Multiple F/A-18 Pilots Disclose Recent UFOs Encounters, New Radar Tech Key In Detection

A major upgrade in fighter jet radar tech seems to have been key in detecting and tracking bizarre objects flying in military training airspace.

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U.S. Navy

In a major breakthrough in what could be the most fascinating story of our time, five U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet crewmen have recounted a number of incredibly strange encounters with unidentified flying objects off the East Coast of the United States. Two of the pilots went on the record. The surreal craft they encountered had performance that defies known propulsion and aerodynamic capabilities, and are described as looking like something akin to special effects you would have seen in a sci-fi movie circa the late 1980s. The pilots' accounts also point to a major sensor upgrade on their aircraft that made the presence of these craft even detectable at all. 

What's even more important is that these events took place as recently as 2015, over a decade after the now famous Nimitz incident with the so-called 'Tic Tac' craft occurred. This is all coming to light—at least officially—just weeks after the U.S. Navy said it is changing its procedures for its service members reporting unexplained phenomenon in their operating environments. 

The War Zone had recently published an in-depth expose about the Navy's procedural changes, a number of other revelations surrounding the Tic Tac incident, and more recent developments, that concluded that the phenomenon is indeed real. That hard to swallow fact has huge implications, regardless of the objects' origins. 

Lt. Ryan Graves, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot who has been in the Navy for a decade has come forward after talking to the Navy and Congress about the events he and his squadron mates witnessed between 2014 and 2015. In a New York Times article published on May 26th, 2019, Graves described how strange craft would appear in their training airspace and persist there not for minutes, but many hours, or even days at a time. 

“These things would be out there all day... Keeping an aircraft in the air requires a significant amount of energy. With the speeds we observed, 12 hours in the air is 11 hours longer than we’d expect.”

The persistence of these craft was in no way the strangest thing about them. Beyond being able to drop tens of thousands of feet in a matter of a second or two and possessing flight characteristics that are unobtainable with known technology, the unannounced visitors looked like nothing else on the planet. But before we get into all that, let's rewind to how all this began and talk about a very important detail that was largely glazed over in the New York Times piece. 

Graves and another pilot who was willing to disclose his identity—Lt. Danny Accoin—were both Naval Aviators serving in Navy Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11), the Red Rippers, based out of Naval Air Station Oceana near Norfolk, Virginia. Strange anomalies started showing up on their Super Hornets' radars in 2014, while they were out on training maneuvers in the vast warning areas off the Atlantic Coast between Virginia and Florida. 

Skyvector.com

You can see the massive warning and military operating areas that lay off the southeastern seaboard of the United States. All of those large dashed boxes are areas that can be restricted for military training. These swathes of ocean and sky are critical to national security as they let aircraft, and vessels in some cases, operate far from the civilian population in a similar manner as they would on deployment. This includes flying at supersonic speeds for fighter aircraft and using powerful sensors and electronic warfare gear that may interfere with daily life near populated areas.

According to Graves, Naval Aviators really began noticing the objects in their training areas after a major technological leap in air combat capability was fielded across much of the U.S. Navy's combat aircraft inventory. It's a technology that isn't detailed in the New York Times' report, but one we talk about here constantly at The War Zone—Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars. 

Before the mid-2000s, Navy tactical fighter aircraft were equipped with mechanically scanned array (MSA) pulse doppler radar systems of varying capabilities and power outputs. So-called 'legacy' F/A-18AC/D Hornets were largely equipped with the AN/APG-73 radar. This was a very capable MSA fire control radar with multiple air-to-air, air-to-ground, and synthetic aperture ground mapping modes. Still, it was developed based on 1980s technology, as the vast majority of the fighter radars in service with U.S. military aircraft were at the time. 

Raytheon

AN/APG-73 MSA radar on a legacy Hornet.

