BY JOSEPH TREVITHICK
AND TYLER ROGOWAY
JUNE 26, 2020
Via THE DRIVE
Last year, reports emerged about Navy fighter pilots having numerous encounters with unidentified flying objects while flying in restricted airspace off the East Coast of the United States. Details remain limited, though The War Zone has been steadily collecting more and more information that could help explain many of those incidents. At the same time, curiously, there haven’t been virtually any revelations about similar encounters with other U.S. military services’ flying branches, especially the Air Force, which is the entity primarily responsible for safeguarding America’s airspace.
In May, The War Zone was first to publish details from a number of hazard reports from the Naval Safety Center, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). regarding interactions between that service’s aircraft and unknown aerial craft that offered an additional look into what might be happening, why, and how these encounters were or weren’t getting reported. We can now share information from 25 similar reports obtained through the FOIA from the Air Force Safety Center.
This whole issue, especially regarding U.S. military aircraft encountering unidentified objects when flying over or near the United States proper, was thrust back into the public consciousness just this week. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said that it was looking to get a full accounting of the issue from the U.S. Intelligence Community and the Pentagon. As part of a report accompanying the latest draft of the Senate version Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, the Committee members included language asking for a detailed review of exactly what information about these kinds of incidents exists now, how new data is getting collected, how this is all shared within the federal government, and what threats these aerial objects might pose, including whether they might reflect technological breakthroughs by potential adversaries. These Air Force reports, as well as the previously disclosed ones that the Navy has on file, could easily be among the information that the Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense might end up compiling for Senators to review.
The 25 reports that The War Zone obtained, which cover various types of incidents around the world and come from the Air Force Safety Automated System (AFSAS) database, came in response to a request that asked for copies of “any flight incident, hazard, or similar reports that the Air Force Safety Center received during the calendar years 2013 to 2019 that deal with encounters that any Air Force aircraft had anywhere in the world with any unidentified aerial objects.”
This date range was meant to capture a snapshot of similar experiences that the Air Force might have been having around when Navy pilots said they saw a spike in the number of encounters with unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP, more commonly known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, off the East Coast of the United States through the end of the most recent complete calendar year.
Personal identifying information is redacted throughout the Air Force reports. “Safety investigation boards’ Findings, Evaluations, Analyses, Conclusions, and Recommendations are exempt from disclosure,” the Air Force Safety Center also said in a letter accompanying the release, citing various Air Force and Department of Defense regulations, as well as relevant FOIA case law, which you can read in full, with certain personal information redacted by us, here.
“All other privileged portions of the report have been withheld according to established laws,” the letter added. “Unfortunately, some pages are virtually illegible due to the quality of the microfilm record and our capability to reproduce it.”
It’s not clear which of the records released, if any, were reproduced from reports contained on microfilm. The Air Force was still offering the option of sending FOIA request responses on actual microfilm in the late 2000s, but generally only for older records created years before the widespread introduction of computerized databases, such as AFSAS.
#1, June 17, 2014: 27th Special Operations Wing
The 27th Special Operations Wing, the main unit at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, reported an unidentified fixed-wing aircraft flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) intruding into the nearby R5104 range area. Neither the Range Control Officer (RCO) at the adjacent Melrose Air Force Range nor the base’s Radar Approach Control (RAPCON) could establish communications with the aircraft. Members of the 27th Special Operations Wing also advised the Federal Aviation Administration’s Albuquerque Center Air Route Traffic Control Center of the situation.
The unidentified aircraft first appeared around 11:04 AM local time and it had exited R5104 by 11:22, after which radar contact was lost.
#2, July 2, 2014: HC-130P Combat King and HH-60G Pave Hawk, 58th Special Operations Wing
The 58th Special Operations Wing, a major unit at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, reported a near-collision during a nighttime aerial refueling training sortie on July 2, 2014. An HC-130P Combat King combat search and rescue and tanker aircraft, using the callsign Akela 39, was refueling an HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopter, with the callsign Skull 65, when an “unidentified helicopter” flew under the two aircraft at a distance of between 100 and 300 feet. Both aircraft were flying in Aerial Refueling Track 117 near Sorocco, New Mexico.
The HC-130P’s crew had first spotted to object when they saw a bright light near the aircraft. The HH-60G crew also saw it and initially thought it might be headlights on a vehicle on the road below. However, the light grew brighter to the point of blinding the Pave Hawk’s pilots, who were operating using night-vision goggles at the time. This resulted in an extremely dangerous situation in which the helicopter’s crew was no longer aware of their distance from the HC-130P, or that they were moving backward away from it, until the HH-60G’s aerial refueling probe inadvertently disconnected from the drogue basket trailing behind the Combat King.
