I was on a routine cross-country training flight, just departing the Tijuana International Airport on my way home when the radio call came in. Stand by for a new tasking, was the order. It was a clear night, the kind that makes me smile as, for me, it is the perfect time to fly. Traffic in the air was usually light at night and the full moon made the flight perfect.
A new tasking was very rare and highly unexpected. Usually our flights were choreographed to the minute, well not exactly the minute but you get the point that to deviate from a planned flight was extremely rare for us. I was vectored north-west from my current position, a heading that took me to the United States.
I grumbled to myself that this a was a typical bureaucratic order that could only come from a bureaucrat trying to fulfill a mission with inadequate resources. The “target” – we don’t use the word “bogey” – was likely a slow mover, like a Cessna 172, being flown by weekend pilot who forgot to notify air traffic control about their flight.
México did not have an air defense radar on its northern border at the time. Radar coverage on the northern border was civilian air traffic control with extensive gaps, in this case Tijuana. The most I could do with a Cessna or similar aircraft was catch a glimpse of it as my minimum operating speed was too fast to get a good visual on it, especially at night.
But bureaucracy is it what it is, and someone was trying to climb the bureaucratic ladder at the expense of my relaxing flight south.
The tasking order included an unexpected detail. The target was flying at about 20,000 feet, much higher than a piston engine plane would be flying. There were rumors floating about that the drug dealers were starting to use jets to traffic their drugs. But the jets, if in fact were being used, were most likely used to bring in the drugs to México from the south as opposed to trying to fly them into the U.S.
The U.S. ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) system, unlike México’s, is well-covered by radar and they had the capability to intercept unknown aircraft. But it was unusual for a jet-powered aircraft, which the target was most likely to be, to be flying in México without a flight plan on record. So when it showed up on the Tijuana radar it started a chain of events that led to me. It led to me simply because I just happen to be in the area and had the capability to intercept the unknown target.
In addition to the high-altitude flight profile something else caught my attention, the target was flying at about 600 miles per hour. That was high for a commercial jet, and there was no tailwind to speak of that night. I had to increase my speed to around 650 mph to catch up to the target.
As I headed towards it, I started going through my intercept protocols in my head. Although I trained in intercept missions many times before, the training focused on illicit aircraft trying to fly drugs into the country. Flight speeds and altitudes were much lower. We periodically trained in air sovereignty missions, but we never anticipated using them as our perceived threat was not an invasion but light piston-engine clandestine intercept missions.
I wasn’t going to shoot at the target as our protocols didn’t include shooting at them. Shooting was left for smaller and slower aircraft and the protocol required many layers of authorizations up the chain of command. I didn’t even have missiles and the guns had limited ammunition.
Instead the air intercept protocol was to first identify the aircraft and second to cajole it to land at a nearby airport under the threat of being shot down, although I knew that was unlikely. If there were better suited assets, i.e. piston aircraft, the protocol allowed for me to vector them in and let them try to force the illicit flight down if it did not comply to our demands. However, there were no other assets available and the target was flying too high even if there were.
But at the speed the target was flying, our normal protocols were not going to work. My best outcome was to identify the type of aircraft and possibly get its identification numbers before I had to abandon the chase.
Suddenly, as I was closing, the target changed direction towards the north and Tijuana lost contact with it immediately. That was strange. No one expected the target to fly towards a more protected airspace. Clearly this target had turned off its transponder, as it fell off the civilian radar. But what was more strange was that even if the transponder was turned off, its radar signature was well within Tijuana’s radar coverage.
Tijuana never saw the target’s altitude drop nor did its speed change, it just went dark on radar.
My not so routine air interception tasking suddenly turned interesting, very interesting.
I tuned my on-board radar to search mode and began to scan the screen. According to the last information from Tijuana, the target was north of me at about four nautical miles flying at just under 600 miles per hour, at about 20,000 feet. My search radar had an effective range of eight to ten miles under perfect conditions and its ability to detect anything depended on my positioning my aircraft behind the target within the radar’s coverage cone. It was not an easy task under these conditions.
