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The Washington, DC, Area Jet Chase of July 26, 2002

by Joan Woodward

Originally Published in the International UFO Reporter,
Winter 2002-2003, Vol. 27, No. 4, pages 3-7, 22-25

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Introduction

The events of July 26, 2002, continue a long tradition of military aircraft chasing unknown objects.1 2 Radar tracks of unknown targets are almost always involved in cases of military scrambles. In the best scenarios, the radar tracks are supplemented by eyewitness observations of the unknowns. A complex sighting meeting these criteria occurred just after dark on August 12, 1953, near Rapid City, South Dakota. A bright blue-white light was observed by a spotter for the Ground Observer Corps and was detected by Air Defense Command radar and by ground Air Force personnel, all of whom were soon in contact with one another so there was no doubt that all were tracking the same object. An F-84 interceptor was guided to the light by the radar operator. The pilot spotted the light and attempted to close in repeatedly, but whenever he got within 3 miles of the light, it increased its speed and pulled away. The F-84 followed the light 120 miles north and, running low on fuel, had to return to base. At this point, both the light and the F-84 had moved off the radarscope. Soon the radar detected the F-84 returning to base, and in a few minutes, it detected the light following 10-15 miles behind. A second F-84 was scrambled, and had the same experience of making visual contact but not being able to approach closer than 3 miles to the light. At one point, this pilot turned on his radar-ranging gun sight and a red light blinked on, indicating a solid object was in front of him.3

Andrews Air Force Base, the area of activity on July 26, 2002, has had some interesting encounters over the years. On November 18, 1948, about 9:45 p. m., the pilot of a T-6 approaching Andrews noticed an odd white light over the base and flew toward it. In the following 10 minutes, the light showed the ability to perform evasive maneuvers, tight circles and quick variation of air speed. Finally the pilot maneuvered to a position where he could turn his landing lights onto the light, and he saw an oblong object with no wings or tail. The object made a sharp turn and headed east at an estimated speed of 500-600 mph. Air Force personnel on the ground also saw the light.4

In July of 1952, headline-making events occurred in the Washington, D.C., area, involving National Airport (now Reagan National) and Andrews AFB. On July 19 at 11:40 p. m., multiple unidentified targets were detected on multiple radar screens. The unknowns moved until they were over prohibited areas, such as the White House and Capitol. Some airliner pilots saw white, fast moving light, and an orange sphere was reported near Andrews. Andrews’ runways were under repair, so interceptors were sent from Delaware. When they arrived, the anomalous radar targets were gone. After the interceptors left, the unknown targets were back.5

In 1952 I was 14 years old and lived 6 miles NW of Andrews AFB. Already interested in the UFO subject and stimulated by the headlines, I spent time the week after July 19 sitting on my front steps looking for what might come by. One evening after dark, a pair of orange-red “lights” approached from just west of Andrews. They appeared identical, with clear edges, slightly oval shape (as opposed to being perfectly round) and looked like glowing metal rather than like a light source. They flew silently with one slightly in front of and to the side of the other heading toward downtown D.C., but after passing overhead, one swung around in an arc and headed roughly in the direction from which it had come. The other continued straight, but then it, too, swung around in a looping U-turn and was able to catch its companion before they went out of sight.

On July 26, 1952, the anomalous targets were back on the radar screens at National Airport and Andrews AFB. The targets moved 100 mph, sometimes reversed direction, and sometimes streaked off, once at a calculated 7,000 mph. A pilot reported slow moving objects that resembled the glow of a cigarette. F-94 interceptors arrived and were directed toward the targets, and sometimes the pilots saw lights but could not close on them.5 On the 50-year anniversary of July 26, 1952, the unknowns are back within 20 miles or less of the Capitol and White House. Our military, on high alert in this post-September 11 era of extreme concern about National security, are still chasing them but are apparently not catching them or identifying them.

On July 26, 2002, in southern Maryland near Andrews Air Force Base, just outside of Washington, D.C., independent witnesses located 8 miles apart became aware of highly unusual and persistent aircraft activity between the hours of 1 a.m. to near 2 a.m. Witnesses in both locations saw a light or object that they could not identify that was being pursued or followed by one military jet, and witnesses independently called the media to alert them to the situation. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) spokesmen said two F-16s were scrambled from Andrews AFB at 1 a.m. to investigate a radar track that subsequently faded, and that the F-16s found nothing and returned to base. However, we know two pairs of fighters took off around 1 a.m., they remained airborne for 50 minutes, flew at low altitude using afterburners over residential areas of southern Maryland, and were seen to pursue an unidentifiable light or object on three occasions. The two pairs of fighters returned to base around 1:50 a.m. The events described here took place 5 miles or more outside of the 15-miles-radius restricted air space around Washington, D.C., but within easy striking distance of the center of D.C.

The Investigation

On the morning of July 26, Mr. Renny Rogers called the Fund for UFO Research about jet activity and the pursuit of a blue light over his house in Waldorf, Maryland. Don Berliner requested that I look into these events. Rogers was interviewed three times by phone and in person at his house for 3 hours on July 31 and for 1 hour on August 17. On July 31, WTOP News Radio reporter Brennan Hazelton gave me the phone number for Gary Dillman, an independent witness located near Brandywine, Maryland. I talked to Dillman by phone on August 7 and in person for 2 hours on August 12 at the sand-and-gravel operation where his observations were made. Subsequently, I have had numerous short phone conversations and/or email communications with both witnesses to address particular questions or for clarifications.

A neighbor of Rogers also saw part of the fighter/blue light pursuit, and he was interviewed for ½ hour on August 17 at his house and in two phone conversations in the days after. He requested anonymity and will be referred to as Mike.

Background of the Witnesses

Rogers is in his 30’s and is a Government employee (nonmilitary). His neighbor, Mike, is in his 20’s and is a cable installation contractor. Dillman is in his 60’s, a retired D.C. policeman, private investigator, and a MUFON Field Investigator. He currently works as a security guard at a large sand-and-gravel operation. All three witnesses are long-time residents of southern Maryland in the area of Andrews AFB and all are familiar with air traffic coming in and out of Andrews. Both Rogers and Dillman have a strong and long-time interest in the UFO subject, but this is the first time either has seen an unidentifiable object. None of the witnesses has visual or hearing problems.

The Search for Additional Witnesses

An effort was made to find additional witnesses, but none were found. Both Rogers and Dillman called WTOP News Radio and reported their observations. During that day, WTOP repeated that “residents were shaken from their beds…” and that “Several people called WTOP Radio reporting seeing a bright blue or orange ball moving very fast, being chased by jets.”6 However, when I contacted Amy Morris, the reporter who handled this story, the only people who called the station were Dillman, who called twice, and Rogers, who called once to report what he and Mike had seen. The WTOP coverage implied many witnesses and this was carried widely in the media.7 8 9

In the search for additional witnesses, local authorities were contacted, sometimes repeatedly, by myself and others. This includes the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and Office of the Maryland State Police. Neither reported calls about unknown lights or low-flying jets.10 11 I contacted the Sheriffs Office for Calvert County, located nearby to the east, and reviewed their log which showed nothing of interest. The Patuxent Naval Air Test Center (PAX), about 33 miles southeast of Waldorf had no records of any calls about low-flying noisy aircraft or other sky activity. In addition, they had nothing in the air during the time of interest.

The National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) posted a report by Rogers and posted media reports. In addition, NUFORC had one report of low flying jets heard over Waldorf around 1:00 a.m., and another of two lights seen over Arlington, Virginia, around 1:15 a.m. These will be discussed later.

Efforts to Obtain the Official Word.

Various reporters, UFO investigator Kenny Young and I communicated with NORAD spokesmen on July 26, and subsequently. I spoke with the 113th Air National Guard spokesperson Capt. Smith regarding external navigational lights on F-16s currently flying from Andrews, among other things. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were submitted by Robert Durant, Larry Bryant, and myself. My FOIA of July 31, 2002, requested the tower logs for the airports in the area, and they were received in early November 2002. However, no further material has been received.

Weather Data

Weather information was obtained from the National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the form of hourly readings for weather stations at Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport.

Background to the Events of July 26, 2002

The map shows Andrews AFB; Reagan National Airport; Rogers’ and Mike’s location in Waldorf, about 12 miles SSW of Andrews; Dillman’s location near Brandywine, about 7 miles SE of Andrews; and the restricted air zone round D.C. Waldorf is about 8. 5 miles SW of Brandywine. Of these locations, only Andrews and Reagan National are located within the restricted air zone. Also indicated on this map are estimated areas where the fighters were observed by Dillman between 1-1:30 a.m., and the estimated flight paths of unknowns pursued by fighters as reported by Dillman and Rogers.

The weather conditions between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. at Reagan National Airport were as follows: surface temperature, 70 degrees F; relative humidity, 76%; and the wind was 7-8 mph from the ESE. A few scattered clouds were at 3500 feet (sky 1/4 or less to 1/2 sky coverage at 3500 feet), and an overcast was at 5,500-6,000 feet (100% sky coverage). Equivalent data from Dulles International Airport, about 22 miles WNW, indicates that these weather conditions were widespread and consistent.12 Through small gaps in the overcast, a nearly full moon could be glimpsed, having risen shortly before 10 p.m. on July 25.

Sequence of Events, July 26, 2002, 1:00 to 2:00 a.m.

The following timeline describes who saw what, where and when. Information obtained from NORAD and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are also entered into the time line.

1 a.m. The 113th Air National Guard (ANG) fighters were scrambled at NORAD’s request.

"Two F-16 jets from Andrews Air Force Base were scrambled approximately 0100 hours 26 Jul 02 after radar detected an unknown aircraft. The unidentified aircraft’s track subsequently faded from the radar. The F-16’s investigated, found nothing out of the ordinary, and returned to base."13

1 a.m. Reagan National Airport tower log (FAA Form 7230-4) notes a scramble from Andrews and altitudes between 4,000 feet to 6,000 feet were blocked for the jets to use. Further comment indicates no aircraft was seen in the CAP (Combat Air Patrol area) or TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction area) area.

1 a.m. Dillman, working a late shift at a sand-and-gravel operation about 6 miles SE of Andrews, heard and then saw four fighters in two pairs take off from Andrews in quick succession. One pair flew by him curving to the east or ESE, and the second pair flew by him curving to the SE. The fighters were using short bursts of their afterburners, which Gary could see and hear. He estimated their altitude as they flew over at 2,000-5,000 feet. Because their departure was so unusual, he continued to watch these aircraft in the distant east and SE sky, tracking them by a white strobe on the tip of the tail. On a humid night such as this one, these strobes could be seen over an estimated distance of 10 miles.14 Dillman could not hear their engines.

