Aliens are calling me, but first I have to buy Lunchables. Soon, I’ll be heading into the Nevada desert. I will not be alone. It is pre-pandemic September, and tens of thousands of seekers are reported to be descending on Hiko and Rachel, two no-stoplight towns 150 miles north of Las Vegas. The two map specks are the closest civilian outposts to Area 51, a highly guarded military installation where, legend says, a hangar holds a gravity-propelled craft that travels between galaxies and through wormholes based on technology acquired from aliens and, according to one rock star, Nazi scientists who escaped to Argentina.
Why is everyone descending on a land hospitable only to the giant hairy scorpion? Like all good things in America, it is because of a Facebook meme. The locals were not amused. There are rumors of homesteaders planning to light up their property and shoo off interlopers with birdshot. Signs heading out of Vegas on Highway 15 warn pilgrims to check their tire pressure and sanity. The Nevada Highway Patrol says it is advisable to bring your own water, toilet paper, and maybe an extra 10-gallon jerry can of gas.
I have made the proper preparations. I rent an SUV behemoth since I’ll be sleeping in my car. I pay $51 a night — get it? Area 51? — for a coveted desert parking lot. No spooky pasture with circling vultures for me. The North Las Vegas Walmart has everything I will need. I pile pounds of salted meat, Progresso soup, and an $11 sleeping bag that feels like it was filled with asbestos into my cart. Loaded up, I point my beast north toward Hiko.
I drive for two hours, watching my cell signal fade and then vanish. Alas, the UFO community’s “We are not alone” motto turns out to be empty rhetoric. I am completely alone. This is strange since I was told State Highway 93 would be packed with fellow travelers seeking other life-forms, perhaps kinder ones who watched less professional sports.
On April 27th, the United States Navy released three videos shot by naval aviators off the coasts of California and Florida in 2004 and 2005. The footage showed unidentified aerial phenomenon — the new hip terms for UFOs — streaking across the radar screens of F/A-18 Super Hornets while Navy pilots hooped and hollered at the mysterious images.
Mind you, the Navy wasn’t taking an opinion on whether the craft were from Mars, Ibiza, or Uranus. They were just officially releasing footage that had been circulating for nearly 18 months to, in the words of a Navy spokesperson, “clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real, or whether or not there is more to the videos.”
I think that is English.
Then, in June, it was revealed that senators had officially requested from the Pentagon a thorough unclassified report on UFOs. I had anticipated the release — got lucky — and, shortly before pandemic times, crisscrossed the nation in pursuit of the resurgent UFO movement. The truth was out there.
Maybe? About 33 percent of Americans believe aliens have visited Earth, 60 percent think the government is hiding something, and 17 percent say they have seen their very own UFO. That’s 56 million Americans. Meanwhile, church attendance in America is down to 50 percent, the lowest in history. The rise and fall of these corresponding numbers is not a coincidence. Everyone needs something to believe in. If it’s not going to be J.C., it might as well be E.T.
Seth Shostak is an astronomer with the SETI Institute, a well-respected consortium of scientists looking for alien life. Shostak is what I call a skeptic-believer. He believes there is life out there somewhere, but thinks much of UFO culture is, well, horseshit.
“Remember when you were little and you believed in Santa Claus?” asks Shostak. “It was great to feel like something bigger than you was out there controlling things.” He laughs over our Zoom call. “You grow older and you realize, ‘Well, my parents might not always be here.’ You need something bigger than you. So for years that would be your local house of worship. Today, people are looking for something else, and aliens fill the bill. You think, ‘They may pick me up for experiment.’” He laughs again. “‘At least somebody’s interested in me.’”
When I pull into Hiko, there is little activity, just some squad cars bathing in the sun. The promised Arby’s food truck is nowhere to be seen. I enter base camp and begin looking for former MMA guru and current documentary filmmaker Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell, a ufologist celebrity to his fans and “fucking four names” to his detractors.
Corbell is kind of the cause of this entire ruckus. He has recently released a documentary called Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers, a breathless account of the bête noir of the UFO movement, a man who claimed he had worked as a physicist at the Nevada site in the early 1980s and encountered nine alien craft stowed in a hangar. Lazar’s initial interviews in 1989 had mainlined Area 51 into America’s consciousness. Alas, his credibility has always been in question because of inconsistencies in his story, including but not limited to the fact that Lazar said he went to MIT and Cal Tech and the two schools have no record of him. Oh, and there was that pandering conviction.
Lazar went underground and was largely forgotten until Corbell’s documentary premiered in 2019 on Netflix, creating a sensation both positive and negative, with one viewer writing, “This movie was pure cringe.” Experts like Shostak put Lazar’s story at the center of the UFO credibility problems, namely there have been hundreds of thousands of sightings and yet there never is any hard evidence. “All of this is either anecdotal or relies on witness testimony,” says Shostak. “You never would have believed quantum mechanics if it was based on witness testimony.”
No matter. After the documentary’s release, Corbell scored an appearance by the hesitant Lazar on Joe Rogan’s hugely popular podcast. Millions listened, including a mischievous Bakersfield kid named Matty Roberts, who created the Facebook meme “Storm Area 51: They Can’t Stop All of Us.” It accrued a million followers in a week. Roberts suggested that alien enthusiasts meet in Nevada on September 20th and storm the gates of the base and see what they could see.
What followed is known in polite company as a clusterfuck. Roberts tried to organize Alienstock with Connie West, the owner of the Little A’Le’Inn, a burger joint and motel near the base. That spawned a competing event at Hiko’s Nevada Alien Research Center, a place to buy Star Wars lunch pails and alien poop.
The reality of hosting a horde of campers in a place without toilets or a nearby hospital scared off Roberts. He pulled out a week before the festivities, saying he didn’t want a Fyre Festival 2.0 on his résumé. What is left are two competing events with no idea of how many people would attend.
Corbell sided with the Hiko people so that’s where I end up. Within five minutes of exiting my car, I count three little green men or women and an elderly gent in an E.T. mask who, over the next 36 hours, will ask me to sign his “Aliens have rights” petition eight times.
