Something quite out of the ordinary occurred in the skies over Oregon. A mystery aircraft was flying in daylight hours among the steady stream of airliners that traverse from south to north, between locales in California and Nevada and cities like Portland and Seattle and beyond. The incident began, at least as best we can tell, around 4:30 p.m. near Crater Lake, OR when air traffic controllers started asking nearby pilots about it. The aircraft was described as a white object flying north between 35,000' & 40,000'.
At one point in the air traffic controller audio clip, one pilot says the mystery bird is 12 to 15 miles away, and distances from other aircraft ranged from four to 20 miles. Another pilot, observing the aircraft, estimates an airspeed of 425 miles an hour on the ground, also noting he is not getting a TCAS transponder signal.
Eventual confirmations from both the FAA and North American Aerospace Command, NORAD, that it did indeed occur.
The first inklings of the story came shortly after the incident occurred from friends in the aviation world. Sparse on details at the time, it sounded like it was probably just another one of the often misconstrued incidents that happen in the skies around the U.S. everyday, ones where aircraft with inoperable radios or transponders stray into areas they shouldn't. And sometimes these occurrences result in local fighter jets paying the wayward aircraft a visit at the direction of NORAD. But days after initially blowing off the incident, it later began to seem that there was indeed more to the story than just than another NORDO private aircraft or lackadaisical pilot.
One Reddit thread that was of particular interest that seemed to not only corroborate the strange account, it also added critical details. The post was supposedly penned by a pilot who says they were in the sky over the Northwest in the early evening when the incident occurred, with the post coming shortly after the incident. The entry by Reddit user Duprass reads:
Just landed in Seattle coming from the bay area. Beginning over Southern Oregon we kept overhearing Seattle Center attempting to track an airplane with no transponder who wasn't talking. A handful of crews were able to track it visually, best they could tell it was between 35,000' to 37,000', northbound. Nobody close enough to see the type.
Last we heard it was over the Willamette valley northbound and some fighters, perhaps out of PDX, Portland International Airport, were scrambled to go take a peek. Center had trouble tracking it on primary radar.
Strange! My theory is they were running drugs to Canada. No news yet, not that I could find.
Update 0500z. Called SEA ARTCC. The gentleman I spoke with said that they initially got alerted to the aircraft from Oakland Center who was painting it on primary, illuminating it with radar, but without transponder information. For whatever reason they couldn't track it themselves on primary, and that's when I overheard them using airline aircraft to track it visually. The last airplane to see it had to descend into Portland and lost sight of it. The fighters were scrambled out of PDX but flew around for a while and did not find it. And that's that.
Air traffic control audio recorded over at LiveATC.com of Seattle Center Sector 14 is available from the time of the incident and it corroborates much of this information.
The audio is fantastic as it illustrates that there were many communications between various jet crews and Seattle Center whose controllers tried to track the aircraft as it made its way north towards the Willamette Valley. The aircraft was not able to be tracked on radar nor did it show up on crews digital traffic collision avoidance systems - TCAS, but it was clearly there, although never quite close enough to positively identify what its exact type was.
The activity seems to have begun in the far reaches of Northern California, around Mt. Shasta, and continued on into Southern Oregon, past Crater Lake and up through the Willamette Valley.
The back and forth between air traffic control and various airline pilots lasted for roughly half an hour. Recordings from other Seattle Center Sectors, such as those closer to Portland, namely 42 and 46, are not readily available, and it's very possible, if not probable based on other reports, that the incident continued up the Willamette Valley.
We did review PDX approach and tower exchanges from a half hour before to two hours after the event occurred and didn't find anything that stood out, although it was unlikely we would have as aircraft have descended when using those frequencies.
After reading this account and listening to the audio it was clear that the incident was worth looking into on a much deeper level, and that's what we did, inquiring with the 142nd Fighter Wing based at Portland International Airport, North American Aerospace Defense Command - NORAD, and the FAA about the odd ordeal.
NORAD's reply was quick and clear. An incident involving multiple airline crews, air traffic control, and F-15Cs from the 142nd Fighter Wing based out of Portland did occur. According to the limited information NORAD supplied, airliner pilots were asked by FAA air traffic controllers to help track and possibly identify a white aircraft traveling in the flightlevels nearby, roughly between 35,000' and 40,000' based on the radio recordings. NORAD also said that the incident did result in F-15s from Portland being scrambled to investigate, but by the time they got up and looked around the mystery aircraft couldn't be found.
A quick note on the fighter jet aspect of this story, the 142nd Fighter Wing operates F-15Cs upgraded with the most capable air-to-air radar set in the world, AN/APG-63V3, and Sniper advanced targeting pods for long range visual identification. Their pilots are some of the best in the world and are highly trained in the homeland air defense mission. The fact that they didn't find anything is surprising to say the least. Maybe this was due to the nature of the aircraft being searched for, or the possibility that they launched long after it was first sighted, or that we simply aren't being told the whole story.
