It’s a moonlit July night in 1948 with good visibility. A twin-engined Eastern Air Lines Douglas DC-3 plane with 20 passengers aboard is cruising at around 5,000 feet over Alabama. For the pilot Clarence Chiles and the co-pilot John Whitted it’s a routine flight from Houston, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia. But what’s about to happen at 2:45 a.m. will be very far from routine.
Chiles and Whitted had taken off at 8:40 p.m. on Friday, July 23 from Houston on the seven-hour flight to Georgia, which included a stop-off in New Orleans. And the Douglas DC3 they were piloting was a workhorse of the commercial airline industry. Indeed, it played an important part in bringing air travel to the masses.
As we already know, the flight was entirely run-of the-mill until early in the morning the following day. By 2:45 a.m., the Eastern Air Lines plane was around 20 miles to the south-west of the city of Montgomery, Alabama. The plane was traveling at around 170 mph.
And that was the moment when the pilots caught sight of something extraordinary. It appeared to be some kind of aircraft, but it had a jet of flame shooting from it. And after a short time, it zoomed out of view. Whatever it was that Chiles and Whitted saw in the night sky, it was certainly capable of traveling much, much faster than their plane.
Meanwhile, what the two pilots saw would hit America’s headlines within hours of their landing at Atlanta. It would also become the subject of a highly secret government investigation. So what exactly flashed past the DC-3 as it flew over Alabama? We’ll come to that shortly, but first let’s look at some of the details of this intriguing story.
First of all, we’ll start with those two pilots. The lead one, Tennessee-born Captain Clarence Shipe Chiles, was 31 years old at the time of this event. His co-pilot John B. Whitted was just a year younger. Chiles was a World War II veteran who had flown planes for Air Transport Command, a branch of the U.S. Air Force.
During his time in the U.S. Air Force, Chiles had ascended to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Later in his career he had been given command of the air base on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Furthermore, Chiles was a highly experienced pilot with more than 8,500 hours of flying experience under his belt.
Although by 1948 Chiles was working as a civil pilot with Eastern Air Lines, he still held the rank of lieutenant colonel as a member of the Air Force Reserve. And his co-pilot Whitted, who hailed from North Carolina, had also served with the U.S. Air Force in WWII. He had piloted the formidable B-29 Superfortress bombers during the conflict.
With their wartime experience, neither of these two men appear to have been the types to make up daft stories for the sake of it. And the astonishment, even shock, that the two expressed in press interviews after their close encounter look entirely genuine. But now it’s time to describe exactly what they saw on that 1948 flight.
So we’re back to 2:45 a.m. on 24 July, 1948. Let’s hear the words of Chiles from an interview he gave which was published in the Atlanta Constitution on July 26 under the headline “Atlanta Pilots Report Wingless Sky Monster.” Whitted told the newspaper, “If you look at one of those fantastic Flash Gordon rocket ships in the funny papers, you’ve got a picture of what we saw.”
Chiles went on to tell the Constitution that the object they’d seen speeding through the moonlight was almost four times the size of a Superfortress. In fact, Chiles likened it to a Superfortress in shape but for the fact that it had no wings. Then there was the fact that flames up to 50 feet in length were roaring out of the craft’s tail.
Chiles and Whitted guessed that the aircraft was traveling at a speed of somewhere between 500 and 700 mph. They then saw it disappear off to the south-west in the direction of New Orleans. And when Chiles first spotted the reddish flame of the aircraft, he said to Whitted, “Look, here comes a new Army jet job.”
Chiles apparently thought he was seeing a U.S. Air Force jet, perhaps something top secret in development. But in the following 15 seconds or so when the two pilots got a chance to have a good look at whatever it was that was traveling at high speed past the right-hand side of their DC-3, they got an entirely different impression.
In an interview with the Decatur Daily Review at the time, Chiles described the moments when they were able to get a good view of the mystery aircraft. The pilot explained, “It was in line almost with our flight. We veered off to the left and the object turned to its left.” Then he gave an astonishing description of the ship.
“It had two rows of windows, an upper and a lower. They were square. Out of the rear of the ship red flames were shooting 25 to 50 feet. There was a blue glow underneath the fuselage,” Chiles told the Decatur newspaper. He continued, “When it got along side of us it pulled up with a tremendous burst of flame out of the rear.”
“The flames were so bright they blinded us for a second,” Chiles continued. “Then the ship disappeared into the broken clouds. The ship had no wings. It seemed to have an upper deck and a lower deck and was fully lighted inside. We saw no occupants.”
Later, during the official investigation into the incident, Whitted gave a very similar description of whatever it was that had flown past the DC-3. He told the investigators, “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.”
Whitted continued his description to the investigators, “The windows were very large and seemed square. They were white with light which seemed to be caused by some type of combustion…” And directly after the two pilots had witnessed this extraordinary phenomenon, it’s fair to say that they were in a form of shock.
After Whitted and Chiles saw the bizarre aircraft, they needed a few moments to regain their composure. Chiles told the Atlanta Constitution, “After it passed us, we must have sat there for five minutes without saying a word, we were so speechless.” Then Chiles decided to enter the aft section of the DC-3 to ask if any of the 20 passengers had seen anything.
Unsurprisingly since it was getting on for 3:00 a.m., only one of the passengers was actually awake. He was Clarence McKelvie of Columbus, Ohio, who worked at American Education Press as an assistant managing editor. Like Chiles and Whitted, McKelvie was also a U.S. Air Force veteran.
Unfortunately, although he’d seen something, McKelvie was unable to back up Whitted and Chile’s story in any detail. Speaking to the Arizona Daily Star, McKelvie said, “I saw no shape or form. I was on the right side of the plane, and suddenly saw this strange eerie streak out of my window. It was very intense, not like lightning or anything I had ever seen.”
