NARCAP RADCAT Case 2:
USN P2V3 Patrol Plane / USS Tillamock UFO Encounter
Kodiak, Alaska / Case

Jan 22, 1950


2.  DATE: January 22, 1950        TIME: 0240/0440 local          CLASS: R/V  air radar/air-
                                                                                                                         ground visual

LOCATION:                              SOURCES: Fawcett & Greenwood 164

Kodiak Naval Air Station

Kodiak Island

Alaska

                                                    RADAR DURATION: unspecified

 

EVALUATIONS: No official

 

PRECIS: On February 10 1950 a detailed report on "unidentified airborne objects . . . in the vicinity of Kodiak" was sent out from the Divisional Intelligence Office, 17th Naval District, Kodiak Naval Air Station. Numerous copies were addressed to the CIA, the Director of Intelligence USAF, the FBI, the State Department and elsewhere. Its conclusion was that the sightings were of "phenomena . . . the exact nature of which could not be determined by this office", and an evaluation of A-2 was assigned to the reliability and priority of the information contained. Of the detailed report and voluminous enclosures listed - including radar scope drawings, aircraft track charts, weather data and witness statements - little remains for public scrutiny (as usual) but a summary and two less-than-helpful brief comments appended by unidentified individuals. The "summary of the information contained" can be separated into three distinct incidents which read as follows:

 

a) At 220240W January Lt. SMITH, USN, patrol plane commander of P2V3 No. 4 of Patrol Squadron One reported an unidentified radar contact 20 miles north of the Naval Air Station, Kodiak, Alaska. When this contact was first made, Lt. SMITH was flying the Kodiak Security Patrol. At 0248W, 8 minutes later a radar contact was made on an object 10 miles southeast of NAS, Kodiak. Lt. SMITH checked with the control tower to determine known traffic in the area, and was informed that there was none. During this period the radar operator, GASKEY, ALC, USN reported intermittent radar interference of a type he had never before experienced (see enclosure (3) [missing]). Contact was lost at this time, but intermittent interference continued.

 

b) At some time between 0200 and 0300W, MORGAN was standing watch on board the USS Tillamock (ATA 192), which was anchored in the vicinity of buoy 19 in the main ship channel. MORGAN reported sighting a "very fast moving red glow light, which appeared to be of exhaust nature, seemed to come from the southeast, moved clockwise in a large circle in the direction of, and around Kodiak and returned but in a generally southeast direction." MORGAN called CARVER, also on watch, to observe this object, and they both witnessed the return flight. The object was in sight for an estimated 30 seconds. No odour or sound was detected, and the object was described to have the appearance of ball of fire about one foot in diameter.

 

 

The second incident occurred some two hours after the above radar contact:

 

 c) At 220440, conducting routine Kodiak security patrol, Lt. SMITH reported a visual sighting of an unidentified airborne object at a radar range of 5 miles, on the starboard bow. This object showed indications of great speed on the radar scope. (The trailing edge of the blip gave a tail-like indication.) At this time Lt. SMITH called attention of all crew members to the object. An estimated ten seconds later, the object was directly overhead, indicating a speed of about 1800 MPH. Lt. SMITH climbed to intercept and attempted to circle to keep the object in sight. He was unable to do this, as the object was too highly maneuverable. Subsequently the object appeared to be opening the range, and SMITH attempted to close the range. The object was observed to open out somewhat, then to turn to the left and come up on SMITH's quarter. SMITH considered this to be a highly threatening gesture, and turned out all lights in the aircraft. Four minutes later the object disappeared from view in a southeasterly direction.

 

The third incident occurred about 24 hours later and was solely visual:

 

d) At 230435W, the day following Lt. SMITH's sighting, Lt. CAUSER and Lt. BARCO of Patrol Squadron One were conducting the Kodiak Security Patrol and sighted an unidentified object. At the time of the sighting the aircraft in which these officers were embarked was approximately 62 miles south of Kodiak. The object appeared to be on an ascending westerly course, and was in sight for ten minutes. During this period the object was observed by Lts. CAUSER and BARCO, and PAULSON, ADi, plane captain. At no time was radar contact made on the object. Lt. CAUSER was unable to close the object at 170 knots.

