Ryan Graves’ rapid-fire New England accent is contrasted by an unfeigned pensiveness, conveying he’s the type of person who is both attentively calm under pressure yet not afraid to pull the trigger.
Square jawed with perfectly placed dirty blonde hair and prominent cleft chin, if Graves wasn’t, in fact, a former Navy fighter pilot, you might easily assume he was cast to play one in a movie. His modest and personable demeanor tattle-tell that during his 11 years as a F/A-18 “Super Hornet” pilot, Graves was likely more Pete “Maverick” Mitchell than Tom “Iceman” Kazansky.
Many kids dream of one day becoming a fighter pilot. For Graves, this ambition didn’t emerge until the end of his junior year in college, when a summer internship led to the sudden realization he’d been academically preparing himself for a boring career in fire protection engineering. Pondering on what was the exact opposite of boring, Graves says he settled on being a Navy fighter pilot.
Accepted into the Officer Candidate School as an aviator candidate, Graves progressed through the Navy’s advanced strike fighter pipeline. After nearly three years of initial flight screening, preflight indoctrination, primary flight training, advanced flight training, and specialized strike syllabus, Graves successfully realized his goal of landing an unboring job by virtue of landing on a moving aircraft carrier.
“FOBS” was the callsign Graves went by during his years piloting one of the world’s premier multi-role fighter aircraft. “That’s all I’m going to tell you,” Graves chuckles politely. A reminder that pilot monikers almost always have a devilishly humorous and often embarrassing origin story.
When a collegiate Graves longed for an unboring career, that vocation, understandably, didn’t involve UFOs. Yet, in the words of associate editor of the Washington Post David Maraniss: “Life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder.”
A synthesis of these existential forces has led to Graves inexplicably finding himself married to the UFO topic. Though, at times, he likely feels this union is more 1998 Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra than a “Notebook” kind of love. “I still can’t believe sometimes that I came out talking about this,” Graves said with bemused doubt in a phone call with me.
Graves’ relationship with UFOs began in 2014 and 2015 as a part of Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-11, the “Red Rippers,” and the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. While conducting work-ups off the Virginia and Florida coasts, Graves would later recount how he and his fellow Naval Aviators began to detect mysterious objects tooling around the airspace, often for hours on end.
In late 2017, early 2018, To the Stars Academy released three brief grainy black-and-white videos captured by the infrared targeting pods of F/A-18s in 2004 and 2015. The images showed an indistinct “something” that purportedly was a UFO or, in modern Department of Defense parlance, “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP).
Two of these videos, colloquially dubbed “Go Fast” and “Gimbal,” displayed one of the objects that had perplexed Graves and his fellow Red Rippers back in 2015. The DoD would later authenticate the clips and confirm the objects in the videos were indeed “unidentified aerial phenomena.”
The then 30-year-old Navy Lieutenant, Graves, did not film either of the two widely popular and hotly debated videos. However, airborne at the time of their recording, Graves watched those same indistinct “somethings” on his own jet’s advanced avionics suite.
Graves was mum on his UFO affair in the first couple of years after the videos were released. Finally, in July 2020, the relationship between Graves and UFOs became officially known. Freshly out of the Navy, Graves stepped from the shadows and onto the front page of The New York Times and the History Channel’s TV program Unidentified. In both outlets, he’d offer additional details and more context of the mysterious airborne objects that had been darting around several hundred miles off the coasts of Virginia and Florida.
In May 2021, Graves would once more recount how Navy pilots had encountered UAP on a near-daily basis. Only this time Graves told his story on arguably the most esteemed American TV news magazines: CBS’s 60 Minutes. Airing just a month before the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s deadline to provide Congress with a report on UAP, once 60 minutes blessed off on it, the rest of the mainstream media were off to the races. Suddenly, news outlets couldn’t get enough UFOs.
Graves and I spoke on the phone just a few days after his big appearance on 60 minutes. “I thought I got a lot of attention after the New York Times, but I think this tops it,” Graves chuckled. “It’s all been very positive, though. Which has been good.”
Unrestrained by newspaper editors or TV producers, Graves patiently detailed for me what he and his fellow military pilots had encountered years prior. “There were these everyday occurrences off of the East Coast, where we’d go up, and we’d see them on our radar. We’d see them on our FLIR and very rarely with our eyeballs. This was a daily issue,” Graves stressed.
Initially, Graves says the appearance of these odd interlopers roughly coincided with the F/A-18’s upgrade to the AN/APG-79, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. “Sometimes you get reflections off clouds with older radars, so we were somewhat accustomed to seeing stuff on the radar that didn’t necessarily mean an object was actually there. The APG-79 wasn’t supposed to have this issue, but it was pretty new, so we just assumed at first this was a bug in the software,” said Graves.
