Friday 1 March 2019 I was a passenger on WestJet flight WS 439 flying from Toronto, Ontario to Edmonton, Alberta, seated in the first row in the window seat on the left side of the aircraft, from which I could look south out over Lake Superiour. I saw a bright, vaguely oval luminosity, shafts of blue-white light extending from its top and bottom. It varied in colour from light blue to white to yellow. Its solidity was ghostly, sometimes translucent, sometimes disappearing altogether, and, at its brightest, quite solid and well-defined. Its brightness was such as to leave an afterimage. Its flight paralleled the plane’s. At all times, it seemed just behind or below the light cloud cover over the lake. The entire sighting lasted at least thirty minutes.
It was, of course, either a reflection of the sun on that cloud cover or on the lake ice, but that was difficult to determine. Though I knew damned well what I was observing, it was a striking sight, and it didn’t take much imagination to see a UFO. Indeed, at times I was almost able to convince myself I wasn’t seeing a sundog or reflection from the lake ice, especially when that oval was at its brightest and most defined. Though I’ll admit a certain disappointment at not witnessing an intelligently-controlled, structured craft, it was interesting to imagine my way into the perceptions of someone less familiar with atmospheric phenomena or who “believes in UFOs.”
But I have a—I admit, semiarticulate—feeling there’s more to this experience than the opportunity to observe a beautiful, chance atmospheric phenomenon and to better understand some UFO witnesses, though.
On the one hand, my experience shares a feature with a certain class of sighting reports in that it was personal. While the most scientifically-compelling sightings involve multiple witnesses (and, ideally, measuring instruments), an equally curious category sees only some of several potential witnesses actually perceiving the anomaly, whether a UFO or other apparition, such as, most famously, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The individuality of my sighting is manifold. It is, first, spatiotemporally unique: I am unsure, but it’s not certain that other passengers on the same side of the aircraft would have seen the same thing, if anything at all, given sundogs or similar reflections depend on a geometry that relates the light source, the reflected rays, and the observer in a quite specific relation. Second, that I identified what I saw as a sundog or a reflection from the lake ice is unique to my education and my cultural context: that sundogs are explained as peculiar reflections from ice-crystals in the atmosphere depends on a sophisticated degree of meteorological and optical knowledge that must first be worked out then consequently passed down to subsequent generations.
Most importantly, however, is the way what I saw was personally significant, which brings my experience even closer to that of a believer. As someone interested in the UFO both in terms of its mysterious nature and psychosocial effect, witnessing so striking an example of a classically-mistaken meteorological phenomenon is informative in a way it wouldn’t be to someone either uninterested in UFOs or dismissive of them. For those picked out by the phenomenon to be witnesses, the effect can range from a lifelong “itch” to understand just what in fact was observed to a lifechanging experience that upends one’s settled understanding of what is real and the nature of that reality. In the most extreme cases, one is so utterly changed as to become a latter-day contactee, in the manner of Adamski, Fry, or Angelucci.
On the other hand is the nature of my report itself. What has been assumed throughout this discussion is the sincerity of my report. What Jacques Vallee and J Allen Hynek grasped, if not fully, is that in the first instance the ufologist works with sighting reports. Sociologists have already pried apart the process that leads from the sighting to the report, but what is less appreciated is just what this textual basis of ufology implies. Folklorists, such as Thomas Bullard, have studied the analogues between abduction reports and other narratives in both the European and American traditions. Indeed, the parallels between alien abductions, Faery encounters, shamanic initiations, Near Death Experiences, vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other such narratives have been a longstanding and increasingly attended dimension of the UFO phenomenon.
Fundamentally, however, over time, the sighting report has become a genre, a type of narrative, whose veracity and reference (truth) are framed and underwritten by the conventions of verisimilitude and the rhetoric (believability) of the genre. In this regard, ufology is a branch of literary studies, not because the varieties of its linguistic expression are fictional but because they are rhetorical and subject to a linguistic-typological analysis, or poetics. Sighting reports are written and read according to certain conventions, none of which have anything essentially to do with the reality or nature of what is being reported. The reader of a—my—sighting report, then, is in a situation not unlike the one I purportedly found myself in looking out that airplane window: something is (read) seen, but its (truth) nature depends on the eye of the (reader) beholder.