1 a.m. A report of loud aircraft flying “way too low” in the Waldorf area was sent to the NUFORC. Witness did not go outside. 15

1 a.m.–1:30 a.m. Dillman watched the strobes on the fighters that continued to fly around in the east to SE sky about 20-25 degrees above the horizon. He was convinced that something very unusual was going on. Most of the time he could see only one fighter strobe at a time in the distance, sometimes two, but the aircraft were circling, turning right, turning left, flying back and forth. He could not hear them. Occasionally one pair of fighters returned to the Andrews area, and then flew back to the east and the SE sky again. When asked if he thought these fighters landed and were replaced by another fresh pair, Dillman thought they had not as he would have heard the take-off sounds, with which he is very familiar, but he could not totally rule out the possibility.

1:30 a.m. Dillman called WTOP News Radio and informed them that something extraordinary was going on involving fighters scrambled from Andrews.

Just after his call to WTOP, Dillman looked toward the SW (toward Waldorf) and saw a glowing, round, hard-edged, orange object 25-30 degrees above the horizon coming toward him on a downward path (moving SW to NE). In the first second he thought “meteor” as it became brighter and larger. When the object was at about 20 degrees elevation, a fighter appeared out of the clouds coming from either north or east of the object. The fighter turned toward the object, which responded with a smooth curving banking turn to the south, away from the fighter that was now following it. They flew south, then curved toward the east, maintaining the same distance between them until lost into the clouds in the SE sky, still at about 20 degrees above the horizon. As he watched, Dillman could hear the sound of the fighter but could detect no sound from the orange object. This entire sequence took between 10-15 seconds. The distance between the unknown and the fighter was estimated as 17-18 times the length of the fighter.16

1:30 a.m. (approximately) In Waldorf, Rogers had recently returned home from work, was in his living room, and heard distant but distinct aircraft noise that he interpreted as fighters taking off. In reality, this noise must have been from fighters already in the air.

1:35-1:37 a.m. (approximately) Jet noise increased in the Waldorf area. Normally when Rogers hears aircraft noise, the airplane flies by and leaves the area. In this case, the jet noise stayed in his area, which is extremely unusual, day or night. Rogers was sure he was hearing more than two fighters. When the walls of his house started rattling, he went outside to find out what was happening. He saw a single fighter flying away from him to the SSE. The fighter was using its afterburner for 2-3 seconds after first sighted. After it disappeared, Rogers went back inside.

1:40 a.m. Dillman was talking to WTOP a second time, describing what he had just seen. As he talked, he could still see the white strobes from a couple of jets to the east.

As he finished his call, Dillman saw the orange object again in the same area of the SW sky as earlier. This time it was about 25 degrees above the horizon and was moving from the SW to the south in a slow, level, smooth, banking turn, its circular shape appearing as a slender oval that became more and more round as it headed south. It was already being followed by a fighter when Dillman first saw it this time, and the distance between them was about the same as before. The pair continued to fly south or SE, still turning, and then they curved to the east again, disappearing into the clouds in the same area of the SE sky as before and once again at about 20 degrees elevation. The entire flight path of this second pursuit appeared level, and as before, the sequence lasted 10-15 seconds and was nearly a repetition of the 1:30 am sequence. Again, Dillman could hear the engine of the fighter but could hear nothing from the orange object. An estimate of the distance between Dillman and the unknown with its pursuing fighter is 1 to 2 miles based on duration of the sighting and arc of sky covered in that time.17

Dillman emailed me on August 31 that he had belatedly remembered a moment in this second sequence when the orange object appeared a medium blue color for an instant. First he thought it occurred as the orange circle turned into an ellipse as it turned south, then he thought it may have been as it disappeared into the clouds. He is sure he saw the blue color for only an instant.

1:40 a.m. (approximately) In Waldorf, the jet noise was increasing again. Rogers went outside and saw nothing to the south where the fighter had disappeared earlier, so he moved to where he could see the north sky. He saw a bright pale bluish light in the NNE moving at what he considered a phenomenal rate of speed. The light was about 35 degrees above the horizon when first seen and its path dropped precipitously an estimated 2000 feet and came back up slightly after which it flew a fast straight line path from NNE to ESE where it was lost high in the sky behind the top of a nearby tree (elevation about 80-85 degrees). It moved in an effortless almost floating manner but at very high speed and it was silent (distant jet noise was heard but nothing was nearby). The light appeared to be just a light (or light source), more star-like than not, and it was constantly brightening and dimming on a 1. 5 second cycle from bright-dim-bright.

Rogers ran toward the south and in about 7 seconds he found the blue light in the SW sky at an elevation of about 45 degrees and moving toward the SW. Rogers saw his neighbor, Mike, who had come outside, and called to him. A fighter came from the north over Rogers’ house in level straight-line flight in obvious pursuit of the light. The fighter was now on the same flight path as the light, both heading SW. The aircraft was dipping its wings from side-to-side as it flew and continued to do so as it followed the blue light, and Rogers’ impression was that the aircraft was constantly correcting its course. The fighter was not using its afterburner. The blue light was much faster than the pursuing jet, and Rogers estimated that the jet was 1,000-2,000 feet behind the light (1,000 feet would be 20 times the length of the fighter) and had no chance of catching it.

These events took place beneath the cloud cover at 5,500-6,000 feet but above the scattered clouds at 3,500 feet. The scattered clouds at 3,500 feet sometimes briefly obscured or partly obscured the blue light and/or the fighter. The fighter, being so much larger than the light, could still be seen as it passed above these clouds, but the much smaller blue light was intermittently hidden.

