DATE: May 4 1966 TIME: 0430 local (0340 - Thayer) CLASS: R/V ground/air radar/multiple air visual
LOCATION: SOURCES: Hynek (1978) 73
Nr. Charleston Thayer (Condon 163)
RADAR DURATION: 5 minutes
EVALUATIONS: Blue Book - a/c landing lights
PRECIS: At 0340 (or 0430 - Hynek) a Braniff Airlines Flight 42 707 pilot heading E on jet airway 6 @ 33,000' saw a bright descending light off to his left which was also painted by the Boeing's airborne radar. He called Charleston ARTC center and asked if radar showed any traffic for his flight. The Charleston highaltitude sector controller was distracted by a 'phone call and hadn't seen the appearance of the target, which he now noticed, 11 o'clock from Braniff, range 5 miles. It was a "raw" target (no transponder, which would give on-screen data on flight ID and altitude), and the controller advised Branniff that it must be an aircraft in the low sector below 24,000' as the only other traffic under his control was an American Airlines flight 20 miles behind him. Braniff replied that the object was definitely above him and now descending through his altitude. The controller suggested that it might be a military research aircraft of some sort and asked Braniff for a visual. Braniff replied that it was not an aircraft but was "giving off brilliant flaming light consisting of alternating white, green and red colours". At this time ground radar showed the target closing range to within 3 miles @ 10 o'clock from Braniff; Braniff then advised that it was now turning away from him, and the controller saw the radar target execute a smallradius 180-degree turn and reverse its track NW away from Braniff @ approx. 1000 mph. Braniff confirmed this and reported that the object was 20 degrees above the horizon and still descending (Braniff's airborne radar indications at this time are not known).
A sighting of what may have been the same object was made by the pilot of the American Airlines flight 20 miles behind (W of) Braniff: a bright light at 9 or 10 o'clock observed for 3-4 mins. According to the controller, American had been monitoring his communications with Braniff and called the latter, asking if he had his landing lights on. When the controller asked him to amplify, American "politely clammed up". American submitted no report and later disclaimed seeing anything other than what looked like an aircraft with its landing lights on.
NOTES: The likelihood of a real radar-reflective target is in this case quite strong, since correlating returns were reportedly displayed by ground and airborne radars concurrent with matching visuals from (at least) one aircrew. The Blue Book explanation that the object was an aircraft is based on this fact, together with the American Airlines pilot's opinion and the comment that the object displayed no performance beyond the capabilities of an aircraft of the period. No specific identification was offered of the aircraft involved.
According to Thayer's summary of the Blue Book file, the object was first reported by Braniff at a time of 0340 LST, it was picked up at his 8:30 or 9:00 position, the speed of the ground radar target was 750-800 mph with "no unusual maneuvers", and it disappeared off-scope to the SW after making a "sweeping turn". According to the ARTC controller's account (quoted verbatim in Hynek), the incident began at 0430, the target appeared at 11 o'clock from Braniff moving to 10 o'clock, the speed of the target was approximately 1000 mph, and it left to the NE after making "a complete 180-degree turn in the space of five miles, which no aircraft I have ever followed on radar could possibly do." The controller had 13 years experience with USAF and FAA air traffic control, observing all types of civilian and military aircraft including SR-71's. His account is extremely circumstantial as to Braniff's flight number, VHF frequency, altitude, air lane number and heading, and augmented by a diagram (unpublished) showing the geographic locations of the UFO and the aircraft under his control.
There seems no good reason to question the controller's statement that Braniff was "eastbound on jet airway 6", which means that a target closing from 9 or 10 o'clock (N or NW) and retreating on a similar course after a turn, however "sweeping", could not possibly be on a heading off-scope to the SW. Either Thayer's summary, or the Blue Book file, or both, are here inconsistent, whereas the controller's first hand account is not. According to that account, the combined speed and manoeuverability of the target were outside of his experience, also contradicting the Blue Book file which appears to base its assessment of performance (the origin of the 750-800 mph figure is uncertain) on a statement obtained from the reluctant American Airlines witness: " . . . to me it only appeared to be an airplane at some distance, say six or eight miles, who turned on his landing lights . . . . I thought nothing further of it." This also is inconsistent, inasmuch as the object was well in front of Braniff and thus significantly in excess of 20 miles from American, so that American's estimate of landing light brilliance and distance would be out by a factor of 3 or 4. The same pilot speculated: "I presume it was the air force refuelling." Air-refuelling tankers are indeed always brightly lit, but no such operation would normally be in progress close to a commercial airlane, still less on a descending course through it. An Air Force refuelling operation would, presumably, not be difficult for the Air Force to trace; yet no such operation was discovered by Blue Book despite a witness suggesting it. A possible explanation might be a cover-up of a military flight conducted in error; but the radar target could not possibly relate to a refuelling tanker on the basis of speed alone. A military fighter could account for the speed, and for the rapid departure when the pilot realised he was straying close to commercial traffic, but presumably not for the tight 180degree turn.
