Just after midnight, on a July evening in Carteret, NJ in 2001, life stood still. Roughly 70 motorists along the New Jersey Turnpike were pulled off to the side of the road, out of their cars and looking up. At least 15 calls were made to the local police station. And anyone still awake couldn’t help but marvel at the sight above them. Roughly a dozen bright lights with a reportedly yellow, orange, and gold hue, glided across the black sky. The lights moved peacefully, going in and out of a V-like formation for about 15 minutes before they disappeared. The number of New Jersey residents who witnessed that event were a part of one of the most credible UFO sightings of all time. Or what others believe were simply military flares.
In the 20 years since no official explanation has been offered. The 2001 event remains the cherry on top of the long and puzzling relationship between UFOs and New Jersey. The UFO phenomenon is among the most polarizing, complicated, and captivating topics of debate in all of America, and that’s saying something. But how did we get to this point? What else has happened in the Garden State? And are we looking at the complete picture?
Flying Saucers to UFOs to UAPs
For a long time now, UFOs have been a tricky topic of discussion. But why? UFO just stands for “unidentified flying object.” Well, of course, it means so much more than that in American society. When we hear the term UFO, we immediately think of aliens rather than simply something in the air that we cannot identify. For much of the last 70 years, the line has been drawn in the sand; you’re either a believer or you’re not. The negative connotation and stigma are so strong with UFOs that many don’t seem to realize that the past four years have been unprecedented times for the subject. So, before we look into the long relationship between UFOs and New Jersey, it’s essential we first understand how we got to this point and why now is unlike any time before.
The Flying Saucer Era
The infamous Roswell, New Mexico incident of 1947 is often thought of as the beginning of America’s obsession with UFOs, but really it started just a few weeks before. On June 24, 1947, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine flying objects moving at what he estimated to be two to three times the speed of sound. He described their flight characteristics as a “saucer that skipped over water.” The next day, a newspaper headline displayed “flying saucer,” and the legend was born. But just a few weeks later, the most significant catalyst of the UFO fascination would emerge in Roswell, New Mexico.
The gist of the story is that on July 8, 1947, the Roswell Army Air Field let out a press release stating they had recovered a “flying disc.” By the next day, the Army had quickly backtracked and retracted the statement saying it was actually a crashed weather balloon. But the nation was already captivated by the story. The backtracking by the Army would spark paranoia and conspiracy that would define this topic for decades to come. By the end of 1947, there were over 800 reports of flying saucer encounters.
The Robertson Panel
By September of ’47, the Air Force would begin to formally investigate the mass sightings while downplaying them to the public. Yet, their main concern wasn’t little green men. They feared the Soviets had had a remarkable technological breakthrough, a fear that remains today with foreign adversaries. But a few years passed, and UFO mania continued to run wild in America, with a steady influx of sightings. Then in 1953, to get a grip on the issue, the CIA secretly commissioned a panel of experts to offer recommendations on how to handle the UFO debacle.
Known as the “Robertson Panel,” this advisory group posited that the real problem wasn’t actually with UFOs but rather that there were far too many reports of them to seriously investigate, causing a significant national security risk. The fear was that enemies would see this as an opportunity: maybe one of their spy planes might be able to slip by and get lost in the clutter of reports on suspicious activity. Whether the US actually had control of their airspace was not as significant; rather, it was the perception that they had control that really mattered.
The UFO Era
It’s important to be mindful of the context of those times. Nuclear bombs had just been dropped for the first and only times in history, the Cold War was paradoxically heating up, and the gravest possible stakes loomed heavily over the entire world. Therefore, it’s not surprising that from a national security perspective, UFOs presented a real problem.
According to the New Yorker, the Robertson Panel suggested that “the national security agencies take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired.” Essentially they recommended a wide-scale debunking effort from federal agencies and used the media, in particular, to help them out. They planted the seeds of polarization and patiently waited for American citizens to do the rest.
The Air Force continued to discreetly catalog and investigate UFO sightings. What started as “Project Sign” eventually became the highly referenced “Project Blue Book.” From the early ’50s to 1970, when the program supposedly was shut down, Project Blue Book investigated 12,000 sightings and had determined that roughly 700 remained unexplained. But of course, those critical 700 were not common knowledge amongst everyday citizens back then. And so, Americans took those initial seeds of polarization and nurtured the UFO topic until it fully blossomed into an entirely black-and-white issue full of deep conspiracy and intense passion on both sides. You believe, or you don’t. At least that’s how it was until 2017.
