In the summer of 1978, I was flying for a crop dusting operation near Tranquillity, CA. At that time I had been a duster pilot for over 16 years, and flying nights since 1965. In central California during the summer months, certain fields are treated after dark, mainly to protect workers and honeybees from exposure to AG chemicals.
On the early morning of 28 July, just before 3:00 a.m., I was sitting in the cockpit of my airplane, a Rockwell Thrush Commander. The aircraft was parked, with its engine shut down and all interior and exterior lights off, at the south end of a ½ mile dirt runway, located about five miles southwest of Mendota, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley about 30 miles west of Fresno. The Thrush was lined up with the runway, facing due north.
I had just finished spraying a quarter section cotton field, and was getting ready to spray another. My two girl flaggers were already in place on the field I was about to treat, and my loader was busy mixing a batch of pesticide to be applied on it.
It was a calm, cloudless night, typical of midsummer in the San Joaquin Valley. The air temperature at ground level was around 70°, and the visibility was good. Although I was somewhat tired, I was not at all sleepy. I had drunk several cups of coffee from my thermos during the previous six hours, and I have always been sensitive to caffeine as a stimulant.
As I sat in the cockpit, waiting for the first load to be pumped into the hopper tank, I glanced over to my right at the crescent moon rising in the east, and then turned back to again face north. At this time, I noticed a dim, diffused orange glow, low in the sky to the northwest, about 45° to the left of the aircraft nose.
My first thought was that a house, barn, or other nearby ranch building had caught fire, but I discarded that possibility almost immediately. I knew the area quite well, an absolute necessity for safe night AG flying, and the glow was in the direction of the field that I was about to spray. I had flown this same field several times before, and knew there were no buildings in the immediate vicinity. I decided that if it was a fire, it had to be much farther away. This possibility was discarded a few seconds later, when the orange glow began to slowly rise. When it was about 30° above the horizon, it started moving toward the east. At first this movement was quite slow, but within a few seconds, it speeded up. The glow then began to take on an elongated form, markedly longer in the vertical plane than in the horizontal. It reminded me of a segment of searchlight beam, except that the entire light column moved laterally, while oriented nearly straight up and down, rather than in a radius around a fixed light source. The length of the column seemed to be about ten to 20° of vertical sky coverage.
As the light column passed through due north, straight ahead over the airplane nose, it continued accelerating and becoming brighter. I then realized that I was viewing something that was totally different from my many other nighttime sightings of missile launches, satellites, planets, and other aircraft.
I yelled for my loader to look, but the noise of the mix rig engine drowned out my voice, and because his attention was focused on opening cans of pesticide on the opposite side of the mix tank, he didn't see my frantic signals. I climbed out of the cockpit onto the left wing, planning to jump down and run around the trailer to alert him. Then I had the thought that if I did, I might miss a vital part of the display, so I remained standing on the wing.
After passing abeam of the runway end, the object continued accelerating for a short time, perhaps 5 to 10 seconds. It then climbed slightly, and at the same time abruptly slowed. During this phase the glow was becoming brighter, while the vertical beam was shortening, forming itself into a more compact mass of light.
At about 45° off to my right, the object, now considerably brighter, and resembling a glowing ball, came to a stop for several seconds. It then reversed course, and once again began moving, this time back to the west.
Several seconds after starting its westward movement, and without slowing, the ball of light instantly assumed the shape of a well defined, flattened sphere with pointed ends, which emitted a steady orange glow. At this time it began a shallow descent, gathering speed and leveling out around 20° above the horizon. It flew with its pointed ends parallel to the ground. From my position, the size of the object looked to be about that of a large pea or small marble when held at arms length. When the glowing, flattened sphere was directly over the Thrush's nose, it abruptly halted, going from a high rate of speed to a dead stop almost instantaneously. It remained stationary for no more than a few seconds, 5 seconds at the most. Although this would have been the best opportunity to determine the object's true size, I was unable to make an estimate, since its distance from me was unknown. On the report which I later submitted, I placed it at one to three miles away, but that distance is highly speculative.
After its momentary halt, the object again accelerated. Within a few seconds it had resumed its previous high speed, but appeared to have turned 90°, and was now climbing directly away from me at a very steep angle. Its heading was due north, and as it rose, it attained what looked to be the highest speed reached during the entire time it had been in view.
Because of the unknown size and distance of the object, and the fact that it was climbing at an angle directly away from me, this speed was impossible to estimate accurately. Judging from the rate at which it seemed to grow smaller though, it looked to be travelling about three to five times faster than a jet airliner at an altitude of around 30,000', as seen from the ground.
