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“Some conspiracy theories turn out to be true…” Did the US government finally vindicate the UFO hunters?

Illustrations: Pauline Cremer

When it comes to UFOs, there’s little that surprises Nick Pope these days. The former British civil servant spent 21 years at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and between 1991 and 1994 was assigned to its highly classified ‘UFO desk’, charged with looking into reports of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAPs, a phrase Pope adopted internally to get away from the “pop-culture baggage” associated with the term UFO. It wasn’t your average job. “The remit was to investigate all sightings in the United Kingdom air defence region and assess whether there was evidence of any threat,” Pope explains.

The Cold War had come to an end but that didn’t mean that unknown, advanced technologies from a hostile state couldn’t be out there testing the UK’s capabilities. And if they were, the MOD wanted to know about it. While Pope was in charge he would receive around 300 reports a year. Most had a rational explanation. Meteors or misidentified planes. Satellites or weather balloons. But a small number defied explanation, like the mass sighting of large triangular aircraft over the East Midlands in 1993, witnessed by dozens of people including several military personnel. “One struggles even today to reconcile some of the details people were describing, like the sudden acceleration,” says Pope.

Pope never saw categorical proof of extraterrestrial life, but believes it’s likely his clearance level meant he didn’t see all the evidence at the government’s disposal. The MOD declassified its UFO files in 2013 but Pope suspects there are more secrets buried away that might lead to what he calls “Disclosure with a capital ‘D’”.

And then, on 27th April this year, the US military made an announcement that was every bit as strange as some of the sightings Pope had investigated.

“The Department of Defense [DOD] has authorized the release of three unclassified Navy videos, one taken in November 2004 and the other two in January 2015, which have been circulating in the public domain after unauthorized releases in 2007 and 2017… The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified’.”

In the world of ufology, a vast counter-cultural movement that is often derided as pseudoscience but attracts the interest of millions of people across the world, the statement was a bombshell, even if the reason for the release was hard to see. “It’s hugely significant,” says Pope. “But it’s a very odd situation because normally the government line on this is to downplay their interest and involvement. There was no requirement for the DOD to release this. I don’t have an answer for why they did.”

Former government UFO investigator Nick Pope. Photo: Chris Loomis

The “three unclassified Navy videos” – called FLIR, GOFAST and GIMBAL – had been shared in UFO circles for years. But this was official confirmation that they were real. Each was taken using state-of-the-art infrared cameras. The first, FLIR, was filmed in November 2004 by navy pilot Chad Underwood after his commanding officer David Fravor had spotted strange Tic Tac-shaped objects in the sky above the USS Nimitz, then stationed off the US west coast. The video shows the tracking system of Underwood’s F/A-18F Super Hornet struggling to lock on to a strange, ghostly, elongated target that eventually shoots off the screen to the left.

According to Robert Powell, an executive board member of the Scientific Coalition of Ufology, who co-authored an analysis of the video, the speed at which the Tic Tac is travelling would create a G-force of 40. “A human pilot can only survive maybe six to seven Gs before they black out,” says Powell. “At 12 Gs the frame of a jet will just come apart.”

GIMBAL and GOFAST were both filmed in 2015. GIMBAL shows a triangular object with a bright rotating halo. “Look at the thing, dude!” one of the pilots can be heard shouting. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” says another. GOFAST shows a small white object that appears to be travelling as fast as a missile above the ocean.

I ask Pope what the pilots saw. “The short answer is we just don’t know,” he replies, although he floats several competing theories. That they were some kind of technologically advanced enemy vehicles from Russia or China. That they might be ultra-secretive, super-advanced craft from the US Navy itself being blind tested. The videos might even be down to a mixture of pilot misidentification and camera glitch – but Pope believes that would be “stretching credulity to breaking point”. It could, he suggests, be some kind of psychological operation to try to trick America’s enemies into thinking it has access to some kind of advanced military hardware. “And at the upper end of the spectrum you absolutely have these exotic possibilities that it is extraterrestrial,” he says. “Given that the DOD’s own assessment of this is that it is unexplained, one assumes they haven’t taken that off the table.”

In other words, aliens? “Well, as I like to say, the sceptics have to be right every day,” Pope says. “The believers only need to be right once.”

The modern conception of UFOs can be traced back to 1947. It was on 14th June of that year in Roswell, New Mexico, that a farmer named WW “Mac” Brazel came across unusual wreckage on his land. Stumped as to what it could be, he dragged it to the local sheriff, who, in turn, took it to the commander of the Roswell army airfield outside of town. At first the military, in an official statement, seemed to confirm that it had “come into the possession of a Flying Saucer”, leading to an infamous 8th July headline in the Roswell Daily Record: “RAAF captures flying saucer on ranch in Roswell region”.