Rather quickly, however, pilots began to realize whatever these radar returns were, they weren’t bugs in the system. “We started locking these things up as solid returns and then slaving the FLIR to it, meaning you’re seeing an IR [infrared] source. That’s when we realized this wasn’t necessarily some type of radar malfunction. There were physical objects out there.”
The AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR targeting pod capturing these objects is a multi-sensor, electro-optical system that incorporates a low-light television camera, target laser rangefinder/designator, laser spot tracker, and thermographic camera.
All objects emit a certain amount of black body radiation as a function of their temperature. The higher an object’s temperature, the more infrared black-body radiation is emitted. The sophisticated thermographic component of the ATFLIR converts these infrared emissions into an image the same way a typical camera forms an image using visible light.
Unlike the free-fall bomb runs and dramatic dogfights of WWII, modern air warfare involves delivering precision-guided munitions and “high-noon shootouts,” meaning he who “sees” the enemy first typically wins. Consequently, electro-optical systems, like the ATFLIR, have become staple pieces of hardware in modern military aircraft. The systems are integrated with other sophisticated avionics, including radar, all in hopes of providing the modern warfighter with a superior degree of situational awareness.
Graves explained the objects had a distinctive radar signature, which would allow the pilots to recognize them whenever they’d pop up on their integrated situational awareness page. “There were some distinct things we’d notice. Typically they were stationary, but sometimes they were moving, rarely at slightly supersonic speeds, but most of the time, they weren’t going incredibly fast,” Graves explained.
“We have what’s called a target aspect indicator, which is basically a line that comes off the radar track that represents the vector of the target, or what direction it’s moving. When these things were stationary, the aspect indicator kind of jumped around. For example, it would be going to the 12 o’clock position on one pass, then suddenly at the 6 0’clock, 3 o’clock, etc. This would maybe make sense for a stationary target. But we saw this same type of jitteriness when they were moving targets as well. The target aspect wasn’t smooth like an aircraft.”
Going back decades, the vast majority of UFO sightings last mere seconds. This volatile transience and randomness are among the most significant reasons why many UFO events go unexplained. It is also why rapid acceleration has become the de-facto defining characteristic of what is a “UFO.”
Nevertheless, in the last several years, after speaking with pilots, radar operators, and air warfare officers, when more enduring data is obtained -more often than not, thanks to increasingly sophisticated air defense systems – this same “jitteriness” Graves described often comes up.
Another military pilot, who is still on active duty and not authorized to speak on the record, described to me a sighting they had of an object that was “violently and erratically maneuvering” as it traveled through the air. “It was darting around like a housefly,” they said.
These erratic maneuvers witnesses describe seem nonsensical and frankly “alien.” However, these random movement patterns are actually pervasive and found naturally in astronomy, biology, and physics. In continuous probability distribution, these movements are mathematically defined as “Lévy Flight.”
Studies have shown that when ocean predators cannot find food, they begin traveling along long trajectories mixed with short, random movements, called the “Levy flight foraging hypothesis.” In a study performed over 15 years, analysis of 12 million movements showed that numerous marine predator species engage in Levy flight when seeking food. Additional published research has shown birds, and even primordial humans, following paths of Levy flight when in heterogeneous environments.
Whether or not this is merely a confounding variable, false dichotomy, or an overlooked distinctive characteristic of UFO events is anyone’s guess. Even if more substantive data showed these objects traveling in patterns of Levy flight, speculatively, it would only suggest they “viewed” the skies as an open-range domain and not as carefully planned air traffic control grids and predetermined flight paths. It would not inherently help identify what UAP represents.
One might also surmise it would mean the objects are “searching” for something, similar to animals foraging for food. Of course, this requires continued leaps into a land of conjecture. A realm I personally prefer to avoid.
Now, Graves cautions he couldn’t state for a fact the objects were actually physically displacing and traveling in new directions. “Our computer was showing us its direction of travel was jittery. Like it was walking a line, and then it was suddenly walking a line in another direction. But I can’t say it was physically moving in that direction.” However, the analogy of a housefly did resonate with what some of Graves’ fellow pilots said they had experienced.
“A lot of pilots would see these things on radar and go try to check it out. Very rarely, though, would they physically see anything because it was like you described with a housefly. When they’d get close, the things would move a little bit up or down. Just enough so you’d miss them,” said Graves. “To be fair, it’s also difficult to see a small object that’s stationary when you’re going by at 250 to 300 knots.”
