The Skeptic’s Guide to the Pentagon’s UFO Videos

The videos aren’t proof of extraterrestrial life, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting.
May 6, 2020, 12:00pm
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Image: U.S. Navy

Last week, the U.S. Navy officially published three videos of UFOs originally reported on by The New York Times and published by former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge’s UFO research group, To the Stars Academy.

“[The Pentagon] is releasing the videos in order to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real,” it said in a press release. “The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified.’”

The footage chronicles three separate incidents filmed by Navy pilots between 2004 and 2015. Though the footage had already been leaked and public for a few years, the official release set off a wave of speculation online. Does the footage show drones, or a form of advanced aircraft, or—the most tantalizing—extraterrestrial crafts?

The videos are called “GIMBAL.wmv,” “GOFAST.wmv,” and “FLIR.mp4.” We have seen countless blurry, easy to dismiss footage of suspected UFOs since people were able to get their hands on cameras. These videos, which document what both the military and UFOlogists call "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena," (UAP) are different. They are compelling footage and accompanying audio that’s been captured and released by the military. They are accompanied by credible eyewitnesses who are pilots with hundreds of hours of flight experience, not a couple of drunk people who saw some flashes over a lake and snapped photos on their cell phone.

While the videos have been exciting for years to UFOlogists and the general public, very few people think that they are actually aliens, and there is a sect of skeptics who have analyzed the footage and say that there are earthly and logical explanations for what we’re seeing here.

The U.S. Navy hasn’t released an official explanation for the footage and didn’t provide one with this most recent release. That’s not for lack of journalists trying to pry the information out of the Pentagon.

Science writer, engineer, and skeptic Mick West has a YouTube channel where he extensively documents his efforts to provide alternative explanations for the Navy UFO footage that doesn’t involve alien visitors to planet Earth. According to West, FLIR is probably a “low resolution, out of focus, backlit plane.” In the FLIR video, the video focuses on a single UAP in the distance. It appears to rotate in place before zooming to the left of the frame. According to To the Stars Academy, this movement is “unprecedented velocity.”

West pointed out that, as the camera stops tracking the object, it also changes the zoom. This switch from a 1x zoom to a 2x zoom gives the object the appearance of “teleporting” to the left. The craft, which was always traveling to the left, continues apace but isn’t followed by the camera anymore. That gives it its apparent speed. “This is perfectly consistent with something like a distant aircraft just flying along quite normally making no sudden movements,” West said on YouTube.

He believes GIMBAL to be a plane as well, lit by the infrared flare of the engine and locked in place by a trick of the gimbal mounted camera viewing it. In a series of several videos on his YouTube channel, West walks through how a gimbal mounted camera can produce the effects seen in the Navy footage, including the rotating glare and image sharpening in IR cameras.

West thinks GOFAST is a balloon tracked by a camera and given unnatural speed by an effect called parallax--when viewed while moving, objects at different distances appear to move at different speeds. The To the Stars Academy release of GOFAST claims the object is moving quickly and low across water. West, using the data displayed in the camera footage, calculates the speed and distance of the perceived object. According to him, it’s actually moving slowly at a high altitude.

If boring explanations exist for this phenomenon, then why hasn’t the Navy simply released them?

“Because things like this contain operational details,” West told Motherboard over the phone. “Their analysis would have to take into account the technology involved, sensitive things like ‘how does the [Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared] (ATFLIR) system work?’ In the Nimitz case, they wouldn't want to talk about the limitations of American radar systems.”

The American military is secretive, by default. It doesn’t release information unless forced by an outside source.

“So they're just not going to tell you what the results of their investigation are unless there's some very compelling reason to do so,” West said. “From their perspective, the UFO community getting up in arms about it isn't really an especially compelling reason to go in and try to declassify a whole bunch of different things that are involved in their investigation.”

Pilots and other eye witnesses don’t buy West’s explanation of the UFOs. U.S. Navy Commander David Fravor was flying a F/A-18 Hornet launched from the USS Nimitz in 2004 when he encountered a UFO. Dubbed Tic Tac, the UFO buzzed the water, seemed to react to the Hornets, and befuddled those who watched it. Fravor detailed the encounter in a report for the Navy. Since then, Fravor has been a proponent of the theory that he encountered alien life.

FLIR.mp4 is from the USS Nimitz and supposedly shows a video of what Fravor and others encountered. West remains unconvinced.

“I don’t know what David Fravor saw,” he said. “I don’t know what the radar saw. But it’s not what’s shown in this video. What’s shown in the FLIR video from the Nimitz encounter, is a distant object that’s not really moving. So it's nothing at all like what he describes, which is like an intelligence superfast hypersonic aircraft.”

“There’s just so much unknown about it that it opens the door to much speculation,” Michael Shermer, science writer and Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine told Motherboard on the phone. “The U in UFO just means it’s unidentified. The leap from unknown to extraterrestrial slash government cover up is amazing.”

According to Shermer, all three videos have explanations far more likely than alien visitation.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Shermer said, a common idiom in the skeptic community. “So how extraordinary is the evidence for that extraordinary claim? It's not even ordinary. It's piss poor evidence. So that's kind of the bigger picture. And then , and then we have the actual footage of what we're looking at now no one says what it is because they don't know what it is.”

Both West and Shermer said they allow for the possibility that what pilots are seeing and instrumentation are picking up is, in fact, aliens. They just think that other solutions are more likely.

American history is full of incidents of supposed alien encounters better explained through more rational means. The Roswell Incident, the supposed crash of a UFO near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, gave birth to a generation of extraterrestrial speculation. In the mid 90s, declassified Pentagon reports revealed the crash to be part of Project Mogula secret military program involving the use of balloons to detect incoming nuclear missiles. The myth persists.

FLIR, GOFAST, GIMBAL, and the USS Nimitz incident reflect the same pattern that’s played out dozens of times before. Someone sees something strange in the sky, the U.S. Military releases a tiny amount of information, and the public jumps to an illogical conclusion. Why? Because we want to believe.

“The whole UFO thing is a kind of secular religion,” Shermer said. “If it’s true, it means that there is something out there more advanced than us, more moral than, that knows we're here. And that is really what religion is all about.”