; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Lights Over Pennsylvania: The Killian UFO Case

The sighting of three glowing objects by several airline crews February 24, 1959, is one of the most thoroughly investigated (and ironically, one of the most controversial) on record.

On February 24, 1959, Captain Peter W. Killian and First Officer James Dee, American Airlines, were flying a DC-6B nonstop from Newark to Detroit. It was a clear night, with stars brightly visible and no moon. At 8:20 P.M. (EST) the plane was approximately thirteen miles west of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, flying on a heading of 295 degrees at 8,500 feet. Off the left wingtip, Captain Killian noticed three bright lights, which he first thought was the three stars making up the belt of the constellation Orion. But then he realized that Orion was also visible, higher overhead. The UFOs were about 15 degrees above the plane.

As he and Flight Officer (F/O) Dee continued to watch, the objects pulled ahead of the wingtip. At this point, in the vicinity of Erie, Pennsylvania, Captain Killian contacted two other American Airlines planes in the area. One, at the "Dolphin checkpoint" (over the northern shore of Lake Erie), saw the objects directly to the south over Cleveland. The other aircraft, near Sandusky, Ohio, and heading toward Pittsburgh. spotted the objects a little to the left of their heading, to the southeast.

As the DC-6B continued west, the UFOs occasionally pulled ahead and dropped back until they were in their original position with respect to the left wingtip. Then Captain Killian began letting down for landing in Detroit, and the crew no longer had time to watch the objects.

During the forty-five minute observation, the UFOs continuously changed brightness, flashing "brighter than any star," and then fading completely. This did not occur in any apparent pattern. The color fluctuated from yellow-orange to a brilliant blue-white at their brightest. The last object in line moved back and forth at times, independently of the generally western motion of the formation.

Visibility was unlimited. The pilots agreed: "It could not be any clearer than it was that night above 5,000 feet."

Capt. Peter W. Killian

When the plane began letting down for landing, about 9:15 P.M., Captain Killian and F/O Dee lost sight of the objects. At 9:30 P.M. in Akron, Ohio, George Popowitch of the UFO Research Committee received a phone call from a contact at the Akron airport. A United Airlines plane
(Flight 937) had just landed for a fifteen-minute stop and reported sighting three UFOs which had followed their plane for thirty minutes. Popowitch had already received nine reports from local citizens between 9:15 and 9:20 of there UFOs seen in the area, so he arranged to interview the crew of the airliner.

Captain A. D. Yates and Engineer L. E. Baney said they had tracked the object from the vicinity of Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to Youngstown, Ohio, between 8:40 and 9:10 P.M. United Airlines flight 321, also, had discussed the objects by radio. Captain Yates had seen the UFOs pacing his plane to the south. But in the vicinity of Warren, Ohio, the objects passed the aircraft, veered to the right, and finally disappeared to the northwest.

On May 6, 1959, Major General W. P. Fisher, Air Force Director of Legislative Liaison, in a letter to Senator Harry Byrd, stated: "The investigation of this incident revealed that an Air Force refueling mission, involving a KC-97 and three B-47 aircraft, was flown in the vicinity of Bradford, Pennsylvania, at the time of the sighting by Captain Killian. The refueling operation was conducted at 17,000 feet altitude at approximately 230 knots true air speed (about 265 mph) for a period of approximately one hour."

An American Airlines DC-6

THE NATIONAL INVESTIGATIONS COMMITTEE ON Aerial PHENOMENA pointed out several discrepancies in this explanation:

(1) Bradford was to the north of the airliner's flight path; the UFOs were seen to the south.

(2) Triangulation’s of the pilots' sighting did not conform to the altitude and position information given for the refueling operation.

(3) The American Airlines crews checked with Air Traffic Control at the time and were told that no three aircraft were in the area and, after landing, were told that no jet refueling tankers were in the area.

Queried by the press, Captain Killian said: "If the Air Force wants to believe that, it can. But I know what a B-47 looks like and I know what a KC-97 tanker looks like, and I know what they took like in operation at night. And that’s not what I saw."

