How Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge Became a U.F.O. Researcher
By Derrick Bryson Taylor
Sept. 26, 2019
Two years after Mr. DeLonge left the band, he found a new life trying to make sense of outer space.
For decades, the discussion of whether or not U.F.O.s exist has been debated in American pop culture and within science communities.
That all reached a fever pitch last week when the United States Navy confirmed that three widely shared videos captured by naval aviators in 2004 and 2015 were indeed real and showed what it called “unidentified aerial phenomena.”
The “unidentified” part of that statement sparked excitement among U.F.O. enthusiasts. The three videos show mysterious objects in the sky and contain audio of pilots trying to make sense of what they were seeing. They had gained notoriety since being published in 2017 and 2018 by The New York Times and a company called To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences. Founded in 2017, it is run by a team of 12, including several former government employees, who try to advance society’s understanding of scientific phenomena through the lenses of entertainment, science and aerospace. As news of the Navy’s statement spread, many people took note of the academy, and more specifically one of its founders: Tom DeLonge, who was from 1993 until 2015 a guitarist and singer for the band Blink-182. How, many wondered, did the guy from Blink-182 become involved in U.F.O. research?
It might be hard for those not steeped in U.F.O.-ology to see the significance in all this. Susan Gough, the Pentagon spokeswoman who made the statement last week said that the Navy had “confirmed that the three videos that are in wide circulation are indeed recordings made by naval aviators, recorded during their training evolutions.”
She also said that the Navy “has always considered the phenomena observed in those videos as unidentified.” Not only that, but the sightings had been “part of a larger issue of an increased number of training range incursions by unidentified aerial phenomena in recent years,” she said.
And that brings us to Blink-182.
We talked with Mr. DeLonge, who is on tour with another band, Angels & Airwaves, and Luis Elizondo, the director of global security and special programs for the academy, about the company and what the Navy’s response to the three videos actually means.
The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
I just wanted to say to Tom and Luis, thank you again for giving me a little bit of your time. I know you guys have busy, busy days.
Mr. DeLonge: Sure! Absolutely man.
How did you get into U.F.O.s and space research?
Mr. DeLonge: Well, ever since I was in junior high I was really kind of a troubled, rebellious kid. I got into a lot of trouble. My parents were working all day and I was a skateboarder and I was heavily into punk rock music, which is rebellious by nature. I would just do things, honestly, to try to get security guards and police officers to chase us to get some adrenaline. I remember being so bored during the summer and kind of going, “Wow, there’s got to be more to all this.”
I started becoming very fascinated in the idea of what else is there besides working a 9-to-5 job and coming from a broken family. For some reason I just thought science fiction was just fascinating. My brother and I were so into the whole “Star Wars” thing, obviously, in the early ’80s. It just kind of led to me thinking a little bit broader.
There have been a lot of headlines about the Navy confirming and saying objects seen in three declassified military clips, one from 2004 and two from 2015, are “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Why is the Navy’s response so important to the larger conversation on U.F.O.s?
Mr. DeLonge: Everyone still looks up to the United States government as having the resources, the intellect and the duty to deal with subjects like this. We’ve been waiting around as scholars and researchers on the subject for many decades and hoping to God that one day the government would come out and acknowledge what this is. This whole thing could be answered by the government. We’re just waiting for them to come and help us with some of this research. This situation that just happened is literally something I and many other people have been waiting for for not years, but decades. This is what we’ve been hoping it would do so it can really just ignite more smart people and intellectuals to get into this race and help us figure out more about it.
Luis, you have a background in the Department of Defense. What does this response signal to you?(He was a career intelligence officer with the Army, the Department of Defense, National Counterintelligence Executive and the Office of Director of National Intelligence.)
Mr. Elizondo: I think it signals an opening of the aperture. A willingness to be more transparent. Particularly when you’re talking about a topic that has classically been seen and looked at with a sense of disdain and some degree stigma. I think this signals a new paradigm. I think it signals a willingness by some of the government to recognize data for what it is and begin to have the conversation that needs to be had.
“I think it signals a willingness by some of the government to recognize data for what it is and begin to have the conversation that needs to be had,” Luis Elizondo said.CreditRoger Kisby for The New York Times
What did your Blink-182 bandmates and people in the music industry think of your company, To the Stars Academy?
Mr. DeLonge: It’s really funny, I think I was kind of groomed for this job because the first time that I left Blink-182, which is a long time ago, all my fans were so angry and the public at large was like, “Why would you do that? You’re crazy.” [The band broke up in 2005, and reformed in 2009. Mr. DeLonge left again in 2015.]
