"To improve aviation safety and to enhance scientific knowledge"




Analysis of a Photograph of a High Speed Ball of Light

Richard F. Haines

Copyright 2003

Los Altos, California

January 26, 2002

Date of Photograph: July 16, 1988

Time of Photograph: approx. 1400 PST

Location:  33o 49' N; 116o 44' W (West of Palm Springs, CA)
Duration of Sighting: from 5 to 10 seconds

Number of UAP: one

Number of eye witnesses: one plus others (alleged)

Number of photographic frames: one


   This pilot sighting report and color photograph of an unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) called for a number of different forensic methods including photo-analysis, aircraft window study, camera-lens-film analyses, and evaluation of reporter credibility. The single frame, Kodak color, copy negative was submitted for examination by one of the several eye-witnesses. This paper describes the results of these analyses.  It is concluded that: (1) whatever the UAP was it was probably in sub-sonic flight. If the UAP was travelling at subsonic speed the estimated total sighting duration and/or its estimated distance from the witness are clearly in error by a factor of two or more, (2) no evidence of a hoax or double exposure was found nor were any bolides, meteorites, or other unidentified aerial phenomena reported for that time and place, (3) the luminance of the main body of the object and immediately adjacent tail area were so high they  fully saturated (exposed) the relatively “slow” film. This may explain why the photograph does not correspond closely to what was seen, (4) the film’s optical density, as measured along the length of the white tail behind the UAP, changed in a peculiar fashion and is not characteristic of reflected sunlight off water droplet vapor, and (5) interesting micro-details were discovered that suggest the possibility of some type of energy emissions extending from the UAP but not necessarily in the direction of its flight. The nature of the UAP and constitution of its atmospheric trail remains unknown at this time.

Introduction and Flight Background Details

   As many writers have said before, the credibility of a purported ufo photograph rests far more upon the credibility of the photographer than upon all of the technical characteristics and details producing the photograph. But when the credibility of the eye witness is found to be high and no evidence of fraud or hoax is found it is more reasonable to accept the photograph at least as what it purports to be, evidence of an interesting, if unknown, phenomenon of some kind.

   An interesting aerial sighting (with 35mm  color slide) was reported by photographer-witness, R. J. Childerhose (1966) on August 27, 1956.  He was flying a Royal Canadian Air Force F-86 jet at the time.  As noted by Klass (1968, pg. 146), "The photo (used on the dust cover of his book) shows an intensely bright, white, egg-shaped object that seems to be suspended below an intense thunderstorm" but visible through a hole in the clouds whose tops were at about 12,000 feet altitude or higher.  He told Klass that the object seemed to have sharply defined edges and looked "like a shiny silver dollar sitting horizontal."  The pilot also wrote to tell Dr. James McDonald (Maccabee, 1999, pg. 209) that "…the photo of the bright object doesn't  represent quite what appeared to the naked eye. When I first saw the object it appeared as a very bright, clearly defined discoid, like a silver dollar lying on its side. The photo makes it look like a blob of light, the result of light intensity."  Both Klass and Altschuler, a member of the University of Colorado's UFO study panel (Gillmor, 1968, pg. 733), felt that the object seen and photographed by Childerhose was ball lightning.  Later work by Maccabee (1999) suggests that few of the characteristics of ball lightning match those seen and photographed by this pilot witness.

   Childerhose tried to explain why what he saw did not correspond to what appeared on his  photograph.  He stated, "The light it emitted was very much brighter than the existing sunlight at that time of day and this over-exposed the film, causing the blurred edges you see in the picture."  (Klass, 1968, pg. 147)  Subsequent assumptions and calculations by Maccabee (1999) suggest that the object was actually made up of two distinct bright spots/objects very close to one another whose luminous surrounds merged together and that its power output would have been more than 109 watts.  This classic photograph has continued to perplex investigators over the years.  Interestingly, the author learned about  the existence of another  photograph, described in this paper, that contains a number of elements similar to the Childerhose event. As will be seen, the present case is important not only because of the apparent overlap it has with the earlier event but also because it might shed more light on why some photographs don't correspond more closely with what was reportedly seen.

