UFO videos and cutting through the noise

The Pentagon officially released three videos taken by the infrared targeting pods aboard US Nay F-18s, showing what they call AAVs, for Anomalous Aerial Vehicles.

Theses videos were already known to the public, having been released in a New York Times article, along with the testimony of an officer who was flying the plane taking one of the videos.

Now there are UFO reports every day of the week and twice on Sunday, so normally this would not raise any eyebrows. Most if not all of them are what they are, meaning they are a report from an observer who could not identify a flying object. That does not mean they observed an actual object, or if they did, that this object was anything out of the ordinary. In order to get something out of these reports and not spend a lifetime looking at testimonies of “strange lights in the night”, some kind of filter has to be applied to get rid of the false positives. Then, if that filter is specific enough, the remaining cases warrant detailed investigation.

Getting rid of false positives

I think the following criteria are a good way to get rid of the noise of UFO reports and narrow down on the really interesting ones:

  • 1. Reports must involve detection of “something” through at least two different sensors (for instance, eyeball and radar, or two different radars)
  • 2. These sensors must be in significantly different wavelength: for instance, a visible optical sensor and a thermal one, or a radar.
  • 3. If the mk1 eyeball is used as a sensor, then there must be at least two different people who have seen the same thing at the same time. Eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable, because people tend to overinterpret what they see and remember only the interpretation: the raw sensor data is not available for later review.
  • 4. Besides, if the raw data is not available, the report must come from someone who has credibility to lose. It is always easy to find two idiots willing to say anything to get their fifteen minutes of fame on TV.
  • 5. The object must not behave or look like any known man-made object.

Bonus points if there is resolved data allowing to see the shape of the object, or a track to see its trajectory over time in 3D.

The Pentagon videos are interesting in that they pass that filter.

The requirement to have two sensors operating in different wavelength is supported by Raytheon, the makers of the infrared pods used in the videos. They also make advanced radars:

“So how best to track an alien spaceship in our skies?

Wide-area search of some form or another,” said Cummings. “I would want want at least two sensors, like radar and [electro-optical/infrared], to search the skies…One way to actually verify these and be absolutely certain that this is not an anomaly is to get the same target, behaving the same way on multiple sensors.”

2004 incident

The first one was taken in 2004. At that time, a US aircraft carrier was conducting drills off the coast of California.

According to Commander Fravor, who headed one of the fighters squadrons at the time, for two weeks, the radar operators aboard the USS Princeton cruiser saw radar contacts that would go from 80 000ft (around 25km up) to 2000ft (700m up), hover at that altitude for hours and then leave. The Princeton is a Ticonderoga-class air defence cruiser with a SPY-1 S-band radar. S band is between 2 GHz and 4GHz, so a wavelength between 7.5cm and 15cm.

At the end those two weeks, the air wing started flight operations and Cdr Fravor took off, with a weapon officer in the back of his two-seater F-18F. A second F-18F with two crew acted as a wingman.

The Princeton directed the flight to investigate one of the strange contacts that they had on their radar, and for the first time filled in the crews on what they had been seeing.

The flight headed towards the indicated point, and saw wave backwash on the surface of the sea, shaped like a cross. Above the backwash, was an object hovering above and moving in a cross pattern too. The object was in a “tic-tac” shape, estimated at 40ft (around 12m long) and was seen by Cdr Fravor and his weapons officer, as well as the crew in the other plane. So with all that, we have the dual-sensor, dual-wavelength criteria (Princeton radar and flight crew eyes). We have two people seeing it at the same time, and the person reporting it is a US Navy Commander, so that checks (3) and (4).

The object was in the air without any visible aerodynamic surfaces or rotor, and no visible exhaust. At some point, it rose to the altitude of the F-18s, then disappeared in an instant. So that check criteria (5). Furthermore, just after disappearing, the Princeton reacquired a suspicious radar contact 60 miles (around 100km) at the location the F-18s were being investigating the contact. Then planes then went back to look for it but could not find anything so they landed.

So that’s a first contact report that meets all the criteria, plus the bonus one of seeing the resolved shape of the object.

