Eighty nautical miles off San Diego, the U.S.S. Nimitz Battle Group was engaged in routine training. Then it became anything but routine.
Three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets practicing dogfight maneuvers were interrupted and revectored mid-mission to investigate an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon; military parlance for a UFO. They engaged the craft, but were quickly outmaneuvered and lost visual contact. It had simply vanished.
The pilots were clearly baffled by the object. “Look at that thing, dude,” said one in a video credited to the U.S. Department of Defense by the New York Times.
Fast forward 13 years to Dec. 16, when the New York Times published a report on the 2004 incident and a little-known Pentagon program that tracked such reports from 2007 until at least 2012. Included was the video of the possible UFO incident, which was captured by a Raytheon Advanced Targeting Forward Look Infrared sensor, mounted under one of the fighter jets.
Called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, the government program analyzed UAP imagery and data such as the images from the Raytheon-made ATFLIR.
“We might be the system that caught the first evidence of E.T. out there,” said Aaron Maestas, director of engineering and chief engineer for Surveillance and Targeting Systems at Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems business. “But I’m not surprised we were able to see it. ATFLIR is designed to operate on targets that are traveling in excess of Mach 1. It’s a very agile optical system with a sensitive detector that can distinguish between the cold sky and the hot moving target quite easily.”
ATFLIR, designated AN/ASQ-228 by the U.S. Navy, is a single pod that combines mid-wave infrared targeting and navigation FLIRs, an electro-optical, or visual light, sensor, a laser rangefinder and target designator, and a laser spot-tracker. It can locate and designate targets day or night at ranges exceeding 40 nautical miles and altitudes surpassing 50,000 feet.
Even so, the video images are not definitive proof that the jet pilots were chasing an actual UFO.
“To really be sure, we would need the raw data,” said Dr. Steve Cummings, vice president of Technology Development and Execution at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems. “Visual displays alone are not the best evidence.”
So how best to track an alien spaceship in our skies?
“Wide-area search of some form or another,” said Cummings. “I would want want at least two sensors, like radar and [electro-optical/infrared], to search the skies…One way to actually verify these and be absolutely certain that this is not an anomaly is to get the same target, behaving the same way on multiple sensors.”