What is a UFO?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An unidentified flying object (UFO) is an object which is observed in the sky, but cannot be identified. While people have been spotting mysterious objects in the sky for centuries, claims of UFO sightings exploded in the wake of the Second World War. Attitudes about UFOs vary widely, with some people believing that such objects have a perfectly logical scientific explanation, while others have suggested that the origin of UFOs is paranormal in nature. People who support a paranormal explanation for UFOs are sometimes referred to as “believers,” referencing the idea that they believe in paranormal phenomena.

In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill reported that they were abducted by non-human beings and taken aboard a UFO while driving through rural New Hampshire.
In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill reported that they were abducted by non-human beings and taken aboard a UFO while driving through rural New Hampshire.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the vast number of UFO sightings reported each year are later downgraded to “IFOs,” or identified flying objects. Claims of genuine UFOs are rare, and hard to confirm, usually due to lack of photographic evidence or reliable witnesses. Some believers accuse skeptics of suppressing evidence which would support a more paranormal explanation for UFOs, arguing that there is a conspiracy to hide the truth.

Pilots of commercial aircraft, including wide-body 747s, have reported incidents where they were followed by UFOs.
Pilots of commercial aircraft, including wide-body 747s, have reported incidents where they were followed by UFOs.

The UFO craze really started in 1947, when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing a flying object which he likened to a saucer, coining the term “flying saucer” along the way. Arnold was viewed as a reasonably credible witness, and his sketches of the mysterious object got a lot of press, undoubtedly inflaming the collective imagination. Today, UFO believers can share information about sightings, along with conspiracy theories, on numerous websites and forums.

Some UFO reports may have been inspired by sightings of the stealth prototype aircraft that the F-22 Raptor is descended from.
Some UFO reports may have been inspired by sightings of the stealth prototype aircraft that the F-22 Raptor is descended from.

When examining the history of the UFO, it is interesting to note that sightings greatly increased after the close of World War Two, when numerous nations started experimenting with cutting-edge aircraft. Experimental aircraft associated with the military obviously have to be tested at some point, and such aircraft often look extremely strange. Due to security reasons, sightings of experimental aircraft cannot be confirmed or explained, so it is possible that the UFOs which believers think are whizzing across the sky at all hours are actually just extremely sophisticated planes.

It should also be noted that UFO sightings have historically been very high in the Southwest, a region which has been used as a military proving ground for a very long time. Other UFO sightings around the world often happen to occur near military bases and research facilities, further supporting the idea that these unidentified objects remain obscure for security reasons, rather than mysterious ones.

Some UFOs do indeed look like aircraft of some form, leading people to suggest that they are examples of alien technology, despite lack of confirmation. Others take the form of moving lights and random floating shapes. In most cases, mundane explanations like the weather can be used to dismiss UFO claims, but believers still retain their hope that “the truth is out there,” as they say in the X-Files series.

Some UFO sightings may be attributed to experimental aircraft, however most 'X-planes' still resemble conventional aircraft.
Some UFO sightings may be attributed to experimental aircraft, however most 'X-planes' still resemble conventional aircraft.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


A UFO is real, you know. I know what a UFO is. It's a flying spaceship that aliens ride on.


@dixiedreamer - I agree, it's a nice idea to think about life out there. What makes it a "romantic" ideal is that we might have friends elsewhere. UFO extraterrestrials like "E.T." are the fairy tale kind that we dream about though -- or at least the kind I dream about! What about you all?


@Tototalks - I agree, because I think people do see what they want to see at times. For there to be UFO news, there has to be a substantial number of reports, UFO evidence, and UFO proof. There are plenty of websites for UFO fanatics and "X-files" fans to browse and look for evidence of their existence and make sense of what they believe they see. Then there are those who keep their own UFO files as they continue on their quest to validate their claims. One particular website I found is devoted specifically to Extraterrestrial contacts. It presents in-depth and quality research, resources and information on the UFO phenomenon. Some have physical evidence as their UFO proof. Physical evidence and images, along with other witnesses, are really what support such claims though.


@penny 78 - It sounds as if you've had lots of questionable and spooky experiences! I've never seen a UFO, myself, but there have been several reports of sightings in the Southwest, like the article says. I've heard that the best ufo pictures ever taken were taken between the years of 1870 and 1959. These pictures tend to predominately be in desert, military, or historic areas. Most pictures taken appear blurry or consist of lots of shadowy images so it's hard to tell what's real and what's not. There are hundreds of websites out there with ufo videos too. Some people probably find a "UFO-like" image easier than others because that's what they want to see.


Some UFOs are real. I haven't had a classic UFO sighting, but there are some strange things going on in our American skies and on our land. And UFOs flying by aren't the only weird things happening.

