general samford meets the press
Note: This Spotlight 1952 entry focuses on the Air Force response to events related in In The News 1952 - Part Nine and In The News 1952 - Part Twelve, when radar-visual reports of unidentified aerial objects over the Washington, D.C., area occurred over two successive weekends in late July of that pivotal year.
Above: From 1948, an Air Force C-54 with a cargo of relief supplies lands at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport as part of the "Berlin Airlift". The airlift was a response to the closure of roads and rail lines in Soviet-controlled areas of Germany, cutting off fuel and food to the people of West Berlin, then under American and British control.
THE SEVEN YEARS FOLLOWING the end of World War II brought to the world only a turbulent and troubled peace.
By 1946 Winston Churchill was loudly warning that the Soviets had lowered an "iron curtain" across Europe. In 1948 a Russian blockade of Berlin carried with it the potential to ignite World War III with each of the 200,000 American relief flights over Soviet-controlled territory. In early 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, declaring that any attack against Britain, France or other western nations would be treated as an act of war against the United States itself. By the end of 1949, communist revolutionaries had won control of China, and Russia had set off its first atomic weapon. Close on its heels the first war between these new global forces erupted in deadly earnest in Korea, where 'MiG alley' became the world's first battlefield for jet fighters and the superior performance of Russian MiGs shocked the American public.
Yet the largest and longest military press conference since World War II would be about none of these, but instead address reports of aerial intruders -- commonly labeled 'flying saucers' -- over the nation's capital in early summer, 1952.
This is the story behind that press conference...
Above: Articles from the July 18, 1952 editions of the Pittsburgh Press and the Youngstown Vindicator. Captain E.J. Ruppelt had been at the helm of Project Blue Book since late 1951.
THE REPORTS OF UNKNOWNS over D.C. in late July, 1952 had been the apex of reports nationwide which had already been building steadily in number for months. Captain Ed Ruppelt, who headed the Air Force's five-year old investigation into the mystery, formally known as the Aerial Phenomena Group, but more generally known under its code name Project Blue Book (located at the Air Technical Intelligence Center -- ATIC -- at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio), would write:
In May 1952, Project Blue Book received seventy-nine UFO reports compared to ninety-nine in April. It looked as if we'd passed the peak and were now on the downhill side. The 178 reports of the past two months, not counting the thousand or so letters that we'd received directly from the public, had piled up a sizable backlog since we'd had time to investigate and analyze only the better reports. During June we planned to clear out the backlog, and then we could relax.
But never underestimate the power of a UFO...
In early June 1952 the Air Force was unknowingly in the initial stages of a flap -- a flying saucer flap -- the flying saucer flap of 1952. The situation had never been duplicated before, and it hasn't been duplicated since. All records for the number of UFO reports were not just broken, they were disintegrated. In 1948, 167 UFO reports had come into ATIC; this was considered a big year. In June 1952 we received 149. During the four years the Air Force had been in the UFO business, 615 reports had been collected. During the "Big Flap" our incoming message log showed 717 reports.
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
So big was the "Big Flap" that in Blue Book's official internal Air Force status report for the period Ruppelt would state simply:
The period since the last status report... has produced a volume of reports exceeding the total number of reports received in the period 1947 to 31 Dec 51. For the month of Jul 52, the total was over 440 reports. During the period 1 Jun 52 to 31 Oct 52, the period covered by this status report, 886 reports have been received... This total of 886 represents 149 more reports than had been received during the previous five-year period this project has been existence. It should be noted that these reports are those coming through official channels to ATIC and do not include the approximately 800 letters received from the public during this period.
But of the 1,064 official reports and approximately 1800 letters from the public received by Blue Book over a seven-month period between April and October, 1952, it would be the D.C. events which would draw the lion's share of public attention.
Above: Article from the July 28, 1952 edition of the Chester Times focusing on the events of the night of July 19/20, 1952.
THE FIRST OF THE REPORTS of unknowns in the skies of D.C. would be popularly portrayed as those made by the control tower operators at Washington National Airport beginning in the late evening of July 19. But in fact, there had already been a series of Washington-area events that July:
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 enroute 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.
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
But except for the July 14th Pan American report the public had no inkling of the events near D.C. Then the first Washington National report of late Saturday, July 19, and early Sunday, July 20, burst into front-page headlines nationwide. Captain Ruppelt gives his account of those events:
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.
Above: Approximate locations of Washington National Airport ("WN"), Bolling AFB ("BAFB") and Andrews AFB ("AAFB") Graphic included for clarity and not included in Ruppelt's book.
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 radar-scope 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.
