1952 Washington, D.C. UFO incident
by Edward J. Ruppelt
No flying saucer report in the history of the UFO ever won more world acclaim than the Washington National Sightings.
When radars at the Washington National Airport and at Andrews AFB, both close to the nation’s capital, picked up UFO’s, the sightings beat the Democratic National Convention out of headline space. They created such a furor that I had inquiries from the office of the President of the United States and from the press in London, Ottawa, and Mexico City. A junior-sized riot was only narrowly averted in the lobby of the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington when I refused to tell U.S. newspaper reporters what I knew about the sightings.
Besides being the most highly publicized UFO sightings in the Air Force annals, they were also the most monumentally fouled-up messes that repose in the files. Although the Air Force said that the incident had been fully investigated, the Civil Aeronautics Authority wrote a formal report on the sightings, and numerous magazine writers studied them, the complete story has never fully been told. The pros have been left out of the con accounts, and the cons were neatly overlooked by the pro writers.
For a year after the twin sightings we were still putting little pieces in the puzzle.
In some aspects the Washington National Sightings could be classed as a surprise—we used this as an excuse when things got fouled up—but in other ways they weren’t. A few days prior to the incident a scientist, from an agency that I can’t name, and I were talking about the build-up of reports along the east coast of the United States. We talked for about two hours, and I was ready to leave when he said that he had one last comment to make—a prediction. From his study of the UFO reports that he was getting from Air Force Headquarters, and from discussions with his colleagues, he said that he thought that we were sitting right on top of a big keg full of loaded flying saucers. “Within the next few days,” he told me, and I remember that he punctuated his slow, deliberate remarks by hitting the desk with his fist, “they’re going to blow up and you’re going to have the granddaddy of all UFO sightings. The sighting will occur in Washington or New York,” he predicted, “probably Washington.”
The trend in the UFO reports that this scientist based his prediction on hadn’t gone unnoticed. We on Project Blue Book had seen it, and so had the people in the Pentagon; we all had talked about it.
On July 10 the crew of a National Airlines plane reported a light “too bright to be a lighted balloon and too slow to be a big meteor” while they were flying south at 2,000 feet near Quantico, Virginia, just south of Washington.
On July 13 another airliner crew reported that when they were 60 miles southwest of Washington, at 11,000 feet, they saw a light below them. It came up to their level, hovered off to the left for several minutes, and then it took off in a fast, steep climb when the pilot turned on his landing lights.
On July 14 the crew of a Pan American airliner en route from New York to Miami reported eight UFO’s near Newport News, Virginia, about 130 miles south of Washington.
Two nights later there was another sighting in exactly the same area but from the ground. At 9:00 P.M. a high-ranking civilian scientist from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Laboratory at Langley AFB and another man were standing near the ocean looking south over Hampton Roads when they saw two amber-colored lights, “much too large to be aircraft lights,” off to their right, silently traveling north. Just before the two lights got abreast of the two men they made a 180-degree turn and started back toward the spot where they had first been seen. As they turned, the two lights seemed to “jockey for position in the formation.” About this time a third light came out of the west and joined the first two; then as the three UFO’s climbed out of the area toward the south, several more lights joined the formation. The entire episode had lasted only three minutes. The only possible solution to the sighting was that the two men had seen airplanes. We investigated this report and found that there were several B-26’s from Langley AFB in the area at the time of the sighting, but none of the B-26 pilots remembered being over Hampton Roads. In fact, all of them had generally stayed well south of Norfolk until about 10:30 P.M. because of thunderstorm activity northwest of Langley. Then there were other factors—the observers heard no sound and they were away from all city noises, aircraft don’t carry just one or two amber lights, and the distance between the two lights was such that had they been on an airplane the airplane would have been huge or very close to the observers. And last, but not least, the man from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was a very famous aerodynamicist and of such professional stature that if he said the lights weren’t airplanes they weren’t.
This then was the big build-up to the first Washington national sighting and the reason why my friend predicted that the Air Force was sitting on a big powder keg of loaded flying saucers.
