Reported sightings go back 1,000 years but things have changed changed since then.
We all have heard about UFOs, what the U.S. government now calls UAPs, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. They are mentioned in the news, in books, in movies, on tv, on radio talk shows, and in classified government reports. You may even have seen one yourself.
UFOs are not a recent phenomenon. There are UFO reports from the First Century, from Medieval times, and maybe even from the Bible. UFOs appear in Renaissance paintings. But those reports are translations and interpretations of ancient texts. Those witnesses aren’t around anymore.
What about UFO sightings over the last 100 years? Recordkeeping wasn’t always flawless; it was far from thorough and complete. Still, it tells an interesting story about our society.
Consider the graph at the top of this article, based on data from NUFORC, the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). The dataset includes 88,875 reports made from 1910 to 2014, of which 70,169 were in the U.S. The main graph shows UFO reports in the U.S., but the number of reports is represented on a logarithmic scale. The reason can be seen in the small graph inset in the upper left corner of the main graph. The number of UFOs reported since the beginning of the 20th Century has increased exponentially. Patterns in UFO reporting before 1990 can’t be seen unless the scale for the axis showing the number of reports is adjusted.
The main graph suggests four periods of UFO reporting:
- 1910 to 1948. The Period Before Roswell.
- 1948 to 1968. The Period of Denial
- 1968 to 1995. The Period of Cover-Up
- 1995 to present. The Period of Mass Communications.
Period Before Roswell 1910-1948
There were fewer than 10 reports of UFOs per year before 1948. Some of those reports were about sightings that occurred years earlier but the witnesses didn’t understand their significance or know where to bring the information. There may also have been sightings that weren’t preserved in archived records. The government wasn’t prepared to monitor this phenomenon in an honest and open manner. That situation would persist for decades.
Despite the long history of UFO sightings over the past millennia, most people weren’t aware of the concept of UFOs. It just wasn’t something that was taught in school or experienced in life. Natural atmospheric and astronomical phenomena that have been used to rationalize sightings were also poorly understood by the populace. That naiveté began to change when the world went to war. Individuals who had never left their home towns became acquainted with other people from all over the world. They shared their knowledges and experiences as they tried to cope with unexplainable events, like the Angel of Mons and Foo Fighters.
By the end of 1947, GIs had returned from the war bringing with them greater appreciations of the world and the many unusual things they had experienced. It was that year that saw a spate of UFO sightings, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, beginning the age of the flying saucer. This period of UFO reporting culminated in 1948 with the Roswell Incident.
There is a mountain of information that has been published on the Roswell Incident. Amazon alone has 168 books on the topic. The important aspect of the event for this article is how it was handled by the Army Air Force. (At the time, the newly created Department of the Air Force was still in the process of becoming independent from the U.S. Army from which it was split.)
At first, the Army inspected the UFO crash debris and transported it back to their base in Roswell. A day later, they issued a press release indicating that they had recovered a flying disc. A day later, the debris was transported to the Fort Worth Army Air Field where they declared it to be just a weather balloon. The Period of Denial had begun.
Period of Denial 1948-1968
The public lost interest in the Roswell news story for two decades after the USAF declared it to be from a weather balloon. The response was entirely different, however, in the Air Force. They established Project Sign to collect and evaluate information on UFOs to determine if they might represent a national security concern, perhaps rogue Nazi or Russian craft. After a year, Sign concluded that UFOs should be investigated further since so little was known about them. This conclusion led to the creation of Project Grudge, which aimed to persuade the public that UFOs could all be explained by conventional terrestrial, atmospheric, and astronomical phenomena. Grudge concluded that most reports were hoaxes, or the result of mass-hysteria or other psychological issues despite 23% of the reports being unexplainable. The Project was phased out after a year because the Air Force was afraid that its continuation would cause people to focus on UFOs rather than dismissing them.
Dissatisfaction with the way Projects Sign and Grudge were conducted led the Air Force to establish Project Blue Book in 1952. Instead of changing the nature of the investigations, Blue Book became more committed to the goal of debunking all UFO sightings. Through several changes in leadership, the Project targeted reporters and critics for defamation, and mischaracterized the likelihood of their purported explanations. Despite intense public interest, Blue Book’s efforts were fairly successful. Reports of UFOs continued, however. By 1969 when it ended, Project Blue Book collected 12,618 UFO reports and provided explanations, however dubious, for all but 701 (5.6%) sightings. Still, despite denying that UFOs were anything to be concerned about, the Air Force wasn’t through investigating them. They couldn’t ignore the new phenomenon of abductions.
