The American West Flight 564 UFO Incident

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
September 21, 2019
Last Updated
October 22, 2021
Estimated Reading Time
14 min read
Posted in
UFOs, Sightings

When a commercial jet airliner flying over Texas in May 1995 witnessed a bizarre row of flashing lights during an, up until then, non-eventful standard flight from Florida to Nevada, it would turn into one of the best documented and investigated sightings by a commercial airline pilot of the decade.

Furthermore, and already intriguing encounter would become even more interesting when such official organizations such as NORAD changed statements on what they tracked and witnessed themselves on the night in question, as well as apparently mysterious and unidentified pilots in the region at the time of the incident.

Artist's impression of the cigar shaped UFO

Artist’s impression of the cigar shaped UFO

Although there was no interaction between the unknown object and the commercial airliner, the close proximity of the sighting, as well as the overall aviation experience of the witnesses make this incident extremely intriguing and credible in equal measure. As does the apparent discreet attempt to alter actions and timelines in the weeks following the incident.

Furthermore, the early-to-mid-1990s would see several such close encounters between commercial airliners and unidentified crafts, with several incidents even occurring toward the end of the last decade of the twentieth century. We will examine some of those incidents shortly, as all are as intriguing as the next one, and quite possibly may reveal discreet connections to each other.

Before we look at some of those other UFO incidents to have taken place high above the earth and witnessed by those who are used to guiding our own mammoth aerial vehicles through the apparently busy and crowded skies, we will turn our attention back to the spring of 1995 high above the United States on a routine domestic flight.

An Anomalous Row Of Flashing Lights At 39,000 Feet

American West Flight 564 had left Temper in Florida on its way to Las Vegas in Nevada on the 25th May in what was an uneventful and standard take-off and cross-country flight. However, at around 9:20 pm as Captain Eugene Tollefson guided the commercial airliner over Bovina, Texas at an altitude of 39,000 feet, the evening was about to take a drastic turn.

It was First Officer John J. Waller who first noticed a strange row of lights in the near vicinity. He would stand slightly in his seat in order to get a better view, prompting the rest of the crew in the cockpit to look out into the night sky also. As they did so, they would witness a “row of bright white lights” seemingly part of a solid object.

Artist's impression of the plane

Artist’s impression of the plane

When a sudden flash of lightning lit up the clouds, the crew could clearly make out the distinct outline of a cigar-shaped object. They would estimate the object, of which it was also clear the row of lights were a part of, was around 300-to-400 feet long.

All amazed by what they were seeing but professional in the calm, the crew continued to watch and monitor the object. As they did Tollefson reached for the radio to contact the control tower at Albuquerque in New Mexico. He would inform them of the object while also stating that although they could see the anomaly, their radars were not picking up the craft. Tollefson would describe the flashing lights as:

…There is a strobe on it and it starts from going counterclockwise. And the length is unbelievable! [1]

Albuquerque control tower, however, maintained that they had no detection of the apparent anomalous craft.

“The Secret Stuff!”

Perhaps one of the most interesting details of the conversation between the control tower in Albuquerque and the pilots was the initial response from the tower regarding the location of the flashing lights. The tower would respond:

That is a restricted area that is used by the military out there during the daytime!

Tollefson would state a short time later in the conversation that despite 15 years’ experience flying such planes this was the first time he had ever witnessed anything so bizarre. He would also add that “it’s probably military in that restricted area”.

It was also around this point in the timeline of events that the control tower would contact Cannon Air Force Base in nearby Clovis. Following a quick conversation between the control tower and the military base, the crew onboard Flight 564 were informed that no other traffic was in their vicinity and that “nobody up front knows any idea about that”.

Artist's impression of the cigar shaped craft

Artist’s impression of the cigar shaped craft

However, in the minutes following this, a mystery voice appears in the conversation. It is possible this is the pilot of the plane that was already on routine patrols in the area. But as is highlighted in the NICAP report on the incident, it is “never clear just what type of aircraft this is”. Or who the mystery person might be. It is clear, however, as the report also notes, that “the individual clearly overheard the recent discussion”.

