St. Louis, Missouri
UFOs in Flight Formation adapted from "UFOs Explained"
by Philip Klass
June 5, 1969
Late in the afternoon of June 5, 1969, American Airlines flight #112 was
approaching St. Louis, en route to Washington, D.C. The jetliner had
departed San Diego several hours earlier, and now was cruising at 39,000
feet. The weather was perfectly clear and more than two hours of
daylight remained. The airliner's captain had gone back to the passenger
cabin, and his seat was temporarily occupied by a senior air traffic
controller who had boarded from the San Diego and was flying as an
observer in the cockpit, a not unusual situation which enables FAA
controllers to better understand flight-crew problems.
The co-pilot suddenly hollered: "Damn, look at this." The controller's
own account says, there it was "a flight of four" whatever they were
"flying in a square formation." There was one large UFO in the lead,
followed by three smaller objects. The UFOs, coming from the east,
seemed to be on a near- collision course toward the jetliner, according
to the controller.
Each of the UFOs seemed to be shaped like a hydroplane, with the largest
appearing to be about eighteen to twenty feet long and about seven to
eight feet thick. They were the color of "burnished aluminum," the
controller later recalled, and seemed to be propelled by some sort of
rocket engines that emitted a long tail of blue-green flame.
Fortunately, only moments before it seemed that the UFOs might collide
with the jetliner, they appeared to take evasive action. Even so, the
UFOs appeared to have come within three hundred feet of the airliner as
they zoomed past, the controller said. The co-pilot called the nearby
St. Louis airport tower on the radio to report the incident. Soon a
controller in the St. Louis tower radioed back to report that there were
unidentified targets on the radar. But the radar showed only two
An eastbound United Air Lines jetliner was cruising at 37,000 feet
approximately eight miles behind the American jetliner, and its crew had
monitored the radio report to the St. Louis tower. Suddenly, one of the
United crew members radioed down: "We see it too," according to the
subsequent report by the traffic controller aboard the American flight.
Behind the United flight was an Air National Guard jet fighter, cruising
at 41,000 feet, also eastbound. He too had monitored the radio reports
of the UFOs, and a few moments later he reported: "Damn, they almost got
me." He went on to explain that the squadron of UFOs seemed to be headed
directly for his aircraft until, at the last moment, the strange object
abruptly changed course and climbed out of his path.
A major aircraft company, McDonnell Douglas, was located near the St.
Louis airport, and analysts wondered if perhaps the UFOs were some new
experimental rocket-propelled aircraft built there. However, the company
had not developed any such new aircraft. Even if the company had, the
novel vehicles would almost certainly be tested at remotely situated Air
Force/Navy facilities and not in the vicinity of a populated area such
as St. Louis.
Further investigation led experts to suspect that a meteor might have
been responsible, in particular a giant meteor, or "fireball," that had
been seen by numerous observers on the ground, ranging from Peoria,
Illinois, to Glenwood in western Iowa. This fireball had even been
photographed by an alert newspaper photographer, named Alan Harkrader,
Jr., in Peoria.
However, there were two seemingly significant discrepancies between the
Iowa Fireball and the St. Louis UFO report. According to the traffic
controller aboard the American jetliner, the incident had occurred a few
minutes before 4 p.m., whereas the numerous observers of the Iowa
Fireball agreed that the meteor had flashed by, breaking up into flaming
fragments which fell behind the meteor, just before 6 p.m. Central
daylight time (CDT). Another seeming discrepancy was that while the
traffic controller estimated that the squadron of UFOs had passed within
three hundred feet of his aircraft, then flying near St. Lois, a careful
analysis by the Smithsonian Institution based on many ground observer
reports, indicated that the Iowa Fireball's flight path was at last 125
miles north of St. Louis. Could experienced flight crews, in broad
daylight, make so gross an error in estimating distance?
With regard to the time discrepancy, the traffic controller had boarded
American Airlines flight #122 in San Diego. If he had not yet set his
watch ahead to the Central time zone, in which the aircraft was flying
at the time, then the correct local time would have been a few minutes
before 6 p.m., precisely the time of the Iowa Fireball.
American Airlines confirmed that flight #112 had been scheduled to
depart San Diego at 12:15 p.m. Pacific daylight time (PDT), to land at
Phoenix and then depart there at 1:40 p.m. Mountain daylight time (MDT).
If the aircraft had been approximately on schedule on June 5, it should
have been nearing St. Louis a few minutes before 6 p.m. CDT, not 4 p.m.
as the controller had reported. The only possible way that the flight
could have been nearing St. Louis at 4 p.m. is if it had departed both
San Diego and Phoenix two hours ahead of scheduled, which is illegal
and unprofitable, since there would be no passengers on board. Clearly
the traffic controller had simply forgotten to set his watch ahead.
With regard to the distance estimates of the spacecraft's proximity to
the airplane, Federal Aviation Administration experts produced evidence
that even in broad daylight, an experienced pilot on the ground can
misjudge the distance of an unfamiliar, fleeting object by more than one
But what of the two unidentified objects that had been spotted on the
radarscope in the St. Louis tower following the American Airlines crew
report of the visual sighting? Although meteors and their ionized traits
can be detected on radar, the Iowa Fireball was beyond the range of the
St. Louis radar. At the time of this incident, the type of radar display
installed at St. Louis was not equipped to show the altitude or
individual identity of each target automatically, a provision that has
since been added. In good weather, such as that existing at the time of
this incident, it was not necessary for overflying aircraft to identify
themselves to the St. Louis tower unless they planned to land there,
which none of the three aircraft involved in this incident expected to
do. Thus, the two "unidentified targets" reported in the vicinity of the
American Airlines flight may well have been the United Air Lines flight
and the Air National Guard aircraft, or possibly other overflying
airplane in the vicinity.
The extremely gross errors made by all of the pilots in this incident in
estimating the distance to the "UFOs," as well as serious errors made in
estimating the altitude of the objects by the Cedar Rapids pilot and
some other ground observers, illustrate an important UFO logical
No human observer, including experienced flight crews, can accurately
estimate either the distance/altitude or the size of an unfamiliar
object in the sky, unless it is in very close proximity to a familiar
object whose size or altitude is known.