The air force later changed its story and the Roswell Daily Record ran a denial the next day, claiming that the metal object was in fact part of a crashed weather balloon. The incident prompted a decades-long, sometimes lurid fascination with Roswell. Alleged footage of alien autopsies emerged. Eyewitnesses swore that they had seen the bodies of dead extraterrestrials strewn across the crash site. There were 300 sightings of ‘UFOs’ across the US by the end of 1947. Books, articles and films followed, the whole incident wrapped up in paranoid theories that the government was hiding the truth from the people.

The US government was also concerned about what was flying in its skies. After Roswell the air force ran three separate projects, Sign, Grudge and Blue Book, to look into the origins of UFO case studies and determine whether they were a national security threat. The most famous of the three, ‘Project Blue Book’, ran from 1952 until 1970. The project’s final ‘Condon Report’ found no proof among the thousands of cases it investigated of “extraterrestrial” origins. Most could be explained by misidentification, mass hysteria or fabrication, although at the time Project Blue Book was brought to an end, 701 cases remained unexplained. All that it proved to the true believers, however, was that the truth was still out there.

The MOD had also kept an eye on the skies since 1953. In 1997 a review was commissioned, ‘Project Condign’, whose final report concluded that there were “Unexplained Aerial Phenomena” in British skies, but said that there was no smoking gun to prove extraterrestrial origins. After 12,000 UFO sightings and nearly six decades, the MOD shut down the project in 2009.

Meanwhile the scientific study of UFOs has remained on the fringes. Over the years any serious scientist who explored the possibility of extraterrestrials visiting Earth tended to be ghettoised as some kind of crank, partly due to some of the fringe characters the field attracts. “The UFO community, and I don’t mean this necessarily disparagingly, is an odd lot… Conspiracy is inherent in their worldview,” says Benjamin Radford, an author, investigator and columnist for bimonthly US magazine the Skeptical Inquirer. “If you talk to people who believe in ghosts, Bigfoot, Atlantis, the Loch Ness monster, [they don’t think] some powerful entity is keeping us from learning about them.” With UFO believers, however, “the conspiracy element is part and parcel of their beliefs”.

Despite respected scientists such as Pope or J Allen Hynek, who worked on ‘Project Blue Book’ in the US and devised the six-fold ‘Close Encounter’ classification for UFO sightings, being a credible ufologist was almost an oxymoron. The iron-clad proof of extraterrestrial visitors was always, tantalisingly, just out of reach. And then, on 16th December 2017, the New York Times made a revelation that completely changed the game.

The paper ran a front page story headlined “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious UFO Program”. The story – bylined by the paper’s Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper, former staff writer Ralph Blumenthal and well-known UFO author Leslie Kean – was important for a number of reasons. It claimed that the Pentagon had spent $22 million running a secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), designed to investigate claims of UAPs by serving military personnel, including the three videos that would eventually be officially released in April.

AATIP came into existence thanks largely to the efforts of Harry Reid, the now retired Nevada Democrat who was then the Senate majority leader. It was run – according to the New York Times – by Luis Elizondo. He was described as a “military intelligence official” working out of the Pentagon. Most of the actual UAP research was contracted out to Bigelow Aerospace, the tech company of billionaire investor Robert Bigelow. According to the report, the company had, through AATIP, acquired “metal alloys and other materials that Mr Elizondo and programme contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena”.

Although the military said that AATIP ended in 2012, Elizondo claimed he still worked on investigating UAPs right up until he resigned in 2016. In his resignation letter he exhorted then-defence secretary Jim Mattis to do more to investigate “the many accounts from the Navy and other services of unusual aerial systems interfering with military weapon platforms and displaying beyond-next-generation capabilities”.

Remember how it was before? When you were portrayed as the crazy people? Well, guess what. You were right about this”

The story didn’t disparage the UFO community. It took the prospect that UAPs might have an extraterrestrial origin seriously, presenting it on the front page of America’s newspaper of record. It was the biggest thing to happen in the UFO community since Roswell. “It was everything they could have asked for and thought they would never get,” says Pope, who now lives on the west coast of America. “I spoke at a UFO conference and said: ‘Remember how it was before? When you told your friends, you were off to a UFO conference and they rolled their eyes or laughed? And, you were portrayed as the crazy people? Well, guess what. You were right about this.’”

