When the New York Times broke the story this week that Senator Harry Reid had funneled tens of millions of dollars to a friend and donor, it seemed like a fairly run-of-the-mill corruption story. This would not be Harry Reid’s first ethics scandal. The details of this story, however, are unlike any other.
Robert Bigelow is not the typical beneficiary of congressional graft. The seventy-three-year-old real estate tycoon and aerospace CEO has already made his billions; the $22 million five-year program is essentially a rounding error for him. The program itself would also be an unusually circuitous way to deliver a donor kickback: rather than deliver a tax credit or a simple government contract, Reid established a new program, known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, hidden in the Department of Defense’s secretive “black money" budget for classified and other secret programs. The Times mentions that two other Senators, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Ted Stevens of Alaska, signed off on the program in their roles as the senior Democrat and Republican, respectively, on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. This bipartisan support is noteworthy; Stevens in particular, as a leading Senate Republican, had little incentive to support a program designed only to help the Democratic Majority Leader reward his donors. Also noteworthy are Reid’s efforts in 2009 to designate the program a “restricted special access program,” a designation that would not significantly affect the program’s funding, but which would provide more security for the information produced by the program. While plenty of contractors make their living through the Pentagon’s bloated $600 billion annual budget, most find an easier route than jumping through those sorts of political and bureaucratic hoops. This program cannot be explained away as just another tale of political corruption.
The specifics of the program remain vague; parts of it remain classified, and it remains unclear whether it even continues to exist. The details the Times did discover, however, are equal parts fascinating and alarming. The goal of the program was to investigate sightings of “unidentified aerial phenomena,” particularly those reported by U.S. military personnel. As part of the program, a warehouse in Las Vegas was modified to store metal alloys that are believed to have been recovered from these phenomena. Ralph Blumenthal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the Times and one of the co-authors of the story, revealed on MSNBC that the term “alloys” was used because the objects recovered from the phenomena were “some kind of compound that [scientists] don’t recognize.” Reid’s program, in other words, managed to discover some sorts of alloys that contemporary materials science cannot identify.
The Times published the story about Reid’s program on page A1 of the Sunday edition; buried inside the paper on A27 was another story: an interview with two former Navy pilots, Cmdr. David Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight, describing an encounter … over the Pacific in 2004.
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.
The object they encountered was one of many that had been appearing on the radar screen of the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Princeton for the past two weeks. These 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.” An account by one of Fravor’s former squadron mates, Paco Chierici, mentions that these objects were consistently appearing and disappearing over the same geographic coordinates. Chierici also notes that the Princeton was equipped with an AN/SPY-1B radar, one of the most sophisticated radar systems on any U.S. warship. As a result, its documentation of these objects ought to be considered highly credible.An accompanying video, shot the same day and place as Fravor’s sighting, depicts some kind of object hanging in the sky, without the sort of exhaust plume that would be produced by an engine. The video was captured by a Raytheon Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod mounted on Fravor’s F/A-18F fighter jet, and displays the object using both infrared and visual imaging. At the end of the video, the object rapidly accelerates away, fast enough that the sensor cannot track its movement. According to the Times story, after their initial encounter with the object, Fravor and Slaight were then ordered to a rendezvous point sixty miles away, but the object was picked up on radar by the Princeton less than a minute later at that location. To travel 60 miles in less than a minute, the object would have to be traveling at more than 3,600 miles per hour, or 4.7 times the speed of sound, speeds previously only known to have been achieved by experimental rocket-powered aircraft. Additionally, despite appearing to achieve near-hypersonic flight, neither the pilots nor their instruments recorded any indication of a sonic boom; while research is underway, the ability to achieve those speeds without creating a sonic boom is not known to currently exist.
