This article is adapted from a longer piece that originally appeared in Issues in Science and Technology.
On the afternoon of Nov. 14, 2004, two F/A-18 “Super Hornet” fighter jets were 30 minutes into a training drill off the coast of Southern California when they were redirected by a Naval radio operator to a “real world situation.” Earlier that day, the USS Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier and the USS Princeton missile cruiser had detected more than a dozen unidentified objects on their radar screens—what the Navy then referred to as anomalous aircraft vehicles.
The F/A-18s were told by the Princeton’s captain to intercept the closest anomalous vehicle, which was located about 150 miles southwest of the San Diego coastline. When the pilots reached their coordinates, they spotted from an altitude of 20,000 feet a disturbance at the ocean’s surface. One of the pilots, commanding officer Dave Fravor, reported that he saw a white oval or “Tic Tac”–shaped object about 50 to 60 feet in size moving just above the churning water.
Fravor headed down for a closer look. What happened next was “like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he recounted in a 2017 New York Times article. The object accelerated so fast that it disappeared in a blink of an eye. A pilot in the other F/A-18 has subsequently described the episode similarly; he also says he watched as the object zipped around Fravor’s plane before it darted off in a flash.
Meanwhile, according to testimony from Petty Officer Gary Voorhis, who was stationed on the Princeton at the time of the episode, “At a certain point there ended up being multiple objects that we were tracking. That was towards the end of the encounter and they all generally zoomed around at ridiculous speeds, and angles, and trajectories and then eventually they all bugged out faster than our radars.”
Vague details of the incident first came to light several years ago, after the Times and other media outlets reported on it. No human-created military technology had such capabilities, the news stories suggested, so were the mysterious objects otherworldly or a mass delusion? The Pentagon wasn’t saying anything. But now, according to a statement issued on April 23 to Politico, the Navy admits, “There have been a number of reports of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft entering various military-controlled ranges and designated air space in recent years.”
Whoa. That was major news, as was the part about the U.S. military now pledging to update its guidelines so “reports of any such suspected [UFO] incursions can be made to the cognizant authorities.” Politico notes, “To be clear, the Navy isn’t endorsing the idea that its sailors have encountered alien spacecraft. But it is acknowledging there have been enough strange aerial sightings by credible and highly trained military personnel that they need to be recorded in the official record and studied—rather than dismissed as some kooky phenomena from the realm of science-fiction.”
This development comes on the heels of a detailed paper of the 2004 incident that was recently completed and made public by a group of researchers who aimed to demonstrate that the incident actually happened. Titled “A Forensic Analysis of Navy Carrier Strike Group Eleven’s Encounter with an Anomalous Aerial Vehicle,” the paper, which was not published in an academic journal, does not make any claims for the origins of the objects, though it should be stated that all the authors have a long-standing interest in the UFO topic. The lead author, Robert Powell, tells me that he mailed the analysis to various congressional committees, intelligence agencies, and branches of the military several months ago. Whatever the biases of Powell and his fellow authors, there is no denying the body of evidence they amassed via Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with service personnel.
The paper reveals that in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 incident, a video of the encounter was shared and viewed widely by members aboard the Princeton and Nimitz via an internal military email system. Then, according to three witnesses of the Tic Tac episode interviewed by the paper’s authors, “The communication logs, the radar data, and other associated electronic information was removed from the USS Princeton and a copy of the video from the USS Nimitz.”
According to the paper, within 12 hours of the incident, a helicopter carrying nonuniformed personnel landed on the Princeton. They approached Petty Officer Voorhis, who was in charge of the ship’s Cooperative Engagement Capability system, and requested that he turn over all the ship’s radar data, electronic information, and data recordings. He asked for their identification, and when they refused, he told them that he needed permission from the ship’s captain before complying. Shortly after that, his captain gave him the order and Voorhis relinquished all the information, which was stored on magnetic tapes.
The tapes contained crucial data that would shed light on the mysterious Tic Tac–shaped object. Said Voorhis to the paper’s authors, “You could literally plot the entire course of the object, you could extract the densities, the speeds, the way it moved, the way it displaced the air, its radar cross-section, how much of the radar itself was reflected off its surface. I mean you could pretty much recreate the entire event with the CEC data.”
Powell and his colleagues did their homework. They found a 2013 Facebook page for the Nimitz that contains a conversation about the 2004 incident among various shipmates who served together at the time. All those on duty that day recalled it vividly in their Facebook comments; many said they were still befuddled by what they saw and why the data mysteriously disappeared.
