In the early morning of July 24, 1948, chief pilot Clarence S. Chiles and co-pilot John B. Whitted were flying over Montgomery, Alabama at about 5,000 feet altitude on the way to Houston, Atlanta, when they noticed a “glowing object” passing by their Eastern Air Lines DC-3 before disappearing into a light cloud and zooming off sight.
At around 2:45 AM, Chiles “saw a dull red glow above and ahead of the aircraft” which initially he thought to be a “new Army jet job.” Both pilots claimed that the object closed on their DC-3 in a matter of seconds and flew past the right side of the plane at high speed before pulling “up with a tremendous burst of flame out of its rear and zoomed up into the clouds.”
The pilots said they observed the craft for 10-15 seconds and described it as “wingless cigar-shaped” measuring 100 feet long, and 25-30 feet in diameter, with flames coming out of its tail.
Chiles described what he saw in an official statement one week later: “It was clear there were no wings present, that it was powered by some jet or other type of power, shooting flame from the rear some 50 feet. There were two rows of windows, which indicated an upper and lower deck, [and] from inside these windows a very bright light was glowing. Underneath the ship there was a blue glow of light.”
Whitted offered a similar description in his official statement too: “The object was cigar shaped and seemed to be about a hundred feet in length. The fuselage appeared to be about three times the circumference of a B-29 fuselage. It had two rows of windows, an upper and a lower. The windows were very large and seemed square. They were white with light which seemed to be caused by some type of combustion…. I asked Capt. Chiles what we had just seen and he said that he didn’t know.
That night, the DC-3 was flying 20 passengers out of which 19 were asleep during the encounter. The remaining passenger, Clarence L. McKelvie of Columbus, Ohio corroborated the pilot’s accounts and claimed that an unusually “bright streak of light” flashed by his window.
Both pilots also made some drawings of what they saw during their encounter, providing further details to the press a few hours after the sighting. The Atlanta Constitution claimed the news and headlined its July 25 account “Atlanta Pilots Report Wingless Sky Monster.”
Shortly after landing in Atlanta, Georgia, military officers from U.S. Air Force (USAF) arrived and began interrogating both Chiles and Whitted as well as the passenger about what they saw. Project sign personnel drew a map of the object’s trajectory which showed that it would have passed over Macon, Georgia. That night, an Air Force crew chief at Robins Air Force Base near Macon reported seeing “an extremely bright light pass overhead at high speed” which “seemed to confirm the [Chiles-Whitted] sighting” wrote USAF Captain and UFO investigator Edward J. Ruppelt.
As a result of the Chiles-Whitted encounter and the earlier sightings of 1947 and 1948, Project Sign personnel decided to send an “Estimate of Situation” – an official USAF top-secret document, to Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt S. Vanderberg, which concluded that UFOs “were interplanetary.”
General Vanderberg, however, rejected the Estimate of Situation in October 1948, citing that “the report’s evidence was insufficient to support its conclusions.”
Meanwhile, Project Sign – and later Project Blue Book, scientific consultant and astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek offered a rather satisfying conclusion in which he stated that the object Chiles and Whitted had seen was a very bright meteor, given that a large number of meteors had been observed by amateur astronomers on the night of July 23-24. He wrote that “the flaming tail and sudden disappearance were consistent with the brief passage of a meteor” and that “the immediate trail of a bright meteor could produce the subjective impression of a ship with lighted windows.”
To corroborate this explanation, Harvard university astronomer and prominent UFO skeptic Donald Menzel noted that July 24 “falls into a period of greatly increased meteor activity, when the Earth is moving through the Aquarid streams.”
Menzel claimed that during the night of July 24, an observer in Alabama “counted fifteen meteors in one hour’s watching.” Also, two days after the Chiles-Whitted encounter, a “huge fireball flashed over North Carolina and Tennessee.”
He wrote: “when Chiles and Whitted observed the UFO, its appearance and motion were identical with those of many other bright meteors but the pilots, startled by the sudden apparition [of the meteor] misinterpreted what they saw… There can be no doubt that Chiles and Whitted misinterpreted the appearance of an unusually bright meteor, its body glowing to white and blue incandescence… shooting off flaming gases (the “exhaust”) and vaporizing from the friction of the atmosphere.”
Although Project Sign personnel alongside UFO investigator James E. McDonald strongly disagreed with Hynek’s explanation and arguing that “it is obvious that this object was not a meteor”, the U.S. Air Force concluded in 1959 that the Chiles-Whitted incident was caused by a fireball-type meteor.