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The 1996 Airplane UFO Encounter

Updated on February 4, 2015
Mesaba 3179 was a Dash 8 much like the one in flight pictured here.
Mesaba 3179 was a Dash 8 much like the one in flight pictured here. | Source

UFO encounters by airplanes are far from new encounters. The famous group, The Foo Fighters, took their name from the mysterious bright lights encountered by both Axis and Allied forces as they flew their fighter jets in 1940. However, some years have had more activity than others. 1996 happens to be such a year.

UFO Sighted From Two Airplanes

At 12:50 AM on February 28th, 1996, Cleveland air traffic control was contacted by Air Shuttle 5959 asking about traffic in the area. They were en route to the Detroit airport and were currently over Saginaw, looking at a strange object in the sky below them.

The tower saw nothing on the radar, but the pilot stated that there was a pulsating white light, which spun like a Frisbee, roughly 10,000 feet underneath the plane.

Another airliner had been paying attention as the exchange was taking place. Mesaba Airlines 3179, a Dash 8 flying out of Detroit, reported to the same tower that they saw the exact same thing.

When the tower suggested that the strange light was only a reflection from a landing beacon on the lower clouds, both pilots knew that wasn’t the case. The object was generating its own light, which looked different than a reflection.

UFO Incident Over Detroit

During the exchange, 5959 dropped their altitude to under the object. When they did so, the pilot could clearly see the lights above the plane. This disproved the idea that it was something which originated from the ground.

At one point, 3179 attempted to contact the UFO by flashing his lights. There is no apparent reaction.

Air traffic control suggested taking a picture if they could.

The pilot of 3179 was able to get a camera from a passenger and snapped pictures of the object from the cockpit, as well as some of the stars around it. The stars could potentially help air traffic control get a good fix on the location in the sky.

A passenger had also been able to catch some pictures of it, and the flight attendant stated that she had spotted something similar a few days prior in the area.

No one has located the pictures taken, but the recording of the exchange is available to the public.

This encounter is remarkable, because there were multiple witnesses on each plane. Pilots are also considered extremely reputable, due to the responsibility and training involved with their job.

In addition to the quality of the witnesses, a running tally of the details of the encounter itself was recorded and remains publicly accessible.

Over the course of that month, there had been other similar sightings of objects seen from the ground in that area, but I wasn’t able to find any quite as well documented as the encounter above, nor was I able to find an official explanation of what happened.

As far as I can tell, this incident is still considered unresolved on an official level.

Pelotas Airport where Haraldo Westendorff spotted the UFO on October 5th, 1996.
Pelotas Airport where Haraldo Westendorff spotted the UFO on October 5th, 1996. | Source

International Airline Encounters With UFOs

All around the world, there had been many other sightings. In the UK alone, there were over 600 sightings reported.

This may have something to do with the fact that the movie Independence Day was released that year on July 4. However, that does not explain the number of sightings reported before then.

There were also more pilots reporting UFO encounters as well.

  • Brazil – Embraer EMD – 712
    On October 5, Geraldo Westendorf, owner and pilot of a small airplane, contacted air traffic control to reports, a triangular flying object. There were three air traffic controllers who also saw the spectacle.
  • Melbourne, Australia
    A pilot flying over Melbourne on May 22 sighted a round object with lights. They are slightly dimmer than that of a car headlight. It flashed three times and he said that it was reminiscent of a plane coming in for an emergency landing.

Interestingly enough, that January, there were numerous reports of UFOs in the skies of Varginha, Brazil, followed by a spectacular crash. There's widespread speculation that an alien body was removed from the wreckage and a survivor escaped. One of the soldiers directly involved with the clean up later died of "unknown toxins", as did several animals at the local zoo. There were also several sightings of a strange creature, all of which matched each other.

Why was 1996 such a big year for UFO sightings? If it was because of the release of Independence Day, how are the sightings that happened before the movie hit theaters explained? Are some of the sightings connected?

According to some, El Niño years are often preceded by years that see a spike in UFO sightings.
According to some, El Niño years are often preceded by years that see a spike in UFO sightings. | Source

Weird Weather

One possibility could be weather anomalies.

Some researchers have connected high levels of UFO sightings to the appearance of El Niño the next year. In this case, there might be some truth to that hypothesis. 1996 showed a year long spike of UFO sightings, and the unpredictable El Niño followed in 1997. Whether those strange lights are actually extraterrestrial craft or some sort of visual phenomenon set off by changing air currents is uncertain.

There was also an interesting radar phenomenon involving birds that August. Steve Haines, a meteorologist in Indianapolis, noticed a series of strange rings on radar when he got to work. They showed up suddenly, and swelled to almost 45 miles across before vanishing. He believes they were flocks of birds, while others think it could just be heat rising from the Earth.

Animals do have innate senses when it comes to weather forecasting, and people have watched them for centuries for an idea of what the weather will be like. Could some humans have similar senses?

Migraines, after all, often coincide with a dramatic fall or rise in barometric pressure. If the weather is unstable enough, perhaps some people will see lights or shapes in the sky. Or, perhaps the lights in the sky are actually a misunderstood weather anomaly. That may also explain the occasional mechanical failure, as well.

However, that does nothing to dismiss the mysterious illnesses and deaths that sometimes accompany UFO phenomenon like what happened in Brazil that year.

Have you seen anything unexplained while on a plane?

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Military Aircraft and Meteorites

Secret military experiments are always a possibility, when it comes to UFO sightings. Ordinary civilians, even non-military pilots, aren't privy to experiments carried out by the government. There are two air force bases in Michigan, after all, so it could be possible for the lights to have belonged to some sort of military aircraft.

However, that scenario is unlikely, due to the close proximity of commercial airliners and how many witnesses were involved. We have no way of knowing what sort of technology was being developed, since those files are likely still confidential, but it's unlikely that areal experiments were being carried out on such heavily traveled air routes.

It is still a possibility, regardless of how unlikely it may be to be true.

One might also entertain the idea of the strange lights being some sort of meteorite. Again, the behavior of the light is too intelligent to be a piece of space rock hurling to Earth. Most thinking people would dismiss that idea out of hand. The movement of a meteorite is dramatically different from the acrobatics preformed by the light hovering around the two airplanes.

We might never know for certain what happened that strange day in 1996. There may be many theories of possibilities, but the experience itself will probably remain firmly rooted in the minds of those who were present at the time.

© 2013 Emilie S Peck


Submit a Comment
  • John Spezeski profile image

    John M. Spezeski 

    6 years ago from Boston

    Very interesting material, I always find it amazing how pilot's reports are so easily dismissed. These people spend most of their life in the sky and are better equipped to decipher phenomenon than most. I have also posted a hub page that you might find interesting, but this actually happened to me.


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