As for the F-15's launch time, it seems that this mystery aircraft was moving fairly fast, at least at the same speed of the airliners around it or greater. It's also worth noting that Oakland Center, which controls airspace to the south of Seattle Center's responsibilities, could have been trying to track the aircraft before the communications began on Seattle Center's frequencies if the object emanated from farther south. We have reviewed the PDX air traffic control audio up to two hours after the first radio traffic began regarding the mystery aircraft between Seattle Center and airliner pilots and we did not readily hear the tower clear the F-15s for launch. As such it's not clear when exactly the fighters took to the skies in search of this unidentified aircraft or why they were launched so late if that was the case.
It is also possible, albeit somewhat unlikely, that a fighter patrol could have been diverted if they were already airborne. Also, once in the air the F-15s are capable of traversing the entire state of Oregon in just a matter of minutes if need be, so if they were launched promptly it seems unlikely they wouldn't have been able to intercept the aircraft being pointed out by commercial pilots over Southern Oregon.
The FAA wasn't as forthcoming as NORAD, taking nearly a week and multiple emails to respond to our initial inquiry, only to say simply that they have nothing further to add to the description of events provided to them. As such, they did acknowledge that the events occurred, but did not expand upon them. The 142nd Fighter Wing did not respond to our inquiries.
Clearly there had to be some level of after action investigation into this event. Having an unidentified aircraft that doesn't show up on radar flying among civilian air traffic in the flight levels for extended periods of time isn't something you just brush off, especially considering the current global security situation and the circumstances that have existed since 9/11.
Western Air Defense Sector - WADS, which goes by the callsign Bigfoot, keeps a close watch on airspace over the Northwest and directs alert fighters and fighter patrols to targets of interest on short notice.
One of the Reddit posters with the handle The Flying Beard from the same thread, who supposedly is an air traffic controller, claims to have some inside knowledge of the event, stating:
Was just going to post about this actually. I was working an adjacent sector and was helping to coordinate some of the military stuff. They ended up launching F15s off of PDX to try and find it but no joy. The crazy thing is, we didn't have a primary target or a mode C intruder, and it was out running 737s abeam it.
Also, cue conspiracy theory, our QA department was working on this today, and got a call from the commander of the 142FW at PDX and was basically told to knock it off, and we know nothing.
A couple guys at work seem to think it may have have been this plane, unlikely, and that's an article I wrote, based of the description, and also the lack of military interest. FWIW, I think the FAA is pursing this at higher levels. From a safety standpoint, if the military is running super secret test stuff in the NAS, National Airspace, that's bad. If I were one of the pilots that had a sighting, I'd definitely be filing a NASA form and any other official reports that you can.
If the aircraft continued on its presumed heading/course altitude, the F15s were sent the wrong way. The last known position was around the EUG area heading North around 750kts and the fighters went South when they launched, 25 to 30 minutes after the first report in the Shasta area.
The time of day made it hard. All the guys on the east side couldn’t see it due to the setting sun and the North bound traffic on the west side was pretty sparse. I guess ZOA, Oakland Center, had a good primary/mode C on the guy for a bit in the RBL, Red Bluff Municipal Airport area. It was initially heading SW and it made a pretty sharp turn to the North. Way harder/faster than what a commercial aircraft could handle at that speed/altitude without ripping the wings off.
We have no way of confirming this poster's information, although based on past Reddit posts their occupation description seems accurate, and their account certainly does add to the story if true.
We have filed Freedom of Information Act - FOIA requests with the FAA and NORAD, as well as other federal parties involved in the incident. Hopefully we will find out more eventually as to what really went on that day so we can provide a more complete picture for our readers.
An F-15C belonging to the 142nd Fighter Wing blasts out of Portland International Airport on a typical rainy day in the Northwest. Portland Air National Guard Base - PANG, which is colocated across from PDX's passenger terminals, is seen in the background. The 142nd's Eagles cover the airspace from northern California to the northern tip of Washington State and sometimes beyond. Two primary fully armed jets are always on quick reaction alert - QRA, and can launch within a few minutes of the klaxon howling. An armed spare jet is also usually available as well as one armed with a full magazine of 940 20mm cannon shells.
It seems odd that a smuggler would fly in broad daylight in an area they know they will be spotted, not to mention the question of how they stayed off the FAA radar scopes.
