50 Years Ago: 1973 Turin Mass Sighting

Radars and planes tracked a UFO above Caselle Airport in 1973. What do we know after half a century about one of the most famous Italian UFO sightings, and confirmed by radar, ground witnesses and pilots?

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Published 2023-12-27 at 10:11

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The event took place on November 30, 1973, beginning shortly before 7 p.m. and ending shortly after 7:30 p.m. It was witnessed by 2 airliners and ground witnesses. The anomaly was also detected by both civilian and army radars and chased by a private plane.  

Radar operators declared observing intermittent, moving echo on their screens. Ground witnesses and pilots described the anomaly as a strong, stationary white light in the sky, in the direction of the Susa Valley (southwest). The pilot in pursuit described it as a strong white light receding in a southeasterly direction. 

This case, one of the most famous cases in Italy, was reported in several books and periodical publications, and not just from Italy - though mostly as a collage of secondary sources.

Edoardo Russo, all rights reserved

Rumors

According to rumors and uncorrelated information, the events unfolded as follows:

  • Military operators of the control tower at Caselle airport detected on radar the presence of an object on a flight path potentially colliding with one of the landing aircraft;
  • The presence of a bright object was also visually detected from the control tower, heading southwest;
  • The control tower warned of the presence of an intruder to all aircraft about to land;
  • The pilots of at least two Alitalia flights ("Giovanni" and "Franco") saw the light;
  • The pilot of a small private plane ("Riccardo") also saw the light, asked permission to get closer, then tried to get to it;
  • On the way, he saw it making several vertical shifts and variations in brightness;
  • He suddenly realized it had shifted position, and the light was then behind his plane; 
  • He made a U-turn in order to chase it, but without success for 20 minutes, flying as far as 110 kilometers to the East;
  • Having exhausted his fuel reserve, he had to give up the chase, and turned back to Caselle, while the light kept moving away toward Genoa;
  • In the meantime, the Caselle airport radar continued to intermittently detect the presence of an anomalous echo, which appeared to move longitudinally and vertically, with irregular movement and very fast maneuvers. Speeds up to Mach 4 were reported.
  • Meanwhile, the military radar center in Mortara, 85 kilometers east of Caselle, also detected many radar echoes that appeared, disappeared, and moved; it was rumored that it was caused by objects having a radar echo similar to an airliner’s, but performing abrupt and impossible movements.
  • Observers from the ground observed the light moving towards Susa Valley up until 7:30 p.m.

Unfortunately, there has long been a complete lack of direct UFO investigations. Indeed, no interviews were conducted at the time by researchers with the main witnesses, pilots, and radar operators.

The only sources at the time were interviews given by the pilots to journalists.  Three of those sources, though extremely sketchy ones, can be considered first-hand ones: 

  • a television interview of Riccardo, of which an audio recording is available; 
  • two radio interviews with Giovanni and Riccardo, and a verbatim transcript. 

None of the journalists asked specific questions that would have been essential for proper ufological investigation.

The journalistic sources of the time mixed valid and erroneous information, with a few sensational exaggerations, and even some fantasy invented out of thin air.

Edoardo Russo, all rights reserved

Investigation

There is no evidence of a direct investigation by the military. Indeed, in the declassified case file which was released several years later, an analysis carried out by Italy's leading "Air Force ufologist" of the 1960s, Igino Gatti, was based on press sources and highlighted the absence of weather data and witness details that would have been indispensable for him to confirm his hypothesis of an atmospheric refraction phenomenon.

UFO organizations in Piedmont at that time consisted of the national association CUN, as well as a few dozen groups of UFO enthusiasts. None of those contacted the main witnesses, although at least three made “environment inquiries”, collecting second-hand information and rumors, some of which were erroneous or exaggerated. Nonetheless, some were later published.

Some information was released by the military to the press. Other rumors were gathered through acquaintances and contacts of some ufologists in the aviation or Air Force milieu. The first official document was released by mistake in 1978. Most of the declassification regarding radar data or any other type of information only occurred starting 1996, when the Italian Center for UFO Studies (CISU) asked for it.

Parallel to this declassification, an extensive retrospective investigation of the case was coordinated by Paolo Fiorino in the early 1990s. That led to finding and questioning almost all the known witnesses of the case, pilots, a radar operator and ground observer, the then commander of the airport, the First Air Region officer who was charged to deal with the case as press officer on the incident and the analyst officer who authored the analysis of the case in 1977.

Piper plane flight path, Edoardo Russo, all rights reserved

The Reconstruction

Using only primary sources, including audio recordings or literal transcripts of witness interviews and logs of the Mortara radar center for radar surveys, eliminating errors in quotations or attributions, and by adding what emerged from retrospective investigations, a reconstruction of the case was made:

