Newly Released FAA Documents Give Unprecedented Look Into Colorado Drone Swarm Mystery
Hundreds of pages of documents provide consistent detailed descriptions of the drones and conclude the military wasn’t behind the operation.
As covered in previous reports by The War Zone, law enforcement agencies in numerous rural counties in eastern Colorado and adjacent areas of Nebraska and Kansas received an influx of reports of large drones flying in formations at night for a period of several weeks during December 2019 and early January 2020. Many law enforcement personnel were among the reporting witnesses. In short order, the “mystery drone” wave also elicited serious expressions of concern from at least two U.S. senators and attention from Colorado’s governor and state public safety agency. The activity soon drew the attention of regional and later national news media, as well.
Now, The War Zone can offer an unprecedented inside look at what was going on behind the scenes within the FAA, which was leading a task force to solve the drone mystery. Not only is the confusion within the agency made clear, but we now have multiple highly credible official reports from trained observers from the timeframe when the objects were present in the region. Many of them match to a remarkable degree and they allude to a unique arrangement in which a large drone seems to have been accompanied by a fleet of smaller ones. We also have the latest conclusions, or lack thereof, of what the FAA thinks actually was happening over those peculiar weeks last winter.
Over the past several months, Douglas D. Johnson, a volunteer researcher affiliated with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), has utilized the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain many hundreds of pages of emails and other pertinent documents from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other federal agencies regarding the mystery-drone flap and has made them available to The War Zone. In addition, hundreds of additional relevant pages have been located, but are still being processed by the FAA. The FAA is also currently withholding some key documents, citing FOIA exemptions.
Nevertheless, the documents already released suggest that the FAA, despite a short-lived, but strenuous effort, was unable to determine the origin of the flying formations of sizable aerial devices reported by many credible witnesses in December and January. Senior FAA officials were able, however, to conclude that "there is high confidence these are not covert military activities."
The released documents contain no evidence that any federal criminal laws were broken by whoever was operating the devices, although the FAA has withheld at least one key document discussing the legal issues surrounding the case. No document yet released suggests that the mystery drones ever encroached on any U.S. military installation, or even into any airspace that was under special FAA restrictions.
In a statement to The War Zone, Johnson summarized his impressions after months of research into a subject that he still considers far from closed:
"For at least a couple of weeks, the mystery drone flap had the serious attention of top FAA leaders, and at least two U.S. senators. The FAA assigned apparently capable investigators, and mobilized resources from multiple FAA components. The assistance provided by other federal agencies such as the FBI, DHS, and military was apparently quite limited, because of the absence of evidence of criminal intent, or of a proximate threat to military assets or other critical infrastructure. Once the aerial activity stopped, it appears that both federal and state agencies quickly dropped the matter - I have not yet seen any evidence of a continuing federal investigation, although there are many documents still not released."
Law Enforcement Officers Provided Detailed Descriptions
Some of the communications received by veteran Special Agent Michael Bumberger of the FAA's Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP), situated within the Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, or ASH, and his associates contain detailed descriptions of the unusual formations of unmanned aerial devices that were reported by law enforcement officers and other credible witnesses.
For example, a Jan. 5, 2020, email from Bumberger said an FAA LEAP agent had spoken to sheriffs in 16 counties in Colorado and Nebraska and "each agency contacted advised at least one deputy has witnessed the activity." The email went on:
"The activity reported occurs primarily between the hours of 1800 and 2200 MST and demonstrate the pattern of multiple “drones” flying a grid type pattern and remaining airborne for several hours at a time in less than optimum flying conditions (high winds and storm-like conditions). The number of drones reported operating at one time range from between 2 and 16 and appear to be approximately 6 feet width and length. Flight time has been 2 to 3 hours continuous. All reports indicate flight is between 200 and 300 feet. However several people interviewed stated it was hard to determine height due to the darkness and lack of clouds. Other sightings lights were also reported to be either flashing or steady white, red, or green. One report mentioned flashing blue lights. They have not been described as operating in a manner that place persons on the ground in danger."
An email from FAA Chief of Staff Angela Stubblefield contained a late December 2019 report from Nebraska:
"The Lincoln FSDO [Flight Standards District Office] has received a call regarding multiple, larger sized drones flying over rural western Nebraska...The caller reported there were maybe 12 or more drones with a 6 foot wingspan flying approximately 200 feel AGL, in a grid pattern. From his contacts, the drones seem to have covered 10 to 20 square miles. Some farmers/ranchers reported the drones flying over their farmsteads. The caller stated he saw the drones December 29 approximately from 1900-2230 MST. He was unable to get a photo or video. The caller does have an aviation background; he is a private pilot."
