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Mystery in the sky

WORLD Radio - Mystery in the sky

Pentagon report details more than 100 UFO sightings it still can’t explain


The image from video provided by the Department of Defense labelled Gimbal, from 2015, an unexplained object is seen at center as it is tracked as it soars high along the clouds, traveling against the wind. Department of Defense via Associated Press

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 29th of July, 2021.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Paul Butler.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Mryna Brown.

First up: UFOs!

Not the flying-saucer-little-green-men kind of UFO. Well, not that we know of, anyway. These are flying objects caught on tape that not even the U.S. military can identify. Are they rogue weather balloons? Foreign drones? Or something else?

BUTLER: The Pentagon drew up a report analyzing 144 confirmed sightings and delivered the results to Congress last month. WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown reports now on what all the fuss is about.

AUDIO: There’s a whole fleet of them, look on the ASA.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN: Lieutenant Ryan Graves started seeing UFOs in 2014.

AUDIO: They’re all going against the wind. The wind’s 120 knots west.

Graves was a Navy pilot flying an F/A 18 Super Hornet off the coast of Virginia. His plane had just gotten a radar upgrade, and something kept showing up on it. The infrared targeting camera caught it too: An unassuming disc-shaped blob. But it didn’t act the way flying objects are supposed to act.

AUDIO: Look at that thing. It’s rotating.

Graves says he saw objects like that every day for a couple of years. Another pilot almost collided with one. The squadron filed an official mishap report.

In the wake of those sightings—and hundreds of others like them—Congress commissioned a report in 2020. It directed the Pentagon to assess these objects, figure out if they pose any threat to the United States, and determine whether the Department of Defense is equipped to handle them. The report came out last month, accompanied by lots of hype and speculation.

Mark Rodeghier is the scientific director at the Center for UFO Studies. It’s a research group that analyzes UFO sightings and often identifies what those objects really are. Rodeghier says the report got a lot of attention because nobody expected UFOs to be a serious subject.

RODEGHIER: The government has said that UFOs weren't a subject worthy of investigation. They weren't scientifically interesting. And they weren't a threat, definitely not a threat.

But now it seems that’s changing. The government report detailed 144 verified sightings of UFOs or—as the government calls them—UAPs: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. And it tried to make sense of them by identifying what they might be.

Typically, UFO sightings have pretty boring explanations. People see the moon or a bird or a distant plane or an airborne plastic bag and report them as UFOs. Mark Rodeghier says 95 percent of sightings can be easily explained. But the objects in the Pentagon report were a little more slippery.

Like the Nimitz encounter. In 2004, Alex Dietrich and David Fravor were pilots based on the USS Nimitz off the coast of California.

New advanced radar on a nearby ship had detected “multiple anomalous aerial vehicles.” According to the radar, the objects descended 80,000 feet in less than a second. Dietrich and Fravor took to the skies to investigate. Here’s Fravor describing the encounter on 60 Minutes.

FRAVOR: So as we’re looking at this I said, Do do you, do you see that thing down there?

The two pilots saw a white object, about the size of a fighter plane, shaped like a Tic Tac. Alex Dietrich says they saw no wings, no exhaust plumes, no means of propulsion. But the object was moving around erratically.

DIETRICH: No, no predictable movement, no predictable trajectory. FRAVOR: Yes. It was just it was just like a ping pong ball, no acceleration very, very random.

Fravor tracked the object for about five minutes.

FRAVOR: So it’s climbing still, and when it gets right in front of me. It just disappears. Disappears. Like gone.

A few seconds later, the USS Nimitz picked up the object on radar again—this time, 60 miles away.

The Nimitz encounter is one of the most well-documented UFO sightings. Despite the Pentagon’s scrutiny, no one has been able to identify it for sure. In fact, out of all the encounters detailed in its report, the Pentagon was able to identify just one. It was a large, deflating balloon. The rest? No idea.

ANDREW FRAKNOI: We all wish we had more data. For most of the incidents, we just don't have enough data.

Andrew Fraknoi is an astronomy professor at the University of San Francisco. He says the Pentagon was very honest in admitting it just didn’t have enough information. And that’s normal, especially because of the nature of UFOs: They happen quickly. No time for proper study. Sometimes, an object might appear to be moving at superhuman speeds, but maybe it’s not.

FRAKNOI: There's a lot of discussion about whether the cameras were moving, and the aircraft was moving or the other flying thing was moving. You have to know the speed of everything to figure out how fast the unknown object was moving.

Mark Rodeghier says UFOs are the hardest scientific problem he’s ever encountered.

RODEGHIER: And one of the main reasons is we can't predict where they're going to occur. So how do you study something that you don't know when and where it's going to happen?

But the military has a vested interest in figuring out what these objects are. Many UFO sightings have been near U.S. training or testing sites. And if they’re some kind of new breakthrough technology from another country, the government wants to know about it.

But if this is new tech from Russia or China, it’s far, far beyond anything the United States has. The objects appear to maneuver abruptly at speeds hundreds of times faster than our fastest jets.

The report also left open another possibility: a catchall “other” bin. Here’s Mark Rodeghier.

RODEGHIER: They don't use the word aliens. But we all know they really mean aliens.

There’s no proof these objects are extraterrestrial, but the report left the door open for further investigation. Rodeghier says that’s a reasonable way to do it.

RODEGHIER: The thing we keep in mind is that we don't know a lot about the universe. You know, and, and we don't know a lot about our brains. We do know some things. But to think that we know, even most of what there is to know is actually crazy.

Regardless of what the objects are, the Pentagon report concluded they do pose a safety threat to pilots.

So the report calls for extra training for military personnel. And a reporting system for when pilots encounter anything they can’t explain.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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