Rogers estimated he could see the light for 5-6 seconds as it flew SW and that he could see the fighter much longer. His impression was that they continued to fly SW until they disappeared into the distance. However, he was in the street and his view to the SW was blocked by two rows of trees along the street in front of him. Mike was on the opposite side of the rows of trees and he had a narrow but unobstructed view to the SSW-SW.

Mike saw Rogers running in his direction calling to him, and then he saw the brightening and dimming pale blue light and then the pursing fighter. Their flight path took them over his head or nearly so. Mike thought the light appeared to be slowing as it flew SW and that the fighter was able to draw closer to it. About 25 degrees above the SSW horizon, he thought the light paused for a second, and then took off to the east at a sharp angle at extremely high speed. The light moved in level flight from about 220 degrees in the SW sky to about 150-160 degrees in the SSE sky in about 1/2 second, at which point Mike’s view was blocked by a tree about 75 feet from him. The fighter also turned and flew east, but was now far behind the light. The drawing of the Waldorf townhouse development shows the complex natural and artificial topography, the estimated flight path of the blue light, and the locations for Rogers and Mike.

Mike reported a very bright ice-blue light with a steady rhythm of dimming and brightening that never altered. He was surprised by its brightness and by its silence as it flew over.

Mike and Rogers heard a lot of jet noise to the SSE as they talked for a couple of minutes before going back inside their respective homes. Rogers called the Charles Co. Sheriff’s Office, who said they had no other reports, and Andrews AFB, who wanted to know who he was and then said they knew of nothing going on.

1:51 a.m. The Reagan National Airport tower log notes the scrambled fighters returned to base.

1:50-1:55 a.m. (approximately) Dillman saw a pair of fighters coming from the SE, followed by a second pair. They were flying sedately and approached Andrews as if for landing, and no more was seen or heard. These were the first fighters to approach the Andrews area since he saw the orange object at 1:30 a.m.

2:00 a.m. (approximately) Rogers called WTOP News and reported that he and Mike had seen an odd blue light chased by a fighter. WTOP reported this as “a large blue ball of light…” which Rogers says is incorrect and that he never used the word “large. ”

The Witnesses’ Descriptions of the Fighters and the Unknowns

The Fighters

In some of the witnesses’ initial reports, the military aircraft are identified as “F-16s. ” This identification came from the almost immediate public acknowledgment by NORAD that they had scrambled two F-16s and the assumption that these were the aircraft over southern Maryland. None of the witnesses did a field identification of the aircraft they saw as F-16s. All witnesses did refer to the aircraft as fighters, military jets, or jets. All of the witnesses noticed different things about the external lighting on these fighters. No one reported sonic booms during these events so the fighters could not have been traveling faster than Mack 1 (~750 mph). Afterburners were seen and heard, but they were used briefly.

The 113th Air National Guard (ANG), based at Andrews, is the unit that maintains F-16s on strip alert in the D.C. area and responds to NORAD’s requests for scrambles.6 18 I spoke with Capt. Smith of the 113th AGN. At my request, he researched the navigation lights on the F-16s currently flying out of Andrews with the following results. There is a highly visible bright white strobe on the top of the tail that is always used. The red and green wing-tip lights may be flashing or constant as there is a variable control on them. There is a white navigation light on the bottom of the aircraft that does not flash. There are other smaller lights that are not highly visible that may or may not be used.

The witnesses’ observations are compatible with the information given by Capt. Smith. The white strobe on the top of the tail is what Dillman observed and used to track the aircraft at a distance. Rogers remembers seeing a red wing-tip light and used that to estimate the apparent size of the unknown blue light. In this case the fighter was low and almost overhead so the lower-intensity wing-tip lights were easily visible. Likewise Mike, who reported the fighter as overhead, remembers red/green wing-tip lights and at least one steady white light on the bottom of the aircraft, again an accurate description of the lighting reported by Capt. Smith. Rogers and Mike were looking up at the aircraft during the closest part of their encounter, and neither noticed the white strobe, probably consistent with their position relative to the aircraft.

The Unknowns

The evidence is strong that there were two unknowns present. Dillman’s description of the object he saw describes a hard-edged, solid, round shape the color of an edible orange. It had a steady glow and he compared it to glowing metal rather than to a light source. As it flew in a curved path, it appeared as an ellipse and an oval before returning to a round shape. The only change reported in its brightness was an initial brightening as it descended toward Dillman at 1:30 a.m. and a moment of medium blue as dicussed above. Dillman judged the orange object to be about the same size as the jet fighter following it. The fighter is about 49 feet long and has a 32 foot wingspan.19 Between the distance and the darkness, he could not see the body of the fighter, but could see its strobe, but he has no doubts about his size estimate. Clearly the orange object was large enough to have a clear shape (oval, ellipse, round) visible to the observer. It never demonstrated any flying ability beyond that of the fighter following it. The distance between the two remained the same on both pursuits and the turns were the types of turns that an airplane would make. The orange object basically flew like an airplane but did not look like one.

Rogers described a pale blue-colored light and compared its brightness to that of a light or beacon on the top of a radio tower. It was not a strobe light but constantly brightened and dimmed on an unchanging cycle of 1.5 seconds the entire time it was in view. He estimated its apparent size as about three times larger than the red wingtip light of the fighter. It was only a light source and no edges could be seen. Rogers frequently referred to it as an “orb. ” No dark body was detected behind the light, and Rogers was sure there was none. The Waldorf area is a highly developed commercial area that throws an enormous amount of light into the sky. Standing with Dillman in Brandywine 8 miles from Waldorf, the Waldorf area could be clearly seen as it lit up the sky. On July 26, with the overcast at 5,500-6,000 feet, thus capturing the ground light, and with a near full moon above the overcast, one could speculate that if the blue light were on a dark object of any size, it would have been detected by the witnesses. Rogers described the light as amazingly fast but also having an almost floating or effortless quality to its movement. He felt the fighter had no chance of catching it.