When it comes to a secret military aircraft, flying such an asset among jetliner traffic in daylight, albeit it was around sunset time, certainly seems like an odd choice for a secretive program, but that doesn't make it impossible. There are vast and remote training ranges that could be taken advantage of in Alaska for clandestine aircraft programs, and it is a long flight to get there. Still, the idea that U.S. military would willingly fly an aircraft through a major air traffic route at common jet operating altitudes without radio, transponder, or even radar contact would be highly concerning if true.
Amongst all the questions that remain, one thing is certain, an unidentified white aircraft was indeed flying over Oregon on that day in October, and the USAF and the FAA are both willing to admit that the event occurred. In the Air Force's case, the fact that they are even willing to tell us that they couldn't catch or even find the unidentified aircraft with their sensor packed and fast F-15s is interesting to say the least. On the other hand they may not be sharing the entire story with us. Whatever the case, we'll keep you updated on this white flying mystery machine of sorts and the circumstances surrounding its presence over Oregon when, or should I say if, new information becomes available. *****Part Two*****
What started as a radar target moving at very high speed over Northern California turned into a series of eyewitness accounts made by nearby airline pilots traveling northward over Oregon. Even F-15 fighters were launched to intercept the mysterious intruder that quickly became invisible to radar.
Now, through the Freedom of Information Act, we present what could be one of the most insightful instances of official documentation surrounding such an encounter that had already been confirmed to have occurred by both the FAA and the USAF. These materials include fascinating audio recordings of radio transmissions and phone calls made as the incident was unfolding, as well as pilot interviews, and conversations between FAA officials made in the aftermath of the highly peculiar incident.
Three months later, and now we have so much more evidence that adds incredible depth and color to our original report and the limited radio recordings we originally had to go off of. Via our FOIA Request we received hours of audio, all with unique elements that add to this story. What we have done is packaged that audio, as well as the radar data provided, into four separate videos. We will highlight some of the big takeaways from each video in our piece.
The first video includes audio from the initial spotting of the object as it ripped its way across Northern California at high speed, before it took a turn north and merged with nearby air traffic and disappeared from radar. Once again, beyond becoming invisible to radar, this aircraft had no transponder broadcasting nor did it ever communicate verbally with air traffic controllers. The audio in the video goes on to be sync'd in real time with radar data obtained via our FOIA request.
Oakland Center Sector 31 first detected the target around 4:30 p.m. PST. Sector 31 spans roughly from Sacramento up towards Redding, before its northern edge, which is near the border with Oregon, terminates and Seattle Center's airspace begins. To the east, the airspace sits along the California/Nevada border. This makes sense as the craft was eventually tracked by airline pilots as it made its way up over Crater Lake and towards the Willamette Valley.
In the audio the Oakland Center controller notes that it is near his boundary, so it seems the aircraft's first appearance officially occurred near the border of Oakland Center Sector 31 and Seattle Center Sector 13 or 14. The target was moving very fast at 37,000' when it was first detected.
The intruder quickly dropped off radar, and that's when the visual sightings made by airline crews began. They continued for roughly half an hour and over hundreds of miles. The exchanges between nearby pilots and air traffic control regarding the unidentified aircraft were constant in the audio, with the same description coming back time and again, that of a white aircraft cruising at around 37,000' that is too far away to tell the type or if it has markings of any kind on it.
At roughly 27:30 into the video we get our first indication that the F-15s out of PDX are about to scramble, with the air traffic controller noting this while talking to another FAA controller, during which the controller also reiterates that there has still been no radar contact with the aircraft. The controller also repeatedly asks air crews nearby to check their Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems - TCAS, for the aircraft, which all come back negative.
The F-15s first appear on radar as they climb out of Portland to the south at time index 33:33 as Rock flight, a common callsign used for the alert F-15s stationed at PDX. Alaska 439 asks for an update on the unidentified aircraft and the controller notes they still have nothing on him, saying colloquially that it must be in a kind of stealth mode or something. It's also interesting that the F-15s first went south when it seems as if the object would have been north of PDX by the time they finally launched.
Next we move into some very interesting recordings of FAA phone calls that occurred as all of this was taking place. We edited out dead space in the audio between phone calls and bleeped the names of those who named themselves. Aside from that, the audio is unedited by us, although we cannot be certain if parts were redacted by the FAA or not. There were a few strange areas where conversations went mute and it's not clear if this was edited or just an anomaly. The primary person talking in most of these calls is the Operations Manager In Charge for Seattle Center at the time that the incident took place.
The first call is to Oakland Center, and it occurs early on after the initial radar detection and as pilots began spotting the craft visually. He also mentions that air defense is looking for the target now too, on radar, so it shows how early the military was involved in the encounter.
