Associated video released by the US military.
|Date||November 10–16, 2004|
|Location||Pacific Ocean, off the coast of southern California|
The USS Nimitz UFO incident was a radar-visual encounter of an unidentified flying object by US fighter pilots of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in 2004. Two F/A-18 Super Hornets pilots led by the commander of Strike Fighter Squadron 41 communicated that they saw a flying object, and radar signals were seen by United States Navy ships and aircraft in the area. An infrared video recording by an F/A-18 of part of the incident has also been released.
The primary encounter occurred during a combat training exercise being conducted in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California on 14 November 2004, with purportedly related sightings occurring in the days before and after this encounter. A 2015 account of the incident on FighterSweep.com, interviews with one of the pilots, and subsequent news reports describe the sighting of an "unidentified flying object" by four Navy Super Hornet fighter jet pilots.
Thirteen years after the incident, in December 2017, infrared footage of this and two other incidents was released to the public by The New York Times and an entertainment company named "To the Stars". According to The Washington Post, the video was released by former intelligence officer Luis Elizondo to shed light on a secretive Department of Defense operation to analyze reported UFO sightings, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
Numerous Freedom of Information Act requests were submitted regarding the incident. There was an FOIA obtained that indicated four Marine Lieutenant Colonels and a Marine Major were aware of the event and had witnessed the IR video of the unknown object. A number of documents were leaked to the Internet, with varying levels of credibility. Acceleration values for the performance characteristics of the object were based upon statements from the USS Princeton radar operators, the F/A-18 pilots that saw the object disappear within a second. Reportedly in partial response to the attention the footage release garnered, the Navy began drafting new protocols for how their pilots should report sightings of "unidentified aircraft".
On 11 September 2019, the U.S. Navy said that there are no identified objects in the videos but has not publicly released any hypothesis or conclusions in regard to observations. Skeptics have called into question the veracity of the pilots' accounts, saying that the prosaic explanation that the sighting is explained by equipment malfunction or human error is plausible and even likely.
Prior to the incident, in early November 2004, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Princeton, part of Carrier Strike Group 11, started recording intermittent radar tracks on an advanced AN/SPY-1B passive scanning phased array radar. Thinking the brand new radar was malfunctioning, the Princeton sailors restarted and recalibrated the system but the tracks became sharper and clearer. On or around 10 November, Navy Chief Petty Officer (NCO, E-7) Kevin Day, stationed on Princeton, noticed groups of five to 10 radar traces that were travelling southwards in a loose though fixed formation at 28,000 feet (8,500 m) in the immediate vicinity of Catalina and San Clemente islands. He was startled by their slow speed of 100 knots (190 km/h; 120 mph) at such an altitude, but received confirmation of their presence from radar operators on other vessels. The returns continued showing up continuously for almost a week, with sailors observing something moving erratically in the distance through the ship's magnified binoculars.
When a similar event occurred again around 9:30 PST on 14 November 2004, an operations officer aboard Princeton contacted a U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet and two U.S. Navy Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets from USS Nimitz, flying in the area at the time. The Marine Hornet was piloted by the commanding officer of squadron VMFA-232, Lieutenant Colonel Kurth, that was completing a post-maintenance check. The Navy aircraft were two-seat variants, and each pilot was accompanied by a weapon systems officer (WSO). The lead Super Hornet was piloted by Commander David Fravor, commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron 41. The second fighter, flying as wingman, included Lieutenant Commander Jim Slaight as WSO.
Princeton's radio operator directly instructed the pilots to change their course and investigate the unidentified radar spot observed by Princeton's own radar. An E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft in flight at the time was contacted to conduct the intercept but the signals could only be detected after Princeton sent them coordinates and were too faint to obtain a precise target track. A radio operator on Princeton asked the pilots if they were carrying operational weapons, to which the pilots replied that they were not. The weather conditions for that day showed excellent visibility with a blue sky, no cloud cover, and a calm sea.
As the aircrafts approached the intercept location Princeton instructed Lieutenant Colonel Kurth to leave the area as the Navy planes were approaching. The pilot noticed a round section of turbulent water about 50-100 meters in diameter before returning to Nimitz without seeing any source for the disturbance and without picking up any unknown radar contact. The Navy pilots reached the intercept location without any contact on their new APG-73 radars. They looked down at the sea and also noticed a turbulent oval area of churning water with foam and frothy waves "the size of a Boeing 737 airplane" with a smoother area of lighter color at the center, as if the waves were breaking over something just under the surface. A few seconds later, they noticed an unusual object hovering with erratic movements at a height they estimated to be about 50 feet (15 m) above the churning water. Both Fravor and Slaight later described the object as a large bright white Tic Tac, 30 to 46 feet (9.1 to 14.0 m) long, with no windshield nor porthole, no wing nor empennage, and no visible engine nor exhaust plume.
Fravor began a circular descent to approach the object. As Fravor further descended, he reported that the object began ascending along a curved path, maintaining some distance from the F-18, mirroring its trajectory in opposite circles. Fravor then made a more aggressive maneuver, plunging his fighter to aim below the object, but at this point the UFO apparently accelerated and disappeared in less than two seconds, leaving the pilots "pretty weirded out".
