The Hawaii UFO Photo
An Investigation of the Airliner Theory
by Martin J. Powell
[This article first appeared in 'UFO Magazine' (UK), September/October 1998 edition]
A photograph taken in 1989 over Maui island in Hawaii shows a peculiarly elongated object flying behind a distant hill-top known as the Iao Needle. The photographer, Mike Page, was not aware of the object at the time he took the picture, and it has since been subject to detailed examination. The photograph was recently examined by the Kodak photo laboratory, who concluded that the image was not the result of a processing fault and was genuinely a large, distant object.1 They also suggested that it was "an airliner flying from left to right. Light seems to be hitting the wing (in the centre) and the tailplane (on the left) of the object."
The Hawaii UFO Photographed on Maui, Hawaii in September 1989 (click for full-size image, 44 KB). The UFO is seen in the distance, about to pass behind the Iao Needle landmark (Photo courtesy of Mike Page).
Following Kodak’s interpretation of the object as an airliner, I decided to study the Hawaii object in detail, with a view to addressing the following issues:
1) To determine if the relative positions of the ‘mainplane’ and ‘tailplane’ of the Hawaii object are consistent with that of a typical airliner, and
2) To attempt to identify the aircraft in question by measuring the relative dimensions of the features the object shows, e.g. the maximum width of the wing as a proportion of the rear fuselage length. A unique ‘fingerprint’ should emerge, and by comparing these proportions to those of known aircraft, the closest match could be isolated.
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General Description of the Hawaii UFO
One problem with the aircraft theory is that the object appears to have no tail-fin, even when computer enhanced. One possible explanation is that the aircraft has dual endplate-fins, where the fins are positioned at the extreme ends of the tailplane, rather than a single fin set along the fuselage centreline.
The object has a ‘nose-up’ attitude and the upper surfaces of the assumed wing and tailplane are reflecting sunlight. The fuselage is long and slender, particularly so ahead of the mainplane and behind the tailplane. The lower surfaces of the fuselage seem to curve upwards towards both ends, where the contrast becomes much reduced in comparison to the central section of the object. The upper surface of the rear fuselage, behind the tailplane, appears mis-aligned relative to the main body of the object. The leading edge of the mainplane appears to be swept. No engines are visible, which might suggest that they are set into the inboard section of the wing.
The object has a fuzzy outline, due partly to the camera’s low shutter speed and the object’s own motion through the sky, making the front and rear points difficult to discern (see Figure 1, 7 KB). The long section behind the tailplane resembles a MAD boom (Magnetic Anomaly Detector) used in maritime reconnaissance aircraft. I hoped to resolve these uncertainties by identifying the aircraft in question.
Figure 1 The Hawaii object can be interpreted as an elongated ‘cigar-shape’ with two glowing points of light, considered by some to be engine outlets (click for full-size image, 7 KB).
I scanned the image from an original print enlargement at a resolution of 400 dots per inch and then enhanced it by adjusting the contrast controls in my computer software.2 I levelled the image to the horizontal so that it could be measured in true horizontal and vertical planes. The features were measured using the computer software and were given a letter for easy identification, shown in Figure 2 (18 KB). They are, namely, the maximum width of the inboard mainplane (A), the fuselage behind the mainplane and ahead of the tailplane (B), the fuselage ahead of the mainplane leading edge (C) and the fuselage height (D). Distances E and F indicate the position of the mainplane and tailplane roots, respectively, relative to the fuselage height. These are given only as a guide, since we may not be viewing the object in the photograph directly from the side, as the measurements assume. By this definition, a mainplane root position (E/D) below 0.5 is a low-wing aircraft, and above 0.5 is a high-wing aircraft. By relating all of the measurements to each other, eight ratios are obtained; the values for the Hawaii object are shown in Table 1 (22 KB).
Figure 2 Sections of an archetypal aircraft which were measured for comparison with the Hawaii UFO, labelled A to F (click for full-size image, 18 KB).
Hence, if the aircraft in the Hawaii photograph is to be correctly identified, its ratios should fall within the range of those in Table 1. Because of the poor quality of the image, all of the ratios have a range of possible values. The value of E/D, for example, lies somewhere between 0.47 and 1.00, implying that the Hawaii aircraft has a wing either in the mid or high position on the fuselage. This is because it is not clear at which point the main wing of the object adjoins the fuselage. When taking measurements from the aircraft plans I would therefore have to allow for the distance from the centre of the wing to the highest point of the wing. This undoubtedly results in a large range for the ratio E/D in particular.
