Still Out There
DETAILS ARE STILL HAZY this many years later, but vague outlines remain. It was sometime in the mid-1950s when a friend of my parents was driving along West Virginia’s Route 2 north of Wheeling late one night. The two-lane road runs parallel to the Ohio River and, back then, featured several dark and deserted stretches.
The man was cruising along one such stretch when bright disc-shaped object flew in front of the car, floated along above the highway before darting away toward the river.
I recall many hushed conversations among my parents and their friends about the incident. Since everyone agreed this guy was not some crackpot, no one seemed to know what to think. Then there was this postscript. Several curious people who went to the spot of the encounter the next day insisted they found marks where the asphalt had been singed by something.
Strange as it was, the story quickly faded. Besides, UFO sightings were a dime a dozen at the time. Every week the local newspaper carried accounts of people spotting “vapor-like” objects or being followed by a series of strange lights.
What jogged my memories on the topic was the Pentagon’s release last month of its unclassified report on UFOs or, in the new government parlance, UAPs for “unidentified aerial phenomena.” I’d always been ambivalent about those eyewitness accounts from my childhood as well as the countless other UFO/UAP tales through the years, including the celebrated wave of sightings in Wytheville in 1987.
If I expected the nine-page Pentagon report to offer definitive answers to my decades-long questions about these phenomena, I was sorely disappointed. Nowhere in the nine pages did I find reference to the little green men of my youthful imagination.
On the other hand, the fact that the government issued such a report is an undeniable acknowledgement that there is something — or some things — out there, things that we can’t yet explain. And going forward there will be a formal process to collect and catalogue and presumably study these incidents.
AT THE HEART of the Pentagon report are 144 cases of these UAPs from between November 2004 and March 2021. To be included, the events had to be witnessed firsthand by military pilots. That means your next-door neighbor’s claims of being given a joy ride in an alien flying saucer don’t count. More seriously, though, UAPs reported by commercial airline pilots aren’t included, either, and you can bet there are plenty of those.
Turns out the Federal Aviation Association doesn’t collect pilot reports, but those reports, and your neighbors’ sightings, often wind up in the database of the National UFO Reporting Center, or NUFORC. While the Pentagon listed 144 incidents in 17 years, NUFORC had 258 reports in the first 20 days of May. The database sorts sightings by date, location, and shape of the object, and it’s fascinating reading.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s report divides those 144 events reported by mostly Navy pilots into five categories based on explanations for what they could actually be. The categories are airborne clutter (from birds to plastic bags), natural atmospheric phenomena (e.g., ice crystals), secret U.S. technology, foreign adversary systems (think hypersonic Chinese drones), and the wide-open category called “other.”
OF THE 144 INCIDENTS, one was positively identified as a large, deflating balloon, placing it in the airborne clutter category. That leaves 143 occasions when military pilots encountered something for which they had no explanation. Last April the Pentagon declassified three previously leaked top-secret videos taken by Navy pilots. The videos purportedly capture images of UAPs. Those images are grainy, but the conversation between the pilots is especially illuminating:
“There’s a whole fleet of them…”
“My gosh, they’re all going against the wind, the wind is 120 knots to the west.”
“Look at the thing, dude!”
What were they seeing? Runaway plastic bags? Fugitive weather balloons? Ice crystals? Chinese drones? “Other?”
Of course, even if a sighting falls in that catchall “other” category doesn’t necessary mean Mork is arriving from Ork, as cool as that would be. It’s still a leap from an unexplained object to extraterrestrial life. That said, Americans have long suspected the government is hiding its knowledge of aliens. Polls show only a third of U.S. adults attribute UFO sightings to alien spacecraft while 60 percent believe such sightings can be explained by human activity or natural phenomenon. But nearly 70 percent of those polled believe the government has been holding out and knows more than it’s telling us.
Even though the Pentagon report hints at a new level of governmental transparency, its release won’t stifle the conspiracy theories that abound on the subject of UFOs and extraterrestrial life — especially in an era when all sorts of conspiracies are flourishing. Unsurprisingly, there were immediate insinuations that those nine declassified pages exclude a juicy classified section, which is where the government must be hiding E.T. and other close encounters of the third kind.
For the time being though, Scully and Mulder of the “The X-Files” may have the last word: “The Truth Is Out There.” Still.