CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — An official investigation into reports of large drones flying in groups over the western U.S. plains in the hours after sunset has confirmed nothing illegal or out of the ordinary, a finding of little solace to folks who say the truth is still out there.
Investigators will scale back flights of a heat-detecting plane to try to corroborate reports as they're made but will continue to look into new reports, Colorado officials said Tuesday.
“The Department of Public Safety is committed to still gathering investigation evidence,” Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokeswoman Micki Trost said.
The investigation focused on an area roughly along Interstate 76 through northeastern Colorado but didn't extend into Nebraska or Wyoming, where reports also have been made. Several confirmed drone sightings in Colorado turned out to be small, hobbyist drones, known commercial aircraft or weather phenomena.
For Dan Carlson, who said he's spotted and even followed large drones flying remarkably long distances near his farm in western Nebraska, the summary of findings puts little to rest.
“What I saw did not conform to either a hobbyist drone or a civilian-aviation aircraft,” said Carlson, a retired meteorologist.
For over a month, law enforcement agencies in eastern Colorado and much of Nebraska have been taking calls about unusual drone sightings. Drones as big as cars have been said to fly back and forth in the sky for extended periods after sundown.
F.E. Warren Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which oversees 150 Minuteman III nuclear missiles in silos scattered across the prairie in the three-state region, denied involvement.
“Our base is kind of a drone no-fly zone. So we do have counter-UAS -- unmanned aerial systems -- training that goes on within the confines of this installation. But any drones spotted outside this installation are not part of our fleet,” base spokesman Lt. Jon Carkhuff said.
Base personnel haven't seen any of the purported drones, he added, though they are cooperating with the Federal Aviation Administration and FBI.
The Colorado Department of Public Safety, working with local law enforcement, found:
— Of 90 drone reports received from Nov. 23 to Monday, law enforcement officials were able to confirm that 14 were smaller-sized hobbyist drones.
— Of 23 drone reports between Jan. 6 and Monday, a period that involved flights of the heat-detecting plane working in conjunction with investigators on the ground, officials determined 13 were smaller hobbyist drones, stars or planets and six were attributable to known commercial aircraft or atmospheric conditions. Authorities weren't able to identify fliers of the hobbyist drones.
— Four confirmed sightings of the 23 were unidentified.
— A drone reported to have flown near a Flight for Life medical helicopter during daytime didn't appear related to the recent sightings. Investigators couldn't confirm a violation occurred.
Colorado has over 24,000 registered drones, and pilots reported over 2,200 drone sightings in Colorado to the FAA in 2018, state officials pointed out in a news release.
Weird-drone reports from coast to coast abound on social media, but the local phenomenon may be tapering off in recent days.
“The sightings and the reports in my county have diminished incredibly,” Morgan County, Colorado, Sheriff David Martin said Tuesday.
Yet Carlson said he's sighted drones four times since Jan. 4, including drones that appeared in pairs twice. While he couldn't confirm their shape in the dark, the changing orientation of their blue, white, red and sometimes green lights suggested rotation, he said.
They came within a mile or two (2-3 kilometers) of his house, flying about 800 feet (250 meters) high. One drone sped away at up to 60 mph (100 kilometers per hour) when he drove after it, he said.
He followed the drone over 10 miles (16 kilometers). Others he saw fly over the horizon, which he estimated was at least 20 miles (32 kilometers) distant over the sparsely populated area north of Sidney, Nebraska.
Usually he hears aircraft clearly on cold winter nights, he said.
“It was the kind of night that if an airplane flies over at 30,000 feet, you hear it. No sound with these,” Carlson said.
One drone he saw hovered over a missile command station within sight of his farm, Carlson said, making him question the Air Force denial.
A military contractor could be testing new technology while the military maintains “plausible deniability,” he said.