When the keg blew the best laid schemes of the mice and men at ATIC, they went the way best laid schemes are supposed to. The first one of the highly publicized Washington national sightings started, according to the CAA’s logbook at the airport, at 11:40 P.M. on the night of July 19 when two radars at National Airport picked up eight unidentified targets east and south of Andrews AFB. The targets weren’t airplanes because they would loaf along at 100 to 130 miles an hour then suddenly accelerate to “fantastically high speeds” and leave the area. During the night the crews of several airliners saw mysterious lights in the same locations that the radars showed the targets; tower operators also saw lights, and jet fighters were brought in.
But nobody bothered to tell Air Force Intelligence about the sighting. When reporters began to call intelligence and ask about the big sighting behind the headlines, INTERCEPTORS CHASE FLYING SAUCERS OVER WASHINGTON, D.C., they were told that no one had ever heard of such a sighting. In the next edition the headlines were supplemented by, AIR FORCE WON’T TALK.
Thus intelligence was notified about the first Washington national sighting.
I heard about the sighting about ten o’clock Monday morning when Colonel Donald Bower and I got off an airliner from Dayton and I bought a newspaper in the lobby of the Washington National Airport Terminal Building. I called the Pentagon from the airport and talked to Major Dewey Fournet, but all he knew was what he’d read in the papers. He told me that he had called the intelligence officer at Bolling AFB and that he was making an investigation. We would get a preliminary official report by noon.
It was about 1:00 P.M. when Major Fournet called me and said that the intelligence officer from Bolling was in his office with the preliminary report on the sightings. I found Colonel Bower, we went up to Major Fournet’s office and listened to the intelligence officer’s briefing.
The officer started by telling us about the location of the radars involved in the incident. Washington National Airport, which is located about three miles south of the heart of the city, had two radars. One was a long-range radar in the Air Route Traffic Control section. This radar had 100-mile range and was used to control all air traffic approaching Washington. It was known as the ARTC radar. The control tower at National Airport had a shorter-range radar that it used to control aircraft in the immediate vicinity of the airport. Bolling AFB, he said, was located just east of National Airport, across the Potomac River. Ten miles farther east, in almost a direct line with National and Bolling, was Andrews AFB. It also had a short-range radar. All of these airfields were linked together by an intercom system.
Then the intelligence officer went on to tell about the sighting.
When a new shift took over at the ARTC radar room at National Airport, the air traffic was light so only one man was watching the radarscope. The senior traffic controller and the six other traffic controllers on the shift were out of the room at eleven-forty, when the man watching the radarscope noticed a group of seven targets appear. From their position on the scope he knew that they were just east and a little south of Andrews AFB. In a way the targets looked like a formation of slow airplanes, but no formations were due in the area. As he watched, the targets loafed along at 100 to 130 miles an hour; then in an apparent sudden burst of speed two of them streaked out of radar range. These were no airplanes, the man thought, so he let out a yell for the senior controller. The senior controller took one look at the scope and called in two more of the men. They all agreed that these were no airplanes. The targets could be caused by a malfunction in the radar, they thought, so a technician was called in—the set was in perfect working order.
The senior controller then called the control tower at National Airport; they reported that they also had unidentified targets on their scopes, so did Andrews. And both of the other radars reported the same slow speeds followed by a sudden burst of speed. One target was clocked at 7,000 miles an hour. By now the targets had moved into every sector of the scope and had flown through the prohibited flying areas over the White House and the Capitol.
Several times during the night the targets passed close to commercial airliners in the area and on two occasions the pilots of the airliners saw lights that they couldn’t identify, and the lights were in the same spots where the radar showed UFO’s to be. Other pilots to whom the ARTC radar men talked on the radio didn’t see anything odd, at least that’s what they said, but the senior controller knew airline pilots and knew that they were very reluctant to report UFO’s.
The first sighting of a light by an airline pilot took place shortly after midnight, when an ARTC controller called the pilot of a Capital Airlines flight just taking off from National. The controller asked the pilot to keep watch for unusual lights—or anything. Soon after the pilot cleared the traffic pattern, and while ARTC was still in contact with him, he suddenly yelled, “There’s one—off to the right—and there it goes.” The controller had been watching the scope, and a target that had been off to the right of the Capitaliner was gone.
During the next fourteen minutes this pilot reported six more identical lights.