My next objective was to obtain as many ratios as possible from likely candidate aircraft, and for this I referred to a comprehensive book giving three-view drawings of both civil and military aircraft.3 It was of course necessary to introduce a number of selection criteria:
(1) The aircraft must have been in regular operation to, from and within the Hawaiian islands,
(2) It must have been in service in the summer of 1989 (i.e. when the photograph was taken),
(3) Only American military aircraft could be included in the study.
The aircraft were to be selected on the basis of the most obvious features seen in the Hawaii object:
(5) Medium to large size aircraft,
(6) Tailplane positioned on fuselage (i.e. not in the 'T-tail' configuration),
(7) Significant sweep angle of mainplane leading edge (i.e. greater than about 15 degrees).
I decided against using any further criteria, such as engine position, since the poor clarity of the image might have obscured such features, thus giving a misleading visual impression.
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Aircraft in the Hawaiian Skies
The commercial aircraft most commonly used to fly from the American mainland to Hawaii are the Boeing 747, 757 and 767, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar and occasionally the Boeing 727 (the Boeing 777 is also used, but this did not enter service until after 1989).4 All international flights operate from Honolulu airport on Oahu, about 80 miles to the North-west of Maui. There are also numerous commuter airlines operating between the Hawaiian islands, and a number of these routes could conceivably cross Maui close to the Iao Needle on the North-west of the island.5 These operators use smaller aircraft as follows: the Boeing 737, the McDonnell Douglas DC-9, the de Havilland Dash 7 and Dash 8, the Twin Otter and the Aerospatiale/Alenia ATR 42 and 72. Numerous other light aircraft, typically Cessnas, are also used.
A number of these aircraft could be eliminated at an early stage. The 727, the DC-9, the Dash 7, the Dash 8 and the ATR 42/72 were all ‘T-tail’ designs, so they could not be considered any further. The Twin Otter had a low tailplane but did not have a swept wing, so it was also eliminated. The light aircraft were too small to be considered. None of these aircraft could be the object in the Hawaii photograph.
Nine aircraft were selected using the above-mentioned criteria. Interestingly, none of these aircraft have dual endplate-fins, nor do any have engines set into the inboard section of the wing, contrary to my initial impressions. Three of the aircraft are military, namely the B-52 (current H model), the KC-135 and the Boeing 707 variants. None of these aircraft have MAD tail ‘stingers’. Only one aircraft, the B-52, has a wing set in the high position.
Table 2 (66 KB) gives the ratio values for seven of the selected aircraft. When determining the ratios, I had to make allowance for the fact that the Hawaii object was seen from the rear starboard position, which meant applying small adjustments to the values measured from the aircraft plans. The viewing angle was taken to be the same as that of the aircraft’s leading edge sweep angle, since in the photograph the leading edge of the mainplane appears to be almost along the line of sight. Because of the small size of the plans from which I was measuring (the average plan length was 5.5 cm), there is a small error range for each ratio, brought about by the measurement limitation of the ruler of around 0.02 cm.
I made allowance for this error when determining the number of ratio categories the aircraft satisfied, shown in Table 3 (49 KB). They are listed in order of the number of categories satisfied. I have also shown the total outside-ratio-range value (which I will term Re) in a separate column. This gives an indication of how much the aircraft deviated from the categories it did not satisfy. In other words, for those categories not satisfied, the amounts by which each ratio fell outside the Hawaii UFO values were summed for each aircraft, and then put in ascending numerical order. Where more than one aircraft satisfied a given number of categories, priority was given to that with the least outside-range value. For example, both the Boeing 767 and the Tristar satisfied two of the eight ratios, but since the Tristar had a much higher outside-range value it appears lower down the list.
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It is clear from Table 3 that none of the aircraft in the study satisfied all of the eight ratio categories. In fact, no aircraft satisfied more than three ratios.