 

The summary then amplifies the visual descriptions as follows:

 

1) To Lt. SMITH and crew it appeared as two orange lights rotating about a common center, "like two jet aircraft making slow rolls in tight formation." It had a wide speed range.

 

2) To MORGAN and CARVER it appeared as a reddish orange ball of fire about one foot in diameter, travelling at a high rate of speed.

 

3) To CAUSER, BARCO and PAULSON it appeared to be a pulsating orange yellow projectile shaped flame, with a regular period of pulsation on 3 to 5 seconds, off 3 to 5 seconds. Later, as the object increased the range the pulsation appeared to increase to on 7 to 8 seconds and off 7 to 8 seconds.

 

Weather and balloon-release information contained in Enclosure 8 (missing) is summarised as follows:

 

A check with the Navy Weather Center, Kodiak, Alaska revealed that balloons were released at the following times:

 

      22 January - 0445W and 2200W (approximately)

      23 January - 0400W (approximately)

 

On 23 January winds aloft at 1000 feet were reported at 0400W as from 310 degrees, at 36 knots, and at 2000 feet, from 240 degrees at 37 knots, while the object was reported to be on an ascending westerly course.

 

NOTES: As regards the 230435 visual sighting the "pulsation" of the light, considered alone, is quite suggestive of a light below a swaying radiosonde balloon, periodically occluded as observed from the air. However, the winds aloft data quoted indicate that a balloon released from Kodiak at 0400 would, at a typical climb rate of  >1000 fpm, within 2 minutes have encountered winds carrying it NE. If winds above 2000' remained from 240 degrees, then 35 minutes later the balloon would certainly not have been near a position 62 miles south of Kodiak. The upper winds are not specifically stated, however, and it is conceivable that the balloon entered a north-south flow at higher altitude. But for the balloon to reach the observation position within 30 minutes would require a mean wind speed during climb of about 120 mph, and therefore maximum wind speeds of very considerably more than 120 mph. This seems improbable in view of the fact that its maximum altitude even after thirty minutes would be no more than about 35,000'. Also, in view of the fact that wind data are only quoted up to 2000' with specific reference to the possibility of a balloon having been sighted, one may reasonably conclude that the sighting took place at around 2000' (this inference finds independent support later) and thus nowhere near a hypothetical one- or two-candlepower radiosonde lamp at 35,000'. (A leaking balloon at lower altitude would be still less consistent with reasonable wind speeds.) Since even a slow aircraft will rapidly close on any balloon, typical balloon-interceptions involve a close dogfight with a blinking light which appears to make rapid and repeated head-on passes during a circling climb. In this case the aircraft "was unable to close the object at 170 knots" during ten minutes of observation. A radiosonde light, furthermore, would not have been orange.

 

   The navy intelligence report considered balloons as explanations for this and the other sightings. Its comment on this hypothesis reads:

 

In view of the fact that no weather balloons were known to have been released within a reasonable time before the sightings, it appears that the object or objects were not balloons. If not balloons, the objects must be regarded as phenomena (possibly meteorites) the exact nature of which could not be determined by this office.

 

    A balloon was released from Kodiak at approximately 0445 on January 22, just five minutes after the second radar incident reported by Lt. Smith (para. c above). Given that the release time is "approximate" there is presumably a residual possibility that this balloon was in the area at the time of this incident. The report states that Smith "climbed to intercept and attempted to circle to keep the object in sight. He was unable to do this, as the object was too highly maneuverable." This is somewhat consistent with an attempted interception on a balloon. However, the rest of the report is very difficult to interpret as a balloon, in particular the radar-tracked closure at 1800 mph.

 

   The two radar incidents on January 22 are the core of the sequence and invite more detailed analysis than is possible on the basis of the information available. Nevertheless some observations can be made.

