Case 55

N.M. (Aircraft flight from St. Louis to Los Angeles over N.M.)

22 April 1966

Investigator: Hartmann

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PLATE for this Case


The pilot and passengers of a commercial airliner sighted a bright cloud-like object that was in view for several minutes. The pilot spec- ulated that it was a flare experiment launched from White Sands Proving Grounds. The most consistent evidence is in accord with this. However, the case has the interesting, if dubious, distinction of having apparently been confused later by extraneous photographs and testimony given by a sailor, who was a passenger, to a civilian UFO investigator [and enthusiast].


During the evening twilight, about sunset, American Airlines Flight 387 from St. Louis to Los Angeles was passing over Farmington, N.M., at an al- titude of 33,000 ft. (1). The pilot announced to the passengers that he had spotted an unusual object outside the aircraft. A preliminary account of the sighting is best reported in notes taken by Witness I immediately after the incident:

....The pilot called our attention to an object off (at a great distance) from our left wing. It was early twilight. He said, "I have never seen anything like it before. Other planes in the area have also seen it nor can they identify it." We were at an altitude of approximately 33,000 feet and well above all clouds. The pilot moved our plane much closer. The pilot said, "It is entirely too high to be a cloud." It appeared at first to be a very bright cloud but there was a long rosy cloud-like tail behind it....Then later it appeared to solidify more and have a ring around it. It appeared in this form for perhaps only a minute then went back to the original form. After about seven minutes, it evaporated.

The pilot then said, "In all fairness we are now over New Mexico and it might be something from White Sands." He


laughed. "If anyone reports seeing an unidentified flying object, I will deny seeing it."

In the seat next to me sat a young sailor from Cleves, Ohio, who took a picture of it and said he would send it to me.

Witness I's notes go on to relate two UFO incidents recounted to her by the sailor, Witness II.


A year after the flight to Los Angeles (17 April 1967) Witness I was queried by Mr. L. H. Stringfield, a private UFO investigator [and enthusiast]. She reported the following supplementary information:

Persons sitting on the left....for the most part looked out of the window. On the right side a few persons stood to look out the left windows, then everyone settled back to magazines and newspapers in a surprisingly short time. ? I think (Witness II) and I were the only ones in our section (First Class) who watched it until it disappeared.

The object, assuming it was a UFO, was covered by a jet-like vapor. To me it looked like a beautiful white cloud.... Either it was enormous and a great distance away or it was smaller and much closer than I realized. The cloud-like tail was rosy in color. It kept pace with us (10--15 minutes?) until it briefly solidified, then the vapor (cloud or whatever) stayed where it was and wafted away.

The sun must have been dead ahead. We were flying west/southwest....The pilot said, "Please look off the left wingtip if you want to see a flying saucer" (or maybe he said UFO)... We were in perfectly clear blue sky in the early twilight above the clouds. I thought whatever we saw was an "escaped" cloud, but the pilot said it was impossible to have clouds at our altitude.


The sailor, Witness II, was contacted in April 1967 by Mr. Stringfield, to whom he related the additional information that the pilot had checked with the "control tower" and found there were two other aircraft within 100 mi. These were evidently the planes that reported the object. Witness II stated that he thought the American Airlines plane might have been over Utah. The object was off its left (southern) wing. He described the object, according to Mr. Stringfield's notes, as "brilliant white phosphorous light; oblong, without definite contour, moving parallel to ship, same speed; one and a half minutes in view; disappeared forward and up at tremendous speed; UFO seemed to advance and retreat in flight without any change of light intensity or color" (3).

Witness II reported to Mr. Stringfield that he took "about four" photos, two of which were submitted. He used sunglasses, described as sunglasses for an acetylene torch, as a filter in his photographs (3). He had earlier told Witness I (2) that the "photo" (singular) did not "turn out." However, he subsequently claimed to Mr. Stringfield that he had done this to avoid publicity and that, furthermore, "there was a top-secret mission involved and he (Witness II) could not talk about it" (quoted from ref. 4 - not directly from Witness II).


On 16 January 1968, the Colorado project contacted the pilot of the airliner, who confirmed the event. He said that he saw one brilliant object which he thought was a sodium flare. This he reported to the FAA ARTC, which he said could not identify the object. The pilot said his position was over Farmington, New Mexico, and that the object was also seen from several aircraft north of him. He felt that the object was something fired from White Sands Proving Ground, about 300 mi. SSE of Farmington. It was the brightness of the object that led him to believe it was a sodium flare. He believed the flare was still in sunlight although the plane was already in shadow; he also recalled the tail extending from the object as described by Witness I.