Only the B-52 satisfied ratio E/D, however the fact that no low-wing aircraft satisfied this category should treated with caution, owing to my earlier comments. No aircraft satisfied ratios B/A or B/D, the aircraft coming closest to each of these ratios being the B-52 and the 757. The lack of successes are significant in the sense that ratios B/A and B/D reflect the long, slender fuselage behind the mainplane (it should be said, however, that the fuselage height D is probably the least accurate of the six measured dimensions). All aircraft except one satisfied ratio D/A, which means that the proportion of the UFO’s wing root width to its fuselage height is consistent with that of a typical airliner. No aircraft in the survey was found to match the object’s long nose, the best indicator of this being ratio C/A.
The Boeing 757 and the B-52 bomber were the only aircraft in the survey to satisfy three ratios. The 757 has the least Re value of any aircraft in the survey - only 1.52, taken across five ratios. Table 3 shows that this is only a third of the total error of the next nearest candidate, the B-52, with Re = 4.55. The table suggests that these two aircraft best satisfy the physical properties of the Hawaii UFO.
Light and Shadow Effects
The B-52 is powered by eight, and the 757 by two, turbofans, and both aircraft have sizeable tail-fins - features which are hardly likely to escape notice. Why then are neither of these features visible in the Hawaii photograph?
In order to address this question I thought it would be interesting to see if the lighting effects seen in the photograph could be simulated, using models of a B-52 and a 757. The B-52 was a dark grey, matching the colour scheme used by the USAF for these aircraft from 1987.6 The only 757 model I had available was in the British Airways livery. Further work would be required to determine the livery which best produced the reflective effects seen in the photograph.
Clues to the direction of the sunlight are obtained by examining the shadows of the people in the second photograph, which was taken within seconds of the first.7 It is clear from this photo that the sun is shining from the left of the picture. In order to determine the sunlight angle as best as possible, I first shone a lamp with a very directional beam on to a small vertical rod. Using the second photograph as a backdrop, I adjusted the position of the lamp until the shadow of the rod seemed to match those of the people in the photograph, in terms of both proportion and direction. This method suggested that the sun was shining at an altitude of around 62 degrees when the photographs were taken.8 I then placed each model in place of the rod, and adjusted it to match the viewing angle of the object seen in the photograph (shown diagrammatically in Figure 3 (27 KB).
Figure 3 The likely geometry of observer, sun and object directions for the Hawaii UFO (click for full-size image, 27 KB). The plan of the aircraft has been drawn here in approximate proportion to the actual UFO’s dimensions.
The sunlight angle produces interesting light and shadow effects. From the vantage point of the UFO, the sun would be shining from behind it, around 60 or 70 degrees to its port (left) side, casting the starboard side of the tail-fin and much of the engines into shadow (Figure 4, 40 KB). A shadowed feature can become almost obscured by dense mist, an effect which is exacerbated by the bright sunlight shining from behind it. A good demonstration of this effect can be seen when the sun’s rays stream in front of shadowed tree trunks in a misty forest.9
My study set out firstly to determine whether the features of the Hawaii UFO could be matched against those of an airliner, and secondly to identify the aircraft itself. I conclude that none of the airliners which operate in the Hawaiian skies are able to match any significant number of the UFO’s proportions. In particular, no aircraft seems able to match the long, slender fuselage of the UFO, and I am not aware of any photographic effects which could ‘stretch’ a fuselage in such a manner as is seen in the photograph. As to the identity of the aircraft itself, the B-52 and the 757 match the UFO’s dimensions best of all, however since they satisfy less than half of the ratio categories at best, I cannot state with any confidence that the UFO is one of these. All I can say at the present time is that none of the other aircraft I studied fitted the facts any better.
Could the B-52 be a feasible candidate? B-52s have been known to visit Hawaii, namely the Hickam and Wheeler Air Force Bases, both on Oahu island.10 The B-52 has a long and slender fuselage behind the mainplane, a sizeable wing sweep and a tailplane which is mounted below the level of the mainplane, all of which appear consistent with the object in the photograph.
