The acronym UFO – for Unidentified Flying Object – is so prevalent and commonplace today, that it’s easy to forget the term is not even fully fifty years old yet. There is even some dispute about the acronym’s exact origin. In his classic account of his years spent as the director of Project Blue Book – the Air Force’s official UFO “investigation” agency – Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt says unequivocally that “UFO is the official term that I created to replace the words ‘flying saucers'” (Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Doubleday, 1956, p. 6). Presumably, this would have been sometime between 1951, when Ruppelt took over Project Grudge, later renamed Blue Book, and September of 1953, when he left the agency and the Air Force. Elsewhere in the same book, however, Ruppelt says of Project Grudge’s final 600-page report, released in December of 1949, that it was “officially titled ‘Unidentified Flying Objects – Project Grudge, Technical Report No. 102-AC-49/15-100. But it was widely referred to as the Grudge Report.” This would mean that some long forgotten anonymous Air Force staffer coined the phrase at least two years before Ruppelt did. But perhaps Ruppelt is only claiming credit for the coinage of the acronym itself?
At any rate, UFO has now entered into common usage and appears in most dictionaries, along with ufology, the study of UFOs, and ufologist, one who studies UFOs. In many ways, the term is a “loaded” one in that it implies classification or designation prior to a proper analysis or thorough investigation. As commonly employed, UFO has also come to imply a spaceship, or vehicle, of extraterrestrial manufacture and origin. In reality, well over 90 percent of all reported UFOs prove to be IFOs – Identified Flying Objects – upon investigation. IFOs can be anything from distant airplane landing lights to the planet Venus, with ball lightning, weather balloons, and other astronomical and meteorological phenomena thrown in for good measure.
In strictest terms, a UFO is just that – an apparent unidentified flying object, origin unknown. The best scientifically accepted definition of a UFO is probably that provided by the late astronomer J. Allen Hynek, who said that the UFO is simply “the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon the land the appearance, trajectory, and general dynamic and luminescent behavior of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one is possible.” (The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry by J. Allen Hynek, Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1972, p. 10.) For more than 20 years, Hynek was the Air Force’s astronomy consultant to Project Blue Book and its predecessors, up until the former’s closing on December 17, 1969. A few years afterwards, Hynek formed the Center for UFO Studies that now bears his name. He also contributed two other terms – one inadvertently and one purposefully – to the popular lexicon: “swamp gas” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Shortly before the UFO there was the flying saucer. On June 24th, 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold was winging his way near Mt. Rainier in Washington state, when he spied nine, shiny crescent-shaped objects at some distance and traveling at speeds he estimated to be well over 1,000 mph, far in advance of any known terrestrial craft of the time, the new jet technology included. Arnold told Associated press reporter Bill Bequette that the objects behaved like a rock or saucer skipping across water. An anonymous headline writer then coined the phrase “flying saucers” to describe what Arnold had seen, even though the objects he reported were crescent, not saucer, shaped.
By any name, however, flying saucers and UFOs have continued to puzzle us in the half-century since the end of WWII. Once regarded as almost exclusively an American phenomenon, like hamburgers and baseball, UFOs have now been reported from virtually every country in the world. No classification or category of humanity, from the average man or woman in the street, to physicists and astronomers, is immune to the UFO phenomenon. According to a several-decades-old Gallup Poll, more than ten million American adults alone are estimated to have seen what they believed to be a UFO, a phenomenon that most skeptics routinely dismiss as non-existent by definition. In reality, whatever that reality is, UFOs are arguably the most widely reported unexplained mystery of this or any other century.
Although the modern UFO era is typically dated to Arnold’s landmark 1947 sighting, there is tantalizing evidence that the heavens have long been inhabited by similar “apparitions” and manifestations, even when there weren’t handy words with which to describe them. The collected books of Charles Fort (1874-1932), sometimes considered the father of ufology, run to 1062 pages. In the whole, there is but a single illustration, a line drawing on page 280 of The Book of the Damned (his first book) that accompanies an account Fort culled from the pages of the Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. The account was an extract from the log of Capt. F. W. Banner aboard the bark Lady of the Lake, dated March 22nd, 1870.
Sailors had seen a remarkable object, or “cloud,” which they reported to the ship’s captain. “According to Capt. Banner,” Fort wrote, “it was a cloud of circular form, with an included semicircle divided into four parts, the central dividing shaft beginning at the center of the circle and extending far outward, and then curving backward.”
The thing was light gray in color and much lower than the other clouds. It “traveled from a point at about 20 degrees above the horizon to a point about 80 degrees above,” moving from the south, southeast, where it first appeared, to the northeast, traveling against the wind. “For half an hour this form was visible,” writes Fort. “When it did finally disappear [it] was not because it disintegrated like a cloud, but because it was lost to sight in the evening darkness.”
Aside from the extraordinary duration – most UFO sightings are a matter of minutes or seconds – this 1870 event replicates many of the characteristics common to UFO sightings more than a century later. These include the circular shape, the gray, metallic color and the ability to travel against the wind, which would seemingly rule out such mundane sources as weather balloons and – the skeptics’ favorite – airborne hoaxes of a hot-air nature, i.e., kites or plastic bags with candles attached. Needless to say, any reliable 1870 or earlier sighting would also rule out the easy IFO “explanations” of airplane landing lights, satellites, advertising blimps and so on.
While it is true that rumor, speculation and tabloid sensationalism surround the UFO subject, it is with the collection, analysis and verification, as far as possible, of sober reports like the above that MUFON and other responsible UFO organizations are most concerned. The phenomenon can and should be approched dispassionately and scientifically from a variety of angles, perceptual, psychological and sociological, to name but a few. If objects from another planet are indeed visiting ours, what form of propulsion system and other technologies are employed? What kinds of biological lifeforms might be onboard? What God or gods will they worship?
And how will UFO occupants – now or in the future, immediate or remote – perceive humans: as mental, emotional and spiritual equals or as vastly subpar inferiors? Should the skeptics prove right, in a “worst-case” scenario, and UFOs turn out out to be nothing more than a convoluted space age myth of our own making, surely our perceptions of the UFO phenomenon will tell us much about the contents and inner working, the built-in “plumbing” of the human mind and perhaps consciousness itself? In either event – including other scenarios and potential explanations as yet unformulated – many unanswered questions remain. It can hardly be against human nature, or the scientific method in principle, to ask and to seek answers to those questions. We welcome your assistance!
Dennis Stacy , Editor, MUFON UFO Journal