We Should Talk About the UFO Story in the New York Times

 

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.

Guys, I found the alien…

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.

This fish is extinct

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.

I’m feeling better!

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 Journalism
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  1. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Majestyk: 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.

    Or it’s a deliberate act of “give the people a story that will sell newspapers.”  Print journalism is on a decline, and UFO conspiracy theories with “credible” evidence is guaranteed to pique interest . . .

    • #1
  2. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    I remember visiting my grandparent’s house when I was a small lad (5-7 years old). My grandpa was a bombardier in a B-24 in WWII. An old friend was visiting and I was eavesdropping on their conversation as I played with my army toys on the carpet. I got exasperated with their boring conversation as I was hoping to hear some war stories. I decided to force the issue by showing them my toys including a plastic helicopter. My grandfather revealed that he flew a gunship kinda like my toy in the war. “Here we go!” I thought. Then his buddy told me that they flew planes and that my toy was a helicopter. He then went on to tell us how he flew helicopters in the 40’s and 50’s in a secret base in the desert and everyone thought he was an alien. I often wonder if he was talking about area 51?

    • #2
  3. Brian Watt Inactive
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    Thus far the “extraordinary evidence” seems to be lacking. One pilot exclaims, “There’s a whole fleet of them…” which we do not see and apparently wasn’t recorded. That image would have been at least more impressive or startling. We also don’t have any detailed, close-up video of the object as it was reportedly hovering above the surface of the ocean. That also would have been quite compelling. Other than the brief and obscure video, is there a written record or affidavit from all of those involved in the matter that the Navy can release? That might help to establish more credibility of the report. And finally, if I put my hard-nosed skeptic’s hat on, if one was going to fake the brief video in question, could it be done and how would one go about it?

    • #3
  4. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Stad (View Comment):
    Or it’s a deliberate act of “give the people a story that will sell newspapers.” Print journalism is on a decline, and UFO conspiracy theories with “credible” evidence is guaranteed to pique interest . . .

    Sure.  There is a prurient aspect to this that involves “selling newspapers.”  I don’t think that detracts from the underlying information.  Perhaps, in their desperation they may accidentally cover something which is both relevant and interesting!

    • #4
  5. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    Thus far the “extraordinary evidence” seems to be lacking. One pilot exclaims, “There’s a whole fleet of them…” which we do not see and apparently wasn’t recorded. That image would have been at least more impressive or startling. We also don’t have any detailed, close-up video of the object as it was reportedly hovering above the surface of the ocean. That also would have been quite compelling. Other than the brief and obscure video, is there a written record or affidavit from all of those involved in the matter that the Navy can release? That might help to establish more credibility of the report. And finally, if I put my hard-nosed skeptic’s hat on, if one was going to fake the brief video in question, could it be done and how would one go about it?

    My understanding is that the result of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program was a series of reports that have detailed information regarding the radar intercepts and eyewitness accounts of the pilots, in addition to other incidents.

    Hopefully, those reports will be released to the public, given that we spent $22 million on them.

    • #5
  6. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):
    Or it’s a deliberate act of “give the people a story that will sell newspapers.” Print journalism is on a decline, and UFO conspiracy theories with “credible” evidence is guaranteed to pique interest . . .

    Sure. There is a prurient aspect to this that involves “selling newspapers.” I don’t think that detracts from the underlying information. Perhaps, in their desperation they may accidentally cover something which is both relevant and interesting!

    Now you’re wandering into crazy conspiracy theory.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy, Joke Pending Member
    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending
    @Misthiocracy

    Why can’t I find that video on the New York Times’ own YouTube channel?

    It is on the BBC’s YouTube channel, however.

    • #7
  8. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    It’s really difficult for me to see what you see in that video.

    We all have epistemic blind spots… says the open borders anarchist.

    • #8
  9. Misthiocracy, Joke Pending Member
    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending
    @Misthiocracy

    Mike H (View Comment):
    It’s really difficult for me to see what you see in that video.

    We all have epistemic blind spots… says the open borders anarchist.

    I don’t think it’s the video that’s the compelling persuasive interesting evidence, as much as it’s the testimony and the radar data.

