Airliners Paced By Three UFOs: The Killian Case

Nr. Williamsport, Pennsylvania
February 24, 1959

DC-6B Transport

Richard Hall:
Captain Killian and First Officer James Dee, American Airlines, were flying a DC-6B nonstop from Newark to Detroit. It was a clear night, with stars brightly visible and no moon. At 8:20 p.m. EST the plane was approximately 13 miles west of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, flying on a heading of 295 degrees at 8,500 feet. Off the left wingtip, Captain Killian noticed three bright lights, which he first thought were the three stars making up the belt of the constellation Orion. But then he realized that Orion was also visible, higher overhead. The UFOs were about 15 degrees above the plane. 

As he and F/O Dee continued to watch, the objects pulled ahead of the wingtip. At this point, in the vicinity of Erie, Pennsylvania, Captain Killian contacted two other American Airlines planes in the area. One at the Dolphin checkpoint (over the northern shore of Lake Erie) saw the objects directly to the south over Cleveland. The other aircraft, near Sandusky, Ohio, and headed toward Pittsburgh, spotted the objects a little to the left of their heading, to the southeast. 

 Click here for larger GIF

As the DC-6B continued west, the UFOs occasionally pulled ahead and dropped back until they were in their original position with respect to the left wingtip. Then Captain Killian began letting down for landing in Detroit, and the crew no longer had time to watch the objects. 

During the 45 minute observation, the UFOs continuously changed brightness, flashing brightly "brighter than any star," and fading completely. This did not occur in any apparent pattern. The color fluctuated from yellow-orange to a brilliant blue-white at their brightest. The last object in line moved back and forth at times, independently of the generally western motion of the formation. 

Visibility was unlimited. The pilots agreed, "It could not be any clearer than it was that night above 5,000 feet." 

When the plane began letting down for landing, about 9:15 p.m., Captain Killian and F/O Dee lost sight of the objects. At 9:30 p.m. in Akron, Ohio, George Popowitch of the UFO Research Committee received a phone call from a contact at the Akron airport. A United Airlines plane (Flight 937) had just landed for a 15-minute stop, and reported sighting three UFOs which had followed their plane for 30 minutes. Popowitch had already received 9 reports from local citizens between 9:15 and 9:20 of three UFOs seen in the area, so he arranged to interview the crew of the airliner. 

Captain A.D. Yates and Eng. L.E. Baney said they had tracked the objects from the vicinity of Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to Youngstown, Ohio, between 8:40 and 9:10 p.m. United Airlines Flight 321, also, had discussed the objects by radio. Captain Yates had seen the UFOs pacing his plane to the south. But in the vicinity of Warren, Ohio the objects passed the aircraft, veered to the right, and finally disappeared to the northwest. 

Source: UFO EVIDENCE, Section V, Pages 42-43

Capt. Killian with two hostess (also witnesses).

In this photo Killian has in his left hand a model of an American Airlines DC-6.

NICAP UFO EVIDENCE, Section IX, Page 116-117:
Capt. Peter Killian, American Airlines pilot, was one of several pilots who reported observing three UFOs above Pennsylvania, Feb.24, 1959. (See Section V). While traveling westward across the state, Capt. Killian and the other pilots saw the UFOs flying a parallel course to the south. The Air Force later stated that the pilots had seen Air Force bombers refueling from a tanker aircraft. 

Reconstructing the sighting (see map), it is possible to trace a hypothetical, but very consistent, picture of the UFOs' flight path. Around 6:20 to 6:40 p.m., from Central Pennsylvania, the UFOs were observed to the SSW paralleling the westerly course of the airliners. Their distance, of course, is unknown. But based on subsequent observations, it is a reasonable supposition that the UFOs were over southern Pennsylvania, in the vicinity of Pittsburgh and Johnstown. 

Around the same time that Capt. A. D. Yates, United Airlines, saw the UFOs turn and head northwest in the vicinity of Akron, three American Airlines pilots simultaneously saw the objects (8:55 p.m.). Their lines of sight converge on the Cleveland- Akron area. By 9:20 p.m., the Akron UFO Research Committee had received reports from ground observers, describing three UFOs headed west. Capt. Killian continued to observe the UFOs until he began his landing approach at Detroit, about 120 miles northwest of Akron. 

In a letter to Senator Harry Flood Byrd, dated 6 May 1959, Maj. Gen. W. P. Fisher (Air Force Director of Legislative Liaison) stated: 

"The investigation of this incident revealed that an Air Force refueling mission, involving a KC-97 and three B-47 aircraft, was flown in the vicinity of Bradford, Pennsylvania, at the time of the sighting by Capt. Killian. The refueling operation was conducted at 17,000 feet altitude at approximately 230 knots true air speed (about 265 mph) for a period of approximately one hour." 

Assuming that this is a completely accurate statement, the Air Force could lay to rest this "flying saucer" report once and for all by publishing the exact flight plan of the refueling mission. Surely, at this late date there would be no compromising of security. On the surface, the explanation is plausible (except for the back-and-forth motion of the third UFO in line). The distance from the area of Johnstown, Pa., to Detroit is approximately 250 miles, which is consistent with the distance that would be covered by the refueling tanker. On closer analysis, however, there are several discrepancies in this explanation: 

(1) Bradford, Pa., given as a geographical reference point for the refueling mission, is north of the flight paths of the American and United airliners. All the pilots saw the UFOs to the south. If the refueling mission actually took place over southern Pennsylvania (which would have to be the case to account for the reported facts), why wasn't Pittsburgh or Johnstown given as a reference point? Bradford is virtually the full width of the state away from the apparent location of the UFOs. 