Even the earlier batches of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets delivered in the first half of the 2000s were equipped with this same radar set. But as production of the Super Hornet matured, the AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar was installed in place of the AN/APG-73. It became operational on a handful of Super Hornets in 2007, with the number of Navy fighters equipped with it slowing growing larger ever since. Today, it is commonplace across the Navy's Super Hornet and Growler fleets. Also, a diverse array of older aircraft, including the legacy Hornet and even the B-52 Stratofortress, are now being back-fitted with modular AESA radar sets, breathing new life into older airframes. 

The AN/APG-79, and other AESA radars like it on fighter aircraft, offer a huge leap in capability in virtually every respect. This included a massive improvement in reliability as a steerable radar dish is no longer needed with electronically scanned arrays. Mechanically scanned arrays have to quickly sweep in all directions physically and even under heavy G forces and buffeting, and they have to survive crashing down on a carrier deck after missions over and over. So, migrating to a system with few moving parts was a massive coup in terms of reliability for Navy fighters. 

US Navy via Researchgate.net

The AN/APG-79 installed on a Super Hornet. 

In addition to better readiness, and more importantly, the AN/APG-79's resolution, range, speed of scan, simultaneous tracking, and target discrimination abilities are drastically improved over its predecessor. Even the ability to operate in air-to-air and air-to-ground modes at the same time has been introduced. In addition, advanced software and processing that interprets what the more sensitive radar 'sees' provides a higher quality end product to Super Hornet crews, resulting in dramatically improved situational awareness.

All this means that AESA equipped fighters can see farther, better understand what was being detected, and have a hugely enhanced ability to see detect objects flying low over surface clutter. Even small or low observable (stealthy), or slow-moving targets, or those that attempt to hide in the 'doppler notch' of a threatening fighter's radar by flying perpendicular to it, have a tougher time eluding detection and engagement when facing opposition fighters packing AESA radar sets. 

With all that being said, apparently, this same leap in sensor technology also lifted the curtain, so to speak, when it came to detecting UFOs flying near Navy fighters while on training missions. 

The New York Times writes:

The pilots began noticing the objects after their 1980s-era radar was upgraded to a more advanced system. As one fighter jet after another got the new radar, pilots began picking up the objects, but ignoring what they thought were false radar tracks.

“People have seen strange stuff in military aircraft for decades,” Lieutenant Graves said. “We’re doing this very complex mission, to go from 30,000 feet, diving down. It would be a pretty big deal to have something up there.”

But he said the objects persisted, showing up at 30,000 feet, 20,000 feet, even sea level. They could accelerate, slow down and then hit hypersonic speeds.

Lieutenant Accoin said he interacted twice with the objects. The first time, after picking up the object on his radar, he set his plane to merge with it, flying 1,000 feet below it. He said he should have been able to see it with his helmet camera, but could not, even though his radar told him it was there.

A few days later, Lieutenant Accoin said a training missile on his jet locked on the object and his infrared camera picked it up as well. “I knew I had it, I knew it was not a false hit,” he said. But still, “I could not pick it up visually.”

At this point the pilots said they speculated that the objects were part of some classified and extremely advanced drone program.

But then pilots began seeing the objects. In late 2014, Lieutenant Graves said he was back at base in Virginia Beach when he encountered a squadron mate just back from a mission “with a look of shock on his face.”

He said he was stunned to hear the pilot’s words. “I almost hit one of those things,” the pilot told Lieutenant Graves.

The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit. It looked to the pilot, Lieutenant Graves said, like a sphere encasing a cube.

The last part is somewhat mind-blowing. Basically, he describes a geometric cube with a translucent sphere of some sort around it. Like I said in the opening of this piece, this sounds like some special effects object from season one of Star Trek The Next Generation, not a craft being reported in detail from a highly-trained Navy fighter pilot that flew right by it. Apparently, others appeared to be spinning in mid-air like tops and were captured by the Super Hornet's AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR targeting pod. The now famous 'gimbal video' was supposedly recorded on one of the Red Rippers' training missions:

After this near miss, the Red Rippers were officially spooked. What was something of a novelty and mystery, became a flight safety issue. They filed an official safety report.

