In April 2020, the Pentagon declassified and released three U.S. Navy videos that show “unexplained aerial phenomena” that fighter pilots saw during training flights in 2004 and 2015.
Despite sensational headlines, the videos were neither new nor particularly mysterious. They had been leaked (and even reported on, for example in The New York Times) in 2007 and 2017 (see SI, March/April 2018; May/June 2018) and much ballyhooed by UFO groups. The videos were released, according to a Navy spokesperson, “to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real or whether or not there is more to the videos.”
Of course, in the conspiracy-laced world of UFOs, it cleared little up. Few people doubted that the videos themselves were authentic; they seemed like clips of ordinary footage routinely taken by military pilots. They could have been clever fakes, but there would seem little point in hoaxing them, because the videos themselves were far from obviously extraordinary. Furthermore, releasing the videos would not demonstrate “whether or not there is more to the videos” because they could easily be edited prior to release.
In any event, it was not the videos themselves but the dramatic claims made about what they depicted that made them fodder for UFO buffs. It’s important to note that the Navy never claimed the clips were unusual or mysterious; nor did it suggest that they defied explanation or later analysis. They were just clips of things that pilots hadn’t been able to identify at the time, which were later released when it was determined that they contained no sensitive information (and were already public anyway).
Some claimed the fact that the objects appeared both visually and on instrumentation somehow lent legitimacy to the claims or was evidence of the objects’ otherworldly origin. Yet it does nothing of the sort. It does rule out psychological explanations (such as a hallucination or optical illusion) and instrumentation errors (such as sensor malfunction or a display error). It tells us that the objects—whatever they were—were actual, legitimate UFOs (literally, “unidentified flying objects”). But of course just because someone, even an experienced pilot, can’t identify something doesn’t mean it’s unusual or alien—just that from that angle and going at that speed under those lighting and environmental conditions at that far distance, they couldn’t be sure what it was. Pilots have experience in the skies, but that doesn’t automatically mean they always correctly identify aircraft, balloons, satellites, and even bright stars under all conditions.
So what’s on the videos? Well, like with most mysterious videos (of Bigfoot, ghosts, lake monsters, or anything else), if it were clear what the objects were, then they wouldn’t be mysterious. It’s difficult to be sure what, exactly, the pilots saw (years later at unknown times and locations), but fortunately there is a wealth of information contained in the videos themselves. Science writer Mick West collaborated with others to offer exhaustive analyses on his Metabunk website, and his overview titled “Explained: New Navy UFO Videos” can be found on YouTube. Two of the UFOs are likely distant planes, and the third is likely a balloon. They appear to be moving at high rates of speed—and in one case even pivoting on its axis in midair, an impossible aerial maneuver—though these are artifacts of the videos. An allegedly mysterious “aura” seen on thermal camera footage around the object, for example, is merely image sharpening. With so little evidence of alien visitation even after decades of assurances that any time now the global UFO cover-up will be broken, the UFO community remains reduced to mystery-mongering perfectly explainable videos.
For additional perspective, see Skeptical Inquirer’s special issue on the new UFO interest, fact and fiction (January/February 2009). It leads off with Robert Sheaffer’s retrospective on the fads and foibles of six decades of UFOlogy.