In April 2014, four naval aviators narrowly escaped disaster. Just as they entered highly controlled airspace for a training exercise, their two F/A-18F fighter jets nearly collided with an unidentified flying object (UFO). To the frustration of dozens of their fellow aviators, such a near-catastrophe was inevitable.
For months before and after the incident, aircrews flying in “exclusive use” training areas off the U.S. East Coast frequently observed unknown objects exhibiting highly anomalous flight characteristics. Despite the collision hazard posed by the UFOs, aviators lacked a formal mechanism to report the mysterious objects.
With aviation safety alerts as their only recourse, frustrated aviators and their commanders noted that the UFOs pose “a severe threat to Naval Aviation” and a “critical risk” to flight safety. Just days before the April 2014 incident, the squadron’s exasperated commander wrote that “it is only a matter of time before this results in a midair [collision].” A few weeks earlier, the skipper of another East Coast squadron warned, “I feel it may only be a matter of time before one of our F/A-18 aircraft has a mid-air collision.”
Despite the frequency of the encounters and the severity of the hazard, it took the Navy five years to adopt a formal UFO reporting structure. The first batch of these reports, heavily redacted and spanning only a few months in 2019, makes clear that the U.S. government faces a significant challenge.
In one UFO incident, an aviator reported that he had “never seen anything like this before.” In another encounter, an aviator “noticed an object with flight characteristics unlike anything I had seen in my [redacted] years of [redacted]” — implying a particularly anomalous encounter.
Yet another pilot’s report states that “she had never seen [redacted] like it… [the UFO] did not change position like an aircraft would and was too high to be a ship.”
For fighter pilots armed with an array of advanced sensors, the confusion and bewilderment reflected in the reports is striking. One aviator “had a difficult time explaining the [redacted].” In another incident, a pilot could only describe a UFO “in a puzzled voice” over the radio. Yet another aviator described a UFO that “appeared, as odd as it sounds, to be [redacted].”
Former Navy fighter pilot Ryan Graves served with the aviators involved in the 2014 near-collision. In an interview, I asked Graves — now a vocal advocate for aviation safety via sober, scientific investigation of UFOs — about the recently released reports.
“I see frustration. I see confusion about what [the aviators are] seeing,” Graves told me. “That’s not normal language [in the UFO reports]. That’s not how we operate.”
Graves, it should be noted, is not your run-of-the-mill former fighter pilot. The only member of his Officer Candidate School class selected to fly fighter jets, Graves advanced rapidly, flying his first combat mission less than two weeks after completing training.
Paired with a weapon systems officer, Graves was among only two or three aircrews in a Navy fighter squadron selected as airborne forward air controllers. Soon thereafter, he was among only two aircrews in his entire air wing selected to control ultra-sensitive missions rescuing friendly personnel from hostile territory. To top it off, Graves became his squadron’s head landing signal officer and, following rigorous hands-on training, served as an aviation safety officer.
Unsurprisingly, Graves takes the Pentagon’s foot-dragging on UFOs seriously — and personally. “I lost about a friend a year on average while I was in the Navy. … This is a dangerous business. To think that we’re adding more danger for no reason is outlandish,” Graves told me.
For Graves, eight years of relative government inaction since his squadron’s 2014 near-collision “is unacceptable. It’s a demonstration of ignoring the needs of their operators. That’s the bottom line.”
Referring to a recent congressional hearing on UFOs, Graves drove this point home, telling me, “In the last hearing, it was presented as: ‘We don’t know what these [objects] are, but everything’s under control.’ … ‘Hey, look at this video; it kind of looks like a balloon.’”
“That, I felt, was disingenuous. Especially when we consider the language the aviators are using in the [declassified UFO reports],” Graves said.
Pointing to several accounts in which aviators appear to methodically rule out mundane explanations for their UFO encounters, Graves told me, “To the best of their ability, these men and women are not putting their balloon sightings on this form. They are ruling [prosaic explanations] out, as much as they can.”
Importantly, Graves said, aviators “have a lot of paperwork to do … they don’t want to fill these forms out for easily explainable objects. I expect [the new] reporting mechanisms are only revealing a small part of the problem.”
As the reports make clear, aviators are eager for answers regarding their UFO encounters. Requests and queries such as “please respond [via classified] email,” “any questions, please ask,” “responses to working [classified email] please” and “will their be another [Office of Naval Intelligence] brief before [we] deploy?” punctuate many of the reports.