I had a list of this whole kind of reinvention of who I was, and starting my band Angels & Airwaves really gave me a way into that. I had to rebuild up from the ground, who I thought I was, who I wanted to be, where I wanted to go. By the time this happened my band didn’t understand it, I couldn’t tell who I was talking to. Because at the time, a lot of these guys were still in positions that are sensitive and transitioning out of government or whatever. I wasn’t in a place to be able to really say everything, it just wasn’t the right kind of etiquette, if you will. The guys from Blink didn’t know this. But it’s O.K. But I knew I was getting into waters that were so important that I had never really even touched before. Going through what I went through earlier with the band, I already had thick skin. So I didn’t really care, is the short of it.
You are a musician, known for outlandish stage behavior including sometimes being naked. How did you get people to take you seriously?
Mr. DeLonge: That’s a really good question. It was funny because, fortunately most of the people I was meeting with in the early days weren’t really aware of the crazy rock and roll behaviors and antics that I’ve had in my early, mid-20s. I always tell people being a celebrity got me in a few doors, but that’s all it did. My intellect, whatever level it may or may not be [laughs], is what got those meetings to bear fruit. I think from my perspective, the most important thing that I was focused on was being eloquent. Being humble to the subject, because the subject is not a joke. I had to really be respectful about what I was saying, how I was saying it. I think because all those things, I earned trust and I earned more meetings. It was a process, it did not happen over night, it took me a couple years.
In July, the academy announced the ADAM (Acquisition & Data Analysis of Materials) Research Project, an academic research program focused on exotic material samples from U.F.O.s. How will the academy conduct research on the materials and what exactly is it looking for?
Mr. Elizondo: We’re going to do research employing the scientific method, first and foremost. What we have been doing is trying to find the most qualified individuals at the most respectable institutions to conduct scientific analysis. That scientific analysis includes physical analysis, it includes molecular and chemical analysis and ultimately it includes nuclear analysis.
Has the academy gotten its hands on any materials to review?
Mr. Elizondo: Certainly.
Are you able to share more about that?
Mr. Elizondo: Not at this point. We have to let the process take its course. And what we don’t want to do is be presumptive either way. The last thing we want to do is jump to any conclusions, prematurely. Ultimately, the data is going to decide what something is or what something isn’t.
The materials come from a variety of sources?
Mr. Elizondo: Correct.
That could be from people finding them all the way to government?
Mr. Elizondo: Sure. Fill in the blanks. T.T.S.A. does not limit itself as to where it obtains material or information. In that process we have to be very discerning. As I’ve said before, there’s a difference between something that’s truly exotic and something that fell from the alternator of a 1984 Cadillac.
When I was a kid, I saw what I believed to be a U.F.O. I’ll never forget that moment with my mom. No one has ever truly believed me. Have either of you ever seen a U.F.O.?
Mr. DeLonge: I saw some really anomalous stuff one night out in the desert, zipping across the stars, horizon to horizon, zig zagging. That really blew my mind because no satellites move that way. But, I can’t tell you what it was. I think like most people, the stuff that I’ve seen is a lot of stuff on the internet where I bet some of it really is true, but you really don’t know which pieces.
Fox News Team of alien hunters led by Blink-182 co-founder claims to have found UFO material that’s ‘unknown to scientists’
By Harry Pettit, Senior Digital Technology and Science Reporter | The Sun
September 30, 2019
A band of alien hunters led by an ex-punk rocker claim they've found evidence of UFOs.
The U.S. organization, bankrolled by former Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge, says it's acquired "exotic material" from what could be an alien spacecraft.
DeLonge, from California, co-founded the group To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2017 with the goal of researching extraterrestrials.
The team most famously turfed up classified footage of UFOs recorded by American pilots that were confirmed as real by the US Navy earlier this month.
Speaking to the New York Times, a spokesperson for the group gave a tantalizing tease of its next big scoop.
A reporter asked whether the team had obtained "exotic material samples from UFOs."
The spokesperson responded: "Certainly."
No further details were given, so it's not entirely clear what "material" they were talking about.
Back in July, rocker DeLonge's organization made a similar claim about its research.
The group's Twitter account wrote that researchers had acquired "potentially exotic materials featuring properties not from any known existing military or commercial application.":
To The Stars Academy
“The structure & composition of these materials are not from any known existing military or commercial application,” says COO Steve Justice "we are focusing on verifiable facts and working to develop independent scientific proof of the materials' properties & attributes."
To the Stars Academy has not yet provided proof to back up this claim.
"What we have been doing is trying to find the most qualified individuals at the most respectable institutions to conduct scientific analysis," Luis Elizondo, director of global security and special programs for DeLonge's group, told the Times.
"That scientific analysis includes physical analysis, it includes molecular and chemical analysis and ultimately it includes nuclear analysis."