No communication was ever established with the unidentified helicopter and there was no indication it ever maneuvered to avoid either the HC-130P or the HH-60G.
#3, July 24, 2014: C-130J Hercules, 317th Airlift Group
A C-130J Hercules airlift assigned to the 317th Airlift Group had a near-collision with an unidentified light fixed-wing aircraft while heading toward the Rogers Drop Zone (DZ), approximately eight miles to the south of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, during a training mission. The C-130J’s Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) alerted them to the other oncoming aircraft.
“The EC [Event Crew] called a No Drop and executed a 180 degree turn during which the crew visually sighted a light fixed wing aircraft (EA2) [Event Aircraft 2] behind them still flying toward their position,” the report says. “The crew contacted Seattle Approach Control, but the aircraft did not seem to be in radio contact during the incident.”
#4, Nov. 21, 2014: KC-135R Stratotanker, 121st Aerial Refueling Wing
A KC-135R tanker assigned to the 121st Aerial Refueling Wing, an element of the Ohio Air National Guard, got notice of a potential hazard from its Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) on Nov. 21, 2014, while climbing away from Wilmington Airpark near Wilmington, Ohio, following a planned missed approach as part of a training sortie. The crew slowed their climb out until the TCAS indicated that there was no longer any air traffic conflict
#5, Feb. 7, 2015: HC-130 Combat King, Unidentified Unit, and 45th Space Wing
On Feb. 7, 2015, an HC-130 Combat King combat search and rescue and tanker aircraft belonging to an unidentified unit had an encounter with what was described as “a possible remote control (RC) aircraft” with a “flashing red light” near the junction of Florida State Road A1A and the Pineda Causeway. The 45th Space Wing at nearby Patrick Air Force Base subsequently reported the incident, which it felt had “high accident potential.”
Personnel at the tower at Patrick spotted the possible remote control aircraft and contacted the Brevard Country Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), which subsequently sent deputies to investigate. The Air Force Security Forces Squadron at Patrick were also involved, but neither it nor the BCSO found any further evidence of the object, which had been flying an estimated 900 to 1,000 feet in the air.
This particular entry notes the growing hazard posed by “hobbyists and other civilians” operating remote-control aircraft and drones. It states the FAA rules at the time prohibiting the operation of unmanned aircraft above 400 feet within three miles of airports and air bases.
#6, Apr. 21, 2015: KC-135R Stratotanker, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing
A KC-135R tanker assigned to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, part of Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar had an encounter with an “unidentified aircraft” while conducting an operational aerial refueling mission over Afghanistan near Kandahar. The tanker’s crew visually acquired the unknown aircraft while refueling an unspecified combat jet, which had an “air-to-air radar.”
The crew of that jet could not acquire the unidentified aircraft with their radar. Tactical air traffic control radar in the area never picked it up, either. The KC-135R ultimately completed its mission and safely returned to base.
#7, May 15, 2015: KC-135R Stratotanker, 100th Aerial Refueling Wing
On May 15, 2015, a KC-135R Stratotanker from the 100th Aerial Refueling Wing had a near collision with an unidentified aircraft while on approach to its home base of RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom. The aircraft was also in contact with the Radar Approach Control (RAPCON) at RAF Lakenheath during the incident.
The RAF Lakenheath RAPCON had informed the crew of the KC-135R of multiple contacts along its route, but they were unable to visually identify any of them. The subsequently descended to 2,600 feet Mean Sea Level as part of their approach before air traffic controllers warned them about another aircraft directly below them. Around five seconds after getting that alert, the aircraft’s own Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) also warned of a potential collision and advised an immediate 4,000 feet-per-minute climb. The crew performed that maneuver, leveling off at 3,600 feet Mean Sea Level when the TCAS indicated that the danger has passed.
The crew of the aircraft never visually saw the other aircraft or received any radio calls from another plane warning of a potential collision. The KC-135R landed at Mildenhall without incident.
#8, May 21, 2015: C-17A Globemaster III, 452nd Air Mobility Wing
One of the C-17A Globemaster III airlifters assigned to the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, an element of the Air Force Reserve, had a near-collision with an “unidentified remotely piloted aircraft” while on approach to March Air Reserve Base in California on May 21, 2015. The pilot said that the flying object came within 15 feet of the aircraft, passing it above and to the left.
#9, July 25, 2015: MC-130P Combat Shadow, 129th Rescue Wing
An MC-130P Combat Shadow combat search and rescue and tanker aircraft from the California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing had to take evasive action to avoid hitting an unidentified object during a nighttime training mission on July 25, 2015 near Niagara Falls International Airport in New York State. While on approach to the airport, the pilot saw through their night-vision goggles an “object [that] appeared to be illuminated by a single external light]” and that looked to “be accelerating from left to right” in front of them.