A Dec. 31, 2019, email written by FAA aviation safety officer Michael Sanford stated:
"The drones are reported to have 6’ wingspans and there are several reports that indicate the drones are operating in coordination with a ‘Big Drone’ that may be stationary in the area. There is also an unverified report of the larger ‘drone’ potentially landing and taking back off from an airport in Imperial, Nebraska (Chase County). This larger drone, also described as a ‘Mother Ship’, is said to hover while all the others fly around in close proximity. The large drone, as described, is about 5-6 feet in diameter with a cylindrical shape and a red front."
A Bumberger memo, also from Dec. 31, stated that a "Chase County Nebraska sheriff deputy reported observing 30 to 50 flying independently of each other with a larger ‘mothership’ hovering for hours. The deputy stated it the larger drone appeared to be way over 55 pounds."
An early January 2020 email from a lieutenant in the Kansas Highway Patrol described a sighting "by one of our K-9 Troopers" near Oakley, Kansas:
"He said one of the drones had a really bright light on it, like a spot light. That drone stayed relatively stationary at that location. He then said there were anywhere from 10 to 15 drones that flew all kinds of patterns around that stationary drone. At one point one of those drones flew directly over his house. He had his night vision with him so he tried to look at it. Some of the lights on the drone drowned out a good picture with the NVG’s, but he said he thought he saw 4 rotors on the drone as well as a horizontal stabilizer or wing. The wing appeared to be about 10 foot in length. He said the drone was about 200 feet in the air and made absolutely no sound at all, even though the wind was calm."
A report from Jan. 6, 2020, in Lincoln Nebraska described a dozen or more smaller UAVs flying alongside a larger aircraft estimated to be four to six feet in diameter.
One of the releases also contains a telephone report of a sighting in Eglin, Illinois, on Jan. 8, 2020. That sighting was mentioned in a few other FAA emails, although the summary of the call ultimately concludes that "the reports about these drones were not carried over to the next shift because they were dismissed as UFO sightings by others at the Police Department."
Even top FAA officials invoked the term "UFO" on at least one occasion. In a December 31, 2019 email from FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to FAA Chief of Staff Angela Stubblefield, Dickson observed that "not too long ago we would have called these 'UFOs'." Stubblefield responded "Yep! Now everything is a drone!"
FAA Launched Investigation As Media, Senators Pressed For Answers
It appears that public reports of night-flying drone formations began to surface around Dec. 17, 2019. Some lower-level FAA components may have become aware of such reports within a few days, but it took some time, and media attention, before the issue registered with top-level FAA officials, judging from the emails.
On Dec. 29, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson emailed senior managers a link to a press account on the Colorado events with his comment, “I’ve seen several of these reports. Do we have any information about these purported sightings? The rumors seem to be spreading rapidly.”
Dickson’s inquiry was forwarded to others by the head of agency’s internal security branch, Associate Administrator for the Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety Claudio Manno. Manno added his own question: “[D]oes this potentially link to incidents other than in Colorado and Nebraska?” The FAA documents provide no further clues on the “incidents” to which Manno referred, but The War Zone is currently actively pursuing inquiries into several incidents in which drones of unknown origin showed up at unexpected places during the past year.
The FAA quickly emerged as the lead federal agency seeking to get the bottom of the Colorado-centered flap. The investigation was conducted by FAA-ASH, with the field investigation run by Bumberger, who was assigned to the case about Dec. 26. Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA Pacific Division, served as the agency’s public spokesman during the investigation. The emails show that Gregor was in constant touch with both Bumberger and senior FAA officials in Washington, and constantly fielding inquiries from news media of all kinds, including sometimes cryptic e-mail responses to The War Zone’s editor.
The documents Johnson obtained reveal a high level of interest in the investigation on the part of U.S. Senators Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, and Deb Fischer, another Republican from Nebraksa. On Dec. 30, Leesa Papier, director of the Office of National Security Programs and Incident Response, a part of the Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, or ASH, emailed Bumberger that “the drone issue is really ratcheting up. Some of the drones flew near Senator Gardner’s house [in Yuma County, Colorado]."
