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Return of the Airship: Mysterious Drones “Invade” the American Heartland

In the Fortean world you’ve got your all-time classics like ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs and the Loch Ness monster: the kind of perennial mysteries that have been around long before any of us, and are likely to continue popping in occasionally while inhabiting their particular niche of popular culture long after all of us leave our mortal coil. But you’ve also got your more seasonal mysteries, which may catch the imagination of the public –and the occasional attention of mainstream media– for just a limited amount of time; until they eventually ‘fizzle out’ either because people lose interest, or because the weird events stop just as enigmatically as they started. Examples of previous seasonal mysteries are the Morgellons disease hysteria, “sky sounds,” creepy clown sightings and encounters with black-eyed kids; but it seems the most recent one are the unexplained drones flying over the skies of Colorado and Nebraska.

The incursions started to be noticed during the past holiday season –which is why most of the world didn’t bother to pay attention until the beginning of 2020– when residents of Northeastern Colorado (Weld, Morgan, Logan, Phillips, Washington and Yuma) reported drones flying over their counties at night. The unmanned craft are said to be of the ‘fixed wing’ configuration –meaning they look and fly like small planes– and have an approximate wingspan of 6 feet showing strobing white lights on their fuselage, along with blinking red, blue and green lights on the wings; they are seen from 7 to 10 pm,  flying above 400 feet (too high to be heard) in formations of 17-19 objects, performing a sort of ‘grid-like’ pattern of drawing a square over a particular area and then continuing to a nearby location. The puzzlement of the local authorities only intensified once the drones crossed the state border, and were also reported over the western counties of Nebraska (Perkins, Chase, Hitchcock and Lincoln).

Map of drone sightings kept by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s office

The behavior and characteristics of the drones suggest someone is conducting a very detailed mapping of these Mid-Western and Western territories. Given these are not your typical toy drones –a long-range fixed wing platform like the one described by the witness can easily cost up to US$2000— and that someone is purportedly flying dozens of them at a time, many have pointed their fingers to the oil and gas industry. Yet the most puzzling thing about this story is that to this day NO ONE knows who is flying these drones; what’s more, both the DEA, the Air Force, DARPA, the DoD, the EPA, NORAD, and even the University of Colorado in Boulder have told the Denver Post they are not the ones responsible behind these night flights –both the FAA and the FBI are currently looking into the matter, but since this is an ongoing investigation they are keeping mum about their findings.

The involvement of the Colorado and Nebraska sheriff departments seemed more like an entertaining attempt to maintain the peace in their communities rather than an actual crime investigation, since technically no local laws have been broken yet (unlike other states, Colorado laws don’t identify the airspace around your property as the actual premises). Federal laws are another matter, though, since the size and purported weight of the drones would force the ones controlling them to be licensed pilots, and commercial UAVs are restricted from flying at night and away from the controller’s visual range. There’s also the fact that at least on one occasion one of these drones put a manned aircraft in potential danger, when a Flight for Life pilot reported a drone passing just 100 feet below his medical helicopter en-route to Fort Morgan –a huge break in aviation regulations. 

It was because of this, and the worry that sooner or later some trigger-happy citizen would end up taking a shot at these nocturnal invaders and cause an even bigger public problem, that the Colorado Department of Public Safety put together a joint ‘drone task force,’ and fitted a fire brigade plane with multiple hi-tech sensors in order to conduct a survey in the hopes of either detecting the location of the anonymous drone pilots’ headquarters, or a terrain being used as a clandestine landing strip –even though there are several fixed-wing models with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities. But the operation was a complete failure. 

The fact that every single branch of the United States government denies having any knowledge about the purpose of these drone flights, and the identity of their owners, is perhaps the most confounding element in this story; you’d think a Homeland Security which doesn’t hesitate on screening the shoes and shampoo bottles of airline passengers –or keeping toddlers locked up in cages– would like to find out if the drones represent a danger to American soil. A possibility of a cover-up is not unthinkable, especially since at one time the Phillips County Sheriff’s office told the news they had allegedly spotted a truck box with antennae –a possible mobile control center for the drones– but then just 2 days later they suddenly said “it was no longer relevant,” and refused to give any further statements(!).

Aside from the fact that no-one seems to know what they are actually doing, is there anything particularly anomalous about the drones? According to some testimonies, a few of the drones have been observed floating over town areas for more than an hour; a feature which seems incompatible with the capabilities of fixed-wing UAVs, which can stay airborne far longer than your typical rotary drone, but are not designed to hover (hybrid VTOL are the exception, though); commercial rotary drones (which are favored by TV and film companies) can only stay airborne from 15 to 20 minutes on average when they run on electric batteries; gas-fueled rotor-based drones, on the other hand, can stay airborne for 40-45 minutes, which is half the time reported by the witnesses of the Colorado drones.

