Those Amazing Navy UFO Videos May Have Down-to-Earth Explanations, Skeptics Contend

June 1, 2021

An exposé on 60 Minutes. A 12,000-word treatise in the New Yorker. Breathless cable-news coverage of alien craft.

UFO enthusiasts are having their moment ahead of the release of a Congressionally-mandated report on what the Pentagon calls "unidentified aerial phenomenon." The coverage of Navy videos purporting to show evidence of strange, unknown aircraft have featured the voices of so-called ufologists — UFO researchers — and Navy pilots who say they've seen mysterious objects in the skies off San Diego and the East Coast.

Crews on Navy warships have reported seeing unidentified aircraft similar to those captured on video. Other accounts detail mysterious drone sightings by the crews of Navy destroyers west of San Clemente Island. The island serves as a training base and ship to shore gun range for the Navy.

But as the videos revived decades-old theories of extra-terrestrial visitation, the frenzy has been frustrating for those who specialize in debunking hoaxes and conspiracy theories. These skeptics point to more down-to-earth explanations.

"There's nothing new here, it's the same grainy videos we're used to seeing," said Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

In August, the Defense department established the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., added language into the Defense Intelligence Authorization Act that called on the Pentagon to produce a report on unidentified aerial phenomenon within 180 days. When former President Donald Trump signed the massive government stimulus and appropriations bill on Dec. 27, the defense intelligence bill was included, and the clock started ticking.

The Pentagon will deliver its UAP report to Congress in June. The UAP Task Force's examination of unidentified phenomenon is ongoing, a Pentagon spokesman said last week.

Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Alex Dietrich, one of the Navy fighter pilots who said she saw an unidentified aircraft near San Diego in 2004, told the Union-Tribune's Kristy Totten on her News Fix podcast recently she is wary of the UFO community's jump to conclusions.

"Just because I'm saying that we saw this unusual thing in 2004 I am in no way implying that it was extraterrestrial or alien technology or anything like that," Dietrich said.

She also said she doesn't expect the Pentagon report to provide the kind of answers many are looking for.

"I think that the report's going to be a huge letdown," Dietrich said. "I don't think that it's going to reveal any fantastic new insight."

Navy acknowledges videosThree of the most well-known videos were taken by Navy F/A-18s over both the Pacific and Atlantic. The three — known as "Gimbal," "Go Fast" and "Flir1" — were filmed by Navy Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared, or ATFLIR, pods which attach to the fuselage of the aircraft.

Flir1, which was filmed off the coast of San Diego in 2004, was published anonymously on a UFO website in 2007, according to a 2020 Popular Mechanics report on the history of the video. In 2017, it received renewed attention when it was published by the New York Times. Flir1 and two additional videos were published by former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge's "To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science" website in 2019.

After the release of the videos, the Navy acknowledged they were real, calling the objects in the videos "unidentified aerial phenomenon."

In 2020, the Pentagon released the three videos itself. In a statement, it said it did so "in order to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real, or whether or not there is more to the videos." The Pentagon said at the time the phenomena observed in the videos remained characterized as "unidentified."

The Nimitz encounter Mick West, a former video-game designer, is one of the best-known skeptics pushing back on the claims of UFO enthusiasts. On his website,, and on his YouTube channel, West experiments with cameras to show how light and motion can deceive viewers.

The three videos released by the Navy were filmed by infrared cameras. FLIR1 was captured off the coast of San Diego in 2004 by a fighter operating off the aircraft carrier Nimitz, while Go Fast and Gimbal were captured by an F/A-18 operating off the carrier Theodore Roosevelt off the coast of Florida in 2015.

West said that FLIR1 and Gimbal, and the images on them — described by some as showing aircraft with no directional control surfaces, intake or exhaust — are consistent with what could be expected if you filmed a fighter jet flying away from the camera. The apparent shapes of the aircraft — one saucer-like, the other like a Tic Tac — are due to glare on the lens of the camera, not proof of flying saucers, West maintains.

"What we're seeing in the distance is essentially just the glare of a hot object," West said as he watched the FLIR1 video with the Union-Tribune. "So we're looking at a big glare, I think, of an engine — maybe a pair of engines with an F/A-18 — something like that."

As for the maneuvers the craft appears to make, West said that the information on the screen, such as the zoom level, indicates that it's not the mystery aircraft making sweeping motions, but the camera. When the object appears to dart off to the left, that is actually an effect of the camera losing lock and moving to the right.

