Emails From a Pilot Regarding Starlink and Other Objects

Mick West

Staff member
I got this email from a pilot who wishes to remain anonymous. I'll refer to him as "Julian" (not his real name)

Hi Mr. West,
I'm [Julian - not his real name] an airline pilot and ex-USAF fighter pilot living in [the US], and your video "Why "Racetrack" UFOs are mostly Starlink Flares" is the ONLY material I've come across that cuts through the abundance of fluffy Starlink "train/string of lights" content and hits on a topic that even now, still stirs up frequent, deeply concerned chatter on Guard those late nights in the air--Excellent work!!

I'm writing this to give you additional information and tools that you may find useful as a fellow skeptic, if you like.

In late 2022, I was flying frequent night flights (westbound) and redeye's (eastbound) across the middle of the USA (most commonly roughly at St. Louis latitude) and I had four or five flights within a few weeks during which I observed the flares, including one westbound flight during which I watched them "racetrack" for nearly 2.5 hours--I even queried Minneapolis Center about it (they had no idea).

My early impressions matched so many others: fighter jets flying tactical horizontal racetracks in constant afterburner (hence the light-bluish, white light) 80,000 or more feet! It truly shook me, but I am a skeptic at heart, and the next day after spending all day doing housework and angrily thinking about what it could be, I came up with a hypothesis that, when tested and proven, allowed me to use rules of thumb to predict quite accurately when and where I would see the flares using common flight planning materials and (optionally) a phone app, and nowadays I can simply enjoy the show when I notice it.

My rules of thumb for predicting a good show:
1) I've seen them in the past few nights, obviously (this tells me it's a good time of year for it).
2) Clear visibility, both above and below the inertial horizon (where my velocity vector is when I'm in level flight. As I climb, the earth-sky horizon falls below the inertial horizon).
3) Duration: Eastbound, it will only last 20-40 minutes; westbound, it will last an hour or longer.
4) Crucially, the show begins when the sun enters a band of elevation between -29 and -41 degrees (below the inertial horizon) and ends when the sun exits the band.
5) The "sweet spot" for the flares is a piece of sky, fixed against the slowly moving star field, roughly the size of your palm at half-arm extension.

I was able to determine and use the #4 rule of thumb because our flight plan would show the sun elevation (even negative, unseen below the horizon) at each waypoint in the flight plan, which also included the time over the waypoint. I could predict the start or end within 10-20 minutes! Azimuth--with the help of an iphone app, I confirmed the flares were directly on azimuth with the unseen sun. The only piece of the puzzle I didn't have, but was easy enough to just sit quietly and watch for, was the elevation above the inertial horizon (and therefore the sun itself). I am a captain now with a HUD with pitch ladder that I could use to better estimate the elevation of the sweet spot, but I have done mostly day flying for several months now and haven't been watching on those rare nights, but I've heard the excited Guard chatter! People are losing their composure over this. Our flight plan also no longer shows the sun elevation, to my disappointment.

If you like, as follows are some elements to the Racetrack phenomenon that I have observed that may help fight off counterpoints etc. that you didn't address in the video but may find useful in future discussions.

1) Time of year: in your video "These UFOs are Starlink Flares, 100%" (also excellent work!!), you suggest that the flares will appear more abundantly in the summer, but I have seen them heavily in winter--apparently the geometry works out well enough at those middle-US latitudes in winter, plus the commonly better wintertime visibility also matters greatly--haze, even at high altitude, can seriously curtail the effect. My night flying is a bit too episodic to really nail down what times of year are better than others, but I DO feel like there have been times of year when the flares were underwhelming even when my rules of thumb were satisfied. Ultimately, it will be a function of observer latitude, date, and actual orientation of the satellite's reflective bits to the surface of the earth, and that's where your work will really pay off to understand better.

