In 1947, a pilot spotted a fleet of “saucer-like” aircrafts speeding across the sky. It was only a matter of time until paranoia set in.
In 1947, Kenneth Arnold was flying his CallAir A-2 between Chehalis and Yakima, Washington, when he took a detour to search for a downed Marine Corps aircraft. There was a reward for anyone who could find the plane, and who couldn’t use $5,000?
Arnold flew around searching for a while, and accidentally found something else—something much stranger than what he’d actually been looking for. As he watched, rapt, nine objects flew through the air in formation.
That’s nothing crazy, really. You’d call it a fleet and go on with your day. But the craft appeared to be traveling much faster than the jets of the time. Arnold allegedly clocked them, as they flew between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, at significantly more than 1,000 miles per hour. When he landed back on the ground, he—he claimed later—told an East Oregonian reporter that the objects skipped like saucers on water, referring to their motion and not their shape. The reporter wrote, however, that the craft appeared “saucer-like.” That line soon rushed out on the AP wire. The term “flying saucer” showed up a day later—the first time of many times to come—when the Chicago Sun ran the headline “Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot.” The actual path of the saucer description, from Arnold’s mouth to our modern ears, is more complicated: The reporter held fast to the transcription, and as a National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena analysis notes, Arnold had plenty of opportunities to correct the record earlier.
“It seems impossible, but there it is,” the article ended, quoting Arnold.
Arnold’s sighting marks the origin point of modern UFO lore and terminology. His story contains several archetypal characteristics (which it would, of course, itself being the archetype): lights in the sky, spotted by a pilot who knows the sky and what should be in it (what insiders call “a reliable observer”), moving fast and with erratic, intelligent-seeming choreography. You could almost swap Arnold with the pilots in the videos from the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which ran secretly from around 2007 to 2012, and the military personnel who have come forward since, saying (probably honestly!) that they have seen quick, creepy, inexplicable things up there. Their status as hardened fighter jocks is what lends their stories credibility and unnerves the softer and less experienced rest of us.
For talking about his story, Arnold got more—and different—attention than he would have liked: People didn’t believe him. It was only a reflection on the glass, a meteor. He had made it all up. In his own book, Coming of the Saucers, Arnold wrote, “I have been subjected to ridicule, much loss of time and money, newspaper notoriety, magazine stories, reflections on my honesty, my character, my business dealings.” He was not happy about it, and according to the 1975 book The UFO Controversy in America, Arnold said: “If I saw a 10-story building flying through the air, I would never say a word about it.” (This statement, though, remains hard to reconcile with the fact that he published his own book, today’s edition complete with pulpy cover art showing bathing-suit-clad women holding pictures of outer space up for some saucer pilots to see.)
Arnold’s sighting, however he felt about it, began an epidemic. Soon, other people around the US started to see their saucers. The night sky opened up, kicking off a ufological period insiders refer to as a “flap”: a period of increased sightings. The term also has the contextual tinge of the word’s other definition, “an increased state of agitation.” Edward Ruppelt, an Air Force officer who would go on to be part of governmental UFO investigations, wrote that “in Air Force terminology a ‘flap’ is a condition, or situation, or state of being of a group of people characterized by an advanced degree of confusion that has not quite yet reached panic proportions.” In this case, the people were not yet panicking about strange sights in the sky.
If Arnold hadn’t said a word, history probably would have nevertheless been set on a similar course. Someone else’s sighting would likely have catalyzed a similar flap—a year later, maybe two, or five. All events unfold in a cultural medium, after all. And the medium of Arnold’s time—colored by the fear of outsiders, fear of invasions, and awe of technology, just like today—was fertile ufological ground. Perhaps, in a world without Arnold’s encounter, people would have described “the phenomenon” differently. Perhaps we wouldn’t have the term “flying saucer” at all. Maybe it would have been pancakes or spheres. But Arnold and saucers are what we’ve got. So the flap that followed—and, really, all flaps to follow—bear his imprint, however faint.
While we humans like to feel that we choose our own actions autonomously, math and geometry can actually describe their collective nature quite well. So our waves of UFO sightings tend to take one of two distinct shapes: a sharp peak or a bell curve. The first type is explosive, with lots of people reporting lots of UFOs at once, and then sightings dropping off around the same time. The second has a more tame, tapered onset and a more gradual offset.