    The video is simply the bit that gives it a media hook, like this pick-up by Good Morning America (which is, of course, an unimpeachable news source).

    That being said, I cannot find any reference to radar data or pilot testimony in the New York Times articles linked-to in the OP.  Majestyk, where did you get that information?

    Never mind, I found the article here.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/16/us/politics/unidentified-flying-object-navy.html

    • #9
  10. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    Other than the brief and obscure video, is there a written record or affidavit from all of those involved in the matter that the Navy can release?

    Wikipedia is already on the case.

    • #10
  11. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Mike H (View Comment):
    It’s really difficult for me to see what you see in that video.

    We all have epistemic blind spots… says the open borders anarchist.

    If you go to the Times article there’s a second video as well.  This one wasn’t my favorite, but I was not hunting around forever being as I was out of free article views.

    There are several things about the video that are compelling to me.

    1. The contemporaneous eyewitness testimony from highly credible observers making what amount to admissions against interest.
    2. The fact that the Navy reported these radar returns on these objects descending from 80,000′ for several weeks prior to investigating this incident.
    3. The fact that a military aircraft captured images of the object in question on FLIR at all.  Generally, these things are never accompanied by a photograph, let alone a movie – or a movie from a targeting computer.
    • #11
  12. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    Mike H (View Comment):
    It’s really difficult for me to see what you see in that video.

    We all have epistemic blind spots… says the open borders anarchist.

    I don’t think it’s the video that’s the compelling persuasive interesting evidence, as much as it’s the testimony and the radar data.

    The video is simply the bit that gives it a media hook, like this pick-up by Good Morning America (which is, of course, an unimpeachable news source).

    That being said, I cannot find any reference to radar data or pilot testimony in the New York Times articles linked-to in the OP. Majestyk, where did you get that information?

    My information comes from a variety of sources – the radar returns were signaled to the F/A-18 interceptors who were training with the Nimitz Carrier Group via tracking performed by the USS Princeton – which presumably would have recordings of the radar tracks:

    This is what Fravor says happened. He and another pilot were with the USS Nimitz training in F/A-18F Super Hornets about 100 miles out in the Pacific Ocean when someone on the Navy cruiser USS Princeton contacted them by radio about mysterious aircraft.

    The ship had been tracking objects that were described as being whitish, 40 feet long and shaped like Tic Tacs that would appear suddenly 80,000 feet up, then descend toward the ocean and hover at 20,000 feet before dropping out of radar range or blasting back up.

    The ship and the pilots worked together to track one of the aircraft and when Fravor got close enough to examine one, it peeled away.

    “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he told The New York Times. “I have no idea what I saw.”

     

    • #12
  13. DrewInWisconsin Member
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Isn’t the story really about how Harry Reid redirected a crapload of money to one of his pals?

    • #13
  14. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Majestyk (View Comment):
    Hopefully, those reports will be released to the public, given that we spent $22 million on them.

    That 22 million is probably why we’re going to see something that will be equally unintelligible.

    • #14
  15. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    The video is odd. The object seems locked into the frame as if it is merely a glare spot on the camera lens. Even its turn at the end is consistent with the camera angle changing. The object doesn’t seem to move apart from the camera perspective.

    • #15
  16. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention ball lightning as one of the possibilities.

    • #16
  17. Roberto the Weary Member
    Roberto the Weary
    @Roberto

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    And finally, if I put my hard-nosed skeptic’s hat on, if one was going to fake the brief video in question, could it be done and how would one go about it?

    So if we were to speculate, for example, that Mr. Reid’s longtime friend Robert Bigelow who ran the company behind this effort wished to keep the DoD spigots open and so manufactured this proof then it seems to me that faking the video would not be the difficult portion. Instead identifying and corrupting several naval officers such that they would enter the video into the official record and testify that they witnessed the events filmed would be the real challenge. Difficult and risky but not impossible to imagine, however the amount of money involved does not seem sufficient for such an effort and risk. On the other hand ufology appears to be a topic of some interest for this man so perhaps others motives could be at work.

