Investigation of Unidentified Flying Objects

Aldrich, JanSparks, Brad
aAldrich, J: "How to Investigate UFOs", UFO Updates, 2001-12-06

How does one investigate a transitory phenomenon which appears suddenly to unprepared observers over a very small area, and under conditions which are not understood? Various organizations and individuals have wrestled with this question for the last 50 years.

There are many phenomena which are extremely short-lived and cannot be readily reproduced in the laboratory, such as fireball meteors, mountain lights, earthquake lights, unusual displays of atmospheric electricity (ball lightning, sprites, superbolts, etc.). Most reports of the foregoing examples depend predominantly on eyewitness testimony. Analysis of such raw data poses many difficulties for the investigator. Witnesses not only include descriptions of the phenomenon, but often incorporate their impressions and biases into their accounts.

After more than three decades' experience in UFO investigations, Brad Sparks offers the following advice for obtaining the most useful data from any UFO observations:

The most important data to obtain from a visual UFO observer are in rough order of importance:

  1. Duration. This should be obtained by Timed Re-enactment of the sighting since most witnesses do not use a clock or stopwatch to time a sighting. Casual estimates are usually very inaccurate.
  2. Angular size. This should be obtained by having the witness recall the sighting and mentally compare the UFO at its closest/largest to the full moon and a star/point source and/or to known objects (such as aircraft) of a known size at known distances, all of which should be given in the sighting report. The fact that it represents the largest and closest point in the sighting must be noted in the report along with how much time the UFO was that close. The angular size(s) for the rest of the sighting should be obtained and given in the report. If it is a Close Encounter (CE) at close range, the angular size is not necessary if the object's actual size and distance are accurately estimated, and most witnesses will not be able to accurately estimate large CE angular sizes such as "100 Full Moons in size," etc.

    The object-held-at-arm's length method of comparison is very inaccurate because most witnesses highly exaggerate the size of objects in the sky, e.g., most people would be very surprised to learn that the Full Moon is only the size of an aspirin tablet at arm's length, and most think it's the size of a large coin or marble, or even a tennis ball or baseball! If arm's length is used the arm's length (from the handheld object to the eyenot the actual arm) needs to be measured, as everyone's arms have different lengths from person to person and different ways of holding up objects in front of them. In reality we do not measure the "arm's length" at all, but the distance from the witness' eye to the handheld object used as a comparison to the UFO as recalled by the witness.
  3. Location. Exact location of witness and approximate location of UFO. Preferably GPS coordinates if possible, including elevation above mean sea level (MSL). Multiple ways of specifying location should be used in addition to GPS coordinates where available: Street address and city, with location by distance and direction from the house or landmark. Landmarks used should be highly defined, not large nebulous areas such as large cities or mountains (e.g., "10 miles East of Los Angeles" is virtually meaningless; Los Angeles itself is at least 30 miles wide so where does this distance count from, the center, the nearest boundary?)
  4. Date and exact time with time zone. The lighting conditions should be specified (day, night, dawn, dusk, etc.) to help eliminate uncertainty and if the time is close to 12 Midnight the dates before and after should be given so there is no 1-day ambiguity.

    For example, a sighting at 11:50 PM on March 20 would be given as 11:50 PM on March 20-21 so no one will get confused and think it might have been on March 19 instead. (If you don't know for sure say so.) If at 12:05 AM on March 21, say 12:05 AM on March 20-21. Even better practice is to say, 11:50 PM on the night of March 20-21, or 12:05 AM on the night of March 20-21, to continue these examples. The U.S. military believes the 24-hour clock system and use of Z-time (GMT or UTC) eliminates these ambiguities but they are only as accurate as the fallible humans that make the time zone conversions. Erroneous or confusing time zone conversions have been part of major international incidents such as the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in 1964 and the Soviet shootdown of KAL 007 in 1983.
  5. Direction (Azimuth or Compass) and elevation angles. For UFO when first seen, last seen, and all points in between as applicable. If a magnetic compass is used this fact must be noted. Directions can be obtained by use of a protractor and other simple instruments using straight line landmarks such as streets as a reference, and later these can be converted to true azimuths or magnetic compass points by using maps. (In most places on earth the True North differs from Magnetic North and changes from year to year; exact values can be obtained on the Internet from the U.S. National Geophysical Data Center and other sources such as aeronautical and nautical charts, and such sources and their date must be noted in the sighting report). North is 0°, East is 90°, South is 180°, West is 270°, and North is 360° or back to full circle 0° again. Elevation angles can be obtained using a protractor and hanging a weight from a string as a plumb line. The horizon is at 0° elevation; straight overhead Zenith is 90° elevation. Surveyor's transits, navigational sextants and other instruments would be ideal to use but not likely to be available in many cases.

    The reason duration and angular size are so important is because they describe and limit the maximum amount of visual data a witness can possibly see of a UFO. (These data could actually be converted into video data file sizes, though in actuality it will be very difficult for most witnesses to fully describe a sighting second-by-second, or fraction-of-a-second by fraction-of-a-second.) If a sighting lasts only say 1 second, it does not matter how large and how close a UFO might have been it is simply impossible for a witness to see very much and the possibility of error is very high. If a UFO is only a pinpoint or star-like point source it does not matter how long, even hours, it may have been observed, the possibility it was a star or an insect or firefly will remain very high (unless more detail was observed by other witnesses or by using optics or if tracked on radar, etc.)
  6. How to record sighting data. The best way to record a witness' data on a sighting is by step-by-step re-enactment with each step recorded on sheets of paper like a cartoon animation or map of the sky, or both.

    The elapsed time must be recorded on each data sheet along with Time/Time Zone, Date, Location, Direction (Azimuth/Compass), Elevation Angle, and Name of person making the drawing (witness or investigator) as well. For example, if a drawing shows the UFO at about 10 seconds after first seen then that elapsed time about 10 secs should be noted on the drawing, etc. — Brad Sparks.

Project 1947 encourages the reporting of unusual short-lived phenomena, including, of course, UFOs. Questionnaires for various short-lived events may be found on the following websites:


  1. J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies UFO Report Questionnaire
  2. Ball Lightning Questionnaire
  3. International Meteor Organization Fireball Report Form. (world wide) - Notes concerning filling out the report form. (You should read these now, it will help to know what to look for if you should observe a fireball.)
  4. American Meteor Society On-line Fireball Report Form (for the USA)
  5. Severe Weather Report Form USA

Documents presented here contain some ideas about, philosophy of, or applications of investigating UFOs. More documents and links will be added later: