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Around these parts, I’m known as something of a skeptic. When it comes to various claims made by people with regard to supernatural phenomena, I am not shy about picking apart those claims with an especial eye towards a) providing plausible natural explanations for such occurrences, or b) ferreting out the human component of such claims when it comes to the desire to see those claims believed for a variety of all-too-human reasons.
But on Sunday, there was a front-page story at the New York Times which defied belief and the power of skepticism on a variety of fronts.
It seems that back in 2007, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ordered (in partnership with the late Senators Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens) the Pentagon to set up a secret program called the “Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program” using black-budget money to study encounters with … Unidentified Flying Objects. Over the next five years, this program actually uncovered some stunning information, at the neat cost of $22 million.
My particular incredulity is tripartite. First, there is the curious case of Senator Harry Reid himself. Composed as he is of equal parts “corruption,” “disingenuousness,” and “spite,” Reid would never be mistaken for Mr. Congeniality in any beauty contest, so his motives for abusing this power in a near unilateral fashion ought to be obvious. Nonetheless, his ability to instigate such an expensive investigation outside of the prying eyes of taxpayer watchdog groups is hair-raising all on its own. Do I think that Reid was paying back political favors with taxpayer money? Who would dream of such a thing? This is my shocked face, by the way.
Second, is the fact that on the front page of the New York Times is a serious discussion of a subject which is normally relegated to the same laugh-out-loud status as “Bigfoot erotica” (h/t @jonahgoldberg).
Third, as if the previous two weren’t enough to wet your whistle for the weird, there’s the actual content of the story, which I have to admit is fairly captivating.
A brief discussion of the general parameters of skepticism is probably worthwhile before we dive headlong into this mess, however. Suffice to say that within the realm of the natural sciences, the statement “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,” as coined by Carl Sagan, is the currency of the realm.
For instance, you’re free to say that you’ve discovered a species of fish previously thought extinct, but unless you have pictures of the critter or the body of this living fossil, nobody is under any obligation to take you seriously. Ditto, the various claims made by religious people and other sorts of encounters with the paranormal like the Loch Ness Monster. What laymen need to understand is that the skeptic’s attitude is nothing personal; it’s just business.
So it is with the phenomena which generally fall into the category/cultural milieu known as UFOs. The reason why the established scientific and skeptical community look askance at the various tales told by people who claim to have been kidnapped and probed by aliens is not that the claims themselves are absurd (ok … they’re pretty weird) but that those who are claiming such experiences lack utterly any sort of corroborating evidence. There are no dead alien bodies, no crashed spacecraft, and no relics of their technology.
If the claims these people make about aliens are true, these visitors have remarkable civilizational hygiene. They never leave so much as a footprint behind, let alone a galactic spanner or space bolt. I mean, when you’re on the ship you can’t snatch an alien toothbrush or whatever? Combine all of this with the fact that 320 million Americans now carry around with them a super-computer which doubles as a camera and internet portal. You’d think somebody would manage to snap an up-close shot of one of these critters or their sweet ride. Yet despite this incredible proliferation of evidence-gathering technology both remain notoriously camera-shy.
This is why for many reasons, the evidence presented in the New York Times article is so compelling.
The situation is as follows: it seems that in 2004, a pair of F/A-18 Hornets were on a routine training mission over the Pacific near San Diego when their control tower ordered them to investigate a radar return they had noticed. The objects in question started out at 80,000′, before rapidly descending to about 20,000′ and disappearing. That’s not even the weird part.
Upon arriving at the location of the purported radar return, the pilots encountered what they described as an oblong, strangely glowing object that was hovering over the ocean above some manner of disturbance in the water. The object rapidly took up position behind the fighters before accelerating to a point some 60 miles from their current spot in about a minute before stopping again. The pilots even managed to get gun-camera footage of the object:
There are several fantastic elements to this story. First, you have the relatively unimpeachable credentials of the pilots who witnessed the phenomenon firsthand. Not only do the individuals in question have no apparent motive for making up such a tale (David Fravor is a retired Navy Commander with thousands of hours of flight time) but there is solid, photographic evidence documenting the encounter with an object which is clearly acting in a fashion outside of the normal understanding of aerodynamics. Then there’s the radar return data, documenting the object’s erratic, violent acceleration and incredible rates of speed.