 

   The incident beginning at 0240 is not strictly a radar-visual, since the sighting reported by the two watch personnel on the U.S.S. Tillamock was "at some time between 0200 and 0300" and thus may not have been concurrent.  However it is reasonable to treat the reports as possibly related. Two separate airborne radar contacts occurred, the first to the north of NAS Kodiak, the second to the southeast 8 minutes later. These locations cannot correspond to the circling of Kodiak and departure southeast of the object observed visually, however, since that entire manoeuvre occupied only some 30 seconds. It is possible that one of the radar contacts related to this object, whilst the other contact involved the same or another object at a different time which was not observed visually.

 

   The possibility that the second contact may have been a false target generated by RFI is raised by the fact that the radar scope was at that time displaying intermittent interference. However there is insufficient information in the summary to test this hypothesis.

 

   One of many questions which remain is: if the first radar contact (at least) did correspond to the "very fast moving . . . ball of fire" observed visually from shipboard, why was it not also observed visually from the aircraft? It is possible that both radar targets were caused by propagation anomalies and/or interference from another microwave source. The presence of interference, however, does not exclude the possibility that a real target was also being displayed, and contextually this might be a more attractive explanation given the independent visual report which suggests that there may have been a target (of whatever nature) to detect. An equally plausible hypothesis, therefore, would be that the visual object was the exhaust of an unidentified jet - possibly a Soviet reconnaissance platform - which was briefly painted by the radar but visually aspected such that its exhaust flame was not noticed by the aircrew. The abnormal interference could have been due to signals from the intruder's own radar.

 

   In the 0440 incident, two hours later, it is made explicit that radar and visual sightings were concurrent. In this case the object seen visually from the aircraft appeared as "two orange lights rotating about a common center", and was compared by the observers to "two jet aircraft making slow rolls in tight formation." The likelihood that this simile is a correct interpretation seems small, given that the lights were observed for several minutes at different bearings from the aircraft. A comment appended to the intelligence summary by an unknown office identified as OP322C2C opines that "the possibility exists that incidents covered by para. 2.a, b & d might be jet aircraft [original emphasis]". No opinion is offered as to the object(s) observed in this case, presumably because the radar-tracked speed is too obviously excessive. The cited 1800 mph, however, is calculated from displayed range-over-time and does not take account of the near head-on closure rate. To correct this figure we need to know the speed of Lt. Smith's patrol aircraft, which is nowhere given. Fortunately this figure can be approximately inferred with reasonable confidence.

 

   Smith's aircraft is given the designation "P2V3 No.4 of Patrol Squadron One". We know that the aircraft were operated by the US Navy on security patrols around its Kodiak Island facility, and that they carried several crew members. They were clearly not small, high-performance interceptors. The likelihood is, therefore, that these were anti-submarine patrols, and this would be consistent with our inference from the weather data that the patrol by Causer and Barco on January 23 was being flown at the <2000' level. "P2V3" could therefore refer to the Lockheed P-2 Neptune anti-submarine patrol aircraft that was in use by the US Navy up until about 1961. This was a piston-engine aircraft, whose speed and range limitations led to the development of its turboprop successor, the P-3 Orion, in 1958. If Smith was flying a P-2 then he was not flying very fast, an inference consistent with other internal details of the reports.

 

  In the 230435 incident other members of Smith's squadron were flying the same Security Patrol, presumably in the same type of aircraft, and attempted to close on the object without success at 170 knots - about 195 mph. Presumably this was equal or close to the plane's maximum speed. This can be roughly cross-checked with information in para. a) of the summary: Smith reported a radar contact 20 miles north of Kodiak NAS, then 8 minutes later he reported another 10 miles southeast of the NAS, which, whilst admittedly vague, is consistent with about 25 miles flown at a speed in the region of 180 mph. Adopting a generous 200 mph as the maximum likely speed of Smith's aircraft during the later radar-visual, and neglecting the component of lateral velocity due to the object's closure from a position "on the starboard bow", and assuming the negligible effect of winds to cancel out in the equation, we have a minimum true airspeed for the object of 1600 mph. If further allowances are to be made for possible inaccuracy in timing it might be safe to conclude that the object was travelling somewhere in the region of Mach 2 or greater. This would be pretty remarkable performance for jets in 1950. Even assuming this conservative speed estimate to be out by a factor of 2, one can hardly imagine jets, hostile or friendly, thundering though the Alaskan night at Mach 1 on a head-on pass with a lighted Navy patrol plane whilst performing "slow rolls in tight formation". In summary, it seems highly unlikely that this sighting was caused by jet aircraft.