Mike described the light similarly. He said it was the pale blue of a distant halogen headlight and referred to it as ice blue. He also described a brightening and dimming cycle that never changed its timing no matter what the light was doing. He said the light went over his head and he was amazed by its brilliance and silence. Mike was also certain there was no dark body behind the light. His size estimate was that the light was as large as the fighter following it.

The difference between Rogers’ and Mike’s description is in the size estimate. From the beginning Rogers referred to a star-like source of light. On the other hand, Mike’s estimate of the light being “fighter-size” is similar to Dillman’s. I could not resolve this discrepancy. Rogers is adamant, and I know his spatial estimates to be impressively accurate. His description of the small blue light disappearing momentarily behind scattered clouds and the fighter not disappearing because of its larger size is a compelling piece of data. Mike is equally certain of his estimate, and I felt I could not push the issue further without my influencing the outcome, so this will have to remain a discrepancy.

Velocity estimates on the blue light were done by Brad Sparks. The estimates are very rough, only as good as the time and spatial memory of the witnesses, and are based on heights as bracketed by the clouds at 3,500 and 6,000 feet. In the first 3-4 seconds of Rogers’ sighting of the blue light, after its initial decrease in altitude and as it began horizontal flight, it traveled about 50 degrees, indicating a speed of about 600-1,000 mph. After being lost in the tree top, it took Rogers 7-8 seconds to find it again and the light had traveled another 45 degrees, suggesting a slower speed, fitting with Mike’s description of the light seeming to slow. At the end of Mike’s sighting, the light hesitated and then cut to the east traveling about 60 degrees of arc in ½ second. If the light were 3 miles away, the speed to the east would have been in the thousands of miles per hour or at least 3 miles in ½ second. The acceleration would have been about 2,000 g’s or more.

Because both Rogers and Dillman saw an object or light being chased by a fighter at about 1:40 a.m., the question becomes did they see the same thing at the same time from nearly opposite directions? The answer is “no. ”First, the times are not that precise. Second, as discussed above, at 1:40 a.m., the orange object/fighter pursuit must have been within a couple of miles of Dillman whereas Rogers was over 8 miles away when the blue light flew nearly overhead.

The Official Word

Initially, in the effort to sort out what happened on the morning of July 26, there were as many questions about NORAD’s scrambled F-16s as there were about the unknown objects sighted. Where did the suspicious radar track occur—over D.C., southern Maryland, or somewhere else? As outlined below, NORAD spokesmen’s information evolved with time on this point. How many fighters departed Andrews around 1 a.m. and who sent them where? The assumption was being made by the news media that the radar track and Rogers’ blue light and F-16s were all one and the same event, but there was no hard information to support this hypothesis. Two interrelated questions needed answers. Where did the scrambled fighters go and how many fighters were scrambled? [Italics below are mine.]

Southern Maryland was not mentioned. Wanting to know, even in the most general way, where the scrambled F-16s went, I spoke with Maj. Venable again on July 29 but obtained no additional information. He suggested I email him and I did so asking the following questions, basically trying to get some parameters of the scramble.

  1. What time did the F-16s take off and land?
  2. Did the aircraft use their afterburners during this flight?
  3. Did the two F-16s fly tandem or in close formation in the area south of Andrews (the Waldorf area)?
  4. When returning to base, what compass direction where F-16s coming from?

Maj. Venable’s reply was not helpful:

"The facts: Two F-16 jets from Andrews Air Force Base were scrambled approximately 0100 hours 26 Jul 02 after radar detected an unknown aircraft. The unidentified aircraft’s track subsequently faded from the radar. The F-16s investigated, found nothing out of the ordinary, and returned to base. For operational security reasons, NORAD will not discuss specific details…"

A Washington Post article on July 27, 2002, quoted Maj. Douglas Martin, NORAD, who almost word for word repeated the quote from Maj. Venable in the above paragraph.18 The Maryland Independent10 and The Washington Times8 had similar quotes with even less information.

To add to the confusion, NUFORC had an anonymous report from Arlington, Virginia,(within the restricted flight zone and located just north or west of Reagan National Airport). A man and his son reported two silent circular lights, flying in tandem, that went over their house around 1:15 a.m. on July 26 going west to east/NE (toward D.C. ). A couple of minutes later, they saw the same or similar lights again moving west to east/NE. This time the lights appeared to hesitate, and one flew back to the NW and the other flew NE. The witnesses reported this to NUFORC after hearing about the southern Maryland sightings.22 This raises the obvious question of whether these lights could have been the scrambled jets, or the unknowns? There is no answer as the witnesses would not give contact information to NUFORC.

More puzzlement followed after interviewing Dillman and finding out that four fighters took off, not two. I again contacted Maj. Venable and told him what I had learned. His email reply was as follows:

"NORAD only scrambled 2 fighters in response to the event in question. There may have very well been other airplanes departing Andrews AFB, but they were not NORAD aircraft responding to this event."

