In November 2004, two Super Hornet fighter jets were flying off the coast of California when they reportedly encountered an oval-shaped flying object hovering above the water. The object was 30 to 40 feet long and did not resemble any known technology. It had no windows, no wings, no apparent engine or windshield. And when one pilot attempted to get closer, it sped off into the distance…
A U.S. Air Force video of the encounter was released to the public in 2017. It was one of two clips documenting multiple alleged encounters between fighter jets and Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). So far, no one has been able to provide a satisfying explanation of what the objects are. The videos have, however, generated speculation about what the U.S. government knows – and what it may be hiding.
The videos appear to have been released by Department of Defense (DoD) officers working for a shadowy government program. Indeed, the existence of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP) was not even confirmed until 2017, even though it had come to an end in 2012. The AATIP represented the U.S. government’s first official UFO research project since Project Blue Book, which was wound up almost 50 years ago.
Project Blue Book was initiated in 1952 against the backdrop of a Cold War arms race. UFOs were in fact feared to be new and undocumented Soviet technologies. Of the more than 12,000 sightings it investigated, the overwhelming majority were deemed to be mundane things such as clouds, stars and aircraft. In fact, more than half were spy planes, according to a declassified 1992 CIA report.
However, approximately 6 percent of the cases could not explained. Nonetheless, in early 1970 the project ground to a halt. According to a memo by Robert Seamans Jr., who was then Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, the project could not be justified “either on the ground of national security or in the interest of science.”
Launched in 2007, the AATIP represented the U.S. government’s most recent effort to document and analyze UFOs. The obscure program apparently operated from offices deep inside the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon. The program was not officially designated “Classified” as such, but it was clandestine nonetheless.
According to one of the project’s architects, Harry Reid, a former Senator for Nevada, the $22 million program was financed with funds normally reserved for classified Pentagon projects. “This was so-called black money,” he told the New York Times newspaper in December 2017. “…that’s how we wanted it.” Apparently, the aim was to avoid public scrutiny.
However, the program became public knowledge on December 16, 2017, thanks to an investigation by the New York Times newspaper. Evidence of the program included official records and interview testimonies from program participants and DoD employees. On the same day as the New York Times exposé, the political news website POLITICO published its own research on the mysterious initiative.
Much like its predecessor Project Blue Book, the AATIP was partly concerned with the threat of new and undocumented weapons belonging to international rivals such as China and Russia. The program was initiated by Harry Reid, who was then Senate majority leader, and supported by late Senators Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens. An intelligence officer called Luis Elizondo was assigned to lead it.
Reid’s decision to start the program was apparently influenced by his conversations with astronaut John Glenn, who advised him that the government should be interviewing fighter pilots about their UFO experiences. He also appears to have been swayed by his friend and campaign contributor, Bob Bigelow. Bigelow, who is a Nevada-based billionaire entrepreneur with interests in hotels and aerospace, was apparently contracted to do research for the AATIP.
In specially-adapted buildings in Las Vegas, the AATIP apparently studied supposed metal alloys said to have originated from unexplained aerial phenomena. Also part of AATIP’s remit was research into theoretical technologies such as space-time tunnels. It also documented and analyzed reports of UFO sightings, especially by military personnel.
According to Elizondo, the program was grounded in rigorous scientific method. “We tried to work within the system,” he told POLITICO in 2017. “We were trying to take the voodoo out of voodoo science.” A sensible approach, given that some of the eyewitness accounts described things that appeared to defy the laws of physics.
Particularly puzzling were the multiple reports of incidents similar to the one captured on video in November 2004. From altitudes upwards of 60,000 feet, UFOs appeared to descend at supersonic velocities before stopping abruptly above the ocean. No known aircraft are capable of such feats. And, Elizondo told POLITICO in 2017, they were frequently seen near nuclear-powered ships and nuclear power plants.
The program was not without critics. According to James E. Oberg, a former NASA engineer, author and UFO skeptic, the objects were unlikely to be extraterrestrial. “Plenty of prosaic events and human perceptual traits… can account for these stories,” he told the New York Times in 2017.
The program was terminated in 2012, according to government officials. “After a while the consensus was we really couldn’t find anything of substance,” a DoD staffer told POLITICO. “There was really nothing there that we could justify using taxpayer money… We let it die a slow death.”
However, contrary to official accounts, Elizondo claims that the program continues to operate. Speaking to the New York Times, he claimed to have stayed on in the program working with Navy and CIA personnel for five more years after the ending of official funding in 2012. Then, in 2017, he resigned in protest.
Writing to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Elizondo appeared to be frustrated by the government’s reluctance to commit more resources. “Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?” He wrote in his resignation letter. “…[there are] many accounts from the Navy and other services of unusual aerial systems interfering with military weapon platforms and displaying beyond-next-generation capabilities… [and] there remains a vital need to ascertain capability and intent of these phenomena…”
Bigelow, too, appeared to be critical of U.S. research efforts. “Internationally, we are the most backward country in the world on this issue,” he told the New York Times. “Our scientists are scared of being ostracized, and our media is scared of the stigma. China and Russia are much more open and work on this with huge organizations within their countries.”
After leaving the program, Elizondo joined “To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences,” a private UFO research initiative co-founded by musician Tom DeLonge. According to the company’s advertising, its team includes “the most experienced, connected and passionately curious minds from the U.S. intelligence community.”
Meanwhile, Elizondo admits continuing the research is not without peril, but thinks the risks are worth taking. “They did not exhibit overt hostility,” he told POLITICO, talking about the phenomena observed by fighter pilots in 2004. “…something unexplained is always assumed to be a potential threat until we are certain it isn’t.” The truth, as they say, is out there.