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Documents Indicate How Little Officials Knew About Mysterious Drones Last Year

File photo of a drone at sunset.
Jo Bisch Peuchet
File photo of a drone at sunset.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, Eastern Colorado was center stage for a kind of whodunnit. Ranchers, farmers — and even a few deputy sheriffs — described mysterious drones flying in the night skies.

A report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAPs, released last month by national intelligence officials didn’t say anything about the sightings in Colorado. So KUNC asked whether anyone ever solved the mystery about what the objects were and, if they were drones, who was flying them. The short answer: no.

This leaves U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado “greatly concerned.”

Bennet sits on the Select Committee on Intelligence, which led efforts to get the UAP report released. It describes sightings, mainly by military pilots, that some think might be advanced technology. Though that’s different from the descriptions of the “drones” made by people in Colorado, both mysteries deserve answers, Bennet said.

“Getting to the bottom of these phenomena,” his office said in a statement to KUNC, “is a national security imperative.”

For a few weeks around New Year’s in 2020, the state was in the national spotlight. News reports described drones flying in weird, grid-like patterns. Some journalists even chronicled their own close encounters.

A KUNC story at the time featured RaeMarie Knowles, who shot a grainy video of an object with flashing lights, making a buzzing noise over her house north of Kiowa. She says she counted dozens more of what appeared to be drones that night, Jan. 4, 2020, apparently flying in some kind of pattern.

“They’re big and the undercarriage is lit up,” Knowles said. “You can tell it’s not any kind of plane or anything like that. You can see the outline in the dark.”

From his home in Maryland, Douglas Johnson took note of the news reports.

“One of the things I noticed early on is that some of the activity reported was near Warren Air Force base,” he said. “My attention was piqued by that.”

Johnson is a volunteer researcher with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, a think tank that uses scientific methods to try to explain mysterious objects in the skies. Warren Air Force base, near Cheyenne, interested him because it is tasked with securing dozens of active nuclear missile silos on the plains in Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado.

The Colorado sightings might fit a pattern he’s tracking — something less mystifying than UFOs, but no less perplexing: government officials taking reports of drones near two dozen nuclear power facilities around the country.

“Over a five-year period, 57 incidents,” Johnson said. “Only, I believe, five of them have been solved at the time I got the list.”

Johnson obtained that list, which covers incidents as recent as 2019, by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He also filed with agencies looking into the reports of “drones” in Colorado. Eventually, he got thousands of pages of documents, including from the Federal Aviation Administration.

He shared those documents with KUNC. They add context to statements officials had already made to the press, like last year when the Air Force said no drones were emanating from Warren air base. And Johnson’s documents contain no evidence that objects entered military or restricted air space.

What they do provide is a glimpse into how much officials scrambled to explain the mystery and how little they discovered, including the FAA.

“The FAA had people in the field who were seriously trying to get to the bottom of this and find out who was behind these formation flying drones that were alarming the populace,” Johnson said.

Rewind to when it all began: late December of 2019. A state official contacted the FAA to ask for the FAA’s assistance after receiving reports about objects in the skies that appeared to be drones. As news headlines hit, the top person in the FAA — its administrator, Steve Dickson — emailed his team on Dec. 29 asking: “Do we have any information about these purported sightings?”

After New Year’s, on Jan. 3, one answer was that there were more reports of drones. An FAA official noted sightings in several Eastern Colorado counties and that deputy sheriffs were among the witnesses.

Documents show that the FAA contacted small airports, drone test sites, drone companies and companies authorized to operate drones. The agency also checked with multiple offices in the Pentagon and the command responsible for safeguarding skies from attack, NORAD in Colorado Springs.

“There is high confidence these (the reports of mysterious drones) are not covert military activities,” the FAA said in documents.

By Jan. 6, 2020, the mystery had reached its peak as the tiny city of Brush on the Eastern Plains was host to a huge meeting. Seventy-seven local sheriffs, state officials and representatives from federal agencies, including the FAA, gathered to meet, locking news reporters out.

The freedom of information documents include notes from that meeting, showing officials were concerned about residents who might break the law and try to shoot the objects down. The FAA did not know “what if any laws or regulations have been broken and/or violated.” The agency also believed the “only true way to address the issue” would be to “identify the operator.”

Afterwards, officials told the press they were forming a task force, but it was short-lived. About a week later (Jan. 13, 2020), the Colorado Department of Homeland Security issued a press release saying there was no evidence supporting sightings of large drones traveling in patterns. Some of the sightings, the release said, were airplanes, planets and stars. The FAA, according to documents, suspended its operations around the same time, saying reports of sightings had “significantly diminished” and that they had failed to see anything.

“It seems like they just kind of shrugged and moved on to more pressing business,” Johnson said.

Asked what has happened since reports dried up last year, an FAA spokesperson said the agency has not received “any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people reported seeing.”

That includes whether what people saw were drones and, the FAA added, if so, who was flying them.

In a statement, Colorado homeland security officials said they’ve received no new complaints.

“As a result no additional action has been taken or required at this time,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Sen. Bennet isn’t the only one to see the lack of answers as a threat to national security. Others, including his colleague, now-former Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, worried at the time of the incidents about their ongoing implications.

"If we can't find out who they are, how they are being controlled, who is controlling them, what is to keep a nation like Iran or North Korea from looking at this instance and saying, ‘Boy now, we should come out and do the same thing,’” he told KKTV in Colorado Springs last year.

After sifting through the thousands of pages about the mysterious objects that he received in his requests, Johnson thinks about that issue, too.

“Even if this Colorado/Nebraska activity turns out to be some actor that's totally innocuous, harmless, it still is troubling that the government can't find out who it is or says they still haven’t been able to find out,” he said. “Activity of that scale going on for at least three weeks, that is of concern.”

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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