When I spoke with Capt. Smith,113th ANG, he suggested that Dillman’s observation of the departure of four fighters was a typical training exercise, and that these missions frequently took place at night. He shrugged off my questions about training at low altitude, using afterburners over residential area at 1-2 a.m. in the morning and about the fact that these events were unique to long-time residents in the area. I asked if he could find out if there had been a training mission scheduled for 1 a.m. on July 26, and he said that he would. However, he has not called back and I have not been able to reach him. Messages have not been answered.

In terms of the July 26 scramble, I wondered if this information could be interpreted to mean that two additional fighters took off as part of the NORAD scramble as well as four aircraft on a training mission. Dillman felt that if fighters had taken off to the west or north, he would probably be unaware of them. Certainly a surprising coincidence that two groups of fighters departed at 1 a.m., but not impossible. Further, Maj. Venable was quoted as saying:

"At no point in the mission did the fighters chase or intercept another aircraft."8

At the time, the picture was confusing.

In November I received strong evidence to support the hypothesis that the four F-16s over southern Maryland were, in fact, the scrambled aircraft. A response arrived on my FOIA of July 31 requesting the Daily Record of Facility Operation (FAA 7230-4) for Washington-Dulles and Reagan National Airports and Andrews AFB Approach Control Facility. After receiving the logs, I sent them to Robert Durant for interpretation. As a retired airline pilot, Durant could make sense out of the acronyms and jargon.

Only the Reagan National tower log had information about the scramble.

The log noted that at 1 a.m. EDT the tower is alerted to a scramble of jets from Andrews, and the air traffic control operators blocked altitudes of 4000 to 6000 feet for the scrambled jets to use. At 1:51 a.m., the interceptors returned to Andrews. This information strongly supports the hypothesis that the fighters over southern Maryland were the scrambled F-16’s. Not only did the four fighters observed by Dillman take off at the correct time for the scrambled aircraft, but the four fighters also returned to base at the reported time for the scrambled aircraft to have returned to base. Further, the altitudes blocked for the scrambled jets matches the altitudes at which jets were observed over southern Maryland, that is between the broken clouds at 3,500 feet and the overcast at 5,500-6,000 feet. A note in the tower log at the time of scramble reads,“No aircraft seen in the CAP or TFR area. ROC (DB) advised. ” This indicates that Reagan National tower operators are not aware of aircraft in the Combat Air Patrol area or the Temporary Flight Restriction area, and that the FAA Regional Operations Center is advised. DB are probably the initials of a person.

The Andrews AFB Form 7230-4 has virtually no information on it. No scrambles or other flights are noted. However, the Reagan-National log does note a second scramble on July 26 at 5:12 p. m. In this case air traffic to the east was held up, and altitudes between 20,000 and 23,000 feet were blocked. At 6:45 p. m. a scrambled fighter declared an emergency (anti-skid warning light) and landed without incident at Andrews. The only note on the Andrews tower log was that the runway was cleared for this fighter to land. There was no mention of its takeoff.

The Dulles International Airport log had no information of interest. At the time I wrote the FOIA, I did not know what areas were of interest so I included Dulles just in case. I also asked a question on my FOIA, not sure what would come of it. I asked if the Air Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, VA tracked any air traffic other than routine commercial traffic between midnight and 3 a.m. The letter accompanying the tower logs stated:

"There are no records concerning an unusual air traffic flight on July 26, 2002, in the vicinity of Washington D.C."

Reagan National was apparently not tracking any aircraft either, so one might ask what radar was tracking the unknown on July 26?

Peter Davenport, NUFORC, suggested the unknown may have been tracked by an AWACS surveillance aircraft. AWACS have flown intermittently over D.C., since September 11, 2001.23 Brad Sparks also suggested that the unknown may have been tracked by an AWACS aircraft based upon the fact that the 4,000 to 6,000 foot altitude range was blocked for the intercept and the fact that FAA has no air traffic control radar with height-finding capability for the short range.

Obviously radar data is of great interest. On August 8, 2002, Robert Durant requested the radar and voice recordings from Reagan National and Andrews for the midnight to 3 a.m. time period, and asked this data not be routinely deleted. Unless such a request is made, radar and voice “tapes” are erased after a 15-day period has elapsed. Durant has had nothing but frustration with this FOIA, receiving a variety of excuses, including an alledged flood in the FAA FOIA office. The end result, as of February 2003, is that he has received neither the requested data nor any reason why it has not been forthcoming.

Conventional Explanations

Conventional explanations have been evaluated for the events of July 26.

Small Private Aircraft

What happened to the radar track that met the criteria of a small private aircraft described by Maj. Snyder? Where did it go? F-16s reportedly “...can locate targets in all weather conditions and detect low flying aircraft in radar ground clutter.”19 For the small private aircraft to land at night, there must be some facility with lights. The Lower Marlboro Landing Strip is in the area where the fighters circled and flew between 1 and 1:30 a.m. to the east and SE of Dillman. It is a small grass airstrip and is privately owned. Speaking with the owners, I learned it has no lights is never used at night. If there were a small private aircraft flying in the area, surely four F-16s would have been able to find and identify it, and there would have been no need for fighters to go blasting through residential areas at low altitude using afterburners. Don Ledger, a private pilot himself, points out that if the aircraft flew off above the ceiling, the pilot would have had an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) rating and would have been on a flight plan.

