DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE/TO THE STARS ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCE
The Tale of the Tape
It was the video that ushered in the UFO renaissance: a grainy clip showing the Navy’s encounter with a mysterious aircraft in 2004. The Pentagon says the public was never supposed to see it. So who leaked it? How’d they do it? And what does the footage actually show?
By Tim McMillanJan 17, 2020
In November 2019, Popular Mechanics revealed previously unheard eyewitness accounts of the U.S. Navy’s encounters with UFOs while conducting training off the coast of San Diego in the fall of 2004. These are now known as the Nimitz encounters, so named for the fighter pilots of the USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group who spotted the strange flying objects.
Some of the Nimitz witnesses told Popular Mechanics that the brief “Flir1”video—released for public viewing by the UFO research group To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science and included below—is merely a small piece of a much longer video that the government is keeping a secret. According to these Navy veterans, the video they saw showed many more details of an unknown aircraft seeming to defy the known laws of physics as it effortlessly evaded some of the world’s best fighter jets. In December 2019, Chad Underwood, the former F/A-18 pilot who originally filmed the UFO encounter, told New York magazine that Flir1 is indeed a “little video cut” of his original recording.
But retired U.S. Navy Commander David Fravor, who first observed the “Tic Tac” from the cockpit of his Super Hornet in 2004, has pushed back on all claims that a longer video exists. The same goes for the Department of Defense (DoD). The Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, meanwhile, responded to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for more Nimitz records by saying it had discovered “certain briefing slides” related to the encounter “that are classified TOP SECRET.” The Navy has determined that “the release of these materials would cause exceptionally grave damageto the National Security of the United States.”
Consistent with the entire Nimitz event, the bizarre history of this grainy black and white video seems to challenge logic and defy reality. The video has a peculiar and convoluted path that spans a decade and a half, covers thousands of miles, and includes shadowy characters known only by pseudonyms.
The saga is centered on a puzzle of contradictions, as the Navy has confirmedthat the objects shown in Flir1 (as well as those seen in two other clips, “Gimbal” and “Go Fast,” filmed in 2015), are genuinely “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” or UAP. But the service has also said these three widely circulated videos are “not cleared for public release.”ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
What follows is a thorough examination of the video’s convoluted history that, for the first time, sheds light on exactly how the clip—which we were never meant to see—made its way into the mainstream. This is the tale of the tape.
On December 16, 2017, when To The Stars released the now-famous “Flir1” video, the organization did so with a caveat: “It is the only official footage that has been released.” Easily overlooked, this distinction by the UFO “public benefit” company from former blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge was significant. That’s because it wasn’t actually the first time the video was in the public domain.ADVERTISEMENT – CONTINUE READING BELOW
On February 3, 2007, a person using the pseudonym “thefinaltheory” posted a thread on Above Top Secret, an obscure message board site for discussions of conspiracy theories and paranormal events. The title: “Observations of an Actual UFO.”
The anonymous user shared details of a UFO encounter they said occurred while they were aboard a naval aircraft carrier off the coast of Mexico in 2005. After hearing rumors of the ship encountering a UFO, using their position, which they described as “working in the computer field,” thefinaltheory said they accessed the ship’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET). To their surprise, on the ship’s secure server, thefinaltheory said they discovered many files confirming something strange was going on around the Navy fleet.
Describing what they found on SIPRNET, thefinaltheory said:
“I found many videos and powerpoint briefs (navy standard) and written reports and even message traffic that was being passed through our radio division. It was all there. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then our ship called in the Air Force because even the captain didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
thefinaltheory described one particular video they found amidst the many files (albeit using terrible spelling and grammar):
It was taken directly from the cockpit camera of one of our ships fighter pilot jets F-18 I believe but cant be sure. It was in black and white and showed the altitude, the pilots “nickname” and the tempurature and all those little critical stats.
The UFO was floating extremely still in mid air, this was 30,000 ft above ground level. It looked literally and i mean LITERALLY just like a disk, no stupid traingles or any gimicky things like Independence Day or whatever. It looks exactly how the goverment wants you to NOT think it looks like. It’s simply put, a disk.
So it was floating, the figher pilot tried to get numerous locks on the UFO but everytime the cross hairs tried to hone in the crosshairs scaled back and forth. I dont know how to put it into words well, but I know what i saw. Crosshairs move in and move back out, it couldnt get a lock whatsoever.
After about I say 10 seconds or so the UFO started to move. It moves in ways that we have never seen before, it spontaniously moved in a half circle upward and paused once again. Then it suddenly teleported about five times all over the pilots screen. The movement is instant and cannot be followed. It simply put, is amazing and so fast the eyes cant see it.
