Pilot Expertise and UFO Observation
The question regarding highly credible and reliable witnesses, in what they observe and describe, is as old as UFO research. The focus is here on the professional group of pilots, to whom such a particularly high reliability is attributed. This is currently evident in the discussion about unidentified flying objects observed by pilots of the US Navy, who are also regularly regarded as "trained observers" to this. This is probably due to the fact that it is, without doubt, a highly qualified professional group, which moves in the same medium, as usually the observed unidentified objects; in the atmosphere. Thus, pilots are also credited with a high level of expertise in assessing what they observe.
However, already early UFO researchers like J. Allen Hynek or Allen Hendry, as well as the former NASA engineer James Oberg, beside others, put this high reliability into perspective by pointing out the high rate of misinterpretations especially among pilots and also their susceptibility to deception. In the end, there are no studies to support this argumentation, especially since it is rather refuted by findings of psychology.
Appropriately, Prof. Matthew J. Sharps, forensic psychologist at the California State University in Fresno, with whom we have a very informative exchange, has written us a short essay, which we would like to make available here with his kindly permission. We also recommend the article from James Oberg on NBC News on this topic.
On the Question of Pilot Expertise and UFO Observation and Identification
Matthew J. Sharps
Professor of Psychology, California State University, Fresno
It is often asserted that pilots and other aircrew, with their aviation and systems expertise, are superior observers and interpreters of UFO phenomenon. However, several caveats arise in this consideration.
Pilots and aircrew obviously have expertise in matters pertaining to aircraft, understanding of aircraft systems and engineering, navigation, aircraft operation and so on. But does this specific expertise apply to areas outside those of aviation per se?
These questions were actually raised by Plato, obviously not in the realm of aviation, but pertinent, nevertheless. In the Protagoras, Plato points out that in building a wall, one consults stonemasons, whereas in the building of a ship, one consults shipbuilders. Both activities involve building; but the crucial differences arise in what is to be built. The relevant expertise is domain-specific, not universal across building activities.
Similar considerations arise in the consideration of aircraft piloting and UFOs. Both involve things and activities in the sky; but the crucial differences arise in precisely what sky-related things are to be observed and interpreted.
Pilots, and of course some other aircrew, have formal training in specific aspects of meteorology and astronomy, but typically with reference to the reasonable spectra of eventuality, to the types of phenomena that they are normally likely to encounter. However, UFO observations deriving from atmospheric or astronomical factors typically involve abnormal circumstances of astronomy and meteorology (e.g., Sharps, 2014), not the more typical ones in which aviators are normally trained; and unless the given aviators are also specifically trained in meteorology or astronomy, outside the normal training for aviation professionals, their aviation training would not necessarily have any bearing on the relative accuracy of observation or interpretation. The ability to recognize different types of storm fronts and clouds, for example, may have no bearing on the ability to deal with the arcana of very atypical weather factors, any more than a knowledge of celestial navigation would lead a pilot to a knowledge of the misperception of Venus through industrial haze, or of the different types of stars on which navigation is based.
All of this may contribute to the fact that early in the modern study of UFOs, J. Allen Hynek (1977), a major participant in the U.S. Air Force Project Blue Book, found that pilots were in fact typically worse at identifying UFOs correctly than were personnel of many other occupational categories. Hynek found that on average, even the best single witnesses tended toward a 65% misperception rate. However, this rate climbed significantly for aircraft pilots. The misperception percentage rating was reported to be in the high 80’s for both military and commercial pilots as single witnesses.
Aviation personnel may also have very different mental sets then do scientists and those specifically interested in the UFO phenomenon. As pointed out by Wolfe (1979) in his informal but thought-provoking book The Right Stuff, pilots tend, quite reasonably, to be specifically and highly focused on their missions and on the operation of their aircraft in the service of those missions. This leaves little time for scientific speculation or wonder, and this mission focus is essential for successful aerial operations. This was clearly observed, for example, in the return from space of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, in which a variety of odd visual phenomena were noted, but essentially ignored, by the astronauts. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has pointed out in interviews that the astronauts’ focus was on successfully returning to Earth; Apollo 11 had completed its mission, and the complex operation of the spacecraft simply left no time for scientific or philosophical considerations regarding odd bits of light in the surrounding space.
Despite many modern assertions to the contrary, for which hard evidence appears, at this time, to be lacking, Hynek’s original data and the psychological considerations discussed here would seem to preclude overreliance on the accounts of aviation personnel in the consideration of UFO phenomena. Aviation expertise is obviously admirable, and indeed essential if aircraft are to get from one place to another successfully; but just as the builder of a wall is not the same as the builder of a ship, aviation training and experience will not necessarily generalize to the scientific or philosophical consideration of UFO phenomena.
Hynek, J.A. (1977). The Hynek UFO Report. London: Sphere Books.
Plato, tr. W.R.M. Land. (1924). Protagoras. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sharps, M.J. (2014). UFOs and cognitive science: A case study. Skeptical Inquirer, 38(3), 52-55.
Wolfe, T. (1979). The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.