(2) Triangulation shows that (from the line of Capt. Killian's flight path in Central Pennsylvania) the tanker and other aircraft would have to be within 12 miles of Capt. Killian's position for a sighting angle of 15 degrees to place them at approximately 17,000 feet altitude. Even allowing for a 1/3 error in estimation of angle, the aircraft would have to be within 20 miles to the south of Capt. Killian. This is inconsistent with the observation by Capt. Yates, farther to the south, who also saw the UFOs to his south as he traveled all the way to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. 

(3) Triangulation of the simultaneous sighting by the three American Airlines pilots is even more damaging to the tanker explanation. The three lines of sight converge on the general Akron area, where ground sightings also tend to confirm the distance from Capt. Killian's aircraft. From the position of Capt. Killian's plane at the time of the simultaneous observation, the distance to Akron is approximately 70 miles. 

tan 15 degrees- 4
x 70 tan 15 degrees
x = 18.1 miles
x 95,568 feet (altitude of UFOs)
Even allowing for a 2/3 error in angle estimation: 
x 70 tan S degrees
x 6.1 miles
x -- 32,208 feet (altitude of UFOs)

(4) The American Airlines pilots checked after landing and learned that no jet tankers were in the area. (Taped statement by copilot on file at CSI, New York). Capt. Killian is also quoted by the Air Force as stating that a check with Air Traffic Control showed no three aircraft in the area (see below). 

(5) Several aspects of the Air Force handling of this case suggest a desire to explain it away, including issuance of typical counter-to-fact explanations. 

Before any representatives of the Air Force contacted Capt. Killian to obtain his report, the Air Force first suggested he had been fooled by the belt of the constellation Orion seen through breaks in the overcast. (There was no overcast). This statement was issued from ATIC three days after the sighting. An anonymous spokesman implied that UFO witnesses often proved to be drunks (N.Y. Herald-Tribune; March 1, 1959). 

On March 20 (more than three weeks after the sighting) the Air Force issued a statement from Washington alleging that the airline pilots had seen a refueling mission. (One critic of the USAF UFO investigation wryly suggested to NICAP that it took the Air Force three weeks to locate some of its own planes). The refueling mission explanation has since been given all inquiring Members of Congress. 

When contacted by the press about the tanker explanation, Capt. Killian gave a strong rebuttal: "If the Air Force wants to believe that, it can," Capt. Killian said. "But I know what a B-47 looks like and I know what a KC-97 tanker looks like, and I know what they look like in operation at night. And that's not what I saw." [See Notes, Section V] 

Later, the Air Force began circulating a copy of a statement (unsigned) which it alleges was obtained from Capt. Killian by American Airlines: 


American Airlines, Inc. 

Flight 139 - February 24, 1959 

Captain P. W. Killian

Departing Newark 1910 arriving Detroit 2252. 

It was approximately 2045 I noticed these three lights off my left wing in the vicinity of Bradford, Pennsylvania. I was flying 8,500 VFR on top of broken clouds. Visibility was unlimited with no upper clouds observed. It was extremely difficult to ascertain the distance of the lights. The color of the lights were from a yellow to a light orange. The intensity of the lights also changed from dim to a bright brilliant. Sometimes the interval of the three lights were identical to the Belt of the constellation Orion. Occasionally the rear lights lagged somewhat behind. Also changed altitudes. During the 40 minutes of observation, the three lights occasionally came forward from a 9 o'clock position to 11 o'clock position and then fell back to the original 9 o'clock position. Also occasionally the lights extinguished completely alternating from one to another, sometimes the whole three were extinguished and during this whole operation, as I mentioned before, the lights changed in intensity. This motion was not only seen by myself but four crew members and passengers on board and also by two other airplanes in the area. 

The only possible explanation other than flying saucers could be a jet tanker refueling operation. Never having witnessed refueling operation at night, I am not aware of the lighting of the jet tanker. 

My air speed during this complete flight was 250 knots indicated. I also do not know the air speed of tankers during operation if this could be so. I contacted ATC to find out if they had any airplanes on a clearance and no three airplanes were given. 

In attempting to resolve the contradictions, NICAP once again telephoned Capt. Killian. Mrs. Killian stated to the NICAP Director that Capt. Killian had been instructed not to say any more about the sighting. She indicated he was angry about being silenced, and felt his rights were being denied. 

Officially, the case has been "explained" as a refueling mission. The facts obtained before Capt. Killian was silenced (including his own public denial of that explanation), the above triangulations, and the type and timing of the Air Force statements all cast doubt on the validity of the explanation. 

Though it may seem far-fetched to those unfamiliar with UFO history to suppose that the Air Force would have any motive for a deliberate cover-up, the former chief of the Air Force UFO project, himself, reported many similar incidents. A good parallel to the Capt. Killian sighting is described by Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt (Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, ppg. 119-120). When a report came in from airline pilots that their plane had been buzzed by a cigar-shaped object as they were taking off from Sioux City, Iowa [See Section V; 1-20-51], Capt. Ruppelt witnessed the reaction by Air Force investigators. The sighting was treated as a joke; the "investigator" merely located an Air Force bomber near Sioux City and blamed it for the sighting. Capt. Ruppelt acknowledged the absurdity of this answer: a bomber buzzing an airliner in an airport traffic pattern. There was no investigation; only an arbitrary and counter-to-fact "explanation". 

NICAP UFO EVIDENCE, Section IX, Page 116-117

(This web page was produced for the NICAP web site by Francis Ridge and Bobby Richardson. Photos of Capt. Killian were supplied by Dominique Weinstein)