UFO Reports 1950

Captain Willis T. Sperry

Captain Willis T. Sperry began flying at age eleven and by 1939 was a pilot with American Airlines.  On May 29, 1950, he and co-pilot Bill Gates along with Flight Engineer, Robert Arnholt, had a sighting of a cigar-shaped object that paced them and maneuvered around their DC-6 aircraft before disappearing at a high-rate of speed.

Flying (Magazine) - September, 1950

The Mail Box

Until the evening of May 29, I was definitely a skeptic as far as strange flying objects were concerned ... as I had never seen anything that can be only referred to as an unexplainable reality.

I was flying American Airline's DC-6 flight No. 49, New York to San Francisco, with stops at Washington, Nashville and Tulsa.  We had departed from Washington at 9:15 E.S.T. bound for Nashville.  Visibility was excellent -- 50 miles at least.  We were at 7,500 feet, climbing to 18,000, (about 30 miles out of Washington) when First Officer Bill Gates yelled, "Hey, what's that?" I was facing the rear flight deck getting a flight map and when I looked up I saw coming towards us at our level a brilliant, diffused, bluish light of fluorescent type.  I would say it was 25 times the magnitude of the brightest star.  Momentarily it seemed to stop, possibly five seconds, and changed its course to parallel us on our left -- still at the same altitude as it passed between us and the full moon.

Three of us, Gates, Flight Engineer Robert Arnholt (also a pilot) and I all got a good look at it.  Silhouetted against the moon, it appeared to be the shape of a torpedo or submarine, except that there were no protruding fins or external structure of any kind.  It appeared to be a perfectly streamlined object of a dark metallic color, but at night it could have been pink or any other color and looked the same.

In comparing the speed of this object with jet aircraft (which I have observed many times at close range), I would say without a doubt that the speed of the object was far beyond the limits of any known aircraft speeds that we know. In comparison, the speed was fantastic.  As described in my sketch [below] the entire flight path, as observed from the cockpit until it passed out of sight into the east, was approximately only one minute.

When the object first appeared coming toward us, I started a turn to the right, then when it changed its course to parallel us, I started turning to the left so as to be able to follow its path.  Even so it went to the rear of the plane, circled around to the right far enough so that the First Officer saw it on his side before reversing direction and going out of sight to the east.

Sperry Illustration - FLYING Sept., 1950

I then called the Washington control tower and asked them if they were able to pick up the object on the radar scope.  After several minutes, operator Barnes radioed that they were unable to find any trace of it.

I talked to several passengers after the incident but only one told me he had seen an extremely bright light passing the left side of the ship.  Before he could get a good look at it, the object had passed out of his sight. 

Since this incident, I have received countless letters and phone calls regarding "saucers," and a number of serious discussions with my fellow pilots in contrast to the ribbing I expected.

Captain, American Airlines
Tulsa, Okla.

Captain Willis T. Sperry - May 29, 1950

"Watch It!   Watch It!"

During the evening of May 29th, about 50 miles southeast of Washington D.C., an American Airlines DC-6, piloted by a Captain Willis T. Sperry, cruised along at 6,000 feet.  The airliner had just taken off from Washington Airport and was passing over Mt. Vernon, Virginia.  The sky was dark since it was after 9 o'clock.  Captain Sperry's attention was temporarily diverted as he fumbled with a map.  His co-pilot Bill Gates caught sight of a brilliant blue glow and thought a collision was imminent so he yelled: "watch it, watch it!".  Captain Sperry grabbed the controls and jerked the airliner into an abrupt turn as the strange glow zoomed toward his plane.

When first seen the UFO appeared to be a light about 25 times the magnitude of the brightest star.  Later during a brief moment the blue light passed in front of what appeared to be a smooth surfaced spindle.  Some 30 seconds went by as the object hovered motionless and then the cigar-like shape resumed its forward motion.  Said Sperry:

When the object first appeared coming toward us, I started a turn to the right, then when it changed its course to parallel us, I started turning to the left so as to be able to follow its path.  Even so it went to the rear of the plane, circled around to the right far enough so that the First Officer (Gates) saw it on his side before reversing its direction and going out of sight.

Captain Sperry radioed Washington Tower but the controllers had not seen anything unusual.  Tower personnel alerted the press and the next day in Tulsa reporters questioned Captain Sperry.