About two hours later another pilot, approaching National Airport from the south, excitedly called the control tower to report that a light was following him at “eight o’clock level.” The tower checked their radarscope and there was a target behind and to the left of the airliner. The ARTC radar also had the airliner and the UFO target. The UFO tagged along behind and to the left of the airliner until it was within four miles of touchdown on the runway. When the pilot reported the light was leaving, the two radarscopes showed that the target was pulling away from the airliner.
Once during the night all three radars, the two at Washington and the one at Andrews AFB, picked up a target three miles north of the Riverdale Radio beacon, north of Washington. For thirty seconds the three radar operators compared notes about the target over the intercom, then suddenly the target was gone—and it left all three radarscopes simultaneously.
But the clincher came in the wee hours of the morning, when an ARTC traffic controller called the control tower at Andrews AFB and told the tower operators that ARTC had a target just south of their tower, directly over the Andrews Radio range station. The tower operators looked and there was a “huge fiery-orange sphere” hovering in the sky directly over their range station.
Not too long after this excitement had started, in fact just after the technician had checked the radar and found that the targets weren’t caused by a radar malfunction, ARTC had called for Air Force interceptors to come in and look around. But they didn’t show, and finally ARTC called again—then again. Finally, just about daylight, an F-94 arrived, but by that time the targets were gone. The F-94 crew searched the area for a few minutes but they couldn’t find anything unusual so they returned to their base.
So ended phase one of the Washington National Sightings.
The Bolling AFB intelligence officer said he would write up the complete report and forward it to ATIC.
That afternoon things bustled in the Pentagon. Down on the first floor Al Chop was doing his best to stave off the press while up on the fourth floor intelligence officers were holding some serious conferences. There was talk of temperature inversions and the false targets they could cause; but the consensus was that a good radar operator could spot inversion-caused targets, and the traffic controllers who operated the radar at Washington National Airport weren’t just out of radar school. Every day the lives of thousands of people depended upon their interpretation of the radar targets they saw on their scopes. And you don’t get a job like this unless you’ve spent a good many years watching a luminous line paint targets on a good many radarscopes. Targets caused by inversions aren’t rare—in the years that these men had been working with radar they had undoubtedly seen every kind of target, real or false, that radar can detect. They had told the Bolling AFB intelligence officer that the targets they saw were caused by the radar waves’ bouncing off a hard, solid object. The Air Force radar operator at Andrews backed them up; so did two veteran airline pilots who saw lights right where the radar showed a UFO to be.
Then on top of all this there were the reports from the Washington area during the previous two weeks—all good—all from airline pilots or equally reliable people.
To say the least, the sighting at Washington National was a jolt.
Besides trying to figure out what the Washington National UFO’s were, we had the problem of what to tell the press. They were now beginning to put on a squeeze by threatening to call a congressman—and nothing chills blood faster in the military. They wanted some kind of an official statement and they wanted it soon. Some people in intelligence wanted to say just, “We don’t know,” but others held out for a more thorough investigation. I happened to be in this latter category. Many times in the past I had seen what first seemed to be a good UFO report completely fall apart under a thorough investigation. I was for stalling the press and working all night if necessary to go into every aspect of the sighting. But to go along with the theme of the Washington National Sightings—confusion—there was a lot of talk but no action and the afternoon passed with no further investigation.
Finally about 4:00 P.M. it was decided that the press, who still wanted an official comment, would get an official “No comment” and that I would stay in Washington and make a more detailed investigation.
I called Lieutenant Andy Flues, who was in charge of Project Blue Book while I was gone, to tell him that I was staying over and I found out that they were in a de luxe flap back in Dayton. Reports were pouring out of the teletype machines at the rate of thirty a day and many were as good, if not better, than the Washington incident. I talked this over with Colonel Bower and we decided that even though things were popping back at ATIC the Washington sighting, from the standpoint of national interest, was more important.
