Nick Richardson

In December, footage of UFOs taken from US military planes, officially declassified and approved for release by the US government, was published online by an organisation called To The Stars Academy. The first video of two – a third was released in March – was captured by a US Navy Super Hornet fighter plane using an infrared camera. It’s only about thirty seconds long, and the date of the footage and the plane’s location have been withheld. As soon as it starts one of the pilots can be heard saying, ‘It’s a fucking drone, bro,’ as the camera locks onto a small white blob (the camera is in ‘white-hot’ mode, so hot things show up as white), longer than it is wide, flying over the clouds at a steady distance from the Super Hornet. The other pilot replies: ‘There’s a whole fleet of them.’ ‘My gosh,’ the first pilot says; the other points out that the ‘drones’ are flying against the wind and that the windspeed is 120 knots. In the last few seconds of the video the object rotates 90º about one of its axes and the first pilot splutters, ‘Look at that thing!’, to which the other replies: ‘It’s rotating!’

The second piece of footage was taken from a Super Hornet in 2004 off the coast of San Diego using the same camera/sensor equipment as for the first video. There’s a white blob, then the camera switches to ‘TV mode’ and zooms in to reveal that the blob is oblong-shaped. Just before the footage ends the UFO suddenly accelerates and speeds out of shot to the left. There’s no audio, but To The Stars has released a recent interview with the pilot of a different plane and a declassified report by another pilot, both of whom saw the UFO that day too. In the interview the pilot, David Fravor, explains that he was out on a routine training exercise when he was told that the exercise had been suspended, that he was being sent on a real mission instead, and that he was to fly to a point thirty miles west. When Fravor arrived at the location he saw an object ‘about the size of a 737’ – so nearly 140 feet long – beneath the surface of the sea. Above it was a wingless, fifty-foot-long UFO shaped like a ‘tic-tac’, which flew in erratic patterns over the submerged object, then began to mirror Fravor’s plane’s movements as he brought it around in a circle. When Fravor flew towards the UFO it shot off at great speed; he went back to see what had happened to the thing under the water, but it had disappeared. Later, his colleagues confirmed that the navy had been tracking the UFO for two weeks, and that the object had been observed rapidly descending from an altitude of eighty thousand feet before hovering a while then disappearing. The report by the pilot, ‘a highly decorated and recognised expert in aviation and navy combat flight operations with Top Secret clearance’, contains many of the same observations as Fravor’s account. He also saw the underwater object and the tic-tac, which ‘tumbled’ when pursued ‘into nonsensical angles’.

I was surprised that the US government signed off on the release of these materials. They have publicly admitted, in effect, that highly trained and experienced pilots (Fravor had been a pilot for 16 years when he saw the UFO) have seen aircraft that they are unable to identify, doing things that they and their colleagues are unable to explain. ‘Unexplained’ doesn’t mean alien, as the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson emphasised on CNN after the footage was released: ‘Just because you don’t know what it is you’re looking at doesn’t mean it’s intelligent aliens visiting from another planet.’ Well, yes, but credible alternative explanations are lacking. The sophistication of the recording equipment, the number and quality of witnesses, the tic-tacs’ angular flight patterns and the fact that they had been tracked for days would seem to rule out the possibility that the UFOs were some kind of unusual weather phenomenon or mirage. It’s also unlikely that another government, or non-governmental agency, would have been able to develop flight technology with capabilities that exceed the United States’ own without the military and intelligence agencies knowing about it. These UFOs fly with no obvious propulsion system, they’re capable of hypersonic velocities without leaving a ‘signature’ – no sonic boom, no vapour trails – and they can manoeuvre with acrobatic flexibility. Some have suggested that the UFOs may be prototypes that belong to the US, citing precedents like the Roswell incident of 1947, when an object that many believed to be an alien craft crash-landed on a ranch in New Mexico: it wasn’t until the 1990s that the US government revealed that what was initially claimed to be a ‘weather balloon’ was in fact a nuclear surveillance test balloon produced as part of the top-secret Cold War initiative Project Mogul. But if the aircraft in the footage belonged to the US military, why would the footage be declassified now? And if the technology was being developed in 2004, no matter by whom, what has become of it? Fravor, when asked about the origins of the UFO by a Fox News presenter shortly after the footage was released, said that he believed it was ‘not from this world’.

