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July 19, 2021

As UFO research gains footing, a Philly man's strange sighting brings mystery and scientific caution

Alien speculation is on the rise after a government report, but a universe remains between facts and fantasies

Odd News UFO
Philly UFO Orbs Videos Max McKinnon/

A federal report delves into the possibility of UFOs, but a Philly man's mysterious sighting in the skies above the Benjamin Franklin Parkway epitomizes the ease that the unexplainable can become fantastical.

When the U.S. government released a report last month analyzing 16 years of data on UFOs, the document's findings were inconclusive, offering no evidence linking 144 unexplained sightings to alien or non-terrestrial technology.

The report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence didn't rule out the existence of UFOs – referred to in the document delivered to Congress as unidentified aerial phenomena. Instead, investigators pointed to various hypotheses that could possibly account for the unusual events. Much of their research remains classified, leaving ample room for the public's imagination to run wild.

Omissions aside, the report is a watershed moment in the intelligence community's acknowledgement of UFO research, as a matter of national security more than anything else. Whether the threat is coming from foreign adversaries with top-secret technologies, or from something much more funky, like Toejam and Earl, the federal government is now taking an open posture toward the study of unusual activity observed in the sky.

The UAP report was delivered to Congress on June 22. Six days later, in the sky above Philadelphia's Paine's Park, 36-year-old Ryan Swing had a brush with the unknown while out rollerblading.

It had been a hot Monday, approaching 90 degrees, and the sky was mostly clear. Swing was joined at the park by a group of skateboarders and BMX riders. He didn't know them, but they were about to be united by an unusual and enthralling display.

At about 7:45 p.m., Swing stopped to rest and drink some water. He laid down by himself and looked up at the sky above the Philadelphia Museum of Art and along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"As soon as I looked up, I saw all these orbs," Swing said. "They looked like – the best way I can describe it is like diamonds in the sky. It looked like 30 to 40 little diamonds just kind of sparkling in the sky. It was really pretty. I was like, 'Whoa, what is that?'"

Swing recorded the video footage in the videos below on his iPhone. It represents his best attempt to document what he and others at Paine's Park witnessed. The videos do not capture the full extent of what Swing described, and they are best viewed full-screen on a laptop or desktop computer.

As an amateur video editor, Swing used iMovie to combine the footage into two videos. He enlarged portions and varied the speed and contrast in an attempt to illustrate what was seen. The event was observed from about 7:45-8:05 p.m. The first timestamp from Swing's iPhone was 7:51 p.m.

The first video focuses primarily on one orb that Swing was able to isolate in the sky over the parkway. To the naked eye, Swing said the scene above him looked like a "sea of fish" or "white lights," but the iPhone camera only picked up some of them. The clearest and strangest moment in the first video comes around the 30-second mark, when the orb drifts to the left and then make two sudden shifts to the right. The frame is frozen at a few points to show examples of what Swing called dark, fleeting objects that zoomed across the sky at irregular intervals among the shining orbs. 

At the Franklin Institute, Dr. Derrick Pitts is the chief astronomer and director of the Fels Planetarium. He watched the video footage Swing compiled and wasn't particularly moved to read much into it. 

"This object is pretty obscure and undefinable at best. What we are trying to do right now is ascribe to an undefined object some kind of meaning. We're trying to identify it as something that we can classify," Pitts said. "The problem is that we have absolutely no context for what this thing is – none whatsoever. We have a view of some sky, we have a view of some trees. The object is at some distance. We can't really see anything definitive about the shape of this object. We can't see anything about it at all because the image is so completely undefinable. It's really, really difficult to claim anything about this at all, other than to say it looks like some kind of blob on video."

Swing lives in East Falls and visits Paine's Park two or three times per week for exercise. He's familiar with the area and said he typically can see the trajectory of planes going to and from Philadelphia International Airport. The shining orbs appeared at about twice the altitude of the usual air traffic, at least from the untrained perspectives of Swing and the other witnesses.

When Swing first observed the orbs in the sky, he couldn't contain his initial shock.

"I just started straight-up yelling. I was like, 'Yo! Do you guys see that?'" Swing said. "So then about seven or eight other skateboarder dudes come over and they're like, 'What's going on?' I said, 'Look at that! Do you see that?'"

The collective reaction from the skateboarder dudes is why Swing muted the audio in his first video. He didn't want the footage to be backed by a bunch of stunned people repeatedly shouting, "What the f***?"