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
But for reasons which can only be surmised, Captain Ruppelt's retelling doesn't quite fit the facts, and his statement "nobody bothered to tell Air Force Intelligence about the sighting" is countered by a telex message that had already gone out (sent the afternoon of July 20 and date-stamped received July 21) from Andrews Air Force Base to both the office of the Air Force Director of Intelligence at the Pentagon and to the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright Field, Ohio -- where Project Blue Book was headquartered...
And four hours before the telex from Andrews, the Air Force was already aware of the reports from Washington National, as revealed by this telex sent to the Headquarters of Air Defense Command in Colorado and to ATIC in Dayton, Ohio -- home to Project Blue Book -- from "HQ USAF WASHDC", and date-stamped received at 7:21 a.m. the next morning...
Nor did Ruppelt first hear "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". In fact, it was the Air Force which first publicly "disclosed" the story to the papers the evening of Ruppelt's arrival in Washington on July 21, as reflected in national newswire stories published across the country the next day, such as this one...
WASHINGTON, July 21-- The Air Force disclosed tonight that radar operators at Washington's National Airport reported picking up eight unidentified "objects" on radar screens about midnight Saturday.
Adding to the conflict about who knew what when, is the fact that Ruppelt wrote a "Memorandum for the Record" dated July 23, 1952, where he stated...
The first notification of this incident was on the morning of 22 July 1952 when Col Bower and Capt Ruppelt were eating breakfast and read it in the Washington papers. They had been out at Andrews AFB the previous day and had not heard of it. They had contacted people from the D/I of MATS who also did not know of it.
But as the telex above shows, Andrews AFB did notify both the Pentagon and ATIC on the afternoon of Sunday, the 20th, which may well indicate that nobody on the receiving end paid much attention to the report until it somehow leaked out, forcing the Pentagon to respond -- or as the newswires put it, "disclose" -- on the evening of the 21st.
And such supposition of the Air Force being caught unawares by a leak is further supported by a certain amount of scrambling noted in that same "Memorandum for the Record" by Ruppelt...
Upon reporting to the Pentagon on the morning of 22 July 1952 they met Lt Col Teaburg, D/I Estimates Division; who stated that a Capt Berkow, D/I of Headquarters Command at Bolling, was coming in with the report of the incident. This was about 0900. At about 0930 Capt Berkow arrived and briefed Col Bower, Capt Ruppelt, Major Linder of ATIC, and others on the incident. He stated that a full report would be ready, and would be delivered to Col Bower by 1700. During the day several phone calls were received by Capt Ruppelt on this sighting. One was from the White House. They were advised that an investigation would be made.
And the scrambling apparently included what was told to the White House, as reflected in a different "Memorandum for the Record" by Ruppelt, detailing the events of July 22nd...
A telephone call was also received from a Gen Landry's secretary. She stated that the President had requested Gen Landry to find out the details of the sighting that had occurred in Washington on Saturday night. She was advised that ATIC had the report and was working on it and that an evaluation would be forthcoming.
But of course Ruppelt and others at that time were just learning of the events of that weekend, and mostly from newspapers reporting the "disclosure".
And it may well be that the report wasn't treated as urgent on the receiving end because of the casualness with which it was treated on the sending end, as revealed in senior radar controller Harry G. Barnes' statement of implied surprise and frustration at the Air Force reaction, told in his recounting the events of the evening, and included in Captain Berkow's July 22, 1952 investigation (note: "ADW" refers to Andrews AFB and "BOF" refers to Bolling AFB)...
At 2340E (19th) Controller Nugent called my attention to several targets observed on the VC-2 scope. Eight of them were counted and, although an occasional strong return was noted, most of the targets would be classified as fair to weak. After we had checked carefully on the movement (about 100 to 130 mph) and confirmed our findings with what the Tower saw on the ASR, I called MFS and reported it. This was about midnight EST. MFS later advised that the nearest military base was supposed to handle these matters and to call the BOF Intelligence Officer or AO. There was some confusion for awhile as to whether Andrews or Bolling was going to make the report, but it was finally determined that ADW would handle.
I called Thorndyke and asked if they could see them and was advised they saw nothing. Our MEW Maintenance then checked the equipment very carefully and advised that it was functioning satisfactorily and confirmed it with a fellow worker. (This lad tells me be has been working on this equipment for five years, so guess he knows what he is doing). The targets were noticed east and south of ADW so we asked the ADW tower to look and see if they saw anything, also asked ADW approach control to check scopes. ADW had a lad on the roof with glasses who spotted an object that looked to be orange in color and appeared to be just hovering in the vicinity of ADW. They saw others as time went on with varying descriptions. Most of this information was given to Thorndyke and MFS with the expectation that they would run an intercept.