The UAP Era
On December 16, 2017, The New York Times published an article that shook up the world. The article confirmed the existence of a classified Pentagon program known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The project was allocated $22 million from the Defense Department budget to specifically investigate reports of unidentified flying objects. The article also focused explicitly on the infamous Nimitz encounter of 2004, arguably the most legitimate UFO encounter of all time. While, as far as we know, the program itself wasn’t all that groundbreaking, the confirmation that our government was looking into UFOs started a snowball effect on an official level of which we had never seen before in the US.
The Pentagon states that once funding ended in 2012, so did the program. Although Luis Elizondo and Christoper Mellon, the intelligence officials involved in the program and who contributed to The New York Times article, say work continued. At first, the program was much like a glorified conspiracy theory project. But over time, it took a more serious approach, eventually looking deep into the 2004 Nimitz encounter. With that being said, let’s take a look into why that encounter is so notable.
The Nimitz Encounter
In November of 2004, the aircraft carrier Nimitz and a few other ships were off the coast of San Diego conducting training operations in restricted waters when an advanced radar on one of the ships began registering some abnormality in the surrounding airspace. After nearly a week of observation, Commander David Fravor of the Black Aces squadron went out to investigate the matter. Once Fravor approached the reported location, he looked down below and claimed to have seen a white oval object, what he says looked like a Tic Tac, just hovering above the water like that of a bouncing ping-pong ball. He estimated the craft was roughly 40 feet in length and noted that it didn’t have wings nor any visible signs of propulsion.
This account was corroborated by two other pilots flying with him at the time. As he went to approach the object, it reacted and quickly sped away. Once Fravor returned to the Nimitz, pilot Chad Underwood went back to investigate with more advanced sensory equipment. During this follow-up mission, three notorious videos were taken, of which the Pentagon formally declassified and released to the public in 2020. However, the Times article had featured brief clips from said videos in 2017. Take a look for yourself:
The Aftermath of the NYT Article
Following the release of the 2017 New York Times article, Congress started demanding answers, and the Pentagon offered more official statements on the matter than ever before. But even so, the action essentially stalled for a few years. It wasn’t until April of 2020 that activity ramped up again when the Pentagon formally released the three videos.
In June 2020, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force was laid out to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The new program is now the official body for investigating “UAPs,” which is essentially just a rebrand of UFOs. In December of 2020, sneaked into the mega coronavirus relief bill was a stipulation requiring the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to deliver an unclassified report on unidentified flying objects to Congress within six months detailing what they know about UFOs in American airspace. Then in June of 2021, the highly anticipated report was released.
The UAP/UFO Report
Though only nine pages, the report was without a doubt the most direct account we’ve ever had from the US government on the matter. The task force that produced the report assessed 144 UAP reports made by military pilots between 2004 and 2021. Out of the 144, the task force could only offer an official explanation for one of them, arguably the most notable takeaway. They admit there has been a real issue with the reporting process regarding UAPs, specifically within the defense, military, and intelligence communities. They also note that there is no evidence that the sightings are related to secret US weapons programs.
The report also mentioned that the UAP sightings could be many other objects that aren’t flying crafts and that it’s possible sensory errors and misinterpretation played a factor in some sightings. Yet, on the other hand, they do state that UAPs present a severe threat to national defense, and they didn’t rule out the possibility of foreign adversaries. Sound familiar? There was also no mention of extraterrestrial involvement or origin in any regard. All-in-all, the report didn’t say anything that we didn’t already know. For many, it was considered an absolute flop. But in reality, just the fact that there was a report at all is a significant deal. For once, we’re starting to see some grey area in this typically black-and-white issue.
Now that we have a solid understanding of the context at play let’s take a deeper dive into UFOs and New Jersey, a relationship that goes back even further than Roswell.
