UFOs and the Government

photo of martin b-57 plane
In an official picture taken in September of 1957, what appears to be a small UFO follows a Martin B-57 aircraft as it flies over Edwards Air Force Base in California. The exact nature of the UFO remains an object of controversy to this day.
Mary Evans Picture Library

From the beginning, society -- in the persons of prominent scientists, government officials, military officers, journalists, and ordinary citizens -- would make things disagreeable for those who insisted they had seen strange flying objects and those who believed them. Wherever there were "flying saucers," there was also ridicule, dished out in generous portions to anyone courageous or foolish enough to defy the reigning orthodoxy.

A 1951 Cosmopolitan article, prepared with Air Force cooperation and encouragement, lashed out at the "screwballs" and "true believers" who thought they were seeing flying saucers. In the decades to come, others would accuse UFO observers of every conceivable social crime or mental disorder. As a result, only a small minority of witnesses would ever report their sightings, and many who did soon lived to regret it. In 1977 a group of professional debunkers warned The New York Times that belief in UFOs is not only irrational but also dangerous; if sufficiently widespread, civilization itself could collapse.


Yet in the face of jeering derision and inflated rhetoric, the UFO sightings continued. The great majority of sightings would be by individuals who would have been implicitly believed had they been testifying to anything less outrageous. Of course, these witnesses were not always right. Even sympathetic investigators found that most reports could be explained conventionally. Few of the reports were outright UFO hoaxes (around one percent, according to the Air Force's estimate), but sane and sober eyewitnesses often mistook weather balloons, stars and planets, advertising planes, and other ordinary objects for extraordinary objects. Still, some sightings stubbornly resisted explanation.

In the summer of 1947, the Air Materiel Command (AMC) was asked to study the situation and make recommendations about what should be done. On September 23 Lt. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, the AMC head, wrote his superior with this analysis: "The phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious." Three months later the Air Force established Project Sign under AMC command, which is headquartered at Wright Field, soon to be Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB), Dayton, Ohio, to investigate UFO reports.

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Project Sign's "Estimate of the Situation"

illustration of cigar-shaped ufo
This not-quite-accurate sketch of the Chiles-Whitted UFO -- witnesses reported two rows of windows -- shows an object of structured appearance and extraordinary speed.
Mary Evans Picture Library

By late July 1948 Project Sign investigators had come to an incredible conclusion: Visitors from outer space had arrived. They had begun with suspicions. Now they now had the proof. The proof was . . . well, it depends on which of two versions of the story is to be believed.

In the better-known version, the proof arrived in the sky southwest of Montgomery, Alabama, at 2:45 A.M. on July 24, 1948. To Clarence S. Chiles and John B. Whitted, pilot and copilot respectively of an Eastern Airlines DC-3, the object at first looked like a distant jet aircraft to their right and just above them. But it was moving awfully fast. Seconds later, as it streaked past them, they saw something that Whitted thought looked like "one of those fantastic Flash Gordon rocket ships in the funny papers." It was a huge, tube-shaped structure, its fuselage three times the circumference of a B-29 bomber, and with two rows of square windows emanating white light. It was, Chiles would remember, "powered by some jet or other type of power shooting flame from the rear some 50 feet." The object was also glimpsed by the one passenger who was not sleeping. After it passed the DC-3, it shot up 500 feet and was lost in the clouds at 6,000 feet altitude.


Although Chiles and Whitted didn't know it at the time, an hour earlier a ground-maintenance crewman at Robins AFB, Georgia, had seen the same or an identical object. On July 20, observers in The Hague, the Netherlands, watched a comparable craft move swiftly through the clouds.

It took investigators little time to establish that no earthly missile or aircraft could have been responsible for these sightings. Moreover, with independent verification of the object's appearance and performance, there seemed no question of the witnesses' being mistaken about what they had seen. In the days following the sighting, Project Sign prepared an "estimate of the situation" -- a thick document stamped TOP SECRET -- that argued that this and other reliably observed UFOs could only be otherworldly vehicles. But when the estimate landed on the desk of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, he promptly rejected it on the grounds that the report had not proved its case.