The visual from Braniff of a brilliant light with multicoloured scintillation is more akin to a bright celestial body seen through a sharp inversion layer than anything else, but not on a descending course through his altitude. (Note: Braniff reports the object descending through his altitude, then somewhat later reports it still in a "descending configuration" at 20 degrees above the horizon. This could be interpreted as an inconsistency, inasmuch as 20 degrees seems a rather high elevation for an object to be seen at a depression angle even from 33,000', and this might imply that the object was less mobile in elevation than suggested. However observers almost always grossly overestimate elevation angles, and there tends to be a visual "quantum" of 10 degrees.) A fireball meteor could fit the "flaming" appearance and gross trajectory, flaring and dying to give the illusion of an object which approached Braniff and then receeded; but no trail was reported, and a fireball which was in sight for five minutes would be a very remarkable phenomenon in itself, probably spawning a great many reports, in addition to which the ATC radar track, mimicking the illusory visual approach of the meteor, would become a highly improbable coincidence.
On ground radar a "ghost" echo from a ground target with Braniff as the primary reflector could simulate an "intercepting" target of this nature: it would appear beyond Braniff and always on the same azimuth, closing as Braniff approached the ground reflector and then receeding in a manner qualitatively similar to that described, although the exact geometry would have to be established. However, Braniff was flying @ 33,000' so that such a "ghost" could not be displayed closer than 6.25 miles to the a/c. The unknown target approached to 3 miles. A "ghost" produced by secondary reflection from an airborne target, for example an aircraft passing above or below Braniff, could mimic this behaviour, and if we assume that the secondary a/c reflector was itself outside the ATC radiation pattern then it would not itself be tracked on the ground - only its ghost would be displayed. The air radar contact and the visual sighting could have been this a/c, since without the ATC radar track we no longer have to suppose extraordinary performance - merely a fast jet with an unusual lighting pattern, possibly viewed through an inversion at Braniff's altitude. The ground-displayed speed of 1000 mph would be the relative speed of the two reflecting aircraft, not implausible for a military jet flying by a 707 on a near-reciprocal heading.
However, the hypothetical a/c would be flying as close to Braniff as its displayed ghost (approx. 15,000' of range or altitude) and thus could hardly be outside the overall ATC radiation pattern (the a/c could hardly have remained in a null zone between radar lobes for several minutes); no other aircraft were currently under ATC control except American, 20 miles away; and 5 minutes is a very long time indeed for such sensitive reflection geometry to be maintained between aircraft separating at better than Mach 1.3.
Further, this hypothesis does not explain the correlation of visual and radar kinetics, and for an inversion layer to explain the abnormal colour scintillations of the light it would have to be viewed at a rather narrow range of relative elevation angles on the order of 1.0 degree, which is inconsistent with a source which was seen descending at speed for several minutes. Other more complex and less homogeneous atmospheric structures might be hypothesised, but the exercise would be highly speculative and unconvincing.
A similar radar track might be produced on the ATC scope by multiple-trip returns from meteor wake ionisation, although typical ATC wavelengths of 10-50 cm are far from optimum and signal strengths would be low; but the duration is far too long, and Braniff's shorter-wave airborne radar would not have anything like the power output (around 40 kW, or some 5% of typical ATCR output) required for such returns. In general no radar propagation or electronic anomaly can easily explain concurrent, corresponding returns on two very different and physically remote instruments, and the visual observations effectively reduce the probability of anomalous propagation to near-zero.
In conclusion, the target appears to have been a real object emitting brilliant, corruscating light which descended into an Air Route Traffic Control sector at better than Mach 1, passed within 3 miles of a commercial airway in complete radio silence, executed an abnormally sharp 180-degree turn at speed and flew away. The probability of a conventional aircraft seems small: the visual appearance and the radar-tracked turn are the key elements of this report, neither of which were within the experience of the observers. Whilst of relatively low strangeness, therefore, the report must be classified unknown.