2) Racetrack appearance of the phenomenon: I mentioned that I fell for the racetrack effect too. I loosely compare this entire phenomenon to rainbows, sundogs, and nighttime cirrus moon halo's: the latter three depend on correct alignment of a light source, an observer, and correctly-oriented ice crystals (except for the rainbow), as does the racetrack UFO phenomenon. But while these three natural events are what I would call VOLUMETRIC, (you see ALL the particles that meet the criteria because there are so many) the racetrack flares are what I would call EPISODIC: you see one or two or three at a time. What I first believed I was seeing was this: the moving light would fly horizontally, dim and slow as it turned towards me and I couldn't see the afterburner, then go completely dark as it made the turn for a few moments, then reappear going the other direction once it fully reversed. You and I now know that it just happened that the flare's deceleration was an illusion caused by the dimming (and I'd like to add, autokinesis), and that the reversal was actually a sibling satellite passing in the opposite direction passing through the "sweet spot" I mentioned: two different episodes that your senses perceive as one and the same.

3) I mentioned autokinesis a moment ago: that, in the absence of nearby reference objects in a dark sky, the random jitters of your eyeball muscles impart a false perception of acceleration, deceleration, and even transverse movement or oscillations on the satellite (I've perceived it all!). But one instance truly stands out: My fellow pilot and I watched one particular satellite; I was quiet but my crewmate was narrating what he was seeing. He said "It's actually speeding up! Look at it go, I can see it!" I perceived no acceleration, but a quite pronounced (to me) transverse oscillation. Our eye muscles were jittering in different directions, and I saw the difference in real time! Therefore any perceptions of such movements other than straight, ballistic, orbital motion became very suspect to me.

4) Brightness: For whatever reason, I have noticed that the closer the phenomenon appears to the horizon, the brighter they tend to be, while also sometimes picking up an orange hue (due to low elevation). If it's been an otherwise good night of a sinking sweet spot viewing (so Westbound), failure to see these final dazzlers is probably because they are obscured by atmospheric haze or cloud decks.

5) Time spent where the phenomenon is visible: Math can solve this based on observer latitude, ground speed, and direction of travel, but I mentioned that the phenomenon is 10-20 minutes long going Eastbound, but has lasted over 2 hours going West (in my experience).

The biggest conclusion that I made and turned out incorrect was the nature of the satellites themselves: I believed that Starlink were too high to be so visible, and that the left-to-right and right-to-left motion indicated ground imaging (spy?) satellites in polar orbits, but now thanks to you I understand that Starlink perfectly fits the bill, and that their high inclination can still look quite polar in nature.

Anyway, great work, and thanks for pointing out how and why it's Starlink after all! I hope you find all this useful or at least interesting.
Content from External Source
My reply:

Hi [...], and thank you for sharing that wonderful detailed account! I found point #3 (the difference in perception) to be particularly interesting.

Regarding the time and season of the events, we've done a bunch more work on that with the Sitrec tool, adding a "Flare band" which shows where the ideal viewing positions are. Here's a short video I made for another pilot who was working on a presentation on this topic:


You can play with the tool here:

Can I share your email on Metabunk? (Or you could post it there yourself). I/you can remove identifying information if needed.

And as you're a former fighter pilot, I wonder if you have any thoughts about famous Navy videos, especially Gimbal?


Content from External Source
Julian Replies

Re the Sitrec video: The Glare Band. PERFECT depiction and an absolutely perfect explanation/depiction of my "observer/light source/ice crystals relationship" analogy and rules of thumb. This is the tool that I wish every pilot who nervously calls ATC or speaks out on Guard could see.

Something came up in the news a few days ago, a white paper draft you may have seen about airline pilots and UAP's. Your desire to make aviation more safe with widespread education about the phenomenon seems in sync with the intent of the authors of this study: Abstract here .............. actual paper here
It's 35 pages long, but here are my takeaways:
-It focuses on one episode, observed by two airliners, with two big elements:
a) both aircrafts' pilots see the classic Starlink "train" (very soon after launch, so it's still such a tight string of pearls that they confuse it for a single long craft) and the bulk of the paper goes into a method of modeling and corroborating that with a Starlink cluster launch within the previous day.
b) only the rear aircraft sees your Starlink Flare phenomenon, it's 4-5 flares that they actually see before the train, and perceive to rejoin or congeal into the "big craft", but the paper only briefly addresses this flare event (search the pdf for the phrases "four or five", "4 or 5", and "star-like").

