Soviet sky spectacular
by Richard Hall
Richard Hall, IUR consulting editor, is one of the pioneers of serious UFO investigation. From 1958 to 1967 he was assistant director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) and edited the classic The UFO Evidence (1964). He is coauthor, with the late Charles A. Maney, of The Challenge of Unidentified Flying Objects (1961) and is a former editor of the MUFON UFO Journal.
The crew of an Aeroflot Russian civil airliner reported an encounter with an apparent UFO which at one point beamed a brilliant light on the aircraft, pacing it for about 400 miles during a flight from Tbilisi to Tallinn. First observed near Minsk in the Belorussian Republic, the UFO took on the aspect of a cloudlike aircraft with yellow and green lights as it paralleled the course of the airliner and appeared to "mimic" it. The UFO also was observed by another airliner crew and air traffic controllers and tracked on radar.
The incident apparently occurred in the latter half of 1984 (1). Sighting details include several features previously reported from American cases, particularly the Ohio helicopter encounter case of October 18, 1973, in which a green beam of light from the UFO swung around and shone into the cockpit (2). Other similarities are noted below.
Commanding the Aeroflot flight was Igor Alekseycvich Cherkashin, a Pilot First Class with 7000 flying hours. His copilot was Gennadiy Ivanovich Lazurin, a Pilot Second Class with 4500 hours. The rest of the crew consisted of a navigator, a flight mechanic and stewardesses. The flight originated in Tbilisi in the Georgian Republic, near the eastern shore of the Black Sea, bound for Tallinn on the shore of the Gulf of Finland via Rostov (presumably a stop en route), a distance of 1500 miles generally northwest across populous areas of the Soviet Union.
The Russian press reported the sightings, and the following quotes and details are taken from the Russian newspaper Trud (Labor):
At 4:10 A.M. the airliner was about 120 km from Minsk. "The plane seemed to be standing at the center of the universe. There wasn't a sound in the headphones. They were alone in the transparent air as if in a block of black glass, the stars tiny pinpoints of light. Glancing over his quadrant of the sky, the copilot noticed a large, unblinking 'star' above and to the right of the plane. Yet it wasn't a star but a yellow speck the size of a five-kopeck coin, elliptical in shape."
At first Lazurin thought it must be an atmospheric light reflection. Then from the object "a narrow, fine beam of light appeared and fell straight downward, to the very earth. The copilot nudged the mechanic who, after barely glancing to starboard, said, 'Commander, we should report to the ground.' Suddenly the beam of light widened, turning into a bright cone of light. The crew watched what happened off the starboard side as a second cone appeared, wider but paler than the first. Then a third—wide and quite bright.
"The Commander shrugged. 'Wait, what should we report? We need to see what else will happen. And what is it anyway?' The crew understood that you can't determine distance by eye (without knowing an object's actual size), yet all four had the same sensation—an unidentified object was hanging about 40-50 km [25-30 miles] above the earth. The copilot began to make a rough sketch of the unusual phenomenon. It seemed incredible, but everything on the ground was clearly visible, illuminated by the cone-shaped beam. Of what power this 'projector' must be! The beam then rose from the ground and fixed on the plane.
"They then saw a blinding white light surrounded by concentric colored circles. The Commander still vacillated: should he report what was happening or not? Yet nothing occurred to resolve his doubt." The UFO then flared up and, in its place, a green cloud appeared.
(In a March 4, 1968, case near Atlanta, Missouri (3), a mail carrier saw a strong white light, tapered at its lower end, beam down onto the road from a UFO, brilliantly illuminating the ground. At that point the previously red UFO changed color and appeared as concentric rings of light, bright blue in the center, red and yellow. It would be interesting to know whether the Russian light beam also was an inverse cone, narrower at the bottom.)
Appearance of the "cloud plane"
When the UFO took on the aspect of a green cloud, the copilot interpreted it as a firing up of engines in preparation for departure. To the pilot, however, it appeared that the UFO was beginning a rapid approach at a sharp angle on an intersecting course. He immediately ordered the Navigator to report the incident to the ground. Just then "by a strange coincidence the object paused after [the Navigator's] very first words. It seemed to the Commander that it ceased to approach and to the copilot that it ceased to move away."
The Minsk air traffic controller radioed back that he saw nothing in the sky or on radar. "Well, they say we're nuts," Lazurin huffed, offended. Abruptly, the green cloud dropped straight down, below the plane's cruising altitude, rose straight upward again, hurled itself to the left and right, and up and down. Finally it took a position directly opposite the plane and paced along at an altitude of 10,000 meters (about 33,000 feet) and speed of 800 km/hr. (about 500 mph) "as if attached to the plane" (4).
"An honor escort," muttered the Commander. "Such an honor for us!"
