The Tehran 1976 UFO

Declassified military documents show that Iranian fighter planes engaged a UFO in 1976. What really happened?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #315
June 19, 2012
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Just about every well-known UFO story is billed as among the best documented and most believable. Well, they can't all be right, and certainly some documentation is better than others. UFOlogists' favorite supporting documentation is declassified government communiques that mention the UFO, and one famous case has about as much as any other. It happened in 1976 in the skies over the city of Tehran, Iran, in the dark just after midnight. Not much Iranian documentation survives due to the revolution that happened soon after, but the United States Air Force and Defense Intelligence Agency gathered enough written material to make the Tehran 1976 UFO one of the creepiest, and most menacing, in all of UFOlogy.

The story goes that sometime before midnight on September 19, four Tehran residents began telephoning the local Mehrabad airport stating that they saw a bright light in the sky. Mehrabad's radar was under repair and was not operational, so General Yousefi phoned Shahrokhi Air Force Base at Hamadan, 275 kilometers west southwest of Tehran. They showed nothing on radar. Yousefi went outside and saw the bright light for himself. He then ordered a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighter plane, piloted by Lt. Yaddi Nazeri plus a backseat weapons officer, to have a look. It took off from Shahrokhi an hour later at 1:30am. Once Nazeri reached Tehran, he reported losing all instruments and communications, so turned around and returned to base, and reported that his instruments came back once he did so.

A second F-4 was launched at 1:40am, piloted by Lt. Parviz Jafari. Jafari acquired radar lock on the bright object at a range of 27NM. According to the F-4's radar, the object had a signature similar to that of a KC-135 Stratotanker. Jafari reported that its lights consisted of alternating strobes of blue, green, red, and orange, so fast that all four were visible at once.

The F-4 pursued the object to the south of Tehran. It dropped another bright object out, which Jafari believed to be heading straight for him, and he attempted to engage it with an AIM-9 Sidewinder infrared guided missile. But upon doing so, he lost all communications and his weapons console. He turned away, and saw the second object apparently rejoin and merge with the first object. Moments later another bright object came out and went straight down into the ground, leaving a bright trail, and lighting up a large 2-3 kilometer wide area.

Jafari prepared to land at Mehrabad rather than return to Shahrokhi, and during approach experienced further intermittent communications and navigation failures. A commercial airliner in the vicinity also reported communication failures, but did not see anything.

The next day, Jafari and his backseat officer were taken out in a helicopter to have a look at where they thought the light hit the ground. Nothing was found, except they did pick up the beeping from a radio transponder. They homed in on the signal to the vicinity of a house, where the occupants knew nothing except they'd heard a loud noise and a bright flash of light during the night. And that's where the story ended — lots of strange events, and no explanations.

How do we know all of this? Because the Iranians told us. Following the incident, Iran invited the USAF section chief, Lt. Col. Olin Mooy, to a debriefing. The story as just given came from Mooy's official "Memorandum for Record" based on his notes. Mooy's memo was never deemed important enough to classify, and in fact was published in the United States two months later by UFO Investigator, the newsletter of the civilian UFO enthusiast group NICAP.

Iran was a relatively peaceful country in 1976, and open to Westerners. The first rumblings of revolution were still at least a year away. Among the American expats living in Iran were engineers from various contractors who supported the 225 F-4 fighter planes the United States had sold to Iran over the previous decade. And, of course, just about every other guy you'd see on the street who looked American was probably working for the CIA in some capacity or another. So we had really good eyes and ears into the machinations of the Iranian government, and a tight working relationship with their military.

Over the years, most of the story's basics have stayed pretty much the same, even when it was dramatized on a 1994 episode of the TV series Sightings. Sightings got a number of details wrong, including stating that Mehrabad's radar was operational, and that it indicated the object was as large as a KC-135 Stratotanker. In fact radar signatures do not indicate an object's size at all; only the strength of the reflected signal. Sightings also described all the events from the context of a presumption that the light was a hostile and intelligently guided alien spacecraft, using language like the jamming was turned off as soon as the F-4 was "no longer deemed to be a threat", and referring to the light as a "craft" or a "mother ship".

Along with Col. Mooy's memo, the USAF published a narrative titled "Now You See It, Now You Don't" about it, which was classified, and was only released in 1981 following a Freedom of Information Act request.

The case leaves us with six elements that are difficult to explain. First, the classified US military documents. There would not be classified documents if nothing extraordinary had happened. Second, the persistent sighting of the mother ship, the main light that was constantly visible and was observed by residents, by Yousefi, and by the pilots. Third, the selective jamming of communications, electronics, and fire control systems, which remains (to this day) beyond known military capability. Fourth, the radar lock obtained by the second F-4, indicating a solid flying object. Fifth, the bright missiles, first the one that shot out toward the second F-4, and second the one that descended to the ground with a flash. And sixth, the beeping transponder. Let's look at these one at a time.