What is interesting, though, is the response following the control tower informing the individual that the pilot (Tollefson) had witnessed a “large object with a strobe”. To this, this mystery pilot would state:

Ah…the secret stuff!

Whether extraterrestrial or top-secret military, at least some high-ranking people appeared very much in-the-know.

“Searching For ET!”

As the commercial airliner continued on its course, the strange object appeared to fall behind them. This caused Tollefson to inform the mystery pilot, as well as another plane that enters the conversation – later identified as Hawk 85 – that they should be able to see them very shortly.

The control tower would inform the Hawk 85 to “be looking off your right side” for anything strange or unidentified. He would inform him of the estimated altitude and that the object was long, cigar-shaped and with a strobe along the side. Perhaps interestingly the pilot responded that he is “…searching for ET”.

Artist's impression of the UFO from the plane

Artist’s impression of the UFO from the plane

While this is most likely a loose jargon term, it is certainly something that many UFO researchers and enthusiasts picked up on. Is it nothing to be concerned about? Or is the use of the phrase “ET” a slip of the tongue?

Whatever the answer to those questions might be, the object would disappear from sight shortly after. Whether it simply became lost in the crowd or whether it vacated the area at speed is unknown.

As would come to light during the subsequent investigation into the sighting – both official and independent – the actions of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) would come under scrutiny from some corners. And what’s more, those actions would prove to be suspicious at best.

NORAD – First They Did, Then They Didn’t!

There were also several confusing statements from NORAD in the initial aftermath to the incident. For example, on the night in question, the Albuquerque control tower would contact NORAD. They would enquire if they had any further information regarding the strange craft the American Airlines aircraft had reported.

The initial response was that they were indeed tracking an unknown object. And it was in the same region as that reported by the commercial airliner. What’s more, upon communication with NORAD the following day, they would confirm the tracking of the unknown object. And offer that it was stationary to begin with before great bursts of speed around a blistering 1,000 to 1,400 miles per hour, in several stop-start motions.

View from the cockpit of the plane

View from the cockpit of the plane

However, in the weeks and months that would follow the incident, particularly as independent investigations began to take place and the incident became public knowledge, NORAD would, at first, claim the object was nothing but a “small plane”, and then simply deny tracking an anomalous craft altogether.

Ultimately, their public U-turn on tracking the bizarre craft, one that moved in excess of 1,000 miles per hour no less, would make more people suspicious than not that the organization was not being entirely truthful in the public light. Essentially, their complete turn on the events of 25th May would appear to have lent the incident even more credibility than it already had.

No Evidence To Suggest Military Involvement!

One of the leading investigators of the Flight 564 sighting was Walter Webb. He would not only examine the reports and conduct extensive interviews but would also set about filing several Freedom of Information Acts. All in an effort to unveil any out of the ordinary incidents on the night in question.

Ultimately, though, no evidence to suggest any military vehicles – secret or otherwise – were in the vicinity on the evening of 25th May 1995. Nor were there any records or any outside aircraft in the area, meaning that whatever the strange object was, it would appear the military – a NORAD – were as blindsided by the sudden aerial anomaly as the crew of Flight 564. Perhaps this explains the initial, and from their perspective regrettable response in the original communications between themselves and the control tower in Albuquerque.

Of course, it is also perfectly reasonable to suspect that such records of a top-secret military vehicle would remain hidden. Deep within government systems. Safe even from Freedom of Information Acts, if they even exist at all. While the encounter very much appears to be a genuine and authentic sighting of an extraterrestrial vessel from elsewhere in the universe, there remains a very credible chance that what the pilots witnessed was a technically advanced black-budget vehicle of the United States’ government.

Before we move on, check out the video below. It features a reconstruction of the incident, featuring parts of the real audio. Incidentally, you can view the recording in its entirety at the end of this article.

Other Early-90s Midair UFO Incidents

As we mentioned in the opening, UFO incidents and sightings from planes have happened since the beginning of the modern UFO era. And before even then if we include the Foo Fighter sightings of the Second World War. There were, however, several relatively high-profile incidents in the early-to-mid 1990s.