  • At around 6:45 p.m., the military operators of the control tower at Caselle airport detected on radar the presence of an object in a position potentially colliding with the aircraft landing pathway.
  • The control tower operators also visually detected the presence of a bright object, heading southwest.
  • Around 6:48 p.m. the control tower informed the planes about to land of the presence of an intruder.
  • The pilot named "Giovanni", of Alitalia flight AZ325, who was at an altitude of 2,000 meters, 7 minutes from landing, scheduled for 18.55 hours, initially did not see any object in front of him. 2 minutes before landing, at 300 meters above the ground, in the penultimate part of the descent trajectory (thus after turning towards the West), he suddenly observed, together with the co-pilot, a strong white-blue light at about 15-20° above the horizon.
  • The pilot named "Franco", of Alitalia flight AZ043, also in the approach phase, 4 miles away, observed along  with his co-pilot a light toward the Susa Valley, in front of them, thus heading west-southwest; the light was changing intensity and seemed to rise when the brightness increased, and then lowering when the brightness decreased.
  • "Riccardo", the pilot of the Piper,  descended at 3,000 meters to land, but did not see the light at al at that point. Hearing the radio dialogue between the control tower and the airliners, he then asked to be guided to attempt an approach; he headed toward the Susa Valley but still did not see the object.
  • At this point, the pilot of a fourth plane that had just taken off from Caselle, heading initially North, then East, reported to him that the object was instead behind the Piper, at an altitude of 3,600 meters. Riccardo then made a wide turn to reverse course and finally saw a bright white sphere at an altitude higher than his own that increased and decreased in intensity; he then began an approaching maneuver.
  • The approach took a total of 7-8 minutes, at a speed of just under 400 km/h, but the object seemed to maintain or increase its distance from him, heading southeast, until Riccardo gave up the chase and turned back.
  • Previous accounts reporting the object suddenly bypassing the plane from west to east were wrong, since the witness never saw it westward, though he had been directed there. Only after he was advised from another plane that the light was in the opposite direction (.i.e. East), he turned his plane and finally saw the light in the sky. 
  • According to the duration of the chase reported by Riccardo, even at its maximum speed, the Piper would not have traveled more than 45-50 km (thus arriving above Asti).
  • In the meantime, Caselle’s radar continued to detect intermittently the presence of an anomalous echo. From the controversy that followed a serious incident on New Year's Day, we later learned that at that time "for four months" the GCA precision radar, capable of detecting altitude with an accuracy of a few meters was out of order. Only the “search and surveillance” radar, less precise and functioning only in azimuth planimetry was functioning.
  • At 7:15 p.m., Caselle’s control tower requested confirmation from the Mortara military radar center regarding the detection of an unknown echo 9 miles away in towards the South-West (radial 235°), as their radar operators were visually observing a bright object about 5,000 feet above the ground, 4-5 km away. On Mortara's radar, however, that echo did not show up.
  • About 40 minutes later, however, between 7:57 p.m. and 8:52 p.m., the military radar center at Mortara detected at least 12 different radar tracks that appeared, disappeared, and moved over various locations in Piedmont and Liguria. Speeds were calculated from the different positions of the echoes at each sweep of the radar, every 12 seconds. Those detections, all taking place well after the airplane’s sighting over Turin, were those referred to in statements by the Air Force spokesman, as reported in several newspapers on the following days, with the various estimates of altitudes, speeds, presumed sizes of the detected objects, uneven speeds, course changes, and discontinuities. It turned out that some of those tracks, which appeared over French territory, were also detected by Lyon’s radar control center; 
  • In the meantime, ground observers, including radar operators, technicians, military men and civilians, continued to watch the light in the direction of the Susa Valley (southwest) until after 7:30 p.m. (altogether, for about 45 minutes); 
  • Pilots of Alitalia airliners, after landing, also watched the now star-sized light, stationary in the sky, towards the mountains.
  • At 8:39 p.m., the Mortara radar center detected an unknown track located 4 miles from Caselle and alerted the control tower at the Turin airport; the Caselle operators called back after a few minutes to confirm that they were visually observing an object of intense brightness above them. They did not mention radar detection, but described the object moving slowly toward the south side of the runway.
  • Other sporadic, occasional and irregular radar echoes, such that they could not be consolidated into radar traces, were detected from Mortara between 11 p.m. and midnight.
  • Another similar, complex series of radar track detections, with visual sightings both at Caselle and outside the Mortara radar center, then occurred on the evening of December. These two events have often been confused.
Other radar contacts, Edoardo Russo, all rights reserved

Possible explanations

According to data from the Air Force meteorological station at Caselle, on the evening of November 30, 1973, the sky was clear, with light southeast winds on the plains, stronger winds in the mountains, and temperature around zero °C.

Apart from the moon, the major light sources in the sky at that hour were:

  • -Venus: azimuth 225° (southwest), zenith 6°, magnitude -4.6 diameter 60"
  •  Jupiter: azimuth 216° (southwest), zenith 17°, magnitude -2.1, diameter 36"
  •  Mars: azimuth 128° (southeast), zenith 44°, magnitude -1.4, diameter 18"

POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS

Both at the time and more recently, various hypotheses have been put forward to explain the Caselle aero-radar-visual sightings with conventional causes. Some of them are ridiculous, others seemingly more reasonable:

  • a French weather balloon;
  •  a Soviet (or American) remotely-controlled spy-aircraft;
  • a ball lightning or some similar atmospheric plasma phenomenon;
  • atmospheric refraction ("lens effect" of astronomical objects for visual observations, anomalous radio-propagation for radar echoes).

I do not intend here to delve in interpretations, which, as always, would remain subjective and, as almost always, subject of controversy.

My purpose here and today, on the fiftieth anniversary of those events, is to present the testimonial and documented data reconstructing synthetically the case history in its factual features. This is the result of a long work of investigation, collection and comparison, which has led to modify to a great extent the misconceptions that have long been spread regarding this incident, even though I am fully aware that it continues (and will surely continue) to be copied again and again by UFO writers without philological care.

Everyone is thus put in a position - if he/she wants to - to make his/her own evaluations, coming to his/her own conclusions.

Main picture: Edoardo Russo, all rights reserved

Edoardo Russo

Edoardo Russo has a degree in economics and has worked as a tax consultant and chartered accountant. He has been actively involved in various Italian UFO organizations and is on the editorial board of several international UFO publications. As a field investigator, Edoardo is author of hundreds of investigations on UFO sightings. As a writer, he published many articles in Italian and international UFO periodicals, as well as several chapters in books on UFOs. He is presently secretary of the Italian Center for UFO Studies (CISU), MUFON National Director, one of EuroUfo-net coordinators.