UFOs & New Jersey: A Long History
According to The National UFO Reporting Center, New Jersey has had a total of 2,626 reported UFO sightings in its history. That places New Jersey as the 14th state in terms of total reports. In 2020 alone, the Garden State had nearly 140 UFO reports and has roughly 40 so far in 2021. Despite these numbers, the only encounter that ever seems to get some shine is the 2001 event mentioned at the beginning of this story. Yet, there are certainly some notable sightings that deserve more attention; let’s take a look at them:
1938 Invasion Scare
Before Roswell, in 1938, people of New Jersey seriously thought aliens were invading them for a brief moment. To be honest, it’s kind of a funny story, but even so, it was undoubtedly a stage-setting moment for the Garden State and its relationship with UFOs. It started with a CBS radio series, “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” directed by Orson Wells. This group was a theatre show in which on-air actors would perform a literary classic for the radio.
On one evening, they decided to act out the book “War of Worlds” by H.G. Wells. The basic summary of the plot is that highly advanced Martians invade Earth and start wreaking all kinds of havoc. The radio group decided to incorporate the story using New Jersey locations, specifically West Windsor Township. And you can probably guess what happened next. Many people tuning into the show were not privy to its format, meaning they thought they were listening to a literal live broadcast of their home state being ruthlessly invaded. Police and press phone lines were completely flooded, and there was some legitimate public hysteria that night.
However, by the following day, people had rightfully figured out that there was no invasion, and the confusion was cleared up. To this day, there’s a statue in Van Nest Park in West Windsor Township commemorating the event (seen pictured below). While this was fake, it displays how the relationship between UFOs and New Jersey runs deep.
1947 Asbury Park Sighting
On July 10, 1947, notably just two days after the Roswell incident, the Asbury Park Press ran a story featuring a woman who had witnessed a “flying disc” in the middle of the night. The woman claimed she saw a “round, silver-looking disc shoot downward from the sky and run into nothing.” That was essentially the gist of her reported sighting. Now, it’s hard to trust this account for many reasons. Most notably because the Roswell story was dominating the headlines across the country at the time. However, what it does demonstrate in particular, is the instantaneous effect the Roswell story had on the American public and New Jersey.
2001 Carteret Sightings
We already touched on the nitty-gritty of this encounter at the beginning; however, there are a few additional details worth mentioning, including a video. There was never an official explanation offered for the event. An FAA spokesperson stated at the time that there were no planned military operations, air traffic was light, and no pilots flying in and out of Newark reported seeing anything out of the ordinary. Was it military flares? Was it UFOs? Or was it simply something else we can’t explain? Take a look at this video and decide for yourself:
2019 Colts Neck Sightings
This event is a particularly intriguing one. There were multiple reports from various individuals in different locations, essentially telling the same story. On October 8, 2019, in Colts Neck, NJ, several eyewitnesses reported seeing a white and green-ish craft floating in the sky before quickly speeding away and disappearing. It seems for every party involved; the encounter was a short yet distinct one. This event occurred two years ago, and it’s arguably the most credible encounter in New Jersey since the 2001 event. In a realm that is mainly dependent on eyewitness accounts, it’s exceptionally notable when you have multiple eyewitnesses telling the same story. And that’s what happened in Colts Neck, NJ, in 2019.
On the Other Hand…
Just as New Jersey has had some notable and intriguing UFO-related events in its history, it has also had moments of, for lack of a better term, bullshit. In 2009, in Morristown, NJ, a formation of bright red lights was seen slowly moving up in the black sky, looking eerily reminiscent of the famous 2001 event. It turns out, however, that it was all fake. Two individuals determined to prove ufology is a pseudoscience attached red flares to giant helium balloons and let them loose. The men were caught and arrested, but their point was undoubtedly made.
Then maybe you remember last year. For a short time, New Jersey was going viral with videos that showed what looked to be a UFO flying across the sky in the early evening. Well, it turns out it was just a Goodyear blimp, and at specific vantage points, it looked like a saucer with a red hue beneath it.
What those previous few stories go to show is that for every legitimate event, there are often about 20 more illegitimate reports. So, given all the progress that has been made in examining this subject in recent years, we’d be taking a step back here if we didn’t also explore the perspectives of the critical skeptic. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a bit.
While it’s fun, intriguing, and even essential to look at the unexplained encounters, in doing so, we tend to forget that most sightings are explained. Additionally, we get so excited about the details of encounters that we tend to narrow our perspective and not entertain the many possibilities that could explain the unexplainable. There’s an endless list of possible explanations for UFOs, some that have been proven, others that are just theorized. Nevertheless, let’s expand our perspective and take a look at some notable explanations.