Corbell isn’t hard to find; he is sequestered in an RV the size of a Manhattan condo just behind the stage. A sign warns me not to knock, but I knock anyway. Corbell shakes my hand hard and smiles with amped-up blue eyes and supersize pupils. A shortish man with 22nd-century facial hair, Corbell sports a Swingers-era green felt hat.
“I’m glad you are here, man, so much is happening,” he says.
His phone is blowing up. There are calls to check on the progress of EDM star Paul Oakenfold’s tour bus — Oakenfold’s heading out to the desert to play a midnight set. Then there is a quiet call with his wife.
“I call her Yeti because most people have never met her and doubt she exists,” says Corbell. Niles, his cameraman, chimes in, “I just call her ‘hot.’”
Corbell wants to tell me all about how he had arrived here — it would involve a near-death experience in India, black-magic martial artists in Brazil, 137 Corbell-owned websites, and the rudeness of Bill Nye the Science Guy. First, Corbell has to FaceTime with his mom, who’s back home in California. After inquiring about her boy’s safety, Mom keeps asking the same question over and over: “Did anyone show up?”
“It’s still early, Mom. Things are running a little behind.”
“Will you call me back if people show up?”
“Yes, Mom. Gotta go.”
Corbell cracks open a specially decorated green can of alien Budweiser. I ask him what his mom thought of her middle son devoting his life to the pursuit of alien life.
“She’s OK now,” he tells me. “At first, she’d just say, ‘You’ve got your dick in the peanut butter. You’re fucking nuts.’”
Corbell smiles patiently.
“You’re. Fucking. Nuts.”
It’s true. Everyone in the UFO world is fucking nuts. Actually, that is not quite right. Everyone in the UFO world believes everyone else in the UFO world is fucking nuts. Think of ufology like the various sects of Christianity. They all believe in the same deity, but the Catholics are always blasting the Baptists who are always blasting the Episcopalians. Solidarity is not a word spoken here. You can be confident that, no matter what I write, many UFO people will declare it bullshit and me, possibly, a CIA plant.
We begin at the beginning. Some people think UFOs have been with us since the Old Testament. In Ezekiel, the prophet describes “a flying chariot” that is supposedly powered by wheels turned by four angels. Then the prophet sees God and describes Him/It/Her not unlike, well, an alien: “I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him.”
Not a God guy? Agnostics argue that the birth of civilization in ancient Sumeria could never have made the jump to an alphabet without the helping tentacle of higher life. If that’s your bag, there’s a History Channel show for you.
Walking hand-in-hand through history with the possibility of UFOs has been the UFO fraud. In the 19th century, The Book of Dyzan was discovered in Tibet and included the story of an alien race that settled in India, tried to make friends, and when it went bad, disappeared into space — but not before blinding everyone and poisoning the air.
The book created quite the buzz in Europe. Unfortunately, researchers eventually determined the delightfully named Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a European mystic, had actually written the ancient text in 1890.
The duping of believers has been the movement’s central theme, best exemplified by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, a radio play purporting a Martian invasion that had listeners skedaddling for the hills.
The UFO turned into a true phenomenon in the 1940s and postwar era. During the war, all sides reported what came to be called “foo fighters,” flashes of red following air squadrons and moving at superspeed. Everyone assumed it was the other side’s new terrible weapon, but it wasn’t and the sightings were never explained.
After the war, the game was afoot. In 1947, an aircraft crashed 30 miles away from Roswell Army Air Field in New Mexico. The military initially said it was a flying saucer before changing its story and arguing that it was an experimental weather balloon, but many didn’t buy it, starting 75 years of speculation that it was an alien craft.
The desert became a center for UFO activity. This seemed weird since the Southwest was usually just a place to get through on your way to California. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the 1950s filmmaker Jack Arnold was setting cheap popular horror films like It Came From Outer Space in the wastelands, turning the desert from dull to a WTF wonderland.
The movement has waxed and waned over the past 50 years. Stories of men and women being abducted by aliens became an essential subgenre. Back in the 1960s, Congress held hearings and the Air Force formed special task forces to study and then dismiss sightings. They were called Project Sign, Project Grudge, and Project Blue Book, and, yes, Project Blue Book has its very own History Channel show.
Then came Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. A book called Chariot of the Gods, arguing that aliens had been visiting Earth since the beginning of civilization, sold 67 million copies despite being debunked by historians. UFOs were now mainstreaming. The Nineties brought us The X-Files, and on it went.
I didn’t pay much attention. Not my thing. Then, toward the end of 2017, something changed. I read in The New York Times about Cmdr. David “Sex” Fravor’s experiences. Fravor was the commanding officer of VFA-41, a F/A 18-F Super Hornet squadron based on the USS Nimitz. In November 2004, the Nimitz was conducting training exercises off the Southern California coast. The guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton accompanied the Nimitz. One afternoon, the Princeton’s radar began picking up unknown blips. One pilot took off and had a look. He saw nothing except a giant waterspout not unlike what you might see if a ship had capsized in the ocean. Later, Fravor launched off the Nimitz and almost immediately began seeing white blips on his radar and then had a visual sighting of something moving toward his plane.
Another plane recorded footage of the speeding blip that was shaped like a Tic Tac mint. The Tic Tac moved up and down, side to side at supersonic speeds. No plane flew like that. The Princeton nervously asked Fravor if he had live missiles on his jet. (He did not.)
Later, Fravor remarked, “I don’t think the technology was developed here, and by ‘here,’ I mean this planet.”
Navy pilots were folks I knew and trusted. My dad was a Navy pilot. He had flown off the Nimitz. I’d written a book about Navy pilots. They are trained aerial observers unlike most UFO witnesses and have zero to gain by concocting tall tales. I began asking around. A Navy buddy with 20 years of carrier flying, including tours over Afghanistan, told me about a time that he and his co-pilot saw an unexplained speeding light on a flight. They looked at each other and never reported it.
“It’s a small community — you don’t want to be seen as the nut who saw aliens,” my friend tells me.
Fravor’s experience confirmed this. According to a government memo, aviators “detailed the high level of ridicule that the aircrew experienced” after reporting their in-air experiences. (Other pilots played The X-Files theme when they entered the ready room.)
Maybe that’s why video of Fravor’s flight and two other missions that encountered UAPs were ignored until they were declassified in 2017. They were released to the public amid great fanfare and the revelation that the Pentagon had spent $22 million investigating UAPs. Multiple podcasts followed.