It is literally true that these pilots encountered an “unidentified flying object.” Note that this term is not synonymous with “alien spacecraft” but the question then remains: what in the heck was it?
Several potential answers present themselves. Unfortunately, I find none of them to be especially comforting.
From my position as a skeptic and a naturalist, my first inclination is to attribute this encounter to a previously undocumented natural phenomenon. Perhaps the pilots were witnessing a release of methane hydrate from the ocean floor — a thing which has been known to occur in areas prone to seismic activity, whereby trapped methane gas is suddenly released from ocean floor sediments by the shaking of a tremor. The trouble with this theory is those pesky radar returns. A release of gas — even that of different density than air — probably wouldn’t be painted by air traffic radar. Also, methane gas is less dense than air and would have the tendency to rise in the atmosphere — not descend at supersonic speeds some five miles then stop on a dime. There’s also the issue of the gun camera footage itself. The weird, glowing halo around the object (which appears in the infrared to be hot) nonetheless seems to be surrounding something solid.
On this basis, we can probably rule out purely natural phenomena on the basis of how the object acted and the documentary evidence itself. That leaves us, almost by process of elimination with the logical requirement that this is some form of technology. The question then becomes: Whose technology is it?
This is also the truly disturbing part of the discussion. If this is technology, this craft demonstrated capabilities well beyond those which we currently possess in any unclassified program — and probably in the classified ones as well. If it is of a terrestrial nature, that means somebody on this planet possesses an aircraft capable of easily outrunning our fighters and in many cases, even our missiles. And they were screwing around with our jets just because they could.
A nation-state in possession of this technology would seem to have the capability of delivering payloads of almost anything to all of this country’s coastal cities (that includes things like “bombs”) in very short order, which makes it a serious contender for its claim as a national security threat worth examination.
If these pilots just happened to have stumbled across technology owned and operated by the United States of America, somebody also has a lot of explaining to do for obvious reasons: how could the development of something so radical and advanced have taken place without a whisper of its existence having leaked out over the past few decades? Even the most highly classified airplane in history — the SR-71 or Project “Oxcart” — only remained classified from the point of its inception in the late ’50s until 1964 when President Johnson himself publicly admitted to the plane’s existence. It had been sighted by commercial aircraft crews and other industry observers prior to that admission, as well.
This thing being American would be weird, but not impossible. Especially in comparison to the last and, in my opinion, least likely explanation: that the object these pilots encountered was a craft of extraterrestrial origin.
This is a point on which everybody in any position of importance is basically mum. Careers have likely been ruined by people claiming to have seen a UFO, and the social stigma of making such a claim is so strong that it is the last explanation most serious people are likely to point to when encountering some otherwise inexplicable phenomenon.
Nonetheless, history is dotted with such weird reports throughout the era of human flight. Take this report from Japan Airlines Flight 1628 in 1986. While en route from Paris to Japan, the 747 cargo jet was reportedly pursued and harassed by several objects displaying similar flight characteristics to those on display in the 2004 incident as it flew over Alaskan airspace. The pilot in question, Captain Tenju Terauchi, filed his report with the FAA and stuck to his story despite being grounded by JAL for having discussed the matter with the press.
Incidents like these also create a lot of awkward questions for those involved, along with some strangely perverse incentives. Think about it: Which Air Force General or Navy Admiral wants to be the one to go to Congress and tell elected officials (who allocate nearly a trillion dollars annually to Defense) that there are objects with practically indescribable flight characteristics which routinely violate our airspace … and we don’t know what they are or how to stop them? None. And so it’s been.
With that sort of incentive structure in place, the very people most likely to provide these sorts of reports also turn out to be the least likely to provide them given the potential consequences of such an admission.
What is certain is that the Times and other so-called mainstream news outlets experienced an outpouring of interest at their having committed a random act of journalism. Let us hope they’ll take that signal as evidence that more reporting into these sorts of secrets can be both enlightening to the public and productive.Published in