Feeling like a national martyr because I planned to work all night if necessary, I laid the course of my investigation. I would go to Washington National Airport, Andrews AFB, airlines offices, the weather bureau, and a half dozen other places scattered all over the capital city. I called the transportation section at the Pentagon to get a staff car but it took me only seconds to find out that the regulations said no staff cars except for senior colonels or generals. Colonel Bower tried—same thing. General Samford and General Garland were gone, so I couldn’t get them to try to pressure a staff car out of the hillbilly who was dispatching vehicles. I went down to the finance office—could I rent a car and charge it as travel expense? No—city buses are available. But I didn’t know the bus system and it would take me hours to get to all the places I had to visit, I pleaded. You can take a cab if you want to pay for it out of your per diem was the answer. Nine dollars a day per diem and I should pay for a hotel room, meals, and taxi fares all over the District of Columbia. Besides, the lady in finance told me, my travel orders to Washington covered only a visit to the Pentagon. In addition, she said, I was supposed to be on my way back to Dayton right now, and if I didn’t go through all the red tape of getting the orders amended I couldn’t collect any per diem and technically I’d be AWOL. I couldn’t talk to the finance officer, the lady informed me, because he always left at 4:30 to avoid the traffic and it was now exactly five o’clock and she was quitting.
At five-one I decided that if saucers were buzzing Pennsylvania Avenue in formation I couldn’t care less. I called Colonel Bower, explained my troubles, and said that I was through. He concurred, and I caught the next airliner to Dayton. When I returned I dropped in to see Captain Roy James in the radar branch and told him about the sighting. He said that he thought it sounded as if the radar targets had been caused by weather but since he didn’t have the finer details he naturally couldn’t make any definite evaluation.
The good UFO reports that Lieutenant Flues had told me about when I called him from Washington had tripled in number before I got around to looking at them. Our daily take had risen to forty a day, and about a third of them were classified as unknowns.
More amber-red lights like those seen on July 18 had been observed over the Guided Missile Long-Range Proving Ground at Patrick AFB, Florida. In Uvalde, Texas, a UFO described as “a large, round, silver object that spun on its vertical axis” was seen to cross 100 degrees of afternoon sky in forty-eight seconds. During part of its flight it passed between two towering cumulus clouds. At Los Alamos and Holyoke, Massachusetts, jets had chased UFO’s. In both cases the UFO’s had been lost as they turned into the sun.
In two night encounters, one in New Jersey and one in Massachusetts, F-94’s tried unsuccessfully to intercept unidentified lights reported by the Ground Observer Corps. In both cases the pilots of the radar-nosed jet interceptors saw a light; they closed in and their radar operators got a lock-on. But the lock-ons were broken in a few seconds, in both cases, as the light apparently took violent evasive maneuvers.
Copies of these and other reports were going to the Pentagon, and I was constantly on the phone or having teleconferences with Major Fournet.
When the second Washington National Sighting came along, almost a week to the hour from the first one, by a stroke of luck things weren’t too fouled up. The method of reporting the sighting didn’t exactly follow the official reporting procedures that are set forth in Air Force Letter 200-5, dated 5 April 1952, Subject: Reporting of Unidentified Flying Objects—but it worked.
I first heard about the sighting about ten o’clock in the evening when I received a telephone call from Bob Ginna, Life magazine’s UFO expert. He had gotten the word from Life’s Washington News Bureau and wanted a statement about what the Air Force planned to do. I decided that instead of giving a mysterious “no comment” I would tell the truth: “I have no idea what the Air Force is doing; in all probability it’s doing nothing.” When he hung up, I called the intelligence duty officer in the Pentagon and I was correct, intelligence hadn’t heard about the sighting. I asked the duty officer to call Major Fournet and ask him if he would go out to the airport, which was only two or three miles from his home. When he got the call from the duty officer Major Fournet called Lieutenant Holcomb; they drove to the ARTC radar room at National Airport and found Al Chop already there. So at this performance the UFO’s had an official audience; Al Chop, Major Dewey Fournet, and Lieutenant Holcomb, a Navy electronics specialist assigned to the Air Force Directorate of Intelligence, all saw the radar targets and heard the radio conversations as jets tried to intercept the UFO’s.
Being in Dayton, 380 miles away, there wasn’t much that I could do, but I did call Captain Roy James thinking possibly he might want to talk on the phone to the people who were watching the UFO’s on the radarscopes. But Captain James has a powerful dislike for UFO’s—especially on Saturday night.
About five o’clock Sunday morning Major Fournet called and told me the story of the second sighting at Washington National Airport:
About 10:30 P.M. on July 26 the same radar operators who had seen the UFO’s the week before picked up several of the same slow-moving targets. This time the mysterious craft, if that is what they were, were spread out in an arc around Washington from Herndon, Virginia, to Andrews AFB. This time there was no hesitation in following the targets. The minute they appeared on the big 24-inch radarscope one of the controllers placed a plastic marker representing an unidentified target near each blip on the scope. When all the targets had been carefully marked, one of the controllers called the tower and the radar station at Andrews AFB—they also had the unknown targets.