The impression received from Thorndyke was to the effect that more information was needed to order an intercept. I told them our equipment was giving us good readings so we would be able to do any vectoring that might be necessary but they seemed to be leaving it all up to Smoke Ring. As time wore on, pilot reports ware received -- P807 saw 7 of the objects between Washington and Martinsburg variously described as lights that moved very rapidly, up and down and horizontally as well as hovering in one position and SP610 saw one come in with him from around Herndon and follow him to within 4 miles of touch-down. This was substantiated by Tower and Center radar.
In my conversation with MFS, ADW and the men on duty, we reached the point where we wondered just how much of this could go on and for how long, before something could be done about it. I contacted Smoke Ring finally about 300est. They were doing nothing about it so I asked if it was possible for something like this to happen, even though we gave them all this information, without anything being done about it. The man who was supposed to be in charge and to whom I had been talking said he guessed so. Then another voice came on who identified himself as the Combat Officer and said that all the information was being forwarded to higher authority and would not discuss it any further. I insisted I wanted to know if it was being forwarded tonight and he said yes, but would not give me any hint as to what was being done about all these things flying around Washington. He tried to assure me that something was being done about it. I asked too how he was getting his information. He said they would get it from Thorndyke and ADW. We were then told by ADW that they had no way of forwarding it to them. Smoke Ring then said that they were not really concerned about it anyway, that somebody else was supposed to handle it.
MFS then said that ADW was supposed to have forwarded it to Intelligence but when I checked with ADW (0505E) they said the AO had gone back to bed and the report would go in later. They confirmed the above by saying that they could not give it to anyone tonight.
It would be extremely difficult to write this so that it is in a logical sequence due to the confusion that seems to have existed throughout the whole affair. For example, ADW called us and asked what we wanted them to do with the information we had given them. (This took place after 0505E). At about 0530E Controller Ritchey reported seeing 10 targets in the vicinity of ADW which was confirmed by the other man in radar and I went in and counted 7 or 8 in scattered positions which indicated a very rapid movement if they were the same ones seen near ADW. This report was forwarded to both ADW and MFS. It was at this time that MFS advised they had determined that none of the information we had been giving to ADW was forwarded in accordance with procedures. MFS advised however, that they were following up with their own report.
At 0540E 7 targets counted in area.
And so it seems likely the events -- as far as becoming public -- transpired along these lines... after mostly ignoring the reports from Barnes at Washington National during the night, Andrews AFB sent a routine telex to the Pentagon and ATIC the afternoon of the Sunday, July 20th. It was treated as no big deal -- note that Ruppelt had been at Andrews AFB Monday the 21st and even there no one had mentioned it to him -- until it somehow leaked out to the press and the Air Force was forced to respond on the evening of Monday July 21st (the original source for the tip was likely someone connected with National Airport, rather than from Andrews AFB, as all the news stories framed the event in terms of objects being picked up by National Airport radar). The story caught fire and the Air Force treated it as a significant incident to be investigated, but only due to the public and subsequent political pressure that was rapidly being brought to bear.
All told, more the stuff of being caught with pants downs than of cover up, an embarrassing fact which Ruppelt was probably loathe to admit in his 1956 book -- and which, intentionally or not, he echoes at the beginning of his telling of the tale...
In some aspects the Washington National Sightings could be classed as a surprise -- we used this as an excuse when things got fouled up.
And though Ruppelt did portray the central event accurately, there was more to the story. Major Donald Keyhoe, at that time the preeminent journalistic investigator of the phenomenon, interviewed the key personnel at Washington National and the next year would give the following vivid account of that night's events:
Then, on the morning of the 20th... Washington itself took the spotlight. The action covered a wide area, in and around the capital. But the most dramatic scenes took place in a strange, windowless room -- the Air Traffic Control Center at Washington National Airport.
Although its operations dovetail with those of the tower, the Center is located in a separate building, a fourth of a mile away. In the tower, operators control only the final approaches, landings, and take-offs. But the men at the Center reach out by long-range surveillance radar to track planes 100 miles away. Heavy traffic, even in clear weather, must be carefully funneled in to the airport approach lanes. After take-offs, airliners must be dispatched from congested areas to their assigned levels. In fog, storms, and when cloud ceilings are low, planes must be guided in by two-way radio, kept separated while pilots are flying blind, and "stacked up" when necessary, to wait their turn for landing.
It is a precision job. The Center controllers never see the planes they guide in, as they track them on the main scope. But thousands of lives depend on their quick, accurate tracking and split-second recognition of the various aircraft blips.
The radar room at the Center, where this night's action started, is a long dim-lit chamber, darkened so that scopes can be easily read. At midnight, as the 20th of July began, eight traffic experts, headed by Senior Controller Harry G. Barnes, entered this room and took over the watch. The night was clear, traffic was light, and the men settled down for a routine eight-hour duty.