It appears that an initially unidentified object was undeniably seen from Flight 387. The testimony consistently indicates that the object was distant and far above the commercial airliner; the pilot believed it was high enough to be illuminated after sunset. A quantitative, order


of magnitude estimate of the distance can be based on the fact that the object appeared to "keep pace" with the aircraft for a matter of at least 1.5 min. (Witness II), or 10 to 15 min. (Witness I). That is, the parallax was negligible for, say, 10 min. (Witness II's testimony is given lower weight; see below). At approximately 500 mph, the plane would have moved through a baseline of the order of 80 mi. during this interval. Had the object drifted through less than or equal to 20 deg parallax during this ten minutes, its distance would have been of the order of greater than or equal to 240 mi. This estimate is consistent with other sightings by other planes in a distance range of the order of 100 mi.

It should be noted that the position for optimum visibility of a high, illuminated cloud was at a considerable distance away, but not far to the west, so that the still-illuminated cloud was seen low in a twilight sky. A pilot more nearly beneath it might not have seen it during its few minutes of visibility.

The object described clearly had the appearance of a cloud. Witness I's sketch depicts a somewhat elliptical cloud (with traditional scallop-like outlines and a smoky tail extending upward to the right). The "ring" to which Witness I refers is shown in a second sketch as a streak or bar in front of the cloud. Because the object was suspected to result from an experiment launched from White Sands, the project requested information on this possibility from the Air Force. Col. Quintanilla, of Project Blue Book, informed us that (1) there was no record of any test on this date, (2) tests that could produce such phenomena (flares, etc.) were not rare in this southwestern area, and (3) systematic records of such scheduled tests are generally not preserved after three to six months. Verification of a flare experiment was therefore not possible.

The following data strongly suggest a high-altitude flare and/or rocket experiment: (1) large distance and altitude inferred by several witnesses and the order-of-magnitude calculation; (2) the tail, characteristic of exhaust train left by the vehicle carrying the "flare"; (3) bright light which attracted the pilot's attention; (4) rapid fading or "evaporation" in a matter of minutes (dissipation of emitted material or termination of illumination?); (5) pinkish color of tail suggests illumination by setting sun.


Highly inconsistent with these factors is a part of the testimony of Witness II. Other witnesses did not report the remarkable motions he described. His photographs, made with a Kodak 126 Instamatic with color film (Plate 58), show not the cloud-like, slightly elliptical object of the other observers, but a highly flattened orangish ellipse with a sharp outline, against a black background. Witness I reported that Witness II took "a picture" of the cloud-like object, which he subsequently said did not come out. He reported four photographs and submitted two to Mr. Stringfield, who forwarded the negatives to the project. At this time, Witness II told Mr. Stringfield that he could not discuss the matter further because of a secret project. (If the implication is that he was associated with the project that produced the object, his presence on the ommercial airliner would seem irrelevant; if another project is indicated, silence would be unnecessary.)

The photographer who prepared color prints from the two submitted negatives advanced a hypothesis that the photo was a fabrication. The blue-green object in the upper left (alleged to be the aircraft wing) was held to be a fluorescent light fixture; the orange ellipse, an electric lamp, seen from the side; and several other orangish light spots, reflections off a chair. The colors are consistent with this. This alleged wing appears to be entirely in the wrong position (i.e., overhead; the top is defined by other scenic negatives on the film) for the wing of an American Airlines commercial airliner to be seen from the left side from a First Class seat. The "wing" is of brightness comparable to the reportedly very bright UFO. It appears that there is considerable support for the hypothesis that the photos in this case are extraneous.


Evidence suggests that some type of man-made flare experiment or test was sighted by the pilot and passengers of American Airlines Flight 387, as the pilot speculated. The case was complicated by some inconsistent and apparently extraneous photographs for which there is evidence of fabrication.


Sources of Information:

  1. Notes by Witness I, 22 April 1966.

  2. Correspondence between Witness I and L. H. Stringfield.

  3. Notes by L. H. Stringfield on conversations with Witness II.

  4. Colorado project notes on conversations with L. H. Stringfield.

  5. Conversation between the pilot and Colorado project personnel.