How the Pentagon learned to start worrying and investigate UFOs

The government’s UFO report has landed: It concludes that strange aircraft have been haunting U.S. warships for years, marking a new era for “unidentified aerial phenomena.”

A 2015 video shows U.S. Navy aviators’ encounter with a strange flying object that appears to rotate, nicknamed "Gimbal," off the Atlantic coast of Florida.
Department of Defense

U.S. national security officials today delivered a report to Congress about investigations into a series of unidentified flying object sightings, a landmark sign that this previously fringe topic has gained mainstream acceptance. And while the report, produced by the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), does provide some new information about the inexplicable occurrences, it leaves many of the biggest questions unanswered.

Yes, Navy pilots and other military personnel have been seeing mysterious flying objects for decades; a Navy task force reviewed 144 sightings by U.S. government personnel that occurred between 2004 and 2021. No, the Pentagon doesn’t know what they are. There’s no evidence that the objects were sent by space aliens, but the report, mandated by Congress as part of the 2021 National Intelligence Authorization Act, confirms that the sightings remain “unidentified.”

But no one in the intelligence community uses the term UFO anymore. The new moniker is Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon, or UAP—a name change meant to signal that the U.S. government is taking the mysterious sightings seriously.

The report, which includes a classified section available only to lawmakers, details the results of investigations by the Defense Department’s UAP Task Force, established in 2017. Strange flying objects with seemingly bizarre aerodynamic abilities have been spotted by pilots, on radar, and with infrared sensors.

The report does state that the UAP Task Force was not able to attribute any of the sightings to American military or other advanced U.S. government technology. “Some UAP observations could be attributable to developments and classified programs by U.S. entities,” the report says. “We were unable to confirm, however, that these systems accounted for any of the UAP reports we collected.”

The most famous UAP encounters in modern aviation history—cases from 2004, 2014, and 2015 that involve pilot sightings, radar tracking, and objects caught on video—remain unsolved.

The UAP Task Force considered conventional explanations for the sightings, such as natural atmospheric phenomena, misidentified civilian aircraft, and radar malfunction—but except for one report that they attributed to a deflating balloon, the investigators “currently lack sufficient information in our dataset to attribute incidents to specific explanations.” The uncertainty leaves stranger and more disturbing theories to be considered, such as “foreign adversary systems” and what the report refers to as “a catchall ‘other’ bin.”

Even without answers, the report is a welcome validation for those in the military who witnessed unknown objects in the sky. “We were ridiculed and mocked by so many, so now it feels nice to have people ask good questions and to have them really be interested in getting to the bottom of it,” says Alex Dietrich, a former Navy pilot who observed a UAP in 2004. “Then, of course, there’s that underlying sense of urgency that we all have: Is this a threat to national security?”

A number of U.S. officials are now posing that same question. What Dietrich saw in the sky 16 years ago started a series of events that changed the discussion about unidentified aerial sightings forever.      

An encounter at sea

On November 14, 2004, Lieutenant Junior Grade Dietrich was pushed back into the cockpit seat of her F/A-18 Super Hornet as it sped 150 miles per hour toward the edge of the flight deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz. The g-forces increased as she applied the afterburners and roared away from the ship to begin a day of routine, pre-deployment training off the coast of California, near Catalina Island.

Just after leaving the deck of the Nimitz, she observed an oblong object hovering over the water. It suddenly leaped into motion, skimming 500 to 1,000 feet over the waves at around 500 knots (575 mph). The fighter jet’s onboard radar couldn’t detect the object, but Dietrich’s weapons systems operator (WSO) in the rear seat—whose name is not public—saw it too, crying out over the radio.

“We were trying to call out what we are seeing to each other, and to make sure everybody else is seeing it,” recalls Dietrich, who was a new pilot back in 2004, only completing flight training in March 2003. “It’s moving so erratically and so fast that our voices, our minds, and then our radio calls can’t keep up with it.”

Military pilots are particularly adept at what aviation folks call “reece,” short for reconnaissance, and referring more specifically in this case to the art of recognizing aircraft by their shapes, paint schemes, unit insignia, and so on. “We train our eyes and our minds to make those split-second categorizations,” Dietrich says. “We saw that there was a vehicle; there was a vessel there. Then almost immediately: That is not any vehicle or vessel I recognize.”