Just after landing, another two-seater F-18 took off, carrying a targeting pod with infrared and visible optical sensors. The crew managed to reacquired the “tic-tac” with the targeting pod:

Here is a close up of the video

At first the pod is in thermal mode and you can see a white hot blob, but cannot discern much of a shape, even when increasing the magnification. There is more than a point but the shape could very well be due to optical aberrations in the sensor. After some point, the pod is switched to visible optical (TV) mode. Thus, it uses a much shorter wavelength. Thermal infrared sensor use either Medium-Wave Infrared (MWIR) between 3 and 8 µm of wavelength, or Long-Wave InfraRed (LWIR) between 8 and 15µm. The latter is used to detect colder objects. By comparison, visible optical wavelength are between 400 and 800nm, so they are about 10 times shorter than MWIR. That means when using a TV sensor, the resolution is 10 times better than a MWIR sensor sharing the same optics (atmospheric effects notwithstanding).

The TV image at high magnification is this:

I would argue that this is a resolved observation, not just a point source that got its shape from optical aberrations in the pod or diffraction.

First, it is a dark target compared to its environment. The pod is in TV mode which usually is displayed with high intensities in white, and there is even the WHT indication at the bottom left which confirms this.

Bright target can appear to have a shape even though they are point sources with a very high intensity: the point is blurred a bit by the optical system, which gives a king of a blob shape on the sensor. Even with the blurring, if the intensity of the point source was very high, the intensity at the edges of the blob is still high enough to saturate the sensor (or the display), and thus the point target appears as a solid disk.

This is what occurred for instance in the famous “Chilean Navy UFO” video:

An infrared sensor in “black hot” mode imaged a commercial plane flying very far away. The plane has engines on each wing, each emitting a lot of heat and thus behaving as infrared point sources. The blurring and saturation effect described above resulted in it appearing as two black dots moving around, leading people to think it was an object shaped that way when it was only a sensor artifact.

Now for dark targets, this is different: since there is no such thing as a very negative intensity on the sensor, the possible intensity difference relative to the background is much more limited. So there is blurring, but there is usually no saturation of the sensor in the low-intensity-regions. What can happen is that the data is displayed in such a way that it adapts to the background, so on a very flat background the targets appear solid black. That could be the case in the F-18 video. However in most visible systems 0 intensity is displayed as black and there is a smooth transition as intensity increased, because that is what the eye does, so there is not a focus on a particular range of intensities at the risk of saturating the dark ones.

Anyway, if it is indeed a resolved observation, then we can understand why Cdr Fravor called it a “tic-tac”: it has about the same 1:2.5 aspect ratio . Tic-tacs are around 1:1.7 . It could have a larger aspect ratio, with perspective shortening it though. But since the air crews were able to see it from multiple angles and called it a tic-tac, it is probably viewed pretty close to broadside in the pod video.

Afterwards, the pod operator switches back to white hot infrared mode:

The object still has an elongated shape, and this is not due to motion blur on the sensor as the targeting pod follows it smoothly. However, because it is a bright target, and in infrared where the intensity emitted by hot objects can be enormous compared to the intensity of a cold background, the shape cannot be reliably assessed: the extent of the object in the vertical direction could just be due to the sensor artifact explained above.

The F-18s could not get any radar contact of the target on their radar.

2015 Incident

The other videos are from a different episode, which occurred on the US East coast and also involved US Navy F-18s. Compared to 2004, they had newer, electronically-scanned radar with a longer range, but still operating in the X band (2.5cm to 3.75cm).

Here a flight of unknown objects was acquired visually and on the F-18’s radar, and the targeting pod with a narrow field of view was focused on one. The crews described it as “cube in a transparent sphere”. Here we have a white hot IR video. That’s probably not resolved, so what get be gathered from it is that there are two separate heat sources, with one hotter or larger than the other.

Then the operator switched to black hot mode:

There’s not much more information , but there is a white halo. It could be the transparent sphere from the visual reports, or it could be an overshoot from digital image processing. It is not in the white hot image and the shape of the target is a bit different, so the black hot image is just not the white hot image inverted, there is a bit of a different processing applied.

At some point the object seems to rotate:

That might not mean much: if the shape is due to internal sensor artifacts, it will rotate when the sensor head of the pod rotates. The rotation occurs as the sensor looks directly ahead of the plane (indicated by the 0° in the top), which would be expected if the sensor head rotates on its axis as it switches to from left looking to right looking. The clouds would not rotate because although their location on the sensor chip would change, a digital rotation would be applied in post-processing to compensate that. However, even with digital rotation applied, the sensor artifacts would still rotate compared to the cloud. Here is a simple video explanation.

So with the radar, infrared and visual contacts from multiple crews, this event also passes critera (1) to (4). The description as “cubes within spheres” also means there were resolved visual observations. There are also reports that the crews from the E-2 planes saw the same objects, presumably on their radars operating at 400MHz (70cm wavelength).

