Pilots—Watch the Skies!

In the 1960s, as part of a Smithsonian project, airline pilots acted as lookouts for satellites, meteors, and UFOs.

Both on the ground (volunteer satellite trackers in Pretoria, South Africa, above) and in the air, volunteers watched the skies for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Moonwatch Network. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

As part of the International Geophysical Year (an international scientific project lasting from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958), the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory formed an amateur group of “citizen scientists” to help track artificial satellites. (For a nice history of the program, see Patrick McCray’s Keep Watching the Skies!)

The project was so successful that it continued long after the end of the IGY, and in 1963, airline pilots were asked to pitch in. The project was the idea of Herbert Roth, director of the Denver Moonwatch team, and an employee at United Air Lines. He named the effort the “Volunteer Flight Officer Network,” and by 1975, more than 115 airlines in 57 countries were participating.

In a sample letter in the Smithsonian Archives, Roth outlines to the airlines the benefits of joining the effort in tracking satellite debris:

A large percentage of satellites do not vaporize when re-entering our atmospheres. Depending upon the individual construction of a satellite, they do reach the lower levels of our atmosphere. A very small percentage of these reach it intact and, therefore, continue on to earth impact, while a large percentage are broken up due to the structural damage incurred after descending through the upper atmospheres of our planet. It is with reference to the “broken up” satellite that I speak. The cloud of debris caused by the satellite’s break-up spreads out as it continues in a long descending trajectory and is at its largest proportions, perhaps several kilometers in diameter, upon reaching terminal velocity (that point where the pieces literally fall out of the sky at less than 600 miles per hour, depending upon air drag). Terminal velocity occurs (depending largely upon the satellite’s original construction) near the top of the troposphere, approximately 11 kilometers altitude. Near this altitude and just prior to reaching terminal velocity the speed of this cloud of debris can be as much as 1 kilometer per second. Sufficient velocity of a metal particle to possibly penetrate the normally pressurized fuselage of an airliner or its wing tanks.

If a pilot saw something, he would fill out a 12-question form and mail it to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. More than 4,000 reports were eventually filed, all filled with lovely detail. Captain R.B. Hatfield, of Slick Airways, submitted a report dated January 22, 1967. Hatfield and his crew noticed an anomaly at 8,000 feet: “The center was about the size and magnitude of a bright satellite (at maximum),” he writes, “pulsating at frequency between 1-2 seconds and surrounded by a glowing or illuminated bubble of gas about 15° diameter. Our track was 283° T, UFO was very close to 270° T. Sky absolutely clear above us.... It disappeared in the West at about 30° altitude and the center was not visible in the last view. Complete viewing time estimated 5-10 minutes.” Roth was able to write back to Hatfield explaining that the sighting—also submitted by a Saturn Airways pilot—matched a classified ballistic launch from Western Test Range at Vandenberg Air Force Base. “The unusual intricacies of maneuvers described perfectly the classified maneuvers expected from that launch,” wrote Roth. 

The pilots spotted atmospheric tests, missile launches, lenticular clouds, satellite debris, weather balloons, lightning, even pieces of the Gemini 9 docking target burning across the sky. “Scored a double last night,” wrote Saudi Arabian Airlines Corp. Captain H.L. Bates in August 1968. “While going from Beirut to Riyadh, [I saw] two fireballs, a dim ash-white [that] quickly faded.” 

The program was considered a success by the time it was disbanded by the Smithsonian in 1975, and was even praised by UFO researchers. In a 1975 letter to the Smithsonian from Elmer Kral, the Nebraska State Director of the Mutual UFO Network, Kral writes: “Recently a meteorite was discovered near Lexington, Nebraska and it was perceived correctly, not as an alien space craft. I think that’s progress!” 



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