The pilots of the two U.S. Navy Super Hornet fighters were on a training mission 100 miles from San Diego in the Pacific when a call on their radios asked if they were carrying weapons.
The unusual request, that day in 2004, came from a naval cruiser, the Princeton, that had spent two weeks tracking unidentified aircraft.
Commanders David Fravor and Jim Slaight had only dummy missiles, but were directed to investigate objects that appeared suddenly at an altitude of 80,000ft, then plunged towards the sea. At 20,000ft, they stopped and hovered before disappearing out of radar range or shooting up again.
The pilots could see nothing at first and then Commander Fravor looked down to the sea. The water in one place was being churned by something just below the surface. Hovering erratically 50ft above that spot was some sort of flying craft, around 40ft long, oval-shaped and whitish.
A black and white colored video from a 2004 encounter shows fighter jets closing in on an unidentified object (circled red) before it quickly accelerates out of sight
As the pilot descended towards it, it rose to meet him, but suddenly peeled away at an immense speed that he admits left him feeling ‘pretty weirded out’. The craft ‘had no plumes, wings or rotors’ but, seemingly travelling at a mile a second, easily outran America’s fastest military jets.
Fravor’s comrades made fun of him when he described the encounter, but others in the U.S. military, we now know, took him seriously. For the episode was one of scores of unexplained encounters between military personnel and UFOs that were investigated by a top-secret, multi-million-dollar programme run by the Pentagon.
Although it was set up in 2007, the existence of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Programme (AATIP) has only now emerged thanks to its former boss. Its $22 million (£15 million) of funding — so-called ‘black money’ for secretive projects — was known only to a few outsiders.
UFO enthusiasts have argued for decades that the U.S. government has been covering up the existence of unidentified craft containing alien visitors. The idea that a hush-hush government outfit was investigating sightings and other bizarre phenomena famously provided the basis for TV drama series The X-Files. Now, it seems the cult series wasn’t such a flight of fancy after all.
The shadowy programme’s existence was intentionally buried in the defence department’s $600 billion annual budget, as were its headquarters, deep within the labyrinthine Pentagon building. Based on the fifth floor of C Ring, and run by a military intelligence official named Luis Elizondo, the secret department has spent years investigating reports of unidentified flying objects.
Although the Pentagon officially stopped funding the project in 2012, insiders told the New York Times it is still operating. And, more tantalisingly, intelligence experts who ran it, and politicians who backed it, insist its research has not been fruitless.
Having investigated myriad reports from U.S. servicemen of encounters between unknown objects and military planes, they are convinced that nothing in this world can explain them.
Navy Cmdr. David Fravor has recounted his experience with a mysterious object while on a mission with Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight in November 2004
‘If anyone says they have the answers now, they’re fooling themselves,’ said Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate Democrat leader for 12 years and the project’s most powerful supporter. ‘We do not know.’
Mr Reid, who retired recently as senator for Nevada, first directed the Pentagon to investigate the ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ repeatedly identified.
In each case, the servicemen were convinced that what they saw was vastly more technologically advanced than anything in U.S. or foreign arsenals.
The man who inspired this ‘X-Files department’, Harry Reid, had the support of two other senior senators, both members of a defence spending sub-committee, who feared a threat to national security behind these chilling sightings. Their rationale was that if the mysterious craft were not aliens, then perhaps Russia or China had developed advanced technology to threaten the West.
Reid’s interest in UFOs had originally been pricked by his friend Robert Bigelow, a billionaire hotel tycoon and government contractor who is investing millions in space projects such as inflatable modules for living on the Moon.
The program was created by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (pictured)
Mr Bigelow, who became convinced extra-terrestrials exist after his grandparents said they saw a UFO, has been investigating the paranormal for decades and bought a Utah ranch known for UFO sightings in the skies above.
The Pentagon UFO programme paid Mr Bigelow’s Las Vegas-based aerospace research company to do most of its work.
Reid says he was also influenced by the veteran astronaut John Glenn, who had told him years earlier that the government should be seriously looking into UFOs and talking to military people who claimed to have seen them. Too often, their claims were not being passed up the chain of command because servicemen feared they would be ostracised. The Pentagon programme investigated scores of reported encounters — in some cases, such as Commander Fravor’s, backed by video or audio evidence.