By 11:30 P.M. four or five of the targets were continually being tracked at all times, so once again a call went out for jet interceptors. Once again there was some delay, but by midnight two F-94’s from New Castle County AFB were airborne and headed south. The reporters and photographers were asked to leave the radar room on the pretext that classified radio frequencies and procedures were being used in vectoring the interceptors. All civilian air traffic was cleared out of the area and the jets moved in.
When I later found out that the press had been dismissed on the grounds that the procedures used in an intercept were classified, I knew that this was absurd because any ham radio operator worth his salt could build equipment and listen in on any intercept. The real reason for the press dismissal, I learned, was that not a few people in the radar room were positive that this night would be the big night in UFO history—the night when a pilot would close in on and get a good look at a UFO—and they didn’t want the press to be in on it.
But just as the two ’94’s arrived in the area the targets disappeared from the radarscopes. The two jets were vectored into the areas where the radar had shown the last target plots, but even though the visibility was excellent they could see nothing. The two airplanes stayed around a few minutes more, made a systematic search of the area, but since they still couldn’t see anything or pick up anything on their radars they returned to their base.
A few minutes after the F-94’s left the Washington area, the unidentified targets were back on the radarscopes in that same area.
What neither Major Fournet nor I knew at this time was that a few minutes after the targets left the radarscopes in Washington people in the area around Langley AFB near Newport News, Virginia, began to call Langley Tower to report that they were looking at weird bright lights that were “rotating and giving off alternating colors.” A few minutes after the calls began to come in, the tower operators themselves saw the same or a similar light and they called for an interceptor.
An F-94 in the area was contacted and visually vectored to the light by the tower operators. The F-94 saw the light and started toward it, but suddenly it went out, “like somebody turning off a light bulb.” The F-94 crew continued their run and soon got a radar lock-on, but it was broken in a few seconds as the target apparently sped away. The fighter stayed in the area for several more minutes and got two more lock-ons, only to have them also broken after a few seconds.
A few minutes after the F-94 over Newport News had the last lock-on broken, the targets came back on the scopes at Washington National.
With the targets back at Washington the traffic controller again called Air Defense Command, and once again two F-94’s roared south toward Washington. This time the targets stayed on the radarscopes when the airplanes arrived.
The controllers vectored the jets toward group after group of targets, but each time, before the jets could get close enough to see anything more than just a light, the targets had sped away. Then one stayed put. The pilot saw a light right where the ARTC radar said a target was located; he cut in the F-94’s afterburner and went after it, but just like the light that the F-94 had chased near Langley AFB, this one also disappeared. All during the chase the radar operator in the F-94 was trying to get the target on his set but he had no luck.
After staying in the area about twenty minutes, the jets began to run low on fuel and returned to their base. Minutes later it began to get light, and when the sun came up all the targets were gone.
Early Sunday morning, in an interview with the press, the Korean veteran who piloted the F-94, Lieutenant William Patterson, said: I tried to make contact with the bogies below 1,000 feet, but they [the radar controllers] vectored us around. I saw several bright lights. I was at my maximum speed, but even then I had no closing speed. I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking them. I was vectored into new objects. Later I chased a single bright light which I estimated about 10 miles away. I lost visual contact with it about 2 miles.
When Major Fournet finished telling me about the night’s activity, my first question was, “How about the radar targets—could they have been caused by weather?”
I knew that Lieutenant Holcomb was a sharp electronics man and that Major Fournet, although no electronics specialist, was a crackerjack engineer, so their opinion meant a lot.
Dewey said that everybody in the radar room was convinced that the targets were very probably caused by solid metallic objects. There had been weather targets on the scope too, he said, but these were common to the Washington area and the controllers were paying no attention to them.
And this something solid could poke along at 100 miles an hour or outdistance a jet, I thought to myself.
I didn’t ask Dewey any more because he’d been up all night and wanted to get to bed.