The New York Times continues: 

The near miss, he and other pilots interviewed said, angered the squadron, and convinced them that the objects were not part of a classified drone program. Government officials would know fighter pilots were training in the area, they reasoned, and would not send drones to get in the way.

“It turned from a potentially classified drone program to a safety issue,” Lieutenant Graves said. “It was going to be a matter of time before someone had a midair” collision.

What was strange, the pilots said, was that the video showed objects accelerating to hypersonic speed, making sudden stops and instantaneous turns — something beyond the physical limits of a human crew.

“Speed doesn’t kill you,” Lieutenant Graves said. “Stopping does. Or acceleration.”

Asked what they thought the objects were, the pilots refused to speculate.

We have helicopters that can hover,” Lieutenant Graves said. “We have aircraft that can fly at 30,000 feet and right at the surface.” But “combine all that in one vehicle of some type with no jet engine, no exhaust plume.”

Lieutenant Accoin said only that “we’re here to do a job, with excellence, not make up myths.”

The squadron deployed to the Middle East in March of 2015, and according to the pilots interviewed, the encounters off of the southeastern coast of the U.S. ended not long after. 

As for the Navy's strange public announcement that they were changing the reporting procedures for these types of encounters, their position is the same as it was weeks ago, with the New York Times quoting Navy spokesman Joseph Gradisher as such:

“There were a number of different reports,” he said. Some cases could have been commercial drones, he said, but in other cases “we don’t know who’s doing this, we don’t have enough data to track this. So the intent of the message to the fleet is to provide updated guidance on reporting procedures for suspected intrusions into our airspace.”

USN

Red Ripper F/A-18F.

We examined this peculiar move by the Navy and the odd timing of it in great detail in my last article on the subject, and this series of events likely had something to do with it. Regardless, with all this in mind, what can we take away from these new on the record revelations?

First off, they are a huge deal. We are talking about two more Navy fighter pilots on the record and another three talking to The New York Times on background. And this was not some account that occurred a decade or more in the past, this was just a couple years ago. Yet what strikes me the most is that once again, this series of encounters occurred in tightly sanitized airspace over the ocean where the military does its most advanced and complex training and testing, just like the Nimitz's Tic Tac incident many years earlier on the west coast. In that case, the gear and personnel involved were also preparing for a major deployment. 

Yet what the New York Times doesn't seem to firmly drill down on enough is that we are now getting first-hand accounts that describe a major upgrade in radar technology as being a catalyst for actually detecting and tracking these mysterious objects. Much of my last piece was dedicated to the little known fact that back in 2004, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group was executing very complex and highly integrated training prior to deployment with Cooperative Engagement Capability technology installed on its ships and aircraft. This was the first time this game-changing suite of sensor fusion and data-link technologies was ever integrated into an operational Carrier Strike Group. As a result, multiple accounts definitively state that its unique, 'fused' sensor data was confiscated after the Tic Tac incident culminated in a number of close encounters. 

Taking the recent information about the radar upgrade on the Super Hornets into account, it adds a new facet of plausibility to the Nimitz/Tic Tac events. The higher fidelity radar telemetry data Cooperative Engagement Capability provided, like the introduction of AESA fire control radars on Navy fighters not long after, may have allowed for the detection and documentation of these objects like never before. Whether that was by design or by chance remains unknown.

These two facts—the encounters occurring in secure military airspace off the continental U.S. coastline and the presence of advanced, highly capable radar systems in both series of incidents—is compelling, to say the least. As we stated in our last piece on the subject, these areas and the gear present in them during the encounters would make for very attractive testing conditions for undisclosed aerial capabilities. When it comes to the object's strange appearance, making something as alien looking as possible is probably a good thing for deniability and unconventional camouflage purposes. Even the testing of sensors under real-world conditions against such a craft using various guises could be beneficial. 