Newly released tapes make for disturbing listening. In another incident involving a U.S. Navy Super Hornet jet chasing a UFO that emitted a ‘glowing aura travelling at high speed and rotating as it moves’, a pilot is heard exclaiming: ‘There’s a whole fleet of them . . . My gosh, they’re all going against the wind. The wind is 120 knots to the west.’
Suspiciously, sightings were often near nuclear facilities, be they ships or power plants. In many cases they involved aircraft that appeared to defy the laws of physics in their speeds and manoeuvrability. Often, they were able to move or hover with no visible means of propulsion or lift.
Seeking explanations, the Pentagon focused attention on other phenomena that sound as if they’ve come from a sci-fi convention. They included warp drives (faster than light spacecraft propulsion), and wormholes (theoretical passages in space-time that could create shortcuts).
The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program ran from 2007 to 2012, with a $22 million annual budget
Researchers also analysed people claiming to have experienced physical effects from encounters.
The Pentagon investigators are likely to have talked to some of the 120 retired military personnel who — according to UFO researchers — have described encounters near nuclear missile bases. Some believe aliens were monitoring them to ensure humanity didn’t blow itself up by accident.
They include Air Force captain Robert Salas, an intercontinental ballistic missile launch officer on duty at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana one night in 1967.
He says he was warned by his men ‘screaming into the phone’ that a mysterious ‘glowing red object’ had been spotted over their missile silo, which was 60ft underground. Moments later, they discovered that all 10 Minuteman missiles had been deactivated.
Robert Jamison, the base’s targeting officer, confirmed the report and said he heard about a UFO landing in a ‘deep ravine’ nearby. He said he spoke to a security guard, who described ‘two small red lights off at a distance’ that began to close in. The guard then broke down and started crying.
More recently, the department has assessed the threat posed by UFOs and Robert Bigelow has modified some of his company’s buildings to store materials reportedly recovered from the scene of UFO sightings.
Those involved insist they made progress. In 2009, Senator Reid wrote to then deputy defence secretary, William Lynn, requesting heightened security to protect the programme. ‘Much progress had been made with the identification of several highly sensitive, unconventional aerospace-related findings,’ he said.
At the same time, a Pentagon briefing by the UFO project’s director, Mr Elizondo, claimed that ‘what was considered science fiction is now science fact’, says the New York Times.
He warned that the U.S. was incapable of defending itself against the technologies that had been discovered, although he conceded none of the UFOs showed ‘overt hostility’. A project insider told the website Politico, however, that the programme couldn’t justify using taxpayers’ money. It lost its funding.
David Fravor told ABC News yesterday: ‘I can tell you, I think it was not from this world. I’m not crazy, haven’t been drinking. After 18 years of flying, I’ve seen pretty much about everything I can see in that realm, and this was nothing close’
Mr Elizondo quit in October, in protest at what he said was excessive secrecy and internal opposition to his work. But the Pentagon insisted it would act ‘whenever credible information is developed’.
The U.S. has investigated UFOs before, notably in 1949 when it launched a 20-year study — Project Blue Book — into more than 12,000 sightings. Although 701 were never explained, the report attributed most to people seeing conventional aircraft or spy planes, stars and clouds.
Many will laugh at the U.S. government wasting so much time and money on them. But others think they were on to something.
The Navy pilot who says he saw that astonishing craft off San Diego, Commander David Fravor, told ABC News yesterday: ‘I can tell you, I think it was not from this world. I’m not crazy, haven’t been drinking. After 18 years of flying, I’ve seen pretty much about everything I can see in that realm, and this was nothing close.
‘I have never seen anything in my life, in my history of flying that has the performance, the acceleration — keep in mind this thing had no wings’.
And former senator Harry Reid is sticking to his guns. ‘I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going. I’ve done something that no one has done before,’ he said.
As news of his UFO secret emerged, he even borrowed The X-Files’ famous catchline, tweeting: ‘The truth is out there.’