Another factor affecting people's perception of these videos, West said, is the fact that the cameras themselves are moving at high rates of speed. At the forward end of the ATFLIR pod is an electro-optic sensor unit that houses an internal gimbal assembly and an external rotating housing. In order to maintain a "lock" on an object, both the gimbal and the outer housing are in constant motion — as is the F/A-18 to which the pod is attached.

Combined with the high zoom rate of the camera, the resulting image might reflect a parallax effect — with the relationship of the object and its background changing depending on the angle of view, similar to how electrical poles appear to zoom past on the highway while more distant objects remain still.

Eyewitnesses to the FLIR1, or so-called "Nimitz encounters," tell a different story. The day before FLIR1 was shot, other F/A-18 pilots, including Dietrich, also saw a Tic Tac-shaped object in the air.

"We encountered this thing that we refer to as the Tic Tac because that's what it looked like," Dietrich said. "It was unlike anything we'd ever seen (and) unlike anything I've seen since. That's why we refer to it as 'unidentified.' We came back to the ship, we gave our reports and then went on with our training — went on with our lives and our careers."

Several sailors on board the San Diego-based guided missile cruiser Princeton say they also saw the objects in the 2004 encounter. Five former Princeton sailors told Popular Mechanics in 2019 that their ship's brand-new radar system began detecting unidentified aircraft performing extraordinary aeronautical maneuvers. They said the objects appeared on the radar to descend from 60,000 feet to just 50 feet in a matter of seconds.

It was these radar tracks that led to Dietrich and her wingman to divert and attempt to intercept the aircraft. The next day, another pilot was able to lock onto something with his ATFLIR — resulting in the video now known as FLIR1.

A touch of trigThe parallax effect also offers a more mundane explanation of the Go Fast video, West contends. Go Fast was shot from a Navy jet operating off the coast of Florida with the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in 2015. In the video, a small undefined object appears to be flying low, at a high rate of speed above the ocean.

However, West said, this is an illusion of the two-dimensional video, one that can be demystified by the readout on the screen and a little trigonometry.

Once the camera locks onto the object, West said, the video presents the illusion that the camera is stationary. This isn't the case, West said. The jet's true air speed is 369 knots. After factoring in the altitude of the aircraft, the angle of the camera and the distance to the target, West determined the object to be flying at 13,000 feet above the ocean — not directly above, as it appears in the video.

"It's not actually anywhere near the ocean even though it looks like it's skimming over the surface," West said. "Because of the extreme zoom and because the camera is locked onto this object ... the motion of the ocean in this video is actually exactly the same as the motion of the jet plane itself. You're seeing something that's actually hardly moving at all and all of the apparent motion is the parallax effect from the jet flying by."

After a little more math, West estimated the speed of the UAP to be about 30 to 40 knots. Since the infrared image indicates the object is also colder than the ocean below it, and it's moving at the wind speed of that altitude, West said he thinks it's likely a weather balloon.

'Complicated illusion'Perhaps the most striking of the three officially released Navy videos is Gimbal. Also filmed off the Florida coast in 2015, Gimbal appears to show a large object the shape of a top rotate in a manner inconsistent with known aircraft.

West admits that the object's rotation is difficult to explain. "Gimbal is complicated — you've got this ridiculous illusion of movement when it's actually essentially the same thing" as FLIR1, he said.

Still, West said the object in Gimbal is most likely just another jet.

"I think what's clear about Gimbal is it's very hot — it's consistent with two jet engines next to each other and the glare of these engines gets a lot bigger than the actual aircraft itself so it gets obscured by it," West said.

The odd top-like shape, West said, might be attributed to diffraction spikes from the glare, similar to someone taking a picture of a flashlight shining directly into a camera lens.

To explain the apparent rotation, West pointed again to the ATFLIR pod and the parallax effect. Early in the video, the F/A-18 is in a left bank turn, West said.

"At the start of the video, it looks like the object is moving rapidly to the left because of the parallax effect," he said. But when the plane has kind of finished its turn, it looks like it slows down and stops because now it's flying straight toward it so there's no parallax. You get this complicated illusion."

The rotation of the object, West said, can be attributed to the gimbal roll of the electro-optic sensor unit of the ATFLIR pod trying to maintain lock on it. He again points to the information on the display screen in the video.

"Gimbal starts off at 54 degrees left and it goes all the way to 7 degrees right," West said. "At 3 degrees left is when (the object) makes its big rotation. That is the point at which (the ATFLIR pod) is doing a large exterior correction for the gimbal roll."