How did I know this was a serious development? The History Channel commissioned another show. The April 2020 official “official” release of the videos brought another round of press.
So I headed to the desert. And then to San Diego, Las Vegas, and other places I am not permitted to mention. I talked to a rock star about clandestine Pentagon meetings. I took some hallucinogens under California stars. I nearly had all my clothes snatched at a Barstow laundromat. (That last incident was so weird that I’m not prepared to go into details.)
Now? I know more, but understand less.
Like the UFO experience, much of what Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell says has to be taken on faith. Did he get his third name from his great-great uncle Edward Lockyer, who went down on the Titanic? Yes. Did Edward fall in love with a first-class girl, toss her into a lifeboat, breaking her legs, then drop down his watch and tell her to find his mother and tell her he loved her? Unverified. Did he go to UC-Santa Cruz on the nine-year plan and become an MMA guru? Yes. Did he create an installation art show about Sharon Tate? Documented. Did he travel to India, fall ill with a mysterious fever, and eventually escape from a homicidal hospital that kept people hostage to milk their insurance? Unverified. Did he train in Brazil with a large gentleman who wanted to kill him only to be spared by the kind intervention of a voodoo granny? God, I want that to be true.
Corbell has great hopes for the weekend, bouncing around the RV like a Super Ball thrown by a three-year-old. There is going to be a screening of his film on a giant screen tonight, and tomorrow Bob Lazar is FaceTiming in from an undisclosed location. Corbell is an excited host, making me a ham and cheese sandwich, but forgetting to take the paper off of the cheddar. His manic energy is infectious, drawing you into whatever caper he has planned. Shortly after meeting, he proclaimed me trustworthy: “You be straight with me, and I’ll be straight with you. Cool?”
Corbell is an industrious man blessed with charisma and a fourplex in Santa Monica that he rents out. (He lives with the Yeti in a million-dollar house in the California desert.) “I don’t take money from anyone,” says Corbell. “That way, no one can control you.”
His Lazar documentary features Mickey Rourke providing indecipherable narration that includes lines like “Memory is a mirage and a mistress to desire” and “Hidden things are the most seductive, they titillate and torment us.” Those lines, along with migraine-inducing jump cuts and a scene of Corbell walking among stars while aiming to “weaponize your curiosity,” led one viewer to call the documentary “full of cringe.”
But people watched. The film was made for around $100,000, with 75 grand going to Rourke for an afternoon of work. “That was the friend discount,” explains Corbell, who gets his tats at the same parlor that Rourke frequents in Los Angeles.
Corbell is 43 and got his start in ufology as a boy in the Valley, listening on a clock radio to Bob Lazar being interviewed by legendary conspiracy-radio icon Art Bell. Making it his life’s work was delayed by his MMA misadventures, but once that was over he made up for lost time.
Living in Santa Monica, he read about summoners, men and women who could conjure UFOs into their midst just with their minds. He started filming summoners and posting his footage on YouTube. His first subject was a homeless man. When he got home, he looked at his footage and — Holy shit! — noticed red, flitting images descending on the video. He posted it, and it became a minor big thing in L.A., making the local news.
Then things got real. Bill Nye the Science Guy called him a fraud, saying the footage showed brine shrimp: sea monkeys. That pissed off Corbell. He spent the next week researching the footage. Eventually, he realized the red he was seeing was from crimson flares set off by the Red Bull parachute team descending nearby.
“I debunked my own video!” Corbell tells me triumphantly.
After that, he was hooked. Eventually, he met Vegas reporter George Knapp, who had done the original Lazar interviews. Both men already knew John Lear, the son of William Lear, the jet designer.
John Lear believed that the Americans had made a deal with the aliens, exchanging abductees for alien technology, and that the deal had ended badly. Corbell spent every other weekend filming Lear for six years, until a defiant Lear signed his life rights over to another producer on a cocktail napkin. It was around this time that Corbell began to think, maybe, just maybe, Lear was a wee bit unreliable. That’s when he started wooing Lazar.
Our conversation is interrupted by the arrival of two guests. First, it’s a jovial and charming Dave Foley, of Kids in the Hall fame. Corbell and Foley had met through mutual acquaintance Joe Rogan, who had starred with the Canadian on the sitcom NewsRadio. Foley was here to participate in a panel tomorrow, where he would apologize for making cheap UFO jokes as a comedian. The door then pops open again, and a middle-aged mom and a glamorous young woman step in. Corbell lets out a yelp: “Suwana! All the way from Chiang Mai, Thailand.”
Actual, Suwana, a shiny brunette rapper, is from Colorado but had once studied in Thailand. Close enough for Corbell. She has a Lazar rap to perform before tonight’s screening, and it went like this.…
Bob Lazar had that clearance majestic,
Working on cosmic cases far beyond just domestic.
The government’s got flying saucers,
But they’d rather us be skeptics,
And truth seekers like Lazar and I will not accept it.
It is catchy. All that is missing are people to hear her perform. It is near dusk, and there are maybe a hundred people on site.
Then, the John the Baptist of the UFO movement arrives. George Knapp settles his bones onto a couch and looks weary. You would be too if you had become the human clearinghouse for all things alien for more than 30 years. Knapp arrived in Las Vegas from Berkeley in the late Seventies, paying the bills as a taxi driver who had no idea how to get to the airport. He eventually scored a gig on TV news, reporting on gaming, politics, and the mob. Knapp began hosting one of those Sunday 7 a.m. public-affairs shows that no one watched. Bored one Sunday, he hosted the aforementioned Lear, who spouted his alien theories to Knapp. The switchboard lit up. Eventually, Lear mentioned to Knapp that he knew a person recently hired to work at Area 51. It was Bob Lazar, who disguised his appearance as he described his work as a scientist on an alien craft that was being studied at Area 51.
Lazar said that the propulsion system relied on an isotope called Element 115, which created a gravity wave that permitted the craft to fly at unthinkable speeds by distorting gravity around it. Oh, yeah, he also said he was briefed that aliens had been coming to Earth for 10,000 years from the galaxy of Zeta Reticuli.