So when it came to the description of the aircraft that Chiles and Whitted had seen with its cigar shape, double tier of windows and jet of flame, there were only the two pilots’ testimonies to go on. But they certainly seemed to be in no doubt that what they witnessed had been something completely out of the ordinary.
In his interview with the Atlanta Constitution, Chiles said, “As a B-29 bomber pilot during the war, I saw some strange things over Japan, but I never saw anything like that.” And the military paid close attention to the accounts of this strange and somewhat alarming aircraft. The interest of the top brass was particularly piqued by drawings that Chiles and Whitted made of the ship they claimed to have seen.
One of those army men was General George C. Kenney. He was in command at the Strategic Air Authority, the body that controlled the U.S. airborne nuclear strike force during the Cold War. He spoke to the Atlanta Journal in an article headlined “‘Sky Devil-Ship’ Scares Pilots; Air Chief Wishes He Had One.”
First off, Kenney told the newspaper that the apparition Chiles and Whitted had observed was not one of his aircraft. Nothing like that was available to the U.S. nuclear capability – they did not have such a machine. And he added, “wistfully” according to the Journal, “I wish we did. I sure would have liked to see that Thing.”
Whatever Chiles and Whitted had actually seen, U.S. Air Force authorities wanted to get to the bottom of the incident. Their investigators quickly swung into action. Shortly after the incident, the Director of Air Force Intelligence, Major General Charles P. Cabell set in motion an inquiry under the auspices of Project Sign.
Project Sign was a U.S. Air Force unit, aiming to investigate so-called UFO sightings. In 1947 and also the following year, alleged UFO sightings had become increasingly frequent. There was one notorious incident in 1947 near Roswell, New Mexico, which had involved a “flying disc” crashing into farmland.
Someone at the Roswell Army Air Field issued an ill-advised press release about the incident and the Roswell Daily Record splashed the story on its front page. The headline screamed, “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch In Roswell Region.” In fact, subsequent investigation revealed that the flying disc was a weather balloon.
This and other incidents launched a flood of UFO sightings in the United States and elsewhere. And these claims prompted the establishment of Project Saucer, soon renamed Sign, in 1947. The unit was to investigate UFO sightings to assess whether they were actually based on fact. And if they were, did they pose a threat to U.S national security?
Meanwhile, the reports had continued to proliferate during 1948. Earlier in the year, before the Chiles-Whitted case, there had been another dramatic UFO sighting involving a pilot. On January 7 Captain Thomas F. Mantell of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 165th Fighter Squadron had been flying his F-51D Mustang over Kentucky with other members of his squadron.
Godman Army Airfield had received reports of a UFO and Mantell was ordered to investigate. He set off in pursuit of a bright object in the sky with two of his fellow Mustang pilots. The three fliers went into a steep climb as they chased the mystery object. Eventually Mantell was left on his own – it seems he blacked out and his plane crashed to the ground, killing him.
Subsequent probes indicated that Mantell had almost certainly been chasing a U.S. Navy weather balloon. But now Project Sign had another serious investigation on its hands just eight months after the Mantell case. Sign personnel started by interviewing Chiles and Whitted before widening their inquiries.
The investigators found that the accounts of Chiles and Whitted just about tallied, although there were some discrepancies. Chiles said the aircraft had an illuminated cockpit and that its central section was clear. Whitted had no recollection of the cockpit and told the investigators that the ship’s central section was fitted with rectangular windows.
However, the differences in the vessel that the men reported seemed like fairly minor discrepancies. And there seems little doubt that the Project Sign investigators were taking this incident very seriously indeed. Captain Edward Ruppelt later worked on Sign’s successors Project Grudge and Project Blue Book. He wrote about the mood of investigators on the Chiles-Whitted case in his 1956 paper “The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.”
Ruppelt wrote that “according to the old-timers at [the] Air Technical Intelligence Center, the [Chiles-Whitted] report shook them worse than the Mantell Incident… this was the first time two reliable sources had been really close enough to a UFO to get a good look.” But some in the Pentagon had already formulated a theory about what the strange craft was.
Air Force spooks at the Pentagon are said to have focused on potential Soviet involvement in the incident. Perhaps, some believed, this might have been a Russian aircraft on some sort of intelligence gathering mission. But as far as we know, no concrete evidence of the Soviets developing or deploying such an aircraft exists.
However, the Project Sign investigators came up with a conclusion far more exotic than the idea that the Soviets had been behind the mystery ship. In his 1956 book, Ruppelt wrote that the Sign investigators had written in their report that “[UFOs] were interplanetary!” Indeed, this conclusion could hardly have been more sensational.
This explosive document apparently confirmed that the aircraft seen by Chiles and Whitted was from another planet. It got short shrift once it landed on the desk of Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Ruppelt asserted that, “The general wouldn’t buy interplanetary vehicles… Some months later it [the report] was completely declassified and relegated to the incinerator.”
Of course, the later revelation that General Vandenberg had suppressed this report was – and still is – grist to the mill for UFO conspiracy theory aficionados. But if we do reject the idea that the Chiles-Whitted aircraft was either a Soviet spy plane or an alien spaceship, then what could it have been?
Ultimately, the official Air Force verdict was that the Chiles and Whitted had actually seen a meteor or fireball on that October 1948 night. The lights on the ship that the pilots said they’d seen had been an optical illusion caused by seeing multiple separate lights. But James E. McDonald of the University of Arizona interviewed Chiles and Whitted in 1968. And he reported that the men were still adamant they’d seen an aircraft of some kind.