On November 7, 2006, at least 12 United Airlines personnel and potentially hundreds of other witnesses noticed a dark gray metallic disk hovering above United Airlines Gate C17 at Chicago O’Hare airport. The object was estimated to be about 22 feet in diameter, and hovered approximately 1500 feet off the ground below a heavy cloud cover for at least 20 minutes before propelling upwards, punching a hole through the cloud. Some witnesses also said the object was spinning. Among the witnesses were managers, runway crew, and airline pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported that no air traffic controllers saw the object and that it never showed up on radar, though subsequent FOIA requests revealed this may not have been true.¹
The significance of the case lies principally in its aftermath: media coverage of the event exploded across local, national, and international news, and the FAA came under scrutiny for initially denying the existence of any witness reports from airline personnel. When they were later forced to admit that reports did exist, they still refused to investigate them.² The FAA’s response to the event is reflective of a forty-year legacy of U.S. government agencies shielding UFO activity and investigations from the public domain, and the stigma that witnesses may face when coming forward with testimony.
NARCAP, an independent UFO investigation group, also conducted their own research into the O’Hare incident. A team of NASA scientists, pilots, meteorologists, and aerospace engineers spent 5 months preparing a 154 page report confirming the presence of a physical object over O’Hare. The report, co-authored by NARCAP’s founder Dr. Richard Haines, concluded that the object’s maneuvers could not be explained by conventional means, and advised the FAA to launch their own investigation.³
Timeline & Witness Testimonies
An FAA inbound ground controller remarked about the UAP at about 3:58:09pm to Gateway Flight 5668 to “...use caution for the, ah, UFO.” This was the first official mention of a UFO by the FAA.
Afterward, the earliest known witness was a ramp mechanic in the midst of moving Flight 446 from its nose-in position as it prepared for departure on the runway. At about 4:30pm, he said that “he was compelled to look straight up for some reason and was startled to see the craft hovering silently.” He radioed his supervisors that he was looking at an object almost directly above his location at Gate C17; it appeared to be perfectly round and was about the size of a U.S. quarter held at arm's length. The object seemed to be metallic, and the witness believed it was spinning. The witness also radioed the United Airlines Zone 5 control coordinator and then informed the cockpit crew of Flight UA446. One or both of the crew then opened their side windows and looked up at the UAP, although this cannot be confirmed.
The next two known witnesses were both United Airline aviation mechanics that were taxiing an empty commercial jet airplane. One estimated that the object was hovering about 100 to 200 feet beneath the clouds. As for its appearance, the witness stated that the object appeared to be a stationary oval. It never changed brightness, color, or shape at any time during his 30 to 60-second long viewing period. He also offered that the actions of the UAP seemed to be “very deliberate, given the weather conditions and the airport operations at the time.”
Another anonymous airline employee came forward in an audio interview with Peter Davenport of National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) to talk about his experience. He was radioed by one of the Flight 446 pilots about the object, and looked up to see a “grey circular object that was hovering over the terminal complex…at least 700 feet above the ground.”⁴
It was holding very steady; maybe because I was busy with the task at hand and moving, myself, I didn’t notice any circular movements…what appeared though…strange…at the top of the craft was a very clear outline of a dark grey material, and around the edges and the bottom of it was hazy…like you were looking through heat reflections like when you’re driving down a road in the desert...there was no noticeable lights of any kind, either reflected or part of the object…It takes about 20 minutes to move from one side of the airport to the..other..so by the time we got to..the other end of the airport…there was a hole in the overcast, like someone had punched a whole in the clouds...unfortunately, my partner is not as forthcoming...he received a fair amount of ridicule..I know what I saw and know that a tremendous amount of people saw it that day. I would say that it lasted anywhere from 20 minutes from the first radio call we received to when we looked up again once we had parked our aircraft…numerous pilots made comments about it..I want to say that the guy who was handling inbound ground at that time, who were talking to, had to have seen it.-
Estimates regarding the altitude of the object vary, ranging anywhere from 500 to 1700 feet above ground. Two of the witnesses who were directly beneath the object gave the lowest estimates and were in the poorest position to make a judgment, while other witnesses who were able to see the object from a greater distance (to scale with the rest of the landscape and at an oblique angle) gave higher estimates.
