Radar-Visual In Wisconsin
June 24, 1978
 CUFOS CASE # 3-8-24; UFO of High Merit
 

Original IUR article

Allan Hendry:
First, a comprehensive study of the UFO's reported characteristics, then the technical judgment necessary to satisfy our UfO definition. 

There has certainly been no scarcity of radar- related experiences recently after a considerable "drought."  Indeed, two more are in the offing in future IURs.  This incident was quite a dramatic one.  The radar operators and the pilot helped IUR to plot out the UFO's flight path, assisted by the FAA's tape of their actual in-flight radio conversation. 

ENVIRONMENT 

Date:  6-24-78 Time:  10:48 PM 

PLACE:  Wisconsin airspace; interaction with a multi-engine aircraft along air corridors V177W & V345 in a line running 20 miles south of Madison northwest to Volk Field near New Lisbon.  Plane's altitude:  18,000 feet; airspeed in excess of 200 m.p.h. 

APPEARANCE 

A horizontal oval of light, primarily white in color but with a constant blend of different shades of colors appearing across the surface.  The light form had a diffuse outline and, surrounding it, a pentagonal formation of small, distinct red lights.  The apparent size of the object ranged from a "large star" at the most distant to "half the full moon's diameter" (1/4 degree) at the closest.  No sound was heard. 

MOTION 

The following quotes are taken from a timed transcription of the radio conversation between the pilot and the radar controllers. 

The incident began with a call by a citizen in Madison called the fire department to report a light circling around in the sky.  The department then called Joan Mahr, controller at the Madison airport tower.  Her conversation at 10:45 PM with Wonnacott and Nurenberg was as follows (MAD = Madison AUR = Aurora): 

MAD:  You don't have anything over Madison anywhere, do you, doing circles? 

AUR:  No, we don't have anything over Madison, doing circles. 

MAD:  Well, I tell you -- 

AUR:  We've got some weather out there that's doing circles. 

MAD:  Oh.  Would you believe I've got a UFO? 

AUR:  Well . . . 

MAD:  -- that I can see? 

AUR:  Let's take a look at him.  Where's he at? 

MAD:  He's just south of the field and he is -- uh -- he's doing circles very fast in a small . . . looking out one window.  I can't see "him," I see this light. 

AUR:  OK, just a second, let us flatten out the other radar a second.  You say he's how far south of the field? 

MAD:  Well, he looks like he's over the marker, but . . . you know, it's just a light doing a circle. 

AUR:  Probably just a bunch of little greenies out there, eh? 

Joan Mahr in Madison went on to say that it looked like a spotlight searching the sky, only weaker, and located just in the cloud layer.  To check it out, the Aurora controllers note that the pilot was flying toward that area; they radioed to him at 10:48. 

AUR:  have you got your landing lights on? 

PIL (PILOT):  Negative. 

AUR:  Do you see any kind of unusual lights ahead of you? 

PIL:  Yes, sir, I've got a bright light right at my 10:30, 11 o'clock position that just seems to be hovering out there. 

AUR:  Any idea of the altitude? 

PIL:  Yes, sir, the same altitude I am. 

AUR:  OK, I've got a VFR (Visual Flight Rules--Ed.) target at 2 o'clock at about 6 miles westbound squawking 1200 which would indicate a lower altitude. 

PIL:  Uh, this isn't at 2 o'clock; this is between 10:30 and 11:00. 

AUR:  OK, we just had a call from Madison tower; they're a little concerned about lights out there.  They're obviously seeing what you are.  An idea what it is? 

PIL:  No, but you're starting to worry me.  I hope this isn't one of those -- uh -- UFOs. 

At 10:49, the pilot guessed the bright light to be two miles away, holding its position.  On radar, a possible stationary target was found at the plane's 10:30 position three miles distant, but the weather returns from that area left the controllers uncertain.  In addition to the light in the WNW, the pilot noted: 

PIL:  I have some lights racing around on top of the clouds down here (there are no clouds blocking his view of the other light).  I saw them below me and I have a light that is making a circle     . . . It's doing a 360 circle about once every 5 or 6 seconds. 

