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Nevada, Area 51 and UFOs: Myth No More?

Dan Callister/Getty Images

Don't go there: A warning sign marks the boundary of Area 51 in Nevada.

For decades, the topic of UFOs was really something to stay away from for military personnel who might see something they don’t understand, or for journalists, who might be ridiculed for pursuing something considered a fringe conspiracy theory.

Only very recently has that changed. And some people in Las Vegas have a lot to do with that.

George Knapp, an investigative journalist at KLAS-TV Channel 8 in Las Vegas, has been looking into the phenomenon of UFOs, Area 51 and other paranormal activity for 30 years.

But, he told KNPR's State of Nevada that it wasn't until 2017, when the New York Times published a report about the government's secret program to investigate military sightings of unidentified objects and released video showing what pilots had caught on camera, that everything changed.  

"Right now, though, is maybe the most exciting period in all the time that I've followed it, starting with the December 2017 New York Times story that changed things on a fundamental level," he said, "It changed the media environment, which is very exciting."

He noted that reporting on UFOs before the New York Times article didn't help a journalist's career.

Reporting UFO sightings could also be a career killer for men and women in the military. But now even that has changed, at least in the Navy.

Last month, the Navy announced it would encourage pilots to report UFO sighings; that it wouldn't hurt their military careers.

Knapp said the change is remarkable.

"It is amazing," he said, "This topic has been poison for the military for so long. You basically couldn't trust anything that was said."

Knapp said the release of the official Department of Defense UFO videos sparked all kinds of interest from people in government. He said at first it was just congressional staffers asking questions about what was real and what wasn't. 

"They started interviewing Navy pilots, the aviators themselves, very credible people, credible witnesses, who had backup data, radar data, about these encounters."

He added that those encounters, his sources tell him, are underway "on an almost daily basis" off the coast of eastern United States.

Now, members of Congress are asking questions about military encounters.

Army Col. John Alexander (ret.) has been tracking and studying UFOs for longer than Knapp. He said a study he did 30 years ago came to the same conclusions that more recent studies have found.

"My guesstimate is that there is about 6,000 flag-grade officers between the time of Blue Book [a project in the '50s and '60s by the U.S. Air Force to study UFOs] and now,  probably, 7 to 10 percent of them have actually seen UFOs. So, my question has been really: Why hasn't there been more studies?"

Alexander acknowledged it has not been a good military career move to report UFO encounters. In addition, he said there are factions within the Pentagon with strong religious beliefs that didn't want to see this kind of study.

"The religious issue has popped up in more than one area of phenomena where they've come out and said, 'Hey, you can do that but it's the work of the devil - hands off,'" he said.

The idea that these unidentified craft might pose a security threat, he added, is one elected officials are starting to grapple with. No one knows what they really are. 

"Since this current media wave has started, I've seen at least a hundred interviews with skeptics and debunkers and some ufologist who don't like all the attention that it's getting... and they all say the same thing, 'Well just because they're unidentified doesn't mean they're space aliens.' Well - Duh!" Knapp said. 

Knapp speculated about where the craft might come from, but concluded that no one has enough information right now to say anything with certainty.


George Knapp, reporter, KLAS-TV Channel 8; Col. John Alexander (ret.), U.S. Army; author

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.