There was a bright light and suddenly it dissapeared, out of sight.
When thefinaltheory said they’d sneaked files about the encounter off the SIPRNET, but forgotten where they’d put a disc with the material, he was met with extreme skepticism and criticism by others in the forum. A fellow user declared the claim “one of the worst thought out stories I have read here in forever.”
Like countless similar and seemingly dubious UFO witness accounts, thefinaltheory’s story would likely have faded away into internet oblivion … had it not been for his reemergence the next day on the forum.
Under a new post titled, “Fighter Jet UFO Footage: The Real Deal,”thefinaltheory posted a Navy Event Log of a UFO encounter that occurred on November 14, 2004, along with a link to a grainy black and white video clip titled “F4,” both of which they said had been smuggled off of the Navy’s SIPRNET back in 2004. [Editor’s note: The original clip has since been removed.]
By the date and details contained in the event summary, including the description of “Fast Eagle 110” (the squadron nickname and aircraft number of the plane flown by Fravor) and the sighting as “an airborne contact which appeared to be capsule shaped (wingless, mobile, white, oblong pill shaped, 25-20 feet in length, no visible markings and no glass),” thefinaltheory was indisputably describing the now-famous 2004 Nimitz UFO encounter.
More significantly, a full decade before its “first official release,” the “F4” video clip thefinaltheory shared by in 2007 was the exact same clip that’s become more popularly known as “Flir1.”
In contrast to the acclaim the “Flir1” video received when the New York Times published it in December 2017, most Above Top Secret users trashed thefinaltheory’s clip. “Sorry, it’s totally uninspiring video of a dot,” one user said.
One such critic was the UFO researcher and Above Top Secret administrator Isaac Koi (a pseudonym to protect the person’s identity for professional reasons), who believed at the time that thefinaltheory’s story and video were bogus. “Within a few hours of the video being posted online, I tracked the video back to a website run by a group called Vision Unlimited located in Germany,” Koi tells Popular Mechanics. “Since that group specialized in producing footage, including special effects, I originally tentatively concluded the footage was a hoax.”
But thefinaltheory defended the authenticity of the video, explaining it was uploaded on the German film server to try and avoid the implications associated with removing and leaking classified military materials. The excuse didn’t stick with most detractors.
Except for their two initial message threads, thefinaltheory hasn’t posted on Above Top Secret or otherwise publicly surfaced since February 2007. But when the “F4” video reemerged as “Flir1” in 2017 as an important piece of one of the most compelling UFO puzzles in modern history, the anonymous user was vindicated. Still, the world had many of the same questions about that grainy clip.How did the F4 video make it to the web in the first place?
After the UFO video’s more ceremonious release, rather quickly, savvy internet sleuths tracked down thefinaltheory’s original postings from over a decade prior. Thanks to the internet archive Wayback Machine, questions of why a seemingly classified video first appeared on the server of a German film company that specializes in CGI effects were reinvigorated.
With notions of government mistrust inherently intertwined with the UFO topic, the link between the freshly minted 2017’s “Flir1” and peculiar past of 2007’s “F4” video became red meat for the conspiracy zeitgeist.
While reporting this story, Popular Mechanics tracked down an individual claiming to be thefinaltheory. Still fearing reprisal, even under the assumed pseudonym, the individual did not wish to speak on the record. However, the equally enigmatic Koi agreed to assist by providing an overview of how the “F4” video made it to the web in the first place.
“IT WAS DETERMINED THAT THERE WAS NO WAY TO ACCURATELY DETERMINE WHO MIGHT HAVE RELEASED THE VIDEO.”
According to Koi, back in 2007, after thefinaltheory located the lost materials, he provided them to another Above Top Secret member with the username “Cometa,” who lived in Germany. Koi said friends of Cometa, who worked at Vision Unlimited, agreed to upload and host the video on their server.
Phillip Schneider, the owner of Vision Unlimited, Phillip Schneider, tells Popular Mechanics the company did not produce the video, and he and other employees were unaware of who uploaded the clip in 2007. “I talked to all my coworkers and former coworkers, and they said they don’t know [anything] about it,” Schneider says. Clips, logs and mails [were] stored on an old server, so we can’t check back anything.” The owner indicated a former colleague may have uploaded it without his knowledge.
Regarding the clip on the Wayback Machine, Schneider says, “The server link ‘extern’ means external, so this was the low security area of our ftp data exchange between customers, friends, and so on. Maybe someone used our FTP to post the video link.”
