1947: FIRST AMERICAN SIGHTING WAVE
Cover of International UFO Reporter showing a photograph of Kenneth Arnold, his original sketches and a reconstruction of the flying wing he saw, which led to the name of flying saucers. Insert lower right shows Arnold’s original sketch for Army Intelligence. Courtesy of CUFOS.
The first major wave of American sightings produced more than a thousand reports, the term “flying saucer,” and the first confirmed investigations by the U.S. Government. The reports were from all 48 states, mainly of round objects seen in the daytime. For two weeks, especially around the July Fourth weekend, newspapers and radio broadcasts were full of stories of flying saucers and flying discs. Early official studies concluded that they were real and unexplained.
It began on the afternoon of June 24, 1947 with the sighting of a formation of strange high-speed objects. Kenneth Arnold, flying his single-engine Callair airplane over southwestern Washington State, had interrupted his business trip to assist in the search for a missing military transport plane. From the official U.S. Army Air Force’s report on the event:
“I hadn’t flown more than two or three minutes on my (new) course when a bright flash reflected on my airplane. It startled me as I thought I was too close to some other aircraft. I looked every place in the sky and couldn’t find where the reflection had come from until I looked to the left and the north of Mt. Rainier where I observed a chain of nine peculiar looking aircraft flying from north to south at approximately 9,500 feet [3,000 m.] elevation and going, seemingly, in a definite direction of about 170 degrees.
“They were approaching Mt. Rainier very rapidly, and I merely assumed they were jet planes. Anyhow, I discovered that this was where the reflection had come from, as two or three of them every few seconds would dip or change their course slightly, just enough for the sun to strike them at an angle that reflected brightly at my plane.
“I thought it was very peculiar that I couldn’t find their tails but assumed they were some kind of jet plane. I was determined to clock their speed, as I had two definite points I could clock them by; the air was so clear that it was very easy to see objects and determine their approximate shape and size at almost 50 miles [80 km.] that day.
“[The clock]… on my instrument panel, read one minute to 3 p.m. as the first object of this formation passed the southern edge of Mt. Rainier… I would estimate their elevation could have varied a thousand feet [300 m.], one way or another, up or down, but they were pretty much on the horizon to me, which would indicate they were near the same elevation as I was.
“They seemed to hold a definite direction but rather swerved in and out of the high mountain peaks. Their speed at the time did not impress me particularly, because I knew that our army and air forces had planes that went very fast.
“What kept bothering me as I watched them flip and flash in the sun right along their path was the fact that I couldn’t make out any tail on them, and I am sure that any pilot would justify more than a second look at such a plane.
“I observed them quite plainly, and I estimated my distance from them, which was almost at right angles, to be between 20 and 25 miles [30-40 km.]. I knew they must be very large to observe their shape at the distance, even on as clear a day as it was that Tuesday. In fact I compared a… fastener or cowling tool I had in my pocket with them – holding it up on them and holding it up on the DC-4 (airliner) – that I could observe at quite a distance to my left, and they seemed smaller than the DC-4; but, I should judge their span would have been as wide as the furthest engines on each side of the fuselage of the DC-4. [Note: this span is about 55 ft. or 16 m.].
“I could quite accurately determine their pathway due to the fact there were several high peaks that were a little this side of them as well as higher peaks on the other side of their pathway.
“As the last unit of this formation passed the southernmost high snow-covered crest of Mt. Adams, I looked at my sweep second hand and it showed that they had travelled the distance in one minute and 42 seconds. Even at the time, this timing did not upset me as I felt confident that after I landed there would be some explanation of what I had seen. [Note: 48 miles in 1:42 seconds works out to 1,700 mph or 2,700 km./hr., at a time when the official World Speed Record was 624 mph or 1,000 km./hr.]
“A number of newsmen and experts suggested that I might have been seeing reflections or even a mirage. This I know to be absolutely false, as I observed these objects not only through the glass of my airplane but turned by my airplane sideways where I could open my window and observe them with a completely unobstructed view, without sun glasses… They seemed longer than wide, their thickness was about 1/20th of their width.”32
To accompany his statement, Arnold added a simple sketch of one of the objects: a circle with the rear flattened or clipped off. (See above.)
It was not known at the time, but others had seen formations of strange objects in the Pacific Northwest on the same day. That morning, five or six discs were seen banking and circling from the same Cascade Mountain Range over which Arnold had been flying during his sighting; at 2:30 p.m., three flat discs were seen tilting as they flew from Richland, Washington, 100 miles [160 km.] to the east; at 3 p.m., a man saw nine discs in formation from Mineral, Washington, almost directly beneath Arnold’s airplane.
The conclusion drawn later by Project Blue Book was that Arnold had failed to identify some conventional airplanes. No specifics were suggested, as there were no circular, disc or similarly shaped airplanes flying in or near the U.S., nor any airplanes in the world capable of even half the speed at which he clocked the formation. The other sightings of formations in the same area do appear in newspaper reports, but not in the official files.
This marked the beginning of the 1947 UFO sighting wave. A study of newspapers by Ted Bloecher lists 832 sighting reports between June 15 and July 15. An expansion of his study, still in progress, is expected to raise the total to at least 1,500 separate reports, including many from outside the United States.33
The files of Project Blue Book show barely 50 reports for the period. Nevertheless, the first known official study of the 1947 sighting wave concluded, from just 13 of those reports: “From detailed study of reports selected for their impression of veracity and reliability, several conclusions have been formed:
“(a) This ‘flying saucer’ situation is not all imaginary or seeing too much in some natural phenomena. Something is really flying around.
“(b) Lack of topside inquiries, when compared to the prompt and demanding inquiries that have originated topside upon former events, give more than ordinary weight to the possibility that this is a domestic project about which the President, etc., know.
“Whatever the objects are, this much can be said of their physical appearance:
“1. The surface of these objects is metallic, indicating a metallic skin, at least.
“2. When a trail is observed, it is lightly colored, a blue-brown haze, that is similar to a rocket engine’s exhaust. Contrary to a rocket of the solid type, one observation indicates that the fuel may be throttled which would indicate a liquid rocket engine.
“3. As to shape, all observations state that the object is circular or at least elliptical, flat on the bottom and slightly domed on the top. The size estimates place it somewhere near the size of a C-54 or a Constellation. [Note: 1940s airliners had a wingspan of 120 ft. or 35 m., and length of 95 ft. or 30 m.]
“4. Some reports describe two tabs, located at the rear and symmetrical about the axis of flight motion.
“5. Flights have been reported, from three to nine of them, flying good formation on each other, with speeds always above 300 kts. [350 mph or 650 km/hr.].
“6. The discs oscillate laterally while flying along, which could be snaking.”34
Official interest in the phenomena was demonstrated in a famous September 1947 memo from General Nathan D. Twining, Chief of the Air Materiel Command at Wright-Field, Ohio, who stated:
“a. The phenomena reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious.
“b. There are objects probably approximating the shape of a disc, of such appreciable size as to appear to be as large as a man-made aircraft.
“c. There is a possibility that some of the incidents may be caused by natural phenomena, such as meteors.
“d. The reported operating characteristics such as extreme rates of climb, maneuverability (particularly in roll), and action which must be considered evasive when sighted or contacted by friendly aircraft and radar, lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically, or remotely.”35