For a few minutes Barnes bent over the main scope, a phosphor-coated glass 24 inches in diameter, with a pale lavender glow. Traveling around the glass, like a clock hand, was a purplish streak called the "sweep." As Barnes knew, the sweep's revolutions, six per minute, matched the rotation of a huge parabolic antenna on a nearby hill. The compass bearing of the sweep showed the direction of the radio beam transmitted by the antenna.
At the time the Center was tracking a single airliner, several miles from the airport. As the rotating beam struck the plane, its echo or return was reflected to the antenna-station receiver. Highly amplified, it showed as a small round spot on the face of the cathode-ray scope. Every ten seconds a new purplish blip appeared, showing the airliner's changed position.
From the track made by these blips, it was simple to read off the plane's course -- the phosphor-coated glass retained seven blips before the first one faded. Barnes' practiced eye measured the distance between the round purplish spots. Using the ten-second interval, he could tell the plane's speed at a glance. From measurements on the scope, he also could tell the plane's location, distance from the field, and its compass bearing.
When traffic was heavier, he and the other controllers could pencil in the tracks, marking each plane's position with a numbered plastic chip. But there was no need tonight; the sky was practically empty.
At about 12:30, Barnes went out to the supervisor's desk, leaving controller Ed Nugent at the main scope. Two other controllers, Jim Ritchey and James Copeland, were standing a few feet away.
At exactly 12:40, seven sharp blips suddenly appeared on the scope. Nugent stared at the glass. The strange planes, or whatever they were, seemed to have dropped out of nowhere. There was only one possible answer. The unknown machines had raced into the area at terrific speed, between sweeps, then had abruptly slowed, there in the southwest quadrant.
"Get Barnes in here -- quick!" Nugent told Copeland.
The senior controller came on the run. Both console scopes showed the strange blips. Barnes hastily buzzed the tower, got Operator Howard Cocklin.
"Our scope shows the same blips!" Cocklin said swiftly. "I can see one of the things. It's got a bright orange light -- I can't tell what's behind it."
Now really alarmed, Barnes flashed word to the Air Defense Command. Then he turned back to the main scope. The unknown machines had separated. Two were over the White House, a third near the Capitol -- both prohibited areas. Keeping his eyes on the glass, Barnes called Andrews Field, across the Potomac in Maryland.
"We're tracking them, too" a worried radar man told him. "We've got them the same place you have."
"Are you sending up interceptors?" Barnes asked quickly.
"No, the field's being repaired. Our jets are up at Newcastle."
Barnes hung up, looked at the other controllers.
"The interceptors will have to come from Delaware. It may be another half-hour."
For several minutes they silently tracked the saucers. Then Controller Jim Ritchey saw that one was pacing a Capital airliner, which had just taken off. He cut in his mike and called the captain, a veteran named "Casey" Pierman. Giving Pierman the saucer's position, Ritchey vectored him toward it.
Until then, the saucer's tracked speed had been about 130 miles an hour. Suddenly, to all the controllers' amazement, it's track came to an abrupt end. Where the next blip should have been was only a blank space.
A moment later Pierman called back.
"I saw the thing, but it streaked off before I could get close. It climbed out of sight in three to five seconds."
The controllers stared at each other. Here was the answer to the blip's disappearance. Incredible as it seemed, the saucer had zoomed completely out of their radar beam between sweeps. That meant it had accelerated from 130 miles an hour to almost 500 in about four seconds.
A few minutes after this, Barnes and the others got a new jolt. One blip track showed an abrupt 90-degree turn -- something no plane could do. Then as the sweep came around, another saucer suddenly reversed -- its new blip "blossoming" on top of the one it had just made. From over 100 miles an hour, the mystery machine had stopped dead and completely reversed its direction -- all in about five seconds.
On top of this uncanny discovery, a startling report came in from the tower. Operator Joe Zacko had been watching his ASR scope, which was built to track high speeds, when a saucer abruptly appeared on the glass. One look, and he knew it was moving at a fantastic rate. Fascinated, he watched its blips streak across the screen as the saucer raced over Andrews Field toward Riverdale.
When the trail suddenly ended, Zacko hastily called Cocklin. Together, they figured the saucer's speed.
It had been making two miles per second -- 7,200 miles an hour.
From the trail it was plain that the saucer had descended vertically into the ASR beam. It had leveled off for a few seconds. Then, climbing at tremendous speed, it had zoomed out of the beam again.
For some unknown reason, the jets had not arrived (There were rumors later that another saucer alarm, near New York, had taken all available fighters. Though the Air Force denied this, the delay was not explained.)
The saucers now had been circling Washington for almost two hours, and controllers' nerves were getting taut...
Up there in the night some kind of super-machines were reconnoitering the capital. From their controlled maneuvers, it was plain they were guided -- if not manned -- by highly intelligent beings. They might be about to land -- the capital would be a logical point for contact. Or they might be about to attack.
