Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Dark cloud or UFO?

Plane UFOThe small dark cloud was moving perceptibly. This would have unexceptional had the other small dark clouds around it been moving too. So, a UFO perhaps? A slow moving plane, glinting in the morning sunshine, moved in front of the cloud. For someone who takes a keen interest in the sky and all the things in it, I was genuinely mystified by the behaviour of this particular cloud! Perhaps, I speculated, it might be at a different altitude to the other clouds and being propelled by a faster wind.

Then something extraordinary happened. The 'cloud' started to move more quickly and changed shape drastically. Even stranger, it changed from dark to light. It was revealed, to my surprise, to be a plane! Like the other plane, it was moving slowly in a holding stack, prior to landing. So, how could it ever have appeared to be a dark cloud?

Firstly, the plane was flying away from me initially at an angle that gave it an unfamiliar shape. Secondly, it looked dark because the sunshine was very patchy with some objects, like the other plane, well lit and others not. By coincidence, the colour happened to match some nearby clouds which were also of a similar angular size. The visual context made me think it was a cloud. Without those dark clouds, of similar colour and angular size, around, I doubt I would ever have thought it a cloud. Overall, it was a good example of an unlikely coincidence where several factors combined to give the wrong impression of what an object might be. Had I not seen the object turn into a plane, I believe I would still think it an oddly fast moving cloud even now. Someone else might easily have reported it as a UFO in similar circumstances.

As one who watches planes closely, I know that they can look surprisingly unfamiliar at times. For instance, a distant plane might simply appear as a silent bright light, often in broad daylight. In my experience, planes can put on their lights on at any time of day. The one in the photo above with a light clearly on, was seen recently one early afternoon! In fact, I saw just such a mysterious isolated light at the same time as the 'dark cloud', though I knew straight away it was another plane.

Witnesses often say things along the lines of "I know it wasn't a plane, I know what planes look like". But, when even experienced observers (which casual witnesses rarely are) can get it wrong, such statements should never prematurely shut down any avenue of investigation.

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