Key point: Eyewitnesses, even fighter pilots, are prone to human error.
By now you’ve probably read the New York Times article detailing a UFO research program run by the Pentagon which received $22 million — a tiny amount by Defense Department standards — from 2007 to at least 2012. The disclosure of the program is the biggest such reveal since Project Blue Book of the 1950s and 1960s and the French government’s 1999 COMETA Report.
If that wasn’t strange enough, the article included declassified footage from a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter’s AN/ASQ-228 sensor display as it trailed a still-unidentified flying object over the Pacific near San Diego on Nov. 14, 2004.
In the footage, the Super Hornet pilot, while traveling at 252 knots at nearly 20,000 feet, switched between his display’s infrared and visual modes as the sensor tried to lock onto the blurry, oblong or pill-shaped object. The flying object appeared white in IR mode, and black in TV mode — indicating that whatever it was, the sensor had picked up on the object’s emission, temperature or reflection.
The video comes from the same incident when Cmdr. David Fravor, a veteran Navy pilot assigned to the USS Nimitz carrier fighter squadron VFA-41 Black Aces, was on a training mission off San Diego. “It was a real object, it exists and I saw it,” Fravor told the Washington Post. Telling the paper that he believes it was “not from the Earth.”
During an exercise, commanders ordered Fravor to intercept an object that was appearing at 80,000 feet — above the range of Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Princeton’s SPY-1 air-search radar — before dropping suddenly to 20,000 feet. “Officials told they had been tracking a couple dozen of these objects for a few weeks,” the paper reported.
The story that followed has circulated in the military aviation world and fighter community for several years, including this write-up by former Navy F-14A Tomcat pilot Paco Chierici at Fighter Sweep. With orders to intercept the object, Fravor in his jet — callsign FASTEAGLE 01 — headed toward with aid from an E-2 Hawkeye early warning and control plane.
The Hawkeye’s sensors, however, couldn’t detect the object and vector him toward it, so Princeton directed FASTEAGLE 01 and Fravor’s wingman, FASETEAGLE 02 to the location, and even asked Fravor whether he was carrying weapons — he wasn’t. He just had two training missiles. Below the jets, Fravor saw whitewater sloshing in the blue ocean.
All four aircrew were eyes out from this point forward. The first unusual indication Dave picked up was the area of whitewater on the surface that Cheeks was looking at over his shoulder as he flew away. He remembers thinking it was about the size of a 737 and maybe the contact they had been vectored on had been an airliner that had just crashed. He maneuvered his F-18 lower to get a better look. As he was descending through about 20K he was startled by the sight of a white object that was moving about just over the frothing water. It was all white, featureless, oblong and making minor lateral movements while staying at a consistent low altitude over the disk of turbulent water.
In his debrief comments, Dave, his WSO and the two other crews stated the object had initially been hovering like a Harrier. They described it as uniformly white, about 46 feet long (roughly fighter-sized), having a discernible midline horizontal axis (like a fuselage) but having no visible windows, nacelles, wings or propulsion systems.
There was no apparent exhaust or rotor wash, either. The pill-shaped object then “oriented one of its skinny ends towards him,” and rose in a “right 2-circle flow” — fighter speak for when each aircraft have their noses pointed at each other’s tails. The object then accelerated away at “multi-Mach” speed.
The video of the AN/ASQ-228 sensor display occurred later in the day with a different set of fighters. The object at this point appeared stationary before taking off.
This is consistent with a U.S. Navy report obtained by To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a UFO research company which published the footage. The Navy pilots, apparently, first believed the object could have been a classified missile test from a submarine. The Navy report cited a source who indicated the object maneuvered in a manner “that seemed to defy the laws of physics” and “‘tumbled’ into nonsensical angles that made any engagement by the F-18 impossible.”
So what was it? A secret U.S. test project? A classified drone or hypersonic weapon? A maneuverable reentry vehicle or something like DARPA’s Falcon Project? Naval Air Systems Command, which tests airborne weapons, has 36,000 square miles of controlled sea and airspace off the Southern Californian coast. And the Falcon Project’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 has reached Mach 22 — albeit six years after the 2004 object sighting in the Pacific.
Or perhaps it was an elaborate hoax, or a software or sensor error. Maybe an atmospheric disturbance? Or let’s say it was an alien spacecraft powered by technology impossible for our tiny primate brains to understand. I hope it’s the last one, but I’m not counting on it. Your guess is as good as mine.
Eyewitnesses, even fighter pilots, are prone to human error. Pilots also know how aircraft operate, and the belief that there is something unusual in the skies is more common in that community than you might assume. Fravor certainly believes what he saw, and many fighter pilots believe him.
The Pentagon UFO-hunting mission, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, is still partially classified. In any case, even if the explanation is as mundane as a weapons test, the eyewitness accounts and FLIR footage make this an interesting mystery worth further study. Whether Fravor saw an object of extraterrestrial origin is beside the point.
It’s also worth reading the comments section at Fighter Sweep:
I was on board the USS Princeton (2001-2005) when this all went down. We actually went to GQ (General Quarters) for about 4 hours as all if this was going down. I’ve been telling everyone about this even, but have gotten the usual “yeah right” look when I tell them about it. I saw the video after it happened, but didn’t think that it would somehow make it’s way to the public, considering all of the “security” that surrounded the issue.
Crazy how the world turns, isn’t it?!
Thank you for giving this event life! I no longer look like a tin foil hat wearing idiot!
This article first appeared several years ago.