Accounts of mysterious drones flying over rural Colorado that drew national attention in the U.S. after they were published by the Denver Post in December 2019 are probably hot bullshit, Motherboard reported on Wednesday, with a joint task force failing to find evidence anything suspicious was happening and local officials joking in emails they could form a hard-charging elite special ops team to crack the case.
The Post wrote that residents had reported fixed-wing drones with estimated six-foot wingspans had been flying over Phillips and Yuma counties every night for around a week. Officials from the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office told the paper they estimated at least 17 drones had been flying in 25-mile (40km) search patterns, at a height of 200-300 feet (60-90 metres) every night from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. local time. Sheriff Thomas Elliott claimed the mysterious craft were performing a “grid search, a grid pattern,” while Undersheriff William Myers told the paper he had personally watched eight fly near the Yuma County border.
As Morgan County Sheriff’s Department officers recorded further reports and a medical helicopter claimed to have flown dangerously close to a drone on Jan. 8, 2020, a joint local, state, federal, and military task force was formed involving over 70 officials. The Colorado Department of Public Safety later issued a statement on Jan. 13 saying that out of 90 incidents total from Nov. 23, 2019 to Jan. 13, 2020, it had no evidence of “incidents involving criminal activity, nor have investigations substantiated reports of suspicious or illegal drone activity.”
From Jan. 6 to Jan. 13, when the task force was active, it investigated 23 reports found 13 were “planets, stars, or small hobbyist drones,” six were regular aircraft, and four were unconfirmed. (The nature of the hobbyist drones wasn’t clarified, but it’s certainly possible the reports drew some bemused copycats.)
The Air Force also confirmed to the Daily Beast that it runs counterdrone exercises out of nearby F.E. Warren AFB, but insisted that the drone sightings had nothing to do with its operations. Meanwhile, the investigation didn’t substantiate the report of a near miss.
Now, according to public documents obtained by Motherboard, it looks like even local officials were joking around about the investigation. Yuma County Sheriff T.C. Combs received a quippy email in late December from a department deputy who said he wanted to form a “special task force” called “Team Alpha WarHawk.” Said team could be composed of himself (“comic relief”), a “culinary expert,” a “third wheel,” a “weapons/Ammunition expert” who is the “best small arms dealer north of the equator,” a Hispanic “linguistics expert,” a “talent acquisitions specialist” who “has an eye for future drone hunters,” and an “errand runner and drone catcher” who could make a “mean pot of coffee.” An eighth member from the “recruitment pool” was listed as “Not allowed to tell you what he is good at. Just trust me, please.”
Combs (who around that time was reassuring residents on Facebook the matter was actually facing a serious investigation) responded with his own jokey email, Motherboard wrote:
I will put your team in the toolbox in case I need it, but just be apprised [sic] that these operations are usually handled as black ops and therefore there is no recognition for your service to the community. You will be regulated [sic] to drinking alone at the fdar end of the bar and not being able to talk about your exploits beyond a knowing glance at your teammates. I will inquire of the Feds (whoever that might be – because it’s a secret) to start the process on your security clearances.
Hopefully our allies in the Middle East have let your travel ban from your previous travels rouge incident (the misadventures of youth should be allowed to fade into the murky past at some point) expire and that won’t be an issue. If not you will be restricted to operations only an [sic] United States soil which we all know is highly controversial. I think a good cover story would be windmill repairmen which would allow you move freely throughout the area [sic]. Thanks in advance for your desire to make Yuma County as safe place for its citizens.
In other emails, an individual who emailed the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office claimed to have knowledge of the “mystery drones” but that “releasing what we are hunting is a worse scenario than letting it fade off” and the investigation was “opening Pandora’s box.” Officials involved with the investigation agreed this report was “not credible.” In another email, an official wrote they had heard rumours of the drones spying in people’s windows “but Larry said that isn’t true.”
As Motherboard noted, a May 2019 white paper from drone manufacturer DJI noted that numerous reports of unidentified drones by pilots ended up being sightings of other objects, while a Academy of Model Aeronautics study in 2015 found that just 27 of 764 reports of such sightings were real incidents of near collisions.
Yet drones are growing more ubiquitous and have been involved in serious situations like airport shutdowns and interference with emergency operations. True or false, sightings of suspicious drones will continue to be a drag on law enforcement resources.
In a statement to the Post earlier this month, Colorado Department of Public Safety Stan Hilkey wrote that “While I can’t conclusively say we have solved the mystery, we have been able to rule out a lot of the activity that was causing concern. We will continue to remain vigilant and respond as new information comes in.”
If there’s anything else to find other than astronomical objects, misidentified planes, or regular drones, perhaps Team Alpha WarHawk will find it. Or shoot it down, unintentionally causing an international incident that will force them to flee the country, become catchphrase-loving international soldiers of fortune, and go on weekly misadventures. You just can’t predict what Team Alpha WarHawk will do next!