AUR:  Could that possibly be a searchlight on the ground showing up through the clouds? 

PIL:  That is a distinct possibility, yes, sir.  The stationary target is now moving closer to me. 

The pilot was fling toward a 325 heading.  The target has maintained the same relationship to the plane for ten miles.  As for the light below the plane flying in circles, every one has concluded that it must be a search-light.  The pilot passed the airport one mile to the west at 10:53 PM.  Pilot and controllers now focused their attention on the light to the WNW. 

PIL:  You mean to tell me that you got nothing on radar down there at all? 

AUR:  We're getting a lot of temperature inversion in that area.  We are painting no targets whatsoever.  There are no airplanes in that area. 

PIL:  Tell you what, this ain't no-o-o weather inversion? 

AUR:  OK, could it possibly be a weather balloon? 

PIL:  Not unless a weather balloon lights up like a 10,000-candle light. 

AUR:  OK, you're sure it is an object and not a light reflecting off a cloud or anything. 

PIL:  Affirmative. 

AUR:  Have you tried moving your position in the cockpit to see if that changes the position of the target?  Perhaps you're getting a reflection of some type in the cockpit. 

PIL:  Sir, I'll try it. (later) I just woke my passenger up and he sees the object, too, and it is not a reflection. 

Indeed the passenger could see the light out of a rear window 45 feet behind the pilot's seat.  At 10:56 PM, the light was still at his ten-thirty position at an estimated 15 miles.  Then it closed on him as close as an estimated two miles, dropped back to his 9 o'clock position and returned to the "15 miles" distance.  Still no radar contact was possible because of the large area of temperature returns.  Indeed, the pilot can be seen on radar in this area only because he is equipped with a transponder. 

At 10:57 PM, the object was seen by the pilot to drop altitude to what appeared to be 500 feet below his, as the object moved up to his 11 o'clock position. 

AUR:  Any chance that it's an aircraft with lights? 

PIL:  Negative, sir, negative -- uh . . . uh -- it's a white light and it's changing to -- it, it's a weird color.  It's alternating colors so I would have to say it's not an aircraft, negative. 

AUR:  I take you don't want to make any guesses as to what it is. 

PIL:  I may be dumb but I'm not stupid. 

AUR:  (Laughter in background) uh, roger.  Does it pose any possible threat to you? 

PIL:   I would say --uh-- no, sir.  I'm getting some turbulence right now.  The object has faded now down into five distinct lights . . .uh, it's a white light with five red ones around it now. 

The light form was still pacing him at his 10:30 position.  Aurora in-formed the pilot that he would have to get fifteen miles northwest of the Wisconsin Dells to clear the area obscured to "raw" radar by the temperature inversion.  The sky at this point was quite clear; every star was seen in the sky.  Then, at 11:01 PM, something unusual occurred: 

AUR:  Do you still have the target? 

PIL:  It went -- uh -- from my 10 o'clock over to my 2 o'clock and it's now hovering over there. . . . when that baby took off, it took off. 

Just as rapidly, it darted back to the other side of the plane.  Remember, the plane was holding a straight northwesterly course on autopilot; the plane was not whipping back and forth 120 degrees!  No radar confirmation was possible until he was out of the inversion area.  A few miles later, Wonnacott watched some type of non-transponding target "jump" every 6-second sweep from the left side of the pilot's position to his right and back again as shown in the drawing.  No target appeared in the second of five consecutive sweeps.  Simply anomalous propagation from the temperature inversion area?  Wonnacott said he has never seen it "appear" and "disappear" so fast before; furthermore, the change of positions on radar was in good agreement with what the pilot was watching at the same time. 

PIL:  You know, if that is an illusion, I can seen how somebody could be easily fooled by it. 

AUR:  Could you possibly turn off all your dash lights and external lights for a few moments to see if that does anything? 

PIL:  Sir, we already did that. 

AUR:  OK, so it's definitely not a reflection of any type off you -- uh -- off your aircraft. 

PIL:  Definitely not, sir. 

AUR:  Do you have the moon in sight? 

PIL:  Stand by. No, sir, no moon in sight. 

AUR:  Roger.  Madison tower said that she could see you visually but -- uh --  she could still see you on radar, but she also picked up no targets on radar around you! 