“Immediately after seeing the object, the pilot took evasive action by executing an abrupt climb and roll to the left,” according to the report. “Within one second of initiating evasive action the right wing of EA1 [Event Aircraft 1; the MC-130P] passed directly over the object.”
The plane’s navigator also reported having seen a “hot spot” on the aircraft’s Infrared Detection System (IDS), which is meant to spot incoming missiles. No other members of the crew beyond the pilot said that had actually seen anything, but the incident was reported as a near-collision.
#10, Aug. 13, 2015: KC-135R Stratotanker, 452nd Air Mobility Wing
A KC-135R tanker assigned to the Air Force Reserve’s 452nd Air Mobility Wing suffered a near collision with what the crew described as a quad-copter-type drone while flying a pattern around March Air Reserve Base in California on Aug. 13, 2015. The “remotely piloted aircraft” (RPA) passed by the tanker at a distance of approximately 100 feet below and 300 feet to the right of where it was flying.
It continued on in the opposite direction from the KC-135R and “disappeared from sight.”
#11, Jan. 15, 2016: 45th Space Wing Wing
Members of the 45th Space Wing’s detachment at RAF Ascension Island on the island of the same name, a territory of the United Kingdom in the South Atlantic Ocean, reported seeing an “unauthorized personal drone” flying within restricted Class D airspace at two separate locations on Jan. 15, 2016. One of these sightings was near the island’s Long Beach within 3 miles of the “Ascension Auxiliary Airfield around the time a UK Royal Air Force (RAF) flight was scheduled to arrive.” The RAF pilots did not report seeing the drone nor did it interfere with their landing, but the 45th Space Wing described the incident as having a “high accident potential.”
#12, Apr. 21, 2016: EC-130J(SJ), 193rd Special Operations Wing
One of the EC-130J(SJ) aircraft assigned to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 193rd Special Operations Wing had a near collision with “a small drone/Small Unmanned Aerial System” on April 21, 2016. The aircraft was flying at around 4,000 feet Mean Sea Level and was in contact with aircraft controllers at Philadelphia International Airport.
The aircraft was returning from a training airdrop mission over the Coyle Drop Zone near Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. “The crew initially thought they saw a bird, until they saw a flashing red light pass 3 ft above the left wing,” the report notes.
#13, Jan. 25, 2017: 27th Special Operations Wing
On Jan. 25, 2017, an unidentified apparently private fixed-wing aircraft flying at around 10,000 feet Mean Sea Level under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) intruded into the R5105 range area near Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. The 27th Special Operations Wing is the main unit at that base and reported the incident to the Air Force Safety Center.
The aircraft entered R5105 at approximately 4:10 PM local time, had flown to an area west of the adjacent R5104A range area by 4:20, and Cannon’s Radar Approach Control (RAPCON) had lost the signal from the aircraft’s transponder by 4:37. Authorities at the base reported “no training interruption or other aircraft were effected [sic].”
The narrative also includes a typo suggesting this occurred in 2016, rather than 2017, but the 2017 date appears in multiple sections of the report, which itself was published on Feb. 1, 2017.
#14, June 9, 2017: T-6A Texan II, 12th Flying Training Wing
On June 9, 2017, a T-6A Texan II trainer from the 12th Flying Training Wing had a near collision with a “red unmanned aerial system” while flying at approximately 3,500 feet Mean Sea Level and around one nautical south of the Mobile Bay Bridge in Alabama. The aircraft was conducting a training sortie along an established route designated VR1024. “The UAS was spotted approximately one half to one wingtip away from the EA [Event Aircraft] and was co-altitude,” the report added.
Naval Air Station Pensacola is identified as the “accounting base,” indicating that the training flight originated or end there, or both.
#15, Nov. 1, 2017: F-15E Strike Eagle, 48th Fighter Wing
An F-15E Strike assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing, an element of U.S. Air Force’s in Europe (USAFE), performed evasive maneuvers to avoid colliding with an “unidentified flying object” while flying near its home base at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom on Nov. 1, 2017. “The object passed over the right side of the aircraft with an estimated minimal separation of 100 feet,” according to the report.
#16, Jan. 20, 2018: T-1 Jayhawk, 47th Flying Training Wing
One of the 47th Flying Training Wing’s T-1 Jayhawk training jets, with the callsign Rake 06, reported a near-collision with an “unidentifiable unmanned drone” while on approach to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in Arizona on Jan. 20, 2018. The incident occurred approximately 4.2 nautical miles from the airport’s runway 25L. The aircraft was flying at approximately 2,400 feet Mean Sea Level, or around 1,300 feet Above Ground Level, at the time and flew right under the drone.