Two of the primary authors of the Nimitz incident paper, including Powell, gave a detailed presentation at a conference in Huntsville, Alabama, in mid-March called the Scientific Conference on Anomalous Aerospace Phenomena. The conference was organized by a group that calls itself the “Scientific Coalition for Ufology” and includes scientists from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The group says it endeavors to take a cold-eyed approach to the UFO issue, and as such, examines only cases that have hard data and credible witnesses. “We’re looking to stay neutral and build a coalition of like-minded scientists,” says Rich Hoffman, who does information systems work for the U.S. military and was the lead organizer of the event.
The event’s big draw was Luis Elizondo, a career military intelligence officer who had managed security for the Pentagon’s highly classified Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The program made national headlines in December 2017, when the New York Times reported on the existence of the “shadowy” $22 million Pentagon program that investigated UFOs buzzing U.S. military jets and installations. After the Times story came out, Elizondo talked cryptically about the government’s UFO program on the major news channels. He had left the Pentagon earlier in 2017 and joined a new entertainment and research company co-founded by Tom Delonge, a paranormal enthusiast who was formerly the lead singer and guitarist of the band Blink-182. The for-profit venture was called To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science and included former Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency officials as well as several scientists contracted over the years by U.S. intelligence agencies.
At the conference, Elizondo didn’t offer anything new or noteworthy about the UFO program he once led at the Pentagon, although he did say the “effort” was ongoing. (A public affairs officer at the Pentagon has said the program expired in 2012.) Elizondo told the audience that he had remained in close touch with his successor. In fact, he said that just earlier that week he had “received a call from a friend of mine, a very dear colleague of mine, who’s still at the Pentagon, who works this effort, very closely.” Elizondo then paused briefly. “You can read between the lines. When I say ‘is working this effort,’ I don’t mean the past, but actively working this. So it definitely continues. It’s still going. That, too, will come out hopefully soon in a very official way.”
Elizondo went on to insist that “disclosure has occurred” and that UFOs “are real.” Moreover, he added, “We have also established that fact from a national security perspective. You now have people at the highest levels of the United States government and international communities of their governments finally taking this serious, applying real resources, real talent, real expertise to look at this and finally figure out what this is.”
Perhaps, but Elizondo and his UFO company are under a microscope. In late 2018, he had traveled to Rome to give a presentation to European UFO buffs that was videotaped and quickly posted to the internet. Skeptics found the talk littered with dubious historical claims. He discussed, for example, a famous 1952 incident when flying saucers were reported over D.C. There is no historical photo that captures the supposed UFOs, but in his talk, Elizondo showed a slide that suggested one existed. “It was actually a still [image] from a CGI [computer generated image],” says John Greenewald, the author of a newly published book titled Inside the Black Vault: The Government’s UFO Secrets Revealed. As soon as this was pointed out to Elizondo on the internet, he apologized for the error on his company’s Facebook page.
There are other discrepancies that have put him on the hot seat. He and his company have facilitated the release of video footage that shows military pilots engaging with supposed UFOs. Several of these, including a grainy 45-second video of the Nimitz incident, have gone viral online. Elizondo has insisted that the videos were declassified and released by the Pentagon in 2017, which the Pentagon denies. Even odder, a video of the Nimitz incident—the same one the New York Times embedded in its 2017 article and claimed to have received from the Pentagon—was already bouncing around on the internet in 2007.
As one might expect, an online army of eyes with many years of aviation and aerospace experience have minutely examined the videos. The crowdsourcing consensus, helpfully compiled into a detailed rundown of the incident at one skeptic’s blog, is that the “anomalous phenomena” are more likely explained as sightings of some sort of classified missile or aircraft, perhaps a drone, being tested at the time. That would make sense given the mysterious scrubbing of electronic data relating to the 2004 incident, as reported by various crew members on the Nimitz and Princeton.
For those unsure what to believe, Elizondo offered these words of wisdom to a suspicious questioner at the 2018 International UFO Congress in Phoenix: “I would say remain skeptical. Healthy skepticism is very important. … In fact, in my job as an intelligence officer, I was paid to be skeptical. I think you should always question all the information that comes before you by anybody who says anything, and I think that’s true not just with people like me, I think it’s true with government, religion, and everything in between.” For a journalist trying to make sense of it all, the skepticism comes naturally. If Elizondo and the To the Stars Academy seem to be working in the great American tradition of P. T. Barnum, the irony remains that the Pentagon may well have its own good reason for keeping the UFO story alive. Not that it would ever admit such a thing.
Read the rest of Keith Kloor’s Issues in Science and Technology article “UFOs Won’t Go Away.”
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