In a statement to Popular Mechanics, Susan Gough, the Senior Strategic Planner for the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs Office, confirmed the authenticity of the video uploaded to Vision Unlimited, saying Navy officials became aware that the video had been posted online in 2009.
“With respect to the 2004 sighting by aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68); that video was widely shared throughout the ship at that time,” Gough writes. “In 2007, one of those crewmembers posted the video onto the public web.”
But in terms of investigating the video leak, Gough writes, “Given the time since recording (approximately 5 years), the widespread distribution of the recording within the ship at the time of recording, and the size of the crew at the time (approximately 5,000), it was determined that there was no way to accurately determine who might have released the video.”
So how would thefinaltheory have been able to download materials off their ship’s secure server? Vincent Aiello, a former F/A-18 pilot and member of the VFA-94 “Mighty Shrikes” strike-fighter squadron aboard the USS Nimitz in 2004, tells Popular Mechanics that such a swipe is entirely possible.
“Once a recording of their tape was made in CVIC [the ship’s intelligence center], there was less control,” Aiello says. “Indeed, someone could have used a thumb drive to download something off the SIPRNet.”
The enlisted eye-witnesses Popular Mechanics previously spoke with all agreed, although unlawful, that it was equally possible for someone to have hooked up a CD/DVD drive and burned the files off the SIPRNET onto a disc.
Since no event summary has been officially released and is assumed to still carry a security classification, Aiello, who hosts the Fighter Pilot Podcast, declined to review the leaked summary provided by Thefinaltheory. Aiello did, however, confirm an event summary is completed after every flight. “Standard operating procedure was to pass through CVIC immediately after landing to debrief one of the squadron intelligence officers on duty,” he says. “They would ask a series of questions or have us fill out a simple form of what was experienced on that particular flight.”
So while there doesn’t appear to be any grand conspiracy with the 2007 leak of the UFO video, when it comes to the more fashionably released “Flir1,” clip, more confusion and contention eagerly fill in the blanks of ambiguity and the unknown.
Doubling down on a statement previously issued by the Navy, Gough tells Popular Mechanics that “Flir1,” “Gofast,” and “Gimbal,” all circulated by the To The Stars, were never cleared for public release.
“An internal review, not a formal investigation, determined that while a request had been submitted in August 2017 to the Defense Office of Prepublication and Security Review (DOPSR) for release of the videos to government and industry partners for research purposes, DOPSR did not grant final approval for the videos to be released to the general public,” Gough writes.
In an interview with Popular Mechanics, the man who applied for the release of the videos, Luis Elizondo, staunchly defended against any accusations he’d deliberately tried to circumvent DoD policies or hadn’t followed proper procedures.
Luis Elizondo, the Director of Government Programs and Services for To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science.TO THE STARS ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCE“I initially requested the videos be cleared for restricted release to industry partners, however, it was DOPSR, not me, who suggested the videos be released in an unrestricted manner,” Elizondo says. “The emails on this exchange are out there now. They’ve been made public, so people can see this for themselves, precisely how this occurred.”
A series of emails obtained by Popular Mechanics via FOIA offer a behind-the-scenes look at the release of the three videos.
Based on the released emails, on August 9, 2017, in an apparent follow-up with an official with DOPSR (the agency tasked with control and release of DoD materials), Elizondo stated, “I sent a larger e-mail earlier but it appears it was too large to send all at once. As such, I have sent three (3) separate emails to facilitate this review.” At the time, Elizondo was working out of the Special Programs Management Office with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSD[I]).
On the same day as Elizondo’s follow-up, another email from an individual whose name has been redacted stated, “Just to be clear… we should consider these files to be SECRET//NOFORN until I am able to establish that they are to be considered U//FOUO [for official use only].”
Two weeks later, on August 23, Elizondo sent another follow-up email to DOPSR saying, “If it is easier for you or more streamline, then please consider our request for unrestricted release.” The following day, an employee with DOPSR replied, “If the service-level OCA verifies to me (simple one-sentence email is fine) that removing the metadata from the videos makes them UNCLASSIFIED, please feel free to move forward with release.” Two other individuals, one from OUSD(I) and the Navy, were CC’d in the email response.
Through the same FOIA request, Popular Mechanics obtained a copy of the form used to request the release of the videos. Dated August 24, 2017, the form contains a DOPSR stamp, which indicates “Cleared For Open Publication.”
