ON NOV. 7, during the late-afternoon rush at Chicago's bustling
O'Hare International Airport, something truly astonishing
happened. Pilots, managers and mechanics looked up from their
ground positions at the United Airlines terminal and saw an odd,
disc-shaped object hovering silently overhead, just below the
Some minutes later, with many eyes now fixated on it, the
wingless vehicle shot straight up at an incredible speed and was
gone, leaving a crisp hole through the clouds with blue sky
visible at the top.
It was definitely not an airplane, or any known craft, witnesses
said, many of them shaken by what they saw.
"I immediately called our operations center to confirm the
sighting and the Federal Aviation Administration was contacted
while I drove to the other concourse to talk to the witnesses,"
a United management employee wrote for a National Unidentified
Flying Object Reporting Center (NUFORC) investigation.
With NUFORC's input, Chicago Tribune transportation reporter Jon
Hilkevitch broke the story in January, which then leapt onto
national television news. "The witness credibility is beyond
question," says Hilkevitch, who has spoken to dozens of
The FAA and United Airlines initially denied knowing anything
about the incident, but taped calls and other evidence revealed
their communications about it when it occurred.
The FAA then attributed the incident to a "weather phenomenon"
and United Airlines advised employees not to talk about it,
according to the Tribune.
"If this had been a plane, it would have been investigated,"
Hilkevitch says. "The FAA treats the smallest safety issue as
very important. It will even investigate a coffee pot getting
loose and falling in a plane's galley."
"The safety implications of any vehicle operating at low
altitude over a major airport outside the authority of air-
traffic control are obvious," says National Aeronautics and
Space Administration aviation expert Brian E. Smith, a former
manager in NASA's Aviation Safety and Security Program.
"Managers should want to hear about such vehicle operations
before they become accidents or disasters."
Instead, United witnesses have been disregarded and left to
ponder their unsettling observations.
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said in January that the "absence of
any kind of factual evidence" precludes an investigation. "No
FAA controller saw anything. There was nothing on radar either."
Nonetheless, he offered his best "guess": Witnesses could have
seen a "hole-punch cloud" in "a perfect circular shape like a
round disc" with "vapor going up into it."
In fact, these natural cloud holes - with ice crystals falling
down through them, not up - can only form at below freezing
temperatures. It was 48 degrees Fahrenheit in the O'Hare cloud
bank that afternoon.
A hole could also form in a cloud from rapid evaporation by heat
or very dry air, scientists say. This explanation, unlike
Molinaro's, fits witness descriptions of a high-energy, round
object likely emitting intense heat or other radiation while
Some experts say radar cannot pickup unrecognizable objects with
bizarre behaviors. John Callahan, division chief of accidents
and investigations for the FAA during the 1980s, says it's not
at all surprising that the O'Hare UFO was undetected on radar -
but that doesn't mean that there was nothing there.
Radar technology cannot always capture extremely high-speed
UFOs. A hovering object wouldn't necessarily show up either. "If
it did, it would be a small dot and they would not give it much
concern," Callahan says.
Retired FAA air-traffic-control specialist Jim McClenahen
concurs that busy controllers concentrate on the aircraft
they're working, focusing out surrounding items that are
unimportant to them.
Callahan speaks from direct experience that makes him an
authority on the FAA's handling of UFO incidents. In 1986 he
reviewed extensive data generated by a Japan Airlines cargo B747
encounter with a gigantic, walnut-shaped UFO over Alaska.
Later, the FAA declared the radar faulty, ignored the three
pilot eyewitness accounts, and called the incident as
To this day, Callahan fervently disputes these findings based on
data still in his possession. "I observed a primary radar target
in the position reported by the Japanese pilot," the former
official says, which, although intermittent, synchronized with
the 30-minute taped interchange between pilots and controllers.
The government response to the O'Hare UFO is predictable, says
Callahan. "The FAA will offer a host of other explanations, as
if wearing a blindfold. It's always something else so it can't
be what it is," he remarked in January.
Official policy actually spells out FAA lack of interest in
reports of anomalies, even if the unidentified craft is
potentially life-threatening. The FAA Aeronautical Information
Manual, providing the fundamentals required for flying in U.S.
airspace, states that "persons wanting to report UFO/Unexplained
Phenomena activity" should contact an organization such as
If "concern is expressed that life or property might be
endangered," the manual says, "report the activity to the local
NASA's Brian Smith takes issue with this approach. "We need to
encourage reporting of all incidents regardless of biases
against particular categories of occurrences," he says.
Richard Haines, a former NASA official and now director of the
National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena, has
collected over a hundred reports from pilots documenting a range
of safety hazards caused by proximity to unfamiliar flying
objects or inexplicable brilliant lights.
The data suggest that the objects "are associated with a very
high degree of intelligence, deliberate flight control, and
advanced energy management," says Haines.
How could our government not be interested in an unknown, highly
technological object hovering over a major airport, as reported
by competent airline personnel? What about passenger safety? Or
national security? Or just plain scientific curiosity about an
Unless the FAA and other federal agencies shift gears, this
mind-boggling incident at O'Hare will be left to haunt us -
until the next time, when something even more alarming could
Leslie Kean is a New York-based investigative journalist and co-
founder of the Washington-based Coalition for Freedom of