Close Encounter

Heavy layers of volcanic lava make up Peru's rugged Arequipa region

Heavy layers of volcanic lava make up Peru's rugged Arequipa region

In the spring of 1980, Oscar Santa María Huertas was stationed at La Joya Air Force Base in the mountainous Arequipa region of Peru. At just 23 years old he already had eight years of military flight experience, and was responsible for testing the Peruvian Air Force’s new Soviet-built Sukhoi SU-22 supersonic jet. “I won quite a few trophies as a pilot,” he says. “And I was also known as a top aerial marksman.” A reputation that would see the young airman being selected for a highly unusual mission on the morning of April 11.

Huertas and his squadron receive a message from the second commander of the unit, Carlos Vasquez Zegarra. An object that looks like a balloon is hovering in the air at the end of the runway in restricted airspace. It’s ignoring all communication attempts and can’t be identified, so Huertas is ordered to bring it down. “The round object was about three miles away from us, hanging at an altitude of about 2,000 feet above the ground,” he recalls. “The sky was absolutely clear, and it shone in the sun. It was moving slowly towards the base, and we had no idea what it was, so we had no option but to destroy it.”

An object that looks like a balloon is hovering in the air at the end of the runway in restricted airspace

Squad commander Oscar Alegre Valdez orders Huertas to take off in his SU-22 and intercept the object before it gets any closer to the base. “The balloon was within the perimeter of the base and my plane was armed with 30mm shells, so I decided to attack from the northeast to the southeast. This way the sun would be to my left and I could avoid impacting the base with my weapons.” Huertas quickly reaches an altitude of 8,000 feet and positions himself for attack. “Zeroing in on the object, I reached the necessary distance and fired a burst of 64 shells. Some of the projectiles hit the target with precision, but nothing happened. Then it suddenly began to ascend very rapidly, heading away from the base.”

Huertas activates his afterburner and chases the object. Despite flying at over 600mph, the ‘balloon’ remains about 500 metres ahead of him. His pursuit takes him 52 miles away from the base, reaching an altitude of 36,000 feet, until the object suddenly stops, forcing him to veer to the side. “I made a turn upward to the right and positioned myself for another shot. I lined it up perfectly, but just as I was about to fire it made another fast climb. I attempted this two more times, and each time it would ascend vertically at the last moment. I couldn’t believe what was happening, but was determined to complete the mission.”

The Soviet Union's Sukhoi SU-22 fighter-bomber was introduced in 1970

The Soviet Union's Sukhoi SU-22 fighter-bomber was introduced in 1970

As a result of these sudden, rapid ascents, the object reaches 45,000 feet. Huertas decides to make a bold ascent himself and position his plane to attack from above. “I accelerated at supersonic speed, now flying at 1,150mph, and went back to where the object was. I saw it beneath me and began my manoeuvre, but to my surprise it ascended once again and placed itself next to me in a parallel formation. This left me with no way to attack.” The object and Huertas eventually reach an altitude of 63,000 feet, and it stops suddenly again, remaining completely stationary in the air. “I adjusted my wings and slats in an attempt to target the object again, but at that altitude I just couldn’t remain as still as it was.”

A warning light blinks on Huertas’ instrument panel warning him that his fuel is low. But before he returns to base he flies towards the object to take a closer look. “It was no balloon,” he says. “It measured 35 feet in diameter with a shiny cream-coloured dome on top, like a light bulb cut in half. The bottom was a wider circular base and looked like it was made of some silvery metal. The object had no wings, engines, exhausts, windows, or other clues to its origin or purpose.” Terrified, Huertas returns to La Joya and tells the control tower about his encounter. “I requested a second plane to attack it, but they said it was too high. I had to glide part of the way back to save fuel, never taking my eyes off the rear-view mirrors in case it was chasing after me. I had been in the air for around 22 minutes.”

The object had no wings, engines, exhausts, windows, or other clues to its origin or purpose

When Huertas returns, the base is on high alert. The object was never detected by radar, even though the radar operators can see it in the sky for themselves. Huertas is shown photos of known aircraft and espionage devices, but nothing looks like the thing he saw. The object hangs in the air where he left it for two more hours, glinting in the sun, before eventually disappearing. Mystified, the base commander registers it as an unidentified flying object and its origin remains a mystery to this day. “It had none of the recognisable features of an aircraft and defied the laws of aerodynamics,” says Huertas. “I find myself in the unique position of being, as far as I know, the only military pilot in the world who has actually fired a weapon and struck a UFO. It still gives me chills whenever I think about it.”

Andy Kelly