Do you believe in unidentified flying objects, or UFOs? Have you ever seen a flying saucer? In 2019, a large spike in UFO reports are leaving some scratching their heads.
According to a Gallup survey conducted in 2019, one-third of Americans report believing that some UFO sightings are alien in origin, coming from another planet entirely. But a higher number, two-thirds of Americans, believe that the government knows more about UFOs but is keeping a lid on their secrets. 16% claim to have personally seen something they thought was a UFO. 
UFOs – an age old phenomenon
The concept of UFOs has been around for centuries. The first ever UFO sighting in America was reported by John Winthrop on March 1st, 1639. Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, penned a written report of an incident that vexed and alarmed local English immigrants.
James Everell, who Winthrop wrote was considered widely to be a “sober, discreet man” and two associates were rowing a boat through the Muddy River when they saw a great light in the night sky.
“When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square,” Winthrop wrote, “when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine.” 
Everell reported that for several hours, this bright light darted quickly between the location of their boat and the nearby village of Charlestown. “Diverse other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place,” Winthrop noted. The three men relayed that their boat seemed to mysteriously move them about 1 mile upstream from their presumed location during the event, suggesting that perhaps the light had moved them without them knowing.
UFO reports can mostly be explained
Today, UFOs can be frequently explained away as experimental aircraft or drones, but in 1639, anything that could be considered an aircraft would have to be manned by something other than, well, man. But skeptics of the tale note that the light may have been caused by “ignis fatuus,” otherwise known as “swamp gas.”
Gases released by decomposing organic matter in swampy areas can ignite, producing light in the night sky. But the puritans who experienced this light said it darted “as swift as an arrow” back and forth over approximately a two mile stretch of land.
Modern UFO stories began to surface in the mid 20th century beginning with a story relayed by Kenneth Arnold. Arnold, an amateur pilot from Idaho, reports seeing a bright flash of light, like the glint of the sun hitting his mirror and angled just right to beam him in the eyes, while flying his small CallAir A-2 aircraft over Mineral, Washington on June 24, 1947. 
He thought at first that the light may have been the sun reflected off a DC-4 which was flying about 15 miles away from him at the time. Then he saw the lights again, this time a series of nine. He reported that the objects he saw flew in “a diagonally stepped down, echelon formation” stretched over the distance of about 5 miles. The aircraft weaved side to side and occasionally flipped and banked.
UFO reports on the rise
Arnold’s report would kick off a sort of social firestorm. The term “UFO” entered the American lexicon in a big way. Even now, thousands of UFO sightings are reported every year. But 2019 was an exceptional year. In that year, 5,971 UFO sightings were reported, which is up from just 3,395 in 2018.
“One of the mysteries of ufology is there is a fluctuation in the number of reports over the years,” Peter Davenport, who runs the independent organization The National UFO Reporting Center, told ABC News in a phone interview. “Some years it’s been low, but it’s gotten higher recently.” 
California had more UFO sightings than any other state in the US.
There was some pushback on the idea that these objects are actually unidentified, however. Rick Fienberg, a spokesman for the American Astronomical Society, told ABC News that many people simply aren’t aware of celestial events taking place in our night sky and can confuse Jupiter and Venus, which were unusually bright in 2019, with UFOs.
“If you’re not keeping up with the news and not familiar with the skyline, you might mistakenly see an unidentified flying object. It may be unidentified to you, but known to others,” Fienberg said.
- “Americans Skeptical of UFOs, but Say Government Knows More.” Gallup. Lydia Saad. Accessed December 1, 2020.
- “America’s First UFO Sighting.” History.com. Christopher Klein. Accessed December 1, 2020.
- “The Man Who Introduced the World to Flying Saucers.” The Atlantic. Megan Garber. Accessed December 1, 2020.
- “UFO sightings in North America jumped to nearly 6,000 in 2019.” ABC News. Ivan Pereira. Accessed December 1, 2020.