"We were all amazed and yelling," Swing said. "By the end, there were about 15 of us standing around watching what looked like white orbs. They initially moved in a mass, and then they started to jump and reappear in different spots. I wondered, is one disappearing and another one comes back, or is it the same one? They just started to really sparkle in a zig-zaggy, angular movement."

Throughout the experience, Swing struggled with the existential dilemma of our age – whether to simply enjoy the spectacle or try to capture it on his smartphone. He was disappointed that his iPhone wasn't powerful enough to fully render what he was seeing.

"You know how you'll go to the Phillies game and you're like, man, these seats are awesome, and then you're like, let me take a photo, and you pull your phone out – and it looks like you're far as s*** back, even though you're close?" Swing said. "And you're like, 'This camera sucks!' It was kind of doing that thing. I was like, dude, they're right there, and I couldn't tell whether I was getting them or not."

That's the fundamental problem with this imperfect footage, a common theme among amateur recordings of phenomena in the sky. It's hard to make any kind of conclusion about something you have to squint and enlarge just to see a portion of what the eye observed. 

Swing took pains to clarify, for the record, that he's a grown, married man in his mid-30s and "not some kind of stoner," in case any skeptic out there would dismiss his experience with such a flimsy and irrelevant characterization. He would have been just fine if he had never seen this and he will be, regardless. But the desire for an explanation has gnawed at him since the event happened. 

"I'm having a really hard time communicating without sounding like a crazy alien guy, but also, at the same time, it kind of gets me fired up," Swing said. "What the f*** is it, then?"

The second video Swing made is more difficult to decipher. His camera was aimed at the sky between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Schuylkill Expressway. The best moment to examine is around the 2:37 mark, when Swing used a black and white filter. Viewers may have to watch it a few times and look closely to see several white lights swirling around in the sky in the upper part of the video. There is also a fairly clear look at the orbs around the 3:20 mark.

"When I made this, I wondered if I'm going crazy," Swing admitted.

Pitts took a look at the second video and was still reluctant to make any confident, positive claims about it. 

"I can't make these dots be whatever someone wants them to be, no matter who I ask," Pitts said. "One night I saw white dots in the sky as I was observing from the roof of the Franklin Institute. What did it turn out to be? Light reflecting off the white bellies of geese flying overhead."

Had it been night time, Pitts considered that Swing's sighting could have been Starlink satellites, a broadband internet constellation under development by SpaceX to beef up connectivity in underserved areas. These satellites don't produce light themselves, but can cast reflections under the right conditions. 

"They orbit Earth in strings of 20 or so satellites and are visible as dots traversing the sky in a line. But I discount this heavily because of the time of observation — the sky is way too bright," Pitts said. "That's as far as I'll go."

Pitts noted that these videos are "not my first time at this rodeo" of UFO observation. He knows the rabbit hole is tempting. Those who feel unsatisfied with the inherent uncertainty in the universe will naturally have a hard time resisting speculation about what these orbs are and what they probably aren't. 

The videos were recorded days before Philadelphia's Fourth of July fireworks celebration along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. City officials and representatives from Wawa Welcome America confirmed to PhillyVoice that there had been no authorized drone activity or rehearsal in the area of the parkway on the night of June 28.

Swing attended the fireworks display on July 4 and said he observed several drones that were there to capture the event.

"The drones definitely could move laterally and go up and down, but they have bright LED lights and they were comically low compared to how high the things I saw were," Swing said.

Most drones only legally can be flown at an altitude of about 400 feet, with certain exceptions for inspecting taller structures. For small drones not operated by the military, physical flight capabilities usually peak at about 13,000 feet due to their inability to generate lift in the thinner air at higher altitudes. The common cruising altitude for most commercial airplanes is between 33,000 and 42,000 feet, for reference. 

"People have drones in Paines Park and down by the Schuylkill all the time," Swing said. "You can see those drones clear as day and you can hear them. You don't see them that high. These things were way up in the air, but still bright enough for 15 people to see them with their eyes. All you could see was little diamonds bouncing around with some kind of dark thing that was going too fast to recognize what it was in real-time."

The more Swing has searched for answers, the more he's found himself mystified.