Elizondo said the team is in no hurry to release its research.
He said: "The last thing we want to do is jump to any conclusions, prematurely. Ultimately, the data is going to decide what something is or what something isn't."
It's not clear precisely who's working for DeLonge's group, or whether their research will be peer-reviewed, so we'd take this claim with a pinch of salt for now.
All we know is that it's an eclectic mix of scholars and pop stars.
According to its website, the academy is a “collaboration between academia, industry and pop culture to advance society’s understanding of scientific phenomena and its technological implications."
Most famously, the group got the US Navy to admit to several UFO sightings near US military institutions going back several years.
They led to the astonishing reports which in May revealed Navy pilots had near-daily interactions with mysterious flying objects in 2014 and 2015.
Across several interviews, pilots described objects moving at hypersonic speeds and performing acts "beyond the physical limits of a human crew".
Lieutenant Ryan Graves said he saw “strange objects” with “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes” reaching at least 30,000 feet and flying at hypersonic speeds almost daily while training off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.
Graves, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who has been with the Navy for 10 years, told The New York Times: “These things would be out there all day."
“Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy."
“With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect.”
This story originally appeared in The Sun.
Watch Tucker Carlson's interview video with Michael Wall of Space.com:
If you still haven’t caught Joe Rogan’s podcast with retired Navy commander David Fravor, do it now. It’s the most detailed eyewitness walk-through yet of the groundbreaking 2004 Tic Tac incident, by one of its most uniquely qualified participants.
Fravor also throws in a hearsay surprise about a military encounter in the waters off Puerto Rico. This one’s extremely weird because it involves the attempted recovery of a telemetry torpedo. The retrieval operation collapsed into a freakout because the projectile got sucked back into the depths by a “dark mass” below and was lost forever. Not even Popular Mechanics could resist addressing an alleged Navy property-theft drama on the high seas. And, given Tyler Rogoway’s recent reporting at The War Zone, it looks like somebody at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division is trying to play catchup.
When a UFO story can make Fox News credible, the world has truly gone sideways/CREDIT Epoch Times
So yeah, Puerto Rico again. Remember Puerto Rico? A long history of countless sightings? And the Aguadilla footage grabbed by federal Homeland Security agents in 2013? The only known government video documentation of a UFO/UAP/UAV/AAV navigating both the atmosphere and the water? Aguadilla didn’t enjoy nearly as much hang time as the Tic Tac anomaly, but the sequence was no less freakish. Part of the strength of that case lay in the rigorous scrutiny the footage was subjected to in a 159-page paper published by the private research group Scientific Coalition for Ufology.
Well, three of those members have just inserted more UFO datapoints into the arena where these debates will ultimately be settled – a peer-reviewed science journal. Late last month, SCU co-founder Robert Powell and two fellow researchers attempted to detail the physics behind the sort of flight activity, unfolding in our atmosphere, that appears to be redefining what is and isn’t technologically feasible.
Powell and co-authors Kevin Knuth and Peter Reali call their piece “Estimating Flight Characteristics of Anomalous Unidentified Aerial Vehicles.” It’s an attempt to bring an even broader context to SCU’s 270-page forensic study of the Tic Tac encounter, which the group released on its website in April.
“Flight Characteristics” takes three incidents – the Tic Tac, a 1951 sighting by Navy Lt. Graham Bethune near Nova Scotia, the 1986 Japan Air Lines Flight 1628 – and ties them together with these threads: “multiple professional witnesses observing the UAV in multiple modalities (including sight, radar, infrared imaging, etc.),” in which each incident produces “sufficient information to estimate kinetic qualities such as speeds and accelerations.”
“Assuming that any one of these cases we examine is based on accurate reports,” they add, “we show that the UAVs exhibit unreasonably high accelerations ranging from 100 g to well over 5,000 g.” Not very sporting odds for a dogfight. The authors tell readers that “humans can endure up to 45 g for 0.044 seconds with no injurious or debilitating effects.” Meaning: attempt those moves and you’re soup in a can.
The authors ask readers to also consider an analysis of B-52 radar readings from the truly puzzling 1968 encounter at the Strategic Air Command base in Minot, N.D. And they reintroduce scrutiny brought to bear by German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth. In 1954, the man who has an asteroid and a lunar crater named after him made calculations that put UFO speeds at Mach 55. That’s roughly the same velocity the Tic Tac object was tracked at based on radar observations, according to the SCU.
None of these aerobatic abilities comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with this stuff. But the authors are going for something different. “The purpose of this paper is not to prove the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis,” they write, “but instead to focus on the flight kinematics of these UAVs with the aim of building up a body of scientific evidence that will allow for a more precise understanding of their nature and origin.”