   The author received word via e-mail to the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP)1 on January 27, 2001 that a John Williams (pseudonym) had in his possession an “original photo and negative as well as the flight log…”.  In this e-mail he also provided a relatively complete narrative of his flight location when the event occurred, viz., five miles NE of Mt. San Jacinto which is about eight miles NW of Palm Springs airport, California.

Basic Sighting Events

   Mr. Williams, piloting a Mini-Nimbus/C sailplane2, towed behind a standard tow plane, took off from Hemet, California's Ryan airport[1] at 1315 hrs PST on July 16, 1988 and climbed toward the NE, eventually reaching an altitude of about 12,000 feet above ground level (AGL). The ground in this area rises from 1,600 feet above mean sea level (MSL) gradually toward the east where the San Jacinto mountain range (typically from 7,000 to 10,000 feet high) runs roughly north and south. Since the primary purpose of this flight (which lasted just over ninety minutes) was to obtain color photographs of the sailplane in flight from a chase plane, Mr. Williams had arranged for a personal friend to ride both as passenger and photographer in the Mooney 201 aircraft4 with the pilot (Mr. D. L. S.) sitting in the left seat.  Mr. R. C. sat in the right-front seat and took twenty four photographs (mainly) through his right-hand window.  Mr. Williams provided him both the camera and film (discussed later) and recovered all items immediately upon landing5.

     Upon reaching 12,000 feet altitude the (commercial) tow-plane released the sailplane and immediately banked away to return to Hemet airport. The pilot of the chase plane, Mr. D.L.S., followed behind and generally to the left hand side of the sailplane which permitted the photographer to take his photos from the right hand window.  All three individuals were in constant radio communication throughout the flight on 123.3 MHz.  Figure 1 is a photograph of the Mooney 201 chase plane taken by Williams with his calibrated cockpit camera during the flight.

 Figure 1

Mooney 201 Aircraft
(Registration: N1985Y)

   Figure 2 was prepared to help understand the relative instantaneous locations of the sailplane (S), chase plane (A) and the unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP) of interest, and other geometry.  The heavy black line (V - V') indicates the approximate flight path of the sailplane during the five to ten second-long visual sighting. The straight dashed line (Y - Z)  is the assumed linear path of motion of the UAP.  The angle (X-A-X'; not drawn to scale) represents the camera lens' angular diameter subtending an arc (Th) of approximately 57 degrees (discussed later).

Figure 2

Sketch of Relative Aircraft Locations
and UAP During the Visual Sighting

   Note in Figure 2 that during the sighting the sailplane was on a heading of about 45 degrees (magnetic); it was approximately “five miles North East of  Mt. San Jacinto” at the time. In the primary witness’ own words, “…a shallow descent was established to 11,000 ft. to build air speed for (the) photo run.  A number of photos were taken without anything unusual (happening), then a bank and turn to the right, away from the chase plane was made (V – V’). During this turn observers in both aircraft observed, and the photographer in the chase plane photographed the UAP seen in Figure 3.  Williams said that the fast-moving object looked like "…a large reflecting sphere… almost like a large ball bearing with a tail."

   Initially, the UAP came from the 7:00 position relative to the sailplane (point Y) and passed in front of him at an estimated  distance (d) of about 1 – 2 miles. According to Williams, "It (the UAP) exited (my) vision at the 1:00 position relative to the sailplane.”  (point Z). Perhaps the single most critical question is how large was distance (d)?

   Mr. Williams indicated that they landed between 1445 and 1500 hrs at Hemet, Ryan Field. This amounted to a total flight duration of from 90 to 105 minutes.

;   Chase Plane Details. With a propeller tip-to-tip length of  6’ 2” located less than ten feet ahead of the cameraman it would be unwise to photograph another aircraft looking through it directly ahead of the chase plane. A fast shutter speed could almost “stop” a blade making it become visible during its rotation or at least produce a darkened blur region that could reduce the clarity of the image. So Mr. R. C. took all photos through the right side cabin window. These photographs would likely have been taken somewhat oblique to the window plane as suggested in Figure 1.