The release of the footage may be strange, but the mechanism of its release is stranger still. To The Stars was founded by Tom DeLonge, who used to be the singer in the pop-punk band Blink-182. He is a long-time UFO obsessive: as a member of Blink-182 he wrote songs about them (like ‘Aliens Exist’, from the album Enema of the State) and spoke about them in interviews. In 2011 he launched a website called Strange Times, which hosted news and articles on UFOs, cryptozoology and the paranormal, and in 2015 he quit the band and founded To The Stars – the title of one of DeLonge’s solo albums and of a sci-fi novel by L. Ron Hubbard – as a media company. Around that time he gave an interview to Paper magazine in which he talked about his ‘sources from the government’ and claimed his phone had been tapped. He sounded crazy then, but less so now. When To The Stars Academy was launched in October 2017, DeLonge broadcast a livestream on YouTube in which he explained that shortly after the publication of his novel about UFOs, Sekret Machines, in 2016, he was contacted by ‘a man from a certain agency’ who told him: ‘You know things you shouldn’t know and I need to know who the hell you are.’ He was invited to meet with ‘generals’ and members of the intelligence community, and to visit Lockheed’s advanced development labs, known as the ‘Skunk Works’: he describes being taken through a machine gun guarded gate into a hallway lined with speakers emitting white noise, which led to a lab where engineers were working on what looked like spaceships. The official version of what happened next is that a number of the people he met, concerned at the lack of investigation into UFO sightings, agreed to join DeLonge’s company and to make To The Stars the exclusive venue for newly declassified material.

The optics of the livestream (which is still up on YouTube) are unsettling. DeLonge talks of the founding of the organisation and his encounters with the US military-intelligence establishment with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a child who can’t believe his dreams are coming true. He describes To The Stars as ‘science fiction Disney for adults’. Meanwhile, behind him sit the other members of the organisation, five veterans of the US military and intelligence communities, all whom look like they know where the bodies are buried. DeLonge’s co-founders are Jim Semivan, a ‘retired’ senior CIA agent, and Hal Puthoff, a physicist, engineer and Nasa adviser who directed a CIA investigation into the possibility of psychic espionage back in the 1980s. Their ‘director of global security and special programmes’ is Luis Elizondo, another former intelligence agent who ran the ‘Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification’ department at the Pentagon which had been minding the tic-tac footage. The ‘national security affairs adviser’ is Chris Mellon, deputy assistant secretary of defence for intelligence during the Clinton and Bush administrations, whom DeLonge describes as ‘our main conduit to Washington’. In the livestream – and in a recent piece for the Washington Post – Mellon talks about the UFO footage and says that one of the main reasons for getting involved with To The Stars Academy is that he wants it to trigger a new space race: alerting the public to the technological capabilities of aliens will, he believes, inspire a new age of technological innovation, just as Sputnik did in the 1950s. Steve Justice, a senior engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works and the director of To The Stars’s ‘Aerospace Division’, adds that the intention is to ‘harvest’ alien technologies and use them to develop ‘exotic craft’. That would be far out enough in itself, but To The Stars isn’t stopping there: a video on its website describes a plan to perform research into ‘genetics, warp drive metrics, beamed energy propulsion, brain-computer interfaces’ and ‘consciousness’.

People are sceptical about To The Stars, and not only because its plans – not to say its very existence – seem so implausible. One thing is the way it’s funded. To The Stars is a public benefit corporation looking for investment from ‘global citizens’; their spaceships, initially, will be crowdfunded, via direct investment in the organisation and via the sale of T-shirts, books including Sekret Machines (and a hokey new novel called Poet Anderson … In Darkness), and other merchandise. Luis Elizondo’s Aerospace Threat Identification Department had its funding cut by the Pentagon in 2012, and some believe that he and the other greybeards are just exploiting DeLonge for cushy jobs at the expense of UFO believers. It’s a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who promises to reveal secrets on the condition that you pay for them first. But perhaps it’s unlikely that people like Mellon and Justice – well-known and respected in their fields – would attach themselves to a seedy money-making venture. And Elizondo is an expert in microbiology and parasitology and an inventor with several patents: he doesn’t need UFOs to make a living.

A more serious issue, as far as members of the international Ufology community are concerned, has to do with the relationship between DeLonge and the other members of his company. Watching the To The Stars livestream, I couldn’t shake off the feeling DeLonge is out of his depth. ‘The department of defence has a culture of secrecy,’ he says at one point, ‘not out of disdain for its citizens but because it’s appropriate for protecting its people and methods.’ I’ll do exactly what they tell me to, in other words. But the intelligence and defence establishment’s history of exploiting Ufologists is well known, especially to the Ufologists themselves. The documentary film The Mirage Men, which came out in 2013, begins by telling the story of Paul Bennewitz, a businessman from Albuquerque who was driven mad by spies in the 1980s. Bennewitz had noticed strange lights and sounds coming from a nearby military base and reported them to staff there, who assigned him to an agent called Richard Doty. Doty discovered that Bennewitz had collected a lot of accurate data relating to a top-secret project and decided to mislead him into thinking he’d been witnessing UFOs. He encouraged Bennewitz in his research, feeding him disinformation that led him to believe he’d discovered a secret alien base. Bennewitz obsessively collected evidence, much of it planted by Doty and his colleagues, which he then passed on to other UFO researchers and government agencies, eventually becoming so deranged that his family had to have him committed.

