Former United Airlines pilot Neil Daniels was one witness who shared his story with Kean. On March 12, 1977, Daniels was piloting a DC-10 on a routine flight from San Francisco to Boston. The aircraft was operating on autopilot when it suddenly started to turn left. Looking through the cockpit window, he and several other members of the United crew saw a brilliantly lit ball, roughly the size of their own plane, about 1,000 yards away. Daniels then noticed three of his compasses were pointing in different directions. After a few minutes, the glowing ball flew off at high speed. "Whatever it was, it wasn't an airplane," said Daniels, who passed away in May at his home in Los Altos, Calif. Air traffic controllers later reported they had not noticed any unusual radar traffic in the area, and the incident wasn't investigated further.
Even when government officials do try to examine a UFO sighting, they can be stymied by elusive—or vanishing—evidence. In Kean's book, a pilot in the shah-era Iranian air force describes a UFO encounter that Kean also found referenced in U.S. intelligence files. On Sept. 18, 1976, civilians and military officials at an air base near Tehran spotted a large diamond-shaped object with pulsating colored lights flying over the city in the late evening. Two fighter planes, including one piloted by the major who recounted the event, were scrambled to intercept the craft, which was also picked up on radar and described as being about the size of a 707 tanker jet. The major reported that, as he approached, the UFO seemed to emit a projectile. Believing it was a missile, the officer tried to return fire, but his weapons wouldn't respond. Though he said the "missile" appeared to land on the ground below, no evidence of it was found. The larger craft disappeared from the sky in an instant. A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency review later that year called the incident "a classic which meets all the criteria necessary for a valid study of a UFO phenomenon."
Kean points out that countries like France and Chile maintain official government agencies to handle this kind of investigation, but the United States does not. The Federal Aviation Administration simply advises pilots to report any incidents to private UFO groups or to local authorities if they believe property or people are threatened. This official lack of interest is a concern, Kean says, because of the potential dangers posed by some incidents.
In one case, on Nov. 7, 2006, a dozen or so United Airlines workers at Chicago O'Hare International Airport spotted a gray metallic-looking disk apparently hovering for several minutes above an airport gate before shooting upward and vanishing, leaving a hole in the cloud cover. The witnesses, including mechanics, pilots, and supervisors, shared their accounts with the Chicago Tribune, which covered the story. The FAA suggested they had seen a "weather phenomenon" and didn't formally investigate, Kean says, despite the potential intrusion of an unknown craft in the airspace of one of the nation's busiest airports.
"The FAA's mission does not involve the investigation of UFOs," says agency spokesman Tony Molinaro, adding, "Our employees didn't see anything unusual and nothing caused any operational problems that day."
In fact, many experts are more concerned about the hazards these sightings pose to aviation than about the potential for alien involvement. When flight crews are distracted by what's going on "outside the window," they are focused on that and "not flying the airplane anymore," says Richard Haines, a former senior research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center who is now chief scientist of the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena, a private research group focused on flight safety related to unidentified aerial phenomena. Kean agrees, particularly since pilots have reported encountering some of the more bizarre sights in the sky, including metallic disks, massive cigar-shaped craft, green spheres, and highly agile objects that seem to stop, accelerate, and turn in response to a pursuing pilot's maneuvers.