UFOs (Con’t just for fun) [warning: this is quite long]

UFOs (Con’t just for fun) [warning: this is quite long]

Kean worked with Ralph Blumenthal, a 45-year veteran of the paper who had retired in 2009. Blumenthal was then working on a biography, now released, of John Mack, a Harvard Medical School professor who became convinced that the purported alien abductees he was interviewing were telling the truth, despite the lack of physical evidence for their claims and the possibility that the experiences they described were simply sleep paralysis.

“I believe … that Mack was onto something,” Blumenthal told one interviewer. He added to me, “I went very carefully over [Mack’s] research, and I must say that the so-called skeptics, who are very quick to debunk a lot of this field from the simplest UFO sightings to alien encounters, have not done the research that people in the field have done.”

Blumenthal was, naturally, intrigued by what Kean was offering, and they set off to pitch a science story to the editor of the New York Times. Blumenthal told me, and documented in a “Times Insider” column for the paper, that he took the story directly to Dean Baquet, the Times’s top editor.

“I want to make a clear distinction between the material in my book, which is about alien encounters reported by people, and UFOs,” Blumenthal clarified to me. “It is much easier to interest people at the Times in a story about UFOs than about alien encounters.”

On UFOs, he had Navy pilot testimony and videos to lend the story credibility. “Maybe [alien encounters] will become part of the dialogue at some point,” Kean told me, “but it’s not going to become part of the mainstream dialogue at this stage. We’re just not there yet.”

Blumenthal and Kean’s effort culminated in two pieces posted online on December 16, 2017, for the next day’s print edition: the front-page, A1 story revealing the existence of AATIP and the contents of the FLIR1 and GIMBAL videos, and a story deeper in the paper interviewing Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight, also in an F/A-18 during the Nimitz encounter, about what they saw.

The latter piece was preceded by the following disclaimer:

The following recounts an incident in 2004 that advocates of research into U.F.O.s have said is the kind of event worthy of more investigation, and that was studied by a Pentagon program that investigated U.F.O.s. Experts caution that earthly explanations often exist for such incidents, and that not knowing the explanation does not mean that the event has interstellar origins.

It took years, but eventually in September 2019 the Pentagon confirmed that the two videos in the Times, as well as GOFAST which was released a few months later by To The Stars, were authentic. On April 27, 2020, it formally released them itself.

Beyond the initial disclosure of the Navy videos, the Times’s coverage has ventured into somewhat more speculative territory.

In that December 2017 story, it repeated claims that a Bigelow facility was “modified” to house “metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena,” alloys that Blumenthal told MSNBC government researchers were struggling to identify. That claim earned immediate pushback from chemists who found the notion of the Pentagon recovering unclassifiable mystery alloys implausible.

In a July 2020 story, Kean and Blumenthal passed along a claim from astrophysicist and contractor Eric W. Davis that “he gave a classified briefing to a Defense Department agency as recently as March about retrievals from ‘off-world vehicles not made on this earth.’”

Davis is a bit of a perennial figure in stories about offbeat Pentagon investigations. In 2004, he received $7.5 million from the Air Force to study “psychic teleportation,” or the ability to transport yourself between locations with the power of your mind. The US military has long paid for long-shot investigations into alleged paranormal activity (see Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats for a longer history).

By passing along Davis’s claims without verifying them, the Times’s July 2020 story effectively suggested that alien civilizations have reached earth with “off-world vehicles” that the Pentagon has retrieved, a truly extraordinary claim in need of extraordinary evidence. The story did note, “No crash artifacts have been publicly produced for independent verification,” and acknowledged that astrophysicists contend that “Even lacking a plausible terrestrial explanation does not make an extraterrestrial one the most likely.”

I asked Blumenthal about the choice to pass along the news of Davis’s briefings without further verification of his claims — after all, the Times spent years on a story looking into whether Donald Trump cheated on his taxes, so it seems reasonable that a claim suggesting alien materials here on Earth would receive similar vetting.

Blumenthal defended the inclusion by noting the piece stopped “short of saying that we have verified information that material was recovered. We just said that congressional staff was shown a briefing slide that referenced these materials. It was very carefully worded, because we didn’t want to get ahead of the information we had. … But we thought it was quite an advance to get that into the paper.”

Kean told me she confirmed with numerous sources that such vehicles have been discussed in high-level briefings by Davis. She also went a bit further in vouching for the substance of Davis’s claim. “I absolutely think Eric Davis is a respectable, credible person,” she told me, adding later, “The fact that a government agency has been briefing congressmen on that topic, and briefing many other people at high levels, for many years, is highly suggestive that there’s something to it.”

The prevailing explanations of the videos

No one knows with a high level of confidence what the Navy videos are depicting, or if they are even depicting the same thing. But explanations generally fall into one of four categories:

  • Natural or non-military phenomena (like a pelican or civilian aircraft or camera error)
  • Secret US government aviation technology
  • Secret aviation technology from the military of another country, most likely Russia or China
  • Aliens

The main expositor of the first hypothesis is Mick West, a British video game programmer known for his work on the Tony Hawk skateboarding series, who now devotes his time to his website Metabunk and the broader project of debunking what he regards as conspiracy theories, including “chemtrails” and extraterrestrial explanations of UFOs.

West had laid out his theory of the three videos in many places, but the below video is to my mind the most helpful summary:

The FLIR1 video is “entirely consistent with being a plane that’s very far away,” West says. “Radar’s great if you know where to look, but if you’re looking in sector A and it’s in sector Q” you’re going to miss it — which is what he thinks happened in the Nimitz case.