Lazar later allowed his face to be shown, and the subsequent nine-part series captivated Las Vegas audiences. The next year, Knapp and Lazar had a falling out when Lazar told him he was helping a lady start up a prostitution business in an apartment building two blocks from Knapp’s house. Knapp called the cops. Lazar received a suspended sentence and later forgave Knapp.
Now 67, Knapp’s once bushy brown hair is a mixture of gray and straw today. He is the Zelig of the alien movement. Decades ago, he struck up an alliance with future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the back of a limo, and they agreed to horse-trade information about what the government did or did not know about possible alien craft. “He is the top reporter in Nevada,” Reid tells me. “We’ve had a partnership on this issue for 30 years, way back to when you could get made fun of for caring about it.”
From his Washington sources, Knapp became aware of the CDR Fravor/UFO encounter years before it went public. He had kept it quiet until Fravor was ready to go come forward, and claims he agreed to hold off on his scoop in exchange for more information in the future, but he also knew The New York Times could reach a larger audience.
After the Fravor revelations in 2017, Knapp was contacted by his old friend Reid. The senator asked him to give a multihour briefing to one senator who — at the time — was a presidential candidate. (I can’t tell you which one, but seven senators ran for president in 2020.)
Whatever was said clearly made an impression. This summer, Sen. Marco Rubio, now chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, added a section to the Intelligence Authorization bill for 2021, in which he asked for the creation of an agency that would gather up all nonclassified UFO info in the Pentagon and hand it over to Congress, and eventually to the public.
Knapp now receives more than 800 emails a day from seekers and those who want to tell their stories. People accost him at urinals and show up at his work. There was the man who flew in from Australia and begged Knapp to tell the aliens to let him be, and the buxom woman who informed Knapp that she had been abducted while giving a blowjob and was told by aliens to get her breasts enlarged.
“From what I could see, she took their advice,” Knapp tells me.
The conversation drops to a reverent level with Knapp in our midst. A mild man, Knapp begins talking about his experiences with some prompting. He describes how he has been ridiculed for taking this stuff so seriously. “The public can’t get enough of it, and reporters can’t stop ripping me for it,” he says, sipping some water.
It’s not just skeptics that have attacked Knapp and his protégé Corbell. There is a significant component of the UFO crowd who think Lazar is a fraud and that Knapp and Corbell are dupes. “There’s no other movement better at devouring their own than the UFO community,” says Knapp. “The government doesn’t even need to do it, we do it to ourselves.”
The conversation turns to a discussion of why the government has kept quiet on the UFO issue. “I think there was a real fear for years in government that they felt the public couldn’t handle the news and it would lead to the break down of society,” theorizes Knapp. “And now they’ve been doing it for so long and dug such a hole with lies and deception, they don’t know how to dig themselves out.”
The RV door flies open again, and a Brit in green cords and a red velour jacket piles in. Knapp looks at the new visitor as if he is an actual alien. It is Paul Oakenfold, the legendary electronic music DJ. A mysterious friend of Corbell’s hooked the two up, and now Oakenfold is standing in Corbell’s trailer, looking a little confused. I try to explain to Knapp that Oakenfold produced the Happy Mondays’ seminal Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches. This does not help.
Oakenfold mentions that he has done shows in odd places, from the Great Wall of China to Stonehenge. He cops to being UFO curious. “Yeah, I believe there is something else out there besides us — how could there not be?” he says.
He grins a bit and jerks his finger toward the stage: “Of course, I thought there would be more people here, but we’ll do a good show.”
Corbell looks embarrassed. Then someone in the trailer chimes in that the first Burning Man had only eight attendees. Corbell’s eyes brighten. It is now past eight, and it’s time to hit the stage.
The desert sun is gone and a cool wind sweeps through the dust. Corbell takes the stage and surveys the skeleton crew, which includes one man/alien in a way too tight green suit. I wander into the crowd and start counting. There are about 150 people here if you include vendors.
“We have craft of unknown origin flying in our airspace with impunity at all times,” shouts Corbell above the wind. He looks like an Old Testament prophet trying to get the attention of wasted pagans. “They’re technologically more advanced than anything that we have in this country.”
He senses he is losing the audience. A smile crosses his face.
“We’re going to do this every year. Tonight, you’re, like, at the first Burning Man.”
Suwanna does her rap, and then Oakenfold comes out. He does a cosmic set that has the dozens in the audience entranced. After the show, a slightly sloshed Oakenfold throws a good-natured arm around my shoulder. Sweating booze, he hectors me about Rolling Stone’s coverage of his genre, but then smiles and gestures toward the few stragglers left in the dirt. He slurs in a London accent, “Man, that was weird. I gotta get back to L.A.”
Corbell cuts me a break and lets me bunk in his RV. Ever the gracious host, he leaves a Xanax on my pillow. By morning, his disappointment about last night is gone. Today, we are heading to the gates of Area 51. Corbell takes the passenger seat in my SUV and installs a GoPro camera on the dash to record his trip, while Foley and Niles sit in the back. On our way, we see a bloated carcass of a black steer. Cattle mutilation has been a staple of alien study for decades, with multiple reports of cows stripped of meat and muscle by unexplained marauders.
“They’re perfectly cut like someone has butchering equipment,” says Corbell. “Some people think it’s another example of aliens wanting us to know they’re here.” He pauses for a second. “Come out to my house in the California desert, and I’ll show a perfectly serrated cowhide that someone sent me. It’s in my freezer. You just can’t mention where I live, I’ve had some issues.
We take a right onto an organ-jangling dirt road. “As soon as you turn on the road, the military has visual and facial recognition of you,” warns Corbell. This makes me nervous. About 15 miles of dust later, we see a nondescript gate guarded not by military cops but Nevada Highway Patrol. It is no more secure than your mom’s 55-and-over community in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The police are very friendly.
“It’s a 12-hour shift — it gets a little monotonous,” says a beefy cop. “Nothing really happens.”
Corbell, perhaps sensing my disappointment, chimes in: “Yeah, but if you stepped past the gate, soldiers would come out of nowhere.”
We don’t do that. Instead, we pile back into the Blazer and pass around Wheat Thins. At that moment, my existential angst slides into the danger zone. A talented comedian, a well-known TV reporter, Paul Oakenfold, Corbell and myself have spent a weekend in the dust so we can stare at a military-base gate where maybe 50 miles away something or nothing might have happened years ago. Didn’t we have anything better to do with our dwindling years? At one point, I had much higher hopes for myself.