The Gimbal video was shot by the same pilot who filmed Go Fast, former Navy pilot David Fravor. Fravor, one of the Nimitz pilots who saw the 2004 Tic Tac, told podcaster Lex Fridman in 2020 that he isn't moved by West's explanation.

"It's funny how people can extrapolate stuff who've never operated the system," Fravor said of West's critique. Fravor also told Fridman there were up to five other objects in the air that day flying in formation with the "Gimbal" aircraft and that several other sailors were tracking them.

A spokesperson for defense contractor Raytheon, which designed the ATFLIR cameras, declined to comment and referred questions to the Pentagon. The Union-Tribune also asked UC San Diego, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to make experts on infrared camera and electro-optic technology available to comment for this story. None did.

The 'bokeh effect'Two videos taken on Navy surface ships were published this year by filmmaker Jeremy Corbell, who also runs the website Corbin's films explore phenomenon such as alien craft allegedly hidden from the public by the government and humans with alien implants.

One of the videos, which appears to be a sailor's cell-phone video of a night-vision screen, seems to show a triangular or pyramid shaped craft with flashing lights flying over the San Diego-based guided-missile destroyer Russell in 2019.

In the video, which is saturated in green night vision, one of the pyramid-shaped objects blinks periodically. Corbell told Fox News "this is probably the best UFO military filmed footage certainly that I've ever seen, but I think also that the world has ever seen."

West said the video is an example of a well-known photographic effect that occurs when a camera captures images of out-of-focus light called "bokeh."

In a video West shared on YouTube, he demonstrates how the effect works and essentially recreates what is seen in the Navy video.

West says any night-vision camera with a triangular-shaped aperture would show a green pyramid. The flashing of the object, West said, is identical to the navigation lights found on aircraft.

West further said that when one factors in the relative location of the ship and the date, that the other "pyramids" in the video are celestial objects — specifically the planet Jupiter and some stars. He points out the Russell was operating under the route aircraft take when flying from Hawaii to Los Angeles.

"There was just a whole bunch of planes flying overhead at the time," West said.

The most recent video appears to show a spherical blob flying above the ocean before diving into the wave or beyond the horizon. On Twitter, Corbell described the object as a "transmedium" vehicle, able to operate above and below the water. The video was filmed off the coast of California by the San Diego-based littoral combat ship Omaha.

West said the glare of an out-of-focus object with a heat signature might produce a similar image on an infrared camera. If that object is a jet aircraft flying away from the ship, West said, it might produce the same illusion of dropping into the water when, in fact, it had only flown over the horizon.

Known unknowns?While the military has confirmed the videos themselves are real, the Pentagon has not said whether it has since identified the objects — which West said gives the impression that the military either hasn't identified them or can't identify them.

The Union-Tribune asked the Defense department to clarify whether any of the unidentified phenomenon in the UAP videos have since been identified. Gough declined to do so.

"To maintain operations security and to avoid disclosing information that may be useful to potential adversaries, DOD does not discuss publicly the details of either the observations or the examination of reported incursions into our training ranges or designated airspace, including those incursions initially designated as UAP," Gough said.

Given that the objects have been seen in areas where the U.S. military trains, another hypothesis put forward is that the objects in the videos show advanced Chinese or Russian surveillance drones. Rubio, in his 60 Minutes interview, pointed out the national security implications of that.

"Anything that enters an airspace that's not supposed to be there is a threat," Rubio said.

Dietrich told News Fix she's also concerned about adversaries.

"We want to know if there's something off our coast or in our skies," Dietrich said. "It could be a threat, it could be an adversary. We like to classify and categorize things and when we can't it's important to flag it."

For skeptics, even that possibility seems far-fetched.

Shermer, of Skeptic magazine, said that it's unlikely any government could develop technology that's significantly more advanced without detection by other "great powers."

"It would be like if we were still using rotary phones and they had smart phones — it would never happen," Shermer said. "Even with the Manhattan project, the most secret project ever, the Russians had the bomb four years later."

The Pentagon's refusal to debunk its own UFO videos is frustrating, Shermer said. And even if the June report is as mundane as Dietrich and others expect, he doesn't think it will matter to UFO enthusiasts.

"If the government issues a report saying it's all artifacts of camera, balloons, bokeh — the ufologists are not going to accept it," he said. "Nothing satisfies a true believer."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.


(c)2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.