On the few rare occasions pilots did catch a glimpse, the objects were oddly described as looking like a cube in a sphere. A shape that could hardly be considered aerodynamic by accepted principles of flight physics.
In 2019, defense journalist Tyler Rogoway put forth the theory that the “cube in a sphere” pilots saw could have been airborne radar reflectors. Rogoway shared a 1945 U.S. patent of an “Airborne Corner Reflector,” which depicted a radar reflector inside a collapsible balloon that, indeed, looked like a cube inside a sphere. The CIA had used similar submarine-launched balloons to test Soviet radar capabilities in the early 1960s under Project PALLADIUM.
In 2019, I spoke with retired CIA executive S. Eugene “Gene” Poteat. During his 30 years with the agency, Poteat ran many technical programs for the CIA, including being the program manager for the sensor platforms on the U-2 and A-12 spy planes. In the 1960s, Poteat also founded and ran Project PALLADIUM.
During several communications, Poteat explained to me the premises of PALLADIUM. “We wanted to determine the USSR’s ability to detect small targets. It was ultimately to see if the Soviets would be able to detect the A-12 or SR-71,” said Poteat. “The idea was to trigger Soviet early warning radars based in Cuba by producing false radar targets from an electronic warfare aircraft we were operating nearby. Then a submarine that was working with us would surface and release the calibrated spheres up and into the path of the oncoming false aircraft.”
Poteat told me the sub-launched radar reflective spheres they used differed in size and would have more likely been mistaken for a flying saucer than a “cube in a sphere.” With the 2015 Navy encounters, Poteat said he found the incidents “interesting,” but he would want to see more of the avionics data before giving an opinion.
Considering the objects would engage in evasive maneuvers, occasionally be seen flying in formation, and sometimes traveling at close to supersonic speeds, if what Graves and the other pilots were encountering were radar-reflectors, they definitely weren’t any conventional ones.
When it comes to the “Gimbal” video, Graves explained the brief clip, which was filmed roughly 300 miles off the coast of Florida in January 2015, shows something different than the persistent “jittery” objects pilots had become accustomed to seeing.
“We have a situational awareness page in the jets that give us a combined picture of all the plane’s sensor data. It’s kind of like a God’s eye view,” said Graves. “So when that FLIR footage they call the Gimbal was filmed, what you don’t see in the video that was released was there were five or six other aircraft flying in an imperfect wedge formation.”
Graves explained the wedge formation these objects were traveling in isn’t the type of pattern you would expect to see military aircraft fly, with the exception of in airshows or aerial displays. He also said the aircraft in the wedge formation had the same “jittery” signature as the objects previously seen near the Virginia coast.
Though the 34-second “Gimbal” video doesn’t show the wedge formation, one of the F/A-18 pilots hints at their presence in the accompanying audio. “There’s a whole fleet of them! Look on the SA,” exclaims the pilot. The “SA” being the Situational Awareness page, or “God’s eye view” mentioned by Graves.
“The wedge formation was flying, let’s call it north, then they turned their return radius right into the other direction, which is how aircraft turn. We have to bite into the air. So they turn in the other direction and keep going. Meanwhile, the ‘Gimbal’ object that was following behind them suddenly stopped and waited for the wedge formation to pass. Then it tilted up like you can see in the clip, and that’s when my video cut out, but it just kept following the other five or six, doing like a racetrack pattern,” Graves stated, explaining what isn’t shown on the public “Gimbal” video.
Every time pilots encountered these mysterious interlopers over the Atlantic, Graves says the objects never gave off any transponder signal identifying themselves. “No IFF or any interrogation mode and no emissions whatsoever. At least not that I’m aware of, except for reflectivity of some kind to be picked up on radar and infrared,” said Graves.
Referring to the “Gimbal” video, Graves said, “I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of aircraft on the FLIR [forward looking infrared]. I spent a lot of time looking at the FLIR in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Some have proposed that the object filmed in the “Gimbal” video could have been a distant plane or commercial airliner. Graves doesn’t discount the potential for even highly-trained fighter pilots to make mistakes, but given the totality of the circumstances, the “Gimbal” having been a mundane distant aircraft seems like a bit of a stretch.
“I’m not going to say that we’re infallible. I mean, we’re all humans up there, trying to do the best job that we can. That being said, we’re using highly integrated systems in the aircraft,” said Graves. “We have many things telling us what something is out there. For example, with the Link 16, it gives us a data link allowing us to see where everyone is. I’ve got to be careful here and can’t get into too many details, but we can share data with each other so we can all see what everyone else is seeing.”
