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The Chicago O'Hare Airport UFO

Donate In 2006, a flying saucer spent minutes literally hovering right above Chicago's O'Hare International Airport... so the story goes.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs

Skeptoid Podcast #926
March 5, 2024
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The Chicago O'Hare Airport UFO

It was just at sunset a few minutes after 4:30pm on November 7, 2006, the end of a gray, overcast day. A United Airlines plane was preparing to push back from gate C17 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, one of the world's top 5 busiest airports. A ground crewman happened to look straight up into the sky, and what he saw gave us one of our great UFO stories. Directly above him was a spinning disk in the sky, just below the cloud cover which was at 1900 feet. It was dark gray and silent, and just hung there. He radioed the duty manager, and hearing the radio call, United employees all over O'Hare turned their eyes heavenward.

Some saw it, others didn't. At least one pilot did, as did taxi mechanics who were taxiing airliners to and from the United hangars. The air traffic controllers couldn't see anything, and their radar screens showed no unexpected contacts. Hearing the radio chatter, the taxi mechanics reported that their whole gang had seen it about a half hour earlier, and they had thought it was a balloon. In all, approximately a dozen United workers did report that they saw it. After a total sighting length that various witnesses estimated lasted from two to fifteen minutes, the object suddenly darted straight up, vertically into the cloud cover, where it cut a hole through the clouds in its exact size and shape.

Most guessed that the object had been hovering a few hundred feet below the cloud ceiling. Reported estimates of its size ranged from 6 to 24 feet in diameter, though later authors have exaggerated this to as much as 88 feet. One witness dismissed it as a bird due to its small size; if it was only 6 feet across and more than a quarter mile up in the air, it would indeed be a tiny dot.

Reporter Jon Hilkevitch of the Chicago Tribune newspaper was assigned to cover the story. His calls to the airline and to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) went nowhere; neither claimed to know anything about the event. In addition, United's duty manager's log had no entries in it at all about anything unusual that day. In fact, it turned out to be two full months before Hilkevitch found enough information for an article that finally broke the story. In 2010, he gave a short interview about that article:

The reason there was a several month lag in us reporting it, or even deciding whether to report it at all, was that I had to track down the witnesses of this alleged incident. And what fascinating me was the fact that these were such credible observers. These were pilots, these were ramp workers, and mechanics who were jockeying planes back and forth from the hangar; who all down to a person reported the exact same sighting: this metallic gray sphere-shaped or disc-shaped object hovering stationary in place about 1500 feet above gate C17. And then they all described this departure where it just left suddenly with such velocity and speed that it poked this donut-shaped hole in what was otherwise a very cloud-covered sky that day… What blows a hole in this theory is that no air traffic controller saw it; and that nobody with a camera phone at O'Hare happened to snap a picture of this; and this spaceship, if it was so, is long gone.

And when he provided to the FAA the eyewitness reports and what information he had, their spokesperson got back to him with this:

Our theory on this is that it was a weather phenomenon. That night was a perfect atmospheric condition in terms of low [cloud] ceiling and a lot of airport lights. When the lights shine up into the clouds, sometimes you can see funny things. That's our take on it.

And, unfortunately, that's where the story ends. UFOlogists claim that with credible witnesses like pilots, the case is impossible for the debunkers to deny. I would go a bit further: with so little information about what may or may not have happened, it's impossible to confirm or deny that anything did or didn't happen. But I see at least two big red flags telling me that whatever did happen, if anything, doesn't match the story as we hear it today.

Red flag #1 is that this was 2006. According to Pew Research, 73% of adult Americans had a mobile phone. Popular phones included the Motorola RAZR, Blackberries, the Sony Ericsson line, and the Palm Treo. Phones were taking 3 megapixel images. With the estimated duration of this event being 2-15 minutes, and some dozen alleged witnesses, it's inconceivable that nobody took a photo. There are three possible explanations that I can think of:

  1. None of the witnesses had a camera on them. This seems incredibly unlikely, and the story includes a report that one of the pilots who saw the object did have a digital camera on him.

  2. Photos were taken of the object but remained in private hands and were never given to the press. This is certainly possible — even after the story broke, and news outlets would have been willing to pay, plenty of people don't particularly desire notoriety. But even after all these years of UFO publications and Internet researchers pining for photos, you'd think someone would have provided one anonymously at least. This remains a potential explanation.

  3. There was never anything worth taking a picture of. 2-15 minutes means there was plenty of time to point and shoot, maybe there just wasn't anything to shoot at. Or the picture turned out to be indistinguishable from just a cloudy sky. If the object was as small as the smaller estimates, it likely wouldn't have shown up on a 2006-era camera phone, which had wide angle lenses and used high data compression. My opinion is that of the three options, this is the most likely.

Red flag #2 is that not a single eyewitness has been identified. Literally. We do not have the name of a single person who claimed to have seen this alleged object. This is pretty unique, from my own research — I've written about many airline UFO cases and we have the names of everyone involved in every single case. UFO author Leslie Kean, in her chapter on this incident in one of her books, gives the following explanation:

Sadly, every one of these highly credible aviation witnesses to the O'Hare UFO — and there were many — has chosen to remain anonymous, due to fears for job security. One United employee told me he could otherwise be perceived as "betraying" his company.

