How the U.S. Government Made Pilots Too Embarrassed to Admit They’d Seen UFOsReading Time: 7 minutes
Why reporting UFOs is so fraught.
Over the Super Bowl weekend, the U.S. shot down at least three UFOs, or as they’re now called, UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena). The first was spotted over Alaska and the second over Canada, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed on the action. A third was downed over Lake Huron.
A CNN segment about one of the objects features a common refrain: that ‘not even the pilots could identify what they saw,’ largely because the UFO had no visible means of staying airborne.
But the good news is that pilots felt comfortable saying something—which has not always been the case.
‘I didn’t say anything out of fear I’d get fired,’ says an anonymous airline pilot in the new NatGeo docuseries UFOs: Investigating the Unknown, which premieres Monday. So the story goes for countless people, from civilians to military pilots, who have reported seeing UFOs. The moral of the story: If you see something, do not say something.
The latest governmental UFO report, published in January, identifies roughly half of catalogued sightings as balloons, drones, or ‘clutter,’ but many remain unidentified and unexplained. The report also notes that the number of UAP sightings has increased in recent years in part because of ‘reduced stigma’ surrounding those sightings. One might wonder how UFO sightings became so stigmatized in the first place, and why. Unidentified objects in the sky don’t have to be of extraterrestrial origin to pose risks to aviation or to national security. It makes sense to report sightings so the government can investigate them and address potential dangers. But for decades, the government has done the opposite, creating and codifying a policy of stigma to deter reports of sightings—and to avoid acknowledging how much it didn’t know.
Investigative journalist Leslie Kean, who features in the NatGeo series, co-wrote a 2017 New York Times article that reverberated through the internet like a thunderbolt: It revealed that the government’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program had continued to investigate UFO sightings despite the Defense Department saying it had stopped doing so in 2012. The article also contained footage of a 30-second video the DoD had been sitting on since 2004, which shows two Navy jets interacting with a UFO near San Diego and captures the pilots’ stunned and fascinated reactions.
Imagine being one of those military pilots, knowing you’d seen a mysterious object that was potentially dangerous, incredibly technologically advanced, and very much worth investigating. Imagine never having seen any aircraft, military or otherwise, maneuver with such speed or dexterity. Imagine not being able to talk about it for 13 years, knowing you’d be ridiculed and perhaps fired if you did.
The U.S. government deliberately cultivated stigma related to UFO sightings during the Cold War. An uptick in reports in 1947 spurred the creation of the first official UFO investigation, Project Sign. A few months later, after it became clear that the Air Force couldn’t handle the number of reports coming in, it hired a scientist, J. Allen Hynek, to evaluate the information. Hynek couldn’t explain roughly 20 percent of the cases he looked at, but the Air Force didn’t want to probe further.
‘It was a different world then, and the government was worried that the Russians would take advantage of UFO reports,’ Kean told me in a phone interview. A foreign enemy could exploit reports to clog up the communication pipeline, sow confusion, or act as a decoy for action elsewhere. The U.S. also didn’t want to admit that it couldn’t explain some of these sightings, which would ‘diminish it as a powerful force,’ said Kean. These days, similar concerns exist regarding China, especially after the recent spy balloon fiasco.
The Air Force then launched a follow-up called Project Grudge, whose mission was exactly what the name suggests—to explicitly dismiss and debunk the UFO issue. However, sightings kept coming in. In 1952, a year that saw hundreds of UFO sightings, most notably in Washington, D.C., the government began Project Blue Book, yet another project designed to address the mounting UFOs sightings not by proper investigation, but by convenient explanation. The CIA then formed a panel of experts to review the six years’ worth of sightings documented by Project Blue Book. After meeting for roughly 12 hours, the panel said the evidence revealed nothing worthy of further study. The government slammed the door shut on UFO investigations. ‘If you dismiss it, you don’t have to face it,’ Kean said.
The result was no surprise, because the panel’s true goal was never to investigate the sightings. Instead, as its report makes clear, its mission was to debunk with the aim of reducing ‘public interest in ‘flying saucers.’ ‘ The panel also suggested that ‘this education could be accomplished by mass media such as television, motion pictures, and popular articles.’ Those sentences solidified a policy of what Kean calls ‘sanctioned ridicule.’
Project Blue Book continued until 1969, and as its lead debunker, Hynek offered often ridiculous or insulting explanations, such as suggesting that a mass sighting in Michigan was really just ‘swamp gas,’ an explanation then-President Gerald Ford called out as unsatisfactory and ‘flippant.’ By then, it had been 20 years since the government began stigmatizing and belittling people who made UFO reports. ‘Once a stigma is firmly rooted in the culture, it’s much harder to get rid of,’ Kean said. The specific flavor of the stigma depends on the particular debunking explanation (bonkers, drunk, bored, dreaming, sleepwalking), but people who report seeing UFOs are still sometimes considered crackpots, the kind of people who’d storm Area 51.
