Nearly one year ago, Navy fighter pilot testimony about a seemingly bizarre rash of encounters with unidentified craft flying in restricted airspace off the east coast hit the news cycle with a bang. In the months that have followed, limited additional details about those encounters have come to light. Meanwhile, The War Zone has been slowly assembling the building blocks of a case that may explain them. What we were still missing was any official Navy documentation that alludes to them. Now that has changed, and you may be surprised as to what these newly obtained documents actually say and when the incidents they described occurred—or didn't occur—for that matter.
The War Zone obtained the eight hazard reports, all of which are marked "Unclassified" and "For Official Use Only," via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Naval Safety Center. Seven of them involve F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and occurred at various times between 2013 and 2014 in a patch of airspace off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina known as the W-72 warning area. The eighth incidents took place in 2019 and involved an EA-18G Growler flying in a different portion of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maryland called the W-386 warning area.
The FOIA officer handling our request said that these were the only eight reports in the Web-Enabled Safety System (WESS) Aviation Mishap and Hazard Reporting System (WAMHRS) to deal with naval aviation encounters with unidentified objects, balloons, and any other similar objects anywhere. WAMHRS is a centralized computer database that is supposed to contain all such hazard and flight incident reports that Navy aviation units file with the Naval Safety Center.
#1, June 27, 2013: F/A-18F Super Hornet, Strike Fighter Squadron 11
On June 27, 2013, an F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11), flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia had an encounter with an "aircraft [that] was white in color and approximately the size and shape of a drone or missile" in the W-72 warning area. The jet's crew "visually acquired" it as they saw it "pass down the right side of their aircraft with approximately 200 feet of lateral separation" while flying at an altitude of 17,000 feet. It was climbing and had a visible exhaust trail.
Neither the Super Hornet nor NAS Oceana recorded a radar track of the object. Commander, Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic, abbreviated in the report CSFWL, "contacted operating units but no one reported operations of this nature." Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes (FASCFAC VACAPES) "reviewed radar tapes and no aircraft was indentified [sic] or noted in the area."
The Navy did not issue any Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) or Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) based on this hazard report, but did issue internal notices to tactical aviation units, air traffic controllers, and unmanned aerial vehicle operators to be aware of the potential hazards posed by unauthorized or uncoordinated drone operations.
#2, Nov. 18, 2013: F/A-18E Super Hornet, Strike Fighter Squadron 143
An F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 143 (VFA-143), flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, spotted an object in the W-72 warning zone via radar off its nose at around 12,000 feet and a speed of approximately 0.1 Mach on Nov. 18, 2013. "The aircraft had an approximately 5-foot wingspan and was colored white with no other distinguishable features," according to the pilot who was able to visually acquire the object and tracked it for an hour.
This report says that the Navy concluded that this object was an unmanned aerial system (UAS), but that Commander, Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic and Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes (FASCFAC VACAPES), the latter of which is also identified here by its callsign Giant Killer, was not able to ascertain the operator. As was the case on June 27, the Navy issued a series of internal warnings, but there is no indication that it issued any Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) or Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR).
Most curiously, this report notes that "surface traffic was light with only a single stationary commercial fishing trawler and a single unidentified US Naval vessel traveling south" during the incident, but that "the identity of the Naval vessel in the vicinity was undetermined." It's not at all clear how the Navy was able to determine that one of its ships was operating on the surface in the same general area, but not able to figure out which ship it was specifically.
At the end of the report, the concern regarding unknown aircraft operating in the warning areas is clearly growing more palpable.
#3, Nov. 18, 2013: F/A-18E Super Hornet, Strike Fighter Squadron 143
The report is effectively identical to the other one from Nov. 18, 2013, but is confirmation from the pilot of a second F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 143 (VFA-143) that they saw the same object at roughly the same position.
#4, Mar. 26, 2014: F/A-18E Super Hornet, Strike Fighter Squadron 106
On Mar. 26, 2014, an F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106), flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana, detected a possible radar track at around 19,000 feet and with a speed of 0.1 Mach in the W-72 warning area. The pilot's wingman did not have the object on radar and there was a debate about whether it might be a false track given high winds, gusting at over 100 knots at 18,000 feet.
"The unknown aircraft appeared to be small in size, approximately the size of a suitcase, and silver in color," according to the report. The pilot was only able to pass within 1,000 feet of it and could not identify it. After that pass, they lost sight of it and never regained visual contact.
This report notes that Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes (FASCFAC VACAPES) again did not spot this object on its radar screens. However, the commanding officer of VFA-106 also noted that FASCFAC VACAPES "cannot detect a target this size if it is not squawking IFF [Identification Friend or Foe] or communicating via radio," which "presents a significant safety concern, given that this unknown aircraft was detected in an exclusive use area."
"I feel it may only be a matter of time before one of our F/A-18 aircraft has a mid-air collision with an unidentified UAS [unmanned aerial system]," the head of VFA-106 added in their comments. The report also says that "FACSFAC VACAPES has received multiple UAS sightings in the recent months," but does not say how many of those sightings resulted in sending in hazard reports. There's no indication that this particular report resulted in any Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) or Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR), though it did spark additional internal Navy alerts.