A copy of the form Elizondo used to request the release of the videos. Dated August 24, 2017, the form contains a DOPSR stamp, which indicates “Cleared For Open Publication.”U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE”
What isn’t explicitly clear from the chain of internal emails is Elizondo’s claim that it was DOPSR that suggested the release be amended for unrestricted release. In an effort to investigate Elizondo’s claims, Popular Mechanics was able to locate and verify the identity of an individual who was involved in the release of the videos back in 2017. The person agreed to provide their recollection of the events, provided a guarantee of anonymity.
According to the individual, their specific job would not have included the investigation of UAP or UFOs. However, they were involved with the process of releasing the videos. Not shown in the series of emails, the person recalled, in their coordination with DOPSR, it was suggested it would be easier if the request was amended to “unrestricted.” Subsequently, the person said this information would have been passed along to Elizondo.
In a follow-up, Elizondo declined to discuss any details regarding the individual with whom Popular Mechanics had spoken. However, Elizondo says his email to DOPSR changing the status to unrestricted was confirmation of a suggestion made by them to another individual, and not simply an out-of-the-blue request made on his part.
Speaking on behalf of the Secretary of Defense’s Office, Gough elaborates, “The videos were not cleared for general public release because DOPSR did not receive final approval from Navy. Navy’s approval would have included PA review from Navy’s PA office (Public Affairs).” After the videos appeared in the New York Times in 2017, Gough indicates that an investigation was conducted to determine if the videos were considered classified. “The investigation determined the videos were not classified.”
In October 2017, former Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge announced the launch of To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science, which would soon leak Flir1 to the world—and hire Elizondo.
Ever since the DoD came out and said the videos were “not cleared for general public release” last fall, it’s been widely assumed that Elizondo—who now works as Director of Global Security and Special Programs at To the Stars, the very organization that released the clips to YouTube—was ultimately responsible for circumventing the final approval by the Navy. However, when asked who was responsible for the misstep in not getting the videos cleared for general public release, Gough points the blame elsewhere: “DOPSR, in this specific case.
Given he’d ultimately go to work with To the Stars a little over a month after the leak, some have been understandably suspicious of Elizondo’s intentions in applying for the release of the three UFO videos.
Did Elizondo plan to use his government position for the benefit of his future private employer?
“Absolutely not!” he says. “I never even met Tom [DeLonge, founder of To the Stars] until long after the request was initiated. I resigned only after multiple attempts to brief the Secretary [of Defense] failed. It had nothing to do with the release of the videos!”
In a live broadcast on October 11, 2017, DeLonge excitedly announced the launch of To the Stars, his new UFO consortium. Appearing to confirm what Elizondo now says, during his introduction, the visibly giddy DeLonge describes how he’d heard of the existence of a mysterious government insider, however, only days prior did he actually get the chance to meet this person and discover it was Elizondo. “Days ago! Days ago! This person finished his career at the Department of Defense, as one of the senior covert intelligence officers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” DeLonge says breathlessly.
Since the original July 2017 request was limited to “industry partners,” and was only changed to “unrestricted release” at the suggestion of DOPSR, Elizondo explains, “[To the Stars] was not initially considered an industry partner at the time the release was being initiated, but it was also not being deliberately excluded either.”
By Elizondo’s account, it appears he at least peripherally knew DeLonge was working toward forming a collective of professionals to tackle the UFO mystery. However, if the request was made in expectation of To the Stars’ later establishment, based on Elizondo’s initial July request, it would seem the videos may not have not initially be intended to made public.
A copy of Elizondo’s resignation letter.U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
Regardless, the career intelligence agent is firm in saying the decision to walk away from over two decades of government service wasn’t an easy choice to make, and it was something he didn’t ultimately decide to do until early October 2017. An unverified letter addressed to the Secretary of Defense, which was leaked on social media, appears to show Elizondo’s resigning from the DoD on October 4.
Elizondo’s final straw wasn’t an event, but a “realization that the boss was never going to receive his briefing unless something drastic happened,” he says. “I knew by resigning, he would eventually see my resignation letter. Resigning in DoD is usually done as a measure of professional protest while refraining from disruptive action that might hurt the DoD. Let’s not forget that only a year later, Mattis did the same thing.”
The “boss” Elizondo references was then-Secretary of Defense, retired Marine General James Mattis. During his conversation with Popular Mechanics, Elizondo reiterated something he’s frequently mentioned in the past, which was the tremendous respect and admiration he has for General Mattis.
