Kirtland AFB UFO sighting
The Kirtland AFB UFO sighting could suggest either of two incidents, separated by a number of years, but initially refers to an observation (and possible radar contact) of an unidentified flying object at Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico, late in 1957. The Air Force concluded the witnesses misidentified a conventional aircraft.
The incident took place on November 4, 1957, at around 22:45 MST. Two Civil Aeronautics Administration controllers in the tower at Kirtland AFB, R. M. Kaser and E. G. Brink, noticed a white light travelling eastwards across the airfield. The light appeared to manoeuvre and a brief radar contact was confirmed before the men saw a dark object descend steeply at the end of Runway 26. The object proceeded to cross the airfield at a moderate speed and a height of a few tens of feet; through binoculars, it appeared to be around 15–20 feet tall, vertically elongated and egg-shaped, with a single white light in its base. It came to within 3000 feet of the tower before hovering for a period of up to a minute; it then moved eastwards to the base boundary before suddenly climbing at high speed into the overcast.
At this point, Kaser and Brink called the Albuquerque Radar Approach Control unit, who were able to confirm a target moving eastwards in the expected area. It turned south, moving (according to Kaser) at a very high speed, before orbiting in the vicinity of the Albuquerque Low Frequency Range Station for a number of minutes. The target then moved back north towards Kirtland, hovering over the outer marker south of the main north-south runway. It finally took up position half a mile behind a C-46 leaving the base and followed it for around 14 miles before again hovering over the outer marker and fading. The total period of radar contact lasted around 20 minutes.
The sighting was investigated almost immediately by the Air Force for Project Blue Book. The witnesses were traced and again interviewed in the late 1960s by Dr James E. McDonald, a prominent atmospheric physicist and UFO researcher, adding further detail (the bulk of the above account is based on McDonald's description).
Investigation for Blue Book; possible solution
The witnesses were interviewed a few days later by a Capt. Shere from Ent AFB. Shere was of the opinion that while the two tower operators - who were characterised as completely reliable, competent, and somewhat embarrassed at their report - had genuinely seen something, the object did not display any performance capabilities beyond those to be expected of an ordinary private aircraft, and as there was no other obvious explanation, concluded that they had most likely seen such an aircraft. The radar returns were, it was noted, identical to those of a small plane, strengthening this view. Shere surmised that the aircraft's pilot had mistakenly tried to land at Kirtland before realising his error and hurriedly leaving, after executing a turn which may have been partly obscured by buildings. The case was filed with the conclusion "Possible Aircraft".
This explanation was also used in the final report of the Condon Committee on UFOs, which agreed with the Air Force that "a small, powerful private aircraft, flying without flight plan, [...] became confused and attempted a landing at the wrong airport".
Subsequent investigation by McDonald
Dr James McDonald, when reviewing the case, stated that he did not find it credible that a pilot could execute such a dangerous manoeuvre as described at night, in the rain, and at low height, or that the control tower's view was obscured at key points. His dissatisfaction with the Condon Report and Blue Book conclusions led him to take the step of tracing and contacting Kaser and Brink, although he was unable to locate any of the radar personnel involved or records of the radar tracks. In his paper Science in Default, McDonald claimed that the two tower operators independently confirmed to him that the object seen by them did not in any way resemble an aircraft (even when viewed through 7x binoculars), lacking wings, fuselage or tail, and that rather than being obscured by buildings at any point was in their full view for the duration of the sighting, including the period when it apparently hovered; it did not execute a turn, as Shere had concluded. They also stated that the performance and departure speed of the object was far in excess of that of even contemporary jet aircraft.
McDonald's conclusion was that the Blue Book and Condon Report explanation was, in this case, completely unsatisfactory. He was particularly concerned that the Condon Committee did not seem to have made any attempt to re-interview the witnesses but had simply relied on the original Blue Book file. His analysis did not suggest any alternative solution, but was used to support his thesis that certain incidents defied explanation and merited further scientific study.
The Kirtland sighting took place in the context of a UFO "flap" or panic across the southern states in early November 1957. This included the Levelland UFO case, which took place two days earlier and a similar case in Orogrande, New Mexico, on November 4. Other sightings allegedly occurred in 1980 and were described in documents released under the Freedom Of Information Act. These documents (commonly referred to as The Kirtland Documents) are the source of some controversy, and the alleged sightings attributed to Air Force and Sandia personnel have never been fully substantiated.
- McDonald, Science in Default, paper given to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 1969.
- Shere's conclusion was recorded in the Blue Book file as follows: "The opinion of the preparing officer is that this object may possibly have been an unidentified aircraft, possibly confused by the runways at Kirtland Air Force Base. The reasons for this opinion are: 1. The observers are considered competent and reliable sources and in the opinion of this interviewer actually saw an object they could not identify. 2. The object was tracked on a radarscope by a competent operator. 3. The object does not meet identification criteria for any other phenomena".
- Thayer, Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, University of Colorado, 1968, pp. 212–213.
- Orogrande Case Directory, NICAP. The Air Force later classified this sighting, by a Holloman AFB employee, as a likely fabrication inspired by reports of the Levelland incidents.