“The ECP [Event Copilot] was just able to maneuver below its flightpath as both EC [Event Crew] members called out the conflict when it became visible,” according to the report. “The ECP initially thought it was a bird but both pilots identified it as a UAV due to the fact it was not moving (hovering) and they saw a small white steady light emanating as they passed underneath it.”
#17, Feb. 7, 2018: T-38C Talon, 71st Flying Training Wing
On Feb. 7, 2018, a T-38C Talon jet trainer assigned to the 71st Flying Training Wing had a near collision with an unspecified drone while on approach to Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. The unmanned aircraft came with 300 feet of the jet trainer, but did not prevent it from landing safely.
#18, Feb. 5, 2018: 325th Fighter Wing and U.S. Navy T-6A Texan II
On Feb. 5, 2018, the 325th Fighter Wing, one of the major units at Tyndall Air Force Base, reported a sighting of “a sizable, black in color, drone” near the base. The pilot of a transient U.S. Navy T-6A Texan II from an unspecified unit that was on approach had spotted the unmanned aircraft “approximately 1,200 feet off his left wing” and alerted personnel at the base.
The T-6A was flying at approximately 1,000 feet Above Ground Level at the time and the pilot “noticed sun glint off of metal, this is when he realized the black object was not a bird and that it was moving to the southeast,” according to the report. “The pilot reported the sighting to tower personnel and 325 FW flight safety followed up later with a telephone interview. Local search efforts for object or operator was negative and no military or Air Force Civil Engineering Center (AFCEC) drone operations were being conducted.”
#19, Mar. 26, 2018: 45th Space Wing and Civilian Helicopter
On Mar. 26, 2018, the pilot of an unidentified civilian helicopter flying near Patrick Air Force Base in Florida “had a model airplane come within about 100 feet.” The pilot of the civilian helicopter informed air traffic controllers at Orlando Melbourne International Airport of the incident, who appear to have relayed to the report to personnel at Patrick, after which the 45th Space Wing submitted a report to the Air Force Safety Center. The civilian helicopter had been in contact with personnel at Patrick during its flight, which took it through Class D airspace near the base.
All the other major details about this incident are redacted, but it appears to have led to the issuance of a formal Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) regarding the potentially hazardous situation.
#20, Sept. 10, 2018: C-130J Hercules, 86th Airlift Wing
One of the C-130Js assigned to the 86th Airlift Wing, part of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, had a near collision with an unidentified unmanned aerial vehicle while flying near Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The report describes the drone as “spherical with an approximated 6 feet diameter top mounted rotor.”
#21, Mar. 6, 2019: T-1 Jayhawk, 12th Flying Training Wing
A T-1 Jayhawk training jet from the 12th Flying Training Wing reported seeing “a quad copter or non-traditional aircraft” that was “silver in color” while flying in Mississippi on a low-level training flight along an established route designated VR1022. “The UAS was stationary or near stationary” and was seen within one nautical mile of the T-1 hovering at around 1,500 feet Above Ground Level. The presence of the drone did not impact the training sortie or the aircraft’s ability to return to base safely.
Naval Air Station Pensacola is identified as the “accounting base,” indicating that the training flight originated or ended there, or both. The crew of the T-1 also contacted air traffic controllers at Trent Lott International Airport in Moss Point, Mississippi about the drone sighting.
#22, Mar. 13, 2019: C-17A Globemaster III, 445th Airlift Wing
A C-17A Globemaster III airlifter assigned to the 445th Airlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit, had to take evasive action to avoid a small drone during a training sortie on Mar. 13, 2019. The aircraft was flying at approximately 3,500 feet Mean Sea Level over Ohio at the time.
“The pilot flying (PF) observed a white sUAS [small unmanned aerial system] with either brown or black accents or propellers just below the EA [Event Aircraft],” the report notes. “The PF executed an evasive maneuver up and to the left to miss the sUAS, which was within 50 feet of the EA.”
An unspecified “local police department” was informed about the incident afterward.
#23, Mar. 21, 2019: E-3B Sentry, 552nd Air Control Wing
On Mar. 21, 2019, an E-3B Sentry assigned to the 552nd Air Control Wing and using the callsign Sentry 60 reported that a “DJI style quad-copter/unmanned aerial system” passed by the aircraft approximately 20 feet below its number four engine. The plane was flying at approximately 3,000 feet Mean Sea Level near Tinker Air Force Base at the time.