According to Graves, “I see [aviators] searching and looking for help — looking for answers — and I see them getting nothing back.”
“I guarantee they’re angry that this is interfering with their job. … People seem exasperated,” he continued. Expressing his own frustration, Graves said that “it’s not [the aviators’] responsibility [to report UFOs]. They have much more important things to be doing.”
Of note, Graves told me that his “fear is that if there’s no feedback, then the data is not going to be perceived as valuable, and reports will stop coming in.” Emphasizing this point, Graves said, the aviators who observe UFOs “want to help,” but “from [their] side, it doesn’t seem like anything is happening. If they don’t get feedback, they’re going to stop submitting the reports.”
For his part, Graves remains puzzled about the strange objects that he and his fellow aviators observed hovering in place — irrespective of wind — or flying at several hundred miles per hour for remarkably long periods of time.
According to Graves, “We’d go on a flight in the morning, they’d be out there. You go on a flight in the evening, they’re out there. … They were pretty much always there when we went out there.”
Asked whether the UFOs could be mundane objects such as balloons and drones, Graves told me, “We don’t see those out there [in training areas]. I see those near airports. I see those over the continental U.S., [but] I don’t see those in our working areas.”
“We’re way out there — in some cases hundreds of miles out to sea — and yet there’s air traffic operating, and they’re operating in ways that are befuddling our aviators,” Graves said.
If the mysterious objects were drones, Graves speculated, “either [they] have some source of energy that allows them to stay airborne for very long periods of time or there is some massive operation involving hundreds, if not thousands, of [drones] and boats and they are constantly launching and landing and somehow we haven’t seen that.”
Moreover, training ranges typically begin 10 or more miles offshore, which, according to Graves, “is a significant barrier for drones.” “Even if they were submarine-launched, we would see them descending to the ocean at some point. We’d see something. Even if they just blew up, we’d see something,” he said.
Regarding balloons, Graves told me, “I would occasionally see small party balloons at very low altitudes … I got balloons on my radar and then saw them [visually]. Usually they’re behaving in a predictable manner, [moving] with the wind; they’re not moving very quickly.”
Ultimately, drones and balloons “aren’t that mystical” to fighter pilots, Graves said. “If I see them on the radar and … I can see how [they are] moving and the airspeed, it’s not going to confuse me.” In stark contrast to the military’s recent UFO reports, Graves said, “there’s no mystery [with drones and balloons].”
But the mystery only deepens as Graves recalls the shape of the objects observed by aviators off the East Coast. One of the pilots involved in the 2014 near-collision described the UFO as a dark cube inside of a clear sphere, with no wings or obvious means of propulsion.
A few years after the 2014 incident, a test pilot flying in a nearby area told Graves of an encounter with such an object. According to Graves, a cube-in-a-sphere UFO was “just riding along with him,” about 30 feet from the aircraft, before it “zipped off.”
More recently, one of Graves’s former student pilots, along with a senior officer, observed one of the objects. As Graves’s former student told him, “They’re still out here. … [The object] looked exactly like what you said, [a] cube in a sphere. They’re still here.” From instructor to student, the UFOs now transcend at least one “generation” of fighter pilots.
Nor are the encounters unique to the Navy. While he has not spoken with them directly, Graves is aware of “a number of [Air Force] F-22 crews that are experiencing similar issues.”
Ultimately, Graves is committed to scientific investigation of the mysterious objects that he and dozens of his fellow aviators observed in recent years. To that end, he is spearheading an effort to gather scientists, engineers and aerospace experts associated with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) to analyze the UFO problem.
According to Graves, “We’ve been reaching out under the context of AIAA to their members, engineers and scientists, [and] we’re getting very positive feedback. … Scientists, engineers from industry, [are] messaging me with their personal stories that they perhaps haven’t shared before. Technical experts, scientists, programmers, to name a few, from across the aerospace industry are extremely excited to be part of this.”
Importantly, as Graves notes, “the [Department of Defense] isn’t aligned around scientific discovery. They have their plate full with the responsibility of defending our country.”
“Let’s relieve that burden from them. Let’s carefully reconsider our classification processes, let’s enable a process to move [UFO]-related data through a review and declassification process that is governed by an oversight committee with DOD, academic, industry and civilian constituents,” he said.
“We need to enable new processes that allow new minds [and] new experts to analyze the data holistically.”
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.