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Jimmy Carter's UFO Sighting


“Whatever statement you saw concerning President Carter’s view on UFOs was not exactly what he said. He had seen something that he thought was unexplainable that possibly might have been a UFO and he will certainly disclose and describe any unusual phenomena he might see. He is committed to the fullest possible openness in government and would support full disclosure of material that was not defense sensitive that might relate to UFOs. He did not, however, pledge to “make every piece of information concerning the UFOs available to the public.” There might be some aspects of some sightings that would have defense implications that possibly should be safe-guarded against immediate and full disclosure.” Walter Wurfel, Carter Deputy Press Secretary February 28, 1977 


Jimmy Carter was the 39th President of the United States, serving from 1977 to 1981. He served as Governor of Georgia from 1971 to 1975.  

President Jimmy Carter has often been referred-to as the "UFO President" due to the fact that he publicly claimed to have had a UFO experience in 1969 just before becoming Governor of Georgia. “A light appeared and disappeared in the sky,” he first told a Washington Post reporter in 1975. “It got brighter and brighter … I have no idea what it was … I think it was a light beckoning me to run in the California primary.” Moreover, he was the only president on record to actually file a written UFO sighting report describing the details his sighting. Thirdly, on at least one occasion while campaigning for president, Carter declared that, if elected, he would "make every piece of information this country has about UFO sightings available to the public and scientists." 

The Sighting 

             As previously mentioned, Jimmy Carter is one of two U.S. Presidents who openly reported seeing a UFO before becoming President. In the various recountings of the Carter sighting told over the years, there have been many items about the sighting that have been recorded incorrectly. Later on, there would also be many mistakes made in the evaluation of the investigations of the sighting. 

                The first mistake made in recording Carter’s UFO sighting related to the date that the sighting occurred. The sighting was first filed by then governor Jimmy Carter on September 18, 1973, based upon a request from Hayden C. Hewes, director of the International UFO Bureau. The date that Carter gave in his sighting report was October 1969. Later research indicated that the actual date was more probably January 6, 1969. Some people reporting on the Carter sighting were even using the 1973, date when Carter filed the details of the sighting as the date for the event. 

             The second mistake made by storytellers related to the 1969 UFO sighting, was that Carter was not the governor of Georgia at the time of the sighting. He did not become Georgia's 76th governor until January 12, 1971.  

             Carter’s UFO sighting began shortly after dark on a cold windless night.  Jimmy Carter was standing outside the Lion’s Club in Leary, Georgia, waiting for a meeting to start. Suddenly, he and ten or more witnesses, sighted a red and green orb radiating in the western sky. Carter described the object. “It seemed to move towards us from a distance, stop, move partially away, return, then depart. Bluish at first; then reddish - luminous - not solid.”  

             “At times,” reported Carter, “it was as bright as the moon, and about as big as the moon - maybe a bit smaller. The object was luminous; not solid.” 

             In a 1973 interview with the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, Carter described the moving nature of the event. The sighting was described as a “very remarkable sight.”[1]  This is an important description, because many of the skeptical counter explanations given for the Carter sighting, have tried to paint the event as a ho-hum occurrence. None of the descriptions Carter has made of the event have ever described it as anything ordinary.  

          At a Southern Governors Conference a few years after the sighting Carter stated, “I don’t laugh at people anymore when they say they’ve seen UFOs. I’ve seen one myself. It was the darndest thing I have ever seen. It was big, it was bright, it changed colors and it was about the size of the moon.” 

             Jimmy Carter’s mother Lillian further confirmed that Jimmy had been very impressed by what he had seen. “The UFO made a huge impression on Jimmy,” she stated. “He told me about the sighting many times. He’s always been a down-to-earth no-nonsense boy, and the sighting by him, as far as I am concerned, is as firm as money in the bank.”[2] 

            Carter has, in fact, described the UFO sighting many times in the years since it occurred. In every instance, including the latest known telling of the story at Emory University in 1997, Carter has never backed off on the spectacular nature of the event. He has also never conceded that was he saw was some misidentification of a natural phenomenon. 

            Carter estimated that the object was three hundred to one thousand yards away. He estimated that the event had lasted 10 minutes. Then the object “disappeared.” Carter was so impressed by what he had seen; he recorded his impressions of the event on a tape recorder at the time.[3]  

            In the ensuing years, there has been a great deal of discussion as to what the UFO had been. Many skeptical UFO buffs, such as Robert Sheaffer, have struggled to explain Jimmy Carter’s sighting away, by stating that Carter had viewed the planet Venus. Sheaffer, the vice-chairman of the UFO subcommittee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, wrote up his guess as to what the object Carter and the others had seen in the July 1977 Humanist Magazine. Many UFO “researchers” wanting to show that they, too, can be “discriminating” joined in stating Carter had viewed the planet Venus.     