Both Gardner and Fischer made public statements expressing their concerns during the height of the drone flap. “I’ve been in contact with the FAA and I’m encouraged that they’ve launched a full investigation to learn the source and purpose of the drones,” Gardner said in a Dec. 31 press release. “I will continue to closely monitor the situation.”
On the same day, an FAA congressional relations officer emailed the FAA chief of staff that Gardner's office was "hearing from the local farm bureau that the drones have been disturbing cattle operations and may have caused injuries, and that the drones are flying closely to some of the general aviation airports in the area. They may elevate this to a call from the Senator to the Administrator [Steve Dickson] given the level of concern in the area. They are also just concerned that it’s taking this long to identify such a large number of drones."
On Jan. 8, 2020, Gardner stated, “I think this shows a significant gap in our understanding and national security understanding of the threat drones pose. If we can't find out who they are, how they are being controlled, who is controlling them, what is to keep a nation like Iran or North Korea from looking at this instance and saying ‘Boy now we should come out and do the same thing with cameras and sensor equipment to find out the kinds of things that would help with international security' so I think it is a concern.” The Senator's concerns are not unfounded. The threat that lower-end drones pose to national security is something The War Zone has been highlighting for years. The War Zone reached out to Sen. Gardner's office for comment and will update this article when we hear back.
In early January, the national media attention escalated, including reports by CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. On Jan. 9, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, said that he had asked the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) to ramp up its monitoring of the aerial activity. “I think we need to find out what is happening before an accident occurs,” Polis said.
One of the key documents uncovered by Johnson is a four-page memorandum written by the then-second-ranking official at ASH, Joshua Holtzman, and sent to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson [misspelled as “Dixon” on the memo] to bring the FAA chief up to speed on the issue for “a telephone call with Senator Fischer this afternoon [Jan. 7].” Among the memo's talking points was that “The FAA understands the interest in identifying the operator(s) and mitigating any potential risks these UAS [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] could pose to the safety of other aircraft and people and property on the ground.”
The mystery drone investigation reached its public climax with a large meeting convened by Morgan County Sheriff Dave Martin in Brush, Colorado, on Jan. 6. According to FAA notes, the closed-door meeting was attended by 77 people. Federal representation included personnel from the FAA, FBI, DHS, Air Force Office of Special Investigations from F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and the office of Senator Gardner. State and local representation included sheriff's office personnel from 12 Colorado counties and six Nebraska counties, the Nebraska State Patrol, the Colorado Information Analysis Center (a division of CDPS), and Colorado Fish and Wildlife.
Bumberger wrote that “the meeting did not provide an answer or new leads” but that “several good things came from it." It was agreed that an ad hoc "Drone Sightings Task Force" would continue the work of the meeting in facilitating coordinate of an expanding investigation.
However, in the days that followed the Jan. 6 meeting – which was widely publicized by regional and national news media – the reports of unidentified drones flying in formation tapered off rapidly. In a Feb. 5 email to a reporter, Gregor said, “As far as I know, the reports dried up around the middle of January. We have not received any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people were seeing and, if they were drones, who was flying them.”
Sheriff Martin on March 6 confirmed to SCU’s Douglas Johnson that drone reports stopped “shortly after we had the [Jan. 6] meeting.” Without evidence that any criminal activity had been involved, Martin set the matter aside, and the working group was discontinued, Martin said, adding, “I’m not in charge of airspace.”
The CDPS had posted a final update on its website back on Jan. 13, saying “CDPS will scale back proactive operations but will continue to respond to and investigate reports of suspicious activity... Despite all of the reported activity, we are still unaware of any crime being committed.”
FAA Concluded No Military Involvement
Much initial speculation about the strange aerial activity centered on the military, in part because some early drone sightings were only about 30 miles from ICBM missile fields controlled by the 90th Missile Wing of F.E. Warren Air Force Base. In public statements at the time, an F.E. Warren spokesman denied having any role in the sightings. Internal emails obtained by SCU’s Douglas Johnson and reported by The War Zone on Feb. 24, 2020, confirmed that officers at the base were mystified by the drone reports.
The Air Force emails, while heavily redacted, showed the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air Force for Strategic Deterrence and. Nuclear Integration, abbreviated AF/A10, as well as Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), and other Air Force components, queried and assured each other that no component of the Air Force was responsible for the aerial activity or knew its origin. Johnson has appealed some of the Air Force redactions.
