Case 54

Gulfstream Aircraft, Huntsville, Ala. to Minneapolis, Minn.

11 March 1966

Investigator: Hartmann

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PLATES for this Case


An electronics specialist associated with the Marshall Space Flight Center, on a flight from Huntsville, Ala., saw and photographed an exceptionally bright, elliptical UFO. The object was lower than the plane and appeared to be at a great distance moving away from the plane. The object is inconclusively identified as a sub-sun on the basis of photographic evidence, though not all the testimony directly supports this.


Time: About 3:00 to 3:20 p.m. CST

Aircraft Position: En route nonstop from Huntsville, Ala., to Minneapolis, Minn. Altitude: 20,000 to 22,000 ft. Exact location unknown. (Source 1).

Weather Conditions: Partly cloudy below the plane; complete overcast above, with the sun not visible (1).

Photographic Data: Kodak Retina II, 35 mm Plus-X (2) black-and-white film (ASA 160); Xenon f2 50 mm lens (uncoated, perfect condition), focused on UFO during first exposure; exposure 1/500 sec at f16. Exposure meter General Electric PR-l, serial number J95126 (Source 1).

Sighting, General Information:

During a chartered Gulfstream Aircraft flight from Huntsville to Minneapolis, the witness, an electronics specialist for Marshall Space Flight Center, observed from the rear left window an extremely bright object outside. Initially the object was estimated to be


about 15° behind the plane in azimuth and 5° below. The photographs, Plates 52-55, indicate a much greater declination below the horizon. The initial direction of the object was believed to be southwest of the aircraft, based on an assumed northerly heading, and was observed for approximately 20 min. (All descriptive material, Source 1).

Fifteen months after the sighting the object was described by the witness in a letter dated 13 June 1967, as follows:

Perfect ellipse with axes ratio of approximately 1:3, with the major axis horizontal (see Fig. 11). The edges were sharp and perfectly defined. Surrounding this ellipse was a brilliant halo which I noticed but did not study as much as I did the object. The brilliance made my eyes water and pain.

[The color was] overall brilliant yellow-orange, very much like the sun...The UFO always appeared the same, except diminishing in size, perfectly outlined with a halo. No other detail was seen. It did not change its flight line... The UFO was southwest of the plane at first and disappeared northwest of the plane. I am here assuming the plane was always flying on a north heading...

The distance could not be determined accurately, but I had a distinct impression at first that I was viewing something from 1/2 to 1 mile away. Also the camera range-finder indicated a long distance but not infinity. I have had considerable experience in judging distance and elevations of airplanes and in photography. Later the UFO was much more distant, as shown in the film...

The UFO was viewed under several different conditions. At first it was slightly behind the plane, lighting the inside of the plane. I moved my head to see if it would affect the image. I cupped my hands around my face and on the pane. Neither of these changed the view at all. For


Fig 11

Figure 11: Gulfstream Aircraft Sighting

Click on thumbnail to see full-size image.


the first picture (Plate 52) I backed about four feet away from the as to frame the UFO with the window frame. This was to add perspective. The other pictures were taken through the window while the camera was held close to it. One of the other frames shows a small section of the left wing...

I was immediately shocked at the appearance of the UFO. It seemed too definite in outline to be a reflection, sun dog, or ice crystal image of the sun, even if the sun had been shining. I have often seen such natural phenomena, since I have studied meteorology, but pay little attention to them. This was different. It was just too bright to be natural, I thought. Remembering the often reported sudden disappearance or speeding up of UFOs, I expected it to do likewise. But it did neither. I had waited a few minutes after seeing it before I realized it might stay long enough for a picture. After the first one, I took the other three at about 5-minute intervals. The situation was embarrassing. I felt I should be able to explain the UFO but could not since the sun was not shining. Furthermore, I could not arouse interest in any of the other six or eight passengers, who were playing cards. Only one man, an engineer, even bothered to look at it, explaining it as a "reflection."

The witness considered and rejected several explanations of the phenomenon. He had seen and launched several kinds of balloons and had seen skyhook balloons launched; he was sure that it was neither a balloon, a plane, or "any other object I have ever seen" (1). His background includes varied experience in radio repair and electronics. He holds a B.S. in electrical engineering and has worked at Marshall Space Flight Center (Redstone Arsenal) since 1958. The witness has been very cooperative and articulate in supplying supplementary information on the sighting.



Of several scientific colleagues with whom the witness discussed the sighting after his return on 12 March, "a few insisted that the light on the pictures was a sun dog or a weather balloon even though I had insisted (1) the sun was not out" (1).

The witness "did not report it officially because of the way witnesses have been treated." After showing the film to various other colleagues, including "Ph.D.'s and highly specialized scientists," the witness contacted Dr. J. A. Hynek, and the case was subsequently brought to the attention of the Colorado project.

The similarity of the object to a sub-sun at once suggested an explanation. A photograph of a sub-sun provided by NCAR (Section III, Chapter 3, Plate 2) strengthened considerably the sub-sun hypothesis. Minnaert (3) describes this phenomenon as follows:

This is to be seen only from a mountain or an airplane. It is somewhat oblong, uncolored reflection; the sun reflected not in a surface of water but in a cloud. A cloud of ice-plates, in fact, which appear to float extremely calmly judging from the comparative sharpness of the image.

