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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Beeper

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, Inc. 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, Inc., 19 Jun 2012. Web. 25 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4315>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 70 comments

On many questions the voice of skepticism is sorely needed. On the UFO question I'm and more finding that it's not the truth-finding/error-correcting program it is absolutely convinced that it is. Lurking right under the "debunking" surface appears to be a kind of faith commitment, but one that's utterly hidden, even from smart skeptics: the ET hypothesis can't be true. You see this in the skeptic's willingness to believe conspiracy theories and unlikelihoods, all to avoid confronting this ontological challenge to their ideological dogma on this issue.

google the 1968 minot air force base ufo b-52 case if you're an agnostic on the ET hypothesis. (No, ET hasn't been confirmed in this case--an argument from ignorance. But what is more likely--ETs or DARPA/etc. with technology in '68 vastly beyond what we even have now?)

Skepticism isn't about dogmatism. It's about advancing knowledge, isn't it?

eric, St. Paul
January 19, 2014 6:05pm

hey Cmonc, you realize Leslie Kean tried to pass off blurry bugs close to a camera lens as distant UFOs, even after it was demonstrated numerous times that the images were bugs? She was still sowing weasel-word doubt after the other pro-ETH people had dismissed the cases as 'bugs'.

Not that we should expect much from a Huffington Post writer, but Kean's book is about as factual as the Harry Potter novels.

Brendan, Ontario
January 20, 2014 2:48am

Well, you tried, but I'm afraid I can't offer the same gushing praise for the conclusions that others did. There is more indication that something was there, than there is that nothing was there. The issue then boils down to what may have been there. The first thing I would have done is take note of these facts. It was the height of the Cold War. Iran was an American Ally at the time. The USSR bordered on Iran, mainly via the Caspian Sea. The Soviets maintained major military facilities there.

See how easy it was to aim the story in another direction? There are UFO reports that are best left alone, as opposed to debunked. Is this one of them? Hard to say. It's dubious. But why at this late date?

Tim Mullins, Port Angeles, WA
January 20, 2014 5:21am

@ Brendon

This is a straw man argument, The 'bug' video has nothing to do with it, whatever Leslie Kean thinks about other issues has nothing to do with it. This is what so called skeptics, who are in fact narrow minded presuppositionalists, do all the time. They try to discredit a single position a person has and thereby imply that everything the person says is therefore BS. Even the most honest person can be wrong sometimes and/or have false beliefs.

We are talking about the Tehran UFO here. We are talking about what the pilot witness HIMSELF has to say. THAT is the 'raw data' we have to work with. The fact that it is in Leslie Keans book is and that Kean supposedly thinks that bugs are UFOs is completely and utterly irrelevant. Now I cannot prove that what the Pilot really exactly happened as he describes, I don't know for sure this wasn't some kind of delusion or they made it up for some unfathomable reason. But there where multiple witnesses who saw the same thing, I see no sensible reason why they would make up such a story, the US apparently took it very serious, plus these kind of events seem to be reported all over the globe. According to Occam's razor I have to assume that something extraordinary took place. If this notion is ever to be disproved and a satisfactory (conventional) explanation is given, fine, I change my position, no problem. But Jupiter isn't even REMOTELY a satisfactory explanation, and if you think it is, then you're just patently dishonest.

Cmonc, Netherlands
January 25, 2014 2:41am

Getting older now, but I remember this incident. I know of at least two U.S. P-3 Orion crews who saw SOMETHING that they couldn't explain. This P-3 was pretty loaded, so the FLRD and so forth couldn't have been malfunctioning for just those 35+ minutes

COL. JAMES STODDARD, COLUMBIA, MD
March 10, 2014 7:49pm

Its ok, youve done a fairly good job at planting the seeds of doubt in peoples minds about the reality of this event, and hence all such events, which is great, because we should all just keep on with our lives until whatever/whoever is out there decides to make themselves properly known. There is no reason for people to have to worry about it, and its good I think that what you've written will set a lot of minds at ease..for multiple reasons, not mine though(where's a good Man in Black when you need him..). If in the process of keeping on with my life I find some time, might go into them in more detail in a later post. But, dont count on it...
P S Thanks for the opportunity to post on this website.
P P S Interesting that even a General is capable of identifying Jupiter as an at times fast moving u.a.p.(unidentified aerial phenomenon), but skepticism is never misplaced.

Kevin Ward, Auckland New Zealand
March 26, 2014 1:10pm

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

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