When the late-night talk-show host James Corden asked Barack Obama about UFOs last month, there was as usual an air of nervous joviality surrounding the subject. Bandleader Reggie Watts pressed him as well and Obama, as if relenting, admitted two things. Firstly, that he could not divulge all that he knew on air; and secondly, that the slew of footage released by the Pentagon in the past two years showing UAP — ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ — is in fact real. As if overnight, the fringe conspiracy air that has hung over the topic of UFOs for 70 years has seemed to vanish, and this month the Director of National Intelligence is delivering a report to Congress on the troubling phenomena alluded to by Obama — there are objects appearing in our air space for which we have no explanation. The difference today is that they have been filmed.
On 10 November 2004 US Navy F-18 jets operating from USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego near San Clemente Island were asked to investigate groups of five to ten objects which were behaving strangely on Nimitz’s radars. At 28,000 feet they were too high to be birds and too slow to be aircraft. Two Super Hornets intercepted one of them. The four pilots saw a so-called ‘tic tac’ white object moving at seemingly impossible rates of climb and descent. They then observed it for about five minutes as it fell from 60,000 feet to 50 feet above the water. More importantly, it was caught on the aircrafts’ FLIR thermal imaging cameras.
The footage remained secret until the New York Times published it in 2017, but the Times also published two other videos of separate incidents. One, now known as the GOFAST video, shows an object skimming across the water as the airmen whoop with astonishment, while the other, dubbed the GIMBAL video, shows footage captured by jets from the USS Theodore Roosevelt tracking an object which, to the pilots’ amazement, rotates at a seeming standstill. ‘Look at that thing!’ one of them cries. Another can also be clearly heard remarking: ‘There are fleets of them out here.’ The Pentagon formally released the videos in 2020 and admitted that they were (as a spokesman calmly put it) ‘part of a larger issue of an increased number of training range incursions by unidentified aerial phenomena in recent years’.
The cynical laughter about UFOs is dying away. More videos keep surfacing from all over the world. This year the researcher Jeremy Corbell released military footage shot from USS Omaha off San Diego, again in 2019, of a spherical object moving erratically and then dropping perpendicularly into the water, though no debris was recovered. Radar data from the same ship was also released which purported to show a dozen such objects surrounding it. The British UFO researcher Nick Pope (who formerly tracked them for the British government) declared it to be a de facto ‘act of war’. In essence, he argued, it doesn’t matter who is operating such craft, be it hostile nations such as China or Russia, ‘visitors’, or indeed American corporations like Lockheed running covert programmes — they represent something threatening by virtue of being incomprehensible.
Since it’s the military who are recording these events, they are having more impact than, say, Harvard astronomer’s Avi Loeb’s recent claims that the interstellar object Oumuamua which crashed through the solar system last year was in fact artificial. Yet debunkers and naysayers have sprung predictably into action. The physicist Adam Frank penned an editorial in the New York Times at the end of last month claiming to be both unimpressed by the Pentagon’s revelations and slightly miffed that his own expertise in extraterrestrial life had not got there ahead of a few putzes flying Super Hornets. He claimed Chinese and Russian drones as a possible explanation, without apparently considering that both the combat pilots and the Pentagon are unconvinced by it.
Others, mostly journalists and media professors with little aviation expertise, proclaimed that it was all a mythological narrative, a ‘comedy of errors’, a hysteria created by flaws in $6 million military targeting cameras or optical illusions created by commercial aircraft wakes. Or oblivious birds being misidentified.
When lunatic conspiracy theories are debunked, it’s usually by calmly rational experts who with amused aplomb pull apart the ravings of delusional zealots who are themselves impervious to evidence. Curiously, however, the situation with UAPs now appears to have reversed these roles. The calm rational debunkers in this instance are the pilots themselves. The people who were there. The alternative theories they are debunking seem embarrassingly over-emotional. Weather balloons and Chinese drones, seagulls and optical illusions! As these pilots wearily point out, they can actually tell the difference between a seagull, say, and a machine moving faster than an F-18 then disappearing instantaneously.
The first of the four pilots involved with the Nimitz incident to go public was Commander David Fravor, who went on Joe Rogan’s podcast and became a media celebrity of sorts. Last month his co-pilot, Lieutenant Alex Dietrich, also went public in an interview on 60 Minutes with Bill Whitaker to corroborate Fravor’s account of chasing the bizarre ‘tic tac’, which according to her suddenly disappeared, then reappeared on the USS Princeton’s radars 60 miles away. She admits she and Fravor were dumbfounded. In the other plane, Lieutenant Commander Chad Underwood was filming the incident, and he was asked in an interview what he thought it was. He said he had no idea.
Whitaker interviewed another Navy pilot, Lieutenant Ryan Graves, who witnessed similar objects operating off Virginia Beach in 2014. His F-18 also targeted them with infrared cameras. In 2015 one of his squadron filmed them off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. Whitaker asked Graves how often he saw such objects flying through American air space while he was on active service. ‘Every day. Every day for at least a couple of years.’
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