You will notice that the term DEN is referred to repeatedly in these recordings. That is the Domestic Events Network, a sort of hotline system that is used to bridge the FAA with federal authorities, namely the military, during a number of circumstances which you can read about here. You will also hear the term WADS and the nickname/callsign Bigfoot. This refers to the Western Air Defense sector of NORAD that monitors the airspace over a huge swath of territory in the United States and Canada. Based out of McChord AFB in Washington, WADS scrambles the fighters when needed and works to direct them to their targets of interest during domestic air sovereignty missions, among other responsibilities.
When the Manager In Charge is asked if he was asking for military assistance by another FAA controller, the tape goes blank. The same inquiry is heard moments later, and it goes silent again before another call begins. Although it really doesn't have much impact on the greater mystery, who asked for the F-15s to scramble and when, comes up in the next video in an exchange between the same manager and an FAA official.
In the final set of calls in the video we hear controllers talking about how the Air Force wants to set up an air patrol over Battle Ground, WA, which is a dozen miles directly north of PDX. We know the F-15s headed south initially, so it isn't clear if this call came after they initially headed in that direction or before they were even airborne and the plan changed later on for some reason. Once again Rock refers to the callsign of the alert fighters.
Finally, we get to our last and most interesting of our evidence videos. It contains the calls made after the incident occurred. Seattle Center's Manager In Charge of Operations tries to figure out what happened exactly. In doing so he talks once again with Seattle Center and the trio of airline pilots that spotted the craft visually and has some very interesting conversations with the FAA's Air Traffic Organization Security office and the agency's Safety and Quality Assurance Group.
First we hear about the big question as to who requested the scramble, as according to the call, it has to come from FAA headquarters. The manager floats the idea, in retrospect, of having the airliners keep a visual on the craft instead of allowing them to descending into PDX, at least until the F-15s show up, but the FAA official swats that down as they didn't know what the aircraft was, if they are equipped with anything or its intentions. She reiterates that getting the military involved was a good idea but that it should have come from FAA headquarters over the DEN. The manager reminds her again that he doesn't know who requested military assistance and that Oakland Center told him to call WADS initially.
Next we hear from Oakland Center again, at first discussing who ordered the scramble, but then the conversation goes into talking about what actually happened. Both agree that there was definitely something out there with the Oakland Center controller saying the aircraft first appeared going southbound at high speed before executing an abrupt maneuver and then took off northbound. Even figuring out how to report the encounter seems totally foreign to both higher ranking controllers, with one stating:
I have a feeling someone is going to go through this with a fine tooth comb.
Then we get into the pilot interviews over the phone, with the manager's intention being for each crew to write up a report detailing their individual perspective of the incident. During the call with United 612 there are some odd dropped moments, but the pilot describes the encounter, stating that he was too far away to make out the type. The next call, with Alaska Airlines 525, also doesn't reveal much as the crew says they never were able to see it, but the crew of Skywest 3478 did, although he didn't have much to add.
The call with the pilot of Southwest 4712 was by far the most interesting. He immediately notes how strange the encounter was and how he has never seen an incident like it in nearly 30 years of flying jets. The pilot noted:
If it was like a Lear, private jet, type airframe I probably would not have seen it this clear. This was a white airplane and it was big. And it was moving at a clip too, because we were keeping pace with it, it was probably moving faster than we were. It was a larger aircraft yeah. He also said they watched the object from Northern California all the way to their descent into Portland.
The manager's final call, was with the FAA's Quality Assurance Group, who is taken by surprise by the details surrounding the event, and especially with the fact that nobody still knew what the aircraft was or where it ended up.
Wow that's weird is the operative quote by the FAA official, which is insightful to say the least as these people deal with unique incidents that occur in American airspace on a daily basis. The manager agreed with the sentiment and noted that it wasn't some small aircraft and it was moving fast, outpacing a 737 cruising nearby. The official also says that the incident should be classified as potentially significant on reporting documents. She even said that this was a weird enough thing that there is not a set procedure. It's not often we hear about an unknown guy up at that altitude.
Collectively these materials give us incredible insight not only into this incident, but also into how such an event is actually handled in real time by those who are responsible for the safety of those in the air and those on ground below. What they don't offer is any sort of an explanation for what happened on that fall evening. But really, the fact that all those involved, from air traffic controllers, to Air Force radar operators, to airline pilots, and even special FAA officials tasked with responding to all types of out of the ordinary incidents that occur in the sky on a daily basis seem just as puzzled with this event as we are makes the story all that much more intriguing.
Above all else, this new evidence underscores just how rare these events actually are, especially ones that include multiple sightings, the use of multiple sensors, the involvement of various agencies including the military, and some of the most capable air-to-air fighters in the world. And after recent reports unmasking how the Pentagon remains highly interested in encounters just like this one, it holds even more weight than it did three months ago.