The following article
was published in “Naval History Magazine”.
(The magazine attracts many high ranking current and former military
officers to it's reading ranks, and is well known for it's seriousness
regarding naval military history.)
by Commander Edward P. Stafford, US Navy (Retired)
Half a century ago, three Navy aviators saw something high above
their Greenland base that baffled them. It was August 1952. I was
officer in charge of a detachment of three Navy patrol planes operating
out of the new US air base at Thule, in northwest Greenland, some 80
miles from the North Pole. The primary mission assigned our four engine,
World War II Privateers was "ice recon- naissance." That meant flying
out over the Kennedy Channel, Smith Sound, Baffin Bay, and the Davis
Strait and plotting the location of the pack ice and large bergs. That
data was relayed to the ships that each summer re-supplied the chain of
arctic radar stations known as the DEW (distant early warning) line.
Our secondary job, not to interfere with ice reconnaissance , was to
support a group of scientists conducting cosmic ray research. About once
a week, when weather conditions were right, they sent up a huge,
translucent "Skyhook" bal- loon with a package of sensitive photographic
plates sus- pended under it. The balloons would drift downwind at an
altitude of 90,000-100,000 feet, where the atmosphere (spun thinner near
the poles by the rotation of the earth) was sufficiently attenuated to
permit the cosmic rays to make their telltale traces on the photographic
plates. When the plates had been exposed for a few hours, the scientists
would send a radio signal to the balloon, exploding a small charge,
cutting the plates loose, and returning them to earth under a large,
bright red parachute.
Our job was to fly above any overcast, keep the high balloons in
sight, and report the landing location of the parachuted plates for
recovery by helicopter. The high-flying gas bags were equipped by low
power, low frequency radio transmitters to which we would tune our radio
compasses so their needles always pointed toward the balloons. These
were easy flights, always in good weather and always at an altitude
safely above the tall, cloud-shrouded bergs and coastal rocks we often
had to dodge on ice patrol. Each of us had two or three of those "milk
runs" while deployed to Thule, and we rather enjoyed the change of
tactics and routine, as well as the
virtuous feeling that we were helping to advance the cause of
science. This is why I was surprised to find one of the other plane
commanders as tense and pale on return from a balloon chase as though it
had been a hairy combat mission or a close encounter with a berg or a
mountaintop. Lt. John Callahan was a salty, steady professional pilot,
so I knew when I saw him walking in from his plane that something
serious had happened on that flight.
"What the hell's the matter John?" I asked him. "You look as if you'd
just survived a midair!"
"Ed, you're not going to be lieve it. I'm not even sure I do...and I
SAW it. And so did O'Flaherty and Merchant. At least most of it. And I
don't think they believe it either."
I followed John into the line shack where he wrote up some minor
gripes on his airplane, then into our little ready room where we poured
ourselves coffees and sat down. John was not acting at all like the
Callahan I knew. Although he was an experienced and highly competent
naval aviator, John Callahan's normal manner
was outgoing and cheerful, even jovial, with lots of smiles and
laughter and banter...even after a low-level hurricane penetration or a
long patrol in instrument weather. Not this day. Now he was deadly
serious and obviously shaken. The last time I had seen a man like this
was in wartime.
Here is John Callahan's story:
He was flying at 10,000 feet in the clear with the balloon in sight
high above and the radio compass needle locked on to the balloon's
transmitter. Through the one set of binoculars carried in each aircraft,
he and his co-pilot, Lt. (jg) Bill O'Fla-
herty, occasionally inspected the balloon and its instrument package,
trailing beneath like the tail of a kite. Everything looked normal for
most of the flight. Then, on a routine check with the binoculars, John
found something very ab- normal about the balloon and its payload. He
looked for a long time and then
passed the glasses to O'Flaherty.
"Take a look at our target," he told the young officer, "and tell me
what you see." O'Flaherty looked, lowered the glasses and glanced
sharply at John, then looked again. "Well?" "Jesus Christ, John there
are three bright silver discs attached to that instrument pod! They
weren't there the last time I looked.
Where the hell did they come from?"
Callahan took the glasses back and looked again. They were still
there exactly as the copilot had described, three shining, saucer-shaped
metallic objects clustered on the hanging trail of the balloon just
above the black dot of the science pack- age. On the intercom Callahan
called the plane captain to the cockpit and handed him the binoculars.
"Take a look Merchant. What do you think?" The captain's reaction was
the same as the co-pilot's. "What the hell are they? Where did they come
Callahan took the glasses back and studied the strange objects for
several minutes while O'Flaherty maneuvered the Privateer to keep the
target in sight. Suddenly Callahan sucked in his breath and held it.
What he was seeing could not be happening. The three objects had
detached themselves from the tail of the
balloon and formed up into a compact vee. As Callahan watched
incredulously, they executed what looked at that dis- tance like a
vertical bank to the left and accelerated to a blinding speed that took
them out of sight, climbing in about three seconds. Callahan handed the
glasses back to O'Flaherty. "They're gone," he said slowly, "CLIMBING
from 90,000 feet. Never saw anything turn so tight or move so fast."
Back in the ready room after the instrument pod had landed and its
position had be reported, this was the aspect of the phenomenon that
most affected Callahan.
"Jesus, Ed," he told me, "from the angle of the sky those things
passed through in the three seconds they were in sight, at that
distance, they must have been going tens of thousands of miles an hour.
They must have pulled a hundred Gs in that turn. And what the hell
climbs out, ACCELERATING from 90,000 feet?"
John sat down that day, while it was still clear in his head, and
wrote a full report of the incident. It went through the chain of
command to the Office of Naval Intelligence. A report was also made to
the Air Force authorities at Thule. There never has been an explanation,
nor even an acknowledgment of the report. The phenomenon exists today
only in the memory of John C. Callahan, his co-pilot, his plane captain,
and I, to whom it was told so vividly when it was fresh.
(Commander Stafford is the author of The Big E (1962) and Subchaser
(1988) both published by the Naval Institute.)
UFO (dark red in colour) photographed
by the pilot of a USAF B-47 Stratojet at 13,000 ft. over Utah in 1966.