Eglin AFB Pilot Likely Saw A Lighting Balloon, Not A UFO Pentagon Concludes

The high-profile incident over the Gulf of Mexico included a strange craft with an even stranger infrared signature.

byHoward Altman|
Eglin UFO Case


A newly released report by the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) - the Pentagon unit tasked with investigating UFO encounters and historical government activities related to the topic - explains away with "moderate confidence" a very strange encounter between an Air Force fighter pilot and a bizarre craft — a slowly moving or stationary object that had a strange infrared signiture and resembled an "Apollo spacecraft." The incident took place over the Gulf of Mexico last year. You can read our previous report about the incident here.

The unclassified version of those findings, released Wednesday, included previously unreleased sensor imagery captured by the Eglin-based fighter pilot during the encounter. That data led investigators to conclude the object seen on Jan. 26, 2023 was most likely a stray "lighting balloon."

“Through the onboard radar system, the pilot initially observed that the four objects were aloft between 16,000 – 18,000 feet and appeared to be flying in formation," according to the report. "However the pilot observed only one of the four objects visually and captured two images of the single object via the aircraft’s electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor.”

The image observed by the pilot captured on the aircraft's electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor. (AARO image)

“Although the pilot described the object as uniformly gray in the visible spectrum (it appears uniformly black from the viewing angle in the EO image), the magnified infrared image shows the object had a strong contrasting signature in the infrared spectrum. This contrast suggests either a temperature/emissivity difference or a reflectivity difference between its two hemispheres."

Previous information about the incident noted the object was glowing hot on its bottom but cool on the top, which matches this description.

As a result, the AARO report concluded with "moderate confidence" that the pilot "identified a commercial lighting balloon," or a similar object, like the one in the image below. The report also states the office has "high confidence" it was not some anomalous.

The Pentagon says this lighting balloon is the kind of object an Air Force pilot observed last year over the Gulf of Mexico. (AARO image)

AARO reported that was "a close visual match to the object in the zoomed-in infrared image” which you can see in this AARO photo below.

The pilot described the object visually observed at 16,000 feet as "similar to the shape of the Apollo spacecraft." That description concurs with information provided in recently declassified documents we wrote about last month. You can see the pilot's drawing provided to investigators and reproduced in the AARO report in the image below.

The Eglin pilot described the object observed as akin to the Apollo spacecraft. (AARO image)
The Command and Service Module used in the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. NASA

AARO assessed that based on information provided by the aircraft's sensors, the reported UAP "very likely was an ordinary object and was not exhibiting anomalous or exceptional characteristics or flight behaviors. AARO has moderate confidence in this assessment due to the limited data provided."

Aside from concluding that the pilot saw a commercial lighting balloon, the report listed a number of other types of balloons as the source of what the Eglin pilot observed.

Commercial helium balloons such as these “are often large and available in many shapes — including ellipses, spheres, and cylinders — and are used for outdoor lighting at special events, construction sites, and movie sets.”

Although these balloons are available in solid colors, some models have distinct black and white or semi-translucent hemispheres. 

“The upper black hemisphere is lined with reflective material to direct the light downward through the white hemisphere. AARO conducted extensive testing using one of these balloons and found it could replicate some aspects of the pilot’s account.”

A lighting ballon made by the Airstar company. (Airstar photo)

The Eglin incident was highlighted publicly in an extremely public manner by Matt Gaetz, a Republic Representative from Florida, during a Congressional hearing in July 2023. Gaetz said he "spoke with the flight crew" and was shown a photo of the UAP by the pilot."

"They saw a sequence of four craft in a clear diamond formation for which there is a radar sequence that I and I alone have observed in the U.S. Congress," Gaetz testified. "One of the pilots goes to check out that diamond formation and sees a large floating, what I can only describe as an orb. Again, like I said, not of any human capability that I am aware of," Gaetz said at that time. "And when he approached he said that his radar went down. He said that his FLIR [forward-looking infrared] system malfunctioned and that he had to manually take this image from one of the lenses and it was not automated in collection as you would typically see in a test mission."

Other members of Congress who are part of the so-called "UAP Caucus" also had a run in with the commander of Eglin AFB when they tried to learn more about the incident during a visit to the installation, which you an read more about in our previous reporting.

AARO came to its conclusion even though there were some problems with sensors aboard the aircraft.

The pilot could not record video of the event “because the aircraft’s video recording equipment was inoperable prior to and during the aircraft’s flight,” the new AARO report states. Although, it's worth noting the still imagery AARO produced is likely photos or frames from a video of a cockpit display recorded by the pilots phone. We reached out to the Pentagon to obtain a copy of that video, if it exists, and will provide any additional information shared.

The camera problem was just one sensor problem on this flight.

“The pilot reported that upon closing to within 4,000 feet of the object, the radar on the aircraft malfunctioned and remained disabled for the remainder of the training exercise,” according to AARO. “Post-mission review determined that a circuit breaker had tripped; technicians reported that the same circuit breaker on this particular aircraft had tripped three times in the prior months, but technicians could not conclusively diagnose the cause of the fault for this incident. Based on the previous tripping of this circuit, AARO assesses the malfunction likely was not caused by or associated with the object.”

During the discussion with AARO, "the pilot recounted that after the radar malfunctioned, the object descended into the cloud deck. Since there was no EO/IR data for the other three reported objects initially observed on radar, “AARO could not analyze those reported objects.”

The possibility that some of these types of sighting could be balloons, not UFOs, is something we have explored in great detail for years now.

As we have noted several times, subsequent U.S. government reports have backed up our balloon assertion. Still, there are unexplained events that would seem to lie outside of this type of object being a valid explanation.

In January 2023, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued a 12-page report saying that AARO was investigating 510 incidents and that its “initial analysis and characterization” of 366 newly-identified reports showed that more than half exhibited “unremarkable characteristics."

Of those, 26 were characterized as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or UAS-like entities; 163 were characterized as balloon or balloon-like entities; and six were attributed to “clutter,” which ODNI identifies as "birds, weather events, or airborne debris like plastic bags."

In January 2023, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported that nearly half of newly reported UAPs were balloons or balloon-like objects. (ODNI cover sheet)

The February 2023 shootdown of Chinese balloon in particular, as well as the three shootdowns of other objects that quickly followed, is the most vivid manifestation of this reality. All the led to the admission of a major domain awareness issue by the U.S. military, one we had been warning about for years.

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So, this latest AARO report once again points to a balloon as the source of a UAP. But given the huge amount of distrust the UFO community has developed for AARO, with key proponents of the UFO topic claiming the office's conclusions are flawed or it is being out disingenuous and has ulterior motives, it remains unlikely that these latest findings will be received with universal enthusiasm. Nor will it quell concerns of those who believe the government is covering up its real knowledge of visitation by "non human intelligence."

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