Within the cloud, lights like flames began to play about, flashing on and off like lights on a Christmas tree. "Fiery zigzags then crept horizontally across the cloud, all of which the Navigator conscientiously reported to the ground. The air controller's excited voice was heard in response: 'I see flashes of lightning on the horizon. Where do you see your cloud?' The Navigator answered. 'It fits,' said the controller.
"The cloud continued to change. It grew a tail resembling a waterspout—wider at the top, narrow below. The tail became a 'comma,' then began to rise to a horizontal position, while the cloud changed from elliptical to rectangular. 'Look,' said the copilot, 'it's mimicking us!' A sharp-nosed 'cloud plane' in fact now escorted them, though it had a truncated tail and no wings and was lit with a yellow and a green light. Where the real plane had a nose cone, the object seemed to have a dense nucleus.
"A stewardess entered the cockpit. 'The passengers want to know what's flying alongside us.' Cmdr. Cherkashin sighed, 'Tell them it's a cloud. The yellow light is a reflection from the cities below. As for the green, tell them it's the Aurora Borealis."
Meanwhile, a TU-134 airliner from Leningrad entered the jurisdiction of the Minsk control tower, approaching the first airliner from about 100 km distance. In answer to Cmdr. Cherkashin's query, the commander of the approaching plane—who should have been able to see the huge "cloud plane" at that distance—at first said that he saw nothing. The Minsk controller, who now saw the "cloud plane" clearly, gave the TU-134 pilot the coordinates and heading where he should be able to observe the thing. But he was not able to observe it until within about 50 km, and then the second airliner crew was able to describe the "cloud plane" exactly.
"Much later, when they were trying to understand what they had seen, Cherkashin's crew suggested that the light from the object was polarized and did not diffuse in all directions."
Still escorted by the "cloud plane," the airliner passed Vilnius and Riga; air controllers at both cities confirmed seeing both. While passing Lakes Chudskoe and Pskov near the city of Tartu, a light from the dense nucleus of the "cloud plane" was emitted downward on the clouds and moved slowly along the ground. This allowed the crew to pinpoint the object's position and estimate its size; they estimated that the "cloud plane" equaled Pskov Lake in length (5).
The escort continued all the way to Tallinn. After the plane landed, the Tallinn controller told the crew (6):
"The TU-134A wasn't the only thing visible on Tallinn airport's surveillance radar. Following its mark of light on the screen were two more, although only one plane was visible in the sky. Moreover, these two marks were visible constantly, while the TU-134's image now vanished, now reappeared. 'I'd understand,' the controller said, 'if it blinked on the landing finder screen. But this doesn't happen on the surveillance radar; it's impossible."
Analysis and commentary
Assuming the general reliability of the report (Trud is known to be a conservative and cautious Soviet Communist newspaper), the details tend to rule out most conventional explanations. The long duration (45 minutes or more), the position fix and descent below the aircraft (placing the UFO in the lower atmosphere), the configuration and large apparent size, and the brilliant light beam (implying an airborne energy source) collectively tend to rule out astronomical phenomena, balloons, other aircraft space program activities and other things that are known to cause false UFO reports.
The only natural explanation that comes to mind is some sort of extremely strange atmospheric phenomenon involving clouds and intense electrical energy, but even this seems strained. What atmospheric phenomenon can keep pace with a 500 mph airliner for 400 miles, in addition to the other reported maneuvers and luminosity features?
A phenomenon somewhat resembling the Soviet airliner case was reported (anonymously) in Nature magazine in 1981 (7). A somewhat oblong cloud (judging by the sketch) was seen early on a clear, starry night, pulsating and emitting "streamers of great brilliancy...in various directions." No lateral motion or other unusual movements of the cloud were reported, however, and the streamers were described as "like small meteors, leaving trails of light behind them," rather than as continuous beams of light.
Perhaps a more interesting and relevant comparison is to the June 30, 1954, British Overseas Airways Corp. (BOAC) airliner sighting over the Atlantic Ocean off Labrador (8). A cloudlike, irregularly-shaped (and shape-changing) object with six smaller objects maneuvering around it paced the BOAC airliner for about 80 miles on a parallel course. A fighter aircraft was sent to investigate, but just as the fighter pilot approached to within about 20 miles and radioed the BOAC pilot (another "coincidence?"), the smaller objects vanished, apparently into the large object, which had taken on a delta shape, and it sped off and disappeared (or diminished in size to invisibility) in a matter of seconds.
