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Over the weekend the topic of UFOs hit the front page of major news outlets around the world, with the revelation that the U.S. Department of Defence has, until fairly recently, been running a secret research program devoted to UFO encounters, known as the “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program” (AATIP).

The story broke through major outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico – all of whom, it seems, were provided information and access to interviewees many weeks ago (also worth mentioning perhaps, is that a co-writer on the NYT piece is Leslie Kean, author of the well-known UFO book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, And Government Officials Go On The Record. It seems likely that the ‘access’ was given by Tom DeLonge’s ‘To the Stars Academy’ (TTSA), the controversial new UFO research group that has solicited investment from the public (and has now raised over $2 million!)

There’s a lot to unpack out of all these stories, especially as they don’t always give the full context via the various links between people and organisations. As such, I’m sure we’ll be covering many angles here on the Grail in further posts, but I just wanted to discuss a few initial thoughts to try and get readers up to date with everything (so this post might jump around between a few topics rather randomly).

The Program

The New York Times notes that the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was originally set up in 2007, and took up $22 million of the $600 billion annual Defense Department budget. It was funded at the request of Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, who was Senate majority leader at the time, at the urging of his friend (and regular campaign funder, according to Politico), Robert Bigelow, and officials of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) who were apparently interested in Bigelow’s research.

Regular readers of the Grail will know Robert Bigelow well: the self-made tycoon (via his ownership of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain) has a long history of engaging with ‘Fortean’ topics. He was an early supporter of Dean Radin’s psi research, he funded a chair of consciousness studies at the University of Nevada, and also has been involved in funding serious research into the paranormal via his own organization, the National Institute of Discovery Science (NIDS). In more recent times his involvement in extraterrestrial affairs has been – at least on the surface – a bit more mundane: his company Bigelow Aerospace has been constructing inflatable space stations.

AATIP spent a number of years investigating reports of UFOs, led by a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, who recently resigned (in October) and became an employee of Tom DeLonge’s TTSA UFO research group. However, according to the reports, “most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow” (my emphasis). So most of the actual leg-work seems to have not been done by AATIP, but by Robert Bigelow’s organization. Interestingly, during the time that Bigelow’s group was conducting this research for AATIP, Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies also began funding the previously ‘amateur’ research efforts of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).

(For me at least, this should raise some concerns about the Reid-Bigelow relationship and the possibility of the program being a ‘kickback’: Bigelow supported Harry Reid’s election campaigns financially; Harry Reid gets government funding for Bigelow’s paranormal research. This may well have been done with full transparency and accountability; I only raise it here as a possible concern.)

Pentagon officials confirmed the existence of the program to the NYT, though they insisted that “the effort had ended after five years, in 2012”. Elizondo though said that while the funding had been withdrawn, he continued to work on the project by discussing anomalous sightings with defence officials.

Here’s Leslie Kean discussing the revelations on NBC over the weekend:

The Sightings

While the reveal about the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was certainly of interest – a little like the Nick Pope/UK UFO desk it seems – what was really compelling about the UFO articles over the weekend was the inclusion of one of the sightings investigated by them: a 2004 sighting by multiple military pilots. A companion article in the New York Times shared the testimony of one of those witnesses, former Navy pilot David Fravor.

Performing training manoeuvres in an F/A-18F Super Hornet operating from the U.S.S Nimitz, Fravor was tasked with investigating some strange radar returns by an operator aboard the U.S.S. Princeton, a Navy cruiser.

For two weeks, the operator said, the Princeton had been tracking mysterious aircraft. The objects appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up.

…The two fighter planes headed toward the objects. The Princeton alerted them as they closed in, but when they arrived at “merge plot” with the object — naval aviation parlance for being so close that the Princeton could not tell which were the objects and which were the fighter jets — neither Commander Fravor nor Commander Slaight could see anything at first. There was nothing on their radars, either.

Then, Commander Fravor looked down to the sea. It was calm that day, but the waves were breaking over something that was just below the surface. Whatever it was, it was big enough to cause the sea to churn.

Hovering 50 feet above the churn was an aircraft of some kind — whitish — that was around 40 feet long and oval in shape. The craft was jumping around erratically, staying over the wave disturbance but not moving in any specific direction, Commander Fravor said. The disturbance looked like frothy waves and foam, as if the water were boiling.

Commander Fravor began a circular descent to get a closer look, but as he got nearer the object began ascending toward him. It was almost as if it were coming to meet him halfway, he said.

Commander Fravor abandoned his slow circular descent and headed straight for the object.

But then the object peeled away. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he said in the interview. He was, he said, “pretty weirded out.”

Partial video of the sighting has been posted online by the To the Stars Academy along with their analysis of it (worth noting: TTSA posted videos from two separate incidents , and a number of sites seem to have confused the two in their articles about this incident and posted the wrong one). Here’s the ‘Nimitz FLIR-1’ video of the sighting:

The TTSA website also has a report by the witness which describes the sighting in more detail than the NYT article. For those interested in UFO reports, I highly recommend it as it is absolutely fascinating and gives a wonderful sense of ‘being there’.

