I'm kind of a military nerd. It comes from taking so many classes on international conflict during school and from having two brothers who have spent time working as civilian contractors for the Navy. I especially love airplanes, as some of you might have guessed from the pool of slobber under my post about the A-10. On the other hand, rotary craft aren't quite my thing - for one, I have a heck of a time identifying them by sight. I tend to assume that any winged helicopter that isn't obviously a Hind is an Apache, and as far I'm concerned every twin-rotor chopper is a Chinook. On the other hand, I like to think I'm halfway decent at identifying modern military planes from the ground. (Though for some weird reason I get F-15s and F-18s mixed up.)
In any event, I didn't end up going to the big air show that was in town yesterday because, well, it was 45 and raining. I did, however, end up making a mall run. The mall happens to be in the flight path of the aircraft en route to and from the air show, so I got to see a couple of F-18s (I think...) fly overhead and all was right with the world. Then, while sitting at a red light, I glanced up and saw a blazing bright light far away and high up in the sky. At first I thought it was one of the jets I'd just seen laying on their afterburners, but the light was sustained for far longer than you'd have expected for something like that. Weird...
I then though that maybe it was a plane doing a flare drop for the crowd at the air show, but no, the light wasn't falling from a craft - it was the craft. Ah ha, I thought, it's an aircraft reflecting light from the sun! But what kind? By now the traffic signal has changed and I'm granny-driving down to the next light trying to keep an eye on the aircraft - I'm foaming at the mouth to know just what it is. It had a weird outline for a jet, with what looked like a large bulge jutting up in front of the tail. It was at a funny angle to me, and even after it flew out of the sun glare the outline seemed unfamiliar to me. What the heck kind of fighter jet was this?
Finally it got a little closer to my position and turned its profile to me - It wasn't a fighter jet at all, it was an E-3 Sentry (aka AWACS), a jet-liner sized command and control plane whose back-mounted radar array gives it one of the most distinct profiles in aviation! Having just seen some F-18s at relatively close range, my brain was trying to jam this new craft into a "fighter jets, up close" category rather than looking for larger planes at a greater distance. With no reference points in the sky, I had no sense of scale to show me that I was looking at much large craft than I expected to see. It wasn't that I was seeing something unfamiliar - it was that I was actively trying to see something other than what I was looking at.
I can only wonder how many UFO sightings come from folks under similar conditions. Had I been a UFO true believer confronted with a mysterious craft that not only had a weird body outline but seemed to be ablaze with light I can imagine the conclusions I would have jumped to. (I should know. Once upon a time I was a UFO true believer.) What's most illustrative about the incident is that I absolutely love reading about, looking at, and studying military aircraft. If someone had told me yesterday morning that I'd run into an AWACS and not be able to immediately identify it, I'd have laughed them off. Nonetheless, put into a situation I wasn't expecting, with my mind striving to jam a square peg in a round hole, I had trouble seeing something obvious for what it really was.
Just what, I wonder, would I have been posting today if I were a UFOlogist who had set out yesterday evening to look for intruding spacecraft?