In my opinion, the authors' priorities are inverted (they analyze the train but not the flares). My reasons for having this opinion are:
1) in the case of their deep dive on the string of pearls, in real life *the issue is short lived and everyone comes away a bit reassured, and smarter*: when confused pilots speak on Guard, a cacophony of pilots will respond telling them to google Starlink launch train or similar, with few or no dissenting voices. When they tell ATC, ATC is pretty quick to suggest the same Starlink answer.

2) in the case of the flares (which they basically ignore), in real life on a good flare viewing night (I have seen flares that I believe were brighter than Venus, you CANNOT ignore it), *The issue goes unresolved for MUCH longer, with no resolution or reassurance--just startled pilots*: when confused pilots speak up on Guard, other pilots answer by trying to dismiss it as the Starlink train and then half a dozen other pilots jump on the frequency to refute that, describing why it's different, and confusion continues to reign until I turn down Guard and go back to reading NOTAMs and eating my granola bar. When confused pilots call ATC, ATC doesn't even try to offer an explanation following the classic racetrack description. One word answers, "roger", "copy," or silence--ha!

Some ideas, but I don't plan to act on them:
1) Your goals are in sync with the authors
2) Your tools and methodology are far superior to theirs

If you'd like to try to get in touch with them, I would think they'd be very interested to see your work and be allies and I'd be happy to help figure out how to get in touch.
BUT ONLY if you want to.

For real-life impact of your work, a pilot/ATC friendly output of your Sitrec results could possibly be converted into a series of charts centered on different hemispheres, with a different chart for each rough season, and a few glare bands on each chart at, say, 3-hour intervals (different dashed or dotted or shades to differentiate the bands). Heck, you might be able to sell it to CAA/FAA's around the world! It seems that that would be a good way to get widespread distribution and awareness, unless you've got other ideas.

In any case, I am far less invested in the issue than you are, and I defer to you on these ideas.

On to more fun stuff:
Please feel free to use any of this content, quote me however you like,[...] None of this is sensitive or classified information. It just rarely comes up outside of work.

RE: Gimbal video: On my last combat deployment in the F-15E between 5-10 years ago (I'm being vague on purpose), we were over the Middle East going after ISIS and did lots of exciting stuff, and lots of boring stuff. During the boring stretches of flight, my squadron mates and I noticed a trend of locking up little shiny orbs with our air-to-air radars. A skilled backseater could occasionally find and track them in the targeting pod like in the Gimbal video; in the IR spectrum, they didn't appear nearly as high thermal contrast as what's in the Gimbal video (it's hot--it's white and you see WHT ["white is hot"] in the bottom of the screen, a different jet, different targeting pod though); in the TV (black and white visible) spectrum, they appeared as little shiny orbs (like the Puerto Rico FLIR video). I once tried to get close enough to one to see it; I went head-to-head with it and passed less than a half mile off to the side, but neither I nor my back seater saw anything there in the early morning sunlight. Nonetheless, I chalked it up to something like Mylar helium balloons. In my dozen or so experiences with them:

1) They didn't have any remarkable heat signature.
2) They didn't react to us. The radar lock always showed steady, linear motion.
3) The radar lock indicated that their speed and direction was always a close match with the winds aloft, and they usually showed up when the winds aloft were substantial (I will not specify further, but notice that the Gimbal crew point out that the "Winds are a hundred twenty knots to the West" or something like that.). We were at fairly high altitude, and so were the orbs.
4) They were too small to see with the naked eye, even from a few thousand feet away at co-level.

I never felt threatened by them and became uninterested after a while. I joked that they must be balloon castaways from "Moshe's West Bank Used Car Emporium's Weekend Blowout Sale," snipped unceremoniously from the car antennas on Monday morning and left to the trade winds.

