On Monday, the Chicago Tribune rang in the new year with a highly intriguing front-page piece by transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch which reported, well, this: “A flying saucer-like object hovered low over O’Hare International Airport for several minutes before bolting through thick clouds with such intense energy that it left an eerie hole in overcast skies, said some United Airlines employees who observed the phenomenon.”
“Was it an alien spaceship?” Hilkevitch wondered. “A weather balloon lost in the airspace over the world’s second-busiest airport? A top-secret military craft? Or simply a reflection from lights that played a trick on the eyes?”
Back on Nov. 7, just before sunset, the UFO (or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, in current parlance) was spotted over Concourse C of the United terminal at O’Hare, Hilkevitch wrote:
All the witnesses said the object was dark gray and well defined in the overcast skies. They said the craft, estimated by different accounts to be 6 feet to 24 feet in diameter, did not display any lights.
Some said it looked like a rotating Frisbee, while others said it did not appear to be spinning. All agreed the object made no noise and it was at a fixed position in the sky, just below the … cloud deck, until shooting off into the clouds. …
The object was seen to suddenly accelerate straight up through the solid overcast skies, which the FAA reported had 1,900-foot cloud ceilings at the time.
“It was like somebody punched a hole in the sky,” said one United employee.
The O’Hare witnesses, including “at least several pilots, said they are certain based on the disc’s appearance and flight characteristics that it was not an airplane, helicopter, weather balloon or any other craft known to man,” Hilkevitch wrote.
Whatever the craft was, the UFO story — which focused on United employees’ safety concerns, and how “they are upset that neither their bosses nor the government will take them seriously” — became a record-setting phenomenon for the Tribune, aided by links at Drudge, Slashdot, and elsewhere.
“It’s gotten over a million page views, which translates into well over half a million readers,” said Ben Estes, an editor at chicagotribune.com, “which just pretty much blows anything else out of the water as far as I can recall in terms of individual stories.”
On Thursday afternoon the piece was still atop the Tribune Web site’s most-viewed and most-e-mailed lists, and Estes said it was set to be the top-read story for the fourth day in a row.
“The reaction has been unbelievable,” Hilkevitch said midday Thursday, alluding to hundreds of e-mails “from Europe, from Australia, from all over the map” — from serious researchers in the field to those unfortunate souls who claim they were abducted.
In those e-mails, “one of the themes that comes out is that there’s widespread belief that the government knows more about these extraterrestrial visits,” Hilkevitch said, “and that it’s refusing to share it with the public for whatever reason.”
Adding to the intrigue, both the FAA and United first claimed they had no information about the Nov. 7 event, but then — either after Hilkevitch started reporting or his story appeared — let on that they did in fact know something about the incident.
“Why United Airlines would see this as something they have to hide and something that’s potentially embarrassing, I don’t see,” Hilkevitch said. (As for the FAA, a spokeswoman said in the Monday story that its “theory on this is that it was a weather phenomenon”: “That night was a perfect atmospheric condition in terms of low [cloud] ceiling and a lot of airport lights. When the lights shine up into the clouds, sometimes you can see funny things.”)
All the attention has been “sort of bizarre,” said Hilkevitch, 50, a 27-year Tribune veteran who was part of the team that produced “Gateway to Gridlock,” a series which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. The paper’s transportation reporter for 10 years, he normally covers less mysterious topics like roads, high-speed rail, and transportation planning.