The Air Force subsequently released a (unsigned) statement which they said was made by Captain Killian, saying that the UFOs might have been a refueling operation and that he was not aware of what this looked like at night. In the ensuing controversy, American Airlines instructed Captain Killian to keep silent. The Air Force officially concluded that the UFOs were aircraft. - Richard Hall - 1964 - (NICAP)


The Truth About the "Orion Belt" Sightings

On February 24, 1959, an American Airlines four-engine DC-6 airliner captained by Peter Killian, sighted three flying saucers. Crew and passengers observed them for 45 minutes. Other airliners were radioed and also reported seeing the same three objects. Here was an unmistakable refutation to Air Force claims that there is no such thing as a flying saucer. Yet, within days, this sighting became the most incredible snafu in flying saucer history. Because of it, airline pilots have become involuntary members of a new "society of angry men". What are the facts to this historic case?

In order to evaluate what has become known as the "Orion Belt" sighting, it is necessary to describe the sighting in precise detail before going on to the various explanations and analyses offered by various authorities, and by the ever-acrobatic gyrations of the Air Force Spokesman type of public relations, intelligence and secrecy classifications. It all began at 7:10 p.m. on February 24, 1959 aboard a DC-6 leaving Newark Airport enroute to Detroit, non-stop. At the controls was Captain Peter Killian, a pilot of twenty years experience, fifteen of them piloting airliners for a total of more than four million miles. For a change, the story hit the nation’s headlines, and typical of the unusually accurate stories published is the one presented by the Detroit Times, which we quote with capable reporting in mind, particularly of the type presented by Al Leaderman, star writer for the Times:

Thirty-five passengers aboard a Detroit-bound American Airlines DC-6 watched with awe last night as three illuminated "flying saucers" escorted the ship through the dark sky for 45 minutes.

Both passengers and crew members on the plane which left Newark nonstop for Detroit at 7:10 p.m. viewed the phenomena while questioning each other, their own powers of observing and their sanity.

Probably the most startled was Capt. Peter Killian of Syosset, N. Y., who has flown passenger planes for 15 years and "never saw anything like it before."

Killian even radioed two other American Airlines planes flying in the vicinity to make sure "I wasn’t seeing lightning bugs in the cockpit."

BOTH OTHER captains called Killian back to assure him he wasn’t – they saw the saucers, too.

The captain and co-pilot, John Dee of Nyack, N. Y., said they lost the three strange objects in the haze when they started their descent for landing at Metropolitan Airport while they were over Lake Erie.

N. D. Puscas, 41, of 30835 Barton, Garden City, a passenger, told the Times that while he was no exponent of flying saucers he saw the strange objects "dancing in the sky."

Puscas, general manufacturing manager of Curtis Wright division at Utica, asked that before his version of what he saw was printed, it be corroborated by the pilot.

"I don’t want to be quoted alone," Puscas explained. "People might get the idea that I’m the little boy in the corner with a dunce cap on his head."

KILLIAN SAID: "We were flying around 8,500 feet between Philipsburg and Bradford, Pa., at 8:45 p. m. when I looked off to the south and saw three yellowish lights in a single horizontal line overhead.

"At first, I thought it was the Belt of Orion (a group of stars in a constellation) but then I took a second look and saw both the Belt and the foreign objects."

"When Dee caught the expression on my face he asked me if my eyes were tired. I then pointed in the direction of the "things" and asked him if there were any lightning bugs in the cockpit.

"The objects were by no means close to the plane, but one would move in at intervals, fall back again, and change its place in the formation while keeping abreast of the ship, which was traveling at 350 miles per hour."

At the MCMath-Hulbert Observatory of the University of Michigan, at Lake Angelus, Dr. Orren C. Mohler, assistant director, said:

"There is no astronomical explanation of the reported sightings. I know of nothing that occurred in the skies last night that could account for the objects described."

"Deciding it might be an after-dinner treat for his passengers, Killian talked to them over the intercom.

He started off jokingly by telling them that he didn’t want them to get the idea he was losing his mind but he thought some "flying saucers" were trailing the plane.