In other words, they’re applying equations to recorded observations and data. Not on social media threads and pugilistic websites, but in a refereed science journal. Skeptics may howl, with some justification, that co-author Kevin Knuth is the editor in chief of the journal, called Entropy. The same detractors will also likely pounce on the fact that Entropy is produced by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, which has its share critics complaining about uneven standards for a platform that publishes more than 200 open-access academic journals. Fair enough.
But Knuth is an associate professor at the University of Albany (SUNY) physics department. He was also a research scientist at NASA Ames designing AI algorithms for its Intelligent Systems division. Reali was a longtime electrical design engineer in Silicon Valley, and Powell worked for 28 years with semiconductor technology. All three made presentations at SCU’s landmark conference in Huntsville, Ala., in March.
What they’re trying to serve up at Entropy are baseline mathematics that neither De Void nor most media outlets have the background or expertise to interpret. In other words, this is a direct challenge to popular mainstream scientists like Neil De Grasse Tyson and Bill “Science Guy” Nye to take a good hard look at the numbers extrapolated from UFO tech in the exclusive language of physics. It would be awfully easy for them to denigrate the report’s venue as an excuse to ignore the research. But these days, wouldn’t that risk cultural self-marginalization, like what happened to Seth Shostak?
Science can be as political as lawmakers, military planners, and proponents of the scientific method want it to be. Nobody can make them see what they choose not to. And, hey, maybe SCU’s numbers don’t add up. But public interest in The Great Taboo is accelerating. Denial and avoidance among those who’ve gotten away with it for so long by saying there’s no data to contemplate are no longer sufficient. Like it or not, ready or not, bright solid red lines are popping up all over the place.
Navy Officers Say 'Unknown Individuals' Made Them Erase Evidence of 2004 UFO Encounter
By Yasemin Saplakoglu - Staff Writer - 14 Nov. 2019
Several Navy officers who witnessed the now-famous Nimitz UFO encounter in 2004 say "unknown individuals" showed up after the event and made them turn over data recordings and videos, according to Popular Mechanics.
For several days in November 2004, a Navy missile cruiser sailing around 100 miles (160 kilometers) off the coast of southern California detected strange radar signals emanating from an object in the sky. The signals were erratic and didn't seem to match those given off by known aircraft. The Navy then deployed fighter jets to catch a closer glimpse of the strange object, and one succeeded in recording a blurry, black-and-white video that was, to the government's chagrin, publicly released in 2017 along with two other videos of UFO sightings from years later.
Five Navy veterans recently spoke to Popular Mechanics about what they experienced at the time. The veterans were part of the Navy's Strike Carrier Group 11 and were sailing on the USS Princeton on a training mission prior to their upcoming deployment in the Arabian Sea.
The strange radar signals came from an object that would quickly change altitudes, sometimes lurking at 80,000 feet (24,000 meters) and other times hanging around at 30,000 feet (9,000 m), they told Popular Mechanics. The UFO (an "unidentified flying object," which doesn't necessarily belong to aliens) became known as "Tic Tac" because of its shape. Tic Tac gave off a phosphorus glow at night and would dart around in various directions, said one of the veterans, Gary Voorhis, who looked at the object through binoculars on the ship.
Voorhis recalled that sometime after the officers recorded these strange radio signals, two people showed up on a helicopter, and 20 minutes later, Voorhis' chain of command (a higher-up authority figure) told him to turn over the data recordings. His chain of command also told him to delete the recordings on the ship. "They even told me to erase everything that's in the shop — even the blank tapes," he told Popular Mechanics.
Similarly, Petty Officer Patrick "P.J." Hughes, who was an aviation technician, claimed that his commanding officer and two unknown men asked him to turn over the hard drives from the plane.
However, Cmdr. David Fravor, one of the pilots who got a close view of Tic Tac on a fighter jet, told a different story. In various past interviews, Fravor said the videotapes of the UFO disappeared — not because of any "men in suits" but because people had unintentionally recorded over them.
Fravor previously told The New York Times that he and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight spotted the object, which was about 40 feet (12 m) long. As they descended in the fighter jet, the object ascended to meet them but then abruptly veered away and disappeared, he told the Times.
The details of what happened in 2004, both in the sky and down below, remain ambiguous. To learn more about what these Navy witnesses had to say, read Popular Mechanics' original feature.
Don't miss the issue's cover story "Mystery of the 'Damn Things'" by Jan Tegler and Cat Hofacker, about how U.S. Navy fighter pilots and weapons officers have reported detecting strange objects maneuvering quickly with unheard of agility around their aircraft:
Mystery of the “damn things”
by Jan Tegler and Cat Hofacker | November 2019
In a handful of incidents that go back to 2004, U.S. Navy fighter pilots and weapons officers have reported detecting strange objects maneuvering quickly with unheard of agility around their aircraft. The Navy professes to be as mystified as anyone. Jan Tegler and Cat Hofacker went searching for possible explanations. Here is what they found.
