UFOs – or UAPs, as they are now called – have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years.
It started with the explosive New York Times story, followed by congressional hearings that showed videos of mysterious high-speed objects firing in front of US fighter jets.
But UFO sightings in America stretch back decades — many involving the U.S. Air Force and advanced military hardware.
Nigel Watson, author of “World War I UFOs,” told DailyMail.com that many of the most famous UFO sightings actually involved classified and sophisticated military hardware.
Here are five legendary UFO sightings along with an explanation of what actually happened (spoiler alert: and they weren’t little green men).
The Gorman dogfight, 1948
Edward James Ruppelt investigated the Gorman case for Project Blue Book
In 1948, a World War II veteran pilot had a 27-minute encounter with a white orb over Fargo, North Dakota.
George F Gorman told a local paper: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. If someone else had reported something like that, I would have thought them crazy.’
The incident was documented in Project Blue Book, an effort by the US government to analyze and document early UFO sightings.
Captain Edward Ruppelt led the United States Air Force’s Project Blue Book UFO hunting project and even suggested the use of the term UFO.
Gorman, 25, was a former fighter pilot and flew a P-51 Mustang.
Gorman flew a P-51 Mustang
While flying alone for night flight exercises, he saw what he initially thought were the taillights of another aircraft.
He said, “It was about 6 to 8 inches in diameter, clear white, and completely free of fluff around the edges. It flashed on and off. However, as I got closer, the light suddenly stabilized and moved into a sharp left bank. I thought it passed the tower.’
Gorman tried to crash into it, he said, describing the object as a “disk,” but saying it evaded him at speeds in excess of 600 mph.
He said, “Once, when the object came straight at me, I pointed my plane straight at it.
“The object came so close that I involuntarily ducked my head, thinking a crash was inevitable. But the object buzzed over my head.’
Two air traffic controllers and another pilot confirmed his story.
Gorman continued his service and never spoke publicly about his UFO experience.
Air Force investigators officially concluded that it was a weather balloon encounter.
Observations from Washington National Airport, 1942
Was this what was behind the airport sightings? (Getty)
In July 1942, Washington’s Air Routing and Traffic Control Center (ARTC) radar picked up seven targets—faster than any aircraft of the period.
Air traffic controller Edward Nugent’s radar coverage indicated they were 15 miles southwest of Washington DC.
Washington National Airport’s control tower radar also showed unidentified blips, and the two controllers saw a bright light moving at incredible speed.
Aircraft scrambled and some observers claimed to see lights in the sky, with one pilot describing four white glows traveling 1,000 feet below him that were too fast to chase.
The situation made headlines across America and a hastily called press conference explained that the radar blips had been caused by temperature inversions.
But what about the sightings?
Watson said: ‘What seems likely is that sightings were driven by the expectation of seeing something to explain these radar blips.
“Some sightings have been explained by weather balloons and meteors.”
The Death of Captain Thomas Mantell, 1958
Mantell investigated the object, but was never heard from again
An unidentified flying object was spotted by control tower operators at Godman Air Force Base, Kentucky.
Captain Thomas Mantell was asked to examine it in his P-51 Mustang and reported, “It appears to be a metal object or possibly the reflection of the sun on a metal object, and it is huge.”
Mantell told operators he flew higher to get a closer look, but then stopped communicating. The wreckage of his plane was found near Franklin, Kentucky.
Watson said Mantell’s death is now believed to be related to a then-classified Skyhook balloon – developed by the US Navy and measuring 20 feet in diameter.
The balloons were used for atmospheric research, particularly for constant high-altitude meteorological observations.
When it reached 100,000 feet, the Skyhook expanded to a massive 22 meters in diameter and 30 meters in height.
Watson said that to this day UFO fans insist that Mantell’s plane was hit by a UFO — but in reality, he probably passed out while examining a Skyhook.
Watson said, “He was out of oxygen and had passed out as his plane climbed higher into the air and was unable to regain consciousness to avoid the crash.”
Flying saucer over Alaska, 1997
The incident sparked panic calls from members of the public
Local residents called the police in Fairbanks, Alaska after seeing something truly unearthly in the sky – a 300-foot saucer looming larger than a planet.
It remained visible all summer night.
What people had seen was not an outside visitor, but a NASA project using a balloon to obtain data on the concentration and weight of stratospheric gases at dawn.
The Observations of the Middle Stratosphere (OMS) balloon was launched on July 8, 1997 – carrying a 1,700-pound gondola carrying science instruments (which locals saw and mistook for a UFO).
Watson said, “While publicity was given to the project, the local Fairbanks Police Department received several calls reporting a UFO in the sky. After recording their data, the large gondola suspended below the balloon was parachuted to the ground, where it landed perfectly.’
Red lights in the sky, 1952
A second CIA briefing document, prepared in August 1952, revealed how Captain Ruppelt, who led the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book UFO hunting project, was called in at dusk to investigate red lights in the sky.
Even with binoculars, they couldn’t make out what the object was, so an F-94 pilot was sent to investigate – he found it to be a cluster of three Skyhook balloons.
Phone reports described the objects as violently moving “saucers” of various shapes and colors, some of which “circled” around observers.
But airport staff refused to believe the objects were real balloons, despite the official report, Watson said.
He said staff submitted a report saying the sighting “must have been of some other unknown origin.”