In June, the US government published a long-awaited report into UFOs. Although the report did not, as many had hoped, admit to the existence of little green men, it did reveal that not only were objects appearing in our skies that the Pentagon – which controls the US military – could not explain, but some clearly pose “a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to US national security”.
The Pentagon also revealed that it has been taking UFOs so seriously that in 2007 it discreetly set up the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which has been gathering data on Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) ever since.
It’s that “other” bin that has arrested the attention of stargazers and conspiracy theorists. If the US military has been quietly and seriously investigating UFOs (or, as the Pentagon would have it, UAPs) since 2007, and if the Pentagon’s official report cannot rule out the existence of extraterrestrials, is it time we looked again at claims of close encounters and the people who have made them?
Andrew Abeyta, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, co-authored We Are Not Alone, a study into why some of us want to believe in aliens. Abeyta explains that belief in aliens is akin to religiosity: unfounded beliefs in unfalsifiable ideas, which require a leap of faith. “People have a need to feel like their lives are meaningful, and these beliefs might suggest that there’s something bigger out there; there’s something more important going on,” Abeyta says
I tell Abeyta about an interview I carried out with a young man in Florida. The man, who did not want to be named, described an ambiguous close encounter that took place during his sleep. When I asked him what he preferred the truth to be – a real encounter or merely a vivid dream – the young man said he would prefer it to be true because that would mean he was “special”.
“I can imagine being a protagonist in an alien-abduction story seems pretty meaningful, like a meaningful achievement, an accomplishment,” Abeyta says. That feeling of specialness plays an important role in these stories. “Feeling like your unexplained experience is a result of an alien abduction just seems more exciting and more important than a natural explanation.”
Still, the topic of alien encounters remains sensitive. I discovered just how sensitive when author Whitley Strieber, who some claim was abducted by non-humans in 1985, terminated our call after learning that I had not read his books. In a subsequent email, he wrote: “I don’t know if I was abducted by aliens or not. The whole point of my work is to describe what happened to me and attempt to understand what it was. I was turned into ‘alien abductee Whitley Strieber’ by the media. That is not my position.” He added: “You are lost in space when it comes to this subject, my friend – all of you.”
After I got off on the wrong foot with Strieber, though, he did come back and introduce me to highly decorated former US navy cryptologist Matthew Roberts. He was stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt when fighter jets recorded the infamous “Gimbal” and “Go Fast” videos of unexplained objects off the Florida coast during 2015, which went a long way to prompting the Pentagon’s UFO report.
Now retired from the military, Roberts is unmoved by the debunkers. “These things are picked up by multiple sensors that are sometimes from different manufacturers, so to think that they would all be glitching in the same way at the same time would just be impossible – it just doesn’t happen that way.”
Mick West, a science writer and video game programmer turned conspiracy-theory debunker, offers his own, more down-to-earth explanations for the objects: arguing that mundane things – tech glitches, camera glare, balloons and birds – are more likely than aliens.
However, now even the Pentagon has conceded there’s more to UFOs than that. In its nine-page report it states: “Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers and visual observation.” In other words, there was something out there and the images were not technical glitches. I ask Roberts about a theory put forward by West that the Gimbal object was glare caused by a nearby aircraft. “All aircraft – nationally, internationally – have to broadcast who they are. If they’re not broadcasting that, that’s very unusual. Mick West, bless his soul, he has never been in the military,” he says.
Roberts explains that, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, unidentified air tracks escalate very quickly. “It will go to the captain, it will go to the admiral, and they’ll want to Alien shirt know what that is because the thought would immediately be: ‘Is this a commercial airliner? Has it been hijacked?’ We’re not as incompetent as Mick West would have you believe. If something is unidentified, it absolutely has to be identified immediately.”
Despite the debunkers and proliferation of more mundane explanations for UFOs, reports of close encounters have persisted for decades. Terry Lovelace, a retired assistant attorney general in Vermont, USA, and author of Incident at Devil’s Den, kept his abduction to himself for 40 years due to fear of losing his job. He had a close encounter in 1977 while serving in the US air force.
Lovelace, now 67, was on a camping trip in Devil’s Den national park in northern Arkansas with a friend and colleague named Toby when things got strange. They were sitting around a fire, struggling to chat over the din of buzzing crickets and croaking tree frogs before everything went quiet. “That sounds kind of clichéd – out of a movie – but that is exactly what happened to us,” he says.
Three bright lights appeared on the horizon and moved in their direction. When the lights were overhead, they could see that they were emanating from a black triangular prism as wide as two city blocks.