Close Encounters


Over the past few years, I have often remarked that there could be an asteroid headed toward Earth and the news media would not cover the story because it was so obsessed with politics. That’s an exaggeration, of course. I actually believe that the press would report the news, but nobody would pay any attention.

On Memorial Day this year, there was an article in The New York Times entitled, “Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects,” by Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean. It was based on interviews with five fighter pilots who had been stationed on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in 2014 and 2015.

From the summer of one year until the spring of the next, the ship and its aircraft conducted training exercises off the southeast coast of the United States, from Virginia to Florida. Throughout that time, the pilots all report that there were frequent, prolonged sightings of what the military calls “unexplained aerial phenomena,” and the rest of us call UFOs.

Sometimes these crafts would be around the area where the Navy pilots were training all day, at high altitudes and low, moving at hypersonic speeds or coming to a complete stop. They showed no evidence of exhaust from an engine, and executed sudden turns and acceleration that no known vehicle would be able to accomplish.

At first, the pilots and their superior officers assumed that the UFOs were some sort of highly advanced drones developed by U.S. intelligence agencies or the Defense Department. They recorded the interlopers on radar, infra-red sensors and video cameras, and marveled at their capabilities.

Then something happened in late 2014 that changed the Roosevelt pilots’ point of view regarding the UFOs. Two F/A-18 Super Hornets were flying in formation, only 100 feet apart, when one of the mystery vehicles flew between them, right past the cockpit of one fighter.

The pilot was badly shaken by the near collision with the UFO, which he described as a sphere encasing a cube. He filed a safety report on the incident.

Following that scare, the pilots were angry about the reckless behavior of the UFO, and worried about a potential catastrophe. They no longer believed that the vehicles were operated by the U.S. government, because it would not put carrier pilots at risk.

In March of 2015, the Roosevelt was deployed to the Persian Gulf, where it carried out bombing missions over Iraq and Syria. At that point the UFO incidents “tapered off.”

Well, that’s a relief. We wouldn’t want UFOs getting in the way of our combat operations.

After reading the article in the Times, I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t understand why cable news wasn’t all over the story, and I kept telling everyone, “You have to read this article in the Times. You won’t believe this!” Most of them looked at me like I had grown another head, and said something about the importance of getting enough rest.

Over the following weeks, I did hear a couple of radio segments devoted to the UFO reports, and one television interview with a science correspondent. They were all careful to emphasize the point that nobody was claiming that these crafts were extraterrestrial in origin. “If that were the case,” one radio commentator remarked, “we wouldn’t call them UFOs, we’d call them alien spaceships.”

There have been UFO sightings for at least as long as there has been recorded history, but they increased dramatically in the 20th century with the invention of airplanes and radar. During World War II they were so common that Allied pilots had a name for them. They called them “Foo Fighters.”

Following the war there were frequent sightings, possibly related to the proliferation of commercial aircraft, weather balloons, satellites, missiles, military vehicles and experimental aircraft. I think there may have been a darker reason as well.

People all over the world had been exposed to large-scale death and destruction from the sky. Entire cities had been reduced to rubble or incinerated, and near the end the escalation of weapons technology had been terrifying, from V-2 rockets to jet planes to atomic bombs. Science had gone from mankind’s great hope to its great fear.

At any rate, events took a turn on June 24, 1947, when a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported a formation of nine shiny metallic objects flying past Mount Rainier at supersonic speed. Arnold, who was considered entirely credible by the news media and everyone else, described the objects as saucer-shaped, which gave birth to the modern UFO narrative.

Over the next decade or so, flying saucers seemed to be everywhere, and reports were so commonplace that only the most spectacular made the papers. One front-page story was a series of sightings in Washington, D.C., over a two-and-a-half-week period in the summer of 1952.

Much like the USS Theodore Roosevelt UFOs, these objects were witnessed by a variety of pilots, air traffic controllers and military radar operators, and were seen to perform astonishing high-speed maneuvers. Sometimes they flew in formation, and were visible for up to 15 minutes at a time.

Referred to by the press as the “Invasion of Washington,” those events became something of a watershed moment, after which the whole subject of UFOs was taken seriously by the general public. It also prompted both the Air Force and the CIA to create systems for investigating aerial phenomena.

The effect of all this on popular culture was dramatic, in a quite literal sense. There were dozens of science fiction movies in the ’50s that exploited, and contributed to, our fascination with flying saucers. Many of them are pretty awful, but there are a few, such as the 1951 classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which have stood the test of time.

It is a thinly veiled retelling of the Christ story, in which a pacifist comes to Earth to save us from ourselves. His message, regarding our nuclear weapons and general belligerence, remains valid and unheeded almost 70 years later.

Just like today, movies and toys were very closely related in the 1950s. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” included the three devices that were essential in every UFO movie: the saucer itself, a ray gun (more or less), and a robot.

I grew up in the ’50s, and I can verify that all three of those things were important elements of our make-believe repertoire. Even the iconic Frisbee was originally marketed to us as a “Pluto Platter,” which we simply called a flying saucer.

So I’m wondering. If UFOs are coming back, can toys be far behind?

You can e-mail Kevin at

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