Recently I had a UFO experience in the comfort and privacy of my own home. Or rather, I would have had a UFO experience if it had been a UFO. Unfortunately, however, I found a rational explanation for it, which means this story’s not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

It was very late, past midnight, and my wife and I had just come home from a dinner party to our house in Cashmere, at an altitude of about 100 metres on a ridge at the south end of Christchurch. She went straight to bed, but I felt somehow restless. In hindsight, if I had more imagination I might be able to say I felt as though something was telling me to stay up, to walk outside on to the deck, and look out to the west.

What I saw astonished me greatly. There was a very bright light in the sky away to the southwest. It stayed there for some minutes, almost unchanging, poised in the sky above the suburb of Westmoreland, quite still but with a slightly tremulous quality about it. Knowing the landscape very well, I knew it could not possibly be a street light, car headlight or other normal phenomenon on the ground. It was definitely in the air, about four fingers at arm’s length above the horizon. But it was too still and bright to be an aeroplane. Moreover, there was no engine noise. “My God”, I thought, “am I seeing a UFO?” I’d certainly like to see a UFO. It was very exciting.

I rushed in and got our binoculars, a good pair of 8x50s, went back out and sat down to watch the light carefully. It continued to stay quite still and to flicker ever so slightly. Then I noticed another light beside it, smaller and flicking on and off. Curiouser and curiouser. Again I thought, “It can’t be a plane, because it’s been still for too long, and it’s too bright”.

Yes, I really was seeing something for which there could be no normal explanation. I thought of how some of my skeptic friends would respond to this, and continued for some minutes longer to observe it closely, so I could state with certainly it was not some figment of my imagination. Still it shone brightly, flickered ever so slightly and stayed still. I resolved to watch it for as long as it stayed. Minutes ticked by.

Then, abruptly, the light faded in strength and swung away to the north. It was a plane after all — suddenly looking no different from hundreds of others I had seen coming into Christchurch Airport. But what had been so different about this one? How could it have changed so rapidly, so totally? How could it remain still in the sky, be so bright, and yet silent?

Then I realised that this plane had been approaching from the southwest on a path which was some miles further south than the usual approach route. As a result, by the most extraordinary coincidence, it was heading straight towards my house. And not only was it on a compass course that took it right in this direction, but it was descending at an angle that meant it literally pointed straight at me. This explained the intensity of the light, which was aimed like a searchlight directly at me, albeit from a distance of perhaps 20 miles, gradually closing to about five before the plane turned away. Over such a distance, the intensity of the light was increasing so gradually that it did not appear to be moving towards me. And although descending, it appeared still because it was closing on the horizon at an imperceptible rate. The tremulous quality of the light simply resulted from the plane’s vibrating a bit in slightly turbulent air. The second light was one of the plane’s wingtip lights. As I’m slightly colour-blind (green looks white to me at a distance) I couldn’t tell what colour it was.

The explanation was absurdly simple, yet never in a hundred years would I have guessed it. Having watched approaching planes so often in the past helped reinforce the deception, because it was so different to what I was used to seeing.

But the most important part is this: suppose I had not persisted in watching it, or the plane had disappeared, say into a bank of cloud close to the ground, so I had not discovered the real explanation. I would have absolutely denied any suggestion that it was an aeroplane.

“No”, I would have said, “it was too still, too bright, and there was no noise. There was definitely a bright still light sitting in one place in the sky for some minutes.”

And there is another thing — every time an aeroplane is descending at night, with its lights on, in clear air, following a straight descent path, there will be a particular spot on the Earth’s surface where an observer, if there is one, will see exactly the same thing I saw. If you think about how many aeroplanes there are all over the world in the air at any time, there must be nothing unusual about my experience. Except that more imaginative observers than I are bound to have perceived it differently — they will have “actually have seen” a UFO.

It’s a pity I’m not more imaginative, because if I was I could have seen some much more exciting things like different-coloured lights and an interesting saucer shape. My inability to see such things if an obvious flaw in my personality which I have resolved to correct next time. Then I might have a more interesting story to tell.

Three more non-UFO experiences

  • In about 1960 my father thought he was “having a UFO experience” one night while sitting on the steps outside our house in Samoa. Flashes of light were darting back and forth across the sky. He got up and walked forwards for a better view and discovered the cause was a spider spinning a web about a metre in front of his face.
  • Fishing at Lake Coleridge on a perfectly clear night, I heard an aeroplane overhead but couldn’t see any lights. I looked in the general direction of the sound, and suddenly the plane’s navigation lights came on for about 5 seconds. Then they all went out again. If I had seen this without hearing the engine noise, I would have been unable to produce a rational explanation for it.
  • And another night I was fishing on the lake under low, rather loose cloud. As a plane came over, its lights, flashing brightly, made the whole sky very suddenly seem to pulsate brilliantly. The overall effect was extremely peculiar. Although the plane’s engines could clearly be heard, two fishermen nearby in the dark were totally confused by the experience. “What the f—– is that?” one gasped. “Dunno,” his mate responded in an awestruck voice. I wonder what story they may have had to tell the next day?

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