Being cooped up in his windowless room didn't help. The tower men and the airplane pilots at least could see the strange machines' lights. Whatever happened, they would have a few moments' warning. All Barnes and his men could do was track the machines and hope they were not hostile.
By now Barnes had an eerie feeling that the mysterious visitors were listening to his radio calls. Two or three times saucers darted away the instant he gave pilots directions for interception. Not once did a pilot get close enough to see behind the lights.
It was almost 3 o'clock when the Air Force jets reached Washington. Just before this, the saucers vanished. Apparently they had sighted the distant fighters or heard them call the Center. Five minutes after the jets left, the queer machines reappeared, swarming all over Washington. One of them, its shape hidden by a large white light, followed a Capital airliner close to the airport, then raced away...
Fortunately the saucers were gone before most people awoke. As it was, hysteria grew rapidly after the story broke. At first the Air Force tried hard to play down the Washington sightings. For several days officers denied that Andrews Field radar men had tracked the machines. One spokesman insisted the Control Center scope had been defective. Another officer, to prove the incident was unimportant, said that no fighters had been sent to the area.
Major Donald Keyhoe
Flying Saucers From Outer Space, 1953
Captain Ruppelt describes the scene at the Pentagon in the afternoon of Tuesday, July 22nd:
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.
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
But if the events of July 19-20 had been a 'jolt', there were bigger shocks yet to come.
Above: July 28, 1952 front page clipping of the New York Daily News from the files of Project Blue Book .
THE NEWS STORIES ABOUT THE Saturday night-Sunday morning radar-visual reports of July 19-20 had not hit the newspapers until the following Tuesday, July 22nd. There had been no follow-up announcements from the Air Force other than it was investigating the matter. The story, in short, was all set to die down.
And then it happened all over again:
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 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 SAUCER -- INTERCEPTORS CHASE LIGHTS IN D.C. SKIES
EXPERT HERE TO PUSH STUDY AS OBJECTS IN SKIES REPORTED AGAIN
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."
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
This event, occurring just four days after the public learned of the first one, hit the newsrooms like a thunderclap. The next day the story made front-page headlines across the country. But it wasn't only the fact that it had been the second such report that gripped the public's imagination. For this time America's best jet fighters had pursued -- and seemingly been easily outdistanced by -- the aerial intruders.
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...
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
Four days later, in an article on the events of July 19-20 and July 26-27, NEA writer Douglas Larsen noted:
Since then the Air Force has quietly said it was closing to the press its special section at Wright Field in Dayton, O., which has been studying flying saucer reports. In addition, all information concerning that group's personnel, activities and budget is now strictly classified.
But if the Air Force was hoping that clamping the lid down on information would kill the story, they were soon to learn the wisdom of Captain Ruppelt's dictum... never underestimate the power of a UFO.
Above: July 29, 1952 front page story of the Ruston Daily Leader.
CURIOUSLY, CAPTAIN RUPPELT'S retelling of the events of that July skipped straight from the second occurrence to four days later...
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.
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
But in doing so, he neglects to mention that on that same day, Tuesday, July 29th, the events of the prior two Saturdays repeated themselves once more.
This time, no jet interceptors were sent up -- supposedly because the CAA decided against notifying the Air Force, as reported in one story...
Asked why the Air Defense Command had not been alerted, the CAA official said "we were too busy with other things and besides those objects aren't hurting anybody."
This cavalier statement about a national security matter -- and the CAA was legally mandated to make such reports -- might have become a major story in itself, had not General Samford, the Air Force Director of Intelligence, decided that very morning to have a press conference.
A conference that would become the headline news the next day all across the country...
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
-- Captain Ed Ruppelt
The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956
[A link is provided in notes at the end of this post to a transcript of General Samford's press conference.]
Above: July 30, 1952 clipping from the files of Project Blue Book.
AS CAPTAIN RUPPELT NOTED, the press conference achieved its desired effect and papers across the country almost unanimously declared that the Washington D.C. sightings had been 'solved': the radar-visual reports were the result of temperature inversions, mere illusions that had fooled radar operators, control tower personnel, jet pilots, and airline pilots. Press interest -- not only in the Washington D.C. events but in other reports from across the nation -- died down immediately as the 'temperature inversion' answer became the mental catch-all explanation for any and all sightings in the minds of both the press and the public.
It is interesting to note then that five months later Captain Ruppelt would make mention of the 'temperature inversion' explanations in his monthly status report:
Several widely publicized theories as to the nature of the reported objects or phenomena have been advanced in recent months. These theories have been discussed with authorities on the subject of atmospheric physics and they have agreed that none of the theories so far proposed would account for more than a very small percentage of the reports, if any.
