Flying Saucers – Oh My…

On a airplane flight some years ago (the statute of limitations has expired by now…), I witnessed an intriguing chain of events. Crowd behavior in a small space can lead to any number of anxiety behaviors among individuals. But to see crowd behavior emerge first hand was just fascinating. Recently, I started to re-watch my X-Files DVDs, and one episode brought it all back. Flying Saucers – “The Truth is Out There”

An unusual light that seemed to be following the plane was spotted by a passenger (gulp – me). I remarked to the person next to me, “Hey, look at that… What do you think that is?” He said excitedly, “…looks like a UFO.” Then, in the row in front of me a second later, I hear, “Yeah – a UFO”, and the person in front of me gets up and turns around and says rather loudly to the two of us, “It’s a UFO – it’s a UFO!”

I see the first hint of panic in a crowded closed space.

So, I am a skeptic – I look again. This light follows us – it suddenly gets much closer to us, and then just as suddenly, it seems to get much farther away. And then, it disappears completely for a few seconds before I see it again. Now, it seems to be much closer to the ground. Well, I have to admit that this is just rather strange.

As I continue to look, out of the corner of my eye I notice a passenger from a few more rows forward gets up quickly and runs down the aisle to the back of the plane (in panic – red in the face – to find a crew member, I presume). A minute later, a startled crew member with the passenger passes us and stops at this fellow’s row to look out this fellow’s window, and passengers from a few rows up and down all get out of their seats to look, too.

More Panic. Now, it is panic. And some irrational behavior – that light would have been visible from any window on my side of the plane, but the best place to see the “flying saucer” must obviously have been way forward to those folk…

I look around, and now, there are clusters of passengers forming every few rows leaning way sideways toward the windows to look out my side of the plane. People are talking loudly and excitedly “There it is!” “It’s coming directly toward us!” “Oh, God…” People are audibly gasping – audible even above the roar of the engines.

The plane of strangers are forming groups and establishing bonds and acknowledging leaders. They are all reacting in unison.

And just at that moment, the pilot addresses the plane and instructs everyone to “sit down immediately”, or the plane will land at the nearest airport. “Remain calm and take your seats everyone” beckons a member of the flight crew. To this point, only a few minutes have past, and about a quarter of the passengers are out of their seats. It takes more time than that for the crew to get everyone seated, but everyone finally does sit down and glues themselves to their own windows.

People reluctantly follow instructions. They acknowledge authority, but without a tangible threat, compliance is slow and reluctant.

Now, I can clearly see that this is a reflection of the full moon on cloud layers below us, and then on a series of lakes on the ground, and then on more clouds. It is really apparent to me that this is the moon another minute later when we change to a lower altitude and fly through the top of a cloud layer, and the moon’s reflection gets extremely close and blurry. Yup – obviously the moon. And just at that time, the pilot announces that, “This is just the moon’s reflection on clouds, ladies and gentlemen. There is no reason to be excited.” Smart pilot!

A plea for reason from authority. Reassurance. Now, there is clear acceptance of authority by the crowd. And understanding of facts. Almost…

The person in front of us gets up out of his seat and says, “It’s not the moon – IT’S NOT! It’s a UFO”

Denial – clinging to the more exciting conclusion instead of the plausible one.

“Yes, it is.”, I say as calmly and confidently as I can. “It’s just the moon. It’s OK. Look, you can see that it’s the moon – see the clouds? Now, look way up in the sky – see the moon?” He sits down again, and really looks intently out his window. “Maybe you’re right.” he says. Now, he is calm and rational. So  are most of the other passengers. I look all around, and no one is standing, and the demeanor for most of the passengers looks more casual.

Fascinating. From observation to alarm in seconds. Obvious panic for a few in less than a minute. A whole population showing concern in another minute. Three minutes from first utterance to the peak of anxiety. And then a few more minutes for reason to reign again. And real calm? Not until the plane was disembarking and people could talk to each other and compare their feelings and their fears.

People must decompress as a group after experiencing anxiety together.

It was fascinating to watch. But, dog-gone-it, it was just the moon… I was genuinely disappointed it wasn’t the “real deal”.

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One Response to “Flying Saucers – Oh My…”

  1. mikesoper Says:

    Reminds me of the old Chinese poets,
    and their reflections of the moon . . .

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