In the 15 years since Chad Underwood recorded a bizarre and erratic UFO — now called “the Tic Tac,” a name Underwood himself came up with — from the infrared camera on the left wing of his F/A-18 Super Hornet, he’s become a flight instructor, a civilian employee in the aerospace industry, and a father. But he has not yet spoken publicly about what he saw that day, even now, two years after his video made the front page of the New York Times. As he explained before speaking with Intelligencer, Underwood has mostly wanted to avoid having his name “attached to the ‘little green men’ crazies that are out there.”
The story of the Tic Tac begins around November 10, 2004, when radar operator Kevin Day first reported seeing odd and slow-moving objects flying in groups of five to ten off of San Clemente Island, west of the San Diego coast. At an elevation of 28,000 feet, moving at a speed of approximately 120 knots (about 138 miles per hour), the clusters were too high to be birds, too slow to be conventional aircraft, and were not traveling on any established flight path, at least according to Day.
In a military report made public by KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, another crew member with 17 years of experience on similar cruisers would later observe that the objects “exhibited ballistic-missile characteristics” as they zoomed from 60,000 feet to 50 feet above the Pacific Ocean, alarmingly without producing sonic booms. All told, radar operators with the Princeton spent about two weeks attempting to figure out what the objects were, a process that included having the ship’s radar system shut down and recalibrated to make sure that the mysterious radar returns were not not false positives, or “ghost tracks”.
Eventually, David Fravor, commanding officer of the Black Aces, made visual confirmation of one of the objects midair during a flight-training exercise. An hour later, Underwood made his infrared recording on a second flight. “That day,” Underwood recalls, “Dave Fravor was like, ‘Hey, dude. BOLO.’ Like, be on the lookout for just something weird. I can’t remember the exact terms that he used. I didn’t really think much about it at the time. But once I was able to acquire it on the radar and on the FLIR [forward-looking infrared camera], that’s kind of where things — I wouldn’t say ‘went sideways’ — but things were just different.”
The footage appears to depict what Fravor had identified as a 40-foot-long, white, oblong shape (hence “Tic Tac”), hovering somewhere between 15,000 and 24,000 feet in midair and exhibiting no notable exhaust from conventional propulsion sources, even as it makes a surprising dart leftward in the video’s final moments. Of the three UFO incidents captured by U.S. Navy airmen via infrared gun-camera pods, Underwood’s footage remains unique for its lack of cross talk between the pilots — a fact that has led to some speculation about its authenticity. But “there wasn’t anything on it that was protected,” Underwood’s retired former commanding officer Dave Fravor told Intelligencer. The missing audio, he says, “just didn’t make the copy that was taken from the storage drive”.
Read more: NY Mag