A Freedom of Information Act request filed by news outlets, including The New York Times, have resulted in the release of eight unclassified “hazard reports” that outline sightings of unidentified aircraft made by Navy aircrews, including incidents that nearly involved midair collisions, and the sighting of a U.S. Navy ship that investigators were unable to identify.
This form of hazard report originates from the Navy’s Web-Enabled Safety System (WESS) Aviation Mishap and Hazard Reporting System (WAMHRS) centralized reporting system, and deal primarily with incidents that present Naval personnel with potentially dangerous situations. In the case of the FOIA-obtained documents, they cover a series of seven incidents covering a time period from 2013 to 2019 that involved the presence of small, unidentified aircraft in training areas that were oftentimes difficult to spot either on radar or visually, and were occasionally outright invisible to one method or the other. Due to their relatively small, drone-like size, the reports refer to the unknown craft as “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS) or “unidentified aerial devices” (UAD).
According to the FOIA officer dealing with the documents’ release, these were the only ones in the database that dealt with naval aviation encounters with unidentified objects, balloons, and any other similar objects.
All of these reports are listed as “unclassified”, and give no indication that they were marked as classified at any point. A handful of them appear to correlate with earlier testimony given by Naval pilots, such as the near-miss related to Lieutenant Ryan Graves by a fellow squadmate; however, if these particular reports are describing the same incidents then each of them are missing key details, such as the unidentified object’s speed in some cases, or simply describing the odd object involved in the near miss incident as “balloon like” (despite Graves’ “cube encased in a sphere” description), making the UASs appear to be conventional drones.
On the surface these omissions might appear to be meant to obscure the potential importance of the encounters to the public; however, this might have also been a deliberate attempt by the officers filing the reports to bypass any prejudice the files might encounter further up the chain of command, by making the cause of the incidents appear to be mundane, yet still the source of a safety hazard that needs to be urgently addressed.
“Although this report is primarily submitted for tracking purposes, it is only a matter of time before this results in a midair [collision] in W-72,” according to the Commanding Officer’s Comments section in the April 23, 2014 report, referring to the W-72 warning area off of the coast of Virginia where six of the seven encounters took place. Mere days later a near collision between a Naval fighter jet and an unknown object underscored the reporting squadron’s concerns.
The encounters off of the Virginian coast appear to be the source of the “Gimbal” and “Go Fast” videos, recently declassified by The Pentagon, although no reports involving the encounters involving the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in late 2004 were included in the FOIA release.
The following is a summary of each hazard report, in chronological order:
June 27, 2013:
At 12:20 local time a F/A-18F Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron 11 (VFA-11) conducting basic flight maneuvers out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia encountered an “aircraft [that] was white in color and approximately the size and shape of a drone or missile” that had a visible exhaust trail. The fighter’s crew spotted the unidentified craft at 17,000 feet as it passed “down the right side of their aircraft with approximately 200 feet of lateral separation.” The craft did not appear on the fighter’s radar systems, and also failed to appear on surface radar as well. An investigation failed to uncover any known agency that was operating drones in the area on that day, leaving the identity of the craft unknown.
November 18, 2013:
This incident is outlined in two separate reports, one for each of the F/A-18E Super Hornets (Strike Fighter Squadron 143 (VFA-143)) involved in the encounter, also flying out of Naval Air Station Oceana. The object encountered was reported as having “an approximately 5-foot wingspan and was colored white with no other distinguishable features” that was traveling at approximately 0.1 Mach (123.48 km/h or 76.73 mph) at 12,000 feet. The object was visible on both radar and visually, and was tracked by both aircrews for about an hour.
While the description of this UAS, as the report identifies the object, doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, the report states that “surface traffic was light with only a single stationary commercial fishing trawler and a single unidentified US Naval vessel traveling south” at the time of the incident. A post-flight investigation failed to determine who was operating the UAS, and concluded that “the identity of the Naval vessel in the vicinity was undetermined,” an extremely unusual circumstance for the U.S. Navy to not be able to positively identify one of its own vessels.
March 26, 2014:
Another F/A-18E Super Hornet flight (this time from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106), also out of Naval Air Station Oceana) spotted a radar track at 19,000 feet, travelling at the same speed of 0.1 Mach as the November 18, 2013 encounter. After initially discussing the possibility that the radar return was a false track as it did not appear on the flight’s wingman’s radar, the lead pilot visually spotted the craft at a range of 1,000 feet (305 meters).
“The unknown aircraft appeared to be small in size, approximately the size of a suitcase, and silver in color,” according to the report. The pilots were unable to identify the object, and lost sight of it after their initial pass.
According to the report, surface radar at Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility, Virginia Capes (FASCFAC VACAPES) did not spot the object, and noted that FASCFAC VACAPES “cannot detect a target this size if it is not squawking IFF [Identification Friend or Foe] or communicating via radio,” which “presents a significant safety concern, given that this unknown aircraft was detected in an exclusive use area.”
April 23, 2014:
A VFA-11 F/A-18F had another encounter in the W-72 warning area, this time at night with two stationary objects, with one hovering at 12,000 feet and the other at 15,000 feet. The objects were first spotted on radar, and then were imaged using the fighter’s Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) system. While the two objects were being tracked, two more objects, not appearing on the aircraft’s radar, were recorded passing through the ATFLIR’s field of view. The report also noted that this was VFA-11’s second such encounter in 10 months.
This report, along with one from the following day, appears to correspond to the personal account given by Lieutenant Danny Accoin in 2019.
April 24, 2014:
The next day, a flight of two F/A-18Fs from VFA-11 made radar contact with a stationary object hovering at 11,000 feet. While no visual contact was made, the crews were able to lock on to the objects using their onboard CATM-9Xs, a training version of the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
This is the second report that appears to correspond to Lieutenant Danny Accoin’s account of two consecutive encounters, reported in May 2019.
April 27, 2014:
For the third time in five days, another flight from VFA-11 encountered an unknown craft in the W-72 warning area, but this report takes on a more serious tone than its predecessors, as it involves what is described as a “near mid-air collision with balloon like object,” and that “UADs operating in controlled airspace without prior coordination or communication pose a severe threat to Naval Aviation.”
“This is the third occurrence in five days, and the fourth in the last ten months observed by the squadron,” according to the Commander’s Comments. “The operation of UAVs and other aerial devices must be properly coordinated and communicated to keep aircrew informed and safe.”
This report appears to coincide with an account related to Lieutenant Ryan Graves by a fellow squadmate who had just returned from the mission that involved the near-miss. Although the report itself only describes the object as “balloon like”, Graves was told that the odd object looked like a sphere encasing a cube.
This incident convinced the squadron that the mysterious craft were not part of a classified U.S. program, as government agencies would be aware of the Navy exercises in the area, and were unlikely to deliberately endanger their aircrews in such a fashion.
“It turned from a potentially classified drone program to a safety issue,” Lieutenant Graves told The New York Times in 2019. “It was going to be a matter of time before someone had a midair” collision.
February 13, 2019:
The last of the reports involves an encounter involving an A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23), operating out Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. While operating in the W-386 warning area the aircrew visually spotted what they described as “a red weather balloon” at 27,000 feet. A followup investigation with both military agencies and the FAA failed to uncover any scheduled balloon flights for the area.