The early January talking-points memo to FAA Administrator Dickson said “AFOSI from F.E. Warren AFB have also confirmed no DOD involvement in or knowledge of the [mystery drone] operations.”
In a Dec. 30, 2019 email, FAA Chief of Staff Angela Stubblefield wrote that "NORTHCOM/NORAD has been contacted and does not have any information, other than they are aware of the reports." U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) is tasked with command and control of Department of Defense homeland defense activities and the coordination of civil authorities in relation to defense. It is co-located and shares command with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is a bi-national command with both American and Canadian personnel.
Johnson filed a FOIA request with NORTHCOM, asking about the Jan. 6 meeting and any information about the aerial activity. The command responded that “NORAD personnel received an invitation for the Jan. 6, 2020 meeting; however, no one attended because the invitation arrived too late.” NORTHCOM said that Johnson’s broader question about the drone activity “led only to NORAD records,” and those records were not reviewed because NORAD, as a bi-national command, is exempt from FOIA.
"In response to concerns the Army or one of their contractors was conducting UAS operations or testing and evaluation, on January 13, the FAA contacted multiple offices within the Pentagon in both the Army and the Office of the Secretary. All provided negative responses. Combined with previous DOD engagement [by FAA] with USAF and NORAD/NORTHCOM, there is high confidence these are not covert military activities."
Legal Issues Murky And FBI Role Limited
No released FAA document says that whoever was operating the mystery drones broke any federal laws. The FAA-circulated notes on the Jan. 6 Brush meeting said that Agent Bumberger “advised the attendees, based on current information it is unclear what if any laws or regulations have been broken and/or violated.”
FAA General Counsel Arjun Garg produced a memo titled “UAS Sightings – Potential Enforcement Remedies,” circulated to senior FAA staff on Jan. 9, but the FAA currently takes the position that the memo is exempt from disclosure under FOIA under a “deliberative process privilege.”
Several documents refer to local law enforcement officers hearing gunshots from the ground during several drone sightings. At the January 6 meeting, federal representatives advised local officials that it is a violation of federal law to shoot at an aircraft.
The lack of any obvious criminal element limited the roles of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in investigating the flap. On Jan. 7, Joshua Holtzman, the then-second-ranking official at FAA's Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, or ASH, wrote to Special Agent Bumberger that “I sent an email earlier today to the SES [Senior Executive Service] at FBI CIRG [Critical Incident Response Group] to stoke the fires on what the FBI is doing, both in the field and at FBI HQ… FBI is struggling, at least at HQ, with the conundrum that technically without a criminal nexus, there is not much they can do.”
ASH chief Manno’s Jan. 16 summary email suggests that the FBI’s overall involvement in the investigation remained rather marginal:
"Neither the Omaha nor the Denver FBI Field Offices have opened investigations, and FBI HQ has not received any request from their field offices or local LE [law enforcement] for deployment of their UAS detection assets. DOJ and FBI noted none of the thresholds for their C-UAS [counter-unmanned aircraft systems used to detect and disable drones] use under 6 USC 124n have been met; therefore, the FBI was not contemplating deploying any technical resources. DHS also agreed no threshold had been met for DHS to deploy technical resources under 6 USC 124n."
However, the FBI was helpful at least in resolving one short-lived aspect of the investigation. After viewing a drone formation, deputies in Perkins County, Nebraska, recovered three unrecognized objects from a field, subsequently referred to by some as "space potatoes." According to an FAA email, "FBI from North Platte advised the strange items referred to as space potatoes have been identified as SOILPAM Tracklogs... The gel is made up of poly-chloride tablets in a mesh stocking. When they get wet they form a log which replaces the dirt that was displaced by the pivot machine's wheels."
During the drone flap, FAA officials repeatedly suggested to reporters and others that the aerial activity in Colorado illustrated the need for a regulation already proposed by the FAA to require “Remote ID” capacity for most drones. The early January talking-point memo prepared for Administrator Dickson concluded, “If they are UAS, this is an exemplar of why Remote Identification requirements, such as those put forward in the FAA’s recently released Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, are critical to safety and security of UAS integration into the National Airspace System.”
In a Jan. 10, 2020 email from Joshua Holtzman, Acting Deputy Associate Administrator for the FAA's Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety, to a redacted email in Nebraska, he states that private drone firm DJI had just offered to send mobile devices to the field to try to identify the mystery drones. Holzman said he had also connected DJI with the Colorado Information Analysis Center.