Military Training Exercise

One’s first thought is: training at 1-2 a.m. in the morning, flying low over extensive residential areas, using afterburners? Ledger, ex-Skyhawk pilot Bob Shearer, and James Canan, ex-editor of Air Force Magazine, think a training exercise is not a reasonable possibility and the fact these jets were up at night in that time and place indicates that something was going on, and it was not a training exercise or pilots letting off steam. They point out that pilots go to air combat ranges or to military operational areas (MOAs) for training exercises. There are at least three MOAs in the general area, the nearest located 31 miles from Andrews. The activity between 1-2 a.m. was taking place much closer to the base, and based on what the witnesses reported, probably within 15 miles of the base.

With reference only to aircraft activity and not to unknown objects or lights, Dillman, Rogers, and Mike have all stated that in the years they have lived in southern Maryland, the aircraft activity between 1-2 a.m. on July 26 was a unique experience. They had experienced nothing like it before, and as of February 2003, nothing like it has happened since. Dillman sees fighters take off at night regularly, but they leave the area. Rogers sometimes hears aircraft at night, but they fly by and leave the area.

Operation Clear Skies and Clear Skies II

Related to the military training exercise theory, but specific, Operation Clear Skies was a NORAD planned military training activity that took place in the Washington D.C., area for 3 days during the week of July 7 and again on September 10-14, 2002. Clear Skies involved a multilayered air defense system that includes F-16’s, Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, and other support aircraft. The ground based aspect included Sentinel radars and missile systems based at metro area military installations.24 25 There was no indication in the press or media that citizens in the D.C. area noticed or reported any unusual air activity during Clear Skies. The description of Clear Skies, particularly the part indicating involvement of interceptors and other aircraft, which I learned about belatedly, definitely caught my attention. On October 30 I emailed NORAD asking if any version of Clear Skies was underway on July 25-27, 2002. The answer from Maj. Venable was:

"Exercise Clear Skies was held 11-14 July 02 and Clear Skies II was conducted 11-14 Sep 02. Operation Noble Eagle has been ongoing since Sep 11, 2001. Operation Noble Eagle is the overarching term used to describe all military operations associated with homeland defense of the United States. NORAD is responsible for the air defense portion of Operation Noble Eagle."

A training exercise explanation for these events conflicts with the verified fact that there was a NORAD scramble caused by an unidentified radar track. The small private aircraft explanation conflicts with the fact that four F-16s reportedly could find nothing in a 50-minute search.

Speculation

Some intriguing aspects of these events can only be pointed out and speculated upon.

Why and How Four Fighters?

Why and how were four fighters scrambled at 1 a.m.? As described above, in past and present scrambles, two F-16s are reported scrambled. In cases of clear potential danger, still only two F-16s were scrambled from Andrews. In one case when a small plane was in the restricted zone and 4 miles from the White House, one pair of F-16s was scrambled.26 In another case involving a possible airliner hijacking approaching Baltimore-Washington International Airport, one pair of F-16s were scrambled from Andrews to escort the airliner, and another pair was scrambled from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton Roads, Virginia, to fly combat air patrol of the nation’s capital.27 The overwhelming evidence is that Andrews has two F-16s on strip alert. There is no record in the press or media of more than two F16s being scrambled from Andrews.

Although Maj. Venable, NORAD, stated categorically that only two F-16s were scrambled at 1 a.m., we know that four were scrambled. In my conversation with Capt. Smith, 113th ANG, on October 10, I asked if a scramble routinely involved two F-16’s, and his response was:

"…that unless there is an imminent large scale threat, only two aircraft are scrambled on NORAD request."

Part of the explanation may be that although NORAD requested a scramble of a pair of F-16’s, the Duty Officer in Charge at Andrews may have decided to scramble two pairs. Then the question becomes why? Could it be because there were two unknowns?

The strip alert situation means aircraft and pilots are ready to get into the air in 15 minutes.28 Assuming someone made the decision to launch two pairs of F-16s, how much advanced notice did they have in order to have an additional pair of F-16s ready to launch with the pair that was on strip alert? This is a really interesting question, and radar data might give us an answer.

Wing-Tipping Behavior of F-16

A puzzle remains about the wing-tipping or wing rocking behavior of the F-16 as it pursued the blue light. Rogers’ strong impression was that the F-16 was constantly correcting its course. Yet when questioned, he also stated that the F-16 was flying straight, level, and fast. The reason for the wing rocking is unknown but speculation falls into two categories: a physical process involving the aircraft or a signal given by the pilot.

Physical processes could be the following:

  1. The F-16 was reacting to turbulence from the object in front of it. This fits the facts presented by the witnesses.
  2. The pilot rocked his wings to bleed off a little air speed. On the one hand this fits with the fact that the blue light appeared to slow just prior to the appearance of the F-16, but on the other hand, an F-16 pilot would use his airbrake to slow.
  3. Perhaps the pilot had a radar lock-on, the aircraft was on an F-16-equivalent of autopilot, and the wing rocking may have been an artifact of this, fitting Rogers’ description of constant course corrections while flying straight and level.

If the pilot was rocking his wings as a signal, what was he communicating? A former F-15 pilot made some suggestions:

  1. It could indicate the pilot wants to make a minor turn adjustment, or if the wings are rocked several times, it may indicate the pilot is not sure which way to turn and is feeling his way. Neither of these fits with the description of a fighter in pursuit of an object ahead of it.
  2. It could be a signal to a wingman, who may be at some distance. This could fit the circumstances described here, but communication with a wingman would probably be by radio. However, a problem with the radio or with channels cannot be ruled out.
  3. Wing rocking is an intercept signal and is done slightly ahead of the intercepted aircraft and on its left side. Could this pilot have given an intercept signal at an inappropriate spot?