I pointed my aircraft towards where I believed the target might be and dropped to about 200 feet above it. In an air intercept mission, it is best to approach the target from behind, for obvious reasons, and higher than the target, but close enough to get a visual. I also needed to place the target within my radar’s search cone.
I realized that this was now an impossible task as everything was against me. My radar’s capability depended on vectors from other radars and the target was no longer on Tijuana’s radar screen. I was a single flight. As if that wasn’t enough, at our speed, the target was minutes away from the US border.
I knew that by now the U.S. air defense net had acquired the target, and me, but I had no way of knowing what they were going to do. I had no way to communicate with them, unless I switched to “guard” which I was not about to do for many reasons. Communicating with American air defense was not authorized and was frowned upon. However, I assumed the Americans were going to fly their own intercept mission.
My standing orders were not to cross the border under any circumstances, so my situational awareness required me to focus on my location to the border constantly, which was only minutes away.
I wondered if the target was going to attempt to cross the US ADIZ or was it going to veer back south. No pilot wanted to cross the US ADIZ at that altitude and at that speed without authorization. We all assumed that the US ADIZ and intercept protocols made that impossible.
My on-board radar never picked up the target.
I had no clue where the target was and what it had done. Without a radar lock and the border fast approaching, it was time to break off the interception.
That’s when I saw it, or thought I saw it.
It was below me, clearly heading towards the US border without any anti-collision or position lights blinking. It was a dark, black wedge-shaped form silhouetted against the clutter from below.
It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. As I stared at it, I wondered how it could fly. It looked like a flying wedge with surfaces that didn’t reflect the moon’s light like aircraft normally did. It was like the light was absorbed by its skin.
There were no lights, no engine glows, which was very unusual as jet aircraft produce heat. There were no markings. It was devoid of anything. I thought I saw something resembling cockpit windows at the front of the triangle, but it was nothing more than a reddish glow against the black.
My radar finally bleeped but it was too late, the US border was upon us and I needed to veer off before having to explain to people with the power to make my life miserable why I crossed the US ADIZ. People on both sides of the border would not approve of my crossing.
As I veered off, I wondered what was it that I saw.
I radioed back that I was unable to locate the target, a clear lie. But what was I going to tell the higher-ups, that I saw a UFO? That was the shortest distance to being declared unfit to fly. I wasn’t about to give them an excuse to kick me out.
But my “UFO sighting” kept bothering me. Was it really a UFO? Or, was it something else?
Rumors of an American stealth fighter was being leaked out around that time.
Had I seen a stealth fighter? Or, was it a UFO? I kept coming back to the nagging question I had since my UFO encounter, how can a wedge fly at that speed.
In late 1988, I saw, for the first time what the F-117 Nighthawk looks like. It was America’s first stealth aircraft. There it was, the wedge-shaped aircraft that I had encountered a few years back over Tijuana.
As the recent reports of UFO sightings by pilots are making the news media rounds, I began to think about my UFO encounter. The few pilots I shared my story with thought the same thing, many pilots have reported strange sightings but only among themselves. Many pilots don’t bother to file official reports because of the repercussions on their flying careers.
Did I see a UFO?
The answer is – yes.
But no, it was not extraterrestrial in nature. UFO is an acronym for “Unidentified Flying Object” which means any flying object that cannot be readily identified. It has come to be associated with aliens, but there are many unidentified flying objects that can be explained when more information becomes available. The United States and several other nations are constantly developing exotic flying machines that they try to keep secret. But the airspace is crowded and there are many pilots looking at the skies.
I believe in extraterrestrial life. Have they come to Earth?
I have no idea.
But for a few years, I wondered if I had witnessed first-hand the proof that aliens existed on Earth only to discover later that the UFO I saw, was just a secret aircraft flying over the Mexican skies one night. My flight that night turned from a relaxing flight back home into a bureaucratic tedious exercise that interfered with my plans into a night that made me wonder for years if I had seen proof of extraterrestrial life.
It turns out that a wedge-shaped aircraft can both be an alien and an earth-based enigma that proves that human ingenuity is constantly challenging the accepted concepts of what can fly.