One of the most publicized UFO encounters of the 1980s occurred on November 17, 1986, over Alaska. The witnesses were the captain, first officer, and flight engineer of a Japanese Airlines Boeing 747 cargo plane on a flight from Paris to Tokyo.
At 5:10 p.m. local time, as the aircraft, at 35,000 feet, was passing over northeastern Alaska, Captain Kenju Terauchi, a veteran pilot, noticed some unusual lights to his left and about 2000 feet below him. He decided that they were probably from military aircraft. But a few minutes later, when the position of the lights had not changed, suggesting that they were keeping pace with the 747, Terauchi and his crew began to pay them closer attention.
As Terauchi completed a left turn, the lights abruptly were directly in front of the aircraft, and much closer. Now they resembled two pairs of rectangular-to-square arrays of "amber and whitish" lights, with "jets" pulsating in the direction of a dark vertical panel at the centre of each object. After several seconds the jets ceased shooting fire and became "small circles of lights" like "numerous exhaust pipes." The two UFOs, between 500 and 100 feet in front of the 747, were "about the same size as the body of a DC-8 jet." After about five minutes the objects positioned themselves side by side.
At 5:19, Terauchi asked Anchorage flight control if it was tracking anything near the aircraft. It wasn't. A conversation ensued in which efforts were made to identify the lights. The transmission, however, was sometimes garbled. As the captain reported later, "The VHF communications, both in transmitting and receiving, were extremely difficult for 10 to 15 minutes while the little ships came close to us and often interfered with communication from Anchorage."
The Anchorage controller notified the Air Force at Elmendorf Regional Operational Control Centre (ROCC) and asked it to try to see what its radar was picking up.
Meanwhile, the two lights moved off to the left. Terauchi saw an object, apparently a third UFO, some seven or eight miles away. The two other, smaller lights were flying toward it. He was able to pick up the distant object on the aircraft's radar. Though barely visible to the eyes of the crew, the radar indicated it was quite large. It remained on the screen for several minutes.
On the ground, the ROCC radar controller reported to Anchorage that he was getting some "surge primary return," meaning a radar signal unaccompanied by a transporter signal. (A transporter is an airplane transmitter that sends out a coded signal in response to a signal from a ground station.) When the ROCC controller speculated that the trick might be erroneous, Anchorage, which was also picking it up, assured him that "it's not erroneous." Anchorage wanted to know if the base was certain it did not have a military aircraft in the area. ROCC said it did not.
Now ROCC was tracking a "primary return" in the approximate location the pilot was describing. But by 5:28 the return was gone. In the air, the JAL crew were watching the lights off to the left and below them, near the horizon. The objects were too far to the left now to be tracked on the aircraft radar. To the crew's left the sky was dark; stars and planets had now become visible, and the two smaller UFOs were becoming indistinguishable from the other lights.
As the plane approached within 20 miles of Eielson Air Force Base to the northeast and within 30 miles of Fairbanks to the east-northeast, they looked behind them at a pale white light, the one they had tracked earlier. This time they saw, according to Terauchi, the "silhouette of a giant spaceship," apparently visible because it was reflecting the lights from the ground. It looked like an enormous Saturn-shaped structure. Terauchi would refer to it as the "mothership," speculating that the two relatively smaller objects had come from and gone back to it. He estimated that it was the size of "two aircraft carriers."
The captain frantically radioed Anchorage and asked for permission to take evasive measures. Approval was granted quickly, but the huge UFO stayed behind them in the same position even when they turned and descended. At 5:39 it disappeared, but not before ROCC had tracked an anomalous target in the vicinity of the plane. At 5:40 Archorage asked the captain if he would like a jet to be scrambled, but Terauchi declined. (He later explained that he feared for the safety of the interceptor pilot.)
ROCC was briefly tracking the target again, and the JAL crew were seeing the "mothership" behind them once more. With the 747 running low on fuel, Terauchi knew he had to land at Anchorage no matter what.
At 5:40 a United Airlines passenger jet had left Anchorage heading north for Fairbanks. Soon it was at 29,000 feet. Since it was at the same approximate elevation as the JAL 747 (which was at 31,000 feet), Anchorage, which had an unidentified target on its radar, asked the UA pilot if he could see anything behind the JAL flight. But by the time the UA aircraft got close enough to see, the "mothership" had disappeared.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched an investigation. FAA official Jack Wright interviewed the crew shortly after the plane had landed. Another interview was conducted that same evening by two FAA special agents. An FAA investigation continued into January. On March 5 the FAA announced it "was unable to confirm the event" because "a second radar target near the JAL flight at the time of the reported sighting was not another aircraft but rather a split radar return from the JAL Boeing 747." (Nonetheless Hank Elias, in charge of the FAA's air traffic division in Alaska, said the FAA was less than "absolutely positive" about this explanation.)
Physicist/ufologist Bruce Maccabee, who conducted his own investigation, noted:
The FAA press release did not mention that the "split return effect" was contradicted by the fact that the extra echo did not come back with every sweep of the radar and by a statement by an air traffic controller who said that they don't usually get a split image in the area that the JAL jet flew. The press release offered no explanation for the sighting, nor did it dispute the crew's claim that something unusual was seen.
A month and a half before the FAA announcement, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a debunking group, declared it had "solved" the JAL sighting. In a January 22 press release, it said "at least one extraterrestrial object was involved - the planet Jupiter, and possibly another - Mars." The solution was credited to the chairman of CSICOP's UFO Subcommittee, Philip J Klass.
Maccabee countered that the "solution" had been offered before all the facts were in. According to him, Klass:
Made a major error in not waiting for the release of the complete package of information compiled by the FAA. Had he waited he would have found that the publicized versions of the sighting were actually quite accurate in their descriptions of the lights, although they were far from complete, and the descriptions certainly rule out Jupiter and Mars as explanations. For example, Klass did not know that the widely publicized drawings of the arrays of lights were more detailed versions of the sketches made by the captain only hours after the event. Nor did he know that the other crew members, in separate interviews, supported the captain's report of seeing a multiplicity of lights appear in the front of the plane and pace the aircraft for 10 minutes or more. Nor did he know that the arrays of lights rearranged themselves from one above the other to side by side, a reorientation that Jupiter and Mars would have found difficult to do. Without the information package, it was impossible to reconstruct from radar data the flight path of the aircraft. Without the flight path, it was impossible to determine the exact heading of the aircraft, and therefore the directions that the pilot and crew were looking at various times, since they gave sighting directions with respect to the heading of the aircraft. Therefore the analyst might not have realized that just before the end of the sighting, when Jupiter was ahead of the plane and to the left (about at the 10 o'clock position), the UFO "mothership" was behind and to the left (at the seven-to-eight o'clock position).
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