#5, Apr. 23, 2014: F/A-18F Super Hornet, Strike Fighter Squadron 11
Another F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11) had an encounter with multiple "unidentified aerial devices" (UAD) on Apr. 23, 2014, while flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana and operating in the W-72 warning area. The crew initially detected two UADs on radar, one at 12,000 feet and another at 15,000 feet, both apparently stationary or near-stationary at 0.0 Mach. They then confirmed both of these objects using the jet's Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) system.
While investigating the first pair of UADs, another two appeared to pass through the ATFLIR field of vision at high-speed. The two moving objects did not appear on the aircraft's radar.
The typical slew of internal warnings followed after the Navy determined it could not identify the objects or their operators. The commanding officer of VFA-11 notably included a note similar in tone to the one that the head of VFA-106 submitted along with the hazard report on Mar. 26, 2014. "Although this report is primarily submitted for tracking purposes, it is only a matter of time before this results in a midair [collision] in W-72," they said.
In addition, the VFA-11 commander noted that this was the second instance in 10 months that one of the aircraft's squadron had had such an encounter. This is a reference to the June 27, 2013 report and makes clear that this particular squadron had not run into any other unidentified object in between these two incidents.
#6, Apr. 24, 2014: Two F/A-18F Super Hornets, Strike Fighter Squadron 11
On Apr. 24, 2014, within a day of the F/A-18F Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11) having its encounter with four "unidentified aerial devices" (UAD), two more F/A-18Fs made radar contact with another UAD in the W-72 warning area while conducting Basic Fighter Maneuvering (BFM aka dogfighting) out of Naval Air Station Oceana. Both aircraft were able to maintain a radar track with the object, which was stationary or near-stationary at 0.0 Mach at 11,000 feet. The aircraft were also able to lock onto the object with their CATM-9Xs, a captive-carry training version of the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. However, in this instance, neither one made visual contact.
The Navy issued more internal warnings and the commander of VFA-11 noted that this was the third such incident in 10 months for the squadron. That officer also noted that this encounter had occurred less than 24 hours after the one on Apr. 23.
#7, Apr. 27, 2014: F/A-18F Super Hornet, Strike Fighter Squadron 11
On Apr. 27, 2014, for the third time in five days, the crew of a F/A-18F from Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11), flying out of NAS Ocean and operating in the W-72 warning area, reported encountering an unknown aerial device. This report is the most spartan in its details of the three, but describes a "near mid-air collision with balloon like object."
This is a notably more serious report than the other two from April 2014. It is also the first to give any kind of substantive description of the object, one that would match up with the two previous reports of stationary or near-stationary UADs at high-altitude in the W-72 warning area. Again, Navy officials sent out a host of internal warnings.
#8, Feb. 13, 2019: EA-18G Growler, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23
On Feb. 13, 2019, nearly five years after the last recorded encounter with an unidentified object in the Naval Safety Center's databases, the crew of an EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23), flying out Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland and conducting activities in the W-386 warning area, visually spotted what they specifically described as "a red weather balloon" at 27,000 feet.
Neither Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes (FASCFAC VACAPES), again referred to by its callsign Giant Killer, nor the Echo Control team responsible for overseeing operations in the Atlantic Test Ranges off the coast, were aware of any scheduled balloon activity. The Federal Aviation Administration did not have any relevant notices to airmen (NOTAM), either. The report says that the Navy did not identify the individuals or organizations that might have released the balloon and issued various internal warnings in response to the incident.
As noted, these are the only eight hazard or flight incident reports covering naval aviation encounters with unidentified objects, balloons, and any other similar objects anywhere that appear in the Web-Enabled Safety System (WESS) Aviation Mishap and Hazard Reporting System (WAMHRS), according to the Naval Safety Center. This is immediately curious given extensive previous reports, including from The War Zone, citing Navy pilots, on and off the record, who have said that these kinds of sightings over the Atlantic were occurring frequently between 2014 and 2015.
In addition, The War Zone obtained a copy of a report of another incident involving an F/A-18E Super Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106) that occurred on March 13, 2018. The pilot in this instance said they tracked four separate unknown objects on their radar in the W-122 warning area, which sits off the coast of North Carolina.
The objects were all flying at approximately 0.1 Mach at altitudes between 16,000 and 22,000 feet, according to the report. The pilot visually identified one at 20,000 feet that "appeared to be a quadcopter-type drone, 3-4 feet wide." They added that the objects did not appear to be doing anything in particular and were stationary or near-stationary. They were also spread out across an area approximately 40 to 50 miles wide, with the closest one being 15 miles away from the one boat that the pilot noted seeing down below.
This specific description of something approximating a quadcopter is interesting, as is the fact that the report identifies the jet as one equipped with the AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The War Zone
was first to explain how this new radar for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets could allow them to more easily spot objects with small radar cross-sections that would have gone unnoticed by previous mechanically scanned-array fire control radars.
