There is only one subject more boring and pointless to me than my wife’s Instagram cat feed: UFOs. Pilots, civilian and military, have, for three generations now, done the world a huge disservice by speculating about the nature of what they saw rather than just describing what they saw. Unfortunately people award pilots with a credibility they do not deserve about these sorts of things. I am expecting no credibility from you all. For the record, I will go so far as to say I am as close to certain that Earth-visiting extra-terrestrials do not exist as I am that a big boat saved all living things from a global flood 6000 years ago. Nothing I have seen or read or heard changes either view.
A month ago, at around 0500z, we were heading eastbound on the Atlantic OTS at FL350. On “fingers” (123.45) we heard one side of a conversation where one pilot was describing a light phenomenon that she has now observed on nearly every night crossing. (The other flight she was talking to was out of our VHF range.) She described a triangle of bright lights about 10 degrees above her horizon with one light moving relative to the other two. I looked at my FO and, I am embarrassed to say, rolled my eyes. At that very moment we both observed a single very bright light due east; about 10x brighter than Venus and very high. The “very high” part is a guess. I only know that it was 5 degrees above the horizon and “seemed” very far away. As the first light flickered a second light became visible, flickering also but not quite as bright. Other stars and planets were also visible of course, but none that were in the same plane on our horizon were anywhere near so bright nor so prone to brilliant flickering. Then a third light became visible, forming a triangle as the other pilot had just described. In terms of spacing relative to each other, I’d say they were roughly like Orion’s Belt, but triangular. At this point the first, and still brightest of the three began moving in a slow corkscrew relative to the others. I looked at the FO and asked if he was seeing it and he confirmed what I’ve described. The circles of that first star where radiused (word?) about like, again, two adjacent stars from Orion’s Belt. Each full circle of the corkscrew took about 10 seconds. After 10 minutes, the second two lights faded slowly away. But the first stayed visible, though not as bright, for a good while longer and didn’t really change it’s elevation above the horizon.
I flew several more crossings but didn’t see any of the lights again until last night. During the intervening time, initially anyway, talking about these lights was all the rage both in the flight deck and on fingers. But after another week or two, people stopped talking. The lights didn’t stop. Pilots just stopped discussing them. The consensus was that they are StarLink. What we saw last night wasn’t quite as mesmerizing. Just two lights this time. Initially, neither moved so, other than their unusual brightness, it was impossible to say that they weren’t celestial. Then one moved very rapidly right to left (south to north) relative to the other. After making about a 30 degree arc, it faded to black. The second light was visible for 10 more minutes.
Why don’t I think this is StarLink? I’ve seen star link many times. They move in a constant straight line (as satellites are wont to do) and are visible because the sun has recently set to the west making good conditions for the reflected light to reach us. The lights I’ve described occurred at between 5 and 6z and between 50 - 40W. (Roughly between the Canadian Maritimes and Greenland.) The sun would be well below the horizon to the east and nothing in the upper atmosphere or low Earth orbit would be illuminated by it. Plus, while all that is true, the angle between the sun, the lights and us to the west would make reflected light very unlikely to reach us.
Another theory, and a very good one, is airplanes. But certainly not airliners. The organized track system is just that, organized. Every track is spaced laterally but the heading changes are perpendicular. Planes can fly randomly off-track but their courses still follow a set pattern. Planes flying away, even with modern LED lighting, are very difficult to spot beyond about 15 miles. Planes flying toward you are easier to see out to about 40 miles. Landing and recog lights can increase that to about 80 miles in good conditions. But even then, the lights are much dimmer and have shape. And, if they are bright, they are moving toward the viewer and will intersect in about 5 minutes (relative velocity of up to 1000 knots). What we saw was a very different thing altogether.
I don’t have video evidence. I tried tonight after the first light zoomed north from the second, but the remaining light was too dim and boring. Without the other light to show relative movement, it’s just a very flickering star.