top of page

UFOs; From Tinfoil Hats to Pentagon Task Force

By Brendan Wilson

As if Covid and the threat of rampant inflation weren't enough, we can now add aliens to the growing list of terrible things keeping us up at night. In a report due to the Senate Intelligence committee today, our government is expected to admit that there are things flying around above us that we cannot identify.

Last year, after declassified videos were leaked to the New York Times that capture military encounters with aircraft capable of maneuvers that would shock George Jetson, lawmakers mandated that the Defense Department and Director of National Intelligence fess up about what they know about “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” the “official” term for UFOs adopted by the government to avoid sounding X-files-ish.

In 2004, pilots from the USS Nimitz were engaged by a “tic-tac” shaped craft off the coast of California capable of traveling at hypersonic speeds with no visible signs of propulsion. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Cmdr. David Fravor told the New York Times years later, “I want to fly one.”

Then in 2015, US Navy fighter pilot Lt. Ryan Graves reported seeing objects flying at unfathomable speeds off the Atlantic coast. The encounters occurred not once or twice, but nearly every day for about a year.

The Pentagon's admitted perplexity of the provenance of these otherworldly objects propels what was once a fringe topic reserved for X-Files fanatics and "ufologists" to the status of mainstream conversation.

“What is true, and I’m actually being serious here,” Barrack Obama recently told James Corden on the Late Late Show, “is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are.’’

Former C.I.A. Director John Brennan said last year that some of the unexplained sightings might be “some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.”

That's bureaucrat-speak for “there might be aliens up there.”

UFO sightings have been reported throughout much of recorded history. Ancient Chinese texts reference a “moon boat” returning every 12 years. Several sightings were recorded by the Romans in 218 B.C. and later throughout Europe during the renaissance. World War II fighter pilots used the term "foo fighters" to describe “orbs” of light that would fly beside them during missions. In 1974, NASA engineer Josef F. Blumrich published a book entitled The Spaceships of Ezekiel, asserting that observations recorded in the Old Testament were not of contact with the divine but rather that of the extraterrestrial.

The first modern UFO sighting occurred in 1947, when amateur pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing several strange, fast moving aircraft moving in strange patterns, like “saucers skipping on water.” Local newspapers ran with the story, giving life to the term “flying saucers."

Later that same year, a rancher stumbled upon a wreckage near an army airfield in Roswell, New Mexico. After the government pitched the "weather balloon" excuse to a skeptical public mostly capable of discerning weather balloons, conspiracy theories of a government orchestrated coverup abounded. Washington would admit that the crash site was connected with a Cold War espionage program called Project Mogul, but not until after the fall of the Soviet Union 50 years later.

Most definitely not a weather balloon - Source: National Geographic

In the 1960’s, several sightings were recorded near Area 51, which was used by the CIA, US Air Force, and defense contractor Lockheed Martin to test aircraft undetectable by Soviet radar.

The increasing frequency of the reports influenced the government to investigate. It commissioned Project Blue Book, a panel assembled to look into reports of flying saucers to determine whether they were piloted by little green men or communists routinely invading our airspace.

Project Blue Book compiled reports on more than 12,000 UFO sightings, categorizing each event as either “identified” (explicable by human or natural phenomena), or “unidentified” (not). Roughly 94% of the cases reviewed were found to be explained by either natural phenomena or the US military testing better ways to blow up Russians. Several eccentric Pentagon officials advocated taking the other 6% seriously, believing that access to alien technology would render us even better at blowing up those Russians, yet still Project Blue Book was shut down in 1969.

For much of the remaining 20th century, people reporting sightings of alien aircraft were discredited as kooks by the media and government officials. But in 2017 the New York Times reported that a Defense Department Task Force, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, had been set up and funded by former Senator Harry Reid in 2004. It was designed to facilitate the reporting process of encounters with bizarre phenomena like those experienced by the USS Nimitz pilots. Though his staff told him to “stay the hell away” from a topic that would have him labeled a wing nut, Reid said he advocated the program because “an unofficial taboo regarding the frank discussion of encounters could harm our national security and stymie opportunities for technical advancement.”

Earlier this month, the New York Times obtained a leaked copy of today's UFO report. The results are not explosive: no hard evidence exists to suggest that the aircraft in videos compiled by the Pentagon are piloted by our intergalactic neighbors. But there’s also no evidence to prove that they’re not. In short, there might be aliens up there.

One plausible explanation is that China or Russia are far ahead of us in the development of hypersonic technology. Another is that our interstellar neighbors are just dropping by our neck of the galaxy to engage in cosmic voyeurism, peeping in while we binge Netflix and fight about Donald Trump’s twitter account. Both explanations are unsettling. As Marco Rubio said earlier this year, “Anything that enters an airspace that's not supposed to be there is a threat.”

For now, I'm a skeptic with an open mind. Occam's Razor and logic point me towards an Earthly explanation for all the encounters with the unexplained. As Holman Jenkins of the WSJ quipped earlier this month, “Would an alien civilization with technology capable of bridging these distances do so using anything recognizable to us as a “vehicle,” conveniently conforming to Hollywood expectations of a UFO?” I think not.

Barnes, J. E., & Cooper, H. (2021, June 3). U.S. Finds No Evidence of Alien Technology in Flying Objects, but Can't Rule It Out, Either. The New York Times.

CBS Interactive. (n.d.). UFOs regularly spotted in restricted U.S. airspace, report on the phenomena due next month. CBS News.

Holman W. Jenkins, J. (2020, July 31). Opinion | In the Mood for UFOs? The Wall Street Journal.

Jett, J. (2021, June 3). Why Are We All Talking About U.F.O.s Right Now? The New York Times.

Little, B. (2019, September 19). Navy Confirms UFO Videos Are Real and Show Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

More Human than Alien: Researching the History of UFOs: Perspectives on History: AHA. More Human than Alien: Researching the History of UFOs | Perspectives on History | AHA. (n.d.). ndxLocOut. (n.d.).

Stephey, M. J. (2009, December 17). UFOs. Time.,8599,1948214,00.html


bottom of page