The Japan Air Lines Alaska UFO
Each time I do a deep dive into a famous UFO case, I always introduce it by explaining how it's considered among the best evidenced; so it feels like that has a bit less impact each time I say it. Therefore, I'll qualify this one by saying it's considered the best evidenced UFO case to come out of Alaska. It happened on the evening of November 17, 1986, when flight JAL 1628, a Japan Air Lines cargo 747, was over inland Alaska. A flight crew of three was on board. Captain Kenju Terauchi, an experienced military and civilian pilot, was in command. For 40 minutes, he and his crew watched two unidentified lighted craft maintain formation ahead of them which showed up on their radar, and then a third larger one — which he called the mothership — off to the left. He said it was the size of two aircraft carriers, and later drew a picture of it that looked like a giant walnut. Why is this considered so well evidenced? Because a military air traffic controller on the ground is on tape as having seen the mothership on his radar screen too, and the printouts of that radar track still exist. Today we're going to have a look at it.
The story is also notable for its darkest element: Some time after the event, a meeting at the Federal Aviation Administration's headquarters in Washington, DC was attended by a group of people including FAA technicians, three CIA representatives, and some others described as President Reagan's scientific staff. All of the physical evidence was presented and discussed, and at the end of the meeting, one of the CIA men said:
The story went public about six weeks later when officials from the FAA came to Anchorage to interview the flight crew, per standard practice. Philip Klass, editor of the industry publication Aviation Week and Space Technology and also the leading UFO debunker with CSICOP, was quick to point out that a very bright Jupiter was in exactly the direction Terauchi saw the mothership, and that Terauchi did not report seeing both. He also noted that the two smaller spaceships were described by the two other crewmen, who also observed them for 20 minutes, as being indistinguishable from stars. Now by no means am I claiming that what they saw were either stars or Jupiter; the fact is it's impossible that anyone will ever know. Generic "lights in the sky" are the most common, most vague, and least identifiable UFO phenomenon.
And that's where this story has typically been left: the UFO skeptics claiming misidentification of stars or planets, and the UFO community pointing out all the other elements they feel are unexplainable. Let's start by looking at one of these: the flight crew's detection of the two smaller craft on their own radar.
This is true, in fact the crew even drew a picture of exactly what had been shown on their scope. It was a green horizontal streak a few miles in front of them. The 747 was equipped with weather radar for spotting storms. Green meant light clouds, and the colors progressed through yellow to red for thick storm clouds. Klass pointed out that an actual aircraft would have produced a strong red signal, and that the weak green streak indicated thin clouds of ice crystals, exactly like the ones Terauchi later admitted caused him to mistake village lights for more UFOs on a different occasion.
After the crew lost sight of the two small lights ahead of them is when Terauchi saw the giant mothership to his left, appearing to maintain formation. Air Traffic Control advised him to turn 360° to his right and see what the traffic did. Terauchi did so and the traffic disappeared. However, once he got back on course, a controller at NORAD's Regional Operations Control Center at Elmendorf Air Force Base chimed in and reported that he had an intermittent target following the 747 — this is the famous military radar confirmation that's such an important part of the story. They offered to scramble some jets to get a visual confirmation of whatever it was, but there were already two other planes in the area. One was United Airlines Flight 69, who had a clear view of the 747 against the sky and reported no other aircraft of any kind anywhere near it. The other was an Air Force C-130 which also had a clear view of the 747 and saw no other traffic. So what about this mysterious radar confirmation of something nobody reported seeing?
Let's take the nickel tour of ATCRBS, or Air Traffic Control Radar Beacon System. Primary radar is when a signal is transmitted from an antenna, is reflected from an aircraft, received back by the antenna, and displayed as a target on the controller's radar scope. But air traffic controllers want more information than just that, so they use an enhanced system called ATCRBS. In this, the radar scans synchronously with a radio transceiver which requests all aircraft transponders to reply. At the same moment the radar waves reflect from the aircraft, its transponder replies to the request with an identification code. As this is an active transmission, its signal is much stronger than the primary radar reflection. Now the controller sees on his scope the primary target plus its identification information.
Although this system is very reliable, there are any number of causes for the transponder reply to be delayed by the tiniest fraction of a second and arrive after the primary radar return. When this happens, it's called an uncorrelated primary and beacon. On the radar scope, it looks like the two signals are coming from different places in the sky. The FAA records all this data, and it was easy enough for their analysts, who are trained in all such anomalies, to look at the data and determine that this is exactly what happened with the JAL 1628 radar returns, confirming what the analysts at the Alaskan Region Air Traffic Division had already determined. All of the documents associated with this case are available online, and included in these is a letter from the FAA that states:
But, in the heat of the moment, the controller at Elmendorf AFB saw two separate targets on his scope while hearing the pilot talk about a giant UFO, and the rest become UFOlogy history. In fact there was never any radar confirmation of any second object in the sky — a simple fact conspicuously ignored and consciously contradicted by all of today's pop-culture retellings of the story.
Either we accept what the radar data shows, or we reject it in favor of the UFOlogists' preferred explanation of a spaceship. And if we're going to do that, logic demands that we also assign "spaceship" as the explanation for all of the countless other uncorrelated primaries that happen every day.
The character of Captain Terauchi also plays a role in this event. While the UFO literature typically lauds him as a former fighter pilot with 10,000 hours of flight time, that's not the whole story. The FAA documents revealed that he was what they term a "UFO repeater", meaning someone who frequently reported UFOs. According to Klass, reports from such individuals are usually "viewed with extreme caution". In fact Terauchi reported UFOs five times, including this one: two on previous occasions, and two more only eight weeks later, when he mistook Alaskan village lights seen through ice crystal clouds for UFOs.
Terauchi's reports weren't merely those of a conscientious pilot trying to be comprehensive in his reporting; he was firmly of the belief that these were visits by extraterrestrials. He told the FAA that the first time he saw a mothership — his term — was while taking off from Taiwan five years previously. Following his Alaska UFO report, Terauchi wrote a detailed 18-page narrative, which was translated into English and submitted to the FAA at the time they interviewed him on January 2, about six weeks after the event. The title of his paper was Meeting the Future. In it, he repeatedly referred to the objects as "Two spaceships and a Mother ship". He even had a hopeful and positive feeling about the visitors, writing:
He even stated, in his interview, why the two small spaceships ahead of them flew at a slightly different altitude:
The FAA investigators also caught him in at least one blatant embellishment, which he both wrote in his story and repeated unequivocally in his interview. The radio transcripts show that Terauchi lost sight of the mothership once he started his 360° turn to the right, and never saw it again; but in his paper and in the interview, he said it followed them all the way around in perfect formation.
So let's move on to the final piece of evidence, the meeting in Washington where all sorts of officials looked through boxes of evidence and everyone was warned to never say anything about the UFO. The details for this meeting come from the 2010 book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record by longtime UFO author Leslie Kean — a name you might recognize from other Skeptoid episodes; she's the one who writes most of the newspaper articles for Tom Delonge's "To The Stars Academy", the UFO group responsible for creating today's mythology claiming the Pentagon has an active belief in alien visitation. She's basically their PR department.
Kean had a fellow UFOlogist write a chapter in her book about the Alaska event and the subsequent meeting at the FAA. He was John Callahan, best known for his part in Stephen Greer's "Disclosure Project", a fringe group of fanatical UFOlogists who believe that the US government maintains active relationships with aliens. Callahan's chapter is the primary source for all that's known about the FAA meeting.
A few years before Kean's book came out, paranormal blogger Ryan Dube tried to verify Callahan's meeting at the FAA. Dube reached out to two UFOlogists: Ron Pandolfi, a former CIA analyst; and Bruce Maccabee, a prolific UFO author who was at the time an engineering contractor. Both were at the meeting described by Callahan, and both told Dube that anyone swearing anyone to secrecy was absolutely false. In fact, Maccabee published extensively based on all the information shared at the meeting. Dube told all of this to Kean, and had Pandolfi and Maccabee also tell her the same thing. But she ignored it all; and when she published her book, not only did she claim that nobody but Callahan has come forward to admit attending the meeting, but also asserted the existence of a CIA "directive" that "this event never happened". An odd claim, if the meeting's attendees then went forth and published freely about it. As far as the boxes of documents Callahan claimed the CIA was confiscating, nobody ever confiscated anything, and he even wrote in his chapter in Kean's book that he kept all the documents personally, even after he retired.
The meeting seems to have been attended only by guys who had intense personal interests in UFOs. From all I can tell, it could have been nothing more than an informal get-together where these like-minded enthusiasts could share all they'd heard about the Alaska story.
And at the end of the day, that's really all there is to this famous UFO account: just a lot of interest and retellings by a group of people who are unwavering in their belief that Earth is actively visited by aliens. The non-UFOlogists who were involved in the event were the pilots of the other planes who saw nothing at all while carefully searching, and the FAA's radar experts who studied at the printout and easily identified it as a common uncorrelated primary. Even Terauchi's flight crew came up with nothing more than lights in the sky that couldn't be distinguished from stars. There was nothing extraordinary or unusual on that evening, until we introduce the uncorroborated reports of a 5-time UFO repeater and author of Meeting the Future. Captain Terauchi was undoubtedly a fine and competent pilot, but was hardly unbiased when it came to alien spaceships. Combined with promotional efforts from the rogues' gallery of usual suspects from UFO mythology, the Japan Air Lines Alaska UFO event turns out to have been just another unevidenced aerial anecdote.
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