The Nightline UFO Video: No Longer a Question Mark

by Bruce Maccabee

The spring of 1996 was characterized by, among other things, the "run up" to the opening of the "blockbuster" UFO movie, INDEPENDENCE DAY. It was in this context that I received a late June phone from Jay LaMonica, the producer of ABC's "Nightline" show which was hosted by well-known newsman and commentator Ted Koppel. He called to tell me that he had a video of some strange lights that had been recorded by a special "GEODS" telescope system on Mt. Haleakala which is on the Island of Maui in Hawaii. He wondered if I would be willing to analyze it. He said there were three bright lights which crossed the field of view and that initially it was thought these were lights on an airplane, but then the people who first saw the video noticed that star images passed between the lights without blinking so they thought that perhaps it wasn't a plane after all. Sometime, he didn't say when, after the video was first seen in early December, 1993, someone, he wouldn't say who, had passed along a copy of the unclassified video to ABC.

Jay went on to say that Nightline was going to do a show on UFOs and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life). (I immediately assumed that this was to be a "tie-in" with the opening of the movie.) He wondered if I would be willing to appear in the show. I said "sure" and "when can I see the video," or words to that effect. He responded that I couldn't see the video until the taping of my segment because he wanted to get my reaction to seeing the video for the first time. I was a bit irked at that because I knew he would be asking me to base a conclusion on "instantaneous analysis," hardly a scientific way to approach the situation. Since I couldn't see the video I asked him for as many details as he knew. He did not know much. He said it took several seconds for the lights to cross the field of view which he thought was about 2 degrees. He also said that the telescope was pointed at or near the horizon. I asked for the name of a person to call so I could learn more details, but he wouldn't give me a name. I therefore asked him to recontact his source and find out everything he could about the telescope and where it was pointed.

We had some difficulty in setting up the exact date and time for the interview. In subsequent conversations, as we tried to specify the interview date, Jay told me that he had contacted someone involved with the project which took the video. He now believed that the field of view was probably 5 1/2 degrees rather than the originally mentioned value of 2 degrees, but he couldn't be certain because there are several telescopes on Maui and he didn't know which one had taken the video.

The big day came over a week later, on July 11, 1996. I arrived at the ABC studio in Washington. D.C. equipped with a ruler, a calculator and a pad of paper. Although I had only sparse information I was determined to do the best analysis I could under the circumstances. From what Jay had told me I knew I would be able to estimate the angular velocity and angular spacing of the lights. Knowledge of these angular quantities might allow me to reject, or at least set limits on, the various potential explanations.

As soon as the camera crew set up the TV monitor and video machine I began running the video over and over. Text at the beginning of the video stated that it was taken by a GEODS telescope during the year 1993 on day 335 at 032444Z (335th day of the year, December 1, at Greenwich Mean Time of 3:22:24 AM which corresponds to 5:22:24 PM, November 30 in Hawaii).

I determined that it took almost exactly 3 seconds for the lights to cross the FOV (assumed to be 5.5 deg), from left to right, in a straight line tilted slightly upward. This corresponded to an angular rate of 1.83 degrees/sec or 0.032 rad/sec. (Note: 1 degree = 0.0174 radians or 0.0174 rad. Multiply the angle in rad or the angular rate in rad/sec by the distance to get size or speed as measured perpendicular to the line of sight.) There were three lights, equally spaced and traveling in parallel with the central light a bit ahead of the lights above and below. I measured the length of the image of each bright light and found it corresponded to an angular size of about 0.005 rad while the angular spacing between the upper and lower lights was about 0.01 rad. Close to the central bright light were two much fainter lights, one above and one below. Hence there were a total of five lights (3 strong, 2 weak) traveling through the FOV of the telescope. If I had known the distance to the lights I could have calculated the actual size and velocity (perpendicular to the line of sight) from the measurements I had made. Unfortunately there was no way to determine the distance from the available information.

