The Missile and The ‘Chicken Little’ Syndrome
On Oct. 20, 2002, Brandon Mawry, who is a News Videographer for WXXA-TV in Albany, N.Y., was videotaping at the end of an Albany International Airport runway.
In Mawry’s own words: “I was shooting a weather shot at the Albany International Airport, and I was at the end of a runway shooting a plane taking off in front of me. Once it got directly above me, I had to adjust the camera 180 degrees to film it taking off away from me, and when I was doing that adjustment, that’s when that thing flew by.”
The “thing” Mawry cites – as described by one of Col. David Hackworth’s correspondents in an email he sent to Col. Hackworth after hearing something about the event on the news – ” … looked to me to be a Stinger. After checking Redstone’s photo archives, I’d be willing to testify that’s what it was. There’s no doubt in my mind that the fin arrangement is like that of the Stinger, as well as the overall length and diameter of the missile.”
Col. Hackworth asked me to investigate this event, so I contacted Mawry and conducted an in-depth telephone interview with him.
Mawry is a 24-year old videographer with 2½ years of experience. He struck me as level-headed. He had an interest in UFO phenomena, but exhibited a healthy skepticism when it came to “aliens,” “abductions” and the other “fringe beliefs” of UFO aficionados.
Shortly after 4 p.m. on that Sunday afternoon, Mawry had set his camera on a tripod at the end of the Albany International runway, and was manually following a Boeing 727 approaching him down the runway. He was using a commercial digital video camera set to 30 frames per second. As the plane overflew him, he quickly rotated the running camera 180 degrees, trying to keep the plane in the picture. He saw nothing unusual, and returned to the studio shortly thereafter, arriving about 5 p.m.
Mawry conducted a routine check of his tape, including what he calls “checking the stillness of the shots,” where he looked at parts of the tape frame by frame. During the playback, he noticed a dark rod-like object that appeared to have twin wing-like projections near each end apparently flying near the plane, and then on through a cloud. He showed the clip around the studio. His colleagues were pretty excited about the clip.
In the middle of this excitement, Mawry was sent out on another shoot. When he returned, the police were in the studio looking at the clip and asking questions. Within the hour the FBI arrived.
The FBI took a digital copy of the tape (a digital copy of a digital tape is functionally identical to the original), and took Mawry back to the site where he had taped the incident. Two days later they interviewed him for four hours, three of them on a polygraph.
Mawry didn’t hear from the FBI after that interview.
Before I interviewed Mawry, I obtained a copy of the video clip and examined it carefully, paying careful attention to the seven frames that contain the object. The clip shows the 727 passing from left to right, and then the “object” appears while the 727 is still visible, moving across the frame from the bottom right below the passenger plane to the top left, finally apparently passing through a cumulus cloud in the upper left of the frame.
I also examined several individual frames using various enhancing techniques to bring the image of the object into sharper focus. The object appears real, and I am personally convinced that the tape is genuine. Whatever the object is, it was present on that day, and was actually recorded by Mawry’s video camera.
But was it a missile?
The U.S. Weather service told me that the cumulus cloud base over Albany International was at 5,000 feet that day. Mawry told me that the cloud through which the object apparently passed was at a 60 degree angle from the horizontal. According to Boeing, a 727 is 153 feet long, has a 108-foot wingspan, and a 34-foot high tail structure. The plane would have been traveling at about 300 mph. during the incident.
This information combined with measurements made directly from the video screen, is sufficient to determine the actual size and distance of the object. I conducted the analysis with these results:
* The object was between 50 and 100 feet long, based upon the cloud trigonometry and the relative sizes of it and the 727.
* It was about one mile distant, line of sight, based upon the trigonometry of the cloud height and angle.
* It appeared to be traveling between 1,000-9.000 feet per second (680 mph. to 6,545 mph.). Since each frame lasts 1/30th of a second, if one knows the length of an object, one can calculate its speed knowing how far it traveled on screen for the seven frames (7/30th of a second). If the object was 50 feet long, its speed was 1,000 feet per second. If it was 100 feet long, its speed was 9,600 feet per second. These numbers cross-check for confirmation by applying the same criteria to the 727, which confirms the plane’s speed of about 300 mph. (440 feet per second).
These results are predicated upon the apparent fact that the object appears to pass directly through the cumulus cloud, which was about one mile distant, line of sight.
I was bothered by the apparent fact that something between 50-100 feet long was moving supersonically (and perhaps several times the speed of sound) within one mile of a passenger plane taking off from an American international airport. No one saw anything, and more importantly, nobody – including Mawry – heard anything.
Even though I was convinced of the authenticity of the video clip, the facts and consequential derivative information simply didn’t add up. I started looking for an alternative answer.
The real explanation revolves around how a digital video recording is made. Every 1/30th of a second, the camera makes a still exposure. These sequential still frames are then presented in sequence just like a movie film. The human eye integrates these sequential images into a “continuous” moving picture.
If an insect flies past the recording lens against a relatively unstructured background (such as blue sky), each frame will contain a blurred image of the insect, an image that will appear like a short line. The insect’s wings will show up when they are parallel or nearly so to the lens, and depending on the wing beat, they can show up one or more times in each blurred image. If the wing beat is 30 beats per second, the wings will appear once in each frame; if the rate is 60 beats per second, the wings will appear twice in each frame. The image will look like a short rod with two pairs of wing-like extensions, exactly like the image on Mawry’s recording.
It is possible to create a continuous moving image from the discrete images recorded by a digital camera. When you do this with the 7 frames containing the object in Mawry’s recording, you get a continuous line extending from the bottom right where the object first appears, to the top left where it disappears “in” the cloud, except that now the line is superimposed over the cloud. The continuous line has evenly spaced extensions along its entire length. I have seen several deliberate recordings of insects flying close to the lens that exactly reproduce this effect.
Because we are apparently dealing with a very small object close to the lens, in the discrete frames its relative size allows it to appear between the wispy elements of the cumulus cloud. This gives the impression that the “object” passes through the cloud. The derived continuous image clearly eliminates this possibility.
In summary, this was not a missile. It was not a secret new American aircraft. It was not an unknown spacecraft from somewhere in the Universe. It was not any kind of terrorist event. It was just a little bug on a sunny afternoon in a field at the end of an airport runway.
The excitement this incident generated could have been avoided if the WXXA newsroom staff had conducted the same analysis I later conducted. Lacking this analysis, of course, the incident was interesting – and potentially explosive. I would like to think the FBI did the analysis, and that it reached the same conclusion as I, but so far, the FBI isn’t talking.
Chicken Little failed to analyze a falling acorn, and incorrectly concluded that the sky was falling, with comic but troubling consequences. In today’s terrorism-driven environment, how much more onerous can things be when people in positions of responsibility react to unfolding events in the same way?
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor