The modern UFO era began on June 24, 1947, after a report by
private pilot Kenneth Arnold of a procession of unknown flying
objects over Washington State. This event triggered a series of
other reports, which spread rapidly through the northwestern
United States and eventually throughout the world. The reports
described the objects as being variously disc-shaped,
cigar-shaped, or spherical, rapidly moving through the sky and
often performing aerial maneuvers far beyond the capabilities out
Yet this was not the first time that UFOs were seen. History is
replete with incidents of strange vehicles flying through the
atmosphere. Most UFO researchers are familiar with stories of
mysterious airships seen during the late 1890s when witnesses
reported huge, dirigible-type machines with wings, fans and
propellers cavorting overhead. Many of the incidents were
journalistic fantasies and the rest were never positively linked
to any high performance aerial devices, human or extraterrestrial.
Government interest in the UFO phenomenon is commonly thought to
have begun during World War 2 when reports of objects, nicknamed
"Foo fighters" by allied pilots, were sporadically sent to
military intelligence by pilots flying aerial bombing and
intercept missions. The strange objects appeared to be globes of
light, about one quarter to one half meter in diameter. They
hovered near aircraft in flight, frequently maneuvering in front
of, beside, behind, above and below in a seeming intelligent
manner. The activity increased in late 1944, causing the U.S.
government to issue a censored press release on January 1, 1945.
In the story, carried in many U.S. newspapers, the government
acknowledged the existence of the fireballs and blamed the Nazis
for using them. Such was not the case, however, as Axis pilots
encountered similar objects, blaming the Allied forces in turn.
According to one record released later by U.S. Air Force
Intelligence, Foo Fighters were studied after the war and were
dismissed as natural phenomena, the nature of which was not made
A bit over a year later a wave of so-called "Ghost Rockets"
appeared over the Scandinavian countries during the summer of
1946, bringing sky mysteries once again into the news. Witnesses
observed what appeared to be rockets hurtling over cities and
towns in Sweden for several weeks. Some believed they were being
launched from the Soviet Union, perhaps testing newly acquired
German technology from the war. The government of Sweden
reportedly solicited help from the United States in identifying
the unknown rockets. Press stories had indicated that General
James Doolittle, a famed WW2 aviator, had flown to Sweden under a
cover story that he was there on a business trip. The real nature
of the trip was said to be the need for Doolittle to advise the
Swedish government on how to deal with the ghost rockets.
Doolittle said many years later, in a letter sent to this writer,
that he knew nothing about the incidents at the time except what
he had read in the newspapers.
While the events of 1944-46 are known to researchers, government
interest in aerial phenomena is evident during World War 1 when
mystery airplanes appeared in various areas during 1915-17, and
most surprisingly the first instance on record is the "Blue Light"
affair of December 12, 1813!
Working off fragmentary references, the following story
emerged: Commodore Stephen Decatur, a distinguished U.S. naval
officer and a participant in several heroic actions during the
Barbary Wars of the early 1800s and during the War of 1812 against
the British, was in command of a squadron of American ships in the
harbor of New London, Connecticut, which at the time was under a
British blockade. On the evening of December 12th, 1813, Decatur
decided to "run" the blockade and bring his ships into open water
where they could be more useful in battle. A short time after
they began to make their way out of the harbor a set of blue
lights appeared of the heights both at Groton, Connecticut and
near the entrance to New London harbor. Rowing guards at the
harbor entrance noticed the strange lights and immediately made
their way back to the ships where the lights were reported.
Fearful that these lights were a signal to the British fleet that
a blockade run was under way, Commodore Decatur cancelled the run
and returned the ships to anchor.
The incident angered Decatur because he believed that the lights
were a signal to the British by traitorous New Londoners and he
demanded an investigation. Repeated attempts to determine the
origin of the blue lights failed. The press ridiculed the
observations as unreal, which angered the witnesses.
The debate about the lights very quickly made its way to the U.S.
Congress where one may find the specifics in the Annals of
Congress, 13th Congress, 2nd Session, January 1814. An
investigation was offered but there is no evidence that a solution
to the mystery of the lights was made available. So much for the
first government UFO inquiry!
Which brings us back to 1947. In the aftermath of the Kenneth
Arnold report and the many hundreds of flying disc sightings in
July of that year, the U.S. government decided that it was time
to take these stories seriously. While a majority of the American
people felt that the objects were not from another planet, the
Army Air Force was left with the task of determining exactly what
was being seen.
Reports were sent to the Technical Intelligence Division of the
Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, Ohio for study. Many
reports were certainly mistaken observations of weather phenomena,
balloons, stars, planets; etc. Others were not so easily
dismissed. In fact some of the reports were so compelling that
the commander of the Air Materiel Command, Lieutenant General
Nathan Twining, wrote a letter to the Commander of the Army Air
Forces on the subject of "Flying Discs" dated September 23, 1947:
a) The phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or
These conclusions suggested
that something extraordinary was being seen. Conversely, the
public stance of the Army Air Force was that the objects were most
likely mistaken observations of mundane phenomena and that there
was nothing about which to be concerned. In this respect the
military could continue to monitor the phenomenon without arousing
b) There are objects probably approximating the shape
of a disc, of such appreciable size as to appear to be as large as
a man-made aircraft.
c) The reported operating characteristics
such as extreme rates of climb, maneuverability (particularly in
roll), and action which must be considered evasive when sighted or
contacted by friendly aircraft and radar, lend belief to the
possibility that some of the objects are controlled either
manually, automatically or remotely.
On December 30, 1947, the Army Air Force decided to establish
Project Sign at Wright Field, Ohio in an effort to determine
whether the flying disc phenomenon constituted a threat to the
national security of the United States. The public was to know
this program as Project Saucer.
The staff of Project Sign was philosophically divided into two
factions. One had taken quite seriously the possibility that the
saucers were extraterrestrial vehicles, while the other felt that
nothing as extraordinary as that could be claimed from the
available evidence. All sightings, they said, were explainable.
The pro-extraterrestrial faction of Sign would see their position
enhanced by news reports of several incidents during 1948. One
was the sighting of a flying object near Louisville, Kentucky on
January 7, 1948.
Many witnesses reported their observations to police of a large,
bright object in the sky. The police called officials at Godman
Air Field for confirmation. A flight of F-51 Air National Guard
planes were in the area and were asked by Godman to investigate
the sighting. Led by Captain Thomas Mantell, three of the
aircraft climbed to give pursuit. After running low on fuel, two
of the planes ceased pursuit. Mantell continued the chase and as
he attempted to climb to 20,000 feet, he reported seeing the
object, describing it as "metallic" and of tremendous size. A
short time after this Mantell's plane crashed, killing him. The
official explanation for the crash was that Mantell had mistaken a
balloon for a strange vehicle and in the heat of pursuit ignored
the fact that without a plane equipped with oxygen he was flying
too high. Mantell subsequently blacked out and died in the crash.
Press speculations fuelled a notion that Mantell was killed by a
"flying saucer" and Project Sign found itself saddled with the job
of defusing such speculations. As it turned out this was a
hopeless task and the Mantell incident exhibited the first
evidence of public concern that the government was covering up the
facts about flying saucer reports. Only years later was it
determined that a secret balloon experiment was in the area,
having been launched from Minnesota the day before, and was
certainly responsible for the sightings over Kentucky that day.
The government was covering up, but not a flying saucer.
Another highly credible report was that of Eastern Airlines pilots
Clarence Chiles and John Whitted on July 24, 1948. During a
flight from Houston, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia, a large red light
appeared in the east at 2:45 AM, and approached the aircraft. The
pilots veered the DC-3 to avoid a collision. The object passed
close to the plane, then moved upwards and disappeared. Both
pilots described the object as cigar-shaped with a pointed front
end and a double row of rectangular windows along the side. The
bottom of the object glowed a brilliant blue and an orange-red
flame spewed from the rear.
Once again the Air Force decided to publicly dismiss the sighting
by highly-qualified witnesses as nothing more than a meteor. Few
were satisfied with this, particularly the eyewitnesses.
Project Sign personnel favoring flying saucer reality thought that
it was now time to make their case to the Air Force upper
echelons. They wrote an "Estimate of the Situation," something
the Air Force often did when saddled with a problem. The document
described the background of the flying saucer problem with an
assortment of credible cases as evidence that the objects were
extraterrestrial vehicles from another world. The staff members
sent the document through various decision-making channels. It
finally ended up on the desk of Air Force Chief of Staff General
Hoyt Vandenberg. General Vandenberg was decidedly unimpressed
with the report, believing that it lacked proof. The "Estimate"
was rejected and subsequently ordered to be declassified and
burned. At least two witnesses, Captain Edward Ruppelt and Major
Dewey Fournet, attested to the fact that at least one copy of the
document survived into 1952. Fournet, in a written statement to a
UFO researcher several years ago, was unimpressed with the
document as well. He believed that the extraterrestrial
conclusion was an "extreme extrapolation" and that it contained
discussions of the cases which were on the record at that time and
known to people generally. There was no discussion of physical
evidence either which raises questions about the reality of
In hindsight, the value of the Estimate now is to illustrate the
fact that at that time there was favorable opinion within the
military toward the extraterrestrial hypothesis. The document,
which was disposed of legally and properly, may have been
destroyed more to hide an embarassing conclusion by subordinates
than to hide deep, dark secrets.
The consequences of the Estimate's rejection were far-reaching.
The status of the supporters of flying saucer reality had been
reduced while that of the detractors had increased. In February
1949, Air Force UFO staffers wrote another report which said that
while some twenty percent of the reports they had examined were
unexplained, proof for the extraterrestrial explanation was not
adequate. It was also said that while the objects did not appear
to be the property of a foreign nation, it could not be said with
certainty that they were not a threat to the United States.
Therefore, policy on the UFO problem was based upon the premise
that as the possibility of UFOs being a threat to national
security existed, the Air Force would collect and investigate such
Reinforcement for this can be found in a January 31, 1949 FBI
document sent to J. Edgar Hoover:
At a recent weekly intelligence conference of G-2, ONI, OSI and
FBI in the Fourth Army area, officers of G-2 Fourth Army have
discussed the matter of 'unidentified aircraft' or 'unidentified
aerial phenomena,' otherwise known as 'flying discs,' 'flying
saucers' and 'balls of fire.' This matter is considered top secret
by intelligence officers of both the Army and the Air Force.
So UFOs were important but not spaceships, at least not yet.
Project Sign was changed to Project Grudge on December 16,
1948, almost as if the Air Force were reacting to the change of
attitude. Former Sign personnel who favored UFOs were reassigned
to other duties and replaced with more critical staffers.
During this time of tightening of the Air Force's grip on the UFO
issue, Major Donald Keyhoe, an aviation writer, took an interest
in the subject. He had concluded in a January 1950 article for
True magazine that UFOs were definitely interplanetary spacecraft.
Keyhoe later expanded his ideas for a book, "The Flying Saucers
are Real," later that year. Using the best sighting information
available, plus various statements from the Air Force, Keyhoe felt
that the government was hiding the truth about UFOs. This, he
said, was done to prevent a panic similar to that caused by the
1938 radio broadcast War of the Worlds. Keyhoe was the first
major proponent of the idea of a government cover-up of flying
saucers and he had later named those in charge of the censorship
the "Silence Group."
The Air Force's public statements often tended to be confusing and
contradictory. They would refuse to release information and
conclusions about sightings which were known to have occurred.
The public agreed with Keyhoe's charges in light of hard evidence
that censorship was indeed happening. They were in a very
unenviable position of trying to investigate an unexplained
phenomenon as quietly as possible, while at the same time trying
to allay increasing public fears and pressures. This would lead
to Air Force overreaction in several instances. Twice during this
time the Air Force sponsored articles; a two-part series for the
Saturday Evening Post on April 30 and May 7, 1949 and one
for Cosmopolitan published in January 1951. The intention
was to reduce public interest in UFOs by way of explaining how
mistaken observations were made. While factually correct in
showing how this happens in a majority of sightings, the Post
article admitted that some sightings were unexplained, and the
Cosmopolitan piece was so demeaning in its characterization of
witnesses as true believers and lunatics that it angered the
reading public and actually prompted a libel suit. Instead of
defusing the controversy, the Air Force assured a continuance of
But still, behind the scenes other things were happening. Due to
numerous sightings reported in the vicinity of sensitive
government installations at Los Alamos, New Mexico, a May 25, 1950
memo to the Air Force's Director of Special Investigations
stressed that reports were made by scientists, special agents of
the Office of Special Investigations for the Air Force, airline
and military pilots, and Los Alamos security inspectors, among
others. In other words this is a serious situation.
Such national security concerns about UFOs were not overlooked
outside of the U.S. even if American citizens were not aware of
it fully. In a Canadian Department of Transport memo dated
November 21, 1950, Wilbert B. Smith, a senior radio engineer,
forwarded a proposal to the Department's controller of
telecommunications suggesting various studies such as using the
Earth's magnetic field as an energy source. The memo also alluded
to flying saucers:
a) The matter is the most highly classified
subject in the United States Government, rating higher even than
b) Flying saucers exist.
c) Their modus operandi is
unknown but concentrated effort is being made by a small group
headed by Doctor Vannevar Bush.
d) The entire matter is
considered by the United States authorities to be of tremendous
The memo had been classified "Top Secret." It was obvious that
flying saucers were not about to go away.
(Since this article was first written, some doubt has been
cast as to whether the security classification was legitimate or
something merely inserted by Smith himself. Until further details
are available, the memo should be viewed with caution -
The year 1952 saw the largest increase in UFO sightings in
history. 1501 reports filed and over 300 unexplained. The
Intelligence Division of the Air Materiel Command was reorganized
into the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC). Project Grudge
would have to increase staff membership and activities to contend
with the additional reports. Captain Edward Ruppelt was appointed
to oversee the new operation.
Ruppelt was a believer in a systematic approach to the UFO
problem. He was not tolerant of bias and actively sought outside
help from the scientific community. Project Grudge would no
longer be the negative, dour entity it had been over the previous
several years. Shortly after Ruppelt took command of Grudge, it
was renamed Project Blue Book to reflect the change in
approach. Ruppelt's influence even caused the Air Force to
publicly announce that it was still investigating UFOs and that
unexplained reports continued to be filed. Ruppelt also coined
the phrase unidentified flying object during 1952.
A major article in Life magazine's April 7, 1952 issue
emphasized the mysterious nature of UFOs. What was extraordinary
about the article was that it was done with the complete
cooperation of the Air Force. Times had changed and the
negativity of Project Grudge was truly dead. The Life article
concluded that UFOs could not be explained by present science as
natural phenomena but only as artificial devices created and
operated by a high intelligence.
Sightings continued to increase. The Air Force had received so
many press inquiries that it appointed Albert Chop to handle press
relations since Ruppelt's staff at Project Blue Book could not
devote so much of its time to questioning by reporters.
Perhaps the peak of this intense interest in UFOs occurred on two
weekends in July 1952. Radar scopes at Washington National
Airport and at Andrews Air Force Base had detected swarms of UFOs
over the portions of the restricted air space over Washington,
D.C. These, coupled with many other reports that summer, created
a virtual panic. The press frantically inundated the Air Force
with inquiries. Hesitant and unsure, the Air Force could not
answer the questions because it did not yet have any answers to
give. Finally, a few days after the last radar trackings on July
27th, they were prepared to provide at least a semblance of an
As far as the Air Force was concerned, something had to be done to
dispel what had become a wild situation. The Air Force's
communications centers had become overwhelmed with reports, public
inquiries, press inquiries, and political inquiries from worried
members of the Senate and Congress. This was intolerable for a
military body responsible for the security of the country not to
be able to adequately understand what was happening.
A press conference was held on July 29th, headed by Major General
John Samford. He explained that the Washington sightings were
most likely temperature inversions, a peculiar layering of air
masses of differing temperatures which can create radar targets.
He did explain that experts would examine the matter more fully.
He added that the Air Force was still studying UFOs and, while
acknowledging that the sightings were made by "credible observers
of relatively incredible things," he quickly said that UFOs
appeared to be no threat to national security.
The press conference succeeded in reducing the flood of
questioning and, moreover, began a wave of skepticism from the
press which further reduced public interest. Since UFOs had not
actually done anything beyond looking strange and frightening
people, the press felt that perhaps they were nothing but
misunderstood natural phenomena after all.
The Air Force hierarchy now recognized the danger of being too
open about UFOs. An attitude change was once again about to take
Toward the end of 1952, Project Blue Book refined investigative
techniques, planned a photographic network of special cameras in
an attempt to obtain hard scientific data about UFOs, and
sponsored a statistical study of reports by the Batelle Institute.
But at the same time, certain elements in intelligence circles
felt that UFO reports were a serious hinderance. Somehow, they
said, the interest in UFOs could be exploited by foreign nations
at odds with the United States in an effort to create distrust of
government pronouncements. This became a very powerful argument
to leaders of a country that, at that moment in time, was highly
paranoid about the infiltration of "Communists" into the
Early in 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency convened a panel of
experts in Washington. Chairman of the panel was Dr. H.P.
Robertson, Director of the Weapons System Evaluation Group for the
Secretary of Defense. Other members included Dr. Samuel
Goudsmit, discoverer of electron spin; Dr. Luis Alvarez,
physicist and, later, a Nobel Prize winner; Dr. Lloyd Berkner, a
director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory; and Dr. Thornton
Page, Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Operations Research
Office. Additional participants included Dr. J. Allen Hynek,
Captain Ruppelt, and Frederic Durant, astronautical authority and
eventual author of the panel's report.
These experts heard testimony and studied films and UFO cases for
a grand total of twelve hours, after which they concluded that
UFOs were no direct threat to national security. They also
expressed their negative opinion that UFOs were extraterrestrial
and that undue Air Force attention to UFOs would foster public
belief that the government gave UFOs more serious consideration
than they deserved to be given. The reports themselves, not the
UFOs, were the threat to national security in that they tended to
flood intelligence channels with relatively unimportant sightings,
hindering more serious information reporting.
The Robertson Panel suggested a program of "training and
debunking" to reduce mistaken UFO reports and to convince the
public that UFOs were not an important issue any longer.
The panel's conclusions were far-reaching. The Air Force's
serious consideration of UFOs was reversed and the old Project
Grudge policies were to become dominant once again. UFO reports
continued on but the government would not treat the subject with
respect in the future as it had in the previous year. Many
reports still were found to be mysterious and unexplained, yet
they did not prove the hypothesis regarded as so favorable by
personnel during the early days of Project Sign - that UFOs were
extraterrestrial vehicles from another world.
The battle lines were drawn between the new government position
and the public critics of Air Force policy, who were led by the
pro-extraterrestrial advocate Major Donald Keyhoe. A continuous
debate would carry on for many years thereafter.
As another attempt to stifle criticism, the Air Force released
Project Blue Book Special Report 14 in 1955. It was a revised
version of the Batelle Institute statistical study initiated in
1952. The document was clearly released as a debunking effort by
the Air Force. However, it contained many ambiguities and
contradictions. For example, after concluding that the likelihood
of flying saucers being real was very small, the report argued
that, as far as the unknowns in the case sample were concerned,
the more detailed the report, the more likely the report withstood
intense scrutiny and survived as a truly unexplained incident.
Sporadic waves of UFO activity occurred after the decisions of the
Robertson Panel, though nothing like that in 1952. Shortly after
Sputnik Two was launched by the Soviet Union in November 1957, a
UFO wave began in the midwestern U.S., making national headlines.
A Coast Guard vessel, the Sebago, experienced a spectacular UFO
encounter in the Gulf of Mexico when crew members tracked a highly
maneuverable object on radar. Security guards at atomic
facilities saw huge, egg-shaped objects flying over and hovering
near very sensitive sites. Many witnesses saw a UFO fly over and
land repeatedly in various sections of Levelland, Texas, often
causing the electrical systems of cars to black out.
Through all of this the Air Force maintained a posture of disinterest,
considering the seriousness of the situation. If there was concern behind
the scenes, they were very careful not to let the public know about it.
The National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP)
became prominent in 1957, under the leadership of Major Keyhoe.
Resistance to government UFO policy was now organized. NICAP's
board contained many prominent names from the military, government
and business fields. All believed that the debunking policy was
wrong. Keeping the public ignorant of a mysterious phenomena in
our skies was, to NICAP, a travesty. NICAP monitored government
statements and responses to public inquiries, exposed deception
and misinformation when it was recognized, and issued reports
showing that UFOs were most probably high-technology vehicles from
In 1958, NICAP pressured the government for Congressional
hearings, hoping that such public exposure of their evidence for a
UFO cover-up would break the monopoly that the Air Force had on
analysing sensitive UFO sightings. The Air Force had managed to
thwart such scrutiny by assuring the Congress that Project Blue
Book's UFO investigations had shown no security threat by the
phenomenon and that proof of extraterrestrials was lacking. Vital
questions about the Air Force's handling of UFOs were, for the
moment, pushed into the background.
In the meantime, debunking became more intense within Project Blue
Book. The Air Force was compelled to reduce the percentage of
unknowns to virtually zero, no matter how outlandish the
explanations were. While the government's frequent public
relations errors enhanced the claims of a deliberate Air Force
debunking program by organizations like NICAP, such gains were
offset by the rise of contactees, who were persons claiming direct
contact with extraterrestrials in flying saucers. The
infiltration of this element into serious UFO research would prove
to be extremely damaging to efforts in turning about government
UFO policy. There was a certain "guilt by association," causing
officials to look at every UFO organization as a potential lunatic
fringe group to be ignored or made the object of ridicule.
Avoiding the pressures that UFO organizations could apply was
easy, as long as sightings did not increase and become public as
they did in 1952. The UFO scene remained quite inert from 1958 to
The sighting of a UFO on April 24, 1964, by Socorro, New Mexico
policeman Lonnie Zamora was another turning point in official UFO
policy. Zamora's story not only became a public issue but,
moreover, proved to be a very difficult case to ridicule.
As he chased a car on the outskirts of town, Zamora heard an
explosion in the direction of a nearby remote area. Driving out
to the site, he saw a strange, metallic, egg-shaped object with
four legs sitting on the ground. Two figures, dressed in white
coveralls, were seen standing beside the object. Zamora watched
both individuals quickly enter the landed UFO, apparently startled
by Zamora's arrival. Under the impression that an accident had
taken place, he rushed over to the landing site. The UFO began to
belch flame from underneath and, as Zamora dove for cover, the
object lifted up and moved away. Upon examination of the landing
spot, he noticed a patch of burned ground where the flame had
Each investigation of the story, from the Air Force to NICAP to
the FBI to the press, found that Zamora was an impeccable witness.
Project Blue Book, which now had a reputation of being a debunking
group, was stymied. About a year later, writing in a classified
intelligence periodical, "Studies in Intelligence," the head of
Blue Book, Major Hector Quintanilla, stated that, "This is the
best documented case on record, and still we have been unable, in
spite of thorough investigation, to find the vehicle or other
stimulus that scared Zamora to the point of panic."
It was an impressive statement of support by the Air Force for a
UFO incident. By this, the Air Force saw signs that, once again,
official UFO debunking was coming into a period when it would be
seriously challenged by the difficult-to-kill UFO phenomenon.
1965 saw a sharp increase in the number of sighting reports,
particularly during the summer. Air Force dismissals had by now
come under escalating criticism by the press. All of the previous
debunking efforts had not completely eliminated the UFOs from the
mind of the population. Reports by the hundreds filtered into the
Air Force, causing the press to issue editorial remarks to the
effect that an unknown phenomenon was present, that the Air Force
was hiding the facts, and that the public had a right to know the
"truth." At one point, an Air Force spokesman had declared that
sightings over Oklahoma were merely the belt stars in the
constellation Orion, when in fact these stars had not yet risen
above the horizon!
Such errors fueled the media frenzy into a belief that a cover-up
was in effect. Something had to be done to alleviate this new
The Air Force asked a panel of six scientists to review the
Project Blue Book operation. Called the O'Brien Panel, all of the
members were a part of the Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board,
except for the inclusion of Dr. Carl Sagan, noted for his
advocacy of the existence of intelligent life in the universe.
Sagan was not, however, a UFO enthusiast.
The panel met for one day in February 1966, and, after endorsing
Project Blue Book's activities, went further to suggest that a
detailed study of UFOs be conducted by a university to relieve the
Air Force of the burden of the UFO problem. Just a month after
the recommendation, UFO sightings exploded again, this time in
On March 20, 1966, numerous witnesses reported seeing a large,
glowing object in a swampy area near Hillsdale College.
Additional sightings were reported the next day in Dexter. Not
particularly spectacular when compared to other reports in years
past, the press decided to devote a large amount of coverage to
these sightings. The reason for this is still unclear except that
after a previous year of high activity, and a winter season which
historically had been slow for UFO sightings, the press was
anxious for the first big UFO blast of the coming warm weather
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, then Blue Book's scientific consultant, was
rushed to Michigan by the Air Force to investigate the sightings,
and to give quick answers. At a large press conference in the
Detroit Press Club, Hynek suggested the possibility that the
sightings were caused by gases from rotting vegetation which, when
spontaneously ignited, creates a glowing ball of light. Hynek's
speculation became fact for the press, eager to report a quick
solution from the Air Force. The Air Force's consultant recalled
watching in horror as a reporter circled the phrase "Swamp Gas" in
his notes as he ran for a phone. "Swamp Gas" was broadcast to the
world as the Air Force's answer to UFO's. The public, the media,
and even many political leaders almost universally ridiculed the
suggestion, openly laughing at Hynek and the Air Force for
offering such an unlikely explanation for the Michigan sightings.
The Air Force's anti-UFO policy at this point had struck bottom
and there became greater urgency to pass the UFO problem to a
A few days after the "Swamp Gas" affair, the House Armed Services
Committee of the U.S. Congress held a one-day hearing on April 5,
1966. Only three people appeared, all Air Force representatives:
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, Major Quintanilla of Project Blue Book and
Secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown. Hynek parted ways with
the government at this hearing, advocating that UFOs deserved more
serious attention than they had received at the hands of the Air
Force. He added that the Air Force's debunking policy could be an
obstacle impeding scientific research.
It was clear that the House committee wanted to see the Air Force
implement the O'Brien Panel's recommendation that a university be
contracted to do a major UFO study. Air Force Secretary Brown
wasted no time after the House committee hearing and urged the Air
Force Chief of Staff to begin such a program.
The Air Force approached many universities before finding one
interested in participating. On October 7, 1966, the University
of Colorado accepted the offer. Dr. Edward U. Condon was
appointed to head the project.
Most everyone was pleased that finally a scientific and objective
study was to be conducted on UFOs. Advocates of UFOs felt sure
that the evidence they had to offer would vindicate their
position, while the Air Force was certain that the study would
support their stance and defuse the entire UFO controversy. But
trouble appeared early in the Condon Committee's existence.
In a speech before the American Chemical Society on January 25,
1967, Dr. Condon expressed his opinion that the government should
get out of the UFO business immediately as "there's nothing to
it." Other apparently biased remarks were made by Condon, sending
a shudder through the UFO individuals and organizations
cooperating with the committee. Internal strife among committee
members with opposing beliefs about UFO reality caused more
problems. Finally, the discovery of a memo written by the Project
Administrator, Robert Low, in August 1966, was reported by a staff
member in July 1967. The memo defined the problem, as Low saw it,
of presenting the UFO study as objective, when, in reality, it
consisted of a group of non-believers appearing to be objective
but never having any expectation of proving UFO reality. Low
described this public visage as a "trick."
When the memo circulated to several scientists in the project,
then to outside UFO researchers cooperating with the project, then
to the large-circulation Look magazine, the committee's
credibility began to fall apart. NICAP and Major Keyhoe, who had
a tenuous cooperative agreement with Condon, terminated any future
forwarding of sightings for study, feeling that the Air Force was
exerting it's debunking influence on the study. Condon fired two
staff members for leaking the Low memo to outsiders. Condon's own
administrative assistant resigned over a lack of confidence in
Low's ability to manage.
A flurry of negative public reaction to these events ensued, but
it was tempered by the fact that since the committee's final
report had not yet been released, many chose to wait until they
were able to read it fully. The objectivity of the Condon study
was rendered impure by these events. It was a damaging blow to
government attempts to reduce the UFO controversy. All that was
left was to await the final report and hope that it would be well
Ironically, in the midst of this public relations setback, another
round of Congressional hearings were held on July 29, 1968. A
number of prominent scientists who had supported UFO reality
testified, along with several others against their reality.
Overall, the hearing aired a more favorable view on UFOs than in
the previous hearing in 1966. Most people were distracted from
the hearing by anticipation of the final Condon report. Little
came of the presentations for practical purposes.
The report was released to the public early in 1969. Most
reporters, intimidated by the sheer size of the report (1485
pages), read only the summary section at the beginning of it,
authored by Dr. Condon himself. In it, Condon thoroughly
debunked UFO reality and suggested that no scientific benefit
could come from a study of the phenomenon. Condon's summary was a
crushing rebuke to anyone who even entertained the possibility
that UFOs were other than mistakes and hoaxes.
Those who read beyond Condon's summary found a curious thing. Of
the ninety-one case histories studied, thirty remained
unexplained. This was a figure approximately six times higher
than the Air Force's estimate of unknowns from their own study.
The evidence in the body of the Condon report argued strongly for
the presence of an unexplained phenomenon, yet somehow the press
largely ignored such contradictions and, accepting the conclusions
of Dr. Condon, effectively stopped reporting on UFOs after that.
The Air Force had gotten what it wanted; an excuse to once and for
all divest themselves of the obligation to publicly investigate
UFOs. Project Blue Book was closed at the end of 1969. Sighting
reports dropped drastically for three years.
UFOs returned in 1973 in a wave that rivaled the ones of the past.
The government was not responsive to UFO questioning this time.
Scientific UFO research, however, gained favor once again. The
Center for UFO Studies, headed by the Air Force's former
consultant, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, was born in 1973. This was the
last great UFO wave that the U.S. would see up to present time.
Research into the UFO phenomenon has reached a crossroads. With
this, the 50th anniversary of the modern era of UFO sightings, we
continue to debate not so much the reality of UFOs (UFOs, as
unknowns, surely are real inasmuch as people report seeing aerial
events which they sometimes can not identify) but the answers as
to what they are. Are they extraterrestrial vehicles, time
machines, passages to parallel universes, living organisms,
psychic projections, or merely planets, stars, balloons, aircraft,
hallucinations or other mundane things? The crossroads is that
after half a century we have not been able to decisively settle
the controversy. It churns on year after year, decade after
decade and has remained at the very least as one of the most
persistent of curiosities in the broad field of phenomenology, my
definition of this being the study of transient, superficially
UFO studies have been dominated by serious, scientifically
oriented people trying to make sense of the reports on one end of
the spectrum, and on the other end by a far-out, high-strung
collection of odd balls, con-men and opportunists. The rest of us
fall somewhere along that line. The vast dichotomy of opinion in
a subject barely governed by any rules or regulation has given the
public the notion that often the population within UFO research is
odder that the phenomenon itself!
Whatever the case of the subject's peculiarities, there are still
areas of research well worth pursuing. I had chosen the area
which I felt held the most promise for a resolution: government
UFO documents and investigations. Why? The reasons are easily
For many years during the time of official U.S. government
involvement, 1947-1969, the questionable handling of UFO reports
by agencies strongly suggested that information was being hidden
from the public. The fact that the information was being hidden
says loudly that the information is sensitive and contradicts the
official point of view -- that there was nothing to UFOs.
Military information about jets being scrambled to chase exotic
aircraft which utterly out-performed their pursuers tantalized
thinking individuals who consequently could not dismiss the
stories out of hand. Leaked reports of photographs, gun camera
films, radar trackings and other types of instrument detection
argued for a removal of UFOs from an imaginary or psychic realm
into a category of harder evidence.
But such hard evidence was not as available in the civilian
reports with which the UFO investigators and organizations were
accustomed to dealing. The government's reports promised to take
the quality level of evidence one step higher. Yet if the
information was being withheld, how was one to make it publicly
available for study?
Everything changed for research into government documents in 1975
with the advent of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Suddenly the law, enacted as a reaction to government misconduct
during the Vietnam War and most particularly the Nixon "Watergate"
scandal, allowed private citizens to access government records
with a mere written request, providing that the records did not
fall under any of nine categories of exemption that allowed the
withholding of papers. Such categories included violations of
personal privacy, national security, internal government
decision-making processes; etc. Indeed the categories seemed
broad enough to allow continued withholding of just about
Prior to this time UFO researchers had to settle for government
press releases, reports that were designed for public consumption
like the famous Condon Report debunking of UFOs which ended the
Air Force's UFO involvement, and tidbits from Project Blue Book
investigations which had only recently been made available before
the FOIA began.
The new law opened the floodgates to a wide variety of UFO
information from many different government agencies.
UFO researchers could not believe their good fortune. They began
requesting files from the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal
Bureau of Investigation, Air Force, National Security Agency,
Defense Intelligence Agency, and a host of other agencies known to
have been involved in the UFO controversy over previous decades.
Large numbers of papers appeared in researchers' mailboxes.
Sometimes lawsuits had to be initiated to gain access to withheld
and censored documents. The CIA tried to resist releasing their
files to the public but, in a headlined court case in 1979, they
were ordered to give up nearly 900 pages of records to a UFO
organization, Ground Saucer Watch.
The FBI followed with a release of nearly 1700 pages. Other
agencies released numerous documents dating back to the dawn of
the UFO era.
Several things became clear in reading these newly released files.
One was that the documents tended to be low-priority information,
with little of it having shown evidence of being classified at
high levels. Many former military officers have testified that
UFO documents were classified at "Top Secret" levels so it
appeared that much work was ahead in working the records from the
lower levels to the higher categories. The released papers
alluded to other documents which the agencies often did not
acknowledge as being in their possession. Also, hundreds of
documents were acknowledged as existing but could not be released
due to concerns for national security, among other reasons.
Major Keyhoe's claims of cover-up in the early 1950s rang truer
than ever before. Much of his information at the time tended to
be anecdotal in nature, though still very convincing in a
circumstantial way. But he had little access to the documentation
that we now have.
If Keyhoe had had the papers we have in this decade, who knows how
different the history of the UFO subject might have been in terms
of press and public attitudes. Imagine if Keyhoe had the kind of
information in the following instance:
A North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) document dated
November 11, 1975 said that in October and early November 1975,
military personnel at five U.S. and Canadian air bases along the
northern border between the two countries had sighted strange
objects. The sightings occurred in the proximity of missile
control facilities, aircraft runways, and nuclear weapon storage
sites where security is extremely sensitive. One sighting at
Loring Air Force Base, Maine prompted the Air Force to report that
the UFO seen there "demonstrated a clear intent in the weapons
storage area," implying intelligent control and clarity of
purpose. Whenever strange vehicles appear near buildings storing
nuclear devices, and when the military appears powerless to
prevent the presence of the vehicle, a national security threat is
evident. The perpetrators in this case were never caught, but
fortunately there appeared to have been no tampering with the
Such was not the case however on November 7, 1975, when remote
electronic sensors triggered an alarm at the "K-7" nuclear missile
silo under the control of Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. In
the launch control area underground two officers noticed the
signal and contacted a Sabotage Alert Team (SAT), consisting of
anywhere from four to six security men.
As the team drove to the missile site they could see a huge,
orange glowing object hovering over K-7. They kept their distance
and described a football field-sized disc that illuminated the
area. A short time later, as the object rose, radar picked up the
UFO. Two F-106 interceptors were scrambled and headed towards K-7
but the UFO had already risen to 200,000 feet where it disappeared
from radar. As a witness described the aftermath of the event in
a September 1980 issue of Denver magazine, targeting teams and
computer specialists were called in to check the missile. When
the missile's warhead was examined it was discovered that the
targeting figures programmed into the computer had mysteriously
changed. The missile was removed from the silo and replaced.
Another military source recently related that because of the
problem with the missile, it was used as part of a scheduled
competition at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California known as the
"Olympic Missile Roundup," a contest to determine the best missile
launch crew much like the "Top Gun" competition (as depicted in
the Hollywood film of the same title) determines the best fighter
pilots. The K-7 missile was said to have been refitted and, with
a dummy warhead, launched at Kwajelein Atoll in the Pacific to
determine the competing missile crew's targeting accuracy. No
word on who won.
Or what could Keyhoe have done in the 1950s with this:
The Air Force's former Chief of Staff, General Curtis Le May, in
his autobiography "Mission With Le May" (Doubleday, 1965) said
that while the bulk of UFO reports were explainable, some could
not be dismissed so easily. "There's no question about it," he
said. "These were things which we could not tie in with any
natural phenomena known to our investigators." This from an
individual who was once an overseer of large aspects of the
national security structure of the U.S. military.
It is obvious that the government in its public assertions that
the UFO phenomenon was not a serious topic and of no concern for
national security, had misled observers of the UFO situation for
years. Federal mishandling of the public relations aspect of UFOs
created suspicions for years that they were hiding the "truth"
about them, whatever that may have been. Is there a truth to be
People who believed UFOs were real were generally inclined to
think that they were vehicles of aliens from other planets
exploring the Earth. It was not a completely unreasonable thing
in which to believe. We know that there is life in the universe,
we are an example of it. And since we are now clearly established
as a space exploring civilization, having sent hundreds of space
vehicles beyond our atmosphere and some to explore other planets,
how much of a stretch would it be to imagine that another
civilization in space, more advanced than us, could have mastered
interstellar travel and have come to the Earth? In the radio
portion of the electromagnetic spectrum of energy the Earth
radiates into space quite conspicuously, being probably one of the
brightest spots in the galaxy. Surely such a beacon of
intelligence could have been detected easily by a similarly
talented civilization elsewhere and create a curiosity which could
culminate in direct visits and contact. An astonishing variety of
life forms exist on planet Earth, some of which we know exist now
would not have been believed in the past. Machine intelligence is
growing by leaps and bounds. Why not elsewhere?
The catch for this is that we need proof of such a scenario.
Tantalizing but scientifically inconclusive evidence repeatedly
has become known in the public sector regarding UFOs over the last
half century. Compelling but not decisive. If the UFO situation
were as true as the speculations of UFO proponents have suggested
for the extraterrestrial hypothesis, then the evidence might lie
behind the curtain of secrecy that the government seemed to have
established around some aspects of the UFO phenomenon. The lack
of candor and misinformation virtually ensured that UFOs would be
with us for a long time.
So does the government have proof or not? The answer so far is
no. "So far" only because we have not seen all that there is to
see of the government's UFO papers. At one time spokesmen
insisted that the Project Blue Book files were all that existed on
UFOs. Numerous insiders in the military had said otherwise but
prior to the freedom of Information Act there was little that
could be done to prove it without breaking the law. Since the
Act, UFO specialists in government documents have gleaned roughly
10,000 pages of records.
With the passage of time it is expected that more of the older
files will be brought into the open, providing that they have not
been destroyed already. We know for example that a fire at a
government archive in St. Louis in 1973 destroyed a certain
number of UFO records from the earliest years of UFO
investigations. Copies of raw intelligence gathered by the
military are generally destined for destruction by regulation
after a relatively short period of time. As an example of this
there were a number of times that in attempting to confirm
sightings with Federal Aviation Administration radar tapes we had
discovered that the tapes were erased as a normal administrative
process. In fact it is entirely likely that records that had been
released under FOIA, say twenty years ago, no longer exist. Which
means that the only copy of a particular government record on UFOs
might be in the hands of a private researcher out amongst the
multitudes, and if that person says nothing about it, the
information could be lost for a long time.
Other records have survived only by the barest of margins. The
Air Force in 1952 had subscribed to a clipping service in an
effort to upgrade the flow of sighting information to their
investigators. The service lasted from April through September of
that year and was terminated only because during that particularly
active year for the Air Force so much information had been
received that there was no longer time or room to manage it. When
the Project Blue Book records were turned over to the National
Archives in 1975 the vast clipping file was not there, apparently
a victim of time and Air Force record down-sizing.
However by pure chance the matter was revived in correspondence
with Dr. Herbert Strentz, dean of the School of Journalism at
Drake University. It seems that when Strentz was a graduate
student in journalism he had visited Project Blue Book at
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio sometime in 1967.
During that visit he had noticed a pile of old microfilm that was
destined for the trash and had asked about it. He was told that
the material was of no use to Blue Book. They asked him if he
wanted it. Strentz quickly replied yes. It turned out that the
microfilm was a copy of the long-destroyed original 1952
clippings, some 32,000+, along with uncensored copies of old
Project Sign case summaries that were sent to scientists for study
during the early years of the Air Force's investigations, and
hundreds of pages of letters sent to the Air Force following an
April 7, 1952 Life magazine article on UFOs with which the Air
Force had cooperated. These records were perhaps just hours from
FOIA requests now often take months or even years to fulfill.
High search fees have been levied, from hundreds of dollars to as
much as a quarter of a million dollars. Twice researchers were
forced to go to court to obtain documents, once against the CIA in
1979 cited earlier and once against the National Security Agency.
The NSA suit was a landmark case in the pursuit of UFO documents.
A U.S. District Court reviewed a top secret, twenty-one page
affidavit regarding the NSA's withheld UFO documents which at the
time amounted to 239 specific papers comprising a mix of
administrative material, sightings around the world, and
communications and signals intelligence reports (COMINT and
SIGINT), i.e. intercepted broadcasts from NSA's monitoring of
The affidavit was released on May 18, 1982, with more than
three-fourths of the document censored. What was the explanation?
The court declared in its conclusion that release of the documents
"could seriously jeopardize the work of the agency and the
security of the United States." The court further determined that
"public interest in disclosure is far outweighed by the sensitive
nature of the material."
What is the sensitive material? During the late-1990s, the NSA
slowly began to lift much of the censorship, revealing the reasons
for their reticence at releasing documents.
UFO reports are discussed in some detail and considerable censorship
remains. Yet it is clear from the readable portions of the
affidavit that it is not so much the release of the UFO reports that
is of concern. The concern rested in the details of how those
reports were acquired, whether through satellite monitoring,
communication intercepts, code breaking; etc. Revealing these facts
could seriously compromise U.S. intelligence activities by
disclosing locations of monitoring facilities, specific times and
targets of monitoring efforts and internal discussions on how to
deal with "surprise material," like UFO reports. Under such
circumstances, there may always be UFO reports that will never be
made public, fueling conspiracy theories until the end of time.
We have had fifty years to mull over these possibilities. In
asserting that the UFO phenomenon is real, the burden of proof
lies on those claiming the subject's strangeness. But even if
UFOs are proven strange, it doesn't prove an answer. As unusual
as the phenomenon has occasionally been, it still wallows in a
nether world of fact mixed with fiction.
In all likelihood UFOs will be with us for another fifty years,
creating controversy, tantalizing many, angering some and
frustrating others. We should be used to it by now. We have had
a lot of practice. Now the task should be in testing the best of
the information with hard work and common sense, to prevent the
mistakes of the past and reduce the noise level in the future.
Barry Greenwood, Stoneham, Mass. 1-22-97