Other Super Hornets launched behind Dietrich, one with pilot Cmdr. David Fravor and WSO Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight on board, and another piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Chad Underwood and an unidentified aviator. Warned that something was out there, Underwood managed to capture the craft on a forward looking infrared camera. It was 40 feet long, round and smooth, and quickly received the nickname “Tic-Tac.”

What Dietrich didn’t know at the time was that unexplained objects had been detected on radar in that same airspace for days. Gary Voorhis, a Petty Officer 3rd Class on the U.S.S. Princeton guided missile cruiser, a ship training with the Nimitz, began to see things appear on his radar screens on November 10, four days before Dietrich’s flight.

Voorhis, with six years in the Navy at the time, was the technician responsible for two of the Princeton’s combat systems, and what he was seeing was impossible. In just seconds, an object had dropped to the waterline from 60,000 feet, hovered, and then zipped away at high velocity. It made right angle turns that were confounding.

“Before it was reported even to the Captain, those systems were triple checked,” Voorhis says. “And then once it was taken up with the Captain, they were triple checked again. Everything was working perfect, which made it even creepier.”

The strange objects returned over several days. Voorhis made it a point to look with his own eyes, asking watch officers for radar information so he could know where to aim his binoculars. “I was able to see it on the horizon,” he recalls. “I got to see it during the night and during the day. And it definitely was a glowing object. Could I tell you for 100 percent certainty it was exactly what we were tracking? No, but I was just looking at the bearing and elevation, and it was exactly where it was supposed to be.”

Despite the radar evidence, when Dietrich and her WSO reported what they saw, it received little attention from superiors and opened the two naval aviators to jokes about space aliens.

“When I came back and we were being ridiculed and dismissed by the crew, I said to myself … well then, they know what it is,” Dietrich says. “It must be some sort of blue [United States or allied] system. It must be some sort of highly classified, compartmentalized system, and we were inadvertently vectored into its test range.”

If so, she was angry to be ordered into cluttered airspace with no warning. Before any flight, pilots are briefed on every environmental nuance, from the air humidity to bird sightings. Dietrich now knows that radar operators like Voorhis tracked odd returns for days, and the Navy leadership launched her training flights anyway, with no mention of the anomalies.

The inability to address the mysterious objects—“there’s no box on the checklist for UFOs,” Dietrich says—left her unprepared for the encounter and put her at risk of a collision. “UAP clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to U.S. national security,” the report states, confirming “11 reports of documented instances in which pilots reported near misses with a UAP.”

“Look at that thing, dude!” 

The sighting receded in importance as Dietrich’s career progressed. She served in Iraq and Afghanistan, logging more than 1,250 hours and 375 carrier landings during combat missions. She then worked several well-placed administrative jobs with the Navy in Washington, D.C., while pursuing an MBA from the George Washington University School of Business, which she received in 2014.

But the ripple effects of the sighting never really went away. Officials in the Pentagon repeatedly asked her to brief people who wanted to hear her story firsthand. Since 2004, Dietrich has been requested to deliver briefings at least once a year and usually more, often enough that it became a nuisance.

“It was a total pain in the ass,” she says. “Then it started with the Hill: Can you come brief these senators and congressman? McCain's office is interested in this. How do you say no to John McCain?” During presidential turnovers, Pentagon officials even asked her to brief the new administrations, speaking with senior-level naval intelligence officials, both civilian and military.

Interest in the sightings waxed and waned but definitively spiked in late 2014 and early 2015, when Super Hornets attached to the U.S.S. Roosevelt began encountering fast-moving, unidentified aircraft that looked, in one pilot’s words, like “a cube inside a sphere.” Equipped with upgraded radar, these warplanes were able to track the strange targets. Early the next year, three sets of gun-camera videos also captured flying objects, which have since been nicknamed “Gimbal” and “Go-Fast.”  

“They’re all going against the wind; the wind’s 120 knots to the west,” one pilot remarks in a recorded encounter. “Look at that thing, dude!” another cries out. “Look at that thing! It’s rotating.”

The naval aviators who shot the footage have not been identified, but two pilots have come forward as witnesses, Lt. Danny Aucoin and Lt. Ryan Graves. In both 2014 and 2015, they spotted odd returns on their radar screens and captured strange wingless, tailless objects on the airplane’s video cameras. In interviews, Aucoin has said that the objects reacted to the warplanes and moved around them

These pilots, and others who remain unidentified, saw objects at various altitudes, including sea level, and tracked them accelerating to hypersonic speeds—greater than five times the speed of sound. Some exhibited extreme endurance, staying in the air for up to 12 hours without refueling. Others seemed to descend into the water, as shown on videos taken by Navy personnel.