As the decades of the twentieth century rolled by, the amount of air traffic around the planet would steadily increase. And that air traffic, with improvements and investments would bring more and more parts of the world, figuratively at least, much closer together. It is certainly possible that as our collective presence increases in our skies, the number of strange incidents and objects we are likely to see. That these “strange objects” are up there above our respective cities and countries is surely beyond any doubt.

Whether these sightings have connections to each other or not is perhaps open to debate. They are, however, most definitely worth examining [2] here, if only briefly.

The Close Encounter Of Captain Zaghetti, April 1991

Shortly after 9 pm on the evening of 21st April 1991, Captain Achille Zaghetti would not only witness a bizarre craft as he piloted his McDonnel MD-80 plane off the coast of Kent in the United Kingdom at an altitude of approximately 20,000 feet, he barely avoided it crashing right into him.

He would report the incident, describing the object as “light brown, round, (and) three meters long”. Furthermore, although he had only several moments to view the object, he didn’t recall seeing “any means of propulsion”.

The incident would be subject to an investigation by the Civil Aviation Authority. This, due to the hazardous and potentially fatal nature of it. The investigation would last approximately two weeks. Although their “extensive enquiries” wouldn’t determine what the object was. They did reveal that air traffic control in London had picked up a “faint radar trace” in the same location on the night in question.

A depiction of a UFO in a cloudy sky

There are many UFO sightings that involve planes

However, several weeks later on 1st June, the crew of a Britannia Airways Boeing 737 would report witnessing a “yellow-orange cylindrical object” as it made its way from London to Dublin. The object was approximately 10 feet in length and would disappear into the distance. On the 17th June, an almost identical object was reported by a German flight engineer onboard a Dan Air Flight plane on its way to Hamburg.

The sightings, at least involving commercial and private airliners would settle down as the summer gave way to autumn. Beginning in 1994, however, several more incidents would unfold, each of which would receive considerable media attention.

The Flight AF-3532 Sighting, January 1994

Captain Jean-Charles Duboc and his copilot Valeria Chauffour were ferrying their 24 passengers from Nice to London on the afternoon of 28th January 1994 when a stewardess who happened to be in the cockpit at the time alerted the two pilots to what appeared to be a hot air balloon. It was in the immediate vicinity of their plane as they made their way over the Coulommiers region of Paris.

A depiction of a UFO outside the plane

A depiction of a UFO outside the plane

Duboc and Chauffour each looked out of the cockpit window to examine the strange object themselves. However, it appeared to move much faster than a hot air balloon. And what’s more, it appeared to “have a variable form”. Even more bizarre, the “slope” on which the object was climbing appeared to the experienced pilot to be “absolutely abnormal” to any that a conventional aircraft would use. Duboc would further state:

This object seemed to us then absolutely abnormal by its size. Which seemed immense, (and) its dark red color and the fuzzy edges…It did not resemble anything we had seen in our flying careers!

Duboc would decline to write a report of the incident at the time, fearing ridicule from his colleagues. And even worse from his superiors. Then, three years later he read an article about a UFO sighting above Paris. It was then he realized it was describing the incident he had witnessed from the air. He would submit his report to the French Police, who had a department that would collect and examine such reports.

The incident remains unexplained.

The Manchester “Near-Miss” Incident, January 1995

We have examined very briefly the events of 6th January 1995 when British Airways Flight 5061 approached Manchester Airport following its journey from Milan in Italy. As Captain Roger Willis and co-pilot Mark Stuart guided the aircraft over the Pennines region of England, a glowing, oval-shaped object appeared out of nowhere. And screeched right past their plane. Within seconds, it was out of sight again. Had the incident occurred several seconds later, it would have surely been a “direct hit”. Which would have likely destroyed the plane outright. And equally likely causing the deaths of all onboard.

While it is speculation in retrospect, how close the incident could have been to a deadly and tragic encounter is perhaps not truly appreciated. Even in the UFO community.