He prefaced his intercom comment with:

"Don’t get excited. I’ve had only a cup of tea with my dinner."

THE PASSENGERS peered out, saw the objects and began guessing what they might be.

"It couldn’t have been an apparition," Killian continued, "because all the others on the plane saw them too.

"All in all, the objects traveled in our direction for about 45 minutes," Killian said.

"During the time I kept watch on the radar screen but saw nothing on it.

"At one time I thought it might be a high altitude jet refueling operation, but the varying intensity of the lights and the changing positions of the objects made me toss out that theory."

KILLIAN SAID he also radioed the tower at Metropolitan to notify CIRVIS of the sighting. CIRVIS, he said, was a civilian agency which investigates UFOs – unidentified flying objects.

Killian, a flier since 1929 with more than four million commercial air miles, said the objects gave off a "yellowish glow."

The captain is married and has three children. His wife is Kay; the children, Peter M., 14; Stephen, 13, and Kathleen, 6.

PUSCAS PRAISED Killian’s actions in informing and chatting with the passengers about the sight.

"The way he broke the news to is was very clever. No one panicked or showed any signs of worry. Everyone immediately began to show a keen interest in what was going on. He did a fine job.

"There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when I looked out and saw the objects in precision formation. They were round-like and every now and then one would glow brighter than the other as if it had moved nearer to the plane.

"I have been making that same trip a number of times because the home office is in New York but I have never experienced anything like that before."

THE PLANES two hostesses, Edna Le Gate, 22, and Beverly Pingree, 25, said today they were still puzzled over the objects.

Miss Le Gate, of Walton, Ariz., whose birthday was yesterday, said:

"I don’t know what they were. I’m a terrific science-fiction fan, but I know what I saw."

There are the basic facts. Added to them, secured by later interviews, we can list the following: Visibility was 100 miles. There were broken clouds below the plane, at 5,000 feet. All the sky above that layer was absolutely clear. Captain Killian at first guessed the objects were a mile distant, but says this was just an impression, since he cannot estimate their size. On later consideration, he was of the opinion that they were not that close. The DC-6 was flying at 8,500 feet when the objects were sighted. All lights inside the plane were switched off to afford the passengers a better view. Two other American Airlines planes were radioed. One informed Killian that he had been observing the objects for from ten to fifteen minutes when Killian radioed him. This plane was north of Killian’s position. The other plane was near Toledo, and he readily discerned the objects upon searching for them in response to Killian’s directions.

Meanwhile, independent sightings were being made by United Airlines crews. Captain A. D. Yates reported tracking the objects visually from 8:40 p.m. to 9:10 p.m., between Lockhaven, Pennsylvania and Youngstown, Ohio. Flight engineer L. E. Baney was also a witness on this plane. In addition, United Airlines Flights 321 and 937 encountered the objects while flying west of Newark. While observations were going on, radio discussion concerning them was carried on by the planes. All pilots and flight engineers agreed as to what they were seeing, and stated that they were separate vehicles on a formation course, from which they occasionally deviated somewhat, only to return to formation.

Ground witnesses added to the confirmation. At Akron, Ohio the Akron UFO Research Group, an organization of flying saucer spotters, sighted the three objects between 9:15 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Over 100 separate reports have come in to the editors of FLYING SAUCERS from the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin area for the same night, all generally agreeing as to the number of objects, although there were scattered instances of one object or two, or as many as six.

Later, Hugh McPherson of Radio Station WCHS, Charleston, West Virginia, recorded an interview on tape between himself and Captain Killian, in which additional facts were disclosed concerning the sighting. The objects, said Killian, changed color during the sighting. The last of the three objects would change position several times, going higher than the other two. Then it would dip down under the other two before resuming its normal position to the rear. At one time, one of them disappeared, leaving only two. At another time, all three objects vanished, only to reappear suddenly. The three objects were seen in the section of the sky where the constellation Orion is visible. However, Captain Killian had both the three stars of Orion’s Belt and the three U.F.O.s in sight at the same time, and said he could not have mistaken one for the other. Passengers on the Killian plane had requested him to fly closer, for a better look, but he did not deem it within safety regulations for him to do so.