Reports on the timing of the object’s appearance and disappearance also vary. The earliest known witness thought that the object was round and “rotating pretty fast.” He also estimated the object shot off into the clouds “about two minutes after his initial sighting,” at about 4:32pm. Other witnesses that saw the object from a cockpit, however, estimated that the object had departed at 4:18pm. Without definitive data, it is assumed that the UAP departed at about 4:34pm.³
There was little public information about the incident until transportation and aviation journalist Jon Hilkevitch published an article about the events for the Chicago Tribune two months later. The online version of the story became the most-viewed article in the history of the Chicago Tribune website, with a million hits in just a week. Other news outlets picked up the story and Hilkevitch began making appearances on CNN, MSNBC, national and local radio stations, and international news networks including Australia, Ireland, and stations all over Europe.²
“Weather Phenomenon” Explanation
Within several days of the incident, FAA spokeswoman, Elizabeth Isham Cory, said that none of the tower controllers saw the object and “a preliminary check of radar found nothing out of the ordinary,” attributing the sighting to a “weather phenomenon.”
Our theory on this is that it was a weather phenomenon. That night was a perfect atmospheric condition in terms of low cloud ceiling and a lot of airport lights. When the lights shine up into the clouds, sometimes you see funny things. That’s our take on it.³-
Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Adler Planetarium, agreed, saying that the weather conditions at O’Hare that day were right for a “hole-punch cloud.”
It’s something that occurs when a propeller or jet airplane passes through when you have uniform cloud cover and the temperature is right near the freezing point,” he explained. “They make liquid water droplets freeze and a hazy disc of ice crystals descends from a hole, and it looks like a perfect hole punched in the cloud.-
This still left many unconvinced. Witnesses reported seeing the disc several minutes before it ascended upwards, leaving a hole in the clouds. These clouds only form in below-freezing temperatures, whereas the air temperature at the altitude of the sighting was 53 degrees F, much too warm for the hole-punch to occur. Neither freezing conditions, raindrops, nor falling ice crystals were present at the time and location. Furthermore, the object or phenomenon observed would have to have been something objectively and externally real to create the “hole-in-cloud” effect. It cannot be explained by either conventional weather phenomena or conventional aerospace craft.
United Airlines/FAA Denial & Tape Leak
United Airlines allegedly began its own internal safety review of this incident the day after it occurred but, sometime before November 10th, decided against a full investigation.
United Airlines spokeswoman, Megan McCarthy, told Hilkevitch in December 2006 that “there’s nothing in the duty manager log, which is used to report unusual incidents. I checked around. There’s no record of anything.” A NARCAP-initiated FOIA request for all tower logs and communications, however, showed three separate telephone inquiries from the ramp tower concerning the UAP and a written notation of one of these calls in the FAA tower’s “Daily Record of Facility Operation.”³
While the FAA initially denied having any information on the incident, Hilkevitch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that forced the agency to reverse its original position and conduct an internal FAA review of air-traffic communications tapes; they discovered a tape of the call by a United Airlines supervisor to an FAA manager in the airport tower. The tape was quickly leaked to news platforms.
On the tape, a United Airlines ramp tower employee identified as “Sue” contacted the ATC tower at 4:30pm (this time is 15 minutes earlier than the time recorded for this same call by the FAA in its Daily Record of Facility Operation) to see if they had seen a “flying disk” over gate C 17. The controllers initially laugh off the question, until Sue calls back 15 minutes later to say that several pilots have seen the disks and one has captured a photograph of it.
In the wake of the tape leak, the FAA and United Airlines continued to publicly ignore the incident. Most of the witnesses were very willing to cooperate with NARCAP until their management found out about the public’s response. United Airlines prohibited employees from discussing the incident with the media or even their coworkers. According to the 2007 Chicago Tribune article, “some of the witnesses, interviewed by the Tribune, said they are upset that neither the government nor the airline is probing the incident.”
To date, the FAA has not publicly launched an investigation into the events or made further information public. This is unusual for the agency, which investigates even the most minor incursions into restricted airspace as standard protocol. As Hilkevitch commented in a later article, FAA investigations are launched for incidents much less extraordinary than this, even including “spilled coffee pots in airplane aisles.”⁵
Witnesses nearly unanimously refused to speak to the media and remain anonymous, leaving journalists and independent researchers to speculate about pressure to keep quiet about their experiences.
Investigation of Photographs and Other Hoaxes
The alleged photograph that “Sue” refers to never surfaced, though unverified photos circulated the Internet for years following the incident. At least a dozen of these were hoaxes with signs of pixel manipulation, according to an analysis done by NARCAP’s Ted Roe. The remaining photos he analyzed appeared unmanipulated, but Roe concluded their validity could not be fully investigated due to their anonymous sources.