make a stationary object appear to move
irregularly, sometimes zooming up and down or swinging from side to side in a
movement sometimes described as like a “falling leaf”. Autokinetic motion can be uncanny when watching artificial satellites, which
often appear to zig zag or even make deviations around stars in their path.
Another shortcoming of human perception is that it is impossible to judge the
distances of lights in the sky. A planet millions of miles away, an aircraft
several thousand feet away, or a torch bulb a few dozen yards away all appear
much the same size and brightness at night. The examples in this article show
the tendency of witnesses to grossly underestimate the distance of nocturnal
Even sightings involving military radar are no more likely to involve “genuine” UFOs. In 1989 a series of reports began to emanate from Belgium, culminating on
the night of 1990 March 30–31 with widespread sightings by police and an aerial “chase” by Belgian Air Force F-16 fighters involving radar contact with an unidentified
target. This now-famous event turned out to have been sparked off by misidentifications of bright stars and
planets by police while the radar returns were due to atmospheric effects and equipment malfunction. (For a more extensive analysis, see here.)
Venus, the biggest culprit of all
Let’s start by looking at some instructive examples involving the planet Venus, the
biggest UFO culprit of all, popularly known as the “evening star” (although it can also appear in the morning sky as the “morning star”). As amateur astronomers know, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky
after the Moon and can dazzle the eye, sometimes appearing cross-shaped. Back
in 1967, there was a famous case in which two policemen in Devon, England,
reported Venus as a UFO shaped like a
“flying cross” and chased it in their car at speeds up to 90 mile/h.
Perhaps the most celebrated UFO witness of all time was the governor of the US
state of Georgia, a former American naval officer trained in celestial
navigation and nuclear physics, who was later to become president of the United
States: Jimmy Carter. In 1973, Carter reported that four years earlier he and
10 other people in the town of Leary, Georgia, had watched a brilliant UFO low
on the horizon which appeared to move towards them and away again, while
changing in brightness, size, and colour. He estimated the distance as between
300 ft and 1,000 ft, and said that at times it became almost as big and bright
as the full Moon.
This case was thoroughly investigated by Robert Sheaffer, who described it in
his book The UFO Verdict (Prometheus, 1981). For a start, Sheaffer found that Carter was nine months out
in his recollection of the date. Of the ten claimed witnesses, Sheaffer could
find only one who remembered the incident even vaguely, and he thought the
object might have been a balloon. But with the correct date established,
Sheaffer found that the witnesses had been looking straight at brilliant Venus.
The errors in his report are typical of those made by UFO witnesses: the size
and brightness of the object is overestimated, the distance is underestimated,
and spurious motion is attributed to the object.
“Close encounters” with Venus and Jupiter
In The UFO Handbook, Allan Hendry describes an apparent close encounter of the third kind
stimulated by Venus. A woman reported that a very bright object in the
southwest had made a slow, jerky descent over a period of an hour one evening.
As she stared at it, she became convinced that she could see occupants with
rounded silvery heads looking out of the object’s windows. The UFO turned up again on subsequent nights, exactly where Venus
Keep this report of apparent occupants in mind when considering the famous story
of an American couple, Betty and Barney Hill, who claimed to have been chased
by a UFO one night. Barney stopped to look at the object through binoculars and
reported seeing a row of windows with alien faces peering out. Thinking they
were going to be abducted, the Hills drove off in panic. Later, Betty Hill
dreamed that they really were abducted, and many UFOlogists have believed her
Yet, from Betty Hill’s own sketch, Robert Sheaffer has identified the UFO as Jupiter, which is second
only to Venus in brightness. The apparent ‘chasing’ is another phenomenon of celestial objects, which appear to keep pace with
moving cars. Sheaffer also describes a hilarious 100 mph police chase of Venus
through Ohio and Pennsylvania in 1966. They never did catch it, but they did
inspire a scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.