My mood darkens further as we head back to base camp. Then, Corbell grabs my arm. “Come to California,” he says. “There’s so much more to show you.”
I have my doubts.
I received an email shortly before arriving at the offices of To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science, a for-profit UFO-centric organization that launched in 2015. Somehow, TTSA got wind of my desert trip and inquired whether this was a serious story. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that TTSA had no interest in having their photographs running next to tinfoil-hat-wearing goofs selling UFO trinkets in the desert.
This was weird because TTSA is the brainchild of Tom DeLonge, one of the founders of the band Blink-182, whose classic album is entitled Enema of the State. DeLonge quit the band to become a UFO evangelist.
DeLonge has publicly stated that the aircraft that crashed outside of Roswell in 1947 was a co-production of aliens and Nazi scientists who escaped to Argentina. He also suggested that the reason the Cold War never went “hot” was because the Soviets and Americans had a secret alliance to protect the Earth from interlopers from other galaxies.
Then, DeLonge pivoted. Over the past two years, he has toned down the crazy talk and is now a shining example of the mainstreaming of UFO thought. I sit down with him in the TTSA’s hip, open-air offices in Encinitas, outside of San Diego. DeLonge is charming but makes it clear that he wants to steer clear of his earlier statements — many of which were expressed on an October 2017 episode of Joe Rogan’s ubiquitous podcast.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” DeLonge says. “I don’t think it’s relevant.”
Talking to other sources, DeLonge’s Rogan interview killed his credibility with more serious UFO scholars and he was forced to do some image rehabilitation. DeLonge admits that he has to be more circumspect with his words now that the TTSA has shareholders and SEC monitors. “Oh, my God, very much so,” DeLonge tells me. Wearing a track jacket, jeans, and a Ford cap, he smiles and points a finger toward his sister Kari, TTSA’s press rep, sitting about 20 feet away on the patio outside his office. “I’m extremely constrained. Why do you think she’s here?”
How DeLonge and TTSA found themselves as a safe space for pilots confessing that they saw UAPs is a surreal story of Pentagon spooks, clandestine meetings, and a series of trips down the eight-lane highway of rabbit holes that make up DeLonge’s brain.
DeLonge has long been a believer in everything that has ever been covered in a Twilight Zone episode. He remembers glomming on to the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs on a forced library visit while growing up in nearby Poway. He read voraciously about UFOs on the long van rides during Blink-182’s early days. In 1999, the band recorded the track “Aliens Exist.” Sometimes he’d ask his bandmates to get high and go with him to look for UFOs. Sometimes they indulged him, but not when DeLonge suggested they get high and search for Bigfoot.
He tells me that he had his own personal alien encounter while camping out in the California desert. He was in his sleeping bag when he heard a chorus of voices.
“I heard hundreds of voices, and that was about it,” says DeLonge. “The wild thing was I remember a big gap in my memory. One of my friends heard all the voices, but the other guy slept through the whole thing.”
DeLonge has always been a salesman, whether he was selling audio juvenilia or starting Strange Times, a now-defunct website that served as a one-stop conspiracy-theory resource. The plans got more sophisticated as he grew older, with a skate-gear enterprise and a business to help bands like Pearl Jam sell more merchandise. He started TTSA as a for-profit entertainment company with an emphasis on UFOs and unexplained phenomena. There is a script about skateboarders-turned-paranormal-private-detectives; it is, as they say in Hollywood, in development.
T-shirts were sold, and DeLonge co-wrote a 700-page thriller called Sekret Machines: Chasing Shadows that mixes fiction and fact, including a section on DeLonge’s theory that Nazis in Argentina caused the Roswell crash.
While DeLonge dodges questions about some of his more outlandish theories, he doesn’t back away from this one.
“The Germans going down to South America — there’s movies about that,” DeLonge tells me. “There are historical documents about that. Everyone knows about a lot of that stuff … Juan Peron and sheltering Nazis.” (Ex-Nazis fleeing to South America is true. What isn’t true is that there is any evidence that a cabal of them escaped to Argentina and, with alien technology, launched a spacecraft.)
Rock stars that defy the long odds to become millionaires often think they can overcome long odds in other endeavors. DeLonge has actually accomplished his goal. He wanted to build an influential and profitable UFO empire and asked George Knapp for counsel on how to approach government bigwigs about his beliefs.
Knapp offered up some advice on how to proceed. He suggested telling the government that DeLonge could help them dig out of the hole that came with denying UFOs for decades.
From there, it gets a little oblique. DeLonge attended an open house for Lockheed, the designer of classified superplanes, including the Stealth Bomber and the 3,000-mph SR-71 Blackbird. That led to another meeting with a Lockheed official in a building described by DeLonge as being guarded by serious-looking men. Whirring white-noise machines shrouded conversations.
DeLonge gave Knapp’s pitch and was met with silence. He told me that he thought he’d blown it until he received an email suggesting he fly to Washington and meet a CIA official near the Pentagon. That led to further meetings with NASA and, according to DeLonge, two days of voluntary questioning by government officials at a San Diego hotel not far from DeLonge’s home.
“It was friendly, but they wanted to know what I knew,” says DeLonge with a wry smile.
This all sounded like nonsense to most non-conspiracy folk. But then Wikileaks bailed DeLonge out. (Stay with me!) Wikileaks published hacked emails from the Democratic Party’s server prior to the 2016 election and among the victims were Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, who had also been an adviser to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Most importantly, Podesta was on the record as UFO curious. The hacks included two emails from DeLonge to Podesta. The first, from 2015, suggested that DeLonge had interviewed Podesta and included a boast and a request:
Things are moving with the project. The Novels, Films and NonFiction works are blooming and finishing. Just had a preliminary meeting with Spielberg’s Chief Operating Officer at DreamWorks. More meetings are now on the books — I would like to bring two very “important” people out to meet you in DC.
The next one was sent to Podesta in January 2016 and suggested that DeLonge had been in contact with Air Force Gen. William McCasland, the recent commanding officer of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, long rumored by UFO completists as the home of the alien spacecraft that crashed in Roswell. He implied McCasland was close to going public with new information:
He just has to say that out loud, but he is very, very aware — as he was in charge of all of the stuff. When Roswell crashed, they shipped it to the laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. General McCasland was in charge of that exact laboratory up to a couple years ago.
