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 Case #7

Agoura Hills, California, USA - December 16, 1953

The prime witness in this much debated case is the famed aircraft design engineer Kelly JOHNSON. For readers not familiar with the man's curriculum vitae, here's Wikipedia's entry for Kelly JOHNSON:

Clarence Leonard 'Kelly' Johnson (February 27, 1910 - December 21, 1990) was an aircraft engineer and aeronautical innovator. As a member and first team leader of the Lockheed Skunk Works, Johnson worked for more than four decades and is said to have been an "organizing genius". He played a leading role in the design of over forty aircraft, including several that were honored with the prestigious Collier Trophy, acquiring a reputation as one of the most talented and prolific aircraft design engineers in the history of aviation. In 2003, as part of its commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, Aviation Week & Space Technology ranked Johnson 8th on its list of the top 100 "most important, most interesting, and most influential people" in the first century of aerospace.

JOHNSON spotted unidentified flying objects on two occasions, first in 1951 and again in 1953. We are interested here in the second sighting, one that was confirmed by four veteran test pilots and an aerodynamicist aboard a Lockheed airplane.

We quote from Joel CARPENTER's excellent article on the case, a shortened version of which was published in the Fall 2001 issue of International UFO Reporter.

The UFO Incident

On December 16, Johnson and his wife Althea were visiting their Lindero Ranch near Agoura, California, which was situated on a hillside facing the coast not far from Pt Mugu Naval Air Station, an aircraft and missile test facility. At about 5 PM Johnson was looking through a window at the brilliant sunset when he noticed a dark elliptical shape in the sky in the direction of Pt Mugu cape. His first thought was that it was a lenticular cloud, or possibly a smoke trail from an aircraft, but it remained stationary and unchanged for several minutes. He called for Althea to bring him his 8-power binoculars and ran outside. By that time the object had begun to move, accelerating away from him in a shallow climb in a direction opposite to the motion of the other clouds in the sky. It seemed to be very large and distant, and moving fast, but he had no real way of knowing its actual size, distance or speed.

At the same time, coincidentally, a Lockheed airplane was in the air on a test flight along the Los Angeles coastline. Constellation airframe 4301 was the prototype for a Navy Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft, the WV-2 Warning Star. The WV-2 was a large four-engine transport equipped with huge blisters housing radar antennas (a search radar unit in the belly and a height-finder in a dorsal fairing), and was designed to fly very long standing patrols far off the coasts of North America to provide long-range detection of incoming Soviet bombers. Constellation 4301 was the first of a long line of Navy WV-2s and Air Force EC-121s that would provide a vital part of the North American air defense network throughout the 1950s and '60s.

At the controls of the Warning Star were Rudy Thoren and Roy Wimmer, both highly experienced senior test pilots in the Constellation program, assisted by Joseph F. Ware, Jr, another longtime Lockheed engineering test pilot. Also in the cockpit were Charlie Grugan, another veteran company pilot, and Lockheed's Chief Aerodynamicist, Philip A Colman. It was customary for Lockheed engineers to ride aboard their planes during test flights, and Johnson himself often did so. (There are no indications that the elaborate radar systems, which required a crew of at least a dozen men, were active during the flight.)

Thoren had been recruited by Johnson from their alma mater, the aeronautical engineering school at University of Michigan, and had been Chief of Flight Test for Lockheed since 1946, in charge of all the company's test pilots. Colman was a Cal Tech graduate who had made valuable contributions to the P-38 program, and who would soon be tasked by Johnson with designing the wings for the new CL-282 recon plane. All of the crewmen were top representatives of their fields, having flown for the company for years in development programs of a variety of sophisticated aircraft.

The exact purpose of the test flight is not detailed in the sighting reports, but such flights typically involved calibration of airspeed vs engine power settings at various altitudes, and therefore the crewmen were very conscious of the height of the aircraft. Altitude recording instruments were carried on board.

Though Wimmer was technically the pilot in command, he had turned the controls over to Thoren and was maintaining a watch for other air traffic as Thoren conducted his tests. They had turned from a southeast heading to west, just off the coast of Long Beach, when, at 4:58 PM, Wimmer noticed a dark shape ahead at about their altitude of 14,000 feet. After watching it for a few moments and noting that it was not moving, he jokingly pointed it out to Thoren, saying "Look out, there's a flying saucer." Thoren turned the WV-2 a bit to the right to head toward the object. The other men saw the object too and watched it for a few minutes with a growing sense of curiosity. It appeared to be a very large aircraft of some type, but as it remained stationary and unchanged in shape over at least a five minute period, they became more and more intrigued. Thoren finally diverted from his course and headed directly at it. They flew toward it at about 225 mph for some time without appearing to gain on it at all. Then Wimmer, who was less occupied with piloting tasks and was able to keep a constant watch on the object, commented that it seemed to be disappearing. Within a few moments it appeared to head west directly away from them at high speed, remaining dark and solid-looking the entire time as it dwindled to a tiny dot. They all felt that it was a large object at a considerable distance, and compared its size to the largest types of transport or bomber aircraft. The men later reported that they thought little more of the incident at the time due to their preoccupation with completing the test mission, but Thoren was intrigued enough that upon returning home that evening he told his family about the sighting and sketched the object.