PIL:  (sarcastically) How thrilling! 

At 11:05 PM, the pilot placed the target at 12 o'clock position in front of him, perhaps 5 or 6 miles away.  Suddenly, it shot up in altitude to approximately 45 degrees above him, what the pilot guessed to be an increase of six or seven thousand feet higher than him.  (For this to be true, the target would have to be less than two miles away.  The pilot acknowledged the difficulty of guessing true sizes and distances, of course; the important thing is change in angular positions. 

At 11:09 PM, as the plane flew clear of the temperature inversion area: 

AUR:  OK, I've got a very possible target right over the Volk Airport. 

PIL:  Is that cotton-picker keeping pace with me at the same speed? 

AUR:  No sir, it appears to be stationary over Volk Field right at this time.  I'll put him at 12 o'clock at seven miles. 

PIL:  Target's moving closer. 

AUR:  Roger, the target I have is stationary, you're heading right for it . . . possibly, maybe, 10 degrees off to the right of you -- dead on course. 

PIL:  Target's coming in closer. 

AUR:  That target is definitely growing (on radar--Ed.) -- uh -- I don't know exactly what would cause that unless it was a change in relative position.  It's almost the same size as your aircraft.  It would now be about one o'clock at three miles. 

PIL:  Yes, sir, it's getting very bright and turbulence here.  (The pilot would later tell IUR that he was getting "white caps on his coffee"). 

AUR:  Would you like to change course? 

PIL:  Uhhhh. . . I think it's just the weather.  Let's go and find this thing out. 

AUR:  OK, down to about one-thirty and two miles. 

PIL:  Yes, sir.    Still got it at my 12 o'clock position at about that.  I'm not painting any weather in this area, and I'm in clear air, but I'm getting moderate to -- uh, um -- lightly -- um -- you know, about moderate turbulence. 

AUR:  Roger, we -- we've -- uh -- been having -- uh -- turbulence reports from that area all day long from North Central jets at 20 to 24,000. 

PIL:  (sarcastically) Good. 

AUR:  OK, you should be at about 2 o'clock at two miles. 

PIL:  Whatever it is, it's lit up like a Christmas tree. 

This was the last thing the pilot said to the radar men as the plane converged on the target both visually and on radar.  The turbulence got so bad that the pilot had to shift from autopilot to manual to hold trim.  He was too preoccupied to reply when Aurora said: 

AUR:  I now show you having passed the target I was painting. 

Indeed, the plane had flown directly under the oval-shaped form, at 11:11 PM, providing the pilot with the largest angular size he would see (1/4-degree of arc) as well as a look at it's underside.  The small red lights held their positions on the surface of the form such that he could only see a couple of the lights on the object's underside, the top ones blocked from view. 

Meanwhile, the controllers "hearts were beating"; both men were worried when the pilot failed to respond at this critical point.  Trying to encourage a response, one of them asked: 

AUR:  Where is the target now, sir? 

Suddenly, as soon as the pilot was beyond the UFO's position, the turbulence vanished, and (to the relief of the controllers) he said: 

PIL:  Well, right now, I'm in extremely smooth air and -- nothing.  Nowhere. 

AUR:  OK, you've lost the target now? 

PIL:  Completely. 

After a long pause, Aurora had the plane correct its course by 20 degrees as it had veered slightly from its original course to head toward the UFO. 

PIL:  I'm glad you finally got something on radar, I thought I was losing my mind. 

AUR:  Well, sir, in this area, I picked it up . . . I'm now also picking some other things that could be temperature inversion; however, that one was pretty steady and it did certainly correspond to your position. 

PIL:  Where's the Air Force when you need 'em? 

AUR:  That was right over their base. 

PIL:  Ah, ha!  The "secret weapon"! 

AUR:  Yep, may be. The only problem being, if that was -- uh -- possibly a military type aircraft that was out flitting around and -- uh -- was messing around in VFR conditions, I would have been picking up reflected radar signals from it and it would have been moving along with you; however, when I was calling the target out to you, it appeared to be stationary. 

