UFO Over Missouri? The 'Plane' Truth

A suspected UFO recorded on video over Lebanon, Mo., was uploaded to YouTube last month and stirred up the UFO community. The shaky night-vision video was captured about 4:50 a.m. on May 26.

According to the videographer, Jim Barnhill, the craft flew three or four miles above Lebanon, and featured four very bright lights, three of which appeared to strobe. This is what seemed strange, according to him: "I have never seen an aircraft lights look like this so I stayed with the object. Typically aircraft lights flash/strobe on then turn off and back on, then off again doing this in a pattern," Barnhill can be heard saying on video.

Believing he'd recorded an unknown — possibly extraterrestrial — craft, Barnhill analyzed still frames and announced, "Once you blow this video up you can see that the object is connected by some sort of dense frame structure connecting to the four light corners. It also appears to connect through the middle of the craft from the front light to the back light."

But is this really that mysterious? Here's what we know from examining the video: the 'UFO' has blinking strobe lights that are characteristic of known aircraft; seems to be flying at an altitude used by known aircraft (and not, for example, 100 feet off the ground); was flying at a speed characteristic of known aircraft (and didn't, for example, suddenly zoom away at an impossible speed); and was in a flight pattern characteristic of known aircraft (and didn't, for example, suddenly stop or move vertically in the sky). [7 Huge Misconceptions About Aliens]

Barnhill rejects the most logical explanation — that it's an airplane — because of what he says is an unusual light pattern. To his credit, he made an effort to record the lights of other commercial aircraft for comparison, and found them different. He uploaded three videos to YouTube (username RaleighUFO) with the captions, "This clip is an example of what a commercial plane looks like...."

The problem is that there are more than 80,000 flights per day over the United States, and hundreds of different types of aircraft, including private jets, passenger planes, military aircraft and cargo jets. Just because the flashing light pattern he spotted does not match any of the three specific planes he compared his unknown craft against does not prove that it is not a known plane; it merely means he didn't videotape the same type of plane.

If Barnhill wants to pursue this line of investigation, he will need to log dozens more airplane light patterns for comparison. However, there may be an easier way to do it: if it was indeed a plane, then it was probably a regularly scheduled flight and, given the time of morning, perhaps a red-eye. He should record the same part of the sky at approximately the same time every morning for a week to see if the craft reappears. If the same type of plane with an identical light pattern shows up, then it's almost certainly a commercial flight. (Of course it also could have been a one-time military flyover that won't return, but at least it's a start.)

Night-vision cameras are notorious for creating poor and misleading images — especially when the cameraman doesn't stabilize the image with a tripod for a clear view. There's also the fact that Barnhill was outside, looking at the sky through night-vision goggles at nearly 5 o'clock in the morning. Most often, when someone is stargazing at that hour with that gear, they're searching for UFOs. And sometimes if you look hard enough for something you'll find it — even if it's not there.

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Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.