This explanation does not remotely hold any water. If it were true, then we wouldn't have anyone's name in lots of other airline UFO cases; but we do. Her claim is also completely antithetical to the way airlines treat potential safety concerns. Something hovering above one of the world's busiest airports would be an obvious threat to airline safety, and people would fall over each other reporting it. I put out feelers to find out from actual airline workers, and heard back from several. Here's the response one current airline pilot gave me that's representative of what they all said:

From what I've experienced, there's absolutely no fear about losing your job (or even for being reprimanded) for bringing up anything related even remotely to safety. Ground crew would let us know if they see anything strange. As a matter of fact, I'd say the opposite is true — people are probably more nervous about NOT reporting something out of the ordinary (whether it a be a nose-gear pin that is still in place, or a strange hovering light above the airport), and that's definitely out of fear of being reprimanded. The aviation industry is obsessed with safety and standardization, and the importance of pointing out or bringing to someone's attention to anything that isn't considered standard is drilled into everyone involved — from the gate agents, to the ground crew to the flight crew.

And from everyone I heard from, that's across the board. If anything, the industry sentiment favors erring on the side of over-reporting, not under-reporting. And I think that this is likely our biggest clue to what may have happened here: Someone saw something odd, which in other circumstances may not have been worth reporting; but due to airline culture, he picked up the radio and told the duty manager.

And then when others heard there's a UFO, of course they all looked; who wouldn't? We know that some people say they saw it, and some say they didn't. What's interesting is the thing that reporter Hilkevitch found so remarkable, and that's that all these people told the same exact story, down to the detail with the craft shooting up into the air and leaving a perfect hole in the clouds. The problem with this is that's not how clouds work, as author Robert Sheaffer wrote in his Bad UFOs column:

When objects pass through clouds (especially at high speeds), they do not leave crisp-edged holes in the shape of the object, like a cartoon character running through a wall. The result is a swirling mass of turbulent clouds, not a crisp, cookie-cutter-like hole.

In addition, consider that the people who say they did see the object were not all in the same place. This vertical tunnel in the clouds was originally reported by the ground crewman who was directly under it; everyone else, seeing the object from a different location, would not have had the same angle to see up through it. So how did they all tell the same story?

The standard skeptical explanation for this case is that the workers saw a cloud phenomenon called a hole-punch cloud, also called a fallstreak hole. This is a big round hole that can appear in cloud cover, and can be caused by passing aircraft, and after all this was at an airport. That may or may not be the case; I'm not sure we need to try and hang an identity on the hole reported in the story, because I think there's a better explanation for the entire event.

The explanation is a familiar one to anyone who has investigated cases involving many eyewitnesses, especially after so much time has gone by. It's called memory conformity, also known as social contagion of memory. When multiple eyewitnesses to an event hear one another tell their versions of what happened, people incorporate each other's elements into their own memories. Given that it was a full two months between the date of the event and when Hilkevitch finally got to interview them all, there was more than enough time for social contagion to blend all of the workers' stories into a single synthesized narrative. This isn't conjecture; memory conformity is what happens in such cases.

We know it must have happened in this case, because the witnesses scattered around different parts of O'Hare all reported being able to see up through a narrow, vertical 6-24 foot wide tunnel in the cloud cover, which they couldn't have from their locations. How much of the rest of the story is the result of memory conformity? Obviously we can't know, and so we also can't really claim to know any elements of this story.

The original ground crewman almost certainly saw something. Maybe it was a fallstreak hole. Maybe it was a balloon like the taxi mechanics thought. Maybe it was a trick of the light like the FAA concluded. Maybe it was a flying saucer from another planet. Whatever it was, it triggered a raft of eyewitness reports that were probably all over the map, and social contagion conformed them into the story we have today.

After all, there are only two pieces of empirical evidence for us to glean anything reliable from: the radar data and the duty manager log. One tells us for a fact there was no solid object big enough for the airport's radar to detect, and the other tells us for a fact that nothing unusual enough for the duty manager to log happened that day. My best bet is that whatever was seen, very possibly nothing more than an optical illusion, was kind of weird to a small number of people and not visible at all to others, and that's the end of the story.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Chicago O'Hare Airport UFO." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 5 Mar 2024. Web. 19 Apr 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4926>

 

References & Further Reading

Editors. "Mobile Fact Sheet." Tech Adoption Trends. Pew Research Center, 31 Jan. 2024. Web. 20 Feb. 2024. <https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/>

Haines, R., et. al. "A UAP and Its Safety Implications: O'Hare International Airport, Nov. 7, 2006." International UFO Report. 1 Oct. 2007, Volume 31, Number 3: 3-7, 23-28.

Hilkevitch, J. "In the sky! A bird? A plane? A... UFO?" Chicago Tribune. 1 Jan. 2007, Newspaper: 1, 19.

Kean, L. UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. New York: Harmony Books, 2010. 65-72.

Roche, J. "Best mobile phones of 2006." CNET. Red Ventures, 14 Aug. 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2024. <https://www.cnet.com/tech/mobile/best-mobile-phones-of-2006/>

Roediger, H., Meade, M., Bergman, E. "Social contagion of memory." Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 1 Jun. 2001, Volume 8: 365-371.

Sheaffer, R. "Is the O'Hare Airport UFO Case Still a Great Case?" Bad UFOs: Skepticism, UFOs, and the Universe. Robert Sheaffer, 4 Oct. 2021. Web. 20 Feb. 2024. <https://badufos.blogspot.com/2021/10/is-ohare-airport-ufo-case-still-great.html>

 

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