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Project Blue Book

photo of men looking at a radar screen
Project Blue Book invo­lved investigators from the United States Air Force who investigated reports of UFO sightings and possible aerial threats.
Intercontinental U.F.O. Galactic Spacecraft Research and Analytic Network Archives

In short order Project Sign's advocates of extraterrestrial visitation were reassigned or encouraged to leave the service. The Air Force then embarked on a debunking campaign interrupted only for the brief period between 1951 and 1953 when Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, who took an open-minded approach, headed the official UFO project. Project Sign was succeeded by Project Grudge (1949-1952); Project Blue Book, established in March 1952, succeeded Project Grudge. Practically until the day the Air Force closed down Project Blue Book in December 1969, it denied that such a document had ever existed, even when former UFO-project officers swore they had seen or heard of it. No one could produce a copy of the document, however, because the Air Force had all copies burned.

At least one source disputes this account, on the authority of Capt. Ruppelt, who tells it in his memoir of his Project Blue Book years, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956). Years after the original incidents, a retired AMC-assigned officer (now deceased) claimed that Project Sign prepared two drafts of the estimate. The first draft referred to what the officer remembered as a "physical evidence" case in New Mexico. When Vandenberg saw this reference, he demanded its removal. The second draft, with the offending paragraphs deleted, argued its case solely from eyewitness testimony -- of which the Chiles/Whitted encounter was an impressive example. Vandenberg could now claim that, in the absence of physical evidence, no proof existed.


A long time would pass before civilian investigators learned of this New Mexico physical-evidence case. It would turn out to be one of the most important incidents -- perhaps the most important incident -- in UFO history. With these revelations would come the belated realization that ufology has two histories: a public one and a hidden one. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. . . .

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The Thomas Mantell UFO Incident

photo illustrating lens flare
­This is one of many photographs in which a lens flare, sometimes mistaken for a UFO, appears.
Intercontinental U.F.O. Galactic Spacecraft Research and Analytic Network Archives

Flying saucers were supposed to be a fad. Pundits tied these strange shapes in the sky to "war nerves," a sort of delayed-response reaction to the traumas of World War II. They were also supposed to be a peculiarly American delusion. Unidentified flying objects, however, have survived longer than war memories and remain an eerie, discomforting presence the world over.

As military and civilian researchers scrambled to make sense of all this, anything seemed possible -- even attack by hostile aliens.


On J­anuary 7, 1948, Kentucky Air National Guard Capt. Thomas F. Mantell, Jr., died when his F-51 crashed after chasing what he called, in one of his last radio transmissions, "a metallic object of tremendous size." The official Air Force line was that Mantell saw Venus. Unofficially, many officers feared that a space-ship had shot down Mantell's plane with a frighteningly superior extraterrestrial weapon.

Neither answer, it turned out, was correct. Declassified documents eventually disclosed that the Navy had been conducting secret balloon experiments as part of its Skyhook project, which sought to measure radiation levels in the upper atmosphere. As Mantell pursued what he apparently thought was a spaceship, he had foolishly ascended to 25,000 feet -- a dangerous altitude for the aircraft he was piloting -- and blacked out from lack of oxygen. His F-51 spun out of control and crash-landed in the front lawn of a farmhouse near Franklin, Kentucky. But in the days that followed the tragedy, sensational headlines fueled everyone's worst fears about flying saucers, and the Mantell incident entered UFO legend.

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The 1953 Kinross UFO Incident

photo of donald keyhoe
Donald Keyhoe was the most famous ufologist of the 1950s.
Fortean Picture Library

Just as frightening as the Mantell incident, though more bizarre and less publicized, was a fatal encounter that occurred on November 23, 1953, over Lake Superior. That evening, as Air Defense Command radar tracked an unidentified target moving at 500 miles per hour over the lake, an F-89C all-weather jet interceptor from Kinross AFB took off in hot pursuit. Radar operators watched the aircraft close in on the UFO, and then something fantastic happened: The two blips merged and then faded on the screen, and all communication with the interceptor ceased. An extensive land and water search found not a trace of the craft nor the two men aboard it: pilot Lt. Felix Moncla, Jr., and radar observer Lt. R. R. Wilson.