An example of the view from the plane cockpit

An example of the view from the plane cockpit

Once more, like the many similar sightings, including those we have examined here, despite the visual sighting of the bizarre craft by the pilots, the control tower at Manchester Airport picked up nothing unusual on their radar equipment.

The incident was investigated fully, however. And not only by the Civil Aviation Authority. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) would even examine the sighting. Even conducting extensive interviews with the pilots themselves, who would stick to the initial version of events. By April 1996, almost 18 months after the incident, the MoD would suddenly drop the case from their active investigations.

The incident remains without explanation. As we have examined previously, Manchester appears to be a discreet and little-known UFO hotspot. And what’s more, these sightings appear to be increasing.

The Long Island Incident, November 1995

Just short of a year after the Manchester Airport incident on the evening of 18th November 1995, across the Atlantic Ocean over Long Island in New York, another British Airways plane, Flight 226, was approaching Long Island following their departure from London several hours later.

Furthermore, several other aircraft including an Airbus A-340 arriving from Germany would also report the object to the control tower at Boston’s Logan Airport. The control tower, after reporting that no other aircraft was in their location, also stated that they didn’t have the apparent anomaly on their radar screens.

Perhaps most interesting was the dialogue between the Airbus A-340 pilot and the control tower. Especially following his being pressed to describe the situation. After confirming that the object didn’t have any lights aside from an extremely bright light on the front of it, the captain would state clearly:

It looked like a U-F-O!

Several skeptics would argue that the object the pilots witnessed was simply a meteorite. This was something that was outright dismissed by each of the witnesses. The incident still requires a satisfactory explanation.

The Air Shuttle 5959/Mesaba 3179 Incident, February 1996

While heading over Cleveland, Ohio on the 28th February 1996, the crew of Air Shuttle Flight 5959 would notice a strange, glowing craft in the immediate vicinity below them. The pilot would immediately contact Cleveland Air Traffic Control to enquire if the object was on their radar screens. The reply would come back that there wasn’t.

Unbeknown to the crew of the Air Shuttle 5959, the crew of a nearby Mesaba Airlines plane, Flight 3179, were listening in to the communications between their plane and the control tower. When they too saw the bizarre craft, they would add their report to the unfolding incident. The control tower would suggest that perhaps the object was, in fact, a reflection from a landing beacon below. However, each of the crews would reject this.

At this point, the pilot of the Air Shuttle 5959 would make the decision to drop his altitude. And observe the object from below. Upon doing so the “spinning, pulsating object” was still very much visible. This would dismiss the landing beacon suggestion. Following this, the Mesaba 3179 pilot began to blink its lights in an effort to communicate. The object, however, would not respond. Shortly after, the object disappeared from sight.

Perhaps also of interest is a claim from the Mesaba 3179 pilot. He had received notice that one of his passengers had managed to capture a picture of the object. The control tower would respond that “they would like to take a look” at it. The picture has never surfaced in the public arena and its location is unknown.

You can listen to some of the communications of the incident in the video below. Extremely intriguing and eye-opening dialogue.

The Kennedy Airport Incident, August 1997

Sixteen minutes after taking off from Philadelphia International Airport, at just after 5 pm on the 9th August 1997, Captain Phil Bobet and the crew of the Swiss Airlines flight witnessed a strange craft zipping by their plane as they made their way over Kennedy Airport in New York.

The evening was perfectly clear, and visibility was extremely good. So good, in fact, that downtown New York City was clearly visible from their position. Bobet was making a routine announcement to the passengers on the radio system. However, as he did so, he would see the bizarre craft zoom past their plane. One of the First Officers also saw the object. Purely because he was looking out of the left side of the plane by chance at the correct time.

Artist's impression of the strange lights

Artist’s impression of the strange lights

Bobet would quickly wrap up his announcement before radioing in to the control tower. He would advise them of the object they had just witnessed. He would state that he wasn’t sure “if it was a rocket”. But that it was “too fast to be an airplane”. The Boston control tower would note the incident. No further information or explanation would surface, and the incident remains a mystery. However, the detail matches with what we know of other sightings of a similar nature.

