The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

US Government Says UFOs are “Real”:
An Analysis of the 60 Minutes Investigation

The 60 Minutes segment of Sunday May 16, 2021 (available on YouTube), was no doubt for many people a startling revelation that the US Government has admitted that UFOs are “real” and the military is investigating them. But for me it was a walk down memory lane, a recap of the curious events of the last four years. A disappointing recap at that, as I’d hoped at least for some new nuggets of information that I could use to help solve the rather complicated puzzle of just exactly what is going on.

The segment opens with an interview with a familiar character, Luis Elizondo, reputedly the former head of a $22 million program instigated by Senator Harry Reid called AATIP: the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Ostensibly this was created to study possible future developments in aerospace. Elizondo claims the program was actually created to study UFOs (or, as they prefer to call them now, UAPs, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.) Put out to tender in 2008, the budget was awarded to Harry Reid’s friend, Robert Bigelow, a UFO and paranormal enthusiast.

60 Minutes (screenshot of broadcast)

Elizondo opens with the startling claim that “the Government has already stated for the record that [UFOs] are real.” Startling, that is, until you remember that “UFO” does not necessarily mean alien visitors, but rather something unidentified in the sky, something about which the observer lacks sufficient information to identify. Obviously, the government would admit such things are … “real.” A mylar balloon floating into the range of a Navy jet’s camera is “real”, but the U in UFO and UAP does not mean extraterrestrial, or even necessarily an aerial technology beyond any known physics and aerodynamics.

60 Minutes (screenshot of broadcast)

Elizondo then goes on to describe craft exhibiting startling technologies—the ability to accelerate at a physics-defying 600g, reaching speeds of 17,000 mph in the atmosphere, or even through water. These are things that the government very much has not admitted are real.

We then are shown a series of familiar videos as evidence of this amazing technology—all of which have been in the public domain for some time (over a decade in one case) and all of which have been analyzed (by several people, myself included) and found to almost certainly not represent objects exhibiting incredible abilities, and instead more likely signify very ordinary human technology.

First, we see “Go Fast”, a video presented as showing an incredibly fast craft skimming low over the ocean. But if you do the very simple trigonometry invited by the numbers on screen, it turns out to be something far above the surface and moving at a speed that matches the wind at that altitude, making it almost certainly just a balloon. Yet the 60 Minutes host, the highly respected journalist Bill Whitaker, repeats Elizondo’s baseless claim that it’s “fast moving.”

60 Minutes (screenshot of broadcast)

Next we see a more recent video, the green flashing triangle. Initially very impressive, it shows a triangular shaped object moving across the sky, filmed with a night vision device from a Navy ship. But then you notice the flashing light that, as I demonstrated in a video posted at Metabunk, perfectly matches the pattern of blinking lights on a commercial plane like a Boeing 737. A little research reveals that some night-vision devices have a triangular aperture (see my analysis at Metabunk). When the device is slightly out of focus then a plane flying overhead looks exactly like this flying triangle. The case was effectively closed when other triangles in the scene were identified as stars. Yet we are told “the Pentagon admits it doesn’t know what in the world it is.” It’s pretty obvious what it is once you match the UAP blinking triangle to that of commercial airliners.

60 Minutes (screenshot of broadcast)

In fact, the only thing the Pentagon has admitted is that the videos are “real,” in that they were taken by US Navy personnel (and not, therefore, fake CGI-generated videos or whatever), and that they were included in studies by the UAP task force, meaning they were at least unidentified at one point.

We are then shown two other videos. “FLIR1” is claimed to show physics-defying acceleration, but careful study has shown that the supposed sudden moves are actually the result of the camera moving or changing mode. “GIMBAL” shows an impressive looking flying saucer, but again the reality seems more mundane—an infrared glare of a distant plane and a rotating gimbal mechanism explain both the rotating saucer shape, and why it was named “gimbal” in the first place.

60 Minutes (screenshot of broadcast)
60 Minutes (screenshot of broadcast)

Later we hear about the 2004 USS Nimitz aircraft carrier incident, which gave us the FLIR1 video. Two pilots, David Fravor and Alex Dietrich, repeat a story they (mostly Fravor) have been telling for over a decade. Lauded as the greatest UFO encounter of all time, it has remarkably little in terms of actual evidence. The one blurry video has been consistently misinterpreted (including by Fravor) as showing rapid motion. There are accounts of unusual radar returns showing rapid motion, but unfortunately there’s no solid evidence for these, and the account has changed somewhat since it first appeared in a bizarre short science-fiction story written by the chief radar operator in 2008.

Dietrich and Fravor describe an encounter and short dog-fight with a “Tic-Tac” shaped craft. This is perhaps the most compelling story, and one that’s difficult to explain. But their accounts don’t exactly line up, and I suspect that they saw the same thing, but both had different illusions of motion based on parallax. Unfortunately, the passage of time might mean we will never know what they saw.

We then meet Elizondo’s partner in this enterprise, Christopher Mellon, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. Mellon seemingly shares Elizondo’s suspicion that we are being visited by some kind of non-human entity, and in 2017 worked with him to secure the release of the videos, which they then gave to the New York Times for a piece of well-timed publicity for their then employer, the To The Stars Academy, founded by rock star Tom DeLonge.

The 60 Minutes segment is capped by Senator Marco Rubio, who has somehow become embroiled in the UAP saga, presenting himself as the voice of reason, just trying to get the military to look into “this.”

But the military is not ignoring things that fly into their airspace just because they can’t identify them. Procedures exist for reporting and investigating such things—not the least of which being that incursion into sensitive airspace would be aggressively intercepted. And the supposed rationale for AATIP (exploiting UFO technology) has already been covered by a variety of Foreign Material Exploitation Program—likely with vastly higher budgets.

What is going on? I really don’t know. The simplest explanation is that there are UFO fans in government, and they get to do these pet projects because the lumbering bureaucracy has better things to do than question every little $22 million in the trillion-dollar budget. More complicated alternatives involved some kind of military smokescreen, allowing UFO stories to run rampant to distract from real secret programs. But these are speculations. I suspect the people being quoted about the videos have not considered the more mundane explanations I have offered, or considered and rejected them because the “off world” or “extraordinary technology” explanations are more appealing.

Ultimately this story has gone on for far too long because the wall of military secrecy allows rampant speculation and claims based on supposed classified knowledge. The unwillingness of the military to clear this up is perhaps understandable, as they have more important things to do. But it’s becoming a big story now, with large segments of the public thinking that there’s something to these accounts and these videos, and it’s a short path from “unidentified” to “extraterrestrial” or “foreign assets”. I do not have great expectations for the story going away, but I wish that someone high up will eventually say enough is enough, and explain exactly what is going on, what these videos show, and what the military really thinks about UFOs.

About the Author

Mick West is the author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect and the host of the podcast: Tales From The Rabbit Hole. Both focus on developing tools for understanding and helping people who have been sucked into conspiracy theories. He’s a retired videogame programmer who helped make the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Franchise. Mick also runs the website, where he investigates conspiracy theories, debunks pseudoscience, and analyzes UFO videos.


Get eSkeptic

Be in the know!

Subscribe to eSkeptic: our free email newsletter and get great podcasts, videos, reviews and articles from Skeptic magazine, announcements, and more in your inbox twice a week. It’s free. We never share your address. Unsubscribe any time.

Sign me up!

Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

Copyright © 1992–2022. All rights reserved. | P.O. Box 338 | Altadena, CA, 91001 | 1-626-794-3119. The Skeptics Society is a non-profit, member-supported 501(c)(3) organization (ID # 95-4550781) whose mission is to promote science & reason. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Privacy Policy.