That those theories were one and the same with those given to the press to explain the July events over Washington D.C. went unmentioned in the report.
Above: July 29, 1952 photo op showing from left, Captain R.L. James, Maj. Gen. Roger Ramey (seated, left), Capt. Edward Ruppelt (standing, center), Maj. Gen. John A.Samford (seated, right), Col. Donald L. Bower, and B.L. Griffing.
BUT THOUGH GENERAL SAMFORD'S press conference had achieved its desired effect, it also led to one of the most unexpected and important developments in the twist and turns of the complex history of the subject.
This development had started just after the conference's end, when Major Keyhoe went up to talk with General Samford himself. He had, according to Keyhoe, two key questions to ask:
When the group around Samford thinned out, I asked him the two questions I'd had in mind.
"How big an inversion, General -- how many degrees -- is necessary to produce the effects at Washington Airport, assuming they're possible at all?"
He looked at me with no change in expression. I would not want to play poker with the general.
"Why, I don't know exactly," he said. "But there was an inversion.
"Do you know how many degrees on either night?"
"Excuse me, General," someone broke in sharply. I turned around and saw Dewitt Searles, now a lieutenant colonel, eyeing me suspiciously.
"You still on this saucer business?" he said. Without waiting for an answer -- I had the feeling he had merely wanted to cut off my questions -- he turned back to Samford. "Any time you're ready, sir; the newsreel men are waiting."
On the way out, I stopped to talk with Captain Ed Ruppelt, a broad-shouldered young officer with a disarming grin. I knew he came from Iowa, like myself. After I introduced myself, he told me he'd read some of my stories.
"I don't mean the saucer book. I did read that -- in self-defense in case I ever ran into you. But I mean those aviation yarns, when you were writing fiction."
With a start like that, I hated to spring the two questions on him, but I did. Ruppelt looked at me thoughtfully.
"You were talking to General Samford. What did he say?"
"He didn't," I said. "Never mind, I can see you're on the spot."
-- Major Donald Keyhoe
Flying Saucers From Outer Space, 1953
In the following days, Keyhoe made one of his usual personal appearances at the press office of the Pentagon. For months he had been requesting to see the official incident reports, and for months he had been rebuffed. This time, however, was different:
Within an hour after I got home I had a call from Colonel Boyd's office, asking me to come in the next days and talk with Chop. I wasn't too excited; it probably wouldn't lead to anything.
Al Chop was a key member of the Air Force press office, and had served as such for a time in Ohio at Wright-Patterson AFB, where Project Blue Book was headquartered. But though expecting a runaround from this public relations professional, Keyhoe was in for a surprise:
The first person I saw at the Press Branch was Lieutenant Colonel Searles... Searles introduced me to Chop, and the two of us talked for about three hours. At first I had the feeling I was being weighed carefully -- not just on my beliefs, but whether I could be trusted...
"This isn't an off-the-record talk. You don't have to keep still. I've been instructed to help you, and you asked for ATIC sighting reports. Exactly what do you want?"
The sudden offer almost caught me off guard.
"Simultaneous radar and visual-sightings -- the toughest cases you've got," I said.
I expected him to stall, but Chop only nodded.
"I know they'll explain them as inversions," I said, "but I want to see how they prove it. I might as well tell you I'll do my damndest to knock it down."
"We know that. Any specific cases in mind?"
Within days Keyhoe received just the type of cases he had asked for, including the ATIC analysis. All of them dealt with military pilots, and all of them included radar and visual confirmation, as well as fantastic speeds and maneuvers. All were officially considered by the Air Force to be unexplained.
Incredulous, I looked at Chop.
"I can publish this?"
"But this report proves the saucers are solid objects.
He gave me his dead-pan look...
Trying not to show what I felt, I thanked him and left. Getting these reports had baffled me. It was less than a month since General Samford had branded the saucers as phenomena with no mass.
And though unmentioned by Keyhoe, it had been less than a month, too, since Douglas Larsen had reported that "the Air Force has quietly said it was closing to the press its special section at Wright Field in Dayton, O., which has been studying flying saucer reports".
The case files handed Keyhoe did not include the D.C.-area reports, which Chop explained were still in the midst of investigation. Undeterred, Major Keyhoe pursued the answers on his own. He interviewed the controllers at Washington National Airport as well as the engineers who maintained the radar. None of them accepted the inversion explanation, and further were insulted and bitter over what they perceied to be Samford's challenge to their competence. Then Keyhoe talked to the senior radar specialist at the Weather Bureau, who told Keyhoe that he had never of such effects as claimed by the Air Force. Finally he met with Dr. John Hagin, chief radio astronomer at the Naval Research Laboratory:
"Even with a heavy inversion," he said, "conditions would have to be very, very unusual to cause effects like that. I'd say it was impossible, with blips pinpointed by three radar stations and lights seen simultaneously at the same points."