Maybe, during either kind of crest, more people really do see truly strange things, as could be the case if spaceships or air forces are actually descending. Or maybe the upsurge happens because of what social scientists call “perceptual contagion”—a catching disease, whose sole symptom is that you suddenly notice things that have always existed and interpret them differently because someone else pointed them out. It’s like if a friend said to you, “Everyone who wears Abercrombie and Fitch has something to prove.” Maybe you’d never noticed anyone in an Abercrombie and Fitch shirt before at all. Now, though, you not only see them but also feel like you know something about them.
Either way, a clear relationship also exists between flaps in the general population and the onset of government programs—a symbiosis that former NASA employee Diana Palmer Hoyt has mapped out. When you view the citizens’ sightings and the feds’ research side by side, she noted in a thesis paper on the topic, “the dose-response mechanism becomes clear”: When the population begins to see saucers, the press begins to say so in the papers. Faced with citizens who expect their leaders to demystify the potentially dangerous mystery, the government has historically tried to (not always in good faith). When the flaps were fierce, its agents looked into UFO cases, adding their investigations to the quotidian explanations for the majority of sightings. Citizens are meant to believe that whatever may fly by in the future has a similarly prosaic origin. Don’t worry: It’s just a weather balloon, a too-twinkly star, Venus, atmospheric physics at play.
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When a big flap pops, in other words, codified programs crop up. You can see this happening today, when in April 2019, the Navy confirmed that, given the number of unauthorized or unidentified craft that military personnel had encountered recently, it was “updating and formalizing the process by which reports of any such suspected incursions can be made to the cognizant authorities,” as Politico reported. Long before that, the first official program came together the year after Arnold’s sighting. Like the two programs that would immediately follow, spanning more than two decades of federal effort, this initial effort aimed to soothe—and redirect—the masses, while also more quietly attempting to determine whether these saucers were something the military should worry about. The ethos in general? “Publicly debunk and treat the matter lightly,” Hoyt noted, “and privately investigate, and take the matter seriously.”
The government’s first UFO investigation program began the year Scrabble became a game, and the year the US passed the Marshall Plan, an effort in part to stop the spread of communism in Europe. Also, it was around the time the country began rampant missile testing in New Mexico, thanks in no small part to the German scientists and engineers. After World War II, the government gave German scientists (often from the Nazi party) new identities and fresh lives in America, as part of an initiative called Operation Paperclip. It aimed to bring American rocketry to former German heights, while keeping that same achievement from the Soviet Union. With their Teutonic know-how, our aero-flight program could catch up with the Russians, who had also stolen some scientists from across the border.
Initially called Project Saucer (an obviously bad PR idea), the government quickly renamed its first UFO program Project Sign. It began in January of 1948 and ran for just one year. At the time, rockets from the Operation Paperclip scientists were not for spacefaring; they were weapons. But some of these stolen scientists (and their non-Paperclip peers) reasoned that with a little more thrust, the rockets could enter orbit. And with a little more oomph than that, they could leave orbit. Despite the less warlordy dream, the country wouldn’t send rockets to orbit till the late 1950s. It’s interesting that looking out into the universe, we saw our own future and foisted it onto others, already successful.
In the Arnold era of almost-kind-of spaceflight, fears about who might take over or destroy the world pervaded the US. The country had just gotten out of a war, using planet-destroying bombs that the Soviets would also soon possess. The globe felt cold and tenuous. And Project Sign attempted to find out whether the potential conquerors included experimental enemy aircraft or hostile aliens. We’re in a similar situation today, with worries about whether America will be overtaken by China, about the influence Russia has over our world-leading government. The shadow of international tension looms large, and it’s a little like those focused on the threat of UFOs have managed to capture and redirect our existential fear outward (way outward), while tinging it with awe.
Three months after Arnold’s sighting, Lieutenant General Nathan Twining sent a message called “AMC [Air Materiel Command] Opinion Concerning ‘Flying Discs’” to the commanding general of the Army Air Force.
The disputed document outlined the Lieutenant General’s belief that, while some may have been the result of “natural phenomena, such as meteors,” the objects reported were, in fact, real. Twining detailed the appearance of the objects—disc-like, and as large as a man-made aircraft—and suggested the possibility, based on reports of their movement, that “some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically or remotely.”
