It’s all because a new report by US Government agencies into ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’ (UAPs) is about to be released. While some scoff, UFOs - as they are still more generally known - are being taken seriously by surprising people. Ex-President Barack Obama said last month when asked on James Corden’s chat show: “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here... is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are.”
What is going on? The report, by the Pentagon’s mysterious ‘Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program’, is an investigation of around 120 unusual sightings by US military over the past 20 years, which couldn’t be identified at the time. New video releases are arresting: one has U.S. Navy pilots whooping as they follow an object in 2015. “Look at that thing, dude!” shouts one. “My gosh. There’s a whole fleet of them”.
Early leaks of the report suggests that after further analysis, the majority of the sightings still could not be identified, but aren’t thought to be American technology. The leaks also stress that this doesn’t mean they are aliens. Ruling out US origins leaves open many options, from natural happenings to Chinese and Russian drones. But inevitably, talk of the extra-terrestrial is never far away.
Flying saucers have gripped the public imagination since the Roswell Incident in the late 1940s, when a weather balloon crash led to talk of a Government cover up. Hollywood has long been fascinated by and suspicious of Area 51, a highly classified secret airbase in Nevada. In the UK, many have been hit by the UFO bug over the years - including Prince Philip. UFO specialists like US journalist Leslie Kean are excited by the new developments. “For the actual task force to say they are not ours is a significant step,” she says. Kean has been working on the subject for over 20 years, and thinks the idea that the objects could be alien should be taken more seriously. “The more you look into it the more you realise there is something unexplained here,” she says.
Kean’s book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record, details sightings from around the world. One is pilot Ray Bowyer, who was captaining a flight from Southampton to the Channel Island of Alderney in 2007 when he saw two objects in the sky. “It’s still as fresh today as it was 14 years ago,” he recalls on the phone. Coming towards his descent, Bowyer saw a yellow light, which grew as he got closer. At their nearest, Bowyer saw two giant yellow CD-shaped objects with a band around their middle suspended in the sky. “I was quite ready to get away and land,” he says. Radar and another pilot confirmed there were objects that could not be identified. Bowyer remains certain they were unearthly. “I don’t think there’s any technology on Earth at that time that we knew about which would enable such a massive piece of kit to be built,” he says.
For Bowyer the experience was “so unusual, so fantastic” it would affect the rest of his life. “It does change your perspective of the world and the universe,” he says. Bowyer himself became a believer, and is convinced the Government knows more than it reveals. “I suspect there’s a significant amount of reverse engineering or crashed alien aircraft or spaceships, and they know very significantly more than they would ever disclose to the public,” he says. The former pilot thinks many in the US military do not report sightings for fear of being labelled kooks. “People are scared to either report it at the time or write about it afterwards, because of the possibility of losing their jobs, and making themselves unemployable.” The UK authorities are more open, encouraging the recording of sightings.
While Bowyer strongly believes he saw something out of this world, time with sceptics is sobering. Why, when so many of us have cameras on our phones, are the quality of images still so poor? Mick West, a retired video game developer who now runs website Metabunk.org, thinks there is nothing to see. “I describe it as the low information zone - the distance to the UFO is proportional to the quality of your camera,” he says. “The closer you are to the UFO the worse your camera is. People never have a good camera when it’s up close.” Kean, though, is adamant that good images exist. “I know that there are great videos that are being withheld,” she says. “A lot of the really great footage is classified”.
I know that there are great videos that are being withheld. A lot of the really great footage is classified
Dr David Clarke, a folklorist at Sheffield Hallam University, who has written reports on UFOs - including into Ray Bowyer’s plane over Alderney - is not convinced. “Just because something’s unidentified doesn’t mean it’s alien,” he says. For Clarke, the more interesting aspect to focus on is why flying saucers sightings took off post-WWII. He points to the Cold War for the answer. “People were worried about the threat of nuclear destruction, they were worried about Government secrecy. All those anxieties needed an outlet,” he says. “People were tending to think, ‘If we as people can’t sort out our problems, maybe there are more intelligent beings out there in the Universe looking after us’”. The Cold War connection would help explain why UFOs are bound inextricably with Government cover-up. Psychologist Carl Jung saw aliens as a ‘modern myth’, like visions of angels over battlefields of World War I.
The UFO world throws up interesting characters. One is Tom Delonge, the former frontman of rock band Blink 182, whose ‘To The Stars’ organisation helped pressure for the report. One-time presidential hopeful Marco Rubio was also instrumental, in his role on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The community is deeply divided between believers and sceptics, with every new detail only further widening the gulf. Nick Pope, who helped the UK government release our own UFO documents as a civil servant in the 1990s and is now an expert, explains. “In any field where belief plays a part, you get polarisation, a drag to the extremes,” he says. “They probably have more in common than they care to admit, in terms of their dogmatism”.
At some point, the debate becomes philosophical, about keeping one’s mind open to possibility. For Kean, sceptics are killjoys. “My thinking was that if there’s even a tiny chance that there could be [aliens], it’s worth studying,” she says. “I’m just as interested in the awe and curiosity of the whole thing. I never understood why we would turn away from this when it could be the biggest discovery for humanity”. Pope adds mischievously that the alien explanation would be the most “downright fun” explanation for UFOs. Sceptics are not convinced, and find such talk a gateway into more dangerous conspiracies.
UFOs have long intrigued people in the UK, including the upper classes. In the 1950s, Prince Philip and his uncle Lord Mountbatten were keen sky watchers, and subscribed to Flying Saucer Review magazine. The Duke encouraged his equerry Sir Peter Horsley to bring anyone who claimed to have seen a UFO to Buckingham Palace for a further interview. There, Prince Philip would ‘put them on the spot’ about their unusual experience.
So where will the new report leave us? It may depend on your side of the argument. For Leslie Kean, it’s important, but the next step could be bigger. “They have to say that they are not Russian or Chinese. As I see it that’s where the line will be crossed where everything will shift. We’re very close,” she says. For Mick West, it will be another set of images which don’t show very much. “I’ve looked at these videos and you analyse them and they are not that interesting,” he says. Nick Pope summarises. “There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a believer or a sceptic. For the sceptics: We have found no extra-terrestrial life. For the believers: Neither have we ruled out that possibility”.
The truth just may be out there...