The UAP Photograph

Figure 3 shows the Mini-Nimbus/C sailplane against a clear blue-sky background with the unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) (white streaked region) seen just above it. The local time was about 1400 hrs. If the photograph is rotated thirty degrees CW to place the sailplane in a right-hand bank the UAP’s trajectory is seen in a slight climb just as Williams recalled it.

   If the UAP was at a higher altitude than the witness and in straight and level flight, perceptu- ally speaking, it would have appeared to be rising as it passed him.

Figure 3

Photograph of Sailplane and UAP

Other Potential Eye Witnesses

   This event allegedly involved as many as five eye witnesses in four different aircraft: (1) the sailplane in which Mr. Williams visually sighted the UAP, (2) a Mooney model 201 chase plane with a pilot (D. S. now deceased) and Mr. R. C. the photographer and friend of Mr. Williams, (3) a second sailplane in the vicinity whose pilot (Capt. Leo; first name) was the first to see the approaching UAP, and (4) the tow plane pilot.6 It was learned that Mr. R. C., was an engineer who had worked previously for the Hewlett-Packard Company. He is a "very private person" according to Williams. In 1988 both he and Williams were employed in law enforcement and were very concerned that their careers would be affected by seeing and reporting this phenomenon. They maintained only infrequent contact after he (Williams) moved from southern California to the state of Washington.  Williams did not know the identity of Capt. Leo other than his first name and that he was a commercial pilot.  Although over thirteen years had passed since this incident took place the author attempted to locate the other alleged witnesses but without success. When asked why he waited so long to report his sighting Williams answered that he had no particular interest in ufo nor did he even place his photograph in that category.  He simply forgot about the incident and the photograph until many years later (January 10, 2000) when he came across the National UFO Reporting Center's web site and decided to submit a report to them "in case someone might be interested in it." As mentioned above, he subsequently learned of NARCAP's existence and contacted us because of our interest in UAP and flight safety.


   Camera.  A Minolta Maxxum Model 7000, 35mm, single lens reflex camera body was used with motorized film advance capability (permitting up to two frames/second in the continuous exposure mode). The camera was allegedly set to AE (automatic exposure) mode such that all the photographer had to do was aim, zoom, and shoot.

   Lens. A Rokor zoom lens was used with focal length range from 28 to 80 mm. The f-stop range for this lens is from 3.5 to 4.5 for these limiting focal lengths, respectively.

   Set to the full zoom position (28mm focal length), the angular width of the resulting photograph is approximately 57 degrees arc.  At the manufacture’s ‘standard’ setting the photo’s angular width would have been about 40 degrees arc which value is used for calculations made in the present paper. Since the zoom setting was not recorded this value could be in error. Nevertheless, the overall conclusions of the analyses are not changed materially if a different angular width were used.

   In the A-E mode, this camera possesses a fixed exposure “program,” i.e., the relationship between aperture and shutter speed at a given zoom setting is pre-established. Figure 4 presents the A-E program factors for this model camera. It shows that mid-way between f3.5 and f4.5 and its “TELE” lens setting, the resultant shutter speed would have been approximately 1/500 second.  Likewise, if the zoom lens had been set at its mid-point the corresponding shutter speed would have been approximately 1/250th second.  Finally, if the zoom lens had been set at its widest setting the corresponding shutter speed would have been about 1/30th second. In order to obtain a shot with the sailplane almost filling the entire frame the zoom setting would have had to be at least at its mid point or more; an assumed shutter speed of 1/250th second is used here which is consistent with the sharpness of the sailplane's image.

Figure 4

Automatic Exposure Relationships

   Shutter speed is important because the longer the shutter is open the greater is the chance for image blur to occur due to chase plane/camera motion. Conversely, a sharply defined target object indicates a relatively stable camera and target during an exposure. This clearly was the case here. The upper and front edge of the UAP that appears to have a double boundary must be due to some other cause than camera motion.