"I've always been of the mind that it would be extremely naive to think that that we're just the only things here," Swing said. "I don't believe that we're just these small things that evolved here. When I saw what I saw, it wasn't like I want to believe it was extraterrestrial. The thing that I want to convey – that you can't say without sounding crazy – is the feeling that we all had when this was happening. There was a vibe. It was very uplifting, nothing negative. It was almost euphoric, and not in a 'there's the aliens' way. We didn't know that. It just felt good – it was wonderment."

Was there a second sighting?

The footage Swing captured on June 28 isn't the first of its genre by any means – not even in Philadelphia.

In 2015, PhillyVoice shared a video a man filmed in the sky above the area of Seventh and Tioga streets in North Philadelphia. The object depicted in that video was much different, looking like a single, oddly behaving cloud drifting across the sky.

Then in April 2016, there was another strange sighting in the sky in South Philadelphia. It was a single, white mass that prompted theories that it could be a drone of some kind – possibly of military origin – or the planet Venus.

Another video filmed in New York City in 2010 shows a cluster of three bright orbs in the sky moving in a distinct, unusual pattern. The Federal Aviation Administration ruled out aircraft or helicopters, but couldn't say definitively whether the objects might be research balloons or "something else."

A more recent example of a phenomenon like this — and one that received mainstream publicity — occurred in Dayton, Ohio, and Kansas City, Missouri, in 2019, when bright objects appeared in the sky and quickly led to UFO speculation.

In an endearing tweet, the Kansas City station of the National Weather Service gave a baffled response to questions about the sightings.

Ultimately, these objects were traced to a balloon experiment by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was testing wind-borne navigation of lighter-than-air vehicles over extended ranges.

Could it be that some type of similar research is being conducted over Philadelphia?

If so, it's not a DARPA project.

"We are not currently testing any balloons or other high-stratosphere platforms (in Philadelphia)," said Jared Adams, the agency's chief of communications. Adams suggested asking several other military research labs and national agencies to see whether they might have a project of their own underway.

Prior to the publication of this article, only the U.S. Army's DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory has confirmed that it "did not have any aerial activity in the area" on June 28.

At the National Weather Service station in Mount Holly, New Jersey, forecaster Sarah Johnson said a single white dot could be consistent with a weather balloon, but said nothing of the sort came from her office. 

"Sometimes weather balloons from surrounding sites do make it into our region," Johnson said after watching Swing's video footage. "However, that would look like a single white dot, not four in close proximity."

All of these apparent dead ends make the event seem like an isolated aberration, but here's where Swing's sighting that night gets a bit more interesting.

A few days later, a post appeared on the Philadelphia subreddit describing a similar sighting by a person with no knowledge of what Swing had seen near the Parkway.

"Did anyone just see like 30 shiny things above the cloud line just now?" the poster asked. "They looked like they were reflecting the sunlight above the clouds. And hovering in the air?"

The person who posted on Reddit told PhillyVoice that he and three other witnesses saw the objects in the sky on July 3. One of them got a video as well, but said the quality was too poor to be useful. 

If these mysterious, similar events can happen at least twice in less than a week, does that tell us anything more about what it might be? Would repetition make the phenomenon more likely to be man-made or natural?

Is this an episode of "Manifest," or has Philadelphia become the summer love of some aliens in 2021?

'We have no proof'

Scientists are trained to be skeptical of sensational claims that have yet to be proven with finely calibrated and repeatable methods. It's why UFOs occupy an uncomfortable place in scientific discussion. They invite our tendency to follow intuitions based on the absence of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, rather than the presence of real proof that would grant us our boldest assertions about the universe. 

Pitts was willing to acknowledge that the orb seen in the first video appears to display some "odd motion," but he said there's simply no way to perform a rigorous analysis of the event.

Concerns about valid data are partly why the federal task force on unidentified aerial phenomena stuck to analyzing reports that were witnessed firsthand by military aviators and collected from systems deemed reliable. Among the 144 reports that were evaluated, 80 involved observation with multiple sensors. Most were described as objects that interrupted pre-planned training or other military activity.

But with cameras increasingly available to capture mysterious sights, there has been a sharp rise in reports of UFOs across the United States over the last year, according to data from the National UFO Reporting Center. Not all of them are especially interesting. Some are much stranger than what Swing saw.

"If you dig really deeply into the reports, what you find is that many of them do have an explanation. You can explain them in a logical and rational fashion," Pitts said. "There are some that are not explainable, hence the term unidentified flying object. It simply means it's not identified. To try to extend this out to alien spacecraft requires that a whole lot of new invention has to happen."