Monday morning Major Ed Gregory, another intelligence officer at ATIC, and I left for Washington, but our flight was delayed in Dayton so we didn’t arrive until late afternoon. On the way through the terminal building to get a cab downtown, I picked up the evening papers. Every headline was about the UFO’s:
FIERY OBJECTS OUTRUN JETS OVER CAPITAL—INVESTIGATION VEILED IN SECRECY FOLLOWING VAIN CHASE
JETS ALERTED FOR SAUCERS—INTERCEPTORS CHASE LIGHTS IN D.C. SKIES
EXPERT HERE TO PUSH STUDY AS OBJECTS IN SKIES REPORTED AGAIN
[paragraph continues] I jokingly commented about wondering who the expert was. In a half hour I found out—I was. When Major Gregory and I walked into the lobby of the Roger Smith Hotel to check in, reporters and photographers rose from the easy chairs and divans like a covey of quail. They wanted my secrets, but I wasn’t going to tell nor would I pose for pictures while I wasn’t telling anything. Newspaper reporters are a determined lot, but Greg ran interference and we reached the elevator without even a “no comment.”
The next day was one of confusion. After the first Washington sighting the prevailing air in the section of the Pentagon’s fourth floor, which is occupied by Air Force Intelligence, could be described as excitement, but this day it was confusion. There was a maximum of talk and a minimum of action. Everyone agreed that both sightings should be thoroughly investigated, but nobody did anything. Major Fournet and I spent the entire morning “just leaving” for somewhere to investigate “something.” Every time we would start to leave, something more pressing would come up.
About 10:00 A.M. the President’s air aide, Brigadier General Landry, called intelligence at President Truman’s request to find out what was going on. Somehow I got the call. I told General Landry that the radar target could have been caused by weather but that we had no proof.
To add to the already confused situation, new UFO reports were coming in hourly. We kept them quiet mainly because we weren’t able to investigate them right away, or even confirm the facts. And we wanted to confirm the facts because some of the reports, even though they were from military sources, were difficult to believe.
Prior to the Washington sightings in only a very few of the many instances in which radar had picked up UFO targets had the targets themselves supposedly been seen visually. Radar experts had continually pointed out this fact to us as an indication that maybe all of the radar targets were caused by freak weather conditions. “If people had just seen a light, or an object, near where the radar showed the UFO target to be, you would have a lot more to worry about,” radar technicians had told me many times.
Now people were seeing the same targets that the radars were picking up, and not just at Washington.
On the same night as the second Washington sighting we had a really good report from California. An ADC radar had picked up an unidentified target and an F-94C had been scrambled. The radar vectored the jet interceptor into the target, the radar operator in the ’94 locked-on to it, and as the airplane closed in the pilot and RO saw that they were headed directly toward a large, yellowish-orange light. For several minutes they played tag with the UFO. Both the radar on the ground and the radar in the F-94 showed that as soon as the airplane would get almost within gunnery range of the UFO it would suddenly pull away at a terrific speed. Then in a minute or two it would slow down enough to let the F-94 catch it again.
When I talked to the F-94 crew on the phone, the pilot said that they felt as if this were just a big aerial cat-and-mouse game—and they didn’t like it—at any moment they thought the cat might have pounced.
Needless to say, this was an unknown.
About midmorning on Tuesday, July 29th, Major General John Samford sent word down that he would hold a press conference that afternoon in an attempt to straighten out the UFO situation with the press.
Donald Keyhoe reports on the press conference and the events leading up to it in detail in his book, Flying Saucers from Outer Space. He indicates that before the conference started, General Samford sat behind his big walnut desk in Room 3A138 in the Pentagon and battled with his conscience. Should he tell the public “the real truth”—that our skies are loaded with spaceships? No, the public might panic. The only answer would be to debunk the UFO’s.
This bit of reporting makes Major Keyhoe the greatest journalist in history. This beats wire tapping. He reads minds. And not only that, he can read them right through the walls of the Pentagon. But I’m glad that Keyhoe was able to read the General’s mind and that he wrote the true and accurate facts about what he was really thinking because I spent quite a bit of time talking to the General that day and he sure fooled me. I had no idea he was worried about what he should tell the public.