Subsequently, the two fighter jets began a new course to the combat air patrol (CAP) rendezvous point. "Within seconds" Princeton radioed the jets that a radar target had appeared 60 miles (97 km) away at the predetermined rendezvous point. According to Popular Mechanics, a physical object would have had to move greater than 2,400 miles per hour (3,900 km/h) to reach the CAP ahead of the Navy fighters. Their jets have a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 (1,190 miles per hour (1,920 km/h)). To actually get there "within seconds" would have required an air speed of at least 42,000 miles per hour (68,000 km/h). Two other jets went to investigate the new radar location, but "By the time the Super Hornets arrived [...] the object had already disappeared." Both F-18s then returned to Nimitz. Commander Fravor reflected on his sighting: "I have no idea what I saw. It had no plumes, wings or rotors and outran our F-18s. But I want to fly one".
After the return of the first team to Nimitz, a second crew took off at approximately 12:00 PST, this time equipped with an advanced infrared camera (FLIR pod). This camera recorded what appeared to be a moving object. The footage was publicly released by the Pentagon more than 13 years later, on 16 December 2017, alongside the revelation of the funding of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
This footage is known as the 2004 USS Nimitz FLIR1 video. Aside from a 2015 secondhand story on FighterSweep.com, the 2017 release was the first time the story was made public. A second film of infrared footage, known as the GIMBAL video, was released by the Pentagon alongside the 2004 FLIR1 footage. Although the media often present the two videos together to illustrate the 2004 USS Nimitz UFO incident, the GIMBAL video is unrelated, and was filmed on the East Coast of the United States during the USS Theodore Roosevelt UFO incidents.
According to multiple Princeton sailors, once the incident was over, a blackhawk helicopter landed on the ship and took all the information regarding the encounters from the top secret rooms. They state that all data logs of the incident were erased from the ship including the recorders for the ship’s advanced combat engagement center and the optical drives with all the radio communications.
Petty Officer Patrick “PJ” Hughes was on the deck of the Nimitz at the time, storing the E-2 Hawkeye data recorders in classified safes. He recalls that his commanding officer and two unknown officers, whom he had not seen before, asked him to hand over all the recorders taken from the flight.
Commander David Fravor, has acknowledged the disappearance of data records but has also contradicted the reports that “men in suits” showed up on the ships. He says that none of the pilots involved were even interviewed at the time and that given his rank he would have known if any kind of formal investigation had been conducted. In 2015, however, he reported that a government agency had conducted an investigation into the event and had exhaustively interviewed all parties involved.
Defense and security writer Kyle Mizokami suggested three possibilities that could explain the sightings. The first is equipment malfunction or misinterpretation; USS Princeton's radars and the Super Hornets' electro-optical sensors and radars could have malfunctioned, or the crew could have misinterpreted a number of natural phenomena. The second is classified government technology. Mizokami's third possibility was that the sightings were caused by objects of extraterrestrial origin. The New York Times included a disclaimer in its reporting of the incident: "Experts caution that earthly explanations often exist for such incidents, and that not knowing the explanation does not mean that the event has interstellar origins".
Physicist Don Lincoln suggested that it was "very unlikely that what these pilots are reporting turns out to be an unfriendly superweapon or an alien craft," however he explained that he would like to see the reports investigated "under the premise that the best science is done when as many opinions are considered as possible, preferably in the open and subject to peer review." According to Lincoln, "unidentified doesn't mean flying saucer or a Russian superweapon. It merely means unidentified."
Science journalist Dennis Overbye argued a "stubborn residue" of unexplained aerial phenomena remain after review. Overbye highlighted that some of these accounts are obtained from respected observers such as military pilots. However, he cautioned, "as modern psychology and neuroscience have established, the senses are an unreliable portal to reality, whatever that is."
According to Steve Cummings of Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, the video images captured by a Raytheon-made Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) sensor are not definitive proof that the jet pilots were chasing an actual UFO. Cummings noted, "To really be sure, we would need the raw data. Visual displays alone are not the best evidence".
The Washington Post identified David Fravor as "the commanding officer of the VFA-41 Black Aces," at the time of the 2004 incident. The Blade of Toledo, Ohio stated Fravor retired from military service in 2006, after a 24-year career, including 18 years as a Navy pilot and deployments in Iraq that began during Operation Desert Storm. Fravor stated the identities of other Naval officers aboard the two fighter jets during his mission on 14 November 2004 had not been released publicly as they were still active in the military at the time of The Blade publication in 2018.
Joe Nickell writing for the Skeptical Inquirer reports that there are differing versions of Fravor's account, including a "truly curious document that tells Fravor's story in the form of a military-style briefing" designed to create a "pseudo top-secret appearance". Nickell identified the document as "a third-person account of an interview with Fravor, produced by a fringe-ideas group called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science". Regarding the visual sightings reported by Fravor, Nickell questioned how he could see "what a forty-foot object was doing from forty miles away" and characterized the "confusion and incompleteness in the reports" of the training mission as a "comedy of errors". Nickell and astronomer and former Air Force pilot James E. McGaha said that reports of churning water could have been caused by a submerging submarine, the visual sightings could have been of a reconnaissance drone, and that "one video image showing an object suddenly zooming off screen was likely caused by the plane's banking while the camera was stopped at the end of its sweep". He comments that several reports of the incident mention that when Fravor returned to the USS Nimitz following the encounter, most of the personnel on the carrier did not take the encounter seriously, reportedly making fun of Fravor and playing alien movies on the ship's onboard closed-circuit TV system, implying that perhaps they knew something Fravor did not. Nickell also notes that the incident had apparently not been considered serious enough to warrant a debriefing of either Fravor, the other pilots, or the radar operator.
It looks like a 40-foot-long Tic Tac, with no wings.
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