Initially frustrating because the wing rocking seemed a signal without interpretation, the evidence seems to suggest it is more likely a physical process involving the F-16 and not a signal at all.

Summary

A couple of intriguing questions have not been addressed. Is there any significance to the fact that the initial sighting in both Waldorf and Brandywine was of a clearly descending light or object that moved in a horizontal path at the end of its descent? Is there significance to the fact that the unknowns flew a similar flight path moving to the south and then to the east? Is there significance to the fact that each unidentified with its pursing fighter returned to the area SE of Dillman where the all fighter activity took place between 1-1:30 a.m.?

The strength of this event lies in the fact that we have totally independent observations by knowledgeable witnesses of an unidentifiable object or light clearly being pursued by military fighters three times within a 10-minute period. An added advantage is that this activity took place between two cloud layers, allowing height estimates to be verified. An unknown radar track caused a NORAD scramble whose timing and altitudes tie it to these pursuits described by these witnesses. The scramble appears to be unusual, composed of two pairs of fighters rather than the normal one pair. We have military fighters flying at less than 6,000 feet altitude in the middle of the night over residential areas, using afterburners, without apparent concern for the dense civilian population underneath. We have unknown objects flying near our most sensitive areas, and our modern fighters are no more able to intercept and identify than were the fighters of 1952.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank James Canan, Robert Durant, Donald Ledger, Robert Shearer, and Brad Sparks. They all answered endless questions, particularly but not solely about flying and military aircraft, and have been very generous with their time and knowledge.

Joan Woodward
sky.cat@worldnet.att.net
February 2003

References

1 Hall, Richard H., ed., 1964, The UFO Evidence, Washington, D.C., NICAP, Sections IIIand IV.

2 Hall, Richard H., ed., 2001, The UFO Evidence, Volume II, Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, Section II.

3 Ruppelt, Edward J., 1956, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, Doubleday (Book Club ed. ), p. 233-235.

4 Online at NICAP.org/481118dir.htm, Project Sign Incident no. 207

5 Clark, Jerome, 1998, The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial, Detroit, Visible Ink Press, Washington National Radar/Visual Case.

6 WTOP News Radio, July 26, printed version at wtopnews. com.

7 Fox Newscast, July 26, 2002, transcript by Kenny Young, UFO UpDates, July 26, 2002.

8 The Washington Times, August 7, 2002, “UFO reported in area again, after 50 years,” by Stephanie Casler.

9 Young, Kenny, “UFO violates D.C. airspace,” MUFON UFO Journal, September 2002, p. 11.

10 The Maryland Independent, July 31, 2002, “A UFO, or no?” by Sara K. Taylor, p. 1, 9.

11 Young, Kenny, “F-16 scramble-inquiry with law enforcement,” online at UFO UpDates, July 26, 2002.

12 Unedited Hourly Local Climatological Data, online individual station, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

13 Telephone conversation with NORAD spokesman Maj. Barry Venable on July 26, 2002, and by email from Maj. Venable on July 29, 2002.

14 Email from Robert Durant, retired airline pilot and UFO investigator, August 26, 2002.

15 Reported to the National UFO Reporting Center on July 26, 2002, at 10:05 pm.

16 The distance between the orange object and the fighter was estimated as 17-18 times the length of the fighter using the following extremely rough calculations: the size of the orange object was estimated as 2 mm at arm’s length, and Dillman thought it to be the same size as the fighter. The 2 mm size is divided into 35 mm at arms length distance between the orange object and the fighter. The 35 mm estimate is based on a visual memory that Dillman had when the fighter, the orange object, and a string of power lines 600-700 feet from him were in his visual field at the same moment.

17 Calculations by Brad Sparks indicate that the orange object and its pursuing fighter were probably 1-2 miles from Dillman. The orange object and fighter were traveling at the same speed (which was less than 750 mph as no sonic booms were heard) and they moved about 90 degrees from the SW to the SE in an estimated 15 seconds. At a distance of 2 miles away, their speed would have been around 700 mph if their flight path had not involved turns.

18 The Washington Post, July 27, 2002, p. B2, “F-16’s Pursue Unknown Craft over Region” by Steve Vogel.

19 USAF Fact Sheet, F-16 Fighting Falcon, Air Combat Command Fact Sheet, Public Affairs Office, Langley AFB, VA.

20 CNN report, July 26, 2002, transcript provided by Kenny Young, UFO UpDates, July 27, 2002.

21 Young, Kenny, “F-16 Scramble – Interview with NORAD Command Spokesman” filed on Rense. com, UFO Research on July 27, 2002.

22 Reported to the National UFO Reporting Center on July 26, 2002, at 7:53 pm.

23 The Washington Post, January 28, 2003, “Customs Takes Over Monitoring Local Skies” by John Mintz and Spencer Hsu, p. A6.

24 Garamone, Jim, “Exercise Tests D.C. Air Defense Capabilities,” online at defenselink.mil/news/sep2002/b09102002_bt460-02.

25 The Washington Times, July 17, 2002, “Army Radar Test a D.C. Success” by Bill Gertz.

26 The New York Times, June 21, 2002, “Plane in Restricted Airspace Near White House Exposes a Security Weakness,” by Eric Schmitt.

27 The Washington Post, August 28, 2002, “Jet has Military Escort After ‘Misunderstanding’,” by Steve Vogel and Katherine Shaver, p. B3.

28 CNN online, “Pentagon to Cut Back Air Patrols over New York,” by Barbara Star, online at www.cnn.com/2002/US/03/18/ret.air.patrols/?related.