The fact that the craft were again operating near American aircraft carriers raised blood pressures among military officials and politicians. Bill Nelson, the new administrator of NASA, was one of those briefed on UAPs when he was a Florida senator.

“A couple of years ago, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I was briefed on what those Navy pilots saw, and I have talked to the Navy pilots,” Nelson, who served on the committee from 2013 to 2017, recently told Politico. “These are pilots who locked their radar on it. They tracked and then they saw it move so fast that they couldn’t believe it. And then they went and tracked it again, locked their radar on it in a new position. So, there’s some phenomenon that we need to explain.”

In 2017 the Pentagon formed the UAP Task Force to investigate the inexplicable occurrences, but the Defense Department denied the program existed until 2020, when Congress revealed it in legislative language. The Senate Intelligence Committee, then headed by Senator Marco Rubio, shortly thereafter ordered a report on what the UAP Task Force had been up to.

That report reveals that strange flight behavior was spotted in numerous UAP sightings. “In 18 incidents, described in 21 reports, observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics,” it says. “We are conducting further analysis to determine if breakthrough technologies were demonstrated.”

Inexplicable craft

Consensus has gelled around the idea that at least some physical aircraft were flying during the encounters reported by Navy pilots. The DNI report supports this point of view: “Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects, given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.”

The repeated sightings around military ships makes U.S. defense officials wonder if another country with malicious motives could be responsible.

Russia and China, both geopolitical foes with rapidly advancing militaries and a keen interest in blunting the U.S. Navy’s influence around the globe, have been put forward as primary suspects. A theory within defense circles is that at least one foreign navy has been flying aircraft near American vessels to spy on their reactions.

This explanation is satisfyingly rational, but details of the UAP encounters leave a lot of room for doubt. If there were aircraft flying near the Navy jets, and they were not American, where did they launch from?

When Super Hornets encountered a UAP near Jacksonville in January 2015, there did happen to be a Russian military vessel transiting the area. The Viktor Leonov, a Russian Navy intelligence warship, arrived in Havana, Cuba, on January 20, 2015. The spy ship collects signals, but it is not a launch platform for experimental aircraft—submarines would be a better option for that.

Russian submarines are as good or better at prowling U.S. coastlines now as they were during the Cold War, and it is conceivable that a submarine surfaced to deploy powered drones or balloons with radar reflectors. Perhaps the Viktor Leonov was on the scene to help collect data generated when the provocative objects were spotted by befuddled U.S. pilots and radar operators. 

Cheap, expendable balloons could also explain the shape of some of the UAPs reported, as well as the glimpse of one seemingly dropping into the waves. Sub-launched spy balloons have been around since at least 1959, when the CIA dabbled with the trick, but no comparable, modern balloon program is known to exist in the U.S. or elsewhere. The U.S. Navy is, however, outfitting submarines with powered drones like AeroVironment’s Blackwing—a small winged drone equipped with a sensor suite—and other nations are surely following suit.    

However, balloons don’t accelerate to high speeds or make sharp turns, and Tic-Tac, Gimbal, and Go-Fast appeared to lack flight control surfaces that would allow for high-speed maneuvers, such as wings or a tail. The objects also had no visible exhaust, even when seen in infrared.

Drone technology in 2004 and even 2015 was nowhere near as evolved as it is now, and even the known experimental craft of today would have an impossible time replicating some of the UAPs’ feats. During the 2004 incident, for example, Fravor says he saw the Tic-Tac accelerate so quickly that his eye couldn’t follow it. Radar logs on the U.S.S. Princeton seemed to back up the claim, spotting the UAP 60 miles away from Fravor’s jet just seconds after he saw it pull away from him.

The radar returns recorded by military ships and warplanes should provide the most reliable data about what was in the air during these encounters, but the mystery only deepens when such data is considered. During the 2015 Gimbal incident, for example, Navy pilots remarked that the radar picked up a “whole fleet” of UAPs, which seemed to merge, vanish, and do impossible aerial feats. It’s a detail that chills the blood of practitioners of a shadowy art known as electronic warfare.

