After upgrading the radar systems on F/A-18 fighter jets, several Navy pilots operating from the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt began to see unidentified flying objects that appeared to defy the laws of physics.
Between 2014 and 2015, the strange objects - one of them spinning like a top as it traveled against the wind, appeared almost daily in the skies above the East Coast. The crafts had "no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes," and "could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds" according to the New York Times.
To be clear, these craft were reported in March of 2018 so this is not a new report, however the accounts of five pilots who witnessed them have never been published until now.
"These things would be out there all day" said Lt. Ryan Graves, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who has been in the Navy for a decade. Graves reported his sightings to the Pentagon and Congress.
"Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy. With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect."
In late 2014, a Super Hornet pilot had a near collision with one of the objects, and an official mishap report was filed. Some of the incidents were videotaped, including one taken by a plane’s camera in early 2015 that shows an object zooming over the ocean waves as pilots question what they are watching.
“Wow, what is that, man?” one exclaims. “Look at it fly!” -New York Times
"There were a number of different reports," said Navy spokesman Joseph Gradisher, who said that while some cases could have been commercial drones, in other cases "we don’t know who’s doing this, we don’t have enough data to track this. So the intent of the message to the fleet is to provide updated guidance on reporting procedures for suspected intrusions into our airspace."
The sightings were reported to the recently acknowledged "Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP)" which analyzed the radar data, video footage and accounts from senior officers aboard the Roosevelt at the time.
According to military intelligence official Luis Elizondo, who ran the program until resigning in 2017, the sightings are "a striking series of incidents."
The program, which began in 2007 and was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time, was officially shut down in 2012 when the money dried up, according to the Pentagon. But the Navy recently said it currently investigates military reports of U.F.O.s, and Mr. Elizondo and other participants say the program — parts of it remain classified — has continued in other forms. The program has also studied video that shows a whitish oval object described as a giant Tic Tac, about the size of a commercial plane, encountered by two Navy fighter jets off the coast of San Diego in 2004. -New York Times
Lieutenant Graves is still at a loss to describe what he saw in the summer of 2014, when he and Lt. Danny Accoin - another Super Hornet pilot, were part of the "Red Rippers" VFA-11 squadron. Operating out of Oceana, VA, they were training for redeployment to the Persian Gulf.
Graves and Accoin spoke on the record to the Times, while three other pilots spoke on condition of anonymity.
It all began following an upgrade from their 1980s-era radars to Raytheon AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pods - one of the most advanced imaging devices in use by the military which can locate and designate targets at distances over 40 miles.
One fighter pilot after another began picking up the objects, initially ignoring what they thought were false radar tracks.
"People have seen strange stuff in military aircraft for decades," said Graves. "We’re doing this very complex mission, to go from 30,000 feet, diving down. It would be a pretty big deal to have something up there."
Graves added that the objects were an ongoing phenomenon - showing up at 30,000 feet, 20,000 feet and even at sea level. The craft could "accelerate, slow down and then hit hypersonic speeds," according to the report.
Lieutenant Accoin said that he had two encounters with the objects - the first of which he tried to intercept the craft's course by flying 1,000 feet below it. And while he couldn't see it with his helmet camera, his radar told him it was there. In the second encounter, Accoin says a training missile on his jet locked onto the craft, which his infrared camera picked up as well.
"I knew I had it, I knew it was not a false hit," he said, adding "I could not pick it up visually."
The pilots chalked it up to some sort of classified and extremely advanced drone program. Then they began to see them with their own eyes.
In late 2014, Lieutenant Graves said he was back at base in Virginia Beach when he encountered a squadron mate just back from a mission “with a look of shock on his face.”
He said he was stunned to hear the pilot’s words. “I almost hit one of those things,” the pilot told Lieutenant Graves.
The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit. It looked to the pilot, Lieutenant Graves said, like a sphere encasing a cube. -New York Times
After the near miss, Graves and the other interviewed pilots said the squadron were no longer convinced of the classified drone theory - as government officials would know fighter pilots were operating in the area and, they reasoned, would not operate them nearby.
"It turned from a potentially classified drone program to a safety issue," said Graves, adding "It was going to be a matter of time before someone had a midair" collision.
What was strange, the pilots said, was that the video showed objects accelerating to hypersonic speed, making sudden stops and instantaneous turns — something beyond the physical limits of a human crew.
“Speed doesn’t kill you,” Lieutenant Graves said. “Stopping does. Or acceleration.”
Asked what they thought the objects were, the pilots refused to speculate.
“We have helicopters that can hover,” Lieutenant Graves said. “We have aircraft that can fly at 30,000 feet and right at the surface.” But “combine all that in one vehicle of some type with no jet engine, no exhaust plume.” -New York Times
In March of 2015, the Roosevelt departed the coast of Florida for the Persian Gulf to help fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, after which the incidents "tapered off," according to the pilots.