Aif-Minded: UFO Letdown

Friends and I have been swapping news articles about those strange UFO cockpit videos recorded by Navy fighter pilots a few years ago. I wrote about the videos and described a “UFO encounter” of my own in a recent Air-Minded post.

A defense news weblog, The War Zone, has obtained the actual incident reports filed by those Navy pilots. They published the complete reports in an article titled “Here Are The Navy Pilot Reports From Encounters With Mysterious Aircraft Off The East Coast.”

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I’m going to quote extensively from the article and the official reports included therein. Here’s the introduction:

    The War Zone obtained the eight hazard reports, all of which are marked “Unclassified” and “For Official Use Only,” via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Naval Safety Center. Seven of them involve F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and occurred at various times between 2013 and 2014 in a patch of airspace off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina known as the W-72 warning area. The eighth incidents took place in 2019 and involved an EA-18G Growler flying in a different portion of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maryland called the W-386 warning area.

Here are summary details from each of the eight reports:

  • On June 27, 2013, an F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11), flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia had an encounter with an “aircraft [that] was white in color and approximately the size and shape of a drone or missile” in the W-72 warning area. The jet’s crew “visually acquired” it as they saw it “pass down the right side of their aircraft with approximately 200 feet of lateral separation” while flying at an altitude of 17,000 feet. It was climbing and had a visible exhaust trail.
  • An F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 143 (VFA-143), flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, spotted an object in the W-72 warning zone via radar off its nose at around 12,000 feet and a speed of approximately 0.1 Mach on Nov. 18, 2013. “The aircraft had an approximately 5-foot wingspan and was colored white with no other distinguishable features,” according to the pilot who was able to visually acquire the object and tracked it for an hour.
  • On Mar. 26, 2014, an F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106), flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana, detected a possible radar track at around 19,000 feet and with a speed of 0.1 Mach in the W-72 warning area. The pilot’s wingman did not have the object on radar and there was a debate about whether it might be a false track given high winds, gusting at over 100 knots at 18,000 feet. […] “The unknown aircraft appeared to be small in size, approximately the size of a suitcase, and silver in color,” according to the report. The pilot was only able to pass within 1,000 feet of it and could not identify it. After that pass, they lost sight of it and never regained visual contact.
  • Another F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11) had an encounter with multiple “unidentified aerial devices” (UAD) on Apr. 23, 2014, while flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana and operating in the W-72 warning area. The crew initially detected two UADs on radar, one at 12,000 feet and another at 15,000 feet, both apparently stationary or near-stationary at 0.0 Mach. They then confirmed both of these objects using the jet’s Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) system.
  • On Apr. 24, 2014, within a day of the F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11) having its encounter with four “unidentified aerial devices” (UAD), two more F/A-18Fs made radar contact with another UAD in the W-72 warning area while conducting Basic Fighter Maneuvering (BFM aka dogfighting) out of Naval Air Station Oceana. Both aircraft were able to maintain a radar track with the object, which was stationary or near-stationary at 0.0 Mach at 11,000 feet. The aircraft were also able to lock onto the object with their CATM-9Xs, a captive-carry training version of the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. However, in this instance, neither one made visual contact.
  • On Apr. 27, 2014, for the third time in five days, the crew of a F/A-18F from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11), flying out of NAS Ocean and operating in the W-72 warning area, reported encountering an unknown aerial device. This report is the most spartan in its details of the three, but describes a “near mid-air collision with balloon like object.”
  • On Feb. 13, 2019, nearly five years after the last recorded encounter with an unidentified object in the Naval Safety Center’s databases, the crew of an EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23), flying out Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland and conducting activities in the W-386 warning area, visually spotted what they specifically described as “a red weather balloon” at 27,000 feet.
  • In addition, The War Zone obtained a copy of a report of another incident involving an F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106) that occurred on March 13, 2018. The pilot in this instance said they tracked four separate unknown objects on their radar in the W-122 warning area, which sits off the coast of North Carolina. […] The objects were all flying at approximately 0.1 Mach at altitudes between 16,000 and 22,000 feet, according to the report. The pilot visually identified one at 20,000 feet that “appeared to be a quadcopter-type drone, 3-4 feet wide.” They added that the objects did not appear to be doing anything in particular and were stationary or near-stationary.

Whatever the objects described in these reports were, it seems pretty clear they weren’t flying saucers. Something that may have been an RPV (remotely piloted vehicle), leaving a smoke trail behind it. A quadcopter drone. Several possible weather balloons. One object appeared to be five feet in width, others were “the size of a suitcase.” None of the objects moving faster than Mach 0.1 (77 mph); most described as “stationary.” All of them at altitudes down in the low teens. Not exactly what we imagine when we think about space alien tech.

So what is the Navy’s real concern about these mysterious airborne objects, once you strip away the UFO hype? Here’s what one of the reporting pilots’ commanders had to say:

    “I feel it may only be a matter of time before one of our F/A-18 aircraft has a mid-air collision with an unidentified UAS [unmanned aerial system].”

I’ll also quote this paragraph, since I myself flew F-15s out of Langley AFB and used the same working areas as the Navy pilots who filed these incident reports:

    […] according to Langley Air Force Base’s 1st Fighter Wing, which is located very near NAS Oceana and their F-22 Raptors use the same general airspace as the Super Hornets to train in daily, their crews had had not experienced any similar phenomena, or at least were not willing to disclose that they had.

There’s a lot of military aviation activity off the east coast. Those overwater working areas were heavily scheduled when I flew in them; they’re no less busy today. I have to note, though, that along with F-22 pilots currently flying out of Langley, I never saw UFO or “unidentified UAS” activity in W-72. Or anywhere else.

As I said in my earlier post: “So here I am, continuing to disappoint UFO believers all these years later.”

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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