Early in my career, I worked at a magazine called Video Review. We tested the latest equipment and reviewed video releases: movies, concerts, Jane Fonda workouts, and the like. One day we received an unsolicited, homemade documentary about UFOs. Soon more videos followed, along with long, impassioned letters about the impending arrival of beneficent aliens who would show the grubby human race a more enlightened path. We learned that the UFO buffs of that period were very excited about the video revolution. With so many camcorders in civilian hands, they believed, it was only a matter of time before every UFO sighting would be backed up with solid video evidence.
Somehow, the boom in camcorder sales failed to produce a flood of persuasive UFO footage. Today, nearly half the people on Planet Earth carry around high-definition smartphone cameras. Yet even this exponential explosion in our ability to capture images hasn’t notably increased the supply of tangible evidence for UFOs.
Still, many have clung to the notion that there is ample evidence of alien spacecraft sightings, it’s just locked away in secret government programs. As it turns out, there are grains of truth in this idea: The U.S. military has been looking into reports of UFOs, or, as it now calls them, UAPs—Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. Starting over a decade ago, lawmakers pushed the Department of Defense to investigate accounts offered by military aviators of strange things they were seeing in the skies. Eventually, the DOD launched an “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force.”
More recently, several provocative videos, shot by the crews of U.S. Navy aircraft, leaked out on the Internet. They appeared to show strange airborne entities performing unusual maneuvers. Some researchers were quick to call the leaked videos “legitimate sightings of actual UFOs.” Other analysts worried that perhaps some military adversary had developed a “breakthrough technology” and was testing it off our shores.
In 2020, Senator Marco Rubio, then head of the Intelligence Committee, ordered the director of national intelligence to produce a public report on what the UAP Task Force has found so far. Released in June 2021, “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon” failed either to confirm the existence of spectacular unknown technologies or to debunk claims of strange sightings.
That might not satisfy either side, but to me it suggests the DNI is taking the right approach.
Before going further, let me be clear: Nothing I write here is intended to suggest that UFOs couldn’t possibly exist, or that extraterrestrial civilizations couldn’t conceivably visit our planet. Nor is it impossible that Russia or China might have leapfrogged all known aerospace technologies. Finally, I am not suggesting that the military fliers who have reported encounters with unexplained phenomena (often at the risk of being ostracized) are making things up. What I am suggesting is that ambiguous data can be…ambiguous. Doctors in training are often admonished, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” In other words, start with the most likely explanation for a symptom before assuming it must be caused by some exotic disease. That’s a good rule of thumb for UFO sightings, too.
So let’s take a look at that DNI report. At a mere nine pages, it lives up to its “preliminary” title. It says investigators looked into 144 reports. In 18 of those incidents, “observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics”—in other words, they involved objects that gave the impression of being under some sort of control. The report concludes that most UAP sightings “probably do represent physical objects.” Those objects likely fall into one of several categories. There’s “airborne clutter,” such as birds, balloons, and plastic bags. And there’s “natural atmospheric phenomena,” including clouds and thermal layers that can confuse radar and other sensors. More intriguing is the idea that pilots might be encountering secret experimental aircraft launched by the U.S. government or private industry, or even “foreign adversary systems.”
But the more closely one reads the report, the less evidence one finds that American fliers are crossing paths with exotic technology, earthly or otherwise. In only one case were investigators able to identify a UAP “with high confidence.” That one turned out to be “a large, deflating balloon.” In other cases, the lack of “sufficient information in our dataset” made further conclusions impossible.
The report says that slightly over half of the sightings involved “observation with multiple sensors.” Clearly having more than one data source—say, a pilot’s visual observation plus a separate radar track—is key. But the report hints that the most provocative cases (the ones involving unusual, aircraft-like movements) were based on single data points. “These observations could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception,” the report notes.
But what about those stunning Navy videos? In one, dubbed “GOFAST,” a small white object appears to be racing across the wave tops as the aircrew of a F/A-18 Super Hornet tracks it with their weapons camera. It certainly looks convincing. But an analysis by visual-effects expert Mick West shows why such footage can be deceiving. In the case of GOFAST, the problem is the “parallax illusion.” Imagine you are looking out the window of a moving train watching a windmill in a field, with a range of mountains in the background. From your perspective, objects near the train seem to be rushing by quickly, while the windmill drops behind more slowly, and the distant mountains more slowly still. Now, imagine watching the windmill through a small spyglass: You can’t see the foreground or the field, so you have no visual reference telling you that all the movements you see are connected. Suddenly the windmill will appear to be rushing backwards while the mountains appear stationary.
Helpfully, the gun-camera footage includes readouts showing the jet fighter’s altitude and speed, as well as the orientation of the camera pod. These data reveal that, rather than being a fast-moving, low-flying aircraft, the white object is actually drifting slowly at a fairly high altitude—yes, it’s probably another balloon. The F/A-18 is flying higher still, so when its camera zooms in on the object, that little white dot is framed against the ocean—which the dot appears to be racing past not because it is moving but because the background is moving. After all, the jet is flying at nearly 300 miles per hour. Even to the experienced airmen watching, this illusion of movement is stunningly convincing.
West’s analyses of other Navy video clips reveal similar illusions, including common technical glitches in how video cameras operate. West’s work isn’t the last word. But it helps show the kinds of errors that can creep into human observations.
But aren’t military pilots trained observers? Yes, but not as neutral scientific observers of aerial phenomena. Rather, they are conditioned to be hyperalert to possible threats. When professionals spend their careers looking for potentially threatening airborne technology, and then they see something strange in the sky, we can’t fault them for thinking it might be…potentially threatening airborne technology. The same goes for radar operators trying to make sense of weird signals on their scopes.
The UAP Task Force took a valuable step by encouraging military personnel to document any and all anomalous observations. Service people shouldn’t have to fear they’ll be considered a little bonkers for reporting what they see. The task force also created a standardized format in which to collect that data. Those changes have helped increase the number of UAP reports but haven’t led to any concrete evidence of super-sophisticated Chinese or Russian aircraft, much less visitors from celestial realms.
The word “unexplained” comes up a lot in the DNI report. That word certainly doesn’t mean “debunked.” Nor does it mean “something mind-blowing that we haven’t quite proved yet.” But it’s worth noting that when the U.S. Navy conducts flight operations, it is also operating one of the world’s most sophisticated data-acquisition systems. And yet, with all that data, we still can’t always distinguish between super-advanced aerospace vehicles and stray balloons and birds. Which is more likely? It’s natural that people get excited about seeing zebras. And we shouldn’t prematurely rule out zebras. But when we hear hoofbeats, dull as it might sound, it’s probably horses.
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