After watching the video several times and thinking about it I gained the distinct impression that if the information I had been given were correct (5.5 degree FOV; telescope pointed at or close to the horizon), then both the airplane and meteor hypotheses had problems. The images of the lights were spaced too far apart to be from an airplane near the horizon unless it was extremely close to the telescope and had a very large wingspan, but in this case it would also be traveling very slowly. On the other hand, if the images were meteors the angular speed was too low unless they were so far away that they might be outside the sensible atmosphere, in which case they wouldn't glow.

Whether either of these potential explanations was correct, or if neither was, depended upon the actual angle of elevation of the telescope: was it pointed exactly at the horizon? Was it pointed 5 or 10 degrees or more above the horizon? Unfortunately I didn't learn the answer to this important question until many weeks later.

Dr. Michael Guillen, the science correspondent for ABC TV, was the interviewer. The first thing I said to him after being introduced and well before the cameras were rolling, was "This is the worst investigation I have ever done." I said that because I had never before made a public statement about a potential UFO case without first carrying out an investigation that at least included talking to the witnesses. (I realized that no one had actually seen the objects at the time of the taping since the video had been recorded automatically, but I knew that someone associated with the project could answer the technical questions.) I then let Michael wait a bit while I did some calculations of angular sizes and speeds. At the bottom of my note pad I wrote "Distance not actually known, nor (angular) elevation of camera (telescope). Hence can do no more than make educated guesses."

Michael spent 30 minutes or more trying to get me to identify the lights. We played the video over and over as we both watched. The failure of one star image in particular to disappear when it passed between the upper and middle bright lights (where the wing of an aircraft would block the star) was obvious to both of us, as it had been to Jay. This seemed to be strong evidence that the lights were not connected by an opaque body, namely, the wing of an airplane. However, I pointed out that we couldn't be certain because the failure of the star image to dim very briefly might have been some artifact of the camera electronics or the recording mechanism about which we knew next to nothing. As an example of the possible effect of the camera operation on the recording of a star that is momentarily blocked by a wing, imagine a 10 ft wide wing and a wing speed of 300 mph which is 440 ft/sec. The star image could be blocked by the wing for about 10/440 = 0.023 sec. The typical camera frame rate is 0.03 sec per frame. Thus the blockage would occur during one frame time which was too short to be observed under the circumstances - viewing on a (analogue) TV monitor with electronic noise and "twinkling" of the star causing brightness fluctuations at all times.

Michael told me that he had shown the video to Dr. Robert Nathan, formerly of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a long-time UFO analyst with whom I have worked on UFO photos and videos during the 1970's and 1980's. Jay and Michael had been rather surprised when Robert had immediately identified the lights as meteors without any analysis other than viewing the video. I told Michael I was suspicious of the meteor explanation (for the reason given above), but that I could not be sure whether or not it was correct without knowing the angular elevation of the telescope. Furthermore, I doubted that a meteor which had broken into three parts before entering the FOV would have three nearly equally sized pieces that could travel in parallel at exactly the same rate and could travel without creating a trail of burning particles.

For many minutes he seemed be "browbeating" me into making some positive identification. It seemed to me that he wanted me to say I thought it was a real UFO or Extraterrestrial Craft. However, I refused such an identification and repeatedly stated that more investigation was needed before any answer was to be proposed. Finally, Michael asked me how I ranked the video in terms of credibility and strangeness and I said that the video had a high degree of both but that it would have to remain a big question mark. At least I would not provide any speculative explanation.

After I left the ABC TV station I began the real investigation. I hoped to have a definite answer before the video was shown nationally on Nightline. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

After a more careful theoretical analysis I was able to put more specific restrictions on the potential explanations. It became apparent that if the telescope were within 10 degrees of the horizon the meteor hypothesis could explain the angular velocity, although it still couldn't explain the constant speed along parallel tracks without any sign of a meteor trail. Similarly, if the telescope were within 10 degrees of the horizon the airplane hypothesis was unlikely because the angular size and angular speed would only be consistent with a very large aircraft (well over 100 ft wingspan) flying at a very low speed (100 mph or lower) at a short distance from the telescope (a mile or less). The upshot of this analysis was that if the telescope were pointed close to the horizon the suggested explanations were severely strained if not simply unacceptable. Hence the possibility that one -- or three -- or five -- UFOs were involved had to be considered. It all depended upon the angular elevation of the telescope, which I did not know and which I was not able to learn before Nightline showed the video on July 16, 1996.