The emails turned DeLonge into a made man in the UFO world. Sure, he had already befriended former CIA and defense officials, including Christopher Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of intelligence, but the emails proffered credibility, a suggestion that at least part of his kooky cloak-and-dagger tale was true. (Not that it has made TTSA profitable; a 2019 SEC report suggested the company is in debt.) Mellon now works for TTSA.
“It basically validated me to the whole world because everyone thought I was crazy up to that point,” DeLonge tells me. “Then you have The Wall Street Journal writing about it, and people were saying, ‘Oh, my God.’”
He smiles and shrugs his shoulders: “I think it all happened the way it was supposed to happen. The universe set up what it set up.”
The next day, I sit in on a meeting of TTSA’s board of directors. Everyone is there except DeLonge. Amid the ex-CIA and Lockheed higher-ups there is Mellon, a buttoned-up man in a sports jacket, and Luis Elizondo, a beefy former Department of Defense spy in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a Yankees cap.
When we meet, it has been two years since The New York Times broke the news about the Fravor-Tic Tac video, and the TTSA’s attempt to get Washington to take it seriously isn’t going so well. There’s been one significant victory: The Pentagon instituted a new reporting system that would not stigmatize military personnel for simply reporting what they saw.
Capitol Hill has been a tougher nut to crack. Attempts to schedule either a public or private hearing with actually elected officials have gone nowhere. (The attempts have grinded to a halt during the pandemic.)
“It’s still the same resistance,” says Mellon, with a sigh. “There are people in Congress who’ve had experiences with a UAP, but they’re still reluctant to come forward. At the very least, they should care that something is invading our airspace. But they’re afraid of what the committee chairman is going to think of them.”
Elizondo pulls out a deck of cards that pilots use to memorize the markings of every plane and helicopter they might run into on a sortie. “Pilots are taught to recognize everything,” he says. They know the planes. They knows MiGs, they know Chinese fighters. Then they see something they don’t recognize, and people don’t take it seriously. It’s unbelievable.”
(Mellon says that some of the skepticism has vanished in the past month. “Things have changed markedly at DoD and on the Hill since we talked,” he says. “DoD and the Intelligence Community now actually seem to be engaged at the highest levels, and Congress has taken action by requesting an all-source report in the [new] Intelligence Authorization Act.)
While Mellon works in the shadows, Elizondo is the breakout star of UFO 2020. The son of a Cuban exile, Elizondo grew up in Miami and enlisted in the army after college graduation. He soon transferred to the Department of Defense, performing counterintelligence. He found himself in Kandahar after 9/11, serving under Col. Jim Mattis, who eventually served as Trump’s first defense secretary. According to DeLonge, Mattis saved Elizondo’s life, a story that Elizondo would neither confirm nor deny.
After some combat tours, Elizondo found himself at the Pentagon, “flying a desk,” a.k.a. managing various Pentagon programs. In 2008, he was interviewed multiple times by senior defense officials about a new program. Eventually, they asked him what he thought about UFOs.
“I told them I don’t think about UFOs,” Elizondo tells me. “I don’t have the time or luxury to think about it. I’m too worried about catching bad guys.”
They prodded further, and Elizondo said he had no opinion because he had no data. He was still given the job (the job’s description remained vague but it largely centered around investigating unidentified aircraft to make sure the Russians and Chinese were not jumping ahead of American aviation technology). In 2010, according to Elizondo, he took over the Pentagon program that was called AATIP, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
AATIP had been funded at the urging of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, whose interest in the subject had been jolted by his conversations with the ubiquitous Knapp and mutual friend Robert Bigelow, who had devoted a commercial-real-estate fortune into extraterrestrial research.
Reid convinced two mainstays of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens, to appropriate $22 million to Bigelow’s research lab for the study of unidentified craft. (Stevens was an easy mark since he had been obsessed with UFOs since seeing one while an Air Force pilot during World War II.)
Elizondo found himself running the AATIP desk at the Pentagon. For five years, Elizondo accrued data that included three videos of navy pilots encountering UAPs. The two most crucial ones were the Nimitz-Tic Tac video and 2015 footage of the Gimbal, a rounder UAP moving toward jets off the USS Roosevelt in the Atlantic.
Based on the data, Elizondo thought it was time to brief his old friend Jim Mattis, who was now U.S. secretary of defense. Elizondo and Mellon worked all their contacts, but couldn’t even get a meeting about scheduling a meeting. Mattis’ aides thought the issue was radioactive and didn’t want their boss to be linked with the subject.
Elizondo became so frustrated that he resigned from the Department of Defense in October 2017, writing in his farewell memo that “the department must take serious the many accounts by the Navy and other services of unusual aerial interfering with military weapon platforms. Underestimating or ignoring these potential threats is not in the interest of the department no matter the political contention.”
Before leaving the Pentagon, he navigated Pentagon bureaucracy and had the pilots videos declassified. The footage was scrubbed of sensitive detail so that it could be released to the public.
This is where it gets sketchy. Elizondo joined the TTSA just a few days after he resigned from the Pentagon. He appeared onstage with DeLonge and other TTSA colleagues for a press conference where it was announced that he was joining the team and that TTSA was morphing from just an entertainment thing to a research and development business looking to get to the bottom of UAP sightings and develop advanced aircraft based on any and all alien technology. The timing seemed as hinky as one of the photos presented by the TTSA at its roll-out, which UFO activists quickly pointed out was not footage shot from a Navy plane but rather a giant #1 birthday balloon that titillated sky watchers in England.
No matter. The History Channel commissioned a TTSA show called Unidentified that largely centered on Elizondo convincing reluctant military personnel to go on the record and tell their stories of UFO encounters. Much of it has an uncomfortable reality-TV feel. One episode features an account of a 2014 sighting of a UFO over Chile that has been long debunked as a civilian airliner.
In another scene, Elizondo is on his way to interview a Navy pilot who is supposedly reluctant to talk and is stashed in a seedy motel outside Boston. However, he must have not been too nervous because after Elizondo knocks on the door, the next shot is from inside the room as the pilot is opening the door. The pilot had already let a camera crew into his room.
