In April 2014, four naval aviators narrowly escaped disaster. Just as they were entering 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 his fellow airmen, such a catastrophe was inevitable.
For months before and after the incident, aircrews flying “exclusive use” training areas off the US East Coast frequently observed unknown objects exhibiting highly anomalous flight characteristics. Despite the collision hazard posed by UFOs, aviators lacked a formal mechanism for reporting the mystery objects.
With aviation security alerts as their only recourse, frustrated airmen and their commanders noted that UFOs pose “a serious threat to naval aviation” and a “critical risk” to flight safety. Just days before the April 2014 incident, the exasperated squadron commander wrote that “it is only a matter of time before this results in a mid-air [collision].” A few weeks earlier, the skipper of another East Coast squadron warned, “I feel like it may only be a matter of time before one of our F/A-18s has a mid-air collision.”
Despite the frequency of encounters and the severity of the danger, it took the Navy five years to adopt a formal UFO reporting structure. The first batch of these reports, heavily redacted and covering just a few months in 2019, make it clear that the US government faces a significant challenge.
In one UFO incident, an aviator reported that he had “never seen anything like it before.” In another encounter, an aviator “noticed an object with flight characteristics unlike anything he had seen in my [redacted] years of [redacted],” implying a particularly anomalous encounter.
Another pilot’s report states that he had “never seen [redacted] like this… [the UFO] did not change position like an airplane would and was too high to be a ship.”
For fighter pilots armed with a variety of advanced sensors, the confusion and bewilderment reflected in the reports is staggering. One airman “had difficulty explaining the [redacted].” In another incident, a pilot was only able to describe a UFO “in a puzzled voice” over the radio. Another airman described a UFO that “seemed, oddly enough, to be [redacted].”
Former Navy fighter pilot Ryan Graves served with the airmen involved in the 2014 near-miss. In an interview, I asked Graves, now a strong advocate for aviation safety through sober, scientific investigation of UFOs, about recently published reports.
“I see frustration. I see confusion about what [airmen] see,” Graves told me. “That is not normal language [in UFO reports]. This is not how we operate.”
Graves, it should be noted, is not your run-of-the-mill ex-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.
Along with a weapons systems officer, Graves was among only two or three aircrews in a squadron of Navy fighters selected as airborne forward air controllers. Shortly thereafter, he was among only two aircrews from his entire air wing selected to control ultra-sensitive missions rescuing friendly personnel from hostile territory. To top it off, Graves became the chief landing signal officer for his squadron and, after rigorous hands-on training, he served as an aviation security officer.
Unsurprisingly, Graves takes the Pentagon’s delay on UFOs seriously and personally. “I lost one friend per year on average while in the Navy. … This is a dangerous business. To think that we are adding more danger for no reason is far-fetched,” Graves told me.
For Graves, eight years of relative government inaction since the near miss of his squad in 2014 “is unacceptable. It is a demonstration of ignoring the needs of its operators. That is the end result.”
Referring to a recent congressional hearing on UFOs, Graves highlighted this point, telling me: “At the last hearing, it was presented as, ‘We don’t know what these [objects] are, but everything is under control’…’ Hey, look this video; It looks like a balloon.’”
“That, I felt, was false. Especially when we consider the language that airmen use in [declassified UFO reports],” Graves said.
Pointing to several accounts in which aviators seem methodically to rule out mundane explanations for their UFO encounters, Graves told me: “To the best of their ability, these men and women are not putting up their balloon sightings this way. They’re ruling out [prosaic explanations], as much as they can.”
Importantly, Graves said, airmen “have a lot of paperwork to do…they don’t want to fill out these forms to get easily explainable items. I hope that [the new] reporting mechanisms will only reveal a small part of the problem.”
As reports make clear, airmen are eager for answers about their UFO encounters. Requests and inquiries such as “please reply [via classified email]”, “any questions please ask”, “responses to [classified email] working please” and “will there be another report [of the Office of Naval Intelligence] before [we] deploy?” many of the reports score.
According to Graves, “I see [airmen] looking and looking for help, looking for answers, and I see they get nothing in return.”
“I guarantee you they are angry that this interferes with their work. … People seem exasperated,” he continued. Expressing his own frustration, Graves said that “it is not [airmen’s] responsibility [to report UFOs]. They have much more important things to do.”
Notably, Graves told me that his “fear is that if there is no feedback, the data will not be perceived as valuable and the reports will stop coming in.” Emphasizing this point, Graves said, UFO-spotting aviators “want to help,” but “from [their] side, nothing seems to be happening. If they don’t get feedback, they will stop sending the reports.”
For his part, Graves remains puzzled by the strange objects he and his fellow aviators observed floating in one place, regardless of the wind, or flying at several hundred miles per hour for remarkably long periods of time.
According to Graves, “we would catch a flight in the morning, they would be there. You take a flight at night, they’re out there. … They were almost always there when we went out.”
When asked if UFOs could be mundane objects like balloons and drones, Graves told me, “We don’t see them out there [in training areas]. I see them near airports. I see them over the continental US, [but] I don’t see them in our work areas.”
“We are very far away, in some cases hundreds of miles out to sea, and yet there is air traffic operating, and they are operating in ways that confuse our airmen,” Graves said.
If the mystery objects were drones, Graves speculated, “either [they] have some power source that allows them to stay in the air for long periods of time or there is a massive operation involving hundreds, if not thousands, of [drones] and ships and they’re constantly taking off and landing and somehow we haven’t seen that.”
In addition, training ranges often start 10 miles or more from shore, which Graves says “is a significant barrier to drones.” “Even if they were launched from a submarine, we would see them descend into the ocean at some point. We would see something. Even if they exploded, we would see something,” he said.
Regarding the balloons, Graves told me, “Once in a while I would see little party balloons at very low altitudes… I got balloons on my radar and then I saw them [visually]. They generally behave predictably, [moving] with the wind; They’re not moving very fast.”
Ultimately, drones and balloons are “not 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 recent military UFO reports, Graves said, “there is no mystery [with drones and balloons].”
But the mystery only deepens when Graves recalls the shape of the objects observed by aviators on the East Coast. One of the pilots involved in the 2014 near-miss described the UFO as a dark cube inside a transparent 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 about an encounter with such an object. According to Graves, a cube-shaped UFO in a sphere “was just riding with it,” about 30 feet from the plane, before it “went off.”
More recently, one of Graves’ former pilot students, along with a senior officer, observed one of the objects. As Graves’ former student told him: “They’re still here. … [The object] looked exactly like what you said, [a] cube in a sphere. They are still here.” From instructor to student, UFOs now transcend at least one “generation” of fighter pilots.
The encounters are also not exclusive to the Navy. While he hasn’t spoken to them directly, Graves is aware of “several [Air Force] F-22 crews experiencing similar issues.”
Ultimately, Graves is committed to the scientific investigation of the mysterious objects that he and dozens of his fellow airmen have observed over the years. To that end, he is spearheading an effort to bring together aerospace scientists, engineers, and experts associated with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) to look at the UFO problem.
According to Graves, “We have reached out to its members, engineers and scientists in the AIAA context, [and] we are receiving very positive feedback. … Scientists, engineers from industry, [are] messaging me with their personal stories that they may not have shared before. Technical experts, scientists, programmers, to name a few, from across the aerospace industry are very excited to be a part of this.”
Importantly, as Graves points out, “the [Department of Defense] is not aligned around scientific discovery. They have a full plate with the responsibility to defend our country.”
“Let’s ease 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,” he said.
“We need to enable new processes that allow new minds [and] new experts to analyze data holistically.”