The object as sketched by Kelly JOHNSON

The object as sketched by Kelly JOHNSON.

The following day, Kelly Johnson had returned to work and was discussing the WV-2 test flight with Thoren, who was still ruminating on the incident. A bit worried that Johnson would ridicule him, the pilot casually mentioned the sighting. Thoren was surprised when Johnson excitedly interrupted him and described his own sighting in detail. Both concluded that all the witnesses had been viewing the same object at the same time. Over the course of the next few weeks each of the pilots wrote a detailed personal account of the case, probably at Johnson's urging, and the Chief Engineer, in his typical meticulous style, assembled them into a file (Lockheed file LAC/149536) and drafted a personal cover letter addressed to the "Air Force Investigation Group on Flying Saucers" at Wright Field. Then, tough and combative as he was, Johnson hesitated to send the report. After all, he was hoping to get a foot in the door of the Air Force's new covert strategic reconnaissance aircraft competition and was very concerned that a UFO report might jeopardize his credibility.

Comment - A detailed study by Martin SHOUGH to be published at contains a reconstruction of the observer locations and lines of sight, establishing the length of the baseline for the synchronous triangulated sightings by the JOHNSONS and the Lockheed WV-2 crew. The separation of the two ends of this baseline varies around a figure of 40 miles (64 km) ± ~10%. Error brackets on the JOHNSONS' sighting position are in the order of 100 m and are negligible, and the bearing is known with confidence to within a few degrees. Brackets on the WV-2 position set by general geographical constraints in the observer accounts allow some margin for error around the best-fit position (based on fixed take-off and landing times and the speed and climb performance of the WV-2), but it is estimated that the maximum uncertainty in the average bearing angle from the WV-2 is no more than ± 10°, the likely uncertainty being less than half this figure. Therefore the approximate 40° angle subtended at the point of intersection of the two lines of sight is at least four times the likely maximum uncertainty.

Martin SHOUGH's reconstruction of the possible WV-2 flight path, sighting positions and bearings.

Martin SHOUGH's reconstruction of the possible WV-2 flight path, sighting positions and bearings. Move cursor over image to enlarge.

This is a very significant result which appears to rule out a mirage, even though the disappearance of the object by dwindling along the line of sight for both sets of observers is very suggestive of an optical explanation. The elevation angle is also a problem for a mirage theory. For the WV-2 observers the object appeared a little above their own altitude but close enough (given the absence of any exact callibration) to the astronomical horizon (AH) where a mirage should appear. For the JOHNSONS, on the other hand, the mountain horizon in the sighting direction lies at an elevation of more than 2° above the observers' AH, which dictates that the object above the mountains simply must have appeared several degrees above the AH, much too large an angle for superior mirage in ordinary circumstances.

These results invite us to take seriously the 40° bearing triangulation, which implies a target "object" at a position over the sea off Point Mugu in the vicinity of Anacapa Island - a position consistent with the subjective impression reported by each observer group. But it is hard to imagine what such an object could be, other than an extremely dense, compact, isolated cloud - which observers at both locations considered and then rejected after careful inspection. And it is difficult to see how such a cloud (in the order of hundreds of feet across to satisfy the angular subtense) could dissipate in such an unusual fashion - by dwindling in size whilst retaining shape, density and sharpness of edge - and with such speed, vanishing in seconds.

A speculative but ingenious scenario by US researcher Brad SPARKS involves a rapidly-moving real object on a curving or dog-leg course. After initially being observed from Agoura and from the WV-2 for a few minutes with no apparent motion, the first movement is seen only by the WV-2 crew as a recession in the line of sight, occurring at the time when JOHNSON breaks off his observation to go outside with binoculars. As the object dwindles below naked-eye visibility for the WV-2 observers it veers away to the west, at which time it is picked up again by JOHNSON in Agoura who is able to follow this second leg of rapid recession with the aid of 8x binoculars.

Could we rescue a quasi-optical explanation if the triangulated "object" was the location of some extraordinary pocket or bubble of abnormal refractivity, acting like a localised atmospheric lens with similar optical properties at widely divergent angles? This is difficult to support, for the refractive index gradients that would be necessary to bend light rays through several degrees over a short path length of hundreds of feet are inconceivable in the free atmosphere, corresponding to hundreds of degrees C of temperature difference, and what could explain the coherence of such an extraordinary unstable thermal structure for at least several minutes? Even then it is difficult to conceive of this 'lens' acting as a source of mirage images, for what could the dark or black target or targets at great distance have been that were available on both these divergent lines of sight simultaneously?

The authors look forward to receiving additional reports and/or comments which may help assess the soundness of the mirage theory for this particular type of UAP sightings (to contact us, see our e-mail address on the contact page).