   Film. The negative stock was Kodak VPS 5026 which is also known as Vericolor III Professional Film. This 35mm, medium speed, color negative film possesses a nominal ASA rating of 100.  “This film is designed for exposure with daylight or electronic flash at exposure times of 1/10,000 second to 1/10 second.” (Kodak, Pg. 2, 1997) The grain size and image structure on the enlargement received by the author appears to be consistent with statements made in the Kodak specification sheet; their print grain index sets a value of 25 as the “approximate visual threshold for graininess” (given various standardized viewing conditions). A higher number represents an increase in the amount of observed graininess.  Kodak’s published print grain index for a 35mm negative of Vericolor III film enlarged to 8” x 10” is 61.  If further enlarged to 16” x 20” this value increases to 91. Inspection of the present 8” x 11” color positive print reveals obvious graininess, as expected.  The yellow forming dye layer peaks in sensitivity at 425 nm and ends at a maximum wavelength of 525 nm. The magenta layer peaks at 558 nm  and ends at 620 nm and the cyan-forming layer peaks at 660 nm and ends at 690 nm. Its modulation-transfer function curve is relatively flat at between 2.5 and 12 cycles/minute arc and then smoothly falls off to 32% response at about 75 cycles/minute arc.  In short, this professional film supports relatively high resolution photography over a wide range of contrasts. Consult the following web site for more information:


   On March 9, 2001 the author received a 4.25” long, color negative strip containing one exposed frame (no. 3A) connected to frames 4A and 5A that were unexposed for some unexplained reason.” The single exposed UAP frame was in very good condition with no scratches at all; it did contain a lighter density, linear border measuring 2.05 mm wide on the vertical dimension and a 0.9 mm wide border on its lower edge.  A positive print made by the author from this negative showed these two black borders which was absent on the 8” x 11” enlargement received from Williams (i.e., either they had been cropped out or his photo had been made from another negative). The total frame width was 36 mm as expected. The presence of these two visible borders that could not have been produced within the camera during exposure, coupled with the absence of any exposed frames after the UAP frame, strongly suggest that this was not the original negative but a copy negative. Where could this copy negative have originated if not from Mr. Williams?

   Film Processing.  Mr. Williams said that upon receiving his camera from his friend (R. C.) immediately after landing he placed the camera (with film still inside) into his nylon camera bag. He said he took the exposed film to a one-hour photo processor on Convoy Street in San Diego “that afternoon or the following day on his way to work” and, about a week later, picked up the processed film and standard size positive color prints. “I didn’t even look at them then,” he explained. “I was going flying again that weekend and took them with me to show the guys how they had come out. We flew almost every weekend.”  When they all noticed the frame of interest (UAP) the chase plane pilot said almost nothing while Mr. R. C. simply remarked, “Look what we got on that photo!”  “He is a very stoic person,” observed  Mr. Williams, who then ordered two (2) each eight by eleven inch color enlargements of the frame showing the UAP, one of which he submitted with the negative.7

Details of the Photo-Analysis

   The author made a number of digital scans of this UAP frame as described below.  The objective of these scans was to better understand the nature of various image details. The initial scan emphasized the left wing of the sailplane where the white (vapor?) trail passed through it. If this was a double exposure the (positive print) luminance of the wing in the region of the trail should be somewhat higher than in regions where the trail did not intersect it because of exposure additivity.  Figure 5 shows the seven equally spaced lines (each normal to the wing’s surface) along which density measurements were obtained as well as ten locations along the white tail (see below).

Figure 5

Sailplane Left Wing and Vapor Trail Image
(250 dpi scan, B=-10, C=+5%)

   Happily, no evidence was found that would support the contention that a double exposure had been carried out (within a margin of error of +/- 2%).  The luminance of the left wing was not measurably greater where the vapor trail intersected it as compared with the area where the wing was imaged against the clear blue sky.