As for near collisions, they have happened among military aircraft operating in highly controlled airspace where both parties are being helped by air traffic controllers. As such, the near miss doesn't seem like an outright disqualifier for these objects belonging to the military, or a military, as the pilots seem to think. And it's not like the presence of totally unknown aircraft that could be a threat to the safety of other aircraft hasn't occurred even in highly trafficked airspace that is patrolled by alert fighter aircraft. We have broken three major stories about just that in just the last 18 months, one of which is unprecedented in its level of documentation

I do have to stress that this is not the explanation we are giving for these incidents, but it is one that has to be taken into account, especially considering the similar circumstances at hand.

General knowledge of the aforementioned events that occurred off the east coast in 2014 and 2015 is not necessarily new. Many of us who have kept very close tabs on these developments have known about the sphere and cube craft description for some time, and that a number of encounters happened in this area long after the Nimitz event in 2004. Our good friend Danny Silva reported on the broad strokes of this story days before the New York Times piece was published via dissecting an interview with Commander David Fravor, the lead Super Hornet pilot that had the close-up encounter with the Tic Tac in 2004. Silva also blogged about Fravor's description of what the east coast pilots saw back in January. What is new is the level of detail offered and the fact that five pilots talked to The New York Times about this and two were on the record. 

Google Earth

NAS Oceana is one of two Navy master strike fighter bases, the other being NAS Lemoore in central California. Many squadrons call NAS Oceana home. It would be suprising to hear that these encounters happened with the Red Rippers alone. In addition, multiple huge Marine Corps and USAF bases are also located in the region and use the same airspace. 

The fact of the matter is that we still don't know much about these strange events. For instance, was this a community-wide event? In other words, were multiple squadrons at NAS Oceana experiencing similar incidents? The AN/APG-79 was fairly common by 2015 among Super Hornet units. If not, why only the Red Rippers? They are just one of many fighter squadrons based at NAS Oceana—along with dozens of other Marine Corps and USAF Squadrons based in the region—that also use the airspace for training. Some of those units are equipped with more advanced aircraft types than the Super Hornet, such as the F-35 and F-22. These aircraft also have AESA radars. Did they spot similar phenomena during this period of time?

In addition, why did it take a near miss to report the presence of these craft? Was it a cultural and professional issue, or something else? 

Now stepping back even further, it is very interesting we are hearing of this now. The steady drip, drip, drip of information starting with the disclosure of the Pentagon's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) in December of 2017 has been peculiar, bordering on downright questionable, to say the least. It is also just days before To The Stars Academy, the quasi-research/entertainment corporation put together by Blink 182 rocker Tom DeLonge and now filled with impressive resumes from the intelligence and aerospace sectors, including the ex-head of the AATIP program, has the first episode of its highly touted new program on the History Channel premiere. You can read more about the strange circumstances surrounding these disclosures in my last piece on the topic.

Regardless, this report moves the ball forward in a major way and underscores, once again, the reality that the limits of aerospace engineering and propulsion, at least as we understand them, have been exceeded by someone or something. As I wrote last month:

The main revelation is that technology exists that is capable of performing flying maneuvers that shatter our perceptions of propulsion, flight controls, material science, and even physics. Let me underline this again for you, the Nimitz encounter with the Tic Tac proved that exotic technology that is widely thought of as the domain of science fiction actually exists. It is real. It isn't the result of altered perception, someone's lucid dream, a stray weather balloon, or swamp gas. Someone or something has crossed the technological Rubicon and has obtained what some would call the Holy Grail of aerospace engineering. 

This reality is very hard to process for many. There is always an out for some in the form of claiming an odd impromptu conspiracy or some hollow explanation that doesn't pass muster beyond the first paragraph, but in the end, it happened. As uncomfortable as that fact is, it's reality. So, we need to use this event as a lodestar going forward when it comes to evaluating and contemplating what is possible and where truth actually lies.

We are working this story from multiple and highly unique angles. Stay tuned for some truly exciting developments.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com