“On that particular day, the day the Gimbal was filmed, we were involved in a large air-to-air mission. You’ve got anywhere from 10 to 12 jets in the air wing going off to an area to do a mission. Then you’ve got a group of aircraft overhead the boat acting as the aerial refuelers. When my buddy took that video, he was heading back to the ship, and then here goes this thing like 40 miles away from the boat. It’s not in the data link. All the radars are reporting it, but it’s nothing popping up identifying what type of aircraft it is or whether it’s friend or foe. Then you’ve also got the five or six other objects in the wedge formation. We were like 300 miles out off the coast. It’s hard for me to imagine it was just another jet in the system.”
Some have also claimed the “Gimbal” object was traveling at mind-blowing speeds. But, Graves told me, in actuality, the exact opposite is true.
“It was going like 120 knots, basically stationary. None of our jets are just going to be sitting there stationary at 120 knots. I forget the altitude, maybe like 20,000 feet, but that’s really slow. Maybe in a full dogfight, if you’re a good pilot, you could get down to maybe 80 knots without stalling the aircraft, but you’re probably borderline stall, and you’re going to be pure vertical, or at least close to 70 degrees nose up,” said Graves.
The idea these objects were traveling at extraordinary hypersonic speeds makes for a great story. However, Graves explained something doesn’t have to be traveling an excess of 3,000 mph for it to still be impressive. For him and his fellow pilots, typically, the objects’ extreme slow speeds and extended flight time made them so perplexing.
Graves’ point that something doesn’t need to show “otherworldly” speed to be impressive, can be likened to riding a motorcycle. True skill isn’t riding a motorcycle fast, because self-stability occurs whenever a bike reaches a speed. Therefore going faster increases the chances of a bike contributing to its own stability. Conversely, trying to maintain balance while going at slow speeds is a more difficult task. So keeping a bike upright while moving forward at 2 to 3 MPH is actually more impressive than zipping along at 150 MPH.
“I guess it’s physically possible that when we weren’t looking, one would drop to ocean-level, and a new one would replace it, giving the appearance of a single aircraft staying airborne for hours at a time. However, in my observation, it appeared like they were pretty much airborne for as long as they wanted to be,” said Graves.
Graves told me pilots almost exclusively encountered the mysterious interlopers over the ocean, between roughly 10 to 300 miles off the coast. “I don’t think we ever saw them over land, but to be fair, we rarely flew over land,” specified Graves. “How far out they were, plus the altitudes and time in the air, basically all but rules out them being commercial drones.”
Another theory proposed is that pilots may have been encountering some type of advanced electronic warfare system. Something similar to what Gene Poteat and the CIA were doing with Project PALLADIUM by injecting false information into the jet’s avionic systems. One problem with this theory is the few occasions pilots visually saw the objects or captured them on the ATFLIR targeting pod.
According to Dr. Xavier Maldague, an electrical engineer and professor at the University Laval whose expertise is in infrared thermography approaches and image processing, it would be challenging to inject false imagery into the F/A-18’s electro-optical sensors.
“At the optical level, using a fake scene would be very difficult. Especially because all objects do emit some sort of infrared energy, so difficult to fool. And a dynamic scene would be even worse,” Dr. Maldague told me in an email. “One way to do it would be at the signal level, but of course, you [would] need access to camera wiring or try to scramble the radio link. A simple uniform hot background would be possible, well probably (depending on the distance).”
Optoelectronic engineer and professor of materials engineering at the University of Manchester, Dr. Coskun Kocabas, told me “spoofing” of infrared imaging would have to involve some type of external masking, rather than remotely hacking the system.
“There are fake infrared targets that look like real military vehicles on infrared cameras. They do it by locally heating a screen or inflatable balloon. But this is not related to the camera; they mimic the thermal emission of an object,” said Kocabas.
News of the mysterious encounters would eventually reach The Pentagon, ultimately leading to Graves recounting events for senior defense officials, congressional staffers, and members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Unbeknownst to Graves, he would tell his story to another former military aviator, turned senior DoD official, during one of these briefings. The official would later tell me they were so compelled by Graves and the other military veterans’ accounts, they’d later find themselves defending the pilots in a private “fighter pilots only” social media group when one member disputed their claims.
“I’m a fighter pilot, and I’m very familiar with the systems being used. I simply don’t have an explanation for what I’m looking at when you’ve got multiple sensor systems all picking it up,” the now-former senior advisor told me. The official asked not to be named because of their current employer and not out of embarrassment for supporting pilots’ claims on UAP.
“He is as credible as can be. A total professional,” one of Graves’ former Navy colleagues told me. The fellow former military aviator similarly asked not to be named due to their current employer, stressing it had nothing to do with an unwillingness to speak in support of Graves or out of concern for the claims of UAP.