The Aviationist also dredged up an event summary posted on Above Top Secret, a conspiracy-focused forum, in 2007. While not authenticated, the event summary is consistent with Fravor’s account and the callsign used matches Fravor’s squadron. If the event summary is accurate, the object was also able to climb and turn in a way that Fravor’s jet could not match. As the Navy’s own flight manual puts the plane’s maximum G-force endurance at 7.5Gs, to turn tighter than an FA-18F means that the object was experiencing gravitational forces at the limits of human endurance.
Another video, published by the Times depicts another encounter, at an unknown date and location, between Navy pilots and “a fleet” of similar objects. Despite lacking any obvious flight surfaces or propulsion systems, the object is nevertheless flying at a constant direction and speed into 120 knot winds. The video depicts the object rotating, seemingly with no atmospheric resistance, and slowing down with no apparent loss of altitude. Put simply, the craft depicted in both videos appears capable of flight in a way that does not resemble and cannot be replicated by human technology. In an interview with Politico, Elizondo suggested that these videos represent merely a small fraction of the “scores of unexplained sightings” of similar craft acting in ways that defy our current understanding of the laws of aerodynamics and physics, primarily spotted “in the vicinity of nuclear facilities, either ships at sea or power plants.”
All this is, of course, not definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life. The rational explanations for the events witnessed by Fravor and Slaight, however, fail to stand up to scrutiny. The most easily dismissed is natural phenomena; while a mirage may deceive the naked eye, it is difficult to imagine a visual illusion capable of fooling an infrared targeting pod, much less capable of consistently appearing on the Princeton’s radar in the same manner over a period of several weeks. While each system may glitch individually, it is highly unlikely that an optical illusion happened to coincide with the location of a radar glitch, and also that the targeting pods experienced a craft-shape glitch on their screens at the exact same time in a manner consistent with the other two illusions.
Also unlikely is a test flight by another country. The location suggests any test flight would have to have been launched from a submarine, which would also explain the surface disturbance Fravor observed. But Chierici mentions that the USS Louisville, a Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine, was in the area that day and reported “no unidentified sonar contacts or strange underwater noises.” It also seems exceedingly unlikely that a country like Russia or China has not only made such amazing advancements in aeronautical engineering that they are able to defy our understanding of the laws of physics, but would choose to flaunt that discovery by testing it less than a hundred miles from San Diego.
The only remaining rational observation is that the Navy pilots simply stumbled into an Air Force test flight of an experimental aircraft. If an experimental aircraft, however, the video depicts an exceptional one. It is faster and more maneuverable than any aircraft or drone currently in service today. Additionally, all known aircraft, manned and unmanned, have some kind of rotor, wing, or engine, but the craft recorded in the video lacked anything of the sort. Past secret projects, like the B-2 stealth bomber or the SR-71 Blackbird, became known to the public within a few years; Lockheed engineers started work on the Blackbird, for example, in 1958, with the plane’s existence becoming known to the general public just six years later. Yet today, thirteen years later, there is still nothing in the U.S. inventory anything like this craft, and none of its design features have appeared in recent projects like the F-35. And, of course, it seems out of character for the Pentagon to permit the release of detailed videos of an active government project. The videos don’t just depict a stealthy new aircraft; they depict an aircraft that, based on our current engineering ability and knowledge of aerodynamics, should not be able to exist.
The director of the program claimed in 2009 that “the United States was incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered,” and the videos released serve to substantiate his claim. Based on all publicly available knowledge, we cannot build something that looks or acts like the craft Fravor observed and, perhaps more importantly, we don’t know who can. Initially, this story appeared to be a story of Harry Reid either steering taxpayer money to an influential donor or, at most, using government funds to indulge a frivolous pet project. This program, however, has found evidence of the existence of some kind of aircraft more advanced than anything ever seen before, a discovery that defies rational—or terrestrial—explanation.
Sam Joyce is a second-year political science major and environmental studies minor interested in healthcare, climate justice and the labor movement. Last summer, he interned on a successful mayoral campaign in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. In Chicago, he is involved with the South Side Weekly, Students Organizing United with Labor, and the Young Democratic Socialists of America.