 

   The half-hearted suggestion in the intelligence report that the phenomena in all of these incidents were "possibly meteorites" is very much a stab in the dark. None of the features of any of the sightings can be convincingly equated with the characteristics of meteors. Visually the object in the first incident was seen to circle Kodiak and return, and whilst the reported duration of 30 seconds might be questioned as a fallible judgement it is supported by the fact that the first witness watched the object approach and make its wide turn, then had time to call it to the attention of the second witness who joined him to observe its departure. In the two later incidents the visual objects were on rising or turning trajectories and in both cases were in view for minutes rather than seconds.

 

   The radar contacts reported in the first incident are unable to be evaluated in themselves. The radar contact in the second incident is more circumstantial, and the estimate of speed derived from displayed range and elapsed time is reinforced by the observation that the blip showed a distinct tail on the scope. A target will be swept by a number of radar pulses during each scan of the beam, and if it is moving quite slowly relative to the radar these returned pulses will be integrated into a compact arc which displays as a "spot target" on the tube phosphor. A target moving very rapidly might return pulses showing a changing range /azimuth indication during a single sweep of the beam, and the signals corresponding to these pulses will be displaced on the tube, "smearing" the blip reciprocally to the direction of movement. This smearing will be dependent on several additional factors such as beam width, pulse repetition frequency and scan rate, and no quantitative inferences can be made without detailed specifications of the radar involved; however, the report is qualitatively consistent with a target moving at unusually high relative speed.

 

    This target is not consistent with returns from meteor-wake ionisation. Multiple trip effects can distort the displayed speed of targets detected beyond the unambiguous range of the set, and in some circumstances a meteor might be displayed at spuriously slow speeds. But typical true speeds of some tens of thousands of mph could not be reduced by this mechanism by an order of magnitude or greater; the target was evidently on an approximate radial heading, and multiple trip effects do not distort radial velocities; meteors on radial headings are generally only observable by ultrasensitive search radars due to the short length of trail scanned at near-grazing incidence, and airborne radars are of low power; and finally the optimum frequency for ionisation returns occurs at about 100 MHz, with cross-sections dropping by a factor of ten-to-the-fifth at about 1000 MHz, and the airborne radar would have operated at a frequency some ten times higher still.

 

   The reported speed of the target is inconsistent with birds, insects, clear air turbulence, debris, rain, hail, smoke, balloons or other wind borne objects. Partial reflection from headwind-driven waves on an inversion layer just above the aircraft altitude could produce an approaching point target at a displayed speed of twice wind speed (the headwind cancels out the component of Vc due to aircraft airspeed); but winds of 7-800 mph are plainly unrealistic. Several sporadic ground echoes can create the illusion of a fast track on a surveillance PPI when they chance to appear in different locales from scan to scan, but the scan rates of airborne radars are relatively very high indeed an operator is much less likely to be fooled in this way, even disregarding the independent "indications of great speed" given by the smeared target presentation.

 

   Internal noise sources or radio frequency interference from remote emitters can create false, rapid targets on analogue radars, and the report of interference occurring during and after the first radar incident invites analysis of this possibility. The intelligence summary indicates that two naval offices, in particular, found these reports interesting in the context of research into radar interference.