The government leveraged the fallacious association between UFOs and aliens to increase the stigma. But it’s important to remember that UFO doesn’t mean spaceship or something of extra-terrestrial origin—the term contains no such assertion. Rather, it means that the object or phenomenon cannot (yet) be identified. Conflating UFO sightings with laughable suggestions of ‘little green men’ was another debunking and dismissing tactic, even though that association did nothing to address potential safety and/or security concerns.
Those who reported sightings—including commercial airline pilots, military pilots, and civilians—grew angry at the governmental gaslighting and at its unwillingness to properly investigate. After the conclusion of Project Blue Book, Hynek got mad, too. He advocated for real scientific inquiry into UFO cases and became a vocal critic of the government’s handling of UFOs and of its policy of ridicule.
As the NatGeo series documents, the government turned what should have been a scientific issue into a ‘sociological problem’ that pervaded pop culture, generated conspiracy theories, and provoked mistrust of the government. The stigma became so entrenched that it’s taken decades to declassify documents and to resurrect political interest in learning more.
In the 1970s, the government started declassifying UFO documents under a Freedom of Information Act request. The resulting information stoked the public interest. Nongovernment scientists and civilians stepped up to investigate, filling the vacuum left by the government. The civilian response invalidated the government’s fear that the public couldn’t handle the truth about these sightings, whatever it turned out to be. Perhaps the government projected its fear of admitting it didn’t have the answers.
But not all governments have so little faith in their citizens. According to the documentary, UFOs have been spotted in 133 countries, and many governments actively encourage people to report sightings so they can be properly investigated. Most of those countries don’t classify that information, either. For example, in 2007, France, which has a government agency specifically devoted to UFO studies, published over 50 years’ worth of files on a website, which it keeps updated. In 1978, a French government UFO study that focused on 11 particularly compelling cases concluded that in 10 of them, witnesses observed ‘a material phenomenon that could not be explained as a natural phenomenon or a human device.’ In 1999, France released a detailed report of UFO investigations that acknowledges the credibility of witnesses despite ‘the fear of appearing ridiculous, alienated, or simply gullible.’ That report concludes that most of the cases cannot be attributed to human technology, and thus, ‘we are forced to resort to other hypotheses [that] can neither be confirmed nor invalidated … [such as] the hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitors.’
In the documentary, Kean expresses awe at the idea that this report wasn’t a bigger deal, and she muses about what would have happened if something like it had been published in the U.S. But if the U.S. government refused to admit what it didn’t know, it certainly didn’t want to admit that some of the unidentified objects might be of alien origin. If that were true, that would mean humans aren’t alone—and that we aren’t at the top of the cosmic food chain. This weekend’s events raise this possibility yet again, especially because the pilots who saw the UFO couldn’t figure out how it was flying, given that they saw no ‘no identifiable propulsion system.’
Countries such as Costa Rica, Chile, and Peru study UFOs without classifying the info. Kean chalks up the difference to ‘the size and strength of the U.S. military’ and the associated higher stakes for a world superpower. By comparison, UFO investigation units in smaller countries work very differently. ‘Chile’s investigation unit is amazing,’ Kean said. ‘They’re not trying to hide anything. It’s accepted that these things are out there. The reports were always made public.’
Kean stops short of suggesting that UFOs have cosmic origins, but the possibility can’t be ruled out by her, by investigating scientists, or by the government, especially because no human-created aircraft ever publicly documented can fly or maneuver at speeds close to those of the UFOs documented by witnesses. The secrecy, as well as the obfuscation and stigmatization employed by the U.S. government, both sabotaged true scientific investigations and, according to Kean, ‘provoked conspiratorial thinking.’
Destigmatizing something is more difficult than stigmatizing it. The recent report’s recommendation for ‘more coordinated UAP efforts, resulting in greater attribution of UAP’ is easier said than done, but the government is moving in the right direction, particularly with the recent establishment of the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office. Kean is hopeful that the existence and work of the AARO will further destigmatize reports. ‘Every publication and report does this, little by little,’ she said.
Despite increased governmental transparency and coordination, challenges remain. ‘It’s now the public has that to filter out bias and stigma,’ Kean said. That’s particularly true of the scientific community, which has ‘been among the last groups to overcome the stigma.’ Perhaps that’s a result of scientific skepticism, or perhaps it’s because, as Kean puts it, many scientists are ‘off at universities, siloed,’ rather than seeing these phenomena or interacting with witnesses who have.
The government created a monster with its handling of the UFO issue. The bias and shame surrounding 50 years’ worth of UFO sightings in the U.S. reinforce the need for the public to think critically, rather than succumbing to what Kean called the ‘pure irrationality’ of the stigma. It also underscores how misinformation or disinformation starts at the top and filters down through the public, until it takes on a life of its own.
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