The theoretical work describing the conditions of alien space travel is a popular and worthwhile topic, but it often makes leaps beyond the level of inquiry within our solar system that would immediately apply to the serious fields of astrobiology and astrophysics at this point in time. When Pitts lays out the contingencies, it's easy to see why the conversation overshoots scientific discipline. 

"First of all, there has to be an alien civilization out there somewhere in the universe, which we have yet to identify," Pitts said. "The alien civilization has to be advanced enough to have aviation and space travel. They have to be able to travel over enormous distances of space. They have to have some sort of propulsion system that defies the currently known laws of physics. And they have to want to come and visit this planet for some reason, yet not announce themselves. We have no evidence of any of those things at all. Nothing."

I can't point to a meteorological phenomenon that would cause something that was floating in the sky to make a right-hand turn, and then seconds later another one. The atmosphere doesn't really behave like that, certainly not in those conditions." – Gary Szatkowski, retired NWS meteorologist

For this reason, Pitts tends to stay true to Carl Sagan's standard phrase from the original "Cosmos" series: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

"We have no proof, either mundane or extraordinary, to indicate that we're seeing something unusual, unnatural, extraterrestrial – any of those," Pitts said.

As Swing reflected more on what he saw above Paine's Park, he simply wanted to see if a plausible explanation might be out there, aliens aside. Maybe it was just a rare natural occurrence or a combination of unremarkable factors that created a visible event in the sky.

"The thing I kept thinking about was weather," Swing said. "If it was some kind of weather thing, then where are the other videos of this happening with a nice camera? How is it that I haven't seen an explanation for these weird orbs or diamonds in the sky?"

Multiple meteorologists contacted by PhillyVoice were unable to find an atmospheric answer that would readily account for what they saw in Swing's videos.

"I have no idea. Weird," said Paul Markowski, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University. "A now-retired meteorologist once told me, 'If you see something (in the sky/on a satellite image/on radar) that you cannot explain, the military is likely responsible for it."

A Penn State colleague of Markowski's, Eugene Clothiaux, said multiple measurements and additional observations would be needed to pin down whether the atmosphere might have had any role in what happened above the Parkway. That would not only include well-defined images, but radar and analysis of the air in the vicinity of such objects.

"To become really compelling, reproducibility of the observations by different, independently acting individuals across time and/or space would be helpful," Clothiaux said.

Without multiple data points to assess from multiple events, Clothiaux said an important aspect of unexplained science is holding a place of respect for ambiguity. 

The weather theory for the event in Philadelphia was further considered by Gary Szatkwoski, a retired meteorology consultant who formerly served as the head of the National Weather Service's Mount Holly station. Szatkowski, who often shares his weather insights on Twitter, was especially thrown off by the shifting movement of the orb in the first of Swing's videos.

"Nothing really comes to mind that lends itself to meteorological phenomona. You kind of look at it, you see it drift along, and then all of a sudden it makes a right hand turn and then another right hand turn, and I'm like, OK, now that's got my attention," Szatkowski said. "I can't point to anything meteorological."

Szatkowski doesn't believe the event witnessed at the Parkway was the result of an optical illusion or a mirage that would be caused by the interplay of light, water, wind or other known atmospheric forces.

"Those typically are close to the horizon, and they typically have to do with some strong daytime heating or some type of temperature inversion," he said. "Certainly it was a warm summer day, but these videos both look to be well up into the sky, nowhere close to the horizon, so it's hard to point to anything as a mirage sort of behavior or something that looks displaced. A mirage could be a ship that looks like it's floating above the level of the water and that's due to a temperature inversion over the ocean that literally displaces the physical feature."

What about lights from the ground, like we sometimes see when a car dealership casts spotlights into the sky?

"When you see those lights, it's usually hazy conditions. If you have clouds in the sky, then the spotlight can hit the bottom of the cloud," Szatkowski said. "But that doesn't look like what was going on there."

There are some esoteric natural phenomena that remain poorly understood, but even they don't really seem to apply to Swing's observations, Szatkowski said

"Toward the edge of meteorology, there's things like ball lightning and stuff. Lightning can do some very strange things, but you have to have a storm around," Szatkowski said. "There were clearly no storms anywhere in the vicinity of these videos. There's stories from pilots of literally glowing balls of light that dance on the wings of aircraft, but the criteria you need is a storm."