    Pursuing a completely different theory, what if the film and story were doctored up by the DoD itself? Say for example by accident these naval officers had come across an incredibly sensitive classified mission, one that had to be concealed at all costs yet at the same time for unknown reasons could not simply be covered up in silence. So a wild cover story is constructed that while intriguing is not one that most would take too seriously and in fact invites ridicule thus keeping the true clandestine activities concealed from the public.

    Two rather made for TV movie plots that are almost as wild as the notion of completely unknown advanced aircraft playing with a pair of Navy pilots.

    An interesting mystery.

    • #17
  18. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Mike H (View Comment):
    I’m surprised you didn’t mention ball lightning as one of the possibilities.

    That is a funny example though.  I had two family members who had seen ball lighting (separate incidents) at a time when any reading you did on the subject told you it was a myth.

    • #18
  19. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Mike H (View Comment):
    I’m surprised you didn’t mention ball lightning as one of the possibilities.

    I thought about it, but ball lightning is a peculiar weather phenomenon that presumably wouldn’t show up on attack radar with the cross section of a solid, 40′ object.

    It might appear as an object on FLIR, but it would be weird for it to move that slowly relative to the fighters and to be so visible in the daytime.

    • #19
  20. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Majestyk: 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.

    It’s cowboy poetry in motion!

    • #20
  21. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):
    Isn’t the story really about how Harry Reid redirected a crapload of money to one of his pals?

    This is another aspect of the story that merits investigation.

    • #21
  22. Ontheleftcoast Inactive
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    DrewInWisconsin (View Comment):
    Isn’t the story really about how Harry Reid redirected a crapload of money to one of his pals?

    The sad thing is that given the reported eyewitness accounts, there’s probably more basis in objective reality for budgeting money to study UFOs than for most of the pretexts Reid has used to bring home the pork to his cronies.

    • #22
  23. Jimbo Member
    Jimbo
    @Jimbo

    Even though I grew up in the extra-terrestrial fascination era of  Star Wars / Star Trek / Close Encounters hoping to see evidence of life outside our own, I’ve been slowly coming to the personal realization that we are alone as the intelligent life in the galaxy. The number of factors that are required for life to exist, thrive, adapt, and develop intelligence is so vast: size of the earth, distance of the earth from the sun, size and makeup of the sun, the placement of the moon, rotational and axis properties of the earth, chemical makeup of the atmosphere, etc.  With this many critical factors, the chance of having intelligent life within travel distance of Earth approaches zero.  This doesn’t rule out inter-dimensional beings, perhaps, but not from within our own galaxy.

    • #23
  24. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    I saw a UFO once….

    • #24
  25. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Spin (View Comment):
    I saw a UFO once….

    Show us on the doll where the bad aliens probed you.

    • #25
  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Spin (View Comment):
    I saw a UFO once….

    Show us on he doll where the bad aliens probed you.

    But if you read the Daily Mail story, they were good aliens – good probing!

     

    • #26
  27. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Spin (View Comment):
    I saw a UFO once….

    Show us on he doll where the bad aliens probed you.

    But if you read the Daily Mail story, they were good aliens – good probing!

    They didn’t take me.  I only saw it.

    • #27
  28. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Spin (View Comment):
    I saw a UFO once….

    Show us on he doll where the bad aliens probed you.

    But if you read the Daily Mail story, they were good aliens – good probing!

    I think the probing was the other way around in that instance.

    • #28
  29. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    I don’t find this episode all that different from some other UFO stories that have been debunked.  It shares a similar pattern with some that seemed initially credible–including eyewitness testimony (even, as is the case here, “official” eyewitness testimony), occasional photographic “evidence,” and descriptions of a moving object.  Don’t get me wrong, these are fun, but there are probably at least 10 UFO incidents that seem very credible based on initial reports until we find out why they aren’t credible.

    • #29
  30. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Spin (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Spin (View Comment):
    I saw a UFO once….

    Show us on he doll where the bad aliens probed you.

    But if you read the Daily Mail story, they were good aliens – good probing!

    They didn’t take me. I only saw it.

    Story time with Spin!  Do share…

    • #30
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