I lived in an apartment community for 20 years, on the fifth floor, the roof overhead. I have seen the following strange things:

It’s daytime and I’m looking out the window. I look down and see a tricolor light appear out of nowhere at the 2nd floor level some two feet from the building. A car is stalling some 30 feet away as this light rises moderately fast, the three lights (yellow, white and black, I think) intertwined (think DNA strands) AS they rose. Just beyond the height of the roof, they exploded into a brilliant white light., the car started and I stood there with my mouth wide open in disbelief. No one was below or running from the area.

A silver sphere zoomed downhill past the building across the street in broad daylight. It was moving so fast, I felt the word “whoosh” and my heart began pounding. The sphere had to rise to clear the roof of the next building then it dipped back down and continued on its way.

A gleaming white airplane without wings, hovered slowly approached my building, stopping and hovering partly over the roof. I looked out my living room window at it. It was noisy like a plane. It was reflecting the sun and stayed there for about five minutes before continuing on over the roof. I began to wonder if it was a blimp, only why was it so close to the building—hell, another foot or two downward and it could have landed.

One night I was looking up at a star very high up in the sky. I didn’t remember it ever being near a particular constellation (Orion?) and I thought to myself, “You’re not a star. You’re just pretending to be one.” Hot Damn, if right away, it began to move leftward then made a sharp angle upwards (an L-shaped turn) and continued on until it was no longer visible.

Several nights I saw shooting stars, a few times right after I finished thinking a “particular thing”. About three of the streaks disappeared with a small flash.

In the wee hour of one morning, I saw two “birds” flying side by side over my roof. They were a mauvy color as if light was reflecting on them somehow.

Two days later, I saw an inverted triangular “UFO” approach my building, glide at a moderately fast pace over my building. I almost broke my neck getting to the window across the room to see this “UFO” clear the roof. I caught just a bit of it before it glided rightward out of sight. It had the same queer mauvy color as the “birds”. This sighting had a weird dreamy feel to it. I was definitely awake. I think it may have been a thought projection. Looked awfully real. The color was queer. The sky was overcast. I’m not good at determining size but it wasn’t more than 55 feet in the air and comparing it to the width of my living room, it was only about six feet wide and about 75% the width of the wingless plane at another time.

At 6:30 one afternoon, it was dark cloudy and it began to rain. At 7:00 it stopped raining and the sun appeared out of a patch of clouds. According to the account for August 4, 1991, “the sun seemed to be moving while the clouds appeared to remain stationery”. The sun was bright yellow or white but when it began to move under the clouds it started to turn bright pink. When the sun emerged from the clouds, it was very bright and “appeared to have a gray circle in the middle of it that became more prominent (in color depth) and appeared to be spinning, rocking up and down, back and forth. Always there was the bright outline (at the edge of the gray) of what I felt was actually the sun. It seems as if something set itself in front of the sun as if to duplicate it.” I could look directly at it, and remember thinking, “How strange, I thought the sun couldn’t be looked at directly with the naked eye?” I called my daughter into the room and asked her to look at the “sun” and tell me what she saw. She also saw that the center was gray and spinning. I stared at this spinning disk. “Also, I see intense colors, such as red and blue.” I looked away to the white wall of my living room and saw “after-affect colors, such as lime green and some sparse appearances of blue intermingled”.

On January 9, 1995, I wrote: “Today at 4:30 on the Donahue Show, he was talking about visions of Christ and Mary. One man who had been at Medigore (sorry about the spelling) saw the sun which people claimed left its place in the sky and pulsated. He said that he thought no one could look directly at the sun without losing their sight, but he was able to look at it, and he saw a gray whirling circle.”

Two months later in 1991, I dreamed of seeing two UFOs. There was a large dark oval-shaped craft (I called the mothership) parked on the ground and a large gray disk sitting or hovering over it. “There were many lights and I tried to count the windows, some of them had no lights on. All or most of the windows were round. As I tried to count (them), the disk rose straight upwards and I saw the underside of it…” I greedily tried to take in all I saw—the deep grooved piping underneath. “I lost sight of the disk and (looked) back at the cigar-shaped craft. It had at least three larger lighted windows, which I now believe were square…”. “I looked to my left and saw the disk above, and it was bigger than an airplane. But it was not lit as it was earlier. At this point I awoke.” The disk hovered just above roof level some five feet from my window, and its central underside was recessed.. Outside, the lighting matched the dream’s exactly. (It was dark at the start of the dream then the sky was just turning light when it ended.) It felt so real, only waking up made it a dream.

And I've had several dreams of standing in front of a double window beside a short alien in the dark of my then current living room. I'd smile at him and we'd look out the window at moving stars, monitoring balls or UFOs flying about in the sky. There is usually a flat UFO either leaving or entering the apt. through a parted window or a UFO is coming from the hallway and turning into the living room. We'd silently watch them come and go.

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