This explanation can tend to cross over a little too far into the conspiracy realm; however, it’s still a plausible option. For starters, it’s always a safe bet to assume that our defense industry and foreign defense industries are far ahead of the curve, technologically speaking. That might not be the case in every technology sector. But when it comes to aviation or any area security-related, it’s safe to say our government is way ahead.
For example, have you ever seen a stealth bomber? Even in 2021, that looks like some kind of extraterrestrial craft, but that’s been around since 1989. Spy planes have been confused for UFOs many times before. From a national security perspective, everyday citizens and, more importantly, foreign adversaries cannot know about our cutting-edge defense technology. Does that mean our government has crafts that can defy the laws of gravity? I don’t know about that, but that’s the point; we don’t know what our high-level capabilities genuinely are in a given moment. And while we may not like all the secrecy, in many respects, it’s a necessity.
Mental Limitations and Distortions
Most UFO encounters, whether they involve an everyday citizen or a pilot, tend to be high-pressure and high-stress situations. And our brains are fundamentally known to struggle immensely in high-pressure, high-stress events. Yet, every encounter relies almost solely on the human mind and our recollection of a quick sighting. Therefore, we can assume accuracy can be compromised from time to time. Humans are also known to have notoriously bad memories. Our brains often forget some of the small details, but we need to have a full picture in our minds. So, we tend to fill in some of the blank areas with particulars from other experiences.
These human characteristics become highly problematic in a realm in which almost all we have are eyewitness accounts. These mental limitations and distortions can also apply to more than just first-hand accounts; they can even impact our perceptions of videos like the Nimitz encounter shared above. Some believe that video is a victim of the Parallax Illusion, but that remains up for debate. Take a look at this short YouTube clip explaining how the parallax illusion might’ve impacted the famous Nimitz encounter videos:
The UFO topic has a strong tendency to lose sight of perspective. For starters, we make that immediate jump from an unidentified craft in the sky to aliens without much thought. Even though we have no legitimate evidence that life beyond Earth actually exists. Many scientists make their living actively searching for other life in our universe. They’ve found nothing yet, but still, we make that jump to aliens almost instantaneously, and that’s simply irrational.
An obvious counter to that argument is pointing out the size of our universe and how given that, one could say it’s irrational to believe we’re alone. That’s certainly a fair point, but at the same time, given the vast size of the universe, it seems like a stretch to say we’re all that special and worth visiting. Earth is simply a speck of dust, if that, within this vast expanse of the universe.
Furthermore, we tend to forget our universe is 13.8 billion years old. Our planet is 4.5 billion years old. And our species is roughly just a couple hundred thousand years old. So, not only are we saying we’re extremely special in this vast expanse but that this very specific and tiny sliver of time is also vitally important. We tend to lose perspective when it comes to UFOs and extraterrestrial life visiting us on Earth. And these are just a few perspective issues; there’s a long list to go along with this. Though this video doesn’t quite do it justice, it’s worth a look to get a better idea of scale:
Most of these arguments aren’t even the ones we usually hear, which also are possible. Other explanations include hoaxes, technological malfunctions specifically with radar and cameras, misidentification of objects, and a whole slew of unexplained environmental and atmospheric phenomena that certainly could be in play. Point is, it simply is not practical or reasonable to make that instantaneous jump to aliens from just seeing something in the sky that we can’t identify. It’s a wonderfully romantic and poetic idea. But we cannot sacrifice sound logic, reason, and evidence in favor of an intriguing narrative.
What Happens Now
Anything is still possible. None of what was just said means people who have witnessed something are wrong in any sense. Carl Sagan famously said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and that sentiment is particularly true for UFOs and the extraterrestrial. New Jersey’s long history with UFOs and its notable encounters remain just as fascinating. But we must remember an unidentified flying object means just that and nothing more, based on what we can prove.
Nevertheless, we remain in unprecedented times that should spark curiosity and passion within all of us. But to get the answers that we want, we must converge the perspectives of both the dreamer and the skeptic. Our government is finally being somewhat transparent and is showing they’re taking it seriously; it’s now our job to do the same. Imagination and skepticism both deserve a spot at the table. But facts and evidence must be the main course for both parties.
Main photo courtesy of Josh Gordon.