The government’s highly anticipated report on unexplained aerial phenomena (UAPs) finally dropped yesterday, but the truth remains out there. “The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about the nature or intent of UAP,” concludes the unclassified report compiled by the Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence (ODNI).
After examining nearly 150 reports of UAPs, also known as UFOs, intelligence officials say they don’t know what the vast majority of the phenomena are — though they have a handful of theories. Among the possibilities offered: airborne debris, natural atmospheric conditions, technology from foreign adversaries or top-secret U.S. government technology. There is also a catch-all miscellaneous category that the report’s authors simply call “other.” The verdict is that there is simply not enough data to identify these objects.
The ODNI report focuses on unidentified objects spotted by U.S. Navy pilots and other military sources from 2004 to 2021, and notes that a UAP task force is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“The FAA generally ingests this data when pilots and other airspace users report unusual or unexpected events to the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization,” says the report.
That may be news to the FAA. The agency that operates air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft insists it does not deal directly with UAP sightings from commercial pilots. “The FAA doesn’t track these reports. The National UFO Reporting Center is your best source,” an FAA spokesperson told Forbes. The FAA website also steers the general public to report UFO sightings to NUFORC.
“It has always struck me is very telling that the Federal Aviation Administration itself actually tells pilots to contact a civilian UFO organization,” says Micah Hanks, whose popular eponymous science podcast often discusses unexplained phenomena like UFOs.
“The FAA and the government took the position that people like me were crazy,” says Peter Davenport, a commercial pilot and a former flight instructor who has run NUFORC since 1994. “But they were nevertheless willing to hand over the and over the information coming to them to me.”
“We serve as a clearinghouse for sightings of suspected UFOs — whether it be a senior pilot for an airline or whether it be grade-school kid — we take their calls over our hotline,” explains Davenport. “And then I encourage them to submit a written report, and the report you see on our website is the result of that process.”
The work keeps Davenport extremely busy. Since 1998, when he set up the NUFORC website, “I have succeeded in collecting — I’m estimating now — about 280,000 written reports,” he says.
Davenport he regularly receives reports of UAP sightings from FAA headquarters in Virginia, estimating that he received six to eight reports between November 2020 and May 2021.
Some incidents made headlines. For example, in February, the FAA could not explain a UAP sighting by an American Airlines pilot over the New Mexico desert. The agency referred the incident to Davenport, who in turn noted in NUFORC’s database: “On Feb 21, 2021 at 1918 zulu American 2292 was at the TBE180030 (lat 36.8/ long -103.56) at FL360 westbound. The pilot observed a long cylindrical, cruise missile looking thing, fly right over the top of them eastbound. The report was reported to air traffic control who showed no traffic above the aircraft.”
For Davenport, reports from pilots hold special value. “They give excellent reports,” he says. “That’s why they’re of very great interest to me.”
For UFO-curious civilians interested in delving deeper into sightings by pilots, Hanks also recommends the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP), which has documented confidential reports by aviation professionals since 1999. Many pilots wait until they retire to report UAP incidents because of a prevalent stigma of reporting such events, according to the NARCAP website, which states bluntly that the FAA “offers no leadership or guidance to civil or commercial aviation.”
“[NARCAP has] logged probably more pilot and aviation related reports than any other organization and also attempt to very cautiously analyze these kinds of reports,” says Hanks. “Based on the collection of similar incidents by those two civilian agencies, that tells me quite evidently that there are more incidents being reported by pilots who are willing to come forward in various capacities.”
In addition to NUFORC and NARCAP, there’s a third organization where commercial pilots can confidentially report UAP incidents. NASA runs the Aviation Safety Reporting System, which also captures anonymous reports from pilots, dispatchers, air traffic control, cabin crew and other aviation professionals, then analyzes the data and disseminates the information to the aviation community.
A search of its database, filtered for airline pilots reporting unusual sightings, returned over 2,400 results, comprising everything from flocks of birds, clusters of helium balloons, hang gliders, freefalling skydivers and, yes, a number of UAPs.
In one event tagged as “inflight event/encounter other/unknown,” a pilot reported cruising at 36,000 feet in an Airbus A320 when a bright light caught his eye. “It went from dim to extremely bright in just a few seconds. It was above the horizon about 20 degrees inclination and around my 12:30 o’clock position. It was not close to us, but seemed out there a bit. I have never seen such intense, bright, white and silver light in my life. It actually had a very defined 360 degree halo around it at one point. Then it made a 45 degree sharp change in direction and faded away as it went out of view in about 3 seconds time. During the next 50 minutes, we experienced almost the exact same scenario 4 more times,” wrote the pilot. “Object started out as a very weak-looking star, but would move slowly left to right and grow much brighter than any star I have ever seen.”
Hanks suspects he knows why FAA takes a hands-off approach to investigating UFOs. “It is seen as beneficial to have the NASA-maintained ASRS data database outside of the FAA — but run for the FAA — so that pilots would be more likely to come forward,” he says.
And to that end, it appears to be working. “As you dig into the database, you will find from time to time reports of very unusual things,” says Hanks.