When the press conference, which was the largest and longest the Air Force had held since World War II, convened at 4:00 P.M., General Samford made an honest effort to straighten out the Washington National Sightings, but the cards were stacked against him before he started. He had to hedge on many answers to questions from the press because he didn’t know the answers. This hedging gave the impression that he was trying to cover up something more than just the fact that his people had fouled up in not fully investigating the sightings. Then he had brought in Captain Roy James from ATIC to handle all the queries about radar. James didn’t do any better because he’d just arrived in Washington that morning and didn’t know very much more about the sightings than he’d read in the papers. Major Dewey Fournet and Lieutenant Holcomb, who had been at the airport during the sightings, were extremely conspicuous by their absence, especially since it was common knowledge among the press that they weren’t convinced the UFO’s picked up on radars were weather targets.
But somehow out of this chaotic situation came exactly the result that was intended—the press got off our backs. Captain James’s answers about the possibility of the radar targets’ being caused by temperature inversions had been construed by the press to mean that this was the Air Force’s answer, even though today the twin sightings are still carried as unknowns.
The next morning headlines from Bangor to Bogota read:
AIR FORCE DEBUNKS SAUCERS AS JUST NATURAL PHENOMENA
The Washington National Sightings proved one thing, something that many of us already knew: in order to forestall any more trouble similar to what we’d just been through we always had to get all of the facts and not try to hide them. A great deal of the press’s interest was caused by the Air Force’s reluctance to give out any information, and the reluctance on the part of the Air Force was caused by simply not having gone out to find the answers.
But had someone gone out and made a more thorough investigation a few big questions would have popped up and taken some of the intrigue out of the two reports. It took me a year to put the question marks together because I just picked up the information as I happened to run across it, but it could have been collected in a day of concentrated effort.
There was some doubt about the visual sighting of the “large fiery-orange-colored sphere” that the tower operators at Andrews AFB saw when the radar operators at National Airport told them they had a target over the Andrews Radio range station. When the tower operators were later interrogated they completely changed their story and said that what they saw was merely a star. They said that on the night of the sighting they “had been excited.” (According to astronomical charts, there were no exceptionally bright stars where the UFO was seen over the range station, however. And I heard from a good source that the tower men had been “persuaded” a bit.)
Then the pilot of the F-94C changed his mind even after he’d given the press and later told me his story about vainly trying to intercept unidentified lights. In an official report he says that all he saw was a ground light reflecting off a layer of haze.
Another question mark arose about the lights that the airline pilots saw. Months after the sighting I heard from one of the pilots whom the ARTC controllers called to learn if he could see a UFO. This man’s background was also impressive, he had been flying in and out of Washington since 1936. This is what he had to say:
The most outstanding incident happened just after a take-off one night from Washington National. The tower man advised us that there was a UFO ahead of us on the take-off path and asked if we would aid in tracking it down. We were given headings to follow and shortly we were advised that we had passed the UFO and would be given a new heading. None of us in the cockpit had seen anything unusual. Several runs were made; each time the tower man advised us we were passing the UFO we noticed that we were over one certain section of the Potomac River, just east of Alexandria. Finally we were asked to visually check the terrain below for anything which might cause such an illusion. We looked and the only object we could see where the radar had a target turned out to be the Wilson Lines moonlight steamboat trip to Mount Vernon. Whether there was an altitude gimmick on the radar unit at the time I do not know but the radar was sure as hell picking up the steamboat.
[paragraph continues] The pilot went on to say that there is such a conglomeration of lights around the Washington area that no matter where you look you see a “mysterious light.”
Then there was another point: although the radars at Washington National and Andrews overlap, and many of the targets appeared in the overlap area, only once did the three radars simultaneously pick up a target.
The investigation brought out a few more points on the pro side too. We found out that the UFO’s frequently visited Washington. On May 23 fifty targets had been tracked from 8:00 P.M. till midnight. They were back on the Wednesday night between the two famous Saturday-night sightings, the following Sunday night, and again the night of the press conference; then during August they were seen eight more times. On several occasions military and civilian pilots saw lights exactly where the radar showed the UFO’s to be.
On each night that there was a sighting there was a temperature inversion but it was never strong enough to affect the radar the way inversions normally do. On each occasion I checked the strength of the inversion according to the methods used by the Air Defense Command Weather Forecast Center.
Then there was another interesting fact: hardly a night passed in June, July, and August in 1952 that there wasn’t an inversion in Washington, yet the slow-moving, “solid” radar targets appeared on only a few nights. But the one big factor on the pro side of the question is the people involved—good radar men—men who deal in human lives. Each day they use their radar to bring thousands of people into Washington National Airport and with a responsibility like this they should know a real target from a weather target.