The movement of the orbs in Swing's videos don't line up very well with the way wind would work at that elevation or on that particular day, either.

"In general, weather moves with the wind, and you can certainly have winds at different altitudes, so things could be moving in different directions depending on where they're at in the sky," Szatkowski said. "Sometimes you see one deck of clouds moving one way and another deck moving another way. Clouds can swirl – a tornado is an extreme example of motion – but you still don't see a right-hand turn. I can't point to a meteorological phenomenon that would cause something that was floating in the sky to make a right-hand turn, and then seconds later another one. The atmosphere doesn't really behave like that, certainly not in those conditions."

When Szatkowski worked in Mount Holly, he sometimes received reports from the public about strange weather, or concerns about issues like contrails and cloud seeding. He would occasionally have to confirm that there was no program underway to test weather manipulation in the region.

But UFOs are not generally something he's dealt with as a meteorologist, beyond his curiosity when media reports come to light. His answer about what happened in Philadelphia is the same as everyone else's.

"I'm going to hang with, I don't know what that is," Szatkowski said. "Whatever conclusions people want to draw from that, they can, but I don't know what that is."

'I'd love to imagine'

With growing interest and legitimacy in the study of UFOs, there's a new frontier of science that may some day give us more tangible explanations for events that currently fall under this problematic umbrella.

The national intelligence report to Congress emphasized the need for advanced instruments of study and improved metrics for the analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena.

Pitts agreed principled science is the only way forward for UFO research, unless or until something extraordinary surfaces in an undeniable way.

"What we have to do, primarily, is avoid speculation and jumping to conclusions – and directly to fantasy – without taking steps in between," Pitts said. "This is a very popular topic and it's exciting to think about the possibility that we have visitors coming here from somewhere else in the galaxy. But do we have any facts at all? Just one piece of evidence? We need to veer away from the popular side of this, and if we want to investigate this, then we need to do so in a scientific fashion using available facts."

Given the vastness of the universe, Pitts considers it folly to attribute human qualities to the search for alien life. That includes anyone who would say it's "arrogant" to doubt the existence of aliens.

"It's not that I have a closed mind about these things. I'd love it to be possible that there's life somewhere else in the universe. I'm not saying I don't want to imagine. I'd love to imagine," Pitts said. "But arrogance is a human quality. The universe does not function on anything related to humans at all. Humans are a byproduct of what has happened in the universe. We humans did not create the universe. It came into existence and manifested everything that we see. How do we tell the universe what's arrogant and what isn't? We don't. We still have to discover – and until we do that, everything is just human interpretation."

For now, the hard science informing our interpretation extends only as far as our most distant satellite, the Voyager 1 space probe, which only became the first craft to leave our solar system in 2012.

Attempts to comprehend the actual size of the universe are usually an argument made in favor of extraterrestrial life existing in one form or another, but it's essentially advanced guesswork. The famed Drake equation relies on mathematical probability to argue it is statistically most likely that somewhere, even in our own Milky Way galaxy, advanced alien civilization has formed.

"The numbers are incredibly compelling. I love the numbers thing. I'm down with that," Pitts said. "The premise that we operate on now regarding the number of planets is that it seems more likely, the probability is greater, that every star has at least one planet. So the probability is very high that there is an enormous number of planets in our galaxy. Just because they exist doesn't mean that there's life. There's hundreds of millions of planets in our galaxy based on our current understanding of how this stuff works. I'm comfortable with that. But it does not dictate that there absolutely has to be life on those other planets."

In the weeks since Swing saw the strange shiny orbs, he's returned to his normal life as a band leader for a church in South Jersey and as an instructor at Let There Be Rock, a "Delco-style" School of Rock where kids learn to play music. Swing also gives private guitar lessons. The Chicago native said he's been back to Paine's Park since June 28 and has not seen the shiny orbs again.

But the experience Swing had that Monday night is one that will stick with him for the rest of his life. It was a sight that displayed the unmatched beauty that exists all around us, even when we can't give it a name. 

"I'm not saying that there are aliens. I'm not saying we live in a multiverse or anything like that. But I wouldn't say it's impossible," Swing said. "It's a wild and unbelievably beautiful place we live in. I'm not pushing any alien agenda and I wouldn't say that I'm an active non-believer.

"I think something bigger is going on, and if they ever landed in our front yard, I'd be like, 'Yeah, I kinda thought so.'"