The report lacks a serial number, raising questions about where it might have ended up being submitted in the end and what official action it might have prompted on the Navy's part. From our understanding, VFA-106 received this and other reports relating to encounters with unidentified objects and then passed them the chain of command to Commander, Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic. The assumption would have been that these would have then gone to the Naval Safety Center via WAMHRS, but, per our FOIA, this does not appear to have been the case. Given the general safety concerns that the commanding officers of the squadrons involved in many of the incidents clearly had, it seems odd that these reports would not have made it into that database.
There is the possibility that, for whatever reason, these reports subsequently began going through separate or even classified channels to commands other than the Naval Safety Center. However, again, given the broader flight safety concerns, one would imagine it would still have imperative to notify the entire service's aviation elements of the potential risks via an unclassified hazard report. The Apr. 27, 2014, report would seem to show that it is possible to prompt those kinds of alerts even with a report with very minimal specific details.
The apparent existence of hazard reports that did not actually make their way to the Naval Safety Center is reminiscent in some respects to the investigation into the so-called Tic Tac unidentified object that a pair of F/A-18F Super Hornets spotted flying near the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in 2004. After that encounter, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group’s top intelligence officer sent a full report to the intelligence office within the U.S. Navy's 3rd Fleet, which is headquartered in San Diego, California, via secure Email. For reasons that remain unexplained, the senior intelligence officer there declined to send the report any further up the chain of command and deleted the Email.
What is also puzzlingly absent from this group of documents are any reports that occurred in the late-2014 to mid-2015 timeframe. A limited number of high profile aircrew witnesses have attested that this is when a rash of strange encounters happened, especially surrounding work-ups of the USS Theodore Roosevelt prior to deployment. Reporting surrounding these accounts have consistently made international news and are constantly touted as evidence that UFOs, at least in the traditional sense, exist. No safety reports about those encounters have been issued according to the people that are officially tasked with handling them.
In addition, it was claimed by one of the pilots that have discussed these events publically that safety reports surrounding the 2015 incidents led to the issuance of a Notice To Airman (NOTAM) warning of such risks out in the controlled airspace off Virginia's coastline, although we haven't been able to find proof that such a NOTAM actually existed.
It is also curious that nearly half of the incidents that were reported came from one squadron, VFA-11, with the rest being based on experiences by one squadron each. Considering that there are many squadrons based at NAS Oceana, and many more based at other bases nearby, this could point to a situation in which only certain units were officially reporting these encounters or that the criteria for doing so varied from one unit to the next.
For instance, maybe one squadron would write and elevate a safety report if something was spotted in a restricted area, while another would only do so if a near-miss occurred. It also could be a function of the radar technology each unit possessed during the time period. As we discussed earlier, it is established that the Super Hornets that had the AN/APG-79 AESA radars could detect these small objects as opposed to Hornets and Super Hornets that had older AN/APG-73 mechanically scanned arrays.
This, combined with the possibility that some of these reports were funneled through some other channel, could explain why so few reports exist and none of them come from when these incidents were supposedly at their height in terms of frequency. Yet this would be puzzling as it would ignore the safety of aviators who rely on this information. It is notable that an encounter with one craft that the Navy has now officially released a video of was not in these reports, either.
On the other hand, maybe far fewer instances of this nature actually occurred than what we have been led to believe. It's also worth noting that according to the reports that we now have, it's clear that none of these objects possessed extreme performance as some have posited—quite the contrary actually. This also fits with what we have heard, both on and off the record, since these events were made public.
So no, as we expected, there isn't any proof here of extremely exotic flying craft or saucers with amazing kinematic performance. Assuming they do not belong to the U.S. government, the fact that they are being deployed in such sensitive airspace seemingly unimpeded is a far larger national security concern than it may seem at first glance. It is not the Navy's job to police America's airspace, it is the Air Force's. So far, the Department of Defense has been all but silent about the Air Force's involvement in these events. We have posed a number of specific questions about these facts to the Defense Department, but have gotten totally stonewalled in a remarkably rude manner.
You can learn more about this bizarre saga in this past piece of ours, but suffice it to say, that in our attempts at engagement with the DoD on the Air Force's involvement in all this, we did indirectly find out that according to Langley Air Force Base's 1st Fighter Wing, which is located very near NAS Oceana and their F-22 Raptors use the same general airspace as the Super Hornets to train in daily, their crews had had not experienced any similar phenomena, or at least were not willing to disclose that they had.
As to what the aircrews who did file the reports posted above actually saw and why those things were where they were, we believe there is an explanation, or at least explanations, of a very terrestrial nature. We have detailed some of this both directly and indirectly in the past, but suffice it to say, the electronic intelligence that an adversary could gather in the training ranges frequented by pretty much all of America's tactical fighter aircraft and other high-end sensor aircraft, as well as surface combatants, would be extremely valuable, especially considering they would be operating unimpeded, largely using their full sensor, electronic warfare, and communications suites. Doing so would also sow a level of confusion while presenting little risk, too. This sounds like a page ripped from an increasingly familiar playbook.
We will dive deeper into the possibilities surrounding these strange events off America's east coast in an upcoming piece, but for now, at least we have all the safety report documentation that the Naval Safety Center says it has on these bizarre events.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com