Classified Documents

First, the classified "Now You See It, Now You Don't" document. As mentioned, this was a narrative, told as a dramatic story, and was hardly in the nature of an official government document. Yet it's often waved by the UFOlogists as compelling evidence. It was actually an editorial in the typed, mimeographed newsletter of the United States Air Force Security Services quarterly MIJI newsletter (MIJI standing for meaconing, intrusion, jamming, and interference). Because this service requires a security clearance, their newsletter is protected as well. There is nothing especially interesting about the actual article; it's just a dramatized retelling of the same information in Col. Mooy's memo, offered in the newsletter as a curious editorial on the subject of jamming and interference.

The Mother Ship

Second was the mother ship, that persistent light in the sky that prompted the phone calls, aroused Yousefi's curiosity, and led the pilots on their merry chase across the skies. We don't know what this was. Journalist Philip Klass suggested that it was the planet Jupiter, an explanation echoed by aerospace researcher James Oberg. Many UFOlogists have dismissed this explanation saying that Jupiter's direction in the sky was 90° wrong, but I found two reasons to give this suggestion some credence. First, the direction is not wrong. The F-4s were scrambled to northern Tehran, not to the light. Once they arrived, they saw the light just where Jupiter would have been. Second, Yousefi and the telephone witnesses all described the light as similar to a star but much brighter. Considering the fact that Jupiter was in the sky, my own conclusion is that it's almost certain that Jupiter was responsible for some percentage of what was reported that night, though not necessarily everything.

Jamming & Electronics Failure

Third was the apparently successful jamming of communications and radar equipment, that one would think should have concerned the Americans and the Iranians equally. In 1978, Klass dug deeper into this. He was not able to get any information from any Iranian sources, but he did track down several American civilian contractors from Westinghouse and McDonnell Douglas who were involved in the incident. The Westinghouse tech at Shahrokhi confirmed that only the second F-4 was reported to have experienced any electrical problems during the flight; the first F-4 was never sent in for maintenance. The McDonnell Douglas tech at Shahrokhi noted that the second F-4 had a long history of intermittent electrical outages that the IIAF had never been able to fix. He was personally called in to adjust that F-4's radar about a month after the event. Both techs stated that the Shahrokhi base was notorious for low quality work and poor record keeping.

So we have reason to expect that Jafari's F-4 would have had electrical problems regardless of whether he was under attack by a UFO or not, and we have conflicting stories about whether Nazeri's F-4 had any problems at all or not. Only Jafari was present at the official debriefing; Nazeri never made any known official report until he had moved to the United States and appeared on the Sightings TV show.

Radar Lock

Fourth is the compelling radar lock obtained by Jafari's backseat weapons officer. Surely there had to be something up there. Maybe there was; most of what these pilots did was to intercept enemy MiG-25 fighters on surveillance missions, whether Jupiter was in the sky or not. But there were also two other possibilities. Note that Jafari's radar was known to be defective, or at least in need of adjustment. The same McDonnell Douglas supervisor noted that the weapons officer "could have been in manual track or something like that and not really realized it." Whichever of the three possibilities was true, it's not necessarily a fact that a radar lock meant something was there. Maybe there was; maybe there wasn't.

UFO "Missiles"

Fifth were the bright objects that Jafari reported came at him, and that shot straight down into the ground. Twice a year, the Earth's orbit takes us through the debris trail left by Halley's Comet, causing meteor showers. We also pass through various other clouds and trails at the same time each year. In his 1984 book Meteor Showers: A Descriptive Catalog, astronomer Gary Kronk studied years of annual meteor data up through 1980. On September 19, we are at or near the maximums of two minor annual showers, the Gamma Piscids (PIE-sids) and Southern Piscids, and at the tail end of a third shower, the Eta Draconids. There was more than enough expected meteor activity to account for all of the reports of falling lights and rapidly moving bright objects. Some UFOlogists have attempted to connect the Tehran sighting with several other sightings of speeding bright lights that same night across the Meditteranean, suggesting that the "mother ship" must have been speeding all around the region. Since there were meteors falling worldwide that night, such sightings are exactly what we should expect to see, mother ships or not.

Klass noted several cases where experienced night pilots have taken unnecessary evasive maneuvers to avoid meteors that they mistook for aircraft. Another telling detail that Klass learned from the American technicians is that the Shahrokhi pilots never flew at night; that these two night sorties chasing the UFO were the only known night flights during the whole time the technicians were stationed there. According to Col. Mooy's report, the pilots reported that landing at Mehrabad was difficult because they were having trouble adjusting their night visibility.

