Science

Did Those Navy Pilots Really See Aliens? Maybe!

Or maybe we just need a new term for “UFO.”

a guy in a tinfoil hat
It’s fun to wear a tinfoil hat.
David Ake/Reuters

The aliens are coming, have you heard? If you glanced at the news over Memorial Day weekend, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s a vague possibility that little green creatures are zipping around in the American atmosphere.

That was the vibe around our office and industry water-cooler on Tuesday morning, thanks to a triple-bylined Sunday New York Times story, which led to a slew of UFO coverage. The gist is: Five Navy pilots interviewed by the paper saw objects zipping around on their radars that they cannot explain during training exercises in 2014 and 2015. In one instance, a pilot reports almost colliding with “a sphere encasing a cube” that buzzed past the cockpit. When the pilots left the States, the sightings stopped.

Even entertaining that this could be aliens is sort of akin to getting a headache, skimming WebMD, then announcing that you might have cancer. I mean, maybe!

Another scenario is that this is a story about an imbalance of information within a workplace. It only seems mysterious because it involves the government and is taking place in the sky (which is why it ran in the paper’s politics section, not science). The pilots first suspected the objects were part of a “potentially classified drone program,” one told the Times, until the near-collision. Then they dismissed that idea, reasoning that whoever ran that program would be aware that they were training in the area and avoid it. But it seems plausible. Imagine if your bosses had a string of secret meetings that messed up everyone else’s room bookings, except with higher stakes, because, the sky. Dangerous? Yes. Within the realm of human error? Yes. If this kept happening, would HR perhaps update a system for registering complaints, as the Navy did with UFO sightings earlier this year? Seems possible.

But maybe it’s even more mundane than that. A spokesperson for the Navy suggested to the Times that some of the sightings could have been garden-variety commercial drones. “Drones are the bane of UFOlgy,” noted Lee Speigel on HuffPo Live a few years ago. He noted that the craft are responsible for a spike of UFO reports, though it could also be that it’s fun to share conspiracies on the internet. Perhaps it was another country zooming in with some kind of drone, which is why it’s important for the government to investigate these sightings. Though if that’s the case, we seem to have gotten off scot-free from whatever it was trying to do.

To be fair, references to “aliens” in most news stories were tongue-in-cheek. “Alien Sightings Overshadowed by 3-Day Weekend,” announced the Cut. “Our conclusion? Aliens are extremely real,” said Sophie Weiner at Splinter. The Times actually goes to a lot of trouble to dispel the possibility that the UFOs are aliens, noting that “no one in the Defense Department is saying that the objects were extraterrestrial” and checking in with a Harvard astrophysicist who offers a slew of alternative explanations, including faulty radar code and stress from being in a high-stakes situation. (This guy is different from the Harvard astrophysicist who likes to stoke excitement about aliens. Remember the Oumuamua hullabaloo?)

It’s weird that aliens are in this conversation at all. We don’t spend time saying “We’re ruling out aliens” whenever we report on something mysterious and puzzling, like the election of Donald Trump or the choices behind the Game of Thrones finale. The problem is that “UFO,” a catchall term for anything that’s airborne and not immediately classifiable, is so tightly knit to the idea of extraterrestrials in the popular imagination. There should be separate words for the sci-fi thing; the thing that the government is taking employee reports of; and stuff that civilians see in the sky and have questions about, which, beyond aircraft, can include everything from clouds to swarms of insects. But scientists are actually pretty bullish about cataloging what’s going on in our atmosphere, so much so that a team at a radio telescope in Australia once spent years puzzling over a signal that turned out to be from a microwave oven. If these flying things were visitors from another planet, there’s a solid chance we’d be clued in.