Figure 4 shows that the lower half of the object is in shadow, since it is lit from above. However, the shadow line is interrupted by the sunlit mainplane which seems to cut across it. While this could be due to glare, it is otherwise difficult to envisage that this effect would be seen in a low wing aircraft, where the shadow would most likely continue uninterrupted above the mainplane (see Figure 4 lower). A low-wing aircraft would also have to be banking to starboard (right) in order to bring the upper wing surface into view. The easiest way to explain the effect seen in the photograph is by that of a high-wing aircraft with anhedral (i.e. with wings drooping downwards from wing-root to wing-tip). The B-52 would satisfy this condition, and it could also help explain the object’s unusual (i.e. non-civilian) flight path.
Figure 4 Appearance of a Boeing B-52 (top) and a 757 (bottom) aside a contrast-enhanced image of the Hawaii UFO (click for full-size image, 40 KB). The model aircraft were lit from a direction similar to that of the Hawaii object, and the images have been sized so that the major features align as best as possible.
It is possible, of course, that in applying my selection criteria, I might have overlooked the aircraft in question. There is also the possibility that the aircraft was an experimental prototype, or even a specially ‘stretched’ version of a currently operational aircraft. Alternatively, atmospherics (by whatever means) might have distorted the appearance of an aircraft in the sky. Such distortion would effectively preclude any possibility of identifying the aircraft.
I have attempted to demonstrate how the direction of sunlight on an aircraft might have given rise to the appearance of the object in the photograph. If it was an aircraft, the following scenario might be envisaged. The plane, heading Northwards along the North-west coastline of the island,11 was captured on film at the precise moment it passed through a ‘hole’ in the cloud, momentarily bathing it in sunlight. The angle of the sun, high up and from the rear, cast the tail-fin and engines into shadow which, when enveloped in mist, rendered them invisible. The peculiar angle at which the plane was seen then made it appear as a disc-like object with two ‘glowing’ points of light.
Whilst the chances are high that the Hawaii UFO is an aircraft, I have shown that there are a number of inconsistencies with this theory, and consequently doubt must remain on the object’s identification. Photographs rarely show daylight UFOs with such detail, and I would urge investigators to undertake a serious analysis of the Hawaii photo. Further enhancements of the image might reveal subtle details which my software did not detect, and a re-assessment of the image could then be attempted.
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1. The Unopened Files, Number 1 (1996), pgs. 56-9 and UFO Magazine, Jan/Feb 1997, pgs. 57-59.
2. I am grateful to Mike Page for allowing me access to one of his original print enlargements. The image was scanned and measured using Logitech’s FotoTouch software.
3. Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide by David Rendall (Harper Collins, Glasgow, 1996).
4. To find out which aircraft serve the Hawaiian islands I referred to the OAG World Airways Guide, (June 1997 edition) published by OAG Ltd., Dunstable. This is a monthly publication used by travel agents to determine flight times to almost any destination worldwide. The aircraft types used on the routes are also listed.
5. Hawaii Handbook by J.D. Bisignani (Moon Publications Inc., California, 1990) has a comprehensive chapter detailing Hawaiian flights, both international and inter-island, and describes the aircraft used. Page 121 has a plan of the inter-island air routes. According to this, routes to Molokai and Lanai from Kahului appear to cross the North-west corner of Maui. However, de Havilland Twin Otters, Dash 8s and ATR-42/72s are used on these routes and they do not match the features of the Hawaii UFO.
6. B-52 Stratofortress in Action by Larry Davis (Squadron/Signal Publications Inc., Texas, 1992), pg. 48.
7. UFO Magazine, Jan/Feb 1997, pg. 59.
8. Mike Page informs me that the photographs were taken around mid-afternoon in early September.
9. Light and Color in the Outdoors by Marcel Minnaert (Springer-Verlag, New York, 1993 re-print), pgs. 263-4, 281 and Plate 36.
10. B-52: Ageing BUFFs, Youthful Crews by René Françillon and Peter Lewis (Osprey Publishing Ltd., London, 1988), pgs 56-7. Hickam AFB has served as the Headquarters of the Pacific Air Force (PACAF).
11. In a letter published in UFO Magazine (Sep/Oct 1997, pg. 48) Terry Shumaker informs us that "the photograph was taken in the general direction of the smaller commuter airport at Kaanapali" i.e. to the North-west. All the major islands except the Big Island lie to the North-west of Maui.
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Nellis Range UFO Video (1994)
Trindade Island UFO Photos (1958)
Rouen UFO Photo (1954)
Copyright Martin J Powell June 1998
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