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Sixth was the beeping transponder located by Jafari and the helicopter crew the next day, apparent physical evidence of intelligent technology. And so it probably was. Col. Mooy noted that the beeping transponder appeared to be from an American C-141. These large transport aircraft carried such transponders designed to be released in the event of a crash, but they'd been having problems with the beepers being ejected simply by turbulence over the mountains just north of Tehran.

Once we look at all the story's elements without the presumption of an alien spaceship, the only thing unusual about the Tehran 1976 UFO case is that planes were chasing celestial objects and had equipment failures. There have been many cases where planes had equipment failures, and there have been many cases where planes misidentified celestial objects. Once in a while, both will happen on the same flight.

A common way for UFOlogists to analyze stories such as this one is to use a process of elimination to show that it wasn't a star, it wasn't Jupiter, it wasn't a meteor or an aircraft, therefore we're left with the only thing it could have been: an alien spacecraft. The problem with this reasoning is that it's exactly as valid as using a process of elimination to show the only thing it could have been was the fiery chariot of Elijah.

Neither, in fact, is a process of elimination the proper way to examine such stories. We want to know what it is, not what it isn't. And, in this case, we don't have enough information to know what it is. So even if any of the six elements is not otherwise explained, all we're left with is "I don't know", not "I do know and it was an alien spaceship." What was the Tehran 1976 UFO? I don't know, but there's insufficient evidence to convince me to get excited about it.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Dubietis, A. "Activity of the Southern Piscid Meteor Shower in 1985-1999." Journal of the International Meteor Organization. 1 Apr. 2001, Volume 29, Numbers 1-2: 29-35.

Klass, P. UFOs: The Public Deceived. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1983. 111-124.

Kronk, G. Meteor Showers: A Descriptive Catalog. Hillside: Enslow Publishers, 1988.

NICAP. "Iranian Air Force Jets Scrambled." NICAP UFO Investigator. 1 Nov. 1976, November 1976: 1-2.

Oberg, J. "UFO Update: UFO Over Iran." Omni. 1 Aug. 1979, Volume 1, Number 11: 30.

Shields, H. "Now You See It, Now You Don't." MIJI Quarterly. 1 Oct. 1978, MQ-3-78: 32-34.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Tehran 1976 UFO." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 19 Jun 2012. Web. 10 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 76 comments

I know UFO seems bit far fetched but hardware malfunctions? Jupiter? All at the same time so convienently? Thats even more far fetched. Mr. Dunning is same kind of guy like the ones who debunked Galileo Galilei.

Ekim Ärjy, Scandinavia
April 7, 2014 10:25pm

@Ekim, did we read the same article?
from what I read , the plane was having malfunctions so reguardless of what was there , they were likely to happen , and if the facts that are presented are true then jupiter was the likely suspect.
That aside compairing Mr Dunning , who presents infomation that you can either chose to accept or not, to Roman Inquisition is a bit far fetch.

Bubba, up the road from Gorokan
April 19, 2014 10:55am

This article didn't really debunk anything, and I get the feeling that Dunning is in over his head with this one. He supposes that most people believe the object was extraterrestrial -- even though the very reason the Iranian and US governments paid any attention to it was because of potential threats to national security.

In other words, the worry at the time was that the Soviets or someone else could have developed new tech. That's all they cared about.

I think we can all agree that *something* happened -- after all, why aren't the authorities getting calls every time Jupiter is visible? Why don't these supposedly inept pilots think they see aliens during every scramble? Even the jabs at the Iranian pilots' competence are more informed by opinion than fact -- these guys were trained and bankrolled by the USAF. Are we really going to sit here with a straight face and claim they're unable to distinguish between a planet and an aircraft?

But more than anything, this shows the problem with one guy donning the hat of "skeptic investigator" and trying to debunk something from his laptop, especially when there's a great deal of subject matter expertise necessary to honestly evaluate the aeronautical elements of the story. Mostly what we're seeing here is "Iranians = unreliable, American contractors = ironclad sources."

Plan, New York, NY
May 9, 2014 12:13am

I woudn't want you to be a witness to a crime: you'd say the crime was a hoax or delusion, all the other witnesses were lying or hoaxing, and the crime was just a foolish mistake.

Steve Erdmann, St. Louis, Missouri
May 20, 2014 3:27pm

"Are we really going to sit here with a straight face and claim they're unable to distinguish between a planet and an aircraft?"


Venus is bright enough that it looks like landing lights. It messes with pilots all the time.