West believes the GIMBAL video is most likely the glare of a jet’s engine; he says he has replicated this kind of image using his own infrared cameras. Its apparent rotation, he says, is due to a limitation in the camera’s ability to move and track the object. GOFAST, he thinks, is a lost weather balloon (or perhaps a pelican), which — because it’s midway between the jet observing it and the water — appears (misleadingly) to be going as fast as the plane itself when it’s really staying still.

So that’s number one, the naturalistic explanation. Elizondo, Mellon, Fravor, and other UFO disclosure advocates and ex-pilots do not just dispute this argument but are actively infuriated by it.

“I don’t know why people even take [Mick West] seriously,” Mellon told me. “He knows nothing about these sensor systems, he deliberately excludes 90 percent of the pertinent information and in the process maligns our military personnel. ‘Oh, Dave Fravor doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Oh, those guys don’t know how to operate those infrared systems.’ Who the hell does he think he is? These guys are the real deal. He’s a desk jockey sitting in front of a monitor.”

West, for his part, told me, “I don’t ignore the pilots. I try to engage with them to resolve issues like this. I respect their skills and experience but recognize (as they themselves have said) that they are human, not perfect.”

Elizondo is sometimes more charitable to the skeptics, even giving an hour-long interview to West on his YouTube channel. In general, his response was to argue that West was looking just at videos and not at the totality of information that’s available to researchers in the Pentagon. On Nimitz/FLIR1, he told West, “Based on my experience in the AATIP program, there is certainly additional information that is very, very compelling. People are going to say, ‘Well, what is it, Lue, why don’t you tell us? We want to know.’ Well, I can’t” — it’s still classified. But, Elizondo advised, this corroborating information might start to trickle out soon.

As a layperson, I’m sort of at a loss of what to make of these disputes. West’s explanations seem plausible, but I haven’t been in a physics class since 2007, I have never flown a fighter jet, and I have no expertise with infrared cameras.

It also seems perfectly plausible that Elizondo and Mellon are right and there is private government data proving the skeptical explanations wrong — but it’s impossible to evaluate that without access to such data.

The other two non-extraterrestrial explanations — that it’s secret US military aircraft, or secret foreign military aircraft — are even tougher to nail down. The DOD is not in the habit of blabbing about secretive air tests, especially ones that (in this scenario) it would be hiding from Navy fighter pilots operating in the same airspace. The Russian and Chinese militaries are really not in the habit of disclosing trade secrets.

Mellon has said that he’s confident the vehicles aren’t ours, because he has a high enough security clearance that he would have heard about them in that case.

Maybe! But I imagine there were many people with high security clearances who, say, did not know that in the 1950s and ’60s the CIA was secretly dosing people with LSD to see if it could be used to coerce confessions. The US government is a vast, sprawling behemoth that’s doing any number of strange things at any given time, so Mellon’s point — while plausible — doesn’t strike me as dispositive. That said, the Times’s Cooper and Julian Barnes have reported that the UAP Task Force report will conclude that the UAPs in the videos were not US military aircraft, which would back up Mellon’s claim considerably.

What about the Russian and Chinese militaries? That’s a common theory among pilots. Pilot Lt. Ryan Graves told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker, that “The highest probability is that it’s a threat observation program,” perhaps from Russia or China.

The best argument for this possibility I’ve seen comes from Tyler Rogoway of the War Zone, a publication focused on defense issues. As Rogoway notes, there is a huge amount of precedent for this kind of aerial surveillance: The US engaged in this activity extensively vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and tests of surveillance aircraft in locations like Roswell, New Mexico, and Area 51, Nevada, have generated many past UFO reports.

The adversarial drone explanation would also help explain why pilots and ships, in particular, are seeing so many of these objects: Why wouldn’t the Russian or Chinese militaries want to learn more about the US military this way? At the same time, Rogoway concedes that there are some incidents that are difficult to explain in this framework.

But a crucial point he makes is that there’s very little in the video evidence, including the three blockbuster UFO videos detailed above, that suggests vehicles with abilities unknown to humankind, writing, “Beyond the so-called ‘Tic-Tac’ video that just looked like a blurry little Tic Tac, I have seen nothing in any government ‘UAP’ videos that supposedly show unexplainable capabilities or craft that actually portray that. In fact, quite the opposite.”

In other words, they’re probably not from an advanced alien civilization — which is probably the most common misconception I’ve found in talking to friends and families about the resurgence of UFO talk. Just so we’re clear: These videos do not amount to the Pentagon or the government admitting that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is true.

Kean, for her part, while open to the extraterrestrial hypothesis, also expressed openness to the foreign military aircraft hypothesis, telling me, “I think Tyler Rogoway does great work … it’s an open question.”

So what is true? I’m personally left agnostic by all the evidence. I’m certainly not persuaded these are alien aircraft, but the evidence for skeptical explanations like weather balloons or civilian airplanes or foreign drones is incomplete as well.

The only sure thing is something odd is happening — and that we’ve just started trying to understand what it is. If we eventually accept that some (or many) of these UFOs are unexplained, does it mean that they are ETs from our galaxy? Perhaps, but there would also be a case for visitors from an alternate dimension, a parallel universe or even time travelers.

One thought on “UFOs (Con’t just for fun) [warning: this is quite long]

  1. Dave, your bullet list of explanations for the Navy videos is missing one — elaborate fakes. Which is what I’ve heard in the retired military “rumor mill.”

    I withhold judgment!

    (a 1963 AAHS classmate)

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