The pilot says he first thought the object was a set of balloons. Perplexed, he slows down to see better. He described how the object climbed with him and seemed to stay intentionally in front of his plane, mirroring his turn. Throughout the conversation, the pilot makes several references to a video taken by a passenger, although he cautions that the video is limited in detail. Indeed, there seems to be significant compression artifacts in the video.
Asked about a summary description of the object, the pilot indicates that if he was familiar with drones, he had difficulty in concretely identifying what he saw. He mentions the strange V-shaped antenna and a payload hanging from the bottom of the object. The pilot describes the payload as potentially being an articulated camera. Adding to the physical description, he indicates that it did not appear to be a fixed-wing aircraft.
In terms of the object’s behavior, the pilot remarks on how effectively the object circled him, speculating that he was probably trying to get a “cool video” out of him. He remarks that even though it was a cool video, it was “super dangerous”.
As the air traffic controller momentarily struggles to describe the events, the pilot laughs and volunteers to say it was a UFO sighting. Continuing to laugh, he said, “It was an unidentified flying object; of course, it was not an alien.
Later in the audio, the pilot asks what will happen to his report, and if it would be possible to get more information about the identity of the object. The controller explains that although they have primary radar capable of detecting aircraft without transponders, they did not pick up the object. The pilot remarks that this is not surprising given the small size of what he saw, which he estimated to be about half the length of his wing, or five feet. He also repeats that he was surprised to realize that the object was not a balloon and that it appeared to have a camera, as well as some LED lights. He adds that it didn’t look like any easily recognizable type except that it appeared to have four possible rotor mounts at each corner without the propeller guards typically seen on hobbyist quadcopters.
The controller asks the pilot “you’re a little shaken, aren’t you?” The pilot explains that he is mostly curious, especially given the unusual speed and behavior of the object. Interestingly, the controller says “you’re not the first, just so you know.” Indeed, FAA records show several other UAS sightings in this area, including one reproduced below that occurred a few months prior, where a fast-moving drone was operating at a relatively high altitude of 8,000 feet :
RELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: ATLANTIC CITY, NJ/UAS INCIDENT/1652E/ATLANTIC CITY ATCT ADVISED J328, REPORTED SMALL TO MEDIUM SIZE ORANGE UAS AT 8,500 FEET WHILE E DESCENDING TO 8,500 FEET 30 W ATLANTIC CITY. NO EVASIVE ACTION REPORTED. NOT REPORTED LEO NOTIFICATION. UAS MOR alert for ACY number: ACY-M-2019/04/28. Type: Unsafe and/or Unauthorized UAS Activity Date/Time: April 28, 2019 – 2025Z A/C: (J328). Summary: J328 ARRIVING FROM WEST DOWNHILL AROUND 8000. DRONE REPORTED AT 8500 DOWNHILL. UNKNOWN ROTOR AMOUNT. PASS TOO QUICKLY.
It is unclear if the FAA ever determined what the object was. Other unusual incidents have been reported in this busy coastal airspace, such as this 2018 case of a glowing object spotted by a Piper Saratoga crew over Long Island.
The incident reflects the larger challenge of effectively documenting and describing unidentified objects. The pilot’s joke about UFOs makes it clear that he couldn’t immediately identify what he was seeing despite his experience in military aviation. Although the object could be classified as a UFO, the pilot was clear that he did not mean the common cultural connotation of the term in the sense of something otherworldly.
The issue of unidentified aircraft and UFOs more broadly has received renewed attention in recent years, including the publication of a government report in June last year. The Department of Defense now refers to unidentified flying objects as “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” or UAPs, and defines them as “non-immediately identifiable aerial objects”. According to this definition, the object could arguably be classified as a UAP.
This incident is an interesting case study of the growing complexity of modern airspace. Despite the availability of radar, daylight video footage from inside the aircraft, and immediate first-hand testimony from a trained military aviator, the object is not easily identified. While, according to the pilot, it was probably a rotary-wing drone carrying a camera payload, there is just enough uncertainty in the description for it to also be referred to as an UAP.
This uncertainty is perhaps unavoidable given the increasing diversity of unmanned aircraft systems. Drones can take a multitude of forms beyond the popular quadcopter design and are sometimes hybridized with other elements from different aircraft types. For example, separate FAA incident reports describe a drone-balloon hybrid aircraft, a design that has been explored by several startups and manufacturers. Drones like the Zero Zero Robotics V-Coptr Falcon use a bicopter tilting rotor design that gives it an unusual V-shaped appearance. Truly, drones can look like almost anything and can exhibit unknown flight characteristics that are different from those commonly seen with aircraft at traditional rotary or fixed wing.
As we have seen in cases such as the high-speed pursuit of a sophisticated drone in the skies of Tucson or the recent flurry of sightings over Swedish nuclear facilities, the problem of unidentified aircraft will likely continue to become more sustained and serious as drone technology continues to proliferate in the years to come.
There is also the case of bizarre manned platforms that may operate outside of FAA guidelines. Some very strange flying machines have been built by individuals over the years that can be difficult to identify. This will only become a bigger problem as E-VTOL aircraft become more common. Their configurations vary widely and a lot looks like nothing currently gracing the sky on a regular basis.
Either way, this is a unique and highly documented case by the FAA which gives a good idea of just how confusing this issue is and how the agency is trying to address and document it. .
What do you think the mysterious craft is? Let us know in the comments below.