In a low-lit condo in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, flanked by a stack of UFO books and a Jerry Garcia bobblehead, I’m seated on a rust-brown sectional sofa beside Earl Grey Anderson, the chief field investigator for the Southern California chapter of MUFON, the world’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to studying alleged UFO sightings “for the benefit of humanity,” per its mission statement. As such, the nonprofit collects data on all things UFO-related in pursuit of breakthroughs that it believes will help humankind. Since becoming a volunteer field investigator in 2015, Anderson has consistently contributed to this effort. He’s personally closed more than 400 cases, 50 of which received MUFON’s most coveted classification — “unknown.”
Today, punctuated with crackling rips from a sour apple vape gun, the bespectacled, 61-year-old ponytailed nurse is earnestly interrogating a middle-aged woman named Diane (a pseudonym) over the phone about her family’s recent paranormal encounter. It was around 8 p.m., Diane recalls, when she heard a “blood-curdling scream” from her husband barbecuing in the backyard of their home in suburban L.A. She rushed out, worried he’d burned himself on the grill. Instead, she found him and their 14-year-old son breathlessly pointing to the sky. Mouths agape, they watched in awe as 18 rotating disc-shaped objects, accompanied by two triangular crafts, flew in double V-formation from one side of the horizon to the other in 25 seconds (she counted).
There were no rotors, visible means of propulsion nor contrails, she says, responding to Anderson’s patient inquiry. None had external FAA blinking lights; they all, in fact, glowed from within. “The clouds were illuminated in their peripheral like a stunning light show,” she explains. “Your whole life, you never see something this.”
Unfortunately — and curiously, perhaps — none of the family members had their phones handy and refused to take their eyes off the objects to retrieve them. Though, in fairness, this is typical of UFO sightings, Anderson says. “It happens really quickly, and the last thing you think of is your phone. I know it sounds like a cop out, but I’ve seen two UFOs and didn’t reach for my phone either time.”
Anderson was skeptical when he spoke to Diane’s husband earlier in the day, figuring he probably just saw a flock of geese. But when the call with Diane ends, he’s markedly more enthused by her testimony. It adds to her credibility that she mentioned the objects were internally illuminated, he says. He’s heard similar accounts from other UFO witnesses, and it’s not a detail readily available online.
When I check back with Anderson later in the week, after he’s independently interviewed both of Diane’s children, he’s even more excited. “It wasn’t a flock of geese because the objects traveled 23 miles in 25 seconds — a clip no bird could possibly attain,” he explains. “Besides, they would’ve already been roosting by 8 p.m.; I looked into that extensively. And unless they’d been irradiated, geese wouldn’t be lit from within.”
I note, skeptically, that L.A. is among the most populated regions in the country — presumably others would’ve reported such a miraculous sight? Not necessarily, Anderson says. “When I give talks, I ask how many people have seen a UFO. Usually half the audience raises their hands. Then I’ll ask, ‘How many of you reported what you saw?’ All the hands go down except for two or three. Lots of people see stuff. Most don’t want to report it because they’re afraid somebody’s going to question their sanity or ridicule them.”
There was, too, another photographed report of a similar group of UFOs flying in formation nearby, albeit two years earlier. On New Year’s Day in 2017, Marian Rudnyk, a NASA astronomer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was eating with his mother at a table by the window at a McDonald’s in Monrovia, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains (the same chain in Diane’s sighting), when something abnormal in the sky caught his attention. As he describes in INTERSECT: A Former NASA Astronomer Breaks His Silence About UFOs, he walked outside and could clearly see the crafts. “As I looked up, I watched four disc-shaped objects silently move below the low cloud deck. Grabbing my digital camera from my pocket, I snapped a series of pictures.”
“It struck me how close his observation was to what Diane’s family observed,” Anderson says, adding that while he respects all witnesses, he’s particularly excited by cases involving public servants, pilots and aerospace engineers like Rudnyk.
For his part, Anderson believes his UFO obsession is inherited. His mother, Betty Grace Anderson, was one of two personal secretaries for Howard Hughes, which required security clearances, and she confided in her young son about the deep underground military base she worked in for much of the 1950s. “She talked about extraterrestrial life with authority, mentioning on numerous occasions that we’re not alone in the universe and the government has been aware of this for some time,” Anderson explains.
For example, when he took his mom to see Star Wars in 1977, once the lights came on, she told him, “It’s realer than you’ll ever know,” before repeating, “We’re not alone in the universe, Earl. The government knows about it, but they’re never going to tell the public.”
Others, of course, have said similar things over the years. “There was a gentleman by the name of Colonel Philip Corso, who was a good friend of Senator Robert Byrd and a muckety-muck in the military,” Anderson says. “Toward the end of his life, when he knew he was getting sick, he wrote a tell-all exposé detailing what he knew about UFOs called The Day After Roswell.” Corso claims he stewarded extraterrestrial artifacts recovered at Roswell, New Mexico, tasked with collecting information about off-planet technology. While the U.S. government simultaneously discounted the existence of flying saucers to the public, ridiculing conspiracy theorists in the press to make them look foolish, according to Corso, reverse engineering these artifacts led to the development of fiber optics, lasers, integrated circuit chips and Kevlar.
Obviously, though, skepticism of such accounts are strong. “MUFON is scientifically worthless and usually misleading in their pronouncements and conclusions,” science writer Sharon A. Hill tells me, dismissing the group out-of-hand as “decidedly unscientific.” But at MUFON’s annual UFO Symposium, Executive Director Jan C. Harzan notes a “paradigm shift” in the world of ufology and a “remarkable difference” in the public’s open-mindedness to the subject. “Before, the media didn’t want anything to do with UFOs,” he says. “Today, they’re chasing after us, wanting to know what we know.”
