Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
As a retired Air Force pilot, I was asked to look at a UFO case that inspired one of the final episodes of History Channel’s Project Blue Book docudrama, something commonly referred to as the Kinross Incident. It happened on November 23, 1953, over Lake Superior. What made the event so special?
A USAF F-89C Scorpion, piloted by Felix Moncla Jr, was scrambled from Kinross Air Force Base in Michigan, to intercept something that ground radar had detected. Sadly, the aircraft never returned to base, and the pilot and radar operator were declared dead. According to an official report, the radar return was caused by a Canadian Air Force C-47 that was off course.
At the time, the Canadians denied any of their aircraft were off course. This has become a “gap” into which a UFO can easily be shoved, if one doesn’t understand that aerial navigation back then was nothing like what it is today. In these early days, aircraft could go off course and not even know it, and it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. This was near an international border, so it was bound to get attention. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) was set up to intercept anything coming too close to our borders, and investigate.
Another feature of the Kinross incident is that the returns of the Scorpion and the mystery object “merged on the radar”. Again, we’re probably thinking of the radar images we see in today’s techno thrillers, where you can “skin paint” a small drone at 50 miles. In the 1950s, ground radars didn’t have that type of resolution. If two objects were within a mile of each other, most of the technology of the day would show a single dot. Being within a mile isn’t quite as dramatic as “merged” is.
As a matter of course, the aircraft was scrambled because the ground radars didn’t have the resolution, so someone could look at the thing making the blip with their Mark I eyeballs. Pilots would like to get relatively close to the object they’re trying to intercept, in order to make a definitive identification. Remember, military pilots are taught to fly in formation, and be within just a few feet of each other. This is not something unusual, or even that dangerous, for most military pilots. However, while trying to close on another aircraft, you can get task-focused, and stop paying attention to other things happening in your own plane (more on that later).
So what really happened to the Scorpion? Why didn’t it return to base? UFO fans say that the aircraft was somehow swallowed up by the aforementioned blip it merged with, and taken away, but there’s a much simpler and more likely scenario — Moncla and his jet crashed into Lake Superior. In fact, digging through some documents makes this scenario so likely as to make discounting it rather foolish. Why would I make such a bold claim? Several things:
First of all, in the 1950s, the USAF was losing planes at a rate that’s unimaginable by today’s standards. Figure 1 in this report shows that the rate of Class A mishaps (fatality or over $1 million in damage) was 100 per 100,000 hours flown. The rate of loss of aircraft was about 85 per 100,000 hours flown. Today, those two numbers are about 1 per 100,000 hours flown. Astoundingly, pilot deaths weren’t tracked in a meaningful way back then, but the numbers for deaths correlate quite linearly with aircraft lost, and I would say were probably closer because aviation survival equipment has improved greatly over the years.
The second thing that makes me think this was a mundane crash is the weather. Page 7 of this report of the incident lists the conditions. Of particular note are two main facts — there was cloud cover that was generally in the 8,000 to 14,000-foot altitude, with another layer at 18,000-20,000 feet; and radiosonde readings indicated there was heavy icing in the clouds. Because of the calm nature of the air at that time, most of that ice would have been rime ice. For those who aren’t aviation experts, rime ice is bad stuff. It will mess up the aerodynamics of an aircraft very quickly, in addition to adding significant weight to the airframe, which also makes it harder to stay airborne.
While doing a rejoin on another aircraft (the last part of an intercept), the pilot will often be very focused on the other aircraft, almost to the exclusion of what is happening in his own, if it isn’t sudden or jarring. It’s much easier to imagine Moncla and his radar operator being intent on completing the intercept and not paying particular attention to the state of the aircraft, until such time as it may have been too late. Even to this day, icing is one of the major causes of aircraft accidents because of how unpredictable it can be, and how it can catch pilots unaware.
These two factors alone should be enough to lead one to conclude the most likely explanation for the aircraft’s disappearance is that it crashed into Lake Superior. But there are a few other tidbits that I’d like to add.
Instead of flying directly to the unknown dot, the F-89 first flew up to an altitude of 40,000 feet before being directed toward the blip, which was at around 8,000 feet. This means Moncla flew through the icing not once, but twice. Also, there were two layers of clouds. This can cause an induced vertigo sensation, which I have personally experienced (stay on instruments and trust them, not your otolith organs or eyes!). There were even unsubstantiated reports that Moncla periodically suffered from vertigo while flying. This can’t be confirmed because his personal records were withheld from all public releases, but it’s not an uncommon affliction.
After the aircraft didn’t return, there was obviously a search and rescue attempt. Unfortunately, no evidence of the missing airmen or their aircraft were ever found. Even though the lake isn’t the deepest in the U.S., it is the largest, so finding the proverbial needle in a haystack isn’t particularly easy. In 2006, a group calling themselves the “Great Lakes Dive Company” claimed to have located the aircraft, but the story was eventually found to be a complete fabrication.
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