Graves says he understands why people, especially other fighter pilots, might be critical of his accounts of UAP. “It doesn’t hurt my feelings to hear that some people might be critical, but at the same time, it’s really nice to hear some people are willing to stand up for us or make a statement alongside me,” said Graves.
Conversations about what pilots encountered in 2014 and 2015, or UFOs/UAP in general, are marred with theories of aliens or other conceptualized forms of exotic non-human visitors. As a result, both UFO enthusiasts and critics often engage in the types of spirited and polarized debate typically reserved for politics. Likewise, many media outlets often include quotes from self-styled “debunkers,” astrophysicists, or astronomers in attempts to provide fair and unbiased coverage. All discussing how unlikely it is that earth is being visited by advanced beings from another realm.
Instead, Graves has taken a reasonably pragmatic and unromantic stance. “Friends will ask, ‘What do you really think it was,’ and I tell them, I don’t know what it was,” said Graves. “There are some answers that are higher probability than others, but I try my best not to form a direction either way. I try to be as unbiased as an observer as possible.”
“I’ve given my account, but that’s all I’ve got to give. Some people want the answer to what this was, but like I said, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer that I can give,” said Graves during one of our recent conversations.
Graves implied frustration reminded me of the conversation I had with Alex Dietrich. “After I’ve told the account, some people will say, ‘But what was it?,” Dietrich told me with a hint of annoyance when discussing her sharing of the bizarre encounter with a “Tic Tac” shaped object off the Southern California coast in 2004. “I’ve done my part. So now it’s up to someone else to figure out what it was. Because I’ve already said, I don’t know. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.”
Graves takes a tone of frank sincerity when discussing his reasons for coming forward and discussing the unusual events. “First of all, this was an everyday safety risk for us. So my first goal for speaking out was to express that the men and women I flew with are dealing with a safety issue that the Navy was laughing at. That’s a big problem for me. It’s not acceptable.”
During the 2015 events, one aircrew had a near mid-air collision with one of the unidentified “cube in a sphere” shaped objects. Then, within the last year, Graves says another pilot he served with told him they had a near-miss with an object that looked “pretty much the same” as what pilots saw six years ago.
Within the last six months, Graves told me of a former flight student of his who graduated and made it to the fleet. According to the newly minted fighter pilot, he told Graves, “they’re still out here.”
Given the persistence of these enigmatic objects, aside from the safety issues, Graves rightly points out that if these belong to a potential-adversary foreign power, willful apathy stemming from UFO stigmas could be creating a considerable blind spot for national security.
“If this is an earthly threat here, then they’re massively taking advantage of our cultural biases. You know, honestly, it would be brilliant to do that,” conceded Graves. “We already know China has massive intelligence-gathering programs. They’re trying to gather as much data as possible. What if this is just a natural extension of that?”
I asked Graves what he hoped to see happen with all of the interest in UAP now, particularly by lawmakers and the Department of Defense.
“I think we’ve taken some good first steps with the new reporting system. I think this initial level has been successful, and now people can report this stuff or talk about it without getting ridiculed,” said Graves. “I don’t think there’s some massive conspiracy going on. I think it’s a lot of just looking the other way and dealing with threats that seem more important at the time. That’s how the military operates. It’s the closest alligator to the canoe that’s going to kill you. It’s not the one on the shore. But, at the same time, if we’ve got unknown objects operating near our borders, at some point we’ve got to figure out who or what that is.”
Graves says he’d like to see the DoD provide a plan or process to investigate UAP events. “They’ve had the option to investigate this stuff for a while and never did,” Graves hesitates. “Just because the Navy is collecting data now doesn’t really mean they’re going to do anything with it. It could sit in a spreadsheet somewhere, and nothing’s done.”
“The U.S. has a lot of systems to collect data. Like satellite data and stuff from various sensor networks. I highly doubt that the person in the Navy that’s currently working this has the clearance and access to go cross-department to get data. So we need someone responsible for this in a high-level senior position with the clearance to go across agencies to get necessary data. I also think whatever is done also needs to have civilian oversight.”
Graves told me he was glad to see the Navy and DoD come out and say the videos are authentic. However, that was a tiny step to solving the problem. “I think they need to also acknowledge there are vehicles in our airspace, and we don’t know what they are or where they come from,” said Graves.
Ironically, Graves’ last sentiments were similarly echoed to me by one of the highest-ranking former officials in the Department of Defense. A conversation that will be explored in the next chapter of The Debrief’s -Devices of Unknown Origin – Part III: “Just Tell The Truth About UFOs.”
Coming, Friday, June 25, 2021 – Part III: Mr. Secretary, We Don’t Know