   White Trail. Two separate tests were performed within the same region as Figure 5 to better understand details of the vapor(?) trail.  In the first test the 'Posterize' filter (Adobe Photoshop) was set to five (5) levels to see if discrete edges could be extracted from the otherwise diffuse white trail behind the head of the object.  As expected, several non-parallel, tapering gradients could be discriminated as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6

UAP Vapor Trail Luminance Gradients
(650 dpi scan, B=5, C=5%, posterize=5)

   The second test performed used the 'Emboss' Filter that significantly accentuates low-contrast, micro-image grain details as a function of pseudo-illumination angle and pseudo-depth of the pixel luminance. Figure 7 presents the results of this test where areas of the image that are nearly 100% exposed areas (i.e., diffuse, very luminous white portion of the UAP tail) appear here as an oval shaped, smooth, gray region.  Note the enhanced 'granularity' within the tail of the UAP (between lines X and Y) as compared with the clear sky (outside lines X and Y). This large granularity is probably due to sunlight scattered from greater turbulence within the tail. One possibility may be that the UAP's white tail represents ionized or otherwise excited air by emitted microwave energy from the UAP (cf. McCampbell, Pp. 23-37, 1973), a possibility that is further supported by Figures 8 and 9 related to the head or leading edge of the effect.

Figure 7

UAP Vapor Trail Grain Micro Structure
(1300 dpi scan, B=0, C=0, Angle= -66deg, Ht. = 10 pixels,  Amt.=420%)

   The final test conducted was on the variation in luminance of the white tail streaming behind the UAP.  It was scanned at equal distances along its entire length (equivalent to approximately 27.3 degrees arc) at the positions shown in Figure 5. Due to luminance variations at each location an upper and lower value was recorded (Cols. 2 and 3). These relative luminance values are given in Table 1.

Table 1

Relative Luminance Distribution Measured on Each Side
of a Central Line Along Entire Length of the Tail

(See Figure 5 for Exact Measurement Locations)

                 Measurement       Lower            Upper            Angle (deg.)           Cos A

                    Location*          Value+           Value+       behind head
                        (see Fig. 5)            (%)                 (%)                  A
      (End of      1.0                    60                    62                    27.3                 0.518
         tail)          1.5                   56                    62
                        2.0                   58                    62                    23.9                 0.443

                        2.5                   56                    64
                        3.0                   57                    60                    20.5                 0.374
                        3.5                   62                    64
                        4.0                   58                    68                                           
                        4.5                   63                    76                    17.0                 0.306
                        5.0                   60                    70

                        5.5                   58                    67                    13.6                 0.242

                        6.0                   67                    75

                        6.5                   70                    80                    10.2                 0.178
                        7.0                   77                    85
                        7.5                   95                    98                    6.8                   0.119

8.0                   100                  100

8.5                   100                  100                  3.4                   0.059

      (Head of    9.0                    100                  100

        UAP)       9.5                   100                  100                  0                      0.000  
                        *  Approximately 0.5” apart along entire length of white tail on enlarged image.
                        +  100 %  on this scale represents fully exposed film, i.e., highest luminance.

   It may be noted that, progressing away from the "forward" end of the UAP, the luminance of the tail decreases very rapidly beyond measurement location 5.5 (just below and left of the sailplane’s wing in Figure 5) which suggests an almost exponential decay rate. If the tail was composed only of water vapor one would expect its reflectance (in the direction of the camera) to be approximated by the cosine of the angle (sun  - UAP - camera) (cf. Col. 5 in Table 1) which it clearly does not.  Is the tail the by-product of a totally different process? Perhaps it is made up of a substance with a rapid luminous half-life on the order of a second or two or is composed of particles possessing directional reflectivity, or some other explanation?

Head of UAP.  Another set of tests was performed on the region of the head of the UAP. This region is greatly overexposed - virtually to the point of making any discrimination of object edge or surface detail impossible. The "emboss" filter was used first. The homogeneous gray, flat-appearing region in Figure 8 depicts the 100% over exposed area of the film and is very likely the actual UAP itself and part of its high luminance trail.

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