The main concern I have is the account of what happened after the sighting. It seems super weird that by the time the pilots arrive back at the Nimitz, there is no debriefing officer to meet them, and crew members are already “making fun of them” by playing paranormal videos including Signs, Men in Black, and The X-Files via the on-board closed circuit television. This sounds either invented, or if not, as if the event was some sort of hazing ritual for the rookie pilot. The subsequent narrative also sounds fictional:

[The witnesses then] entered the Ready Room, where OK-2 slammed closed and secured both hatchways and began making an electronic copy of the gun tape from his F-18. During this time, Source made detailed written notes of the incident on available printer paper and mailed them to their Aunt with the notice “keep this because this is important stuff about some real X-Files shit”.

How was the electronic copy of gun tape carried out? And was the witness breaching military secrecy in sending his notes to his Aunt?

However, it’s worth pointing out that while this sighting is now world-famous courtesy of the mainstream press coverage over the weekend, information about it has been available online since March 2015 (with even more detail than this recent re-telling) at the Fighter Sweep blog, written by a good friend of Dave Fravor – and the video was apparently on YouTube for years before being taken down near the end of 2014 due to a new government investigation:

Somehow the tape made its way to YouTube. A few years after the incident, when first telling me the story, Dave pointed me to the link. It was unremarkable without the background information. But folded into context it was amazing, especially the slow-mo of the dot accelerating out of screen. For years I told the story to friends and showed them the video as punctuation.

However last month when I called Dave to refresh my memory before sitting down to write this bizarre encounter, he informed me that the video had been removed from YouTube. He told me that a government agency with a three letter identifier had recently conducted an investigation into the AAVs and had exhaustively interviewed all parties involved.

All of the seven flight crew, including 6 aircrew from VFA-41 and Cheeks from VMFA-232. The Fire Control Officer and Senior Chief from Princeton, and the radar operator on the E-2. They even queried the crew of the USS Louisville, a Los Angeles-class Fast-Attack submarine that was in the area as part of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group who reported there were no unidentified sonar contacts or strange underwater noises on that day.

(Worth noting also is that in the comments to the blog post, others who had previously known of the story speak up, including somebody who was aboard the U.S.S. Princeton at the time, and a friend of Fravor’s WSO on the flight who mentions that he had been told about the incident as well: “I would have thought it was BS if I didn’t know the WSO that told the story. Most level headed guy you’ll ever know. Smart as hell. He described it as a giant, flying Tylenol that could stop on a dime from super sonic speeds.”)

So the story seems fairly likely to be legit, with footage and multiple, authoritative witnesses.

Strange Metals

Returning to the revelation of the ‘black research’ program, there is one strange element (no pun intended) that has largely been passed over so far, but might be worth further attention. Veteran UFO researcher/journalist George Knapp – who knows fellow Las Vegan Bigelow quite well – stated on his Twitter feed that the most important line in the New York Times story has thus far been overlooked by most people: the fact that Bigelow Aerospace “modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena.”

Interestingly Tom DeLonge – formerly of the band Blink-182, now the guy at the forefront of the ‘To the Stars Academyhad tweeted the day before this news broke, “what do you get when you zap a layered piece of Bismuth and Magnesium with Terahertz energy? The dissolution of mass. Or, at least the effect of which. We are working on an experiment for you all.”

Which reminded me (and others) of our own Red Pill Junkie’s recent interview with UFO research legend Jacques Vallee, in which he discussed his current interest in the topic of ‘ejecta’ from UFOs, samples of which have been analysed previously and found to contain magnesium. Given Jacques’ own involvement in the past with Robert Bigelow’s anomalies research group the National Institute of Discovery Science (NIDS), was he discussing the same thing?

Where Does That Leave Us?

Firstly, it has to be said that this positive worldwide coverage has for me rehabilitated the reputation of the To the Stars Academy somewhat, after the earlier debacles of the ‘UFO Event‘ at which DeLonge launched his fund-raising, and his subsequent appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast.

However, I still think there’s plenty to be cautious about. The AATIP revelation, and Nimitz information, while very interesting, are certainly not a ground-breaking ‘disclosure’ event, as I’ve seen some people claiming already. As mentioned earlier, information about the Nimitz sighting has been on the web for years. The tiny (relatively-speaking) $22 million budget for AATIP, and the out-sourcing of investigative work to Robert Bigelow’s organization, hardly suggest that the government found alien bodies or technology – instead it sounds like a minor, pet program of one senator, created at the request of a campaign funder with a deep intereste in the topic. And, it must be remembered, up until this more ‘respectable’ news release over the weekend, DeLonge’s story has so far been a dodgy tale very much along the lines of previous psy-ops deceptions performed by the likes of intelligence officer Richard Doty.

Further questions buzzing around my head: what should we make of Robert Bigelow’s apparent ties with the Defence Intelligence Agency? Why does Harry Reid’s testimony both say the program accomplished great things, but shutting it down in  2011 was the right decision? And why, if it did shut down back then, was the Nimitz sighting apparently being investigated in 2014 (according to the Fighter Sweep blog post)?

Perhaps there is something truly happening here, and these individuals are doing their best to overcome government apathy, or secrecy, to bring it to the public. Or perhaps this is, overall, another disinformation campaign, but the weekend’s news was the ‘gain the trust’ part of it. Either way, we should continue to keep an open mind on the topic, but tread cautiously, as things progress.