It will be interesting now to repeat the various Air Force comments on these sightings, as they were issued. On February 28, the Air Force said: ". . . pilots may have been seeing stars instead of ‘unidentified flying objects’ in a recent flurry of flying saucer reports. The Air Force Technical Intelligence Agency at Wright-Patterson Air force Base, Dayton, Ohio, gave the opinion. It said the crew of an Air Force transport flying between Washington and Dayton made a report similar to those by the crews of two commercial airliners who reported seeing bright moving objects in the skies Tuesday night, February 24, 1959 in the Pennsylvania-Ohio area. The Air Force transport was flying under a broken cloud overcast at about 8,500 feet altitude. Experts of the Technical Intelligence Agency (the word intelligence is purely technical) said they believed the pilots may have sighted stars, especially the formation of Orion."

A letter from Major Lawrence J. Tacker, Executive Officer, Public Information Division, Office of the Information Service, Department of the Air Force, Washington, D. C., to Bob Barry, Director Aerial Phenomena Investigations Society, 328 North 6th Street, Olean, New York, states as follows:

"The American Airlines sighting of 24 February new Bradford, Pennsylvania, turned out to be a B-47 type aircraft accomplishing night refueling from KC-97 tankers. The American Airlines pilot’s report of the sighting confirmed this and Air Force records show that three B-47 type aircraft were in the vicinity of Bradford, Pennsylvania, on a night refueling operation. The tanker has several groups of lights which at a distance would appear to be one or more lights. The time duration of a refueling operation varies, can last well over an hour, depending on the type of operation. The KC-97 refueling a B-47 will fly at approximately an altitude of 17,000 feet at around 230 knots. This would account for the lights being approximately 30 degrees above the American Airlines pilot’s horizon and his seeing them for 40 minutes."

Even in this letter, we have confusion. Either it was one B-47 and two KC-97 tankers; or it was three B-47s and an unstated number of tankers. Further, only the tanker has the lights which might explain the American Airlines pilot’s sighting, and would have to have the faculty of disassociation, one from the other, so that the one mounted on the rear could climb above the other two, dip below them, then return to the rear. If Major Tacker cannot say from Air Force records exactly what kind and number of planes was in the vicinity that night, it would seem that Air Force records are vague indeed, if in fact any records such as described actually exist. Perhaps it would be better to refer to Major Tacker’s Division as the Public Mis-information Division, Office of Mis-information Services (services of doubtful value to the public).

The day following the Killian sighting, the New York Herald Tribune, wishing to give it readers the facts, queried the Air Force about the sighting, shared by crews of six American and United flights on the night of February 24. On March 1, the Air Force answer appeared in the newspaper. There was much in the answer that had nothing to do with the February 24 sighting such as references to "people who can’t remember anything when they sober up the next day"; people who are either deluded by ordinary objects or are outright liars. No, the Air Force didn’t say that Killian and his five fellow pilots were drunkards, but the implication was there by these unnecessary associations. The Air Force knows quite well that airline rules prohibit drinking, particularly before flights. The reply, in effect, was a slur, since it branded the crews of the planes as incompetent observers, or deluded, and belittled the intelligence of all the passengers who saw the flying objects.

Radio Station WOR, in New York, on its "Long John" show, interviewed First Officer Dee. Here it was explained by Dee that the sky above the plane had been "very clear". It was also revealed that the plane’s crew had actually considered the possibility that what they were witnessing was a refueling operation, but that they had discarded it, except for checking upon landing if such flights were actually in progress that night and getting a negative answer.

Overlooked by the Air Force is one of the most important factors of the 45-minute sighting, which no doubt is overlooked because even Air Force mental calisthenics cannot hurdle it, specifically the constant radar watch maintained by Captain Killian and his crew during the sighting. At no time were there any objects detected by the radar screen. There can be no question that, had these objects been either B-47s or KC-97s, there would have been a powerful signal received on the radar screens of all planes included in the sighting. This one fact alone rules out any refueling operation. Captain Killian’s estimate of distance is varied, of course, ranging from one mile to an unknown distance, but based on the angles of sightings from other planes, the distance cannot be too great. Certainly at all times within efficient radar range.