Because I had to locate the telescope operators by asking for help from other people, it took well over a month to get the "real data." The crucial information turned out to be far different from what I had been led to believe. I had been told by LaMonica that the angular elevation was low, maybe several degrees ("near the horizon"). However, I learned from the operators that the actual angular elevation was much greater and, in fact, was nearly straight up (85 degrees). I also learned that the telescope was about 10,000 ft above mean sea level (AMSL).

This put a whole new light on the matter. It took me all of five minutes (or less) to determine that under this circumstance the lights could be on an aircraft of some nominal wingspan traveling at several hundred mph at a reasonable cruising altitude above the telescope. In fact, any combination of wingspan, W in ft, speed S in ft/sec and height H in ft AMSL which obeys the relations S/(H-10,000) = 0.032 rad/sec and W/[H-10,000] = 0.01 rad would work. (Note: since the telescope is at 10,000 ft AMSL, the assumed H should be no lower than, say, 11,000 ft. Also, the assumed H should be no greater than 45,000 ft which is an upper altitude for typical aircraft). For example, if H = 20,000 ft AMSL the wingspan could be W = 0.01 x (20,000 - 10,000) = 100 ft and the speed could be S = 0.032 (20,000 - 10,000) = 320 ft/sec or 220 mph. Similarly, the video would be consistent with a plane having a wingspan of W = 40 ft and a speed of S = 128 ft/sec = 87 mph providing it were flying only about 4,000 ft above the telescope at H = 14,000 ft AMSL. Naturally there are many (an infinite) number of possible combinations of W, S and H that would satisfy the requirements of the video.

The telescope operators told me that, upon seeing the video, they had immediately suspected that it was an airplane, but then they questioned that explanation because they rarely, if ever, see an airplane overflying the telescope installation. One of the men called the FAA to find out if there was any record of an airplane scheduled to fly over Mt. Haleakala at the time of the video. He was told there was no such record (no air route passes over the mountain). Of course, an aircraft could have flown over the mountain without the FAA having a record of its exact flight path.

One aspect of the imagery seemed to directly contradict the airplane hypothesis: at one time a star image appears to pass "through" the space between the bright central lights and the upper "wing" light. This had been pointed out to me by LaMonica as evidence against the aircraft hypothesis because one would expect the star to be momentarily blocked by a solid wing. When I first saw the video I wondered whether or not that could be explained as an artifact of the electronics. Subsequently I learned from the telescope operators that the nature of the image forming and capturing electronics (RCA ISIT microchannel plate and image scan device -- like a vidicon -- plus a scan converter to make an ordinary VHS video) could have failed to record a brief blockage of the starlight, that should have resulted in a momentary "turning off" of the star image, because of time delay (integration time) in the processing devices.


A UFO is as a UFO does. If a UFO does nothing that an IFO (identified flying object) could not do, then there is no reason to call it a UFO. In this case it appears that an airplane would be consistent with the observational evidence. Although I can not prove there was an airplane flying over the telescope, there is no reason to believe that an airplane could not have done so. Since there is no evidence in the video which conclusively contradicts the airplane hypothesis there is no good reason to claim that the lights were something else. Weeks after the show I reported to LaMonica that the lights were probably on an airplane. So far as I know, this information was never conveyed to the audience of Nightline.

An example of the opposite situation, where an unidentified object does something a conventional object could not do under the conditions of observation, is recorded in a daylight video taken July 21, 1995 in Gulf Breeze, Florida. This video shows an oddly shaped object, nearly rectangular in outline and brownish colored, of roughly 30 ft width, looking nothing like an airplane or a helicopter or a balloon/blimp, which reverses its direction of travel from roughly 500 mph rightward to about the same speed leftward (a 1,000 mph velocity change) in about 1/3 of a second (over 100 g's of acceleration!). There is no man-made or naturally occurring object in the sky which can accomplish such a feat under the conditions of this observation. Hence that object remains a true UFO.

For a commentary on the Nightline show, with an indirect reference to the "UFO" video, see

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