Chiles-Whitted UFO Encounter

July 1948
A pilot and copilot view from a Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
A pilot and copilot view from a Douglas DC-3 aircraft.

In the summer of 1948, two pilots, a passenger and a person on the ground reported seeing a "cigar shaped" object that had windows and emitted flames, and moved at a high rate of speed in the night sky. This early sighting was widely reported in newspapers.

Flight 576

Early in the morning of July 24, 1948, two commercial pilots for Eastern Airlines flight 576 witnessed an object with a "glowing streak" that appeared to be moving directly at their DC-3. Flying at 150 knots at 5,000 feet, the captain, Clarence Shipe Chiles, banked the plane to the left to avoid a collision. At the same time, the object turned to its left and seemingly veered away from the DC-3.

First Officer John B. Whitted observed the object from the right side cockpit window, and later reported that it was about 500 feet higher and about a half mile away from their plane. He described a ship approximately 100 feet long, cigar-shaped, with flames coming out of its tail, with two rows of windows. The object then climbed into a nearby cloud and disappeared from view.

In the words of Clarence Chiles, "It was a clear moonlight [sic] night with the visibility excellent; therefore, we were able to view the ship as it passed for a period of around ten seconds. It was clear there were no wings present, that it was powered by some jet or other type of power shooting flame from the rear some fifty feet. There were two rows of windows, which indicated an upper and lower deck, from inside those windows a very bright light was glowing. Underneath the ship there was a blue glow of light."

Statement of Captain Clarence S. Chiles from August 3, 1948.
Statement of Captain Clarence S. Chiles from August 3, 1948.
First Officer and co-pilot John Whitted reported that he/they sighted a "strange object coming toward us at a high rate of speed ... I assumed that it was a jet type airplane of the Army or Navy, but as it came nearer, I could see that it was much larger than any Army or Navy jet that I have ever seen or read about ... The object was cigar shaped and seemed to be about a hundred feet in length. The fuselage appeared to be about three times the circumference of a B-29 fuselage. It had two rows of windows, an upper and a lower ... I estimate that we watched the object at least 5 seconds and not more than 10 seconds. We heard no noise, nor did we feel any turbulence from the object."

This incident is notable because it is one of the earliest, widely reported UFO incidents in the U.S., and the primary witnesses were respected ex-military pilots. Captain Clarence Chiles was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Force who had over 8,500 flying hours logged, many of which were spent flying transport planes during World War II. John Whitted was also a pilot during World War II, with experience flying B-29s.

Sketch of object witnessed by pilot Chiles, made at an Atlanta hotel on July 26.
Sketch of object witnessed by pilot Chiles, made at an Atlanta hotel on July 26.
Sketch of object witnessed by First Officer and Co-pilot Whitted, made at an Atlanta hotel on July 26.
Sketch of object witnessed by First Officer and Co-pilot Whitted, made at an Atlanta hotel on July 26.

Two Other Witnesses

Two other witnesses are known to have seen this unidentified flying object - a flight 576 passenger named Clarence McKelvie, and a man named Walter Massey who worked at a nearby Air Force base.

After Chiles and Whitted observed the streaking object, Chiles left the cockpit and entered the passenger area to see if any of the passengers were awake and witnessed what they had seen. One passenger, Clarence McKelvie was awake at the time and claimed that he saw a "strange, eerie streak" of fire.

Walter Massey, who worked as part of a ground crew at an Air Force Base nearby, subsequently reported to Air Force investigators that he saw an object of similar description about an hour before the Chiles-Whitted encounter.

Conflicting Conclusions

This incident was widely reported the next day in newspapers across the U.S. Chiles and Whitted submitted a report of what they witnessed to the United States Air Force, and soon after were interviewed by members of Project Sign, an early group created by the Air Force to research UFO reports. An initial investigation by Project Sign members produced a top secret "Estimate of the Situation" report, which was then given to Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt S. Vandenberg. The assessment: that the UFOs were not from planet Earth.

General Vandenberg did not receive this report positively, and immediately rejected it. After additional analysis by J. Allen Hynek, Donald Menzel, Philip Klass and others, the USAF concluded in 1959 that the UFO was a fireball-type meteor. At least one Project Sign officer disagreed with this and recommended that the object be labeled "unidentified." After interviewing Chiles and Witted in the 1960s, James E. McDonald concluded that the object they witnessed was not a meteor.

Some speculation that the pilot description, with the huge two deck design, matched the Lockheed R6V Constitution plane.


Official Explanation

A fireball-type meteor. This opinion was developed by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer and University professor acting as a scientific consultant to Project Blue Book. Hynek thought the pilots' descriptions and sketches of the "trail" the object left behind it matched the characteristics of a meteor.

Counter Argument

Professor James E. McDonald claimed it was not a meteor after interviewing Chiles & Whitted in the 1960s. Jacques Vallee reached the same conclusion, as the object was described as moving up, into the clouds, uncharacteristic of a meteor. Others have speculated that the object could have been a test of a secret U.S. or foreign rocket or aircraft.


Eyewitness testimony from 2 pilots and 1 passenger on a plane, and others on ground at an Air Force Base - a completely different vantage point. Pilots each drew a similar sketch of the craft they sighted. No physical or recorded visual evidence.

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