American Airlines, contrary to its usual policy, seemed to be startled out of its equanimity sufficiently to issue a public statement on February 26th that its pilots had had a considerable number of sightings in the midwest, where this particular sighting had occurred.

Asked about the color changes of the objects, Captain Killian later stated that they had changed from yellow to bluish white, and ranged from extreme brilliance to temporary fade-outs. No pattern was discernible in these fluctuations, and apparently no attempt at intelligent signaling.

In Major Tacker’s report, the speed of the supposed refueling planes was given as 230 knots, or around 270 miles per hour. Yet, when questioned, Captain Killian said it was not only safety regulations which persuaded him not to chase the mysterious objects upon the request of the passengers, but the fact that he obviously did not have sufficient speed to catch up with the UFOs, since his own speed was 350 miles per hour.

If it was the Air Force’s purpose to warn all airline pilots that they would be openly ridiculed if they reported sighting flying saucers, it worked to some degree, because many airline pilots have stated that they will never report any unusual objects sighted in the air. However, other pilots are not taking the matter so negatively. They have been aroused, and a movement is underfoot to form a private organization to combine their testimony and present it to Congress to force the issue out into the open.

The Newark Star-Ledger published a report that the Civil Aeronautics Administration has been tracking unidentified flying objects by radar in all parts of the United States. If the truth were known concerning radar tracking of UFOs, the result might be startling indeed.

A group of fifty commercial pilots who fly into Newark, which is one of the busiest air freight ad passenger centers in the world, are of the opinion that the Air Force policy of secrecy on UFOs is just plain silly. Every one of the fifty pilots had reported to the Air Force seeing at lease one flying saucer. Each had been questioned and then told, in effect, that he had seen a mirage. Then to cap it off, he was warned that if he told anyone else what he had seen, he might face up to ten years in prison for revealing military secrets. To the pilots, this makes no sense. If the UFOs are mirages, as the Air Force claims, why all the secrecy? And if they are military secrets, why does the CAA bother to track them by radar?

"They are very strict about requiring us to report the mysterious objects – then they are downright insulting in telling us we haven’t really seen anything." Was the gist of the pilots’ complaints.

Truly the attitude of the Air Force is becoming utterly ridiculous, and in fact, of actual disservice to the nation as a whole. It seems time that a more respectful policy is adopted, and a more efficient one, less conductive of engendering distrust of the capability of the Air Forces in the public mind. Certainly it is not too much to ask that all military personnel measure up to "conduct becoming a gentleman" in the tradition of the American armed forces.

The ‘Orion Belt" incident has, in effect, been a sound strapping for the Air Force Intelligence Crew, and will most certainly prove to be embarrassing in the future. It will no longer be possible to keep the anger of the competent pilots and crews of our commercial airlines in check, and to intimidate them concerning the reporting of what they know to be facts and not delusions, or "delirium tremens" due to guzzling whiskey. There is no more responsible person than the commercial airline pilot, nor more intelligent.

What Captain Killian and a hundred other competent people, saw on the night of February 24, 1959, was not a group of stars known as "Orion’s Belt". Of that you can be sure. And the other thing you can be sure of is that the Air Force public announcements concerning the sighting are pure drivel. It is irresponsible and unsatisfactory, and the citizens of America have every right to demand that an immediate change be made.

We wonder what would happen if all Airline pilots carried a good camera with telephoto lens at all times? Considering the number of sightings commercial pilots have, there should soon be an impressive number of good photos of "Orion’s Belt" to present to the public. FLYING SAUCERS offers to print any photo, even if presented anonymously, which can be shown to be a legitimate image of a sighting such as are being kept quiet by pilots who can see nothing to reward them for reporting except public insults and attacks upon their intelligence and integrity and ability. - July 1959 - Ray Palmer's "Flying Saucers" Magazine / ufologie.patrickgross.org

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