Doty, who is interviewed in the film, admits that this was common practice during the Cold War: there was always a chance that UFO researchers could stumble on real military secrets, so it was better to keep them occupied with fake leads. Another former agent in the film admits to disguising helicopters as UFOs in order to conceal what they were really doing, which was measuring radiation levels after testing nuclear explosives. Doty also fed disinformation to Bill Moore, who wrote the first book on Roswell and who, in exchange for this disinformation, reported back to Doty on developments in the Ufology community so that any inquiries undertaken by UFO-spotters that might lead to the exposure of military secrets could be misdirected. This community is wary of DeLonge’s team, understandably. They’ve seen energetic but credulous young men cajoled into spreading bullshit – or the wrong kind of bullshit – before.

There’s reason to think, you could argue, that this time it’s different. The Cold War is over; Mellon, Semivan and Elizondo are not operating from the shadows as Doty did; and there is genuine declassified UFO footage for the first time, as well as pilots’ reports. But it is true that whatever we get from To The Stars is going to be an establishment-vetted and controlled version. A surprising number of Ufologists believe that this will only be a partial disclosure because the real truth is that UFOs aren’t alien at all. This notion grew out of the work of Jacques Vallée, a French astronomer and computer scientist whose books draw on psychoanalysis, mythography, sociology and occultism in their investigation of the UFO phenomenon. In 1955, aged 16, Vallée saw a UFO over his home in Pontoise, north-west of Paris. In 1961, while working at France’s National Space Committee, he apparently witnessed a senior member of staff destroying tracking tapes of a UFO and decided then that he would begin investigating UFOs himself. There are too many cases of UFO sightings by reliable, sober, sceptical witnesses – often groups of them simultaneously – for their accounts to be explained away as clouds or hallucinations. But as Vallée continued his research he came to realise that the eyewitness reports were at odds with the idea that UFOs and their pilots come from outer space.

In Passport to Magonia (1969) Vallée examined the overlap between modern accounts of UFO experiences and the folklore of fairies, gnomes and elves. The book’s contention is that UFOs, and their pilots, behave much more like these creatures than like intelligent, technologically advanced emissaries of an alien race. Take the case of Joe Simonton, a farmer from Wisconsin, who had a silver flying saucer land in his garden at 11 o’clock in the morning one day in April 1961. Simonton said that there were three men in the machine, each of them about five feet tall, and that they had dark hair and skin, wore turtleneck tops and knitted helmets, and ‘resembled Italians’. The aliens requested water, and in return gave Simonton an oatmeal pancake that they had cooked on a grill in their ship. This isn’t the kind of thing that humans would do if we were technologically advanced enough to go about the universe meeting aliens: we would appear to their leaders and present them with gifts and documents of our civilisation’s achievements. But in folklore it is common for fairies to appear to rural people and exchange food with them, often wheat or cakes. It is common for fairies to leave rings of flattened crops behind them, just as it is for UFOs, and it’s common for fairies to steal crops and livestock, just as it is in the lore of UFO sightings: there have been hundreds of reports, often from farmers, of alien creatures that have descended in shiny aircraft and stolen cows, sheep, dogs, even bags of fertiliser. ‘How can we explain that the phenomenon makes itself obvious to rural populations but avoids overt contact,’ Vallée asks, ‘choosing instead to deliver its message in a series of high-strangeness incidents?’ Humans have come into contact with these entities throughout history and have sought to explain them in the dominant terms of their culture: as angels, elves or aliens. But none of these explanations has accounted satisfactorily for their cryptic behaviour.

There are no entities in the footage released by To The Stars, or in the pilots’ accounts of their experiences with the tic-tacs. But the tic-tacs did behave more weirdly than anyone at To The Stars seems to want to acknowledge. What are we to make of the massive object in the ocean that the tic-tac, as described by Fravor, seemed to be drawing to the surface? Or of the fact that the tic-tacs, which the navy had been tracking for two weeks, had been dropping out of the sky from a height of eighty thousand feet and hovering over the ocean, before shooting off at great speed? This doesn’t sound like the behaviour of alien pilots on parade, or on some kind of reconnaissance mission. Again, the notion that this activity was performed by advanced, extraterrestrial entities seems unlikely, unless this species is so advanced that its motivations are incomprehensible to us.

Vallée has pointed out that UFOs have often indicated the way forward technologically. Flying ships were seen over medieval Europe, and the entities who flew them claimed to be from the world above the clouds; at the end of the 19th century people saw ‘airships’, piloted by people claiming they were from Mars. To The Stars is hoping that the footage it has released will bring about the next wave of aerospace technology – that it will point engineers towards innovations they wouldn’t otherwise have considered. But the tic-tac may not be a spacecraft, or even a machine, at all. What if To The Stars exists because it’s safer to have Tom DeLonge let us believe in aliens with superior technology than it is to acknowledge that reality itself may be different from what we think it is, and that the US government doesn’t understand it either?