Michael Panicello didn’t initially set out to become the State Director of Connecticut’s Mutual UFO Network chapter. When he first joined the organization, abbreviated as “MUFON,” he was looking to satisfy a curiosity stoked by cable documentaries and a desire to dig deeper into the unexplained.
“I was looking into my own topics that I found interesting and I hit a wall and I needed to ask people who knew the field better where to look for this kind of information,” he recalls. “I remember seeing on some of these documentaries about people from MUFON and I found the chapter and I attended one of the meetings, and they were very nice. They’re very friendly. They helped me out.
He started as a Field Investigator to be the “tip of the spear” for local UFO sightings.
“If something is going to crash in Connecticut, the Field Investigator would go and find out what it is,” he says.
What started as a casual hobby, however, quickly turned into a more serious pursuit.
When the former director left the position only six months after his first meeting, Panicello decided to step up and took over as the director in June 2013. The chapter was still very young at the time and only three members were left, himself included. It was an opportunity to pursue a passion and help make improvements.
Since then, the chapter has grown, added members, and meets regularly. Recently they’ve been stepping up their game, bringing new equipment and expertise into their search.
While the hunt for UFOs – and extra-terrestrial intelligence – might conjure images of tinfoil hats and X-Files reruns, for Panicello and his compatriots, it is a search for truth and an opportunity to correct some of the misperceptions about their work.
MUFON was founded in 1969, as attitudes toward UFOs were changing. Starting in the late 1940s, government research into aerial phenomena was normal. The U.S. Air Force launched its own investigative unit called Project Blue Book in 1947. The group was tasked with researching reports of UFOs to determine their origin as a means of protecting national security during the first half of the Cold War.
In two decades, more than 12,000 UFO sightings were reported to Project Blue Book. In a memo from the former Secretary of the Air Force in 1969, 701 of them remained unidentified and none had posed a threat to national security.
In 1969, researchers at the University of Colorado published an in-depth report called “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects” compiling information about UFO sightings and investigations from the previous two decades. As the study circulated in the media, the Air Force decided to shutter Project Blue Book, and larger public interest and support of similar projects dwindled.
With shifting attitudes and shifting needs, a Midwest UFO researcher named Walt Andrus decided to break away from the larger Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (ARPO) to form his own smaller, less centralized group. That group was originally called the Midwest UFO Network, a grassroots effort that included UFO investigators in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, and Missouri.
Over the decades, MUFON grew, branching out well past the borders of its original midwestern region into a hub and spoke model. Each state supports its own chapter whose president reports individual findings to the main office which is still based in Missouri.
The Connecticut chapter of MUFON serves as a small part of a much larger network. Each chapter works to advance research into UFOs and increase data collection, as well as provide outreach and education. Members can participate in a variety of ways but the most important is to follow in Panicello’s footsteps as a Field Investigator.
These investigators do pretty much what the name suggests, investigate possible UFO sightings to determine their cause. Panicello says often sightings turn out to be something easily explained, perhaps a plane, satellite, space debris, or even natural phenomena like ball lightning.
“They’ll contact the witness if they can get a hold of the witness,” he explains. “We’ll look at the public record, the flight tracking data, Air Traffic Control recordings, local media, other websites that report and monitor sightings. We might file FOI requests, if it warrants, to get additional information from the government. We might inquire with the local police station or emergency services.”
Panicello says that based on the data they’re able to collect, they determine whether the object can be identified or if it falls under the category of Unexplained Aerial Phenomenon (UAP), a more recent and more accepted term for UFO.
More often than not, the objects Field Investigators chase down are easy to identify. Panicello says about 95% of reported sightings turn out to be manmade objects or naturally occurring phenomena. Of the 5% that remain unexplained, he’s not quick to jump to extra-terrestrial conclusions.
“Of that 5%, maybe a quarter of it is classified information,” he says. “MUFON only has public data, we can only get what’s in the public domain. And especially when you get into the states that have military research areas, a lot of the projects are classified but they test them.”
Panicello goes on to cite several military aircraft over the years that have sparked UFO sightings. And truly, they did qualify as Unidentified Flying Objects, but they were objects that could later be explained. Today, they could be drones.
“Maybe 2% is truly unknown, where it might be extra-terrestrial in origin or something that’s not of this world,” says Panicello, explaining that these are usually the type that move in unconventional patterns, zipping back and forth and shifting position faster than known aircraft. “When we have crafts and have those kinds of characteristics we would probably say, ‘yeah, it’s truly an unknown craft,’ but it’s really hard to say 100% that they are of extra-terrestrial origin.”
