If we trust pilots to carry us through the air safely, and to guard our nation’s skies, then why can't we trust what they tell us about their encounters with unidentified flying objects?
That's the question posed by investigative journalist Leslie Kean in her new book, "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record." It's a compelling question — but is it a good argument for the existence of something truly unexplainable?
The book's main themes are the extraordinary stories of strange aerial encounters in Europe, South America and even the United States. In these stories, investigators have failed to pinpoint phenomena to explain the sightings. And because the primary witnesses are pilots, the accounts are considered more credible than run-of-the-mill UFO reports. But are they really?
Kean asserts that pilots are the best describers of aerial phenomena. “They represent the world’s best-trained observers of everything that flies,” she writes. “What better source for data on UFOs is there?... [They] are among the least likely of any group of witnesses to fabricate or exaggerate reports of strange sightings.”
This may sound like a plausible assumption, but others who have studied the raw evidence disagree. Experienced UFO investigators realize that pilots, who instinctively and quite properly interpret visual phenomena in the most hazardous terms, are not dispassionate observers. For pilots, a split-second diagnosis can be a matter of life or death — and so they're inclined to overestimate the potential threats posed by what they see.
One of the world’s first genuine UFO investigators, Allen Hynek of Northwestern University, came to believe that some encounters really could have otherworldly causes. But he was much more skeptical about the reliability of pilot testimony. "Surprisingly, commercial and military pilots appear to make relatively poor witnesses," he wrote in "The Hynek UFO Report."
Hynek found that the best class of witnesses had a 50 percent misperception rate, but that pilots had a much higher rate: 88 percent for military pilots, 89 percent for commercial pilots, the worst of all categories listed. Pilots could be counted on for an accurate identification of familiar objects — such as aircraft and ground structures — but Hynek said "it should come as no surprise that the majority of pilot misidentifications were of astronomical objects."
The authors of a Russian UFO study came to the same conclusion. Yuli Platov of the Soviet Academy of Science and Col. Boris Sokolov of the Ministry of Defense looked into a series of sightings in 1982 that caused air defense units to scramble jet fighters to intercept the UFOs. Platov and Sokolov said the sightings were sparked by military balloons that rose to higher-than-expected altitudes.
"The described episodes show that even experienced pilots are not immune against errors in the evaluation of the size of observed objects, the distances to them, and their identification with particular phenomena," Platov wrote.
Susceptible to overinterpretation
Ronald Fisher of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami is a lecturer who teaches staff members at the National Transportation Safety Board how to interview eyewitnesses at “critical events” such as airplane crashes. He stresses the importance of eliciting raw sensory impressions first, before asking for the witness’s interpretation of what they think they saw.
“Once they start focusing on their interpretation, that will color the memory of their perceptions,” he told msnbc.com.
“Pilots are susceptible to overinterpretation, especially of vague, rapid and unclear experiences,” he continued. “The less clear the situation, the more your general knowledge and your expectations [contribute].” Passage of time is an enemy of accuracy, because it gives witnesses the opportunity “to use their general knowledge to construct the memory of what they experienced.”
As witnesses of things seen while flying, pilots were a special case. “The cost of a false negative is greater than the cost of a false positive,” he explained. “It’s probably a safety mechanism.”
The body of UFO reports is replete with cases of spectacular misinterpretations, and pilots are frequently involved. So it's prudent to use caution when evaluating the testimony of pilots.
Intelligent UFOs ... or sensible pilots?
UFOs are often reported as maneuvering intelligently, and Kean argues that a particularity of the different types of maneuvers reported by pilots serves as proof that UFOs are real and are acting with intelligence. But that logic actually ends up supporting the idea that a pilot's circumstances affect what he or she reports seeing.
Kean refers to the “Weinstein List,” a compendium of 1,300 UFO reports from pilots, assembled by French investigator Dominique Weinstein in 2001. It is described as containing only those “cases for which adequate data is available to categorize the [cause] as unknowns.”
"One crucial point I have noted, which is shown in Weinstein’s study, is that a UFO's behavior tends to depend on whether the encounter involves a military aircraft or a civilian passenger plane," Kean writes.
"Neutrality usually seems the general rule with commercial airlines or private planes, whereas an active interaction often occurs between UFOs and military aircraft. Military pilots usually described the movements of UFOs as they would air maneuvers of conventional aircraft, using terms such as follows, flees, acute turns, in formation, close collision, and aerial combat," she says.
For Kean, this constitutes evidence that the UFOs are guided by intelligent pilots. "These incidents clearly demonstrate that in no way are these examples of natural events, but rather that UFOs are phenomena with a deliberate behavior. The physical nature of UFOs has been proved," she says.
But a much simpler explanation makes more sense: The difference is due to "observer bias." People see what they expect to see, and combat pilots expect to encounter combative bogies. Civilian pilots mostly fear accidental collisions.
The different behavior that is perceived by the two categories of pilots doesn't necessarily mean the unidentified flying objects themselves behave differently. It's more likely that different kinds of pilots draw upon differently developed instincts as they react to perceived threats — and thus they bring different interpretations to stimuli that are actually similar.
What all this means ... and doesn't mean
There’s no reason to argue that all the pilot reports are caused by exactly the same stimuli. UFO reports that are linked to rocket launches or booster re-entries are relatively easy to explain, because the location and timing of the events can be correlated with the accounts from startled and mistaken witnesses.
For other stimuli, such as fireball meteors, secret (or illegal) aircraft operations or natural atmospheric displays, documentation of their transitory existence usually doesn't exist. The main value of the solved UFO cases is to allow a definitive calibration of pilot testimony in general.
Thus, I am not dismayed by the fact that I can't explain every case Kean mentions in her book, because experience has shown that finding the real explanation — even if it turns out to be prosaic — is often a massive effort involving as much luck as sweat. If investigators are unable to find the explanation for a particular UFO case, that doesn't constitute proof that the case is unexplainable.
This is just a fact of life, for UFO sleuths as well as other breeds of investigators. The same is true for murders, kidnappings, accidents, illnesses — for all the catastrophes that befall humanity. We don't need to conjure up alien murderers or kidnappers to account for unsolved crimes. Not finding Jimmy Hoffa isn't proof he must be on Mars.
So the “not proven” assessment makes it even more important to keep our eyes and minds open — to vigorously observe, accurately perceive, and precisely relate unusual aerial perceptions. Something really new could still be discovered. Or something critically important could be masquerading, by accident or design, in a manner that leads too many people to pay too little attention.
Accepting every UFO claim uncritically or rejecting every claim automatically would be equally unjustified. And quite possibly, equally harmful.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg is a 22-year veteran of NASA Mission Control in Houston, and the author of numerous books on space policy and exploration.