The “scared” aviator was Lt. Ryan Graves, who had recently separated from the Navy and made himself available to The New York Times and various podcasts. The omnipresent History Channel put me in contact with him. In 2015, Graves’ squadron, the VFA-11 Red Rippers, was flying their Hornets off the coast of Virginia Beach, where they were stationed. Their planes had just upgraded from APG-73 radar to APF-79 radar, a significant technological jump. Now, in American airspace, the Red Rippers began picking up cubelike images that hovered and held their position despite high winds, something no aircraft can do.
“The first thought was ‘Why are all these objects in our working area either hovering at standstill or going against the wind,’” Graves tells me. The squadron had their new radar checked out, and there were no glitches. “We went from thinking it’s a radar malfunction to there are physical objects out there, and it’s a problem.”
A few months later, two of Graves’ fellow pilots were flying in formation when the cube came at them, splitting between them, close enough that both pilots thought a crash was imminent.
“My friend came back with a look of shock on his face,” remembers Graves. “He almost hit one of those goddamn things.”
The pilot filed a mishap report, required after any near crash, and the squadron’s skipper passed it up the chain of command. There was no response. The Red Rippers boarded the USS Roosevelt headed to the Middle East for missions over Syria. They didn’t see the cubes while transiting, but once they hit the Persian Gulf, the cubes reappeared.
Graves and his buddies would quietly talk about the incidents in the squadron ready room, but not in public. It wasn’t until the Elizondo-assisted release of the videos that Graves thought of going public. He didn’t talk to his fellow pilots because he knew they would tell him not to stick his neck out. The fact that he was leaving the military made it easier. After going public, the TTSA set up meetings between Graves and low-level congressional staff, but nothing came of it.
“The best-case scenario, in my mind, if something went wrong was that someone was going to have a midair collision with one of these objects and we’re going to potentially lose two lives and an $80 million aircraft,” says Graves. “The more practical scenario is that it could potentially be a foreign power that is sitting off our coast where we fly some of our most advanced jets on a daily basis, soaking up our waveforms, our frequencies, our comms, our tactics.”
He trails off and doesn’t describe his worst-case situation. While Graves is happy that the Pentagon has instituted a new guilt-free reporting system, he’s not certain things will change. He says the sightings are ongoing.
“I have a friend who had an issue with one of these objects at very close range, probably about seven months ago,” says Graves. The friend said he reported it and sat down with a Department of Defense official.
“The process seems to be working,” says Graves. “But what they do with the data, I don’t know.”
Not all UFO experts are as enamored with Graves’ and Fravor’s testimonies.
“It is true pilots are trained to recognize other aircraft,” says Seth Shostak with the Seti Institute. “They have to be good at recognizing aircraft, and they will judge something that they don’t recognize first as being an aircraft.” He chuckles for a second. “This is called an argument from authority. These guys are trained pilots, but they’re not trained to recognize alien craft. It’s like saying a cruise-line captain is really great at recognizing giant squid on the bottom of the ocean.”
Shostak also thinks it is weird that civilian pilots haven’t seen the Tic Tac or the Gimbal. “We have a lot of radars around airports,” he says. “There are 100,000 flights every day in the world. They’d all be grounded if there were something flying up there that didn’t file a flight plan. I find that curious.”
Back in Encinitas, skeptics and Department of Defense officials have pilloried Elizondo since his hooking up with the TTSA. Defense officials first said he didn’t run AATIP, and then said he did, and last announced that AATIP existed but didn’t actually have a UFO component.
“I was terribly disappointed,” Sen. Reid tells me. “They started to attack him personally. I thought it was very unfortunate. They wanted to discredit him and make it seem like he didn’t know what he was talking about. And that’s far from the truth. He’s not in this to make a buck. He is a public servant.”
Elizondo hasn’t changed his story, and says his hand in releasing the Tic Tac and Gimbal videos and his joining TTSA was just a coincidence. He theorizes the Pentagon is pissed that he went public. I can’t say definitively whether he ran AATIP or not, but I was shown dozen of emails from Elizondo to senior Pentagon officials about the program. The emails strongly suggest he was intricately involved, whether he was the head or not.
TTSA has been hit hard on other credibility fronts as well. DeLonge announced earlier this year that TTSA had purchased six pieces of metal, whose atomic composition seemed not of this Earth. (In The New York Times, they had been melodramatically described as unknown aluminum alloys being stored in a Vegas warehouse.) The cost was a mere $35,000, which is the first sign not to take TTSA’s breathless announcement too seriously. It was purchased from Linda Moulton Howe, a longtime UFO journalist/gadfly. The providence of the metal is straight out of an X-Files spec script: It was sent to conspiracy radio host Art Bell decades ago by the grandson of a man who claimed to have recovered it from a crashed alien craft outside White Sands, New Mexico.
DeLonge promised to have it tested by TTSA scientist Dr. Harold Puthoff, who once was a proponent of the psychic powers of noted spoon bender Uri Geller. DeLonge said he would get back to his followers very soon. So far, no data had been released.
Alas, our old friend Jeremy Corbell has already tested some of the metal.
“Maybe their testing will be more complex, but I tested and didn’t find any evidence,” says Corbell. He chuckles at DeLonge’s promise that metals like the one being tested would eventually allow TTSA to harness alien technology and build their own craft: “I support Tom and TTSA, but they ain’t gonna build a spaceship.”
For his part, Elizondo isn’t convinced yet that the UAPs are actually alien craft. He says he needs more data. Still, as we part, he tells me it is kind of a big deal.
“The last time mankind was told a story like this, they wrote the gospels,” said Elizondo with great solemnity. “This is a paradigm moment for all of mankind.”
Meanwhile, the AATIP program went away. Funding ended as no legislator wanted to be the one to ask for federal money to look for UFOs. The stigma around extraterrestrial life still exists in official Washington. Reid is not amused. “You know the Chinese are looking into it,” he says. “Putin and Russia are studying it. We’re doing nothing. It’s a mistake.”
There is one more stop I have to make.
Jeremy Corbell had put in a good word for me and said George Knapp would see me at his Las Vegas home. “You’ve got to go,” urged Corbell. “He doesn’t let many people see what he has there.”
