UFO “sightings” are the stuff of tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists. That is, until one hears the extraordinary account of retired U.S. Navy Commander David Fravor and his colleagues. Fravor, a career fighter pilot, former squadron commander and level-headed skipper in an acclaimed PBS documentary, makes a particularly compelling witness to an as-yet unexplained incident that occurred off the coast of Southern California in 2004.
As CDR Fravor recalls, he, his weapon systems officer and another two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet were flying a routine training mission on a calm, clear November day. But their exercise is suddenly canceled and their two-ship formation instructed to divert on a “real-world vector.” Unknown to Fravor and his fellow officers, a nearby ship, the USS Princeton, has spent weeks tracking numerous radar contacts moving in ways that defy explanation.
For the first time, fast-moving fighter aircraft are aloft when the Princeton’s hyper-sensitive radar array picks up the peculiar contacts. CDR Fravor’s Super Hornet and the jet accompanying them are tasked with taking a closer look.
What happens next is best described only by CDR Fravor and one of the weapon systems officers flying that day. In short, Fravor was “weirded out” by an object – with no visible propulsion system or wings – that accelerated, decelerated and, ultimately, disappeared from view at extreme speed, “like nothing [he had] ever seen.”
In Fravor’s account, the USS Princeton’s radar reacquired the object 30 seconds later – 60 miles away. If accurate, this implies a velocity roughly six times that of the top speed of Fravor’s super-fast Super Hornet.
Later that day, thanks to a combination of luck and targeting skill, a follow-up flight managed to capture the object on video.
Without a doubt, the 2004 incident is unique. No fewer than seven naval aviators as well as surface warfare officers – hardly conspiratorially-minded nut jobs – reported first-hand accounts of this event. Perhaps most importantly, they are corroborated by radar, infrared and optical data.
A series of similar events occurred 11 years later. Naval aircrews operating off the U.S. East Coast reported contacts with objects conducting extreme maneuvers that defied any known (or remotely conceivable) technological capabilities. Like the 2004 incident, their accounts are reinforced by sophisticated multi-source sensor data.
As with any UFO “sightings,” an enormous dose of skepticism is warranted. The classic Carl Sagan dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” undoubtedly rings true. Of note, there is no evidence that little green men piloted the objects that CDR Fravor and his fellow pilots reported seeing over the ocean.
Having worked closely with Navy pilots, I can also confirm that this breed of military aviator has a particularly unique sense of humor. Therefore, it is possible that Fravor and his colleagues are embellishing technical glitches with tall tales of out-of-this-world encounters. But while CDR Fravor freely admits (in a particularly entertaining anecdote) to occasionally terrifying hapless desert campers into becoming full-blown UFO believers, it is relatively unlikely that he and so many of his fellow aviators are pulling off the prank of the century (hats off, of course, to CDR Fravor and his buddies if they are).
This raises the possibility that these pilots witnessed technology well beyond the grasp or bounds of science. If these accounts are accurate – and sophisticated sensor data indicate that they may be – the capabilities exhibited by these objects represent an astonishing leap forward from the technological status quo.
As such, a compelling case can be made to invest in fully investigating these phenomena. As CDR Fravor aptly notes, thoroughly (and efficiently) studying such events would amount to less than a rounding error in the Pentagon’s staggering $738 billion budget. The return on investment could be significant, for a few key reasons.
First, the national security implications of getting to the bottom of these incidents are beyond obvious. In addition to posing a serious collision risk, determining the nature of the objects – whether benign, easily-explainable phenomena or potentially threatening – is of critical importance. Indeed, by some accounts, such incidents are occurring with increased frequency.
Moreover, advanced, physics-challenging technology would be the Holy Grail for any nation. Given the anti-democratic and authoritarian inclinations of some major world powers, it is imperative that such capabilities fall into the “right” (i.e., democratic) hands.
Second, without venturing into the “debate” about the causes of global warming, there can be no doubt that earth’s climate is undergoing tremendous change. The Midwest witnessed multiple “500-year” floods in the span of a few years; powerful hurricanes fueled by warmer waters have battered the eastern seaboard; unprecedented wildfires have devastated the West Coast. Businesses expect to lose $1 trillion due to climate change in coming years, of which the last five were the hottest ever recorded.
With researchers examining how clouds can be manipulated to combat climate change, the remote possibility of acquiring technology that allows for indefinite flight time at extreme speeds deserves particularly close scrutiny.
Third, CDR Fravor argues that if he and the Navy’s sophisticated sensors observed the same phenomenon, there is a good chance that the technology he witnessed could move effortlessly through water, air and space at extraordinary speeds. In the event that such capability exists, mere knowledge thereof should prompt a fundamental shift away from humanity’s baser priorities in favor of loftier, nobler objectives.
Perhaps most importantly, as one of the Navy fighter pilots who reported a close encounter notes, mankind is driven by curiosity. Throughout history the human inclination to explore the unknown has precipitated monumental advances in a short span of time. Given the slim chance that what CDR Fravor, his colleagues and their sensors observed reflects bona fide technical capabilities, a well-funded and efficiently managed public investigation is not only warranted, it should be prioritized.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.