During training flights off the East Coast of the U.S. in 2014 and 2015, unidentified gauzy blobs showed up on the cockpit displays of F/A-18 jets so often that U.S. Navy pilots gave them a nickname. “Usually we’d just say, ‘we’re seeing one of those damn things again,’” Ryan Graves, a former Navy lieutenant and F/A-18F pilot, told us in a September phone interview.
Graves is one of three F/A-18 pilots who have publicly described encounters with small, featureless objects that, depending on the account, descended and ascended with incredible mobility before accelerating and vanishing. Graves and colleagues were not the first to see mysterious objects on their cockpit displays or, in at least two other reported cases, with human eyes. The first sighting, as far as the public record shows, occurred in 2004 when a pilot reported seeing a fast-moving object about 40 feet (12 meters) long whose shape resembled, of all things, a Tic Tac mint.
The U.S. Navy this year began publicly emphasizing how seriously it is taking such accounts by its flyers. The Navy’s determination to help solve the mystery is understandable, given that each of the possible explanations that we explore in this article is unsettling in its own way.
Spearheading the Navy’s investigation is the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, where the job is to make sure the Navy outperforms its adversaries on the intelligence, cyberspace and electronic warfare fronts. Representatives of the office began fanning out to the service’s F/A-18 strike fighter squadrons earlier this year “to encourage our aviators to report any observations of UAPs.” That’s shorthand for unidentified aerial phenomena. The Pentagon borrowed the term from the United Kingdom partly because the phrase does not “pre-judge the results of any investigation,” the office of the DCNO for Information Warfare says. The Navy declined to discuss the direction of its investigation, but the word “phenomena” to us suggests that the Navy wants to leave open the possibility that whatever the pilots are seeing might not be objects at all. The term also handily sidesteps the culturally freighted term “UFO.”
We are deeply curious about possible explanations for the sightings, and so we conducted our own investigation. The Navy declined our request to interview its investigators, so we sent written questions. We also interviewed Graves, other current and former Navy pilots, a military analyst and scientists.
It’s Not E.T. — We Don’t Think
Because we know it’s on all our minds, let’s first consider the unlikely but gobsmacking possibility of extraterrestrial visitation.
From what exoplanet scientists know at this time, a giant leap of faith would be required to conclude that humanity is not alone. As of October, NASA’s Exoplanet Archive lists 4,073 confirmed exoplanets identified by scouring graphs of star intensities gathered mainly by NASA’s Kepler space telescope before its mission ended in 2018 and now also its successor TESS, short for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. When the intensity of a star dips slightly and at regular intervals, this indicates that a planet is passing in front of the star.
Astronomers believe 55 of those exoplanets could be habitable, because each orbits its star at a distance that makes the surface temperatures right for liquid water. The term “habitable” does not tell us whether life exists, or if it does, whether the life consists of microbes or a civilization. If we assume that intelligent life requires conditions similar to those on Earth, proving the existence of those conditions would require direct observations of the planet’s atmosphere, probably with the aid of a coronagraph inside a space telescope or a free-flying starshade positioned ahead of the telescope to block the blinding light from the host star. Those technologies are still years away from deployment.
That’s where matters stand today, but in fairness, astronomers are just at the beginning of their exoplanet hunt. Consider the Drake equation created in 1961 by astronomer Frank Drake of California, now an emeritus trustee at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, Institute he co-founded in 1984. His equation estimates how many communicating civilizations might exist in our galaxy. Astronomers feed variables into the equation, including what’s known about the rate of star formation in the Milky Way and estimates of the number of stars hosting planets that could support life. The Drake equation has spit out numbers ranging from thousands of communicating civilizations to none. “Each number might as well come with an asterisk next to it, given how little we really know about our own galaxy, let alone the universe,” says astrophysicist Erin Macdonald, host of “Dr. Erin Explains the Universe” on YouTube. “That said, it’s still good to think of all the probabilities that would need to be considered to assess the possibility of life, so as a thought experiment, it’s a great start.”
That still leaves the distance problem. Kepler stared at star systems up to 3,000 light-years away, and only a handful of the confirmed exoplanets are less than 100 light-years from Earth. The closest exoplanet, spotted in 2016 by telescopes at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, is Proxima b at 4.2 light-years away. Assume that a spacecraft equivalent to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is the fastest human-made object, were to leave Proxima b tomorrow. It would need at minimum 6,500 years to reach Earth.