            Others stepped forward quickly to challenge the accuracy of Shaeffer’s claim. Sheaffer’s response to these challenges ended up taking his Venus explanation from the shaky to the bizarre. For example, Sheaffer argued UFO researchers challenging his conclusions were wrong because they relied on eyewitness testimony, and eyewitness testimony is unreliable. There are, wrote Sheaffer, “volumes of scientific analysis documenting unreliability of unsubstantiated human eyewitness testimony.”[4] Yet Sheaffer, in his own analysis of the case, had used the same eyewitness testimony to come to his Venus conclusion.  

         In a response to a letter written to the Skeptical Inquirer by Jon Beckjord, published in the Winter 1980-81 Skeptical Inquirer, Sheaffer cited four books and articles Beckjord could refer to that would show you “can’t take unsubstantiated testimony at face value.”  

         In the very next sentence of his reply, however, Sheaffer retreated to eyewitness testimony. “I note that Beckjord fails to mention,” Shaeffer wrote, “that many UFO proponents agree with me that the Carter UFO sighting is a very poor one and that another Georgian standing with Carter, as my Humanist piece makes clear, [was] quite unimpressed with the light they saw in the sky.”[5] Shaeffer’s Venus conclusion relied on the assumption that Carter’s eyewitness testimony was inaccurate, but the other eyewitness accounts were accurate. 

            In the end, it is safe to conclude that the object was not Venus, no matter how bad witness the testimony might have been. A careful review of the astronomical evidence[6] would show:

1)                Venus was in the southwestern sky on January 6, 1969, not in the west as claimed by Sheaffer. (between 237 and 240 degrees azimuth, not 270) Carter, while in the Navy, would have done many watches on cruisers and destroyers as a navigation officer, taking star shots with a sextant, stated the object was in the western sky. It is safe to assume Carter had the training to tell direction. 

2)     2)    Carter described the object as being the “size of the moon” or “slightly smaller than the apparent size of the moon.” Venus never appears this way. It appears as a bright star.

3)                Venus at the time was at between 15 and 21 degrees over the horizon at 7:15 p.m. Carter, a trained observer stated the object was 30 degrees above the horizon, or almost double the height of Venus at the time. Once again, Carter’s training in the Navy would make his evaluation of height accurate. 

4)                Sheaffer described Venus as “being at it’s brightest” on the date in question. It wasn’t at its brightest.        

5)                The witnesses declared that the object disappeared after 10 minutes or at 7:25 p.m. Venus however, on the evening in question, was visible in the clear sky till 9:20 p.m. If it had been Venus, it would still have been visible for another 115 minutes after the witnesses claimed it had disappeared in a clear sky. During these 115 minutes the planet Venus would have increased in brightness (not disappeared) as it moved down towards the horizon. Venus does not disappear by seeming to move into the distance, and therefore would have been eliminated as an explanation for the UFO by a grade six astronomy class investigation. 

             Regardless of what the future President saw on that cold clear night in 1969, it greatly impressed him. He spoke of the sighting to many people including his Press Secretary Jody Powell. Asked about the UFO event Powell said, “I do remember Jimmy saying that he did, in fact, see a strange light or object at night in the sky which did not appear to be a star or planet or anything that he could explain. If that’s your definition of an Unidentified Flying Object, then I suppose that is correct...I would venture to say he has probably seen stranger and more unexplainable things than that just during his time in government.”[7] 

             Many years after being President, when asked about the sighting by citizens, Carter would still describe in details the events that he witnessed. On September 24, 1997, for example, Carter spoke at the 16th annual Emory town Hall Meeting in Atlanta. When the question and answer session began the first question was about the UFO sighting that Carter had experienced 28 years before. As he had on so many previous occasions Carter described in detail what he had seen. In conclusion to the story he stated that “he knew of no extraterrestrials and he did “not think any were on the UFO he saw.”




[1]. Atlanta Constitution, September 14, 1973, p. 1D.

[2]. ”Jimmy Carter, The Night I Saw a UFO,” National Enquirer, June 8, 1976, p. 4.

[3] Atlanta Constitution, September 14, 1973, p. 1D


[4]. Robert Schaeffer, “The Jimmy Carter UFO,” The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1980-81, p. 78-79.

[5]. Ibid.

[6] Astronomical calculations done by Dr. David Rudiak.


[7]. ”Q&A on the News,” The Atlanta Journal, May 21, 1995.