The aircraft’s pilot visually identified the drone, but their co-pilot never saw it. In addition to the informing personnel at Tinker about the encounter, the crew also told air traffic controllers at Oklahoma City Approach that “they came close to one.” The E-3B eventually moved to a holding pattern at Tinker for approximately 20 minutes so as not to return to the area where they had seen the drone, before ultimately landing without incident.
#24, July 25, 2019: C-17A Globemaster III, 445th Airlift Wing
A C-17A Globemaster III airlifter from the 445th Airlift Wing, part of the Air Force Reserve, when departing RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom on July 25, 2019. The crew of the aircraft “visually acquired an orange colored small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) as it passed approximately 50′ below the left wing” after climbing out to an altitude of 7,500 feet Mean Sea Level.
“After spotting the sUAS [small unmanned aerial system] the EC [Event Crew] marked their position and proactively reported the encounter to the controlling air traffic agency, which seemed unaware that the UAS was operating in the area,” the report added.
#25, Sept. 9, 2019: LC-130H Hercules, 109th Airlift Wing
An LC-130H Hercules airlifter assigned to the 109th Airlift Wing, an element of the New York Air National Guard, reported a near-miss with a quad-copter-type drone while conducting a proficiency flight around Albany International Airport on Sept. 9, 2019. During a climb out at 1,100 feet Above Ground Level, the crew spotted the drone, which they said was yellow in color, approximately 300 feet away laterally and between 100 and 200 feet below the altitude at which they were flying.
They reported it to air traffic controllers and did not see it for the remainder of their flight, which concluded with the plane landing safely at nearby Schenectady County Airport.
You can find the full copies of the 25 reports as they were released to us here.
Is this all?
When The War Zone published the eight Naval Safety Center reports in May, we immediately noted that it was curious that there were so few such records apparently available in the Navy’s Web-Enabled Safety System (WESS) Aviation Mishap and Hazard Reporting System (WAMHRS). The number of incidents recorded in the Air Force Safety Automated System (AFSAS) also seems very small for a six-year time span.
The fact that only one of these reports deals specifically with the direct experience of the crew of combat jet of any kind – the Nov. 1, 2017 near-collision involving the F-15E Strike Eagle from the 48th Fighter Wing –and that only one other report – the Apr. 21, 2015 event that the crew of a KC-135R Stratotanker assigned to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing reported – mentions the tangential involvement of a tactical aircraft also seems extremely odd. As The War Zone has noted in the past, tactical aircraft, especially fighter jets with more and more capable radars and other sensors, which will soon include the widespread deployment of Infrared Search and Track Systems, have already proven to be particularly well-positioned to spot and track small, unidentified objects.
There is the possibility that, or a high probability rather, that for whatever reason, additional reports are getting passed through separate or even classified systems, including those outside the normal reporting channels for military aviation safety incidents. This week, The Black Vault received a number of internal Air Force Emails via FOIA related to this topic, including one that said “Currently the Air Force is not working any specific guidelines for reporting UAPs.”
“**Side note and off the record – we do have reporting instructions for Unauthorized Air Vehicles/Military Installation Airspace Violation, but that is more in the C-UAS realm,” it continued. “That information is provided via OPREPs on SIPR.”
“OPREP” refers to the Operational Reporting system, which, as this Email also notes, is contained on the Department of Defense’s classified Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRnet.
Now, regardless of how complete the reporting of incidents involving unidentified aerial objects in AFSAS is, the 25 reports that we do have still show some interesting trends. The most immediate of these is the steady rise of lower-end drone activity in general, something that has been an increasing issue for commercial air operations, as well. Regulators around the world, including the Federal Aviation Administration, have struggled to develop rules and guidelines that are practical and enforceable.
The scope of the reports that are available also shows that these are issues that are global in nature, even impacting areas as remote as Ascension Island. This only underscores the fact that small drones not only present real safety concerns, but also that they could be very real threats to U.S. military activities at home, as well as abroad. The proliferation of relatively cheap, but capable drone technology has already enabled non-state actors, in addition to the military forces of nation-states, to increasingly employ unmanned aircraft for surveillance and actual kinetic attacks on and off the battlefield. This is an issue we have been hammering on for years and it will rise to become among the most pressing strategic issues of our age, especially as more complex attacks become a reality and as the Department of Defense scrambles to play catchup to a threat they were astonishingly too incurious to recognize before it fully materialized.
The War Zone is continuing to dive deeper into this issue, and especially in terms of how it relates to the recent rash of UAP/UFO encounters that the military and the intelligence community is supposedly grappling with, via a number of ongoing investigations, some of which you will hear more about very soon.
Contact the authors: Tyler@thedrive.com / email@example.com