Or here, have this:

Another Nick, Alexandria VA
January 21, 2015 1:27pm

"A common way for UFOlogists to analyze stories such as this one is to use a process of elimination to show that it wasn't a star, it wasn't Jupiter, it wasn't a meteor or an aircraft, therefore we're left with the only thing it could have been: an alien spacecraft."

Finally late in the article, the prime debunking tool. That (presumably all) UFOlogists assert that any UFO which remains a genuine UFO must be an alien spacecraft.

There is much documentation by serious researchers to try and understand what is happening with the thousands of unsolved UFO reports they examine, to be careful to NOT prematurely assign such unexplained reports as alien spacecraft, and so far these serious investigations have not done so.

The derision and debunking of UFO sightings continue as we speak, and nowhere it seems it is more prevalent than in America.

People are afraid of losing their jobs, of being held up to ridicule, all for reporting genuine sightings which may or may not end up as UFO's, or UAP's as some prefer.

In fact, the Tehran UFO's (plural) remain genuine unexplained phenomena.

The document written by Lt. Col. Mooy, sent to the NSA, CIA, and the White House, described the events in great detail over three pages.
There were multiple credible witnesses to the objects from different locations, the objects were confirmed on aircraft radar (not possible if it was Jupiter or Venus), the loss of instruments occurred on three separate aircraft, a commercial jet, and 2 F-4's.

Macky, Auckland
March 14, 2015 9:50pm

According to Cometa account, the Tehran object was observed as a rectangle with bluish lights at each end and a red light in the centre, by the night supervisor of the ATC tower, after receiving phone calls.

Then Youssefi was called, who after observing a bright light ordered an F-4 to investigate.

The second F-4 crew were not able to determine the size of the object because it shone so brightly.
"Its brightness came from lights arranged in a rectangle, changing rapidly from blue to green, to red, and to orange."

I can't remember any celestial object having a rectangular shape, yet at least three personnel, one on the ground and two airborne, saw a distinctly oblong shape with lights arranged around it.

The above is no evidence for an extraterrestrial craft, but it strongly indicates that Jupiter was NOT the object pursued that night.

Brian wrote :- "Once we look at all the story's elements without the presumption of an alien spaceship, the only thing unusual about the Tehran 1976 UFO case is that planes were chasing celestial objects and had equipment failures."

While it is correct not to presume an alien spaceship, it was also NOT proven that "planes were chasing celestial objects.." and it appears that Skeptoid has already made its mind up by the above statement.

Skeptoid then correctly states in the last paragraph, "And, in this case, we don't have enough information to know what it is."

That's right. We don't know.

Macky, Auckland
March 16, 2015 1:04am

Skeptoid :

"Journalist Philip Klass suggested that it was the planet Jupiter, an explanation echoed by aerospace researcher James Oberg."

Klass was a well-known UFO debunker. Although respected in some circles, his plasma theory used as a possible explanation for SOME sightings, but later changed to MOST sightings in his first book.

"Klass's plasma hypothesis was not well received by those on either side of the UFO debate, who noted that Klass was using one unverified phenomenon--his hypothetical plasmas-- to explain another unverified phenomenon--UFOs"
"Criticism was also expressed by a more skeptical team of plasma experts assembled by the Condon Committee, all of whom rejected Klass's plasma theory as unscientific." Wiki

Of all people, advisers to the Condon report !

Klass after dropping his plasma theory went on to assert that MOST UFO reports could be explained as hoaxes, and continued to be criticized for his unscientific approach.

James Oberg meanwhile is on record on the Missing Cosmonauts thread posts of Skeptoid as reinforcing his skepticism of Russian space tragedies with this statement "New stuff appears in the russian press from time to time. It all confirms the J-C fratelli were bunko."

Apart from his other research on the matter, are we to rely on Russian newspapers as bona fide sources of truthful information on a subject that the hierarchy may still wish to keep under wraps, in the same way that the US rewrites its own historical events ?

Macky, Auckland
April 2, 2015 8:08pm

I have seen Jupiter a few times and it does look weird like traffic lights changing colour I believe its caused by atmospheric affects

andy, glasgow
August 29, 2015 1:21pm

People have the right to be skeptic and question/request more information. However that does not work for me. I was 6 at that time and still remember my grand father lecturing me about staying up late. We were outside looking at the stars and that is when I saw the craft (I thought it was circular). It was stationary and I could not hear any sounds emanating from it. I saw spinning red-blue-green-while lights with a cycle rate about ~20 a minute.
It was at the same spot for ~ 10 minutes and that is when I heard loud jet sound. That is when the object just disappeared with the jet changing its direction to south.
For many years I was silent about what I saw that night but things have changed since then.

Alex, Sacramento/California
September 26, 2015 1:13pm

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