Shortly after resigning, Luis Elizondo was hired by the To the Stars Academy, a company founded by Tom DeLonge, the former guitarist of pop-punk band Blink-182, which has sold over 50 million albums worldwide. DeLonge is a long-time believer in extraterrestrial visitors. There’s even a song on the band’s 1999 album Enema of the State called ‘Aliens Exist’. He quit the band in 2015 and ploughed some of his royalties into To the Stars, a project described on its website as a “collaboration between academia, industry and pop culture to advance society’s understanding of scientific phenomena and its technological implications”. Its aim was to “collect and study anomalous data, develop technology related to the findings [and] explain [it] to humanity”.

To counter accusations that To the Stars was a rock star’s vanity project, DeLonge hired a slew of credible names. One of the co-founders was former Nasa and NSA scientist Dr Hal Puthoff. Christopher Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for intelligence under both Bill Clinton and George W Bush, was a senior advisor.

Mellon had become concerned with UAPs while working in government. “If you woke up in the morning, and there were tracks around the inside of your house and somebody’s boot prints, and it happened three or four times, and you’ve got your wife and children, and you’re in a rough neighbourhood, you probably wouldn’t think that’s acceptable,” he says. “That’s what has been happening on a national level to the US and those in charge of our security utterly failed to react. The idea that we were just going to ignore these aircraft flying with impunity in restricted DOD airspace was not acceptable.

Mellon took his concerns to Elizondo when he was still at the Pentagon and the two hatched a plan to get the issue in front of Mattis. But they failed. “His advisers were afraid to even let the secretary of defence take a briefing for fear it might tarnish his sterling reputation,” says Mellon. So after meeting resistance internally, Mellon resigned and decided to work on the outside, away from the Pentagon’s vast and glacially slow bureaucracy. When Tom DeLonge emailed Mellon out of the blue after reading an article he’d written about UAPs, Mellon found a kindred spirit with the means of bringing the issues he cared about to a wider audience. “Tom’s very energetic. Doesn’t hold back,” he says. “So we started comparing notes and had common cause.”

Among other projects, To the Stars produced a miniseries for the History Channel fronted by Elizondo called Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation. DeLonge claimed on the The Joe Rogan Experience podcast that he was, effectively, being used as a conduit by the US military to release this information to the public. “[The US government] don’t have a way to make a movie, a book. They don’t have a way to go on a show like this,” he said.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and Mick West is shining something bright down his camera at me. “I have here a pseudo jet engine,” he says a few minutes into a Skype call from his home in California. It’s actually a modified torch from which West has removed the lens and reflector, so that I am now looking down a tube with an LED light at the end. He leans forward and starts to smear his finger over the lens of his camera so that it changes the size and shape of the glare from his mock engine flashlight. “If you have a smudge on the front of the camera, it will affect the shape of the glare,” he says, recreating the effect for me. “If the camera rotates then the shape of the glare will rotate.”

Sceptical investigator Mick West. Photo: James Montague

I’d contacted West because he was the best in the business, and his business was debunking conspiracy theories. A former computer programmer from northern England, he moved to California, helped to make the highly successful Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater videogame franchise, retired early and almost fell into debunking by accident. At first he was correcting Wikipedia entries on Morgellons disease, an unrecognised medical condition in which sufferers claim that fibres emerge from sores on their bodies. Next he took on the ‘chemtrail’ conspiracy, as well as the theory that 9-11 was a controlled demolition, before writing a book, Escaping the Rabbit Hole, about how to talk to people who have fallen for such theories and to bring them back to rational reality.

West showed me the flashlight while debunking the three navy videos in real-time. GIMBAL, he insists, is not proof of a rotating spacecraft; instead it’s an internal camera correction. The image, he says while showing me the torch, is actually the glare from one or two jet-engine exhaust pipes. The halo effect, referenced in the New York Times’s “Glowing Auras and Black Money” headline was simply an image-sharpening artefact. “What I’ve just shown you here is that it is not actually a rotating flying saucer defying gravity, it’s just a rotating glare because of the gimbal camera system.”

What about the GOFAST video, I asked? “This is probably a weather balloon, which I know is like the classic example of UFO misidentification,” he says, almost sheepishly. The GOFAST video, with the small white blob zipping along the water at what appears to be great speed, is full of useful information including altitude, degree and range in nautical miles. “And then just do some math. It’s simple,” says West. Far from being at sea level the object “is actually at 13,000 feet, which isn’t something going very fast over the surface of the water. It’s actually something that’s about halfway between the water and the plane, and hardly moving at all. But you look at sites like the To the Stars Academy and they’re harping on about how it’s zipping along at two thirds of the speed of sound over the water. It’s moving at about 40 knots.”