Several objections and questions are raised by this hypothesis. The most serious objection is that (1) the witness stressed that the sky above the aircraft was so overcast that he could not see the sun. Considering the sub-sun hypothesis it is necessary to assume that the overcast was thin enough, especially during the first minutes of the sighting, to allow a bright image of the sun (even if diffused by overcast) to be produced by laminar ice crystals. A gradual increase in density of the overcast above the airplane would provide a natural explanation of the fading of the apparition and would not contradict the witness's belief in an overcast.

(2) The witness reported that the direction was initially southwest of the aircraft "15° behind" it, but that the UFO disappeared to the northwest. During an interval of only 20 min. the azimuth of the sun, and hence of the sub-sun, could not change


by such a large angle (though the motion of the sun would contribute a few degrees in this direction). These estimates were with respect to the plane and were based on the witness's assumption that the plane was flying constantly due north. Since the witness mentions that the initial southwest direction of the UFO was only 15° behind the plane, it is clear that "southwest" and "northwest" are not to be taken literally as 90° apart. Furthermore, Plates 53 and 55, which can be oriented by the wing, were made about 10 min. apart but indicate a shift in the UFO's position of not more than a few degrees. Therefore, a change in flight direction of 30° or less would explain the apparent change in direction of the sub-sun. A change such as this would not necessarily be obvious, especially in overcast flying conditions. Since the course from Huntsville to Minneapolis is north-northwest, the view out of the left side would be west-southwest, the approximate direction of the sun at 3:00 p.m., supporting the sub-sun hypothesis.

(3) The object was described as a "sharp and perfectly defined" horizontal disk with a vertical "halo;" but, the photographs do not confirm the horizontal ellipse. Although the major axis of the ellipse was sketched nearly as wide as the halo, microscopic examination of the original negatives and high density prints (Plates 56 and 57) give no indication of a central bright ellipse. Only the halo was photographed. Although the inner part of the halo is overexposed and evidently saturated, masking a possible small central ellipse, photographic evidence suggests that any flattened central disk was not as well-defined or as large as the testimony might suggest. An indication that the inner isophotes do not have as large a vertical ellipticity as the outer isophotes is evidenced by the fact that the images on the last photographs, when the apparition was evidently fainter, are more rounded. This may account for the witness's impression of a horizontal, flattened inner core. In all respects, the photographs of the witness appear to be similar to the sub-sun photograph supplied by NCAR.


(4) The object was so extremely bright that it was reportedly capable of throwing the exposure meter off scale, illuminating the inside of the plane, and hurting the witness's eyes. These observa-tions apparently refer to the initial sighting, before the apparition dimmed (Plates 54 and 55). One might question whether a sub-sun could appear so bright. A sub-sun is literally a reflection of the sun; that is, its brightness could approach that of the sun itself, if the reflector were efficient enough. Ambient light over a cloud deck is already large, and a relatively small fraction of the sun's full brightness in an image reflected under especially good conditions could produce the reported effects.

(5) The apparent decrease of angular size would not be expected in a reflection of the sun. The witness interpreted this as a departure of the object: "Later the UFO was much more distant as shown in the film." The film shows only that the angular size of the "halo" and apparently the total brightness decreased. Since no clear, hard, disk-shaped core can be made out in the over-exposed central "halo," there is no photographic evidence for a decrease in angular size of a well-defined object or for an increase in its distance. The observed image sequence could have been produced by a gradual decrease in brightness; i.e. by obscuration of the overhead sun or by decreasing density or alignment of the reflecting ice crystals.

(6) The witness focused on the UFO and concluded that his rangefinder "indicated a long distance but not infinity." However, he "had a distinct impression at first that I was viewing from 1/2 to 1 mile away." These two statements are inconsistent. In conclusion it appears that there are no significant and accurate data on the distance of the object in view of the difficulty of accurate focusing on ill-defined or very bright objects and of the inaccuracy of the registration of distance on many camera range- finders.

(7) Finally, we must remark that the witness does not believe that the object was a sub-sun, regardless of evidence presented in the above argument. In spite of this subjective response, one can


judge the case only on the most objective data, i.e. the photographs and his most descriptive testimony. The witness makes no assertion that the object was artificial or solid.

Reflections appear to be ruled out as the witness cupped his hands around the window in order to study the moving object.

Summary and Conclusion:

In summary, the principal arguments in favor of the sub-sun hypothesis are: (1) The appearance is consistent with that of a sub-sun. (2) The azimuth is consistent, within the limits of the known direction of flight. (3) The elevation angle of the sun above the horizon must equal the declination of the sub-sun below the horizon; it is calculated to be approximately 30° + or - 4°. Estimates of the declination, based on the known angular scale (photo height ca. 26°) and the estimated vanishing point of the clouds in the photographs (the horizon being out of the frame) place it in the range 28 to 33°. These figures are consistent.

The sub-sun hypothesis requires that the witness overstated the situation by insisting that "the sun was not out." An overhead cloud deck of not too great opacity may have led the witness to this assertion.

In spite of some questions raised by the testimony, the apparition can be inconclusively identified as a sub-sun. In view of the high degree of similarity of the photographed object with a sub-sun, it would be unwarranted to assert that this sighting constitutes evidence for an extraordinary or unknown phenomenon.

Sources of Information:

  1. Report of the witness to Colorado project (13 June 1967).

  2. Correspondence and telephone conversations between the witness and Colorado project (June - July 1967).

  3. Minnaert, M. The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air, N. Y.: Dover, 1954.