"How much of an inversion is needed for ordinary effects?" I asked him.
"At the very least, ten degrees Fahrenheit -- to get really strong effects it would have to be much larger. Even then, it couldn't explain the simultaneous sightings."
With this information in hand, Keyhoe called Chop again:
"I've got a request. It's the one that Intelligence turned down before -- I want an interview with an Air Force radar expert."
"Maybe we can work it," said Chop.
"Wait a second," I said. "I want them to select a radar officer who'll give me the official opinion. And I might as well tell you, I think it'll kill the inversion story."
There was a silence at the other end.
"Go ahead, knock my ears down," I said.
"I was just trying to think who'd be the right man," Chop said calmly.
Hours later, Chop called Keyhoe:
"It's all set. Your man's Major Lewis S. Norman, Jr. He's in the Aircraft Control and Warning Branch, and he's made a special study of temperature inversions. Also, he's an interceptor pilot."
Keyhoe described his meeting with Major Norman:
"Inversions probably explain some saucer sightings," he said, casually. "How many, I don't know."
"Exactly what conditions would it take to explain the Washington sightings?" I asked him.
"Well first, you'd have to have turbulence in the inversion layer. That could give an effect of high speed and sharp maneuvers."
"The Weather Bureau men at the airport said there wasn't any turbulence," I told him. "But assuming there had been, how much of a temperature inversion would it take?"
"On the Centigrade scale, between five and ten degrees. If you used the Fahrenheit scale, between nine and eighteen degrees."
"Do you know what the inversions were on those two nights?" I asked him.
"No, I wasn't in on the investigation."
"The first night it was just one degree Fahrenheit. The second time, it was barely two degrees."
If Norman was surprised, he didn't give any sign.
"Are those the official Weather Bureau figures?" he said.
"Yes, I double-checked them, and I also saw the inversion graphs. Would you still say inversions could be the answer?"
"No -- they couldn't possibly explain the Washington sightings."
"You realize I'm going to quote you as the official Air Force spokesman?" I asked Norman.
"Yes, I know," he said quietly. "They gave me the whole picture."
Although Keyhoe makes no mention of it, it's safe to imagine that that moment produced a visceral reaction. He had been a thorn in the side of the Air Force since 1949, when his article in True magazine -- titled The Flying Saucers Are Real -- had become a national sensation (Captain Ruppelt would call it "one of the most widely read and widely discussed magazine articles in history.") The Air Force reaction to the article was to immediately release a report labeling all sightings as misidentification, hoax and psychopathological imaginings. And since that time he had been a most unwelcome visitor to the Pentagon's press office.
Now he was being handed the keys to the kingdom.
And the coming weeks only confirmed the Air Force's new openness. Keyhoe would receive case after case. Sometimes it was at his request concerning an incident he'd caught wind of. Other times, baffling incidents were handed over unbidden by Al Chop, with some casual comment along the lines of, "I think you'll find this interesting."
The new openness turned out to be temporary, a matter of mere months. But it occurred at the exact time that the incidents were best-documented, and in the midst of the 'big flap' of 1952. Many of them would be brought together in Keyhoe's 1953 book, which included a confirmation letter from the Air Force saying that Keyhoe had been given complete access to all the files on the more than 50 incidents included -- a letter signed by Al Chop.
It was the first time the public had been let in on what the Air Force really knew about the phenomenon, and after years of Air Force public denials and debunking, it was a shock. The effect of that one book reverberated across the coming decades in many ways, not the least of which were other reporters' willingness to pursue the story.
Though Keyhoe had his suspicions, he never discovered -- or at least never wrote about -- the motivation behind the Air Force's decision to open its files to him. But in his 1953 book, he did include one fascinating twist. Keyhoe had been discussing with Chop a file given to him which detailed a radar-visual incident which had included a jet fighter pursuit. Ironically, it had happened at Wright-Patterson AFB, the home of Project Blue Book. The file included the official Air Force technical analysis:
"The electronic or visual mirage or meteorological phenomena is out of the question, as the radar set was on high beam and both would not occur simultaneously in the same place. The sighting occurred above the weather. Conclusion: Unknown."
I put down the report and looked at Chop.
"You know, of course, what this does to the press conference story."
"They didn't have all the answers then on temperature inversions. And remember, General Samford didn't say positively it was the explanation."
"But that's the impression he gave. Understand, I'm not criticizing the general. I know he was caught in the middle, and he was doing what he thought best for the country. What gets me is their releasing these cases. It reverses everything Samford and James said."
"General Samford himself decided it."
"You'd have to ask him."
An entirely surprising decision on General Samford's part -- the reasons for which forever remain subject only to conjecture.