The fact that the objects were hovering at 25 000ft in a 90 knots wind precludes air balloons, the lack of heat plume precludes jet engines. It could be helicopters, however the 12-hours on-station endurance, the hypersonic speeds and very high accelerations make that impossible. So that check criteria (5).

Third video

There is less context on the third video, it was acquired on the East Coast by an F-18 infrared pod too, and shows an object that looks like a tic-tac rather than the cube in a sphere of the previous one:

Compared to the other ones, it has range information, allowing to reconstruct the motion of the target. Range is probably given by the radar, it could also come from the laser ranging from the pod.

The reconstructed trajectory shows the target going 20 to 40 knots at 13 000 ft, so nothing exceptional. The target is dark in infrared. So there is nothing out of the ordinary in this video, it could well be a weather balloon.

Coincidences, Probabilities and Possibilities

The one West Coast incident, and the repeated incidents on the East Coast involve objects that show up on radar and on thermal imagery, as well as multiple visual reports up close from air crews. In all cases, the objects had a motion that is not compatible with current aircraft technology, with extremely fast accelerations, and very long endurance, without any heat plume.

That is assuming that the reports are truthful. Cdr Fravor and the other US Navy personnel who talked to the media might well be making stuff up. In that case, since their versions are similar, it means they coordinated to align them and there is probably a motive behind this operation. The motive could be that the US government has something that looks like the tic-tac or the cube in a sphere, for instance balloons used for surveillance. The company World View is developing a high-altitude balloon that use the winds to stay roughly in the same spot, and markets it as a communication and observation platform. Given that the USA used balloons drifting with the wind to spy on the USSR in the 1950s, an updated version could very well have been developed.

By associating the tic-tac shape of such balloons with claims of out-of-this-world aerodynamic performance, the US could try to avoid being linked with them, even if the actual balloons do not do anything out of the ordinary aerodynamically. It might backfire though: it would be hard to tell what country manufactured such a spy balloon, and the US talking about them to the public first makes them a prime suspect if one was ever recovered by the people it is supposed to spy on.

One argument against the conspiracy theory is that the 2004 incident was talked about in some aviation forums before it was reported to the New York Times, so it is not a recent creation, if it is one. But any security officer worth their salt and working on a cover story for a long-running secret program could ask active duty officers to start spreading rumours while the program is still in the design phase, and then bring them forward on the public stage when they are needed.

The videos could be fake too. However, they do not have a very interesting content, apart from confirming there is something that looks like a tic-tac from a certain angle. If the pilots are lying, finding a video of a commercial airplane shot from far away with the right angle would not be difficult, and give an almost identical result to what is in the 2004 video.

Nevertheless, if the reports are truthful, it seems strange that both incidents occurred on Navy training range just off the US coast. Still, there are good arguments that if anomalous aerial vehicles are widespread around the globe, it is there good multi-sensor contacts would occur:

  • There are not many institutions able to watch over a large airspace with modern radars, and able to send a jet to investigate up close when something suspicious is detected. It boils down to Air Forces and Navies with aircraft carriers
  • If the Anomalous Vehicles do not venture over land, then there are only 22 aircraft carriers presently in the world (excluding helicopter carriers) in 9 different countries. 11 are operated by the US Navy, and of the rest, most operate smaller ships with vertical landing aircraft that have more limited endurance than catapult-launched and arrested landing fighters. Thus, the US Navy represents the vast majority of flight hours of fighters at sea, and has for a long time.
  • In other navies, the carrier-borne fighters are single-seaters. Their pilots are very reluctant to talk about strange encounters to avoid appearing crazy. The US Navy, on the other hand, operates dual-seaters as well.
  • US fighters and ships probably have the most advanced sensors in the world: the F-18s started receiving AESA radars in 2005. In Europe, the first production AESA radar was delivered in 2012 only.
  • The US carriers and naval air wings spend a lot of time in the training areas close to the US coast, so it’s not that surprising that if something out of the ordinary is encountered, it happens there. However, carriers are not supposed to sit next to their home port doing circles and spend most of their time on deployment, so if the US coast has nothing special, these kind of incidents should happen elsewhere too.


While the videos released by the Pentagon do not show anything too much out of the ordinary, the stories told by multiple US Navy air crews are much more interesting. They speak of repeated radar, infrared and visual detections of objects that move in ways not compatible with current technology.

These stories could be made up to cover for a US secret project. Or they could be real. Similar high-quality reports from the military of countries that are not US allies would make it possible to tell which possibility is true.

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