Instead of being ridiculed by his fellow pilots, Captain Sperry was approached by other airline flying officers who insisted on having "serious discussions" about the flying saucer problem.  One flyer was even able to provide information that seemed to lend support to Captain Sperry's story.  Captain Sperry heard from a pilot who had been flying another American Airlines plane over Virginia, some 400 miles to the south, a pilot named Henry H. Myers, President Franklin Roosevelt's personal pilot during World War II.  Myers had noticed a brilliant "shooting star" that night the same time as Sperry's encounter.  The "shooting star" dropped down out of the night sky off to the north of him where Captain Sperry's plane was at the time.  To Myer's astonishment the "shooting star" fell a distance and then moved horizontally.

Of his own UFO encounter, Captain Sperry told the press the Air Force was interested but had kept their agents at a distance.  The press reported:

He made no report to the Air Force but answered questions posed by a major who called him at Tulsa long distance from the Pentagon on 30 May.

That the UFO could have been a meteor was emphatically discounted by both Sperry and Gates.  A spokesman for American Airlines reacted to Sperry's description of the UFO's astounding speed by expressing amazement, noting that to be able to circle a 300 mile-per-hour airliner twice demanded an engine of incredible power.

Damned Nonsense

If Edward Ruppelt is accurate, the Pentagon hit a high of irritability by May 1950.   Ruppelt has one unnamed Air Force general bellowing:  "It's all a bunch of damned nonsense."  And of pilots reporting UFOs, the same military bigshot snorted:  "They were just fatigued."

Source:  UFOs: A History, Volume 6: April-July, 1950, pp.51-53, by Loren E. Gross, © 1982, Fremont, Calif.  Reproduced with permission.

From the Blue Book microfilms:


By W. B. Klemperer

(in the presence of Mr. Al Chop of DAC Public Relations)

On February 4, 1955 at Mr. Sperry's home in Palos Verdes, California.


Captain Sperry has been a pilot with American Airlines since 1939, for 16 years.  He flies all types of commercial airplanes. Presently, he is on regular DC-6 coach service between Los Angeles and Chicago.  He has about 15,000 flight hours, accumulated at the rate of approximately 1000 per year. He is considered extremely reliable and experienced.  During the war he flew DC-4s regularly between New York and England. (In 1945 I met him at Preswick, Scotland.  I have known Willis Sperry since when he was a high school boy in Talmadge, Ohio, in the late twenties; I knew his parents well, and his older brother was one of my closest friends, I taught Willis a few things about gliding in those days).  Capt. Sperry has traveled a great deal, also flies light airplanes on vacation trips with his wife within the USA as well as into Central and South America.


Captain Sperry related from memory, which is still vivid, his experience of an encounter with an UFO on 29 May 1950.  He was flying (in the left seat of the cockpit of) a DC-6.  The airplane had left Washington Airport at about 9:10 p.m. and was steadily climbing towards a 20,000' level.  The weather was clear aloft but the ground was covered by haze.  There was a full moon about 25 degrees above the horizon. He was headed 240 degrees (mag.) for Nashville, TN.  At about 9:30 p.m., some seven miles west of Mt. Vernon (while Sperry was fishing for a map), the copilot, William Gates, suddenly shouted, "Watch it, watch it!" and drew his attention to a UFO ahead of them, growing rapidly bigger.  It was a brilliant bluish light.  To avoid collision they sharply banked and veered about 45 degrees off their course to the right while the object passed by on the left side slightly higher in opposite direction from an 11 o'clock position to a 7 o'clock apparent position.  During this maneuver the UFO happened to pass between the observers and the upper half of the moon, showing a dark silhouette of a slender hull remindful of a submarine, its length about half the moon’s diameter, its height a fraction of that.  The bright blue light appeared to be at the tail end.


As the object had passed behind their wing the pilots banked the plane to the left and returned towards their old course.  Even so, the copilot discovered the object again through the right window "as though it had circled behind them and come up after them." He then banked to the right again for a better view but the UFO streaked across towards the East behind them… Capt. Sperry saw it once more through the pilot's window to the rear as it went off into the distance towards the Atlantic.


Two or three passengers also saw a light pass by and one stewardess "saw something go by.


Capt. Sperry reported the observations to Washington tower by radio but neither the tower personnel nor the Washington radar picked up anything significant to confirm the sighting.


The press heard of the incident through the Washington tower.  On the following morning Sperry was interrogated by reporters at his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He showed us newspaper clippings, which he has preserved in an album among personal photographs.  He made no report to the Air Force but answered questions posed by a major who called him at Tulsa long distance from the Pentagon on 30 May.


Much later, Sperry learned that "Hank Myers, later pilot of President Truman's plane, was flying on AAL airplane on the same evening and observed a brilliant bluish object between Nashville and Knoxville at such a time that it could well have been the same UFO."


The possibility that the UFO seen by Sperry and his copilot was a meteor was emphatically discounted by both. Capt. Sperry does not believe that the seemingly erratic apparent movement of the object could have been an illusion produced solely by the three veering maneuvers of their own aircraft.  The observation of the bright light being at what they called the rear of the oblong or cigar shaped silhouette of the object as it passed for a fleeting fraction of a second in front of the disk of the full moon seems hard to reconcile with the brilliant visibility of this light during the earlier head-on approach phase, unless it is assumed that the luminous area was much larger than the cross section of the body.

  NOTE: According to the Almanac the moon was full on May 30, 1950.  WBK

KABC-TV Interview with AAL Capt. Willis Sperry, 1964.

Transcribed from tape.

Reporter:   This place is the American Airlines hangar at (missing phrase) International Airport. The man is Captain Willis Sperry AAL [American Airlines]. Captain Sperry flies 707 jetliners coast to coast, a job which he's been doing for about six years. The captain has better than 30 years' experience in the air, in all. On two occasions during that period he saw something aloft which defied description.

Sperry:   The first UFO that I saw that I couldn't identify was on May 29, 1950. It was coming out of Washington, D.C., [the occurrence of the sighting - not the UFO itself] and I was in a DC-6 headed towards Tulsa, Oklahoma. All of the cockpit crew saw the object, and 12 of the passengers in the passenger compartment saw the object. And we couldn't identify it, and neither have we been able to identify what it was ever since that time, although we are completely convinced that it was some object that has stirred up considerable questions since that time, both in this country and all over the world; they've seen a good many objects compared to that. The one that I saw was coming at us from out of the west, and it looked like it came right down to the level of our airplane; in fact, we thought it was coming so close to us that we made a very abrupt right turn to stay out of its road. And when it got off to the left of us, it appeared to stop. And we watched it for several seconds, and it circled the airplane to the left and went between us and the full moon. That was about 30 degrees above the horizon at that particular time of night, at 9:30 in the evening, and, when it went between us and the full moon, it had the silhouette of a cigar. No protruding appendages of any kind were showing as it passed in front of the moon. And it circled around behind the airplane, and on the right-hand side we looked out and the copilot said: "It's over here." And we both watched it for several seconds.We couldn't identify how far away it was; it might have been just a couple of miles or a good many miles. There was a very bright bluish light in the nose of it. And then it started moving towards the east, and we followed it for several seconds until it got to about the magnitude of a very bright star, as it continued going towards the eastern horizon, gradually climbing, Possibly up to about forty degrees above the horizon when it finally disappeared. We have, since that time, tried to identify what it was. Washington radar at the Washington International Airport said that they did not see anything on their radarscope. And from that time until now I have never been able to decide just what it was that we saw. It was traveling at terrific speed, much faster than any objects which we can identify as an airplane.

Ward:   Tomorrow Captain Sperry will tell us about a second experience with a UFO. That will be part 16 of our inquiry into the flying saucer mystery, "Objects Unidentified. "

Ward:   Yesterday Captain Willis Sperry, an American Airlines jet pilot, told us about a UFO sighting he made about 12 years ago. The captain is a veteran pilot with more than 30 years' experience. Today part 16 of our look at the flying saucer phenomenon, and the second part of our visit with the captain, in the cockpit of a 707 jetliner.