 

   Interference "echoes" will generally display as random speckles or patterns of speckles representing small spots of excitation on individual trace radii. Such speckles do not resemble real targets such as aircraft, which display as compact bright arcs due to the several integrated spots of excitation on several adjacent trace radii. To mimic an aircraft-like target on an inbound radial heading, the noise source would have to be a cyclic microwave emission with a duration and sine-wave amplitude comparable to the passage of one beam-width across a target, having a periodicity minutely shorter than the scan rate of the receiving antenna and with a superimposed pulse repetition frequency synchronised to that of the transmitter. This is a very complex set of requirements for any source other than another radar set of the same or closely similar design, whose scan rate would be on the order of a microsecond shorter. Even an interference signal such as this would typically exceed the receiver threshold over a considerable portion of the scan period, displaying as an anomalous broad arc, without some super-added mechanism to filter a discrete train of pulses similar to those returned from a reflective target. The reason for this is the complex lobing which occurs far beyond the narrow angle of the main beam, which is mirrored in the lobed antenna gain of the receiver. Thus signal strength can exceed the receiver threshold unpredictably at various antenna orientations, displaying virtually anywhere around the scope. On a surveillance PPI this effect might be reduced for a relatively weak signal if the two antenna rotations were  synchronised 180 degrees out of phase such that peak output always corresponded with peak gain. With two forward sector-scanning airborne radars it is possible that this filtering might occur in another way: transmitting and receiving antennae could be oriented in such a way that each time the transmitting antenna scanned towards the receiver only a brief train of pulses was detectable at low gain before it scanned away and signal strength dropped below the threshold. With a sector-scanning transmitter it is possible that this filter effect would also work if the signal entered by washing through poorly-shielded amplifier or receiver circuitry rather than by the antenna link.

 

   The probability of this hypothesis is difficult to gauge. It has to be presumed from the intelligence report that there was no known air traffic at this time which could have been responsible. The report does not mention a second radar target which would have been the skin paint of the aircraft responsible, although it is true that on the above hypothesis the other aircraft - at least at the time of this initial contact - would have been on the periphery of Lt. Smith's radar scan limit and at unknown range and elevation, and thus possibly undetected. (Radar indications during the later parts of the attempted interception of the visual object are not specified in the report.) The visual object might itself be taken as an indication that a culprit aircraft was in the area, but the rolling configuration of orange lights and general performance observed visually are inconsistent with a type of aircraft which would have carried radar equipment similar to that on a P-2 patrol plane. And if the aircrew did see an unidentified aircraft of some type on a course similar to that being indicated by a concurrent radar target, then the attempt to disassociate the one from the other by improbable RFI mechanisms does become more than a little strained.

 

   The fact that unfamiliar radar interference was reported by the same aircrew during the first incident two hours before is of ambiguous relevance. It can be taken as strengthening the suspicion that some unknown source of RFI might have been responsible for these and the later targets. At the same time it can be taken as indicating the operator's readiness to interpret unfamiliar radar indications as interference, and as underlining his confidence that the unknown targets appeared to him to resemble "real" radar echoes. Given that the inherent probability of convincing target arcs being generated by RFI must be somewhat low, and given the concurrent visual sighting which is difficult to explain, one might be inclined to give the operator the benefit of the doubt.

 

   The limited comments of two unidentified, presumably naval, offices are included here for perspective:

 

The opinion of OP322C2C:

 

"The possibility exists that incidents covered by para. 2.a, b & d might be jet aircraft; however, there is insufficient intelligence to definitely identify the unidentified objects as aircraft. Several reports of similar radar interference have been received from DIO/17ND. It is possible that this is interference from another radar in the vicinity, malfunctioning of components within the radar set, or both."

 

The opinion of F2:

 

"Many of the previous reports of radar interference tend to indicate local interference (generated within the aircraft). This looks more like  external interference from sources outside the aircraft than previous reports, though it is far from conclusive. These reports are always of interest."

 

   The first reported radar incident can't be evaluated, although broadly concurrent visual sightings are of interest in the context of later events. The third, purely visual, report is likewise unevaluable but again borrows some significance from the context. The core radar-visual incident is not easily explained in terms of the information available, and given the unusual nature of the concurrent visual sighting together with certain quantitative inferences from the radar report this case should be carried as an unknown.

 

STATUS: Unknown