Crossing such a vast distance would require traveling at close to the speed of light or finding a shortcut through space-time.
In any case, scientists are not optimistic that Proxima b is a good candidate for life, even though it’s within its star’s habitable zone. The planet has been subjected to “much harsher radiation than the Earth ever was,” says astrophysicist Scott Engle of Villanova University in Pennsylvania, who’s published papers on the planet’s habitability. That’s not to entirely rule out life: “It’s also possible that higher radiation could challenge life and through natural selection it could have evolved to adapt,” Engle says.
An APG-79 radar installed in the nose of a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet undergoes maintenance. Pilots whose radar detected unusual flying objects at first thought the APG-79 was malfunctioning. Credit: Raytheon
He has watched the mysterious objects in the videos “perform aerial maneuvers that would be impossible to do with anything we have,” but he still doesn’t buy that we’ve been E.T-ed. He can’t see a motive: “Why are they doing this?”
Still, the idea of visitation has tantalized even the staid and cautious defense industry. We contacted Raytheon, hoping to learn whether one of the company’s executives was serious in a 2017 press release when he said that the Raytheon-made video targeting pod on a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet “might be the system that caught the first evidence of E.T. out there.” The press release came after a December 2017 New York Times exposé on the front page of its Sunday paper about the history of a Pentagon organization assigned to investigate the phenomena witnessed by F/A-18 pilots. The Raytheon executive was referring to the fuselage-mounted Advanced Targeting Forward Looking video pod that was implicated in the 2004 incident off San Diego described in an article accompanying the exposé. Raytheon declined to connect us with the executive or answer any questions about his comment, however.
Unexplained Digital Phenomena
Could the sightings result from a persistent sensor or computing malfunction of some kind or a unique vulnerability to spoofing? Supporting this theory is the fact that, as far as we could learn, only Navy pilots have had such encounters and all involved the Super Hornet version of the F/A-18. Consider the encounters by Graves and his colleagues in VFA-11, a strike fighter squadron based out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia. The squadron flies F/A-18Fs, the version of the Super Hornet with a pilot and weapons systems officer. The squadron’s first sightings came in mid-2014, not long after its aircraft were upgraded with Raytheon’s APG-79 radar, a flat panel of transmitters and receivers shrouded inside the nose of the plane to electronically scan the sky.
Graves, who left the Navy in June, and his fellow flyers initially thought the detections must have been a “malfunction of some sort” with their new radars, given that the symbols were maneuvering with agility they had never seen. The APG-79 can track multiple targets dozens of kilometers ahead, but it cannot image a radar reflection or identify what is producing it. So, the pilots closed in until the targets were in range of their video pods, called the Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared or ATFLIR (pronounced A-T-FLIR) system consisting of an electro-optical camera that senses visible wavelengths and an infrared camera to sense heat. A pilot or weapons systems officer in the two-seat version of the Super Hornet can cycle between EO and IR views from the ATFLIR nestled next to the plane’s left engine intake. These are the pods referenced by the Raytheon executive.
Once the ATFLIRs locked on, “that kind of took away some of the uncertainty for us,” Graves says. “We’re getting them on radar and then picking them up on the FLIR.” What appeared on the cockpit display was not the distinct outlines of an aircraft that one would normally see; typically, says Graves, “you can almost see the rivets.” One of Graves’ colleagues, pilot Danny Accoin, said in a History Channel documentary this year that each “had no distinct wings, no distinct tail, no distinct exhaust plume.” The objects seemed to have an aura, prompting speculation by outside observers that perhaps a bright infrared emission was obscuring the shape. Graves doesn’t think this is so, based on his experience with the cameras. “Perhaps I would get a bit of loss of resolution staring at a streetlight on a road from 25K feet above,” he says, “but at relatively close ranges in A/A [air-to-air] mode, I would expect to see individual ripples of fire coming out of the back of an exhaust can,” he says, using pilot slang for an engine nozzle.
In fact, the lack of exhaust has flabbergasted Graves and his fellow pilots.
Could the lack of exhaust indicate that the phenomena are not in fact tangible objects? A lot would have to go wrong for that to be true. Radars and multiple ATFLIR cameras would have to lock onto a mirage or some other phenomena. Also, the pilots had a situational awareness or SA page on their cockpit displays that fuses offboard radar and FLIR detections with those of their own aircraft. Some of the encounters were corroborated this way, which is why, in the leaked “Gimbal” video of a Jan. 21, 2015, encounter off the East Coast, the pilot talks about a fleet of these things on the SA page. That video was publicized in 2017 by the California research organization To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science together with one of the 2004 incident that had been leaked years earlier. The nickname “Gimbal,” in some tellings, refers to how the object seems to rotate similar to how a video camera rotates on its gimbal.