During this climb, the object also reached its maximum brightness, only very slightly less than that of the crescent moon. As it continued to rise, it began to dim. It finally vanished from my sight high above the horizon, about 60° to 70°, over the glow of the lights of Firebaugh, another small town about 12 miles due north of my position.
The total time which the object remained in view, from my first sighting of the diffused mass of light until the final disappearance of the flattened sphere, seemed to be about 40-50 seconds, but an accurate estimate is quite difficult. It could have been somewhat shorter, but almost certainly wasn't longer.
Throughout the episode, I remained relatively calm, but was filled with awe when I realized that I had just witnessed a phenomenon about which I had previously only read, and, up to that time, was not at all certain actually existed.
As soon as the object disappeared, I jumped off the wing and asked my loader if he had seen anything. He had not, and when I told him what I had witnessed, he was disappointed, to say the least. He finished mixing the batch of pesticide, and I sprayed four loads on the field. I then sprayed another quarter section located northeast of the strip without further incident.
After returning to Tranquillity, I sought out my two flaggers, and asked them if they had seen anything unusual the previous night. They were both very evasive and reluctant to answer my questions, and kept trying to change the subject. I finally got them to admit that they had also seen the object. Their view of it had been better than my own, since they described it as somewhat larger and brighter than it had appeared from my location. From this, I estimated that they were closer to it than I had been, although it had still remained to the north of them.
With further questioning, the fact emerged that they had also seen the same object on the previous two nights, while flagging for another pilot. The girls described it very aptly as: a little, flat, flying football. They had told no one else of these previous sightings, and remained very reluctant to discuss them with me. I later talked with the other pilot, who stated that he had seen nothing out of the ordinary on either night.
Several nights later, at around midnight, I was in the air, returning to Tranquillity from the western edge of the valley. I was heading almost due east, flying at about 500'. Suddenly, to the south, just off my right wing, at what seemed to be considerable distance away, I again sighted a column of diffused light. This time, the glow was more yellowish than orange. It appeared to move very slowly to the west, and I waited for a few seconds to see if another bright, oval shape would materialize from it. This did not occur. I then turned the airplane toward the light column, and flashed my two field lights of six hundred watts each. It immediately disappeared, and I saw no further evidence of the phenomenon.
A few days afterward, I wrote to the National Investigative Committee on Aerial Phenomena, NICAP, and reported the first sighting. Since the second light column had seemed rather far away, and was visible for only a short time, I didn't mention it. I later made out a NICAP report form and returned it. There was no reply from the organization, and I later learned that NICAP became non operational the next year.
That sighting of July 28 made a very deep and lasting impression. I can still see the glowing orange, flattened sphere as vividly in my mind as it appeared on that early morning many years ago. I have no doubt that the device, or whatever it was, was real. There is absolutely no way that it could have been a product of my imagination. Twelve years previously, I had flown in the Sudan with some AG pilots who mentioned seeing somewhat similar objects in Arkansas and Florida.
Around that same time, many persons in the Mendota/Tranquillity area claimed to have seen, over a period of several nights, a gigantic, black object, with strange, multi colored flashing lights. It moved slowly, making no sound, and was so huge that it obscured a significant portion of the night sky. This fits the mother ship description of which I later read in various UFO accounts. I never saw this vehicle, so I can't verify its existence, but it was the talk of all of the little towns on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley for many weeks afterward.
Over the years, I have seen two other unusual objects during night AG flying operations in the same general area. I once observed a bright blue light descend slowly to the ground from a high altitude, and watched, for a minute or so, a group of several bright white lights in a perfect L formation. They were flying very high and very fast, much faster than any known conventional aircraft. Neither of these incidents had the visual and psychological impact of the 1978 sighting however.
As I write this, I have spent over 35 years in agricultural aviation, and accumulated more than 11,000 hours of AG flying time, several thousand of these at night. During the many thousands of hours I have spent outdoors after dark, I have seen hundreds of satellites, about 30 missile launches from Vandenberg AFB, all of the visible planets under widely varying sky conditions, and many thousands of military and civilian aircraft in all modes of flight. What I saw on that early July morning was totally unlike anything else I have ever observed in the night sky. Since then, I have read hundreds of books dealing with all aspects of UFOs. Many of them contain accounts that are inconsistent and contradictory, while others are obviously outright fantasy. A few, however, seem to be authentic. Unlike most other UFO researchers, my search for the truth behind the many thousands of documented appearances of these phenomena is driven by the certain knowledge that they in fact exist.
To date, despite many years of research, I am still unable to form a definite opinion as to the substance and meaning of these mysterious and logic-defying objects. I hope, however, to somehow correlate the mass of at times conflicting information, and determine their true origin and purpose, before I make that last flight West.
After the above article was first published, I received a letter from a 25,000 hour commercial pilot who had sighted what was essentially the same phenomenon on a night in January of 1978, six months before my own experience.
He was on a charter flight with several passengers aboard and cruising at 8500' when, at about 9:00 p.m., he looked to the west of his course and saw a similar cycle of light begin. He started to turn toward it to get a better view, but his passengers had no desire whatever to get any closer, they became quite agitated and strongly objected, so he reluctantly turned away from the spectacle so as to calm them down. By the time he got back on his original heading, the light show was over. He also mentioned that he had seen a flight of silvery disks somewhere over north central Washington sometime in the 1950's.
I also got a letter from a distinguished professor at a northern California university, who dismissed my sighting as only the aurora borealis, or northern lights. I have seen the northern lights a number of times. Once, when they were exceptionally strong, they even appeared on the horizon in southern California. Of course, they bear no resemblance whatever to what I saw in the sky that morning, and anyone reading the article who has also seen the northern lights should have been able to comprehend that there was a vast difference between them. Some professor. Some aurora borealis.
Since the article first appeared, I have had one more sighting of something that remains unexplained in my mind. My wife also saw it, and is likewise at a loss to explain it.
On an early summer evening, we were lying on our backs on a lawn, watching the passage of the linked space shuttle/space station as they passed overhead. It was a very bright object, and had appeared exactly at the time forecast.
About 15 seconds after it had passed directly above us, we saw a bright white, flashing light on approximately the same track as the linked vehicles, but some distance behind them. It was nearly directly overhead also. The light didn't move in the same direction however. Instead, it flashed, disappeared, and then flashed again in another location some distance away from its original position. This cycle repeated itself about 5 or 6 times, with the light appearing at a different part of the sky each time, then the object disappeared.
I mailed an account of this sighting to the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena, an organization which gathers reports of unexplained aerial object sighting from all over the world. They mostly come from airline pilots. The reply stated that this same flashing, disappearing/reappearing light was one of the most common objects reported by a large number of pilots, none of whom were able to explain it. Neither was NARCAP.
Although I have been searching for 40+ years, I myself am no wiser as to the origin or purpose of these various unidentified flying objects which are being reported with increasing frequency all over the world. However, since there is nothing in the universe that is supernatural, I am convinced that they are a part of some larger phenomena yet to be discovered.
An Unexplained Sighting Over Northern Alabama
Published September 1995 as sidebar to A Little Flat Flying Football.
Whenever I travel by airline, I always try to get a window seat, because I like to look out on the ever changing clouds and sky and watch the ground passing below. Thus, on April 21, 1994, at approximately 1:10 p.m. EDT, I was in the rearmost right window seat of a Delta Lockheed L-1011. The aircraft was nearly full of passengers, heading west/northwest on a flight from Atlanta to Salt Lake City.
We were in a climb to cruising altitude, passing through approximately 18,000' to 20,000', when I suddenly saw, almost directly below, two seemingly circular bright, glowing white objects, with no visible wings or tail surfaces, moving toward the northeast at a very high speed. I spotted them just after they had passed under the airplane.
Because I have no knowledge of their size, or their distance from the aircraft, it's hard to say how far below they actually were, or at what speed they were traveling. I can tell you that they were moving very fast though, much faster than the fastest military fighter aircraft would be capable of flying, especially at that relatively low altitude. Besides that, with only a few exceptions for test and tactical ranges in several of the western states, supersonic flight is forbidden over the continental US, and these machines were traveling at a speed which was obviously much higher than the speed of sound would have been at that altitude. And of course all military aircraft of all the services are now coated with either radar absorptive or camouflage paint, and thus are either a uniform dull grey or a dull gray/green mottled color combination.
Although these objects were flying together, they were not in a close formation, such as tactical military aircraft would normally be, but approximately 3° to 5° apart. As they moved away below, they seemed to drift a little farther away from each other.
I watched them disappear in the distance, and then looked forward along the row of seats to see if anyone ahead of me was pointing, gesturing, or giving some indication that they had also seen the objects. No one was, all of the other passengers had the window shades down and were watching some dumb Whoopee Goldberg movie. Evidently I was the only one looking out the window.
While this didn't have the same impact as my previous sighting of July 1978, it was still an exciting experience. I only wish I had seen an indication that someone else on that airplane had sighted the machines, or whatever they were.