PIL:  That's the way it appeared to me, too, and I kept moving in close on it and I would get up there and the lights would become very distinctive and it would start to depict this shape and it was a coincidence, I'm sure, and my imagination, but every time we got close to it, we picked up turbulence. 

AUR:  Roger. 

PIL:  Believe me, I'm going to talk myself out of this yet! 

AUR:  No need to do that, you saw what you saw, that's all there is. 

Now, compare the following dialogue with the one that took place at the end of the "radar room" scene in the beginning of the movie "Close Encounters" (itself based loosely on a real dialog presented in Hynek's UFO EXPERIENCE): 

AUR:  Do you plan on making a report of this to any type of agency? 

PIL:  (hesitantly) Well!!!,,,,,,I don't know about that . . . do you? 

AUR:  Well, I reported it to my supervisor and --uh-- that's all I'm required to do.  I didn't see it so I wouldn't be of much value to anybody who would care to investigate a situation like this.  However, if you'd like corroboration as far as radar reports and stuff -- uh -- that could probably be arranged. 

PIL:  Well, I'll think about it. 

AUR:  If you do make a report to anybody, and they want to know what was seen on radar, they just have to make an inquiry to the Chicago Air Traffic Center and mention the time and date and they'll be able to find out what patrol I was working. 

PIL:  OK, just given the time of day and I don't have to give them your name? 

AUR:  (chuckling) Oh, they'll find that out easy enough. (says flight number), now direct all clear on course.  Contact Minneapolis Center on 125.3 -- good night, and have a good trip. 

PIL:  125.3, good night now. 

SECOND PLANE SEES LIGHT 
As soon as the first plane continued safely on its way, North Central Flight 577 engaged Aurora controllers in conversation about the incident.  One of the controllers asked if the pilot had ever seen an "illusion like that".  The commercial jet pilot replied: 

PIL:  Uh, could be, years and years ago, that I had this happen.  Are we going to be flying in that area where we saw this?  We'll be apparently northeast of it, is that right? 

AUR:  Yeah, you'll be northeast of it.  The last place that we saw it was right over Volk Airport. 

The stationary image of the UFO continued to be seen on the Aurora radar screens.  Aurora provided the pilot instructions for making a detour off his original course in order to get a closer look at it.  The controllers also warned the pilot about the turbulence that was experienced by the previous pilot whenever he got close. 

PIL:  We -- uh -- we don't want to take any chances like that, but -- uh -- maybe we can pick it up.  Sometimes we can pick up other aircraft on our 50-mile scope so we'll see if we can pick it up on our scope, too. 

AUR:  Roger, the area that I had the target in I'm getting temperature inversion off the southeast of it; however, the target that I called out for him that corresponded to the position is still within a mile of the same relative spot right over Volk Airport. 

PIL:  Very interesting. 

Finally, at 11:31, NC577 made its closest approach to the distant object, about 27.5 miles east of it, before resuming its original course.  (Ironically, it's doubtful that any of the passengers on the commercial flight even knew that they were being vectored in for a closer look at a possible UFO!) 

PIL:  I'm almost sure I can see a light over there. 

The light, although admittedly distant, was at the plane's 9 o'clock position and seemingly miles away, in general agreement with the positions plotted on radar.  The pilot noted that the light seemed to be changing different colors.  The image seen on the radar continued to stay put over Volk Field (within a mile of its original position) and faded at 11:50 PM in the same place. 

Total visual duration (first pilot only):  23 minutes. 

WEATHER 

Broken to overcast clouds from 12,000 to 15,000 feet.  The Sky was clear above this and visibility was unrestricted (witnesses up at 18,000 feet).  The pilot was thus able to look down onto the clouds to see the searchlight aimed up from below.  A widespread temperature inversion condition created a broad radar weather return which served to obscure the appearance of any non-transponding targets SE of a point 5 miles N of the Wisconsin Dells.  Air turbulence had been reported all day by high-altitude planes in that area. 