It's worth noting that DJI has its main headquarters in China and various agencies of the U.S. government have raised concerns about potential security risks, especially based on what information the company collects about the use of its products. In 2017, the U.S. Army banned the use of any DJI drones and there has been talk since then about a possible U.S. government-wide prohibition on Chinese-made unmanned aircraft.
There is no further mention of DJI in the documents, and, at that point, the sharp drop-off in drone activity had already occurred. Note that the FAA tried to redact the name of the firm wherever it appeared, but overlooked the banner subject line in this email.
Search For Non-Military Origins Led To Dead Ends
The FAA emails show that in the early days of the investigation, Bumberger and others thought that the drone formations might be related to surveys of a possible pipeline route. For example, in an email dated Dec. 30, 2019, FAA Chief of Staff Angela Stubblefield wrote that “the two leading potential explanations point to possible survey work: 1) A new pipeline has been proposed in the Julesburg Basin, an area northeast Colorado on the Colorado/Nebraska border and the counties where the sightings have taken place are adjacent to that basin; and 2) Colorado recently enacted more strict EPA-related laws leaving some to speculate that the aircraft are conducting IR surveillance for gas leak detection.”
However, subsequent emails and memos show that as the FAA pursued inquiries into many such commercial, educational, and other possibilities, they all led to dead ends. The early January memo to FAA Administrator Dickson summarized the results:
"We have contacted entities (UAS companies, pipeline operators, colleges, etc.) that have received permission to operate UAS in these areas, but to date, none of these approved operators have been determined to be the source of the UAS operations."
While it's true that drones have been used for industrial inspection for some years now, it seems unlikely a major utilities provider or energy company would conduct such inspections and night and without notifying authorities, or deny responsibility once the FAA launched widespread inquiries and media coverage of the mystery drones ramped up.
The emails also show that the FAA monitored mystery-drone-related Facebook groups for reports and leads.
Many Questions Remain
The War Zone reached out to the FAA's Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA Pacific Division, to inquire if the FAA ever established the origins of the drone formations reported in Colorado, Nebraska, and other states. Gregor stated that "We have not received any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people were reporting seeing and, if they were drones, who was flying them."
Douglas Johnson told The War Zone that even though the FAA has been forthcoming in regards to some aspects of his FOIA requests, the agency hasn't been in others:
"The FAA has been very slow in responding to some of my FOIA requests, and not all of the delays are satisfactorily explained by the pandemic restrictions. Among other issues, as of July 13 the FAA had yet to produce a single responsive document to a FOIA I submitted 19 weeks ago for pertinent records held by Jay Merkle, who is the executive director of the FAA UAS Integration Office, although the agency has acknowledged possession of thousands of pages of responsive Merkle-associated documents. Some other key documents have been withheld or redacted based on questionable legal justifications, and I may appeal some of these. A January 13 exchange of emails between Ian Gregor and Carissa Vandermey, senior advisor for the Science and Technology Directorate for the Department of Homeland Security, were redacted in their entirety."
So, although The War Zone and the SCU have pursued the Colorado drone flap for over half a year, we still don’t know who was behind the mysterious activity, and from what we’ve seen so far, no one in the Federal Aviation Administration knows either. It's clear from these FOIA releases that the FAA, state and local authorities in Colorado, and even the AFOSI, took the sightings quite seriously, but it appears that their attention quickly shifted elsewhere once the public reports stopped.
Given the FAA conclusion that there is "high confidence these are not covert military activities,” it is difficult to make a case that the mystery drone activity could have been some sort of classified test or black operation. There always remains the real possibility that the drones could have been operated by a hostile actor, whether homegrown or foreign, or some rogue hobbyists with considerable resources.
While these documents provide an unprecedented view into the government's response and its own apparent confusion surrounding these bizarre events, above all else they offer detailed and consistent descriptions from trained observers indicating that some kind of relatively advanced UAS operation was indeed underway over the central United States for a period of weeks last winter.
Surely, once word of the strange happenings spread locally and eventually made national news, many sightings throughout the region were caused by a combination of misidentification and public excitement. However, for a period of time around Christmas and New Years, something truly unexplained was happening over the Colorado Plains. So unexplained that the federal government's own agency tasked with regulating the skies over the United States still has no clue what exactly took place or who was behind it.
Contact the author: Brett@thedrive.com
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com
You can reach Douglas D. Johnson via @ddeanjohnson on Twitter.
Further information on the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies at https://www.explorescu.org/