The Sweden-to-Humberside “Battleship UFO” Incident, February 1999

While flying executive employees from Sweden to Humberside in the United Kingdom on the 28th February 1999, the pilots of a private plane witnessed a “long, cylindrical object” over the North Sea just off the coast of Denmark.

They would go on to further describe the object as having a distinct red glow to it. As well as being “as big as a battleship”. The incident occurred at an altitude of approximately 28,000 feet. The object was beneath their plane and soaking their underside in an “incandescent light”. What’s more, the strange, glowing object would “come to a sudden halt”. It would then take off again at breakneck speed and vanish into the distance.

The pilots would have to make a report, as per standard procedure, to the Civil Aviation Authority. However, because there was “no danger to the aircraft or passengers” there was no subsequent investigation.

In the aftermath of the sighting, the pilot in question, whether coincidentally or not, was on leave from the company. Consequently, they wouldn’t speak to the media. Incidentally, requests for more information were beginning to stack up with the company, Debonair.

Incidentally, a representative of Humberside Airport, Tracey Law, claimed there was “no mention made whatsoever of UFOs in the initial report”. She would even go as far as to say that part was “since embellished” by the media. As was the use of the description that the craft was “as big as a battleship”. Of course, whether this was an exercise in damage control or not, is perhaps open to debate.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the incident, it remains without explanation.

An Increase In Sightings? Or An Increase In The Willingness To Report?

Whether there was a genuine increase in UFO sightings in the same vicinity as commercial airliners during the 1990s is perhaps subject to discussion and further investigation.

One thing to keep in mind for all decades is how many such sightings went unreported. For example, did the 1990s not represent an actual increase in UFO activity but such factors as the widespread “public acceptance” of such notions of UFOs and aliens, combined with the arrival of the Internet make it easier for experienced pilots to report the incidents they witnessed?

Furthermore, if there are connections between these UFO encounters and the many terrestrial aircraft in our skies at any one time, what those connections might be are a subject of investigation unto themselves.

Perhaps of most interest, if we accept that these objects are nuts-and-bolts vehicles, whether extraterrestrial or top-secret black-budget aircraft, what are the chances of an actual collision with an airliner somewhere around the world? Might it already have happened and been overlooked, perhaps even covered up?

Those are purely speculative notions on our part. The fact is, at least according to some researchers, that such collisions come close to happening more than many people think.

The short video below features UFO expert, Nick Pope, speaking about the risk of unidentified objects colliding with an airliner.

Many Encounters From The Past (And Future) Still Have Information To Give

Although we will not go over them here, there have seemingly been a rise in UFO sightings and “near misses” involving anomalous objects and commercial airliners in the later years of the opening decades of the 2000s. And, in a similar break from the norm displayed in the 1990s, it is notable to all how the pilots and even the airlines themselves are apparently transparent in their investigations of the sightings, as well as an apparent willingness for pilots themselves to stick their professional necks out and speak publicly, as well as giving their name to such incidents.

Such displays are not lost on many in the UFO community. And are of great importance for the overall acceptance of UFO activity among the wider populace. As well as the funding for serious study. That is ultimately required to get to the heart of answers to the UFO and alien question.

Whether there is an advantage or an extra layer of credibility to a sighting when the witness is an experienced airline pilot is open to debate. However, that they spend more time in the air than most of us surely counts for something. And with that in mind, when such pilots are willing to risk the trust of their employers or even their own reputations, professional and personal, we should listen and digest in full their reports.

We might also ask ourselves, how many other similar sightings from airline pilots around the world, perhaps that occurred many years ago, are waiting for the day their respective witnesses decide to come forward and put their encounters on their record.

Check out the video below. It is the full recording of the radio communication of the Flight 564 incident. As we have seen, just one of many similar encounters.


1 Transcript of Communication, American West Airlines Flight 564, NICAP
2 UFOs and Planes, UFO Casebook

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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  • Ian says:

    Awesome account on Flight 564.

    I’m actually developing a video for it on Youtube which is how I came across this site.

    I’m not a big fan of the conspiracy parts of UFO theory but I’m very interested in the 5-10% that perplexes investigators.

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