Whatever they were, the sightings became commonplace. Graves recalls a VFA-11 pilot walking into the squadron ready-room and exclaiming, “I almost hit one of those damn things!”
The yellow display in this F/A-18 cockpit trainer is the situational awareness screen. The dark screen with white text in the upper left corner is the Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared, or ATFLIR, display. Pilots report seeing strange objects on the displays. Credit: Boeing
This time, the pilot reported seeing the object with his own eyes, not just via his cockpit display or helmet visor display, Graves says. If this account is correct, human corroboration should be added to the onboard and off-board radar and infrared detections. That seems to suggest that whatever was out there could not have been a result of spoofing, malware or a design malfunction.
The pilot, according to Graves, described the object as a partially transparent sphere with a cube inside. It should be noted that this description does not mesh very well with the shape observed by then-Super Hornet pilot and Navy Cmdr. David Fravor in the 2004 incident. Fravor, on the “Joe Rogan Experience” YouTube show in October, referred to a “Tic Tac-looking object” that was “about the size of a Hornet fuselage.”
Are there any Earthly craft out there today that look like what the pilot in the near-collision described?
We’re not sure, but journalist Tyler Rogoway who writes The War Zone blog for The Drive website thinks there might be. This year, he uncovered and wrote about two U.S. patents, including one granted in 1949 that described how a cube-shaped reflector could be installed inside a high-altitude balloon to solve one of the more annoying drawbacks of balloons. At the time, meteorologists and atmospheric scientists could only track their balloons by slinging radar reflective panels beneath them. If the reflector could be installed inside the balloon, that would avoid aerodynamic drag. We don’t know if such balloons were ever made, but we do recall that DARPA from 2004 to 2014 funded a project called Integrated Sensor is Structure, or ISIS. A surveillance radar was to be installed inside a football-field-length airship to double as the craft’s internal support, although ISIS never flew.
Could the pilot in the near collision have streaked by a balloon or a spinoff of the DARPA project? There are problems with this hypothesis. If the object were indeed a balloon, we would have to accept that either the plane’s radar was not operating, the pilot did not heed it or his radar failed to detect a reflector whose expressed purpose was to make the balloon easy to spot. Also, there remain the other encounters in which pilots described (or their cockpit videos captured) maneuvers not expected from balloons or perhaps miniature airships.
Graves’ immediate response to the near collision suggests another possibility. “The last thing we wanted to do was lose an aircraft over what logic was telling us was potentially someone else’s drone program,” he says. He filed a hazard report with the Naval Safety Center in late 2014 fearing that sooner or later a Super Hornet would collide with one of the objects. Also, the Navy had not yet fanned out to the squadrons to encourage flyers to report such sightings, and Graves did not know how else to draw the attention of Navy leadership.
If the objects weren’t another country’s handiwork, we questioned whether perhaps they were a product of a secret or “black” U.S. technology program, one so highly classified that even the Navy pilots and the DCNO for Information Warfare have yet to be read in. That’s “at least a hypothetical possibility,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington, D.C., think tank. But he sees a major weakness in this theory. “It would be somewhat surprising to me if the Air Force or other agencies were willing to allow this kind of confusion on the part of Navy pilots to go uncorrected for long,” he says.
Historically speaking, there is no perfect analog to the Navy sightings. UFO conspiracy theories were born in the decades after World War II. Today, about half of all UFO reports from the 1950s and 1960s can be accounted for as U.S. reconnaissance flights by the high-altitude U-2 jets flown by the CIA and U.S. Air Force, according to the CIA website.
In that era, UFO reports from the public provided convenient cover for such flights. “But misleading the public, including foreign audiences, is different than misleading the Navy,” Aftergood says.
Let’s look at the question of another country’s drones. The DCNO for Information Warfare provided an intriguing statement when we asked about news reports of unidentified aircraft entering U.S. military-controlled ranges and airspace. “Consistent with the wide proliferation and availability of inexpensive unmanned aerial systems, sightings of this nature have increased in frequency from 2014 until now,” the office said.
If that was a reference to consumer drones, it seems unlikely to us that these could be what the pilots are seeing. It’s true that consumer drones don’t emit exhaust, but they also lack the range to penetrate naval ranges off both coasts, and they can’t fly at 80,000 feet, the altitude of a sighting reported by a Navy ship, according to one pilot account.
The objects, it seems, would require a propulsion breakthrough of some kind. For one, the objects reportedly flew fast. Fravor, in a New York Times article accompanying the exposé, said he tried to intercept the Tic Tac object, but it “accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen.” This year, in an appearance on the “Joe Rogan Experience” on YouTube, he said the object “disappeared in like a second.”