WITNESS REACTION 

PILOT:  Anonymous: primary visual witness, 32 years old, 8500 flight hours, first class medical certificate with no waivers.  United Airlines physical one year ago.  The witness displayed a good-natured, earthy self-presentation and professed no previous interest in UFOs; yet he was upset by the aerial encounter and was even shaken by the experience of rehearing the radio conversation on tape.  The pilot has requested anonymity in order to protect his charter flight business reputation and has withheld the name of the passenger he was transporting as well, as he, too, does not wish to be accused of seeing "imaginary spaceships" (O, temporal!  O, mores!).  Similarly, the type of plane must be kept confidential as the pilot fears that would identify him; it is a multi-engined aircraft capable of seating two up front and eight in the back. 

PASSENGER:  Also anonymous:  secondary witness, 36 years old, extremely wealthy businessman from Phoenix.  Unavailable for comment to IUR; the pilot indicated that he was also upset by the experience. 

RADAR CONTROLLERS:  Glen Wonnacott, 32, air traffic controller for eight years; stationed at Aurora (Chicago) Air Route Traffic Control Center.  Watched the UFO as a non-transponding radar target along with controller Wayne Nurenberg.  These two men called the incident to the attention of their watch supervisor but no further action was taken on the sighting.  It was doubted that the incident was logged by their supervisor. 

ON THE CASE 

SOURCE:  Direct call from the radar operators to the Center for UFO Studies. 

The pilot and the two controllers were personally interviewed by Allan Hendry.  The flight paths of the plane and the UFO were plotted on flight charts.  The controllers provided IUR with a tape recording of their radio conversation with the pilot; this tape was uninterrupted and the time of the beginning and end was noted, so the time of any event on the tape could be interpolated. 

Because of the proximity of McCoy Army Air Force Base, IUR contacted them to see if any of their operators could have accounted for the sighting.  Similarly, we contacted the Army National Guard training site, also very close to Volk Field.  Neither group was aware of the incident, nor did they have anything logged that was up on that occasion.  Checks with the TOMAH JOURNAL and MONITOR HERALD and the county sheriff's office for additional visual witnesses also proved fruitless. 

ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS 

ASTRONOMY:  The first half of the pilot's testimony sounded dangerously like a description of a bright star like Venus; that of a bright light stationary in the west simply "pacing" him for many miles.  From here, an argument would have to made that changes in the positioning of the light were created by changes in the altitude and bearing of the plane . . . Venus' visual appearance was smeared and distorted by the temperature inversion . . . the radar target was only fortuitously placed ground clutter, and so on.  This argument breaks down, however, when one considers the rapid shifting back and forth, confirmed by radar, coupled with the fact that the plane converged on the target and flew underneath it, also confirmed by radar.  Finally, Venus had set that night at 10:30 PM. 

METEOROLOGY:  The large area of radar obliterated during the temperature inversion conditions (which moved slowly southeast like a large sheet on radar during the incident) throws a messy element into the case. Other ground clutter "targets" were seen by the controllers when they picked out the one over Volk.  Yet that image was described as "solid" and coincided with the visual action reported by the plane. 

AEROSPACE:  No interpretation possible. 

SOCIOLOGY:  It is ironic to note that the whole episode began because of a sighting of what all parties became convinced was only a Madison spotlight playing on the clouds.  Note also that the pilot was asked to look for "unusual lights"; that the pilot thus had the stage set to "watch for UFOs" is the most significant psychological element present in the case. 

CONCLUSIONS 

Again, as in the other all-too-few documented radar-visual cases in the UFO literature, the target was viewed distantly against a night sky.  Even more so than in other cases, the onus of "temperature inversion" haunts the radar end of the incident; yet the unusual features of the extremely fast back-and-forth motions of the UFO, coupled with the planes flight under the object and the concurrent cessation of turbulence lend strength to the conclusion that a truly anomalous sighting was made.  Equally important was the availability of a timed tape of the event and the chance to meet with both the controllers and the pilot in person.  One way the case would be aided would be to talk with the second visual witness, the businessman on board the multi-engined plane; yet the climate of ridicule that resulted in the radar men being teased as the "Swamp Gas Team", and caused the first pilot to desire total anonymity, has cowed him from even talking with us.  It's regrettable, yet no one understands the social reality of "UFO harassment" better than we. 

International UFO Reporter, Vol 3, No. 8, pages 11-15
August 1978

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