So I fly to Vegas and meet Corbell at a diner with video poker and one-armed slots. Knapp is running late and arrives offering apologies.
“I was interviewing John Fogerty,” says Knapp. “He knew who I was, and he’s had experiences. He had a recurring dream as a kid that he was flying over his house. Now, he thinks he might have been abducted by something.”
Makes sense if you know the CCR song “It Came Out of the Sky”:
Oh, it came out of the sky
Landed just a little south of Moline.
Jody fell out of his tractor,
couldn’t believe what he seen.
We drive a mile to Knapp’s house in the desert hills. We go to the lower level where thousands of books about UFOs fill shelves next to statues of Emmys and Peabodys that Knapp has won for his television work. Knapp’s cat Freya, rescued by Knapp from the trunk of a car broiling in a casino parking lot, stretches lazily over documents marked “declassified.” We sit down at a table stacked high with boxes of files. Many of the papers are in Russian, from a trip Knapp took to Russia during Glasnost. Turns out there were Russian UFO research teams willing to talk. After the rise of Putin, the doors slammed shut. “Everyone I talked to before either denied talking to me or wouldn’t meet with me again,” he tells me.
Knapp has endless stories like this. There was the woman who was going to confirm Bob Lazar’s story until she was followed by men in a sedan who told her it would be a shame if her daughter had “an accident.” Lazar began hearing strange clicks on his phone. Meanwhile, Knapp’s sources were visited by spooks minutes after their conversation ended.
Knapp never expects Disclosure, the day when Washington confirms his reporting.
“I think much of this is true,” he says. “The government has been denying it for so long, they don’t know how to come clean.” And even if it isn’t 100 percent factual, Knapp says, it doesn’t really matter: “It really doesn’t make a difference whether someone like Bob Lazar is telling the truth. Area 51 is now installed in our culture.”
Later, Knapp makes an admission. Despite numerous trips to the desert around Area 51 and to places known for paranormal activity, Knapp admits he’s seen nothing.
“My joke is that every time the aliens see me coming, they head the other way,” Knapp tells me. He looks terribly sad.
The next day, armed with copies of Knapp’s documents, Corbell and I drive from Vegas to his home in California. On the drive, he tells me of growing up the middle son of an importer-exporter whose business was so secretive it gave him a head start in conspiratorial thinking. “Was it legal or illegal? Who knows?” he says.
We arrive at his midcentury home after dark and are greeted by his three-legged husky, Lucky. Corbell disappears into the house and then emerges with an apology.
“I swear to you my wife exists, but she’s not feeling well,” he says.
By now, I was wondering if anything Corbell had told me was true. We adjourn to his man cave, a lush and comfortable separate apartment from the main house, where his wife would leave food outside the door while he was editing his film. “This is my headquarters,” says Corbell proudly. On the wall are various lists of UFO projects and various documents, including one claiming that Los Alamos National Laboratory has no record of Lazar.
“We disproved that,” says Corbell. “He was found in a different directory because he worked as a contractor.”
Corbell later opens his freezer and theatrically pulls out a FedEx package. This is one of the things he wanted to show me. Inside is a small piece of hide from a mutilated bull that a fan sent him.
“See how the hide is cut so smoothly?” says Corbell. “That’s not from an animal. Some people think maybe that’s from a machine or something we don’t have on Earth.”
He switches on his desktop computer. “I have all my files saved on servers in six different states and carry another copy with me at all times,” he tells me. (Corbell carries another copy of his file in an omnipresent cumbersome backpack.) He shows me a photo of a silver disc floating in the desert.
“Somebody’s son sent me that — he just wants to answer what this is before his dad dies,” Corbell says while vigorously scratching his whiskers. “That’s all people are looking for: answers.”
He turns on Alexa and asks me to play some songs. I didn’t choose anything obscure — Oasis, the Strokes, the Killers — but Corbell nods his head with excitement: “These are amazing.”
He professes to not have heard any of the modern-rock standards. This is particularly odd since Corbell had been a drummer in a Southern California band for years. I realize that Corbell’s bandwidth has no room for anything that isn’t UFO-related.
There is nothing left to do but take some ‘shrooms.
Corbell brings out a bag and measures me out a small dose.
“I just want you to be giggling and maybe see some things you might not otherwise see,” he says.
We are halfway to the backyard when the drugs kick in. Corbell chatters about the times he has been visited by government officials, ostensibly so he could provide recommendations for friends applying for sensitive jobs, but he doesn’t rule out that they could be keeping tabs on him.
“The feds showed up at our place for an interview and my wife was alone — I told them, ‘Not cool.’”
Last month, Corbell and Knapp spoke to Joe Rogan for three hours about the states of art of UFOs. For a while, it was the top-ranked podcast in the country. It was all happening. The same week, The New York Times came out with a new story announcing that the Pentagon had started the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force, a program similar to Elizondo’s Pentagon mission. It would, eventually, release its findings to the public.
“It no longer has to hide in the shadows,” Mr. Elizondo told the paper. “It will have a new transparency.”
Still, the bombshell in the story was a quote from Harry Reid saying he believed that crashes of objects of unknown origin had occurred and wreckage had been studied for decades.
Alas, the next day the paper published a whopper of a correction: Reid had actually said crashes of objects of unknown origin might have occurred and that retrieved materials should be studied, uh, if they exist. I could almost hear the UFO-movement theme song playing sad trombones.
Oh well. Corbell has no doubts. He keeps me updated over the next nine months, texting me with plots and adventures, including a new investigation — details could not be disclosed. “It’s either a bombshell that will change the way we think about the UFO topic, or I’m being played, by very serious people, and it’s a big fucking fraud they want me to repeat publicly. It’s my challenge to figure out which.”
But that was in the future. Back in Corbell’s back yard, we stare at the stars. I enter a hallucinogenic dreamscape peering into the galaxies for my own answers. Suddenly, Corbell grabs my arm: “Look at the light!”
I scanned the skies until Corbell yanks my collar and points toward the house. There is a light. A shadowy figure can be barely made out. Then the light gets brighter. A woman in a robe is guzzling juice from a bottle. It is Corbell’s wife, a.k.a. the Yeti.
“I told you she existed!”
In that moment I believe.