Remember, the pilots consistently report being mystified by the lack of exhaust. High-speed flight without exhaust doesn’t yet exist as far as we know, but researchers are working on it. In 2017, physicists at NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratories at Johnson Space Center in Houston reported circulating microwaves in a cone-shaped test article and moving the article by 4 to 10 micrometers, or considerably less than the width of a human hair. Writing in AIAA’s Journal of Propulsion and Power, the authors noted several possible sources of error and emphasized the need for further testing of their EmDrive, short for electromagnetic propulsion drive. Indeed, in 2018 German scientists published a study that suggested the NASA findings could be explained by “some electromagnetic interaction” from the magnetic fields leaking through the cables.
So, could the pilots be seeing the latest in Chinese or Russian drones?
Carlo Kopp, an Australian-based defense analyst and AIAA associate fellow, doesn’t think so. Kopp says there’s “no evidence to date” of Russian or Chinese drones that are “more technologically advanced” than the latest U.S. technology. Specifically, he knows of no Chinese or Russian drones that “are large enough to provide the unrefueled operating radius to reach the CONUS” — meaning the military ranges off the continental U.S. coast — “loiter on station, and conduct high-energy expenditure maneuvering near the target.” He doesn’t think the sightings could be Russia’s S-70 Okhotnik (a purportedly stealthy unmanned combat vehicle), a similar Chinese unmanned combat vehicle, or a supersonic drone China has teased. Additionally, there’s no evidence as of yet that China or Russia have the technology to refuel an unmanned aircraft in flight, Kopp adds.
What about submarines? Perhaps China or Russia are carrying flocks of drones into range on submarines and releasing them to somehow fool pilots and sophisticated sensors into concluding that they are accelerating to hypersonic speeds. Some indirect evidence for this hypothesis exists in the Fravor account. He reportedly saw the Tic Tac hovering just above the water before it climbed and vanished.
“It would be somewhat surprising to me if the Air Force or other agencies were willing to allow this kind of confusion on the part of Navy pilots to go uncorrected for long.” Steven Aftergood, Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists
Some countries, including the United States, have worked on concepts for launching unmanned aircraft from submarines, notes Steven Zaloga, who studies unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles for the Teal Group in Virginia.
In 2016, the U.S. Navy permitted AeroVironment, the California drone-maker, to announce that some Navy submarines and unmanned underwater vehicles would be equipped with the company’s Blackwing small surveillance and communications-relay aircraft. “You fire it out the torpedo tube or from another dedicated launcher and you can pop up a hard-to-detect small unmanned aircraft to snoop around,” Zaloga says.
Zaloga does not mean to suggest these could be what the pilots are seeing. A Blackwing weighs just 1.8 kilograms and its tubular fuselage and angular wings look nothing like Tic Tacs or spheres with cubes inside them. The point is that launching aircraft via submarine is a research thrust. Also, on the Rogan show, Fravor reported seeing a cross-shaped object “about the size of a 737” under the surface of the water that seemed to be associated with the flying object.
Perhaps China or Russia have developed a submarine-launched drone. If they have, Zaloga questions whether either country could send a submarine from its waters all the way to Navy training ranges without being detected. Even if this were possible, each drone would have to transmit observations back to the vessel that deployed it. “So it should be detectable,” Zaloga notes.
What if the craft could fly so fast and far that they didn’t need to be delivered by submarine? China, in particular, is working vigorously on weapons that maneuver to their targets at many times the speed of sound, and has publicly displayed a new anti-ship missile. In 2018, the Pentagon’s Michael Griffin, under secretary of defense for research and engineering, told lawmakers about China’s development of hypersonic weapons that could strike U.S. aircraft carriers, “and we don’t have defenses against those systems.” That same year, Russian President Vladimir Putin during his state of the nation address in Moscow described a series of what he called “hypersonic systems,” according to a translation, ranging from torpedoes to cruise missiles to a wedge-shaped hypersonic glide weapon. Putin paused to show a cartoonlike video of a rocket taking off and releasing the wedge-shaped craft to fall toward Earth. It weaves and porpoises over the globe, surrounded by a translucent orange cloud. Putin cautioned that he couldn’t show “what it really looks like.”
Nothing Putin showed seems to maneuver in the manner described by the Navy pilots. The Chinese weapons alluded to by Griffin and described at a trade show do not bear obvious resemblance to what the pilots have described.
What we can say for certain is that each explanation explored in this piece should be disconcerting.
...If the object were indeed a balloon, we would have to accept that either the plane’s radar was not operating, the pilot did not heed it or his radar failed to detect a reflector whose expressed purpose was to make the balloon easy to spot...
Wouldn't these balloons have some kind of transponder fitted to enable them the be identified ?