Technology has come a long way since the last 1960s and these days, field investigators have an additional weapon in their arsenal: the Multiple Anomaly Detection and Automated Recording project – or MADAR III – is a new piece of technology being put to use in various locations across Connecticut.
Armando Landrian is the go-to guy for Connecticut’s MADAR system. He was the first person in Connecticut to purchase his own system for about $250. That first unit is still running at his house.
Two years later, he decided to buy a second one to set up as a field unit.
“It’s a good system,” he says. “It’s the only system out there right now for the early detection of UFOs, and it is a worldwide system.”
There are nearly 150 MADAR units positioned around the globe. Approximately 120 of them are currently functional. The purpose of MADAR is to provide verifiable data to detect and corroborate potential UFO sightings. Think of it like your local weatherman’s doppler, but for aerial phenomena instead of low-pressure systems.
“It’s basically designed to detect changes in the magnetic field,” explains Landrian. “It does that two ways. One, with a magnetometer, which is one of the sensors that is in there. It also has a built-in compass.”
Magnetic changes will affect the position of the compass which can be viewed and monitored on the central MADAR map. Small disturbances, which may register from things like consumer electronic devices, are ignored but larger ones are recorded.
Each node – there are four nodes currently in Connecticut – is about the size of a deck of cards. The nodes compile data and send it back to MADAR’s central headquarters in Indiana where analysts determine whether there are events that require further investigation.
Sometimes, the data can inform state groups when a potential UFO sighting might have happened but other times it can confirm that a reported sighting did have unexplained characteristics, such as one event witnessed by Landrian and his wife in January 2021.
“My wife and I spotted a triangle here in Newington,” he says. “It was at tree top level, and it was making a weird turn. It looked like it was heading west at tree top level, then banked to the north in a kind of corkscrew maneuver and down. We were able to see it clearly and it was late night. It was a black triangle, with two white lights underneath, and a smaller light on the bottom, and it was somewhat back-lit by the lights in Hartford.”
Anecdotal or first-hand experiences aside, Landrian says the fact that the MADAR system is based on data is what drew him to the system in the first place. It doesn’t rely on fuzzy photographs or eyewitness reports but compiles data points that are sent back to a central system and compared to provide a clearer picture and build a more compelling case.
The other draw? It gives the power to monitor the skies to anyone with an interest, rather than leaving it in the hands of radar operators or professional pilots.
“It’s affordable, and the average person that is interested in ufology can just purchase one of these and be part of the team,” he explains.
Though they share an interest in one day being the ones to confirm alien visitation, both Panicello and Landrian are sensitive to the way UFO hunters are perceived by the public at large. They’re hoping that by approaching the subject as scientifically as possible, they can help more people see ufology as a worthwhile pursuit of knowledge.
“I was pushing very hard to make sure that we do proper scientific investigations. That we don’t say everything is a UFO when we close a case, and if we do, we really have to have an explanation of why we’re saying that,” says Panicello. “I’m trying to show that there’s evidence behind it. We’re not just saying this is a UFO because we want to believe it is. We’re saying this is an unknown object for these reasons. This is our evidence.”
Both Panicello and Landrian credit recent efforts by the CIA and other parts of the U.S. government to declassify UFO sighting reports from across the country dating back decades — as well as declassified cockpit footage from Navy aircraft — with helping to turn the tide of public opinion.
In a landmark report on UAPs in 2021, the Director of National Intelligence flipped the official script on these sightings, acknowledging that reports of mysterious flying objects in the night sky seem to be at least somewhat credible. What was lacking, said the report, was adequately detailed observation and reporting to truly understand their nature.
Following that report, Pew Research found that the majority of Americans (65%) say they believe in intelligent life somewhere in the universe and 51% believed that UFOs could be a sign of that intelligence. Most, however, do not believe that UFOs pose any threat to national security.
“It’s changing a little bit now that you see it a little more on the main news channels,” says Landrian. “They’re actually showing the videos from the planes. They’re starting to take it a little bit more seriously. They’re saying that this is the U.S. military. These are the best planes we have out there and that’s what they’re recording. You should not have any reason to doubt what they’re being told. The pilots are giving interviews and talking and I think that’s what you’re going to see for now.”
Panicello and Landrian share an optimism for the future of their work and invite other to join them in the effort to uncover the cause of unexplained aerial phenomenon.
“People are starting to open up,” says Panicello. “Hopefully, that continues.”