And over at Saunders county, Nebraska, the residents believe the drones are capable of sensing when someone is about to take a picture of them… and they turn off their lights –urban myth, or are the UAVs equipped with sensors capable of detecting the EM fields generated by cell phones? And if that is the case, why try to remain undetected?

Fixed-wing drone with VTOL capability. These drones can take off and land vertically, but they are not designed to hover for long periods of time.

Reading about all these recent news reminded me of a passage found in Greg Bishop’s book Project Beta, which deals primarily with the story of Paul Bennewitz and his controversial deals with Bill Moore and Richard Doty, but it also touches upon Greg Valdez’s investigation of cattle mutilations in New Mexico during the mid-1970’s; which forced him to become an unwilling UFO hunter in the process, since mysterious lights were sometimes reported by ranchers in connection to the deaths of their cows. On page 12, Greg Bishop writes:

Valdez and three other law enforcement officers had actually cornered one of the furtive lights in a foggy pasture late one night. In an area about the size of a football field, the cops surrounded and then approached a glowing, hovering orange light. As they closed the distance between them, the light abruptly winked out. The moonless night concealed the object as it floated just above their heads with, as Valdez says, “a sound like a small lawn mower motor” [emphasis mine]. This was not the typical behavior accompanied by the whining, whirring or buzzing sounds usually associated with unidentified furtive flying lights or craft, unless the “aliens” around Dulce used gas-powered engines when shifting into low gear.”

Understand that I’m not saying the mystery drones over Colorado and Nebraska are connected to cattle mutilations –as far as we can tell, there haven’t been any current mutilation cases over those areas of Colorado and Nebraska; what I am saying is that 40 years ago cases which were commonly associated with UFO activity would nowadays be ascribed to drones. Also, that 40 years is a pretty long time when it comes to the R&D of UAV technology…

But regardless of whether there’s something truly exotic or unexplainable about the mysterious drones or not –other than their seemingly clandestine intentions– as a student of the paranormal it is very tempting for me to draw certain parallels between this modern story (and the current paranoia surrounding it) with the Airship mystery of the 1890’s, which captured the imagination of the American public more than a century ago: The enigmatic airships were seen at night, and some of their appearances geographically coincide with these new drone reports. And just like their great-grandfathers before them, the new witnesses of these nocturnal incursions show puzzlement, but they don’t react with the fear humans exhibit when they think they’re in the presence of something genuinely inexplicable; in the 1890’s the public assumed the airships had a perfectly reasonable explanation –an anonymous inventor was testing a new technological marvel, and sooner and later the aerial invention would be revealed to the whole world– and nowadays residents of Colorado and Nebraska counties may think a swarm of drones flying overhead at night are a bit creepy, but they would also have the assumption that someone somewhere knows what’s going on, and that sooner or later the authorities or the media will reveal who is behind it.

The media is also behaving in a freakishly similar fashion as their XIXth century predecessors: The local news services are the first to break the sightings, which is followed by major media outlets because the reports are popular among the public. But when the story doesn’t seem to show an easy explanation –be that a shy airship inventor in 1897, or greedy moguls prospecting the land in 2019– then they begin to question the whole thing, and attribute it all to mass hysteria or hoaxes. “The drones were never real, you know,” we hear the comforting explanations of Aviation contributor Col. Stephen Ganyard, USMC (Ret). The good people of Colorado and Nebraska were just misidentifying shooting stars and common airplanes; nothing to see here, folks, move along!

Technology and social customs may change, we replaced telegraph wires with Telegram SMS messages and we longer wear top hats or corsets, but it seems human nature remains much the same when it comes to the way we react to confounding events. Will we read stories in the weeks to come of Colorado farmers encountering the anonymous drone operators, who will calmly reassure them about what they are doing (just the same as the airship crews of the 1890’s would inform astounding witnesses about their trajectory plans, or ask them for supplies bought at the nearest hardware store)? Will the seasonal mystery of the drone flights cease as abruptly as the airship flap, or will the public simply grow tired of it and move on to the next breaking news in their incessant crave for novel entertainment? Will perhaps future students of weirdness read these paragraphs 100 years from now, still uncertain about what really transpired over the skies of the American Heartland long before they were born? 

Frankly, I would personally find that more amusing than disappointing.

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