These objects, he continued, tended toward the metallic, usually leaving no trail. They were normally soundless and fast. Given a lot of money and development time, the US could build aircraft with these characteristics, so maybe these UFOs were just UF-Ours, part of a classified project he wasn’t privy to. Also possible was that they were another country’s. But also possible: They didn’t exist at all.
The Air Force had undertaken low-level, unmandated investigation already, but Twining’s memo, some claim, ushered things into officialdom. A few months later, Project Sign was born. It hoovered in UFO reports and sent investigators to determine the hypothetical objects’ natures and their threat level.
As the investigations went on, the Sign group split into the two fervent factions, occupying different ends of the ideological spectrum and jockeying for power over the project. Some thought these UFOs weren’t really real, and so couldn’t be dangerous. This project was thus silly and inconsequential. Another subset of researchers, though, thought the opposite. And some of these believers soon developed what was later called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, a term that has stuck around since and whose meaning remains self-evident.
That leadership polarization—“it’s dumb” versus “it’s aliens”— has historically posed a problem for Air Force pilots who wanted to submit UFO reports. They never knew to which pole their case would go, or which way that pole’s boss was leaning. If one of the naysayers got their hands on it, they might think the pilot was mentally unfit—in general, and especially to be flying planes bearing guns and missiles. If their report went into the hands of an alien enthusiast, meanwhile, maybe the pilot would become known as one of them, and end up a Kenneth Arnold-type casualty.
In 1953, in response to the international climate and the rising tide of UFO reports, the CIA sponsored a four-day meeting called the Robertson Panel, whose findings echo ominously into the present day.
The panel’s conclusions, its very existence, and especially its CIA sponsorship remained classified at the time and for several years after. The agency didn’t want people to know the government worried about their worries about UFO reports. But they did worry, according to declassified copies of the report, which provide a cold-toned assessment of their fears. If foes could use UFOs—real or simply reported—to sow panic among the populace, causing chaos and distrust, that could prime the US for physical or psychological invasion. Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which the Russians saturate America with UFO sightings: They could launch a weapon and maybe no one would notice because the warning system would be busy chasing ghosts. Even without deliberate foreign malfeasance, if too many people got too amped and called in a panic about Venus, the government would have fewer available resources to sort the MiGs from the chaff.
Watch, the panel also advised, those UFO clubs, the civilian investigator groups that had cropped up. Should a flap occur, these groups might have the ears and minds of the people. Keep in mind “the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes.” To this day, some ufologists take this surveillance and disinformation suggestion as evidence of the virtues of their work. (If there’s nothing to worry about, why worry about us?)
The panel further reaffirmed some of the conclusions from Project Sign, which was later renamed Project Grudge—most notably that whatever UFOs were or were not, they did not seem to represent a national security threat. The overload was dangerous, as was the panic, along with the fact that soldiers might see a foreign spycraft and think it was merely one of those UFOs.
But we can fix this, suggested the panel. All they had to do was train people and do some very public debunking. Agencies could educate employees on how to recognize high-altitude balloons hit by moonlight, fireballs that look like floating orbs, noctilucent clouds that resemble extraterrestrial neural networks.
The debunking should happen in public. Mass media, the panelists said, could also illuminate real UFO stories and their mundane explanations. When people saw something strange, then they would assume it, like the fireball they saw on a prime-time special, was just a terrestrial phenomenon they weren’t yet acquainted with. If you want to know why people read malicious, secret-keeping intent into the Robertson Report and the investigation programs, you need only read some of the panel’s concluding statements, with an ear for their timbre: “The continued emphasis on the reporting of these phenomena does, in these perilous times, result in a threat to the orderly functioning of the protective organs of the body politic. … National security agencies [should] take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired.”
Any time the government decides, behind closed doors, to strip something of any quality, that’s pretty much a propaganda campaign. And any time the government decides something might disrupt its tightly grasped order, that can read as a license to impose order. Given this, it’s understandable that the agency didn’t want word of its work to get out. It looked bad. It looked like something powerful had taken hold of the American public, and the government not only disliked it, but was going to finagle an end to it. If you believe UFOs are a “phenomenon,” you can read the report and see a cover-up campaign.
In keeping the panel secret, the CIA actually sowed the very seeds of distrust it had tried not to plant by keeping secrets in the first place. When word of the Robertson Panel’s existence came out years later, the public called for the report’s full release. At first, the CIA put out what National Reconnaissance Office historian Gerald Haines called a “sanitized” version. Later, the complete record was declassified. The UFO-verse was never the same again.
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