Sperry:   ...Chicago in a DC-7, and we were at 21,000 ft, and prior to our descent we were over Moline, Illinois, I believe, at the time, and we all of a sudden picked up considerable static, unrecognizable talking or noise in our radio. So we switched frequencies and tried it on another frequency, and it was just as loud and just as garbled as the one that we had tried previously. So we tried every frequency we had in transmitting to our ground controller, the radio tower operator, and the Company radio operator on the ground in Chicago, and we couldn't get anybody, so we kept hearing this very fast (gibberish) It sounded very much like a high-speed record; in other words, a record being turned at much higher speed than the normal rpm. When we landed at Chicago, or may I say after about 10 minutes, we started hearing other airline pilots in the vicinity of Chicago saying that they were getting reception now; and one TWA pilot said that whatever he was watching for the last ten minutes had disappeared to the west. And we got on the ground and started correlating our experience with others' experiences, and nine different air-planes had lost their radio communications in that particular ten-minute time. It was about four-thirty in the afternoon, the 14th of February, and, in fact, reception had dissipated to the point where there was one plane that had taken off for Milwaukee and returned and landed because he couldn't get any reception. And two other airline pilots saw an object in the sky at that time that they couldn't identify. It was a bright light. And I consider that a very interesting unidentified object that was causing some sort of radio destruction. All the frequencies that we were using at that time were completely blocked out.

[This memo in James McDonald's files of a telephone conversation with Sperry is one of several telephone interviews McDonald conducted with him in late 1967-68. McDonald also interviewed the flight engineer Robert Earl Arnholt, who was in the jump seat at the time of the sighting.]

Notes on telephone interview with Capt. Willis T. Sperry on Sunday, February 11, 1968, 10:00 p.m.

He confirmed that he had to put the DC-6 into a 45-degree bank to the right, under the impression that evasive maneuvers were necessary. When the object had come to rest, they leveled off and even turned left again. It hovered there a short time, and then circled around behind them to the copilot's side (right). It appeared to be motionless on the right side for ten to fifteen seconds. Their estimates of the distance were admittedly very uncertain, but he thought it might have been only 400 or 500 yards away at that time.

He said it was a clear night and the moon was almost full. The silhouette of the object covered almost the full diameter of the moon, he thought. He confirmed that it passed right across the moon, so they got a full silhouette of it. No flames were visible in contrast to Ruppelt's account), just a glow visible in the forward part. Rather bright. He recalled that the glow was visible even when the object was passing in front of the moon.

He said the object looked very much like a fireball [he said "bolide") as it came down. But then it was stationary. "We were rather dumbfounded." Then it moved around to their rear. He said it was hard to estimate the speed as it moved around to their rear, but it was very much like somebody moving a sparkler around rapidly in a dark room. He stated the object was definitely stationary on two occasions.

When it got around on their right, it was there ten or fifteen seconds. They swung the plane once again around to a heading of about 330 degrees (NW). They had turned in order to try to see the object again as it remained stationary. Then it took off, heading almost due east and gradually climbing. They swung around left and headed into the east and picked it up again, by which time it was a considerable distance away, climbing out. He recalls that it was around 30 degrees above the horizon when it disappeared. He believes that they watched it move off to the east for at least a minute, as it climbed and got smaller and smaller. He said that one stewardess called it to the attention of the passengers. After they made their abrupt right turn, one of the stewardesses came up front to ask them what was going on and then went back and explained to the other stewardess. By that time, some of the passengers on the left side were looking at the object, as it hovered on the left. A moment later, when it was around on their right, passengers on that side saw it. He thought that there were more than twelve passengers aboard. I failed to ask him who interviewed the twelve passengers or how that number was established.

I asked him about press interviews, however. He said, yes, there were queries even from as far away as Hong Kong, China. His destination on that flight was Tulsa, and they arrived there around two in the morning, as he recalls. The story broke loose the next morning, and they were interviewed there in Tulsa. Both Tulsa and Ft. Worth papers carried it, he knew for sure.

Sperry was on the left, William Gates (co-pilot) was on the right. I asked him about Gates and learned that he was killed in 1951 or 1952 in an American Airlines Convair accident, going into St. Louis.

I asked him about the flight engineer, and he said that he is no longer with American Airlines. Sperry thought that he was in Dallas and will check with the company to see if he can locate his address and then send it to me.

He said, in reply to my query, that he was interviewed by the Air Force. It was a few days later. He said that Al Chop called him long distance in Tulsa. His base was Tulsa at that time. That was the only Air Force interview that he recalls. (Check to see whether Al Chop was in UFO investigation work at that time.)

Queried him in my letter of 2/12/68, as to whether he had been interviewed by Colorado.

More 1950 REPORTS    
Return to MAIN PAGE