These events are described in reports from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) filed within an estimated three-year period.
Overall, reports point to what are often categorized as drones, but many sightings include unidentified objects, along with objects that appear to be drones, or uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), all of which intrude into these restricted warning areas with alarming regularity.
Marc Cecotti, a contributor to online magazine The War Zone (TWZ), has acquired partially redacted reports about several of these incidents from the U.S. Air Force's Safety Center through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Cecotti, together with fellow TWZ contributor Adam Kehoe, another contributor to the War Zone, first noticed reports of unusual aerial encounters in southwestern Arizona in 2021.
An interactive online tool they created for TWZ that leverages the FAA's public database of drone-related incident reports helped highlight the unusual trend.
Luke Air Force Base (AFB) and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are both located in Arizona. Luke AFB is a major training hub for U.S. Air Force and foreign F-35 and F-16 pilots, but its work with the F-16 has been steadily diminishing in recent years. Davis-Monthan AFB, on the other hand, currently hosts units flying a variety of aircraft, such as A-10 Warthog ground attack jets and EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare planes.
Davis-Monthan also has a unit that oversees the military's famous boneyard which is part of the large installation.
Units of the Arizona Air National Guard also operate from different bases in the southern end of the state, such as Morris Air National Guard Base, which is collocated with Tucson International Airport and also hosts the Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Command Test Center.
Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, a major test and training base that hosts several F-35 squadrons, along with units flying various other aircraft, is located 140 miles southwest of Luke.
Arizona has several major training ranges with restricted airspace, including significant areas adjacent to Luke AFB and MCAS Yuma. A large swathe of Arizona's border with Mexico sits under these ranges, including the Barry M. Goldwater Range (BMGR).
There are other designated Military Operating Areas (MOA), which can be temporarily closed off for training within the state.
Restricted airspace and MOAs are all included in what the FAA more broadly refers to as Special Use Airspace (SUA).
The reports of unidentified objects, especially those involving groups of them flying together, are interesting because of the surge in interest in what is now often called unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). UAPs were previously called unidentified flying objects (UFOs). (Related: UFO whistleblower: Federal gov’t running a long-term program to recover “non-human bodies” from alien crash sites.)
Members of Congress are pushing for more declassification and general transparency from the military and Intelligence Community on these matters.
These calls from legislators have grown following allegations of a massive coverup from David Grusch, an intelligence official and Air Force veteran turned whistleblower.
Grusch, who served with the now-shuttered Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) Task Force (UAPTF), testified under oath before a House Oversight subcommittee that he has evidence there is a group inside and outside the government involved in ongoing programs working on non-human craft and lifeforms.
Arizona is also the spot of several reports of unusual drone activity and UAP sightings. In 2016, a Tucson Police helicopter encountered a mysterious drone in Arizona. There have also been several reported encounters between military aircraft and what witnesses described as groups of craft flying together in the past three years or so in Arizona.
On March 29, 2021, two pilots flying F-35s near Buckeye, Arizona, claimed they saw at least three to four while eastbound at 17,000 feet, per FAA records.
Fighter jets in the skies over southwestern Arizona have been encountering what seemed like drones with unusual characteristics. Pilots have also encountered strange objects at far higher altitudes than typical consumer-grade types can operate at.
On March 25, 2021, pilots in two F-35s flying near Casa Grande, Arizona, reported a large white UAS at 24,000 feet. The pilots said the object appeared stationary and it was described as a small general aviation (GA) aircraft or a very large UAS.
There have also been instances where the reported encounters involved completely unidentified objects.
On December 13, 2022, FAA records revealed that the pilot of an F-35 flying in the eastern end of R-2301E, a section of restricted airspace within the BMGR complex, made a report about four UAS.
On January 19, 2023, an F-16 Viper fighter jet from an unknown unit flying in R-2301E collided in mid-air with what they claimed was an orange-white UAS. The FAA entry said the drone reportedly struck the fighter's canopy.
TWZ has warned that reports about incidents involving UAPs, drones and other objects are being passed through multiple U.S. military reporting streams. This includes classified channels, which makes it difficult to get a sense of the full picture of what's going on.
This was proven by the fallout from the shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon off the eastern coast of the U.S., along with three more still unidentified objects in U.S. and Canadian airspace earlier in 2023.
The publicly available FAA logs and the newly released Air Force data provide undeniable proof of an increasing number of alarming and potentially dangerous encounters with drones and other unidentified aerial objects.
This includes those that can be considered a hazard, as proven by the mid-air collision between the F-16 and the drone this January, in heavily trafficked military airspace in Arizona.
These reports bring up some important questions: What are these objects doing in these training ranges? Where are the objects from? For the objects seen in Arizona, are some of them flying across the Mexican border?
Learn more about UFO and UAP sightings at UFOs.news.
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