By Nick Pope
Nowadays, when the media reaches out to the US government for a quote on a UFO story, the response is a polite “no comment”, referral to a dismissive statement on the Department of Defense website, and the suggestion that people interested in the subject should contact civilian UFO organizations. It wasn’t always like this. Back in the forties, fifties and sixties, the issue was taken seriously by the United States Air Force and the Pentagon, and the subject even attracted congressional and presidential interest. It’s probably a story that DOD press officers would prefer to gloss over, but it’s a fascinating piece of Cold War history and it shines a light on an era when Hollywood sci-fi movies led many people to believe that an alien invasion was just as likely as a Soviet invasion.
Throughout human history, people have seen strange things in the skies. Meteors and fireballs were once seen as signs from the gods. But the modern UFO phenomenon dates back to the Second World War, when pilots on bombing missions reported strange balls of light (and sometimes unusual aircraft) following their planes. Allied pilots thought they were some sort of Axis secret weapon, but there was no apparent hostility and after the war it transpired that Axis pilots had seen similar things. These objects were dubbed “Foo Fighters.”
On June 24, 1947, a light aircraft pilot called Kenneth Arnold saw nine delta-shaped craft flying over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. He described how they moved in a strange, jerky fashion, “like a saucer skipped across water.” The media coined the phrase “flying saucer,” and reports were soon coming in from all over America— and indeed from all around the world. A modern mystery was born.
Letter from Kenneth Arnold to Army Air Force intelligence, July 12, 1947. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A couple of weeks later, in early July, a rancher in New Mexico noticed some strange debris on his land and contacted the local military base at Roswell. The debris was taken back to the base and the military drew up a press release suggesting that the flying saucer mystery was about to be solved: “The many rumors regarding the flying disk became a reality yesterday when the intelligence officer of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disk,” the text began. The story was picked up by numerous media outlets, yet in a move that gave rise to conspiracy theories that persist to this day, within 24 hours a retraction was put out, with the military authorities stating that a mistake had been made and that the debris had been from a crashed weather balloon.
Roswell quickly faded from public consciousness, in a way that would never be possible now, given the internet, new media, and social networking sites. The story was largely forgotten until some of the original military witnesses started telling their stories in the late seventies. But back in 1947, while Roswell faded from memories, the flying saucer phenomenon did not. Sightings came in thick and fast, and the United States Air Force set up a small team to investigate. The thinking was that these objects were more likely to be Russian than Martian. Indeed, fears that UFOs might be foreign military aircraft underpinned official interest in the subject in countries all around the world.
The USAF’s program to look into the flying saucer phenomenon was codenamed Project Sign. This was later changed to Project Grudge, and in a final alteration, in 1953, became Project Blue Book. One of Project Blue Book’s most far-reaching decisions was to invent a more scientific-sounding term for the phenomenon than “flying saucer”. “Unidentified Flying Object” was chosen, and was soon abbreviated to the more familiar UFO.
Over the course of its existence, this USAF program investigated 12,618 UFO sightings. Most turned out to be misidentifications of ordinary objects or phenomena such as aircraft lights, bright stars and planets, meteors, weather balloons, or swamp gas. There were a few hoaxes too. But there were some more interesting cases, including ones where UFOs were seen (and sometimes chased) by military pilots, and where visual sightings were corroborated by radar evidence. Over the life of the project, 701 sightings were formally categorized as “unexplained.”
Over two weekends in July 1952, flying saucer fever hit Washington D.C., with air traffic controllers at Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base sighting uncorrelated targets on their screens. There were visual sightings from military personnel, and air force jets were vectored to try to intercept the mystery objects. The sightings made headlines all over America, and public interest was at an all-time high. Speculation was rife and there were even rumors that a shoot-down order had been issued. President Harry Truman called the head of Project Blue Book to demand an explanation. The Pentagon was forced to hold a press conference, which was the largest and best-attended press conference since the end of the Second World War. The official explanation put forward was that the radar signals had been false returns, generated by a temperature inversion. The visual sightings were dismissed as misidentifications of aircraft lights, stars or meteors, but not everyone believed the official story.
One reason for the media and public fascination with the UFO mystery was the influence of science fiction. Hollywood movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still popularized the idea that UFOs were extraterrestrial in origin, and a whole host of other sci-fi films such as Invaders from Mars and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers raised the specter of an alien invasion. The public was certainly open to such a possibility; while it predated the flying saucer/UFO era, the 1938 radio dramatization of the classic H.G. Wells sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds (narrated and directed by a young Orson Welles) caused widespread panic as some listeners thought the Martian invasion being described was real. Fear of the outsider is arguably hardwired into human beings, and extraterrestrials were the ultimate outsiders.
The USAF stance in relation to UFOs was notoriously defensive. This, coupled with the inherent secrecy of the military, led to the suspicion that the government was not telling the truth about UFOs. This suspicion (fueled by a combination of Hollywood movies and Cold War paranoia) led directly to the spaceship-in-a-hangar trope that one sees in modern UFO belief. Ufologists (as they like to call themselves) treat The X-Files as if it was a documentary. The ultimate irony is that to date, the only proven government conspiracy in relation to the subject was a CIA/USAF initiative to encourage belief in UFOs. This was on the basis that it was helpful if sightings of spy planes like the U2 and the SR-71 were reported as flying saucers, and thus written off by the mainstream media—and hopefully by Soviet intelligence officers too.
Belief and interest in UFOs was never confined to the public. There have been two formal Congressional hearings on UFOs; one by the House Armed Services Committee in 1966, and another by the House Science and Astronautics Committee in 1968. In later years, two presidents— Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan— went on the record stating that they had seen UFOs.
Project Blue Book was terminated at the end of 1969, after an independent University of Colorado review. By that time, the USAF’s corporate irritation with the subject was substantial, and the review certainly gave military bosses the answer they wanted to hear: no UFO sightings had been assessed as a threat to national security, and there was certainly no evidence that UFOs were extraterrestrial. There were, in short, plenty of better things on which to spend taxpayers’ dollars.
The story didn’t end in 1969, of course. UFOs continue to be seen, and the subject generates a steady stream of news stories, TV documentaries and sci-fi movies. But the government no longer investigates UFOs, and gone are the days when they were the subject of press conferences at the Pentagon, congressional hearings, and presidential inquiries. It’s really rather a pity, because I suspect it made government just a little bit more interesting and fun than it is these days.
NICK POPE worked for the UK Ministry of Defense for twenty-one years, and from 1991 to 1994 he ran the British government’s UFO project. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist. His latest book, co-written with former US Air Force officers John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, is Encounter in Rendlesham Forest.