However, one morning, after returning from the Dawn Patrol, I walked into the squadron to see my Ops Officer intently reviewing some targeting pod footage. My Ops Officer was always calm, collected, incredibly intelligent, and very well spoken. Equally or more so than David Fravor. "What are you watching, sir?" "The guys took this video last night, and I am trying to wrap my head around it. I think we just saw a UFO and I'm starting to get a bit shaken up." I sat down and watched the full-screen pod footage--it was one of the orbs.

In the video, the observing aircraft was slightly above the orb, focused on it, looking at it from several miles away. In the distant background, cumulus clouds and ground features zipped past at seemingly high speed. Within a few seconds, though, the movement of the background smoothly slowed, stopped, reversed, and accelerated again, now in the opposite direction. "Look at that, it just made a U-turn!" said the Ops Officer.

I'm a skeptic, so I sat and thought for a minute. I had an idea. "Let's write down the exact timestamp that the reversal happens, then re-watch this on the full screen air-to-air radar view. I will bet you a Red Bull that at that exact moment, we will see that our F-15 is in a steady 2- or 3-G left bank, the radar track passes through zero degrees antenna train angle (directly through the nose line of the aircraft), and that the vector stick and speed will be rock solid throughout the entire video. We watched, and I nailed it. Balloon, or trash bag, or similarly unremarkable garbage. The Ops Officer and I both were a little disappointed but relieved, and I got the Red Bull. We never talked about it again.

The Gimbal video has a few huge things in common with my experience:
1) high winds aloft
2) a couple of bro's chatting excitedly about what their crappy 220p potato screen seems to be showing them in real time
3) notice that at the beginning when he says "It's a fuckin drone, bro!" in the upper left corner of the pod screen is a large pixel--I am pretty sure that's the pod's line of sight, indicating that the pod is looking roughly 10 to 11 o'clock relative to the jet's boresight along the nose, which would be the 12 o'clock position. The jet is turning in a steady left, fairly hard turn. As that pixel gets closer and closer to the 12 o'clock position (that "zero degrees antenna train angle" I described above, the nose boresight), it visibly slows down and at the moment the video ends, it has practically stopped moving as the pixel hits 12 o'clock. If they showed the rest of the video footage after that, it would show the orb "reverse" just like me and the Ops Officer's did. I don't know if the video is intentionally cut like to end like that or if it's just a coincidence, but that reversal was the thread that I used to unravel the Ops Officer's video footage.

The things that are different are the noticeable heat signature, and maybe the size--our orbs were just enough pixels to get a shiny effect like the Puerto Rico FLIR object, and no other detail. I don't know if Moshe was using Mylar spherical balloons or maybe bright red shiny hearts? Either way, a huge trash bag or hobbyist's balloon might be oblong, and if it's dark or black, it might appear hotter than the surroundings.

I have mentioned the Puerto Rico FLIR video a few times. It has a lot in common--little shiny orb, seemingly high speed as the ground zips by at high speed, lengthy tracking, but there are other elements I can't explain. But I have seen some truly strange things in the targeting pod that I chalked up to just artifacts of the equipment and environment. One night over the barren desert, flying under a thin scud layer towards a full moon, I could have sworn I saw three or four occasions in a 5-minute period, something large, like a washing machine, hurtling diagonally down through the air as if thrown from a trebuchet. Looking outside and in wide field of view, I never saw any impacts, and each time, they seemed to follow the same trajectory down the screen. My backseater didn't ever see it--and thought I was crazy--but he was looking at it on a slightly higher resolution, but smaller screen. I'm confident it was just a freak convergence of equipment and environment, and I view FLIR video like that with similar skepticism.

Hope this helps! I still need to tell you about my unremarkable but unexplainable sighting, but I'll get to that later.

Content from External Source
What a fantastic write-up.
Same conclusions I have been trying to share with my much weaker communication skills.

Grateful for this forum. Feels like I'm finally reading some legit well thought out critical analysis.