In December 2018, General Mattis resigned as Secretary of Defense after failing to convince President Donald Trump to reconsider the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
By acknowledging it was DOPSR that made a procedural error, the Pentagon has absolved Elizondo of any wrongdoing when it comes to the video’s public release. However, Elizondo has still faced past scrutiny about other aspects of his release request. Namely, some have questioned why he described the subject area of the videos on the release form as “UAV, Balloons, and UAS” instead of “UFOs” or the government’s new buzz word, “UAP.” (By DoD established definition, “UAV” and “UAS” represent “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” and “Unmanned Aerial System,” respectively. Not “unidentified.”
“Look, the idea that the government, or someone in government, might have an interest or be investigating UFOs is sensitive information in the sense that there were very few people in the building that knew about our program and the [DD 1910 form] is supposed to be an unclassified document that anyone can read,” says Elizondo. “I can’t simply write the word ‘UFO’ in the request to people who were not cleared for it. However, rest assured the OCA was always included in this request so the right people always knew what this request was about ” said Elizondo.
“I DOUBT THEY WANTED TO BRING A UFO CASE INTO COURT AND SO IT WAS BETTER TO JUST LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE.”
By “OCA,” Elizondo is referring to the “Original Classification Authority,” which in this case was the Navy. To Elizondo’s point, on the request for release form, the OCA point of contact is listed as a Navy official. Additionally, someone whose name and information is redacted is CC’d throughout the chain of emails. And in the final email from DOPSR saying if the “service-level OCA” verifies the videos are unclassified to “please feel free to move forward with release,” someone with a Navy email address is also CC’d. In a statement, the Pentagon tells Popular Mechanics, “The U.S. Navy retains custody of the source videos for the 2004 and 2015 sightings.”
To illustrate the unpopular nature of the topic of UFOs, as it relates to the Pentagon, Elizondo points to the fact the Navy never took any real action to hold the person accountable for leaking the “F4” video in 2007. “Just my opinion, but I doubt they wanted to bring a UFO case into court and so it was better to just let sleeping dogs lie,” he says.
Over the last two years, the Pentagon has definitely had a difficult time being consistent or concise when it comes to UFOs and UAPs. So far, the Pentagon has gone back and forth, and seems unable to decide if anyone, much less Elizondo, ever officially investigated UFOs for the DoD.
At the same time, the one thing all parties continue to agree on is what the objects shown in the videos represent: “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” But what, exactly, are those?
An artist’s 3D rendering of the USS Nimitz 2004 “Tic Tac” UFO, shown hovering over a sea surface disturbance while approached by an F/A-18 hornet.JMK (CC BY-SA)
For some, the Pentagon’s stance that object in the film is yet still “unidentified” means that whatever it is, it’s “exotic,” and even possibly extraterrestrial. Meanwhile skeptics say, “unidentified” means just that, and thus there could easily be a prosaic explanation, such as an error with the Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) system or even a misidentified flock of birds.
In an effort to try and clear up the debate, Popular Mechanics sought the help of a digital forensics expert to analyze the video. Having processed over 1,000 cases, including high-profile investigations like U.S. vs Zimmerman, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, Primeau Forensics is regarded as one of the nation’s leading digital forensics experts. Provided copies of both the “F4” and “Flir1,” clips, Michael Primeau, the co-owner of the business, agreed to take a look and see what information could be gleaned from the videos.
After analyzing the clips, Primeau indicated in order to provide an accurate professional opinion, the digital chain of custody would have to be determined, which would include examining the digital video equipment that originally captured the recording.
“Some components could be estimated,” Primeau says, however, based solely on the information contained in the released videos, “the error rate would simply be too high, and conclusions would not be based on an accurate confidence level.”RELATED STORIESThe Real Story Behind the Myth of Area 51The Air Force’s Project Blue Book, 50 Years LaterAll Our UFO Covers from Over the Years
When asked if there was enough with just the video to meet the threshold of legally admissible evidence or make a definitive conclusion, Primeau says, “Based on preliminary forensic video analysis, it is my opinion that the FLIR video recordings provided cannot be relied upon as true and accurate, and therefore should not be admissible as evidence in a court of law.”
While Primeau says no definitive conclusion can be reached based solely on the publicly available video evidence, one intriguing element still remains: The U.S. Navy clearly should have had access to all of the necessary equipment and information that would have allowed it to arrive at a more definite conclusion.
Speaking generally, Gough confirms investigations into reported sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena are performed, and with incidents involving UAP encounters by the Navy, any investigation would include the Navy reaching out to other services to determine whether they might have aerospace craft in the vicinity at the time of the sighting. In light of this, when asked again, Gough once again sticks to the company line—but it’s just as intriguing as ever.
“The Navy designates the objects contained in these videos as unidentified aerial phenomena.”