So the Washington National Airport Sightings are still unknowns.
Had the press been aware of some of the other UFO activity in the United States during this period, the Washington sightings might not have been the center of interest. True, they could be classed as good reports but they were not the best that we were getting. In fact, less than six hours after the ladies and gentlemen of the press said “Thank you” to General Samford for his press conference, and before the UFO’s could read the newspapers and find out that they were natural phenomena, one of them came down across the Canadian border into Michigan. The incident that occurred that night was one of those that even the most ardent skeptic would have difficulty explaining. I’ve heard a lot of them try and I’ve heard them all fail.
At nine-forty on the evening of the twenty-ninth an Air Defense Command radar station in central Michigan started to get plots on a target that was coming straight south across Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron at 625 miles an hour. A quick check of flight plans on file showed that it was an unidentified target.
Three F-94’s were in the area just northeast of the radar station, so the ground controller called one of the F-94’s and told the pilot to intercept the unidentified target. The F-94 pilot started climbing out of the practice area on an intercept heading that the ground controller gave him. When the F-94 was at 20,000 feet, the ground controller told the pilot to turn to the right and he would be on the target. The pilot started to bring the F-94 around and at that instant both he and the radar operator in the back seat saw that they were turning toward a large bluish-white light, “many times larger than a star.” In the next second or two the light “took on a reddish tinge, and slowly began to get smaller, as if it were moving away.” Just then the ground controller called and said that he still had both the F-94 and the unidentified target on his scope and that the target had just made a tight 180-degree turn. The turn was too tight for a jet, and at the speed the target was traveling it would have to be a jet if it were an airplane. Now the target was heading back north. The F-94 pilot gave the engine full power and cut in the afterburner to give chase. The radar operator in the back seat got a good radar lock-on. Later he said, “It was just as solid a lock-on as you get from a B-36.” The object was at 4 miles range and the F-94 was closing slowly. For thirty seconds they held the lock-on; then, just as the ground controller was telling the pilot that he was closing in, the light became brighter and the object pulled away to break the lock-on. Without breaking his transmission, the ground controller asked if the radar operator still had the lock-on because on the scope the distance between two blips had almost doubled in one sweep of the antenna. This indicated that the unknown target had almost doubled its speed in a matter of seconds. For ten minutes the ground radar followed the chase. At times the unidentified target would slow down and the F-94 would start to close the gap, but always, just as the F-94 was getting within radar range, the target would put on a sudden burst of speed and pull away from the pursuing jet. The speed of the UFO—for by this time all concerned had decided that was what it was—couldn’t be measured too accurately because its bursts of speed were of such short duration; but on several occasions the UFO traveled about 4 miles in one ten-second sweep of the antenna, or about 1,400 miles an hour.
The F-94 was getting low on fuel, and the pilot had to break off the chase a minute or two before the UFO got out of range of the ground radar. The last few plots on the UFO weren’t too good but it looked as if the target slowed down to 200 to 300 miles an hour as soon as the F-94 turned around.
What was it? It obviously wasn’t a balloon or a meteor. It might have been another airplane except that in 1952 there was nothing flying, except a few experimental airplanes that were far from Michigan, that could so easily outdistance an F-94. Then there was the fact that radar clocked it at 1,400 miles an hour. The F-94 was heading straight for the star Capella, which is low on the horizon and is very brilliant, but what about the radar contacts? Some people said “Weather targets,” but the chances of a weather target’s making a 180-degree turn just as an airplane turns into it, giving a radar lock-on, then changing speed to stay just out of range of the airplane’s radar, and then slowing down when the airplane leaves is as close to nil as you can get.
What was it? A lot of people I knew were absolutely convinced this report was the key—the final proof. Even if all of the thousands of other UFO reports could be discarded on a technicality, this one couldn’t be. These people believed that this report in itself was proof enough to officially accept the fact that UFO’s were interplanetary spaceships. And when some people refused to believe even this report, the frustration was actually pitiful to see.
As the end of July approached, there was a group of officers in intelligence fighting hard to get the UFO “recognized.” At ATIC, Project Blue Book was still trying to be impartial—but sometimes it was difficult.