Secret world of the crows

There is an ongoing, invisible cat-and-mouse game between designers of U.S. weapon systems and those made by Russia and China. In places like Syria, Taiwan, and Ukraine, military specialists, nicknamed crows, vie for dominance over the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Over time, the sensors on an aircraft or a missile get more and more sophisticated,” says Mike Meaney, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of Land and Maritime Sensors. “On the flip side, usually within short order, they have new and different ways to spoof or fool those sensors to make them think something’s happening that really isn’t.”

When radar operators receive returns showing things that are impossible—like extremely fast-moving objects and vanishing swarms of aircraft—electronic warfare is the first thing a crow considers. “If I see one enemy plane, and all of a sudden it becomes 20 planes in my display—I’m being spoofed,” Meany says. Such funhouse mirror tricks are useful for avoiding anti-aircraft weapons, which often initially rely on radar to track targets. 

Spoofing sounds a lot like what happened in the Gimbal encounters, and the DNI report addresses the possibility. “UAP reportedly appeared to exhibit unusual flight characteristics,” it states. “These observations could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis.” But if spoofing was involved, it would be very advanced tech for 2015. “That’s really the higher level of electronic warfare,” Meany notes.

If the Russian spy ship in Cuba was part of an intelligence gathering operation using covert tools of electronic warfare, that would mean the Kremlin unveiled a potentially sensitive system that would be more valuable as a surprise during an actual conflict. There are vast military ranges in Russia and China where sensitive systems can be tested without tipping their hand—just as there are within the United States.

Meaney says a cardinal rule in electronic warfare is: The less shown, the better. “As far as the cat-and-mouse goes, all sides are very careful in what they show and when they show it,” he says. “We don’t show it until we need it, and it’s been that way for five decades.”

Even if spoofing can explain some of the strange things seen on radar screens, it can’t explain what pilots saw with their own eyes, or the objects captured on video. Perhaps a combination of physical objects and electronic warfare is responsible for some of the UAP incidents, but no one seems to be able to put all the puzzle pieces together in a way that makes sense.

“For years, the men and women we trust to defend our country reported encounters with unidentified aircraft that had superior capabilities, and for years their concerns were often ignored and ridiculed,” Rubio said in a statement Friday. “This report is an important first step in cataloging these incidents, but it is just a first step before we can actually understand whether these aerial threats present a serious national security concern.”

An enduring mystery

Last year, when the Pentagon initially confirmed the leaked UAP incidents were indeed encounters with unidentified objects, the witnesses involved in the sightings went from the fringe to the mainstream. The frank admissions “kind of made me and my shipmates the most well-sought-after UFO experiencers,” Voorhis says. “Because of the simple fact that the U.S. government said: Yeah, these are unknowns. These are all legit.”

The DNI report’s ambiguity will do little to satisfy ufologists or anyone else looking for explanations. “The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP,” it states.

But in 2004, Dietrich says, the personal and professional stigma of reporting UFOs cost the Navy an opportunity to get more answers. “I get pissed because if it wasn’t ours, then why didn’t we take advantage of the fact that we had eyeballs on?” she says. “We had FLIR [forward looking infrared cameras] on it. We knew we could intercept it in multiple ways. Why didn't we … redirect our attention and our assets and our sensors into that airspace and get more evidence?”

Since that encounter, discussions around unidentified flying objects at the Pentagon have completely changed. New protocols encourage personnel to report sightings, and military leaders are taking these reports seriously.

“The stigma is gone,” House Intelligence Committee member Mike Quigley told reporters after receiving a classified briefing on the DNI report. “Now that’s as big a change in policy as I’ve witnessed about this issue in my lifetime.”

Dietrich retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander in May 2021, having taught as an ethics professor at the United States Naval Academy in Maryland for more than six years. Just before retiring, she went on the record for the first time, identifying herself as a UAP witness. She wants to end the stigma of pilots reporting strange things in the sky, still disquieted by the fact that whatever she saw remains unexplained.

“I think that is one of the underpinning serious questions,” Dietrich says. “If we know it’s out there, and it’s not ours, we are not left with a lot of options that are positive.”

Voorhis is seeking his own answers, planning on mounting sky-facing cameras on Catalina Island to search for the UAPs he encountered near there in 2004. He’ll join the rest of the public, politicians, crows, military officials, and fellow witnesses who are all on the same boat, looking up at the sky and wondering just what’s flying around up there.

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