Analyst Gordon D. Thayer of the Air Force-sponsored University of Colorado UFO study attempts to invoke a mirage hypothesis but admits that it is not totally satisfactory and concludes with the rather astonishing statement:
"This unusual sighting should therefore be assigned to the category of some almost certainly natural phenomenon, which is so rare that it apparently has never been reported before or since." (9)
With that sort of logic (it had to be a natural phenomenon) and the obvious compulsion to find a neat pigeon-hole to categorize the event, it is difficult to imagine skeptics ever accepting human testimony (now quite widespread, consistent, documented and replete with recurring patterns not easily fit into current knowledge) sufficiently to recognize the need for more intensive scientific investigation.
The Soviet airliner case, if accurately reported, adds to the already large body of circumstantial evidence strongly suggesting that we are faced with a true mystery deserving of high-priority scientific study. Such a study might fruitfully focus on the considerable body of reports of what might be called Airborne Light Energy Platforms (ALEPs). These reports contain features that defy conventional explanation: structured objects (both in the atmosphere and at or near ground level) which display multicolored body lights, sharp or erratic maneuvers unlike any products of human technology, and focused beams of light frequently described as "blinding" or "brilliant."
ALEPs are a critical category of UFO reports. If conventional or natural explanations for them can be found, one large puzzle in the UFO "mystery" probably would dissolve. But true scientific investigation, not skeptical guesswork, is necessary to resolve the question. The idea that extraterrestrial technology is the cause of the reports is fascinating and cannot be ruled out, but it should not be the central focus. The focus should be on the large body of well-attested reports suggesting that we do not yet have a good explanation for what Russian, American, British and other pilots and many other credible observers have been reporting for at least 40 years.
In private correspondence with the author (January 27, 1986), James E. Oberg, a UFO skeptic who is especially knowledgeable about Soviet rocket and missile launches, shared with me correspondence from Scandinavian sources suggesting that the date of the airliner case was September 7, 1984. On that date, some atmospheric phenomenon was widely observed from Sweden and Finland. That would tend to indicate that the "UFO" was a Soviet ICBM launch. But Oberg conceded that the exact date of the airliner report was still in doubt and that we needed to establish the date in order to validate a conventional explanation. His preliminary description the case is reported in the summer 1985 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.
1. Exact date not known. The Trud article quoted here is dated January 5, 1985. Translation by Maureen Barron.
2. Zeidman, Jennie. A Helicopter-UFO Encounter Over Ohio. Center for UFO Studies, Evanston, Illinois, 1979.
3. Report in files of NICAP copy in author's files.
4. A "gyrating light" with similar rapid up-and-down, side-to-side motions was reported by a TWA pilot on December 27, 1950; see The UFO Evidence (NICAP, 1964), page 40. Another, by a Capital Airlines pilot on November 14, 1956, including a "coincidental" relationship between radio communications and UFO maneuvers, is reported in The UFO Evidence (pages 4-5) and Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, the University of Colorado "Condon Report" (Bantam Books paperback edition), page 127.
5. The Britannica World Atlas indicates that Lake Pskov is about 20 miles long!
6. A reference to Cmdr. Cherkashin's plane.
7. Corliss, William R. Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, Glen Arm, Maryland, 1977, page 30.
8. The UFO Evidence, page 126; Condon Report, page 139.
9. Condon Report, page 140.
Reference for the above text is: Journal: International UFO Reporter, July/August, 1986, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 11-14.
UFOCAT PRN – NONE
Flying from Tbilisi to Tallinn
Europe - Gulf of Finland
Gulf of Finland Latitude 59-49-0.8 N, Longitude 25-46-30 E (D-M-S) [gulf]
Europe – Estonia
Tallinn Latitude 59-26-02 N, Longitude 024-43-41 E (D-M-S) [capital of a political entity]
Lake Chudskoe Latitude 58-45-00 N, Longitude 027-30-00 E [lake - Chudskoye]
Tartu Latitude 58-21-58 N, Longitude 026-44-10 E [seat of a first order admin. div.]
Lake Pskov Latitude 58-00-00 N, Longitude 028-00-00 E [lake]
Europe – Latvia
Riga Latitude 56-57-00 N, Longitude 024-06-00 E (D-M-S) [capital of a political entity]
Europe – Lithuania
Vilnius Latitude 54-41-00 N, Longitude 025-19-00 E (D-M-S) [capital of a political entity]
Europe – Belarus
Minsk Latitude 53-54-00 N, Longitude 027-34-00 E (D-M-S) [capital of a political entity]
Europe – Russia, Rostovskaya Oblast’
Rostov Latitude 47-13-53 N, Longitude 039-43-24 E (D-M-S) [Rostov-na-Donu - seat of a first order admin. div.]
Europe – Ocean
Black Sea Latitude 43-00-00 N, Longitude 035-00-00 E (D-M-S) [sea]
Europe - Georgia
Tbilisi Latitude 41-41-39 N, Longitude 044-50-01 E (D-M-S) [capital of a political entity]
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