Home Nonmilitary action Veteran Air Traffic Controller on Handling Stranger Things in the Sky

Veteran Air Traffic Controller on Handling Stranger Things in the Sky

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“Makes you feel like they’re just hiding things from you.”

This is how Colin Scoggins describes the US military’s response to a potential sighting of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) while at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center. Scoggins is now retired, but his accounts of various instances where he and his colleagues saw mysterious blips on their radars or heard reports of other sightings are timelessly intriguing.

Scoggins began his career in the US Air Force, working on fighter jets like the F-4 Phantom as a crew chief. Once out, he started school at West Virginia University and drank part-time at a local bar to pay the bills. It was at this facility that he met three air traffic controllers (ATC) who were working in the Morgantown Municipal Airport Tower in the spring of 1981.

An F-4D Phantom II from the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing. Scoggins was a crew chief in the Air Force who worked on planes like the F-4. Credit: Mike Freer/Wikimedia Commons

“They were joking about going on strike in June, and I almost thought I was going back to duty,” Scoggins said. The war zone. “And they said, ‘No, you should become a controller. So I actually took the test at the time and then they ended up going on strike in August and I was already back in the northeast and called the regional and told them I wanted to, you know, become a controller.

Unfortunately, he was told that the test he had already taken had expired and he had to take the new one. After passing the updated exam, Scoggins discovered that it could be about a year before he knew whether or not he got the job. Young, married, recently accepted to Northeastern University and in need of a reliable income, Scoggins once again considered returning to the Air Force. That was until just days after Christmas when an interview request came in the mail. In 1982, Scoggins began training for his position at the FAA.

The Morgantown airport where the three ATCs who asked Scoggins to become one worked in Morgantown, West Virginia. Credit: West Virginia and Regional History Center

Once officially hired, he worked in the northern Maine airspace until a powerlifting accident resulted in a shoulder injury that required Scoggins to be on medication for an extended period. Because of this, he was taken off the ground and transferred to the aerospace office where he would work throughout his healing process. After serving in that position and spending a bit more time in the field, Boston Center’s military liaison was removed from his post in 1995, and Scoggins was asked to work on both the military airspace sides and civilian of his department in the meantime. Then around 2005, he was relieved of his comptroller position and became the Boston Center’s military specialist until his retirement in 2016.

With more than three decades of experience working for the military and FAA, Scoggins is not short on stories. Stories ranging from some of the RQ-4’s first landings to his hand in the tragic United Flight 93 are just some of the defining career moments Scoggins could share, but his experience with strange things that happened in or near the country’s airspace is nonetheless notable. Although some were quickly or gradually debunked, the events still constitute a unique insight into how the FAA and the military handled UAP sightings, particularly prior to 9/11.

Aerial view of the FAA’s Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center in Nashua, NH Google Earth

In terms of UAP protocol, Scoggins explained that his department had a relatively standard requirement to report anything they saw or received to the team supervisor who would then pass it on to the operations manager. He said it was also procedure to report it to the military, and for Scoggins that meant contacting the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS).

“Understand that most controllers have some personality,” Scoggins said. “Normally we control individuals. We like to control just about everything and none of us have patience. I still have no patience today after being retired for six years.”

Sometimes, however, Scoggins said a particularly busy day would only warrant an acknowledgment of a possible incident before time constraints forced the team to move on. Others would lead to specialized investigations.

“As far as how most controllers feel if they’re real, I think most feel they are,” Scoggins said. “And if they believe they’re not from our world, I’m sure there are a few. I think most believe they’re probably from our world and probably from our own government. “

He added that there is a small percentage of conspiracy theorists among ATC, just like there are in the general public, who will believe what they want to believe. Although he doesn’t recall ever being told not to report his findings, he also didn’t think a controller felt his job was in jeopardy if he did.

“I had three cases that I can think of,” Scoggins said. “One of them was definitely a meteor crashing into the ocean. A pilot saw it and thought it was a UFO. Another guy flying at a 90 degree angle from it saw and said, “No, it’s definitely a meteor that went straight into the ocean. So we could cancel that one.”

Meteors are often mistaken by onlookers for UAPs or UFOs. Cosmic chunks of rock, large and small, travel through space all the time, sometimes entering Earth’s atmosphere and emitting a fiery glow as they burn. It can also cause the meteor to break apart, eventually becoming multiple pieces so small that it essentially vanishes into thin air. These characteristics could lead many people to believe that they have just seen a UFO when it is a common celestial event.