Anderson, seated directly in front of me at the symposium, nods his head as Harzan explains that the shift began “after the New York Times article in December of 2017,” referring to a front-page story about the U.S.S. Nimitz strike group’s encounter with more than 100 UFOs. It’s the biggest breakthrough since 1561, Harzan claims, when Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus declared that the sun was in fact the center of our solar system. “That got many people murdered. Let’s hope this next transition doesn’t result in that, too,” he says to a roomful of laughter.
Kevin Day, a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief Operations Specialist and TOPGUN air intercept controller with more than 20 years experience in air defense, was the chief radar specialist aboard the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Princeton during The Nimitz Incident and the first to spot the UFOs. “You don’t get the rank Day got to unless you’re very, very good,” says Luis Elizondo, a military intelligence official who for eight years ran the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a secret investigatory effort funded by the Defense Department to study UFOs.
As Day tells me, the Nimitz Strike Group, including the Princeton, was off the coast of San Diego in November 2004, conducting training exercises in preparation for deployment. Day says he started seeing strange tracks on his radar the evening of November 10th. “Ten to twelve objects were popping up on my radar off Catalina Island near Los Angeles,” he recalls. In all, the ship’s system tracked more than 100 unidentified objects dropping from the upper atmosphere and flying south at 100 knots in an organized formation at an altitude of 28,000 feet, which Day says was “extremely unlikely” since anything traveling that slowly at such altitude would fall out of the sky. In 20 years staring at radar screens, he’d never seen anything like it. Assuming a systems error, he rebooted the entire computer network and ran a series of diagnostic tests, but the contacts only reappeared with greater clarity.
The state-of-the-art AN/SPY-1 Radar System aboard the Princeton, which can simultaneously track hundreds of air contacts and identify virtually anything that flies, eliminated the possibility that they could be aircrafts, friendly or otherwise.
Day suggested to the captain that they intercept the objects to avoid any interference during the following day’s battle simulation. He brought one up on the ship’s large screen display. But as he did so, the object dropped to the surface of the ocean in under a second. The Scientific Coalition for Ufology calculated that in order to do that, the object travelled at 22,000 miles per hour with a G force of 1,350 (without making a sonic boom).
“Extreme curiosity and total bewilderment,” Day says of his reaction to what he witnessed on the radar screen. “If a human traveled that fast, he’d turn into mush. The human body can survive nine Gs and their aircraft 14 Gs before it falls apart. This thing was a hundred times greater than that. Whatever it was, it was non-Newtonian and operating on a totally different type of physics than we know about.”
Day contacted Commander David Fravor, who was flying a routine training mission off the carrier, and directed him to engage. Fravor maneuvered his F/A-18 Super Hornet to an area where he could view the bogie with his own eyes. “It was white, about 40 feet long, had no wings, rotors, nor control surfaces,” he explained in a History Channel series about the encounter earlier this year, likening the entity to “a flying Tic Tac.”
But before Fravor could fully engage, the craft disappeared again. Day’s air controller, seated directly in front of him, said, “Sir, you’re not going to believe this, but the contact is now at our CAP station,” referring to their assigned Combat Air Patrol area 60 miles away where Fravor had just been flying.
“We were all astonished,” Day says. “How in the hell did that object know exactly where our CAP point was? Based on what I saw, it had to be highly intelligent, if not downright prescient. Or able to read our thoughts. I know that sounds really hard to believe, but I simply don’t have another explanation.”
While Day avoids speculating what the UFO was — he’s never suggested they were aliens — he does offer one explanation for why they appeared on his radar. In the week before the U.S.S. Princeton conducted the exercise, he later learned that the ship received a top secret systems upgrade, drastically improving the capabilities of the radar system. “My theory is that the upgrade suddenly allowed us to see UFOs, which explains why similar reports are now coming out more frequently. All of a sudden, the Navy can see UFOs.”
Back at the MUFON symposium, the scene is more reserved than I expected. Vendors hock things like iridology and herbal cleanses rather than tin-foil hats, while PhDs offer lectures entitled, “A Multidisciplinary Scientific Approach to the UFO Phenomenon.” Which is to say, it’s more stuffy than nuts. Still, I’m told people would be open to telling me their personal UFO experiences, so I walk around flashing a handwritten sign inviting them to do so.
Over the course of the weekend, I hear about childhood sisters encountering playful, Tinker Bell-esque intelligent lightforms, and years later as adults, a silent, helicopter-size craft following their car on a road trip to New England; an inspector at Douglas Aircraft Company backing her car out of the driveway to discover a giant flying saucer hovering over her house with a red dome pulsing like a heartbeat; a millennial tech bro in Northern California floating in space, looking down at the earth with a device over his head feeding him images while humanoid cats speak to him telepathically; and a middle-aged woman abducted when she was 11 by insectoid aliens who harvested her eggs and summoned her repeatedly in subsequent years to nurture her human-insectoid hybrid children (since the aliens were incapable of love and empathy).
While I (like you) find it impossible to make sense of this, I also don’t think any of the people I spoke with are crazy. I believe them — or at least believe they believe themselves — and can’t understand why they’d all be making this shit up. Especially Day, whom I get the sense wishes he’d never noticed the strange blips on his radar screen in 2004. But he did, and recently received an email from the Senate Armed Services Committee requesting his appearance before them to answer questions.
The invitation is long-overdue, he says. “Because there’s a danger here. Not a direct danger, these things aren’t hostile. I don’t know what they are, but I do know they’ve dramatically affected me: I lost my job, my wife, my house and all of my money. Imagine if the entire population of South Africa, for example, was suddenly dramatically altered and no one knew why. If these things are becoming more and more prevalent around the world — and make no mistake, they are — then goddammit man, we need to get ready.”