Above: Pivotal scene from 1956 docudrama "UFO: The True Story of Flying Saucers", clipped from "UFO Investigator Magazine" and found in Project Blue Book files. The "Lt. Holden" referred to is actually a pseudonym for Lt. Holcomb.
THE NEW OPENNESS would prove to be short lived, though long enough for Major Keyhoe to publish his classic work Flying Saucers From Outer Space the next year. Remarkably, it not only included case histories from Air Force investigative reports but gave a behind the scenes perspective on the inner workings of Project Blue Book itself.
But it would take four years following the events of late July, 1952 for the final surprising twist to the tale of "saucers over Washington" to be publicly revealed.
The background to the revelation was this... film producer Clarence Green had approached Al Chop with the proposal to make a movie depicting Chop's experiences as the Public Information Officer who liaisoned with the press regarding Blue Book. The movie -- a 1956 docudrama titled UFO: The Untold Story -- centered on Chop's conversion from his formerly skeptical view, culminating in Chop's part in the events at Washington, when he had been in the radar room at Washington National Airport.
And in its pivotal scene the movie portrayed a never-before-revealed fact -- quite simply, that on the night of July 26/27, F-94 pilot Lt. William Patterson had not only sighted the anomalous aerial objects, but they had closed in and surrounded his plane in flight.
Chop would talk about that event in interviews several times in the coming decades. In a piece in the July, 1987 edition of Spin magazine Chop was quoted as saying...
I entered the radar room. The scope had a phosphorus control glass top. There were several other traffic controllers huddled around. Small plastic markers identified the known air flights, there were also several marked 'unknown.' There were from six to a dozen or more 'unknown,' and they simply moved too fast for airplanes. The movements were also haphazard. They'd move along a definite path then suddenly disappear. Others would appear. We checked with Andrews radar controllers and tower operation throughout the night tracking the same 'unknowns.'
I placed a call to the command post in the Pentagon and requested an intercept mission. I told the press they could watch the radar scope and we were waiting for an intercept. Life magazine asked to photograph the scope, but before they could set up, we were alerted that the intercept mission would be using classified orders, and I had to order the newsmen from the room.
We returned to the scope. The two F-94s appeared about two-forty a.m. on the scope, but as they appeared, a frightening thing happened .... the target blips disappeared off the scope. Our interceptors flew around for about fifteen minutes and returned to base with negative results. As our interceptors left the scope, our targets reappeared. About three a.m. I called the Pentagon Command Post and explained the situation. They said: 'Stand by -- a second scramble is on the way.' This time, the 'unknowns' stayed on the scope, and we directed the intercepts to the exact compass readings. We split the flight -- one to the north, the other aircraft south.
The first pilot reported in that he 'can't see anything.' We could tell by radar they were getting very close. Then a second report came in. He was somewhat excited, and I don't blame him; he reported, 'They're all around me now.' A pause, then: 'They appear to be closing in on me.' Moments passed and the last remark I remember was the pilot's voice almost pleading: 'What shall I do?' Well, we saw the unknowns appear to place themselves in a ring around his aircraft. We all just looked at each other. Ten or 20 seconds later, he reported, 'They're moving off now.' A few moments later, he called in to say he was returning to base. The UFOs remained on the scope till Saturday morning, about five a.m.
But undoubtedly Al Chop's most succinct summary of that incident came in a 1966 interview for the article "UFO Revisited" by Robert Barrow (which focused on the movie). Barrow asked Chop if there had been "a sense of helplessness or disbelief" as he watched the objects surround the pilot, to which Chop replied:
Disbelief, no; helplessness, yes. As we looked up at each other while watching that intercept attempt, you could imagine each of us trying to think of something that would be helpful.
I might also add there were no disbelievers around that scope; we all knew these objects represented something with which we could not cope.
1. The complete official transcript of General Samford's July 29, 1952 press conference can be read here.
2. Selected Blue Book documents relating to the July 19/20, 1952 events can be read here.
3. Selected Blue Book documents relating to the July 26/27, 1952 events can be read here.
4. The movie "UFO: The True Story of Flying Saucers" is available through the Saturday Night Uforia videoplex portal.
5. Robert Barrow's article "UFO Revisited" is available through the specialty ufo publications link at the Saturday Night Uforia library portal. Mr. Barrow also has a website devoted to the movie "UFO: The True Story of Flying Saucers" which is available through the Saturday Night Uforia links portal.
6. The July, 1987 Spin magazine article quoting Al Chop can be read here.
7. Major Keyhoe's 1953 book "Flying Saucers From Outer Space" is available through the UFO books online link at the Saturday Night Uforia library portal.
8. Capt. Ruppelt's 1956 book "The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects" is available through the UFO books online link at the Saturday Night Uforia library portal.
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