A meteor crosses the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

“Another was at dusk or dawn,” Scoggins said. “We had a Boeing 747 pilot swear that one of the passengers in the back seat said he saw rockets fired at their plane. At the time, we had air traffic assistants for tracking systems and it was usually ex-pilots. This guy was an ex-Boeing 747 in the right seat and he said, ‘You know what I’m guessing? Was it on a bend?” And I said, yes, and he said, “At dusk or at dawn, the light can shine through the window on the other side of the wing, then when they straighten the wing, the light comes back to you.”

Because such an optical illusion could convince someone with an untrained eye that a rocket was fired at their plane, Scoggins was the first to admit that the air traffic assistant’s guess was entirely viable. But he made sure to take into consideration the specific airspace the 747 was flying in at the time.

“This pilot was near Warning Area 102, which was sometimes used for live fire, but normally it wasn’t,” Scoggins added. “We also had no military activity in Alert Area 102 at the time, so it couldn’t have been a rocket fired at them because we didn’t have anyone up there.”

A Boeing 747 landing in Spain at dusk, an environment similar to that described by Scoggins. Credit: Jordi Cucurul/Wikimedia Commons

According to GlobalSecurity, Warning Area 102 is part of the Boston Area Complex in waters adjacent to the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York. The overall Military Operations Area also includes Warning Areas 103 and 104, Small Spikes Firing Range, and Underwater Transit Lanes. In terms of military activities conducted in this area, beyond air training, these operations could include surface-to-air gunnery, anti-submarine warfare tactics, and surface and subsurface exercises.

Scoggins used this knowledge to help him determine if a rocket or missile had indeed been fired not just at the aforementioned 747, but at the tragic Trans World Airlines Flight 800 (TWA 800) which also crashed in the middle of its career. Before the reasoning behind the TWA 800 explosion was finally reached, there were allegations that a missile had been fired at the airliner.

A Trans World Airlines Boeing 747. Credit: Eduard Marmet/Wikimedia Commons

“Now it was only a few years later when TWA 800 broke down, and I spent two years working on that,” Scoggins said. “I had to research any military activity that was going on at the time that could possibly have fired a rocket, and we had a C-130 there at the time in warning area 105, but they wouldn’t have fired no rockets.

After a four-year National Transportation Safety Board investigation, Scoggins’ work, along with the help of all other experts and departments involved, later determined that the disastrous TWA 800 in-flight explosion was caused by flammable fuel vapors in the center fuel tank. A short-circuit. The incident killed all 230 people on board. But that wasn’t the last of Scoggins’ encounters with strange happenings in the airspace around and off the US east coast.

A photograph of the right side of the large three-dimensional reconstruction of TWA Flight 800. Credit: National Transportation Safety Board accident report

“The only other we had was a plane flying at 49,000 feet in a straight line passing over New York at about 900 knots,” Scoggins said. “We reported it to the military three or four times and they just kept saying, ‘No, we don’t see anything.’ And I think it was definitely a [real radar] target. So I guess the military knew who it was, and they weren’t going to tell us.”

Scoggins is confident in this claim because, before 9/11, he said the military shared the same radars that the Boston Center used on the coast. He explained that if he was using the radar located at Riverhead on Long Island, so was the military. If he was using Bucks Harbor radar in Maine, the military was looking at exactly the same thing.

An aerial view of the Bucks Harbor Radar Station in Maine. Google Earth

He even added that the military actually owns these sites and often adjusts and works on them. For some perspective he went on to mention that his department also had a site in Skowhegan, Maine called an air traffic control radar beacon system and these were non-military and not looking for not the raw radar returns. However, Bucks Harbor and Riverhead had the raw primary radar the military actually used, so Scoggins was sure the Pentagon was looking at the exact same information, but insisted they hadn’t seen anything.

“The Army has a lot of things,” Scoggins said. “I’m not really a fan of actual UFOs, but I’m a firm believer that if the SR-71 was made in the 1960s, I’m sure we’ve got a lot better out there now. Who knows what we’ve got really, but I know there are other controllers out there who have seen a lot more.

Thanks to Colin Scoggins for taking the time to share his experiences with the FAA for this article.

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