The first widely publicized report of a UFO abducting witnesses was the case of Betty and Barney Hill, who claimed to have been taken into a UFO on a rural road in NH in September 1961. As the details of the case filtered to the public through books, movies, and television, the disavowals of Blue Book become more and more unbelievable. This led the Air Force to make their continuing investigations covert, and denying that they were pursuing the phenomenon/
Period of Cover-Up 1968-1995
Despite the USAF denials and their witness-shaming meant to cover-up the existence of UFOs, interest in the topic continued. Hundreds of reports per year were made during the period, but the growth in reporting was no longer exponential. UFOs had become passe. There was a glut of books, movies, and TV shows that featured space and UFO themes. There was even a show about Project Blue Book in 1978 (later revisited in 2019). Even after the conclusion of Project Blue Book, though, the USAF continued to track UFO sightings, including dozens that occurred at military facilities with nuclear weapons.
The durations of UFO sightings haven’t changed in a hundred years. 36% of sightings last less than a minute. Half last three minutes or less. 96% last less than hour. Only 0.1% last longer than a day. After the 1990s, the durations became more consistent from year to year at about 15 to 20 minutes. Four years—1950, 1958, 1961, and 1963— had more long-duration events than other year, as much as 15% of those years’ reports.
Period of Mass Communications 1995-Today
During the Period of Mass Communications, the number of UFO reports increased from hundreds per year to thousands per year. If you were born after personal computers and the internet became popular, you might not realize what a profound affect technology has had on communications, and especially, UFO reporting.
First, personal computers found a way into homes. Photography and videography became more common. Everybody got cell phones, eventually with cameras. The internet let everybody share their experiences, especially in social groups. And photoshopping software was there to make everything more enticing. But most importantly, the stigma of reporting UFOs started to fade. It became impossible to dismiss reports when they were being made by educators, scientists, law enforcement, military and commercial pilots, and astronauts.
Conventional astronomical, atmospheric, and terrestrial phenomena that were mistaken for UFOs in the past didn’t change but they were more recognizable. They were better understood, and there was better records and technologies to identify them. Now, explanations have to be more sophisticated. Swamp gas and mass hysteria are no longer believable.
Hoaxes did change. The technology that could be used to create them improved dramatically from even twenty years earlier. Every scammer now has easy access to drones, professional video equipment, and sophisticated graphical-editing software. Plus, as the stigma of reporting a UFO diminished, the gullibility of the public increased. Social media enhanced the distribution channels.
By 2010, interest in UFOs began to wane simply because everyone knew what they were. The number of reports continued to increase exponentially, however. Without any fanfare, the U.S. government continued to track UFOs, now within the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program investigated UFOs from 2007 to 2012, but wasn’t made public until five years later. Investigations continued under the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force, which also aimed to detect, analyze, and catalog UFOs (UAPs) that could pose a threat to national security. A report known as the Pentagon UFO Report was released on June 25, 2021 indicating that 143 objects reported between 2004 and 2021 could not be identified, including events involving the USS Nimitz and the USS Princeton in 2004, the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2014/2015, and the USS Russell and the USS Omaha in 2019. These sightings were reported on national television on 60 Minutes.
This attention to UFOs (UAPs) has renewed public interest (see chart of Google searches), though some people have warned that the Navy encounters have may actually be false-flag reports. But seriously, the U.S. government has been investigating UFOs for over seventy tears. Certainly there must be something of interest in UFOs to commit all that effort and funding.
Poll: Have You Seen a UFO?
Have you ever seen and reported an Unidentified Flying Object? I saw one back in 1962 when I was nine. A dozen friends and I were playing baseball in the field behind our homes when we all saw a fiery object streak across the sky for a second or two. We were stunned. We didn’t report it but it was later reported on the 6-o’clock news as a meteor. That sounded reasonable although I’m sure I saw two figures on the meteor waving to me. I should have waved back, maybe they would have landed by second base.
How about you? Have you ever seen a UFO? Answer the survey below so we can compare experiences.