I come along and pour a bit of cold water on some aspects of it, and they see it as a direct attack on their own credibility or their sanity”

West’s most notorious debunking is of the 2004 Tic Tac encounter. Alongside technical glitches and unexpected glares he also identifies a loss of situational awareness by the pilots as a likely explanation for what they saw. This hasn’t gone down well with the pilots in question: in an interview with AI researcher and podcaster Lex Fridman, David Fravor, the first navy pilot to spot the UAPs in 2004, spent 18 minutes responding to West’s debunking. “It’s funny how people can extrapolate stuff who have never operated the system,” Fravor told Fridman. “I’m a big Formula One fan… It would be pretty stupid of me to tell Lewis Hamilton how to drive a car.” Shortly afterwards, West released a video debunking Fravor debunking his original debunking. “His explanation for why it was wrong was: ‘I have lots of training and I know what I saw,’” he says. “It was very disappointing.”

West’s insistence that the three videos have mundane technical explanations – and that the likely reason for the US government to release them was to stop an avalanche of Freedom of Information requests – has not made him popular among the UFO community. He regularly gets hate mail and is called a government shill. “It’s understandable: a lot of people believe in UFOs,” he says. “They feel like their personal experience has been validated by these videos. And then I come along and pour a bit of cold water on some aspects of it. And they see it as a direct attack on their own credibility or their sanity.”

Mellon and West don’t agree on much, but they do agree as to why the DOD released the videos. “I think their office was getting deluged with a lot of questions,” says Mellon. Trying to pin down what Mellon thinks the UAPs actually are is harder. In a new documentary called The Phenomenon he says, “We need to accept we are not alone in the universe.” Today he’s more circumspect. “They’re unidentified, clearly intelligently controlled objects or vehicles of some kind,” he says. “That could lead you to a variety of places. The goal is to be able to answer that question, not to assume that it’s the Russians or aliens or the Chinese or anything else. It’s just trying to follow the trail wherever it leads.”

The one place it won’t lead, he believes, is the discovery that the images on the videos were lens flares or camera corrections. “The defence department has done its own independent analysis and they’ve concluded that these so-called ‘debunkers’ are wrong,” he says. “I’m kind of astonished at the arrogance of some of these internet talking heads saying ludicrous things like: ‘Maybe Commander Fravor was seeing a reflection in his canopy.’”

Aside from the multiple eyewitness accounts, Mellon points out that the US has the most sophisticated surveillance and tracking systems in the world. For Mellon the credentials of those making the eyewitness reports, like Fravor, are unimpeachable. “I have a higher regard for them than some of these ‘debunkers’. These are very level-headed people and they’re not eager to admit that this happened,” he says. “They are not saying: ‘I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye.’ These are people that are saying: ‘Holy shit, I’ve never seen anything like that and it was amazing and I wish I could fly that thing.’” I ask him whether he believes that what we see in the videos are off-world vehicles. “The only person that can authoritatively address that,” he replies, “would be the president.”

Questions like ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ are some of the biggest we can ask”

In July it looked like we might get something approaching disclosure with a capital “D”. The New York Times ran what looked like one of the scoops of the century: Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader, seemingly confirming that the US government has had – to use a phrase coined by astrophysicist Eric W Davis, who has worked on the Pentagon’s UFO programme since 2007 – “off-world vehicles” for years.

The next day, though, they ran a correction: Mr Reid said he believed that crashes of objects of unknown origin may have occurred and that retrieved materials should be studied; he did not say that crashes had occurred and that retrieved materials had been studied secretly for decades.

“They had to take out the quote because they essentially said that Reid said there was a crashed alien spacecraft being studied in an underground hangar somewhere,” says West with a raised eyebrow.

Talking to West and those in the UFO community, it seems that a major shift has occurred. The internet has powered us into a golden age of conspiracy. On YouTube, the prime source for channelling conspiracy into the mainstream, it’s the debunkers who are in the minority.

At the same time the intelligence community seems to be inching towards some form of disclosure. On 4th August 2020, a few months after the release of the videos, the navy announced the establishment of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF), to “detect, analyse and catalogue UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to US national security”. A report from the UAPTF would be made available to the public, and would be released within 180 days. “There is something there and we need to get to the bottom of it,” says Mellon. “I doubt they will have figured this out in 180 days and I also doubt that they’ll try to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It would be hard for them to get away with that now that Congress is providing oversight.”

In many ways the belief in UFOs or UAPs is a foundational human conspiracy story. It has persisted in part because it speaks to such fundamental themes. “Questions like ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ are some of the biggest we can ask,” says Pope. “‘Is there a God?’ ‘Does consciousness survive death in the physical body?’ These are perhaps unknowable. But the UFO mystery might be one of those big, profound questions that we can answer.” And will we ever solve the mystery of whether we are alone in the universe? “Well,” he replies. “Some conspiracy theories turn out to be true.”

 

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