Unlike the Mantell incident, the Kinross case attracted minimal newspaper coverage; also unlike Mantell, Kinross has never been satisfactorily explained. Later, after aviation writer Donald E. Keyhoe broke the story in his best-selling The Flying Saucer Conspiracy (1955), the Air Force insisted that the "UFO" had proved on investigation to be a Royal Canadian Air Force C-47. The F-89C had not actually collided with the Canadian transport plane, but something unspecified had happened, and the interceptor crashed. Aside from implying woeful incompetence on the radar operators' part, this "explanation" -- still the official one -- flies in the face of the Canadian government's repeated denials that any such incident involving one of its aircraft ever took place.


In 1958 Keyhoe got hold of a leaked Air Force document that made it clear that officialdom considered the Kinross incident a UFO encounter of the strangest kind. The document quoted these words from a radar observer who had been there: "It seems incredible, but the blip apparently just swallowed our F-89." The following year, in conversations with civilian ufologists Tom Comella and Edgar Smith, M. Sgt. O. D. Hill of Project Blue Book confided that such incidents -- he claimed Kinross had not been the only one -- had officials worried. Many, he said, believed UFOs to be of extraterrestrial origin and wanted to prevent an interplanetary Pearl Harbor. Cornelia subsequently confronted Hill's superior, Capt. George T. Gregory, at Blue Book headquarters. Gregory looked shocked, left the room for a short period, and returned to state, "Well, we just cannot talk about those cases."

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The 1952 Washington D.C. UFO Incident

illustration of washington d.c. ufo incident
The Washington sightings led one imaginative theorist to outline the command structure of the "intergalactic task force" allegedly responsible. The scare attracted President Truman's personal attention. During the time of the sightings, all intelligence channels into and out of the capital were jammed, leaving the city defenseless if an Earth-bound adversary had chosen to attack.
Intercontinental U.F.O. Galactic Spacecraft Research and Analytic Network Archives

A few minutes before midnight on Saturday, July 19, 1952, an air traffic controller at National Airport in Washington, D.C., noticed some odd blips on his radar screen. Knowing that no aircraft were flying in that area --15 miles to the southwest of the capital -- he rushed to inform his boss, Harry G. Barnes. Barnes recalled a few days later, "We knew immediately that a very strange situation existed. . . . [T]heir movements were completely radical compared to those of ordinary aircraft." They moved with such sudden bursts of intense speed that radar could not track them continuously.

Soon, National Airport's other radar, Tower Central (set on short-range detection, unlike Barnes' Airway Traffic Control Central [ARTC]), was tracking unknowns. At Andrews AFB, ten miles to the east, Air Force personnel gaped incredulously as bright orange objects in the southern sky circled, stopped abruptly, and then streaked off at blinding speeds. Radar at Andrews AFB also picked up the strange phenomena.


The sighting­s and radar trackings continued until 3 A.M. By then witnesses on the ground and in the air had observed the UFOs, and at times all three radar sets had tracked them simultaneously.

Exciting and scary as all this had been, it was just the beginning of an incredible episode. The next evening radar tracked UFOs as they performed extraordinary "gyrations and reversals," in the words of one Air Force weather observer. Moving at more than 900 miles per hour, the objects gave off radar echoes exactly like those of aircraft or other solid targets. Sightings and trackings occurred intermittently during the week and then erupted into a frenzy over the following weekend. At one point, as an F-94 moved on targets ten miles away, the UFOs turned the tables and darted en masse toward the interceptor, surrounding it in seconds. The badly shaken pilot, Lt. William Patterson, radioed Andrews AFB to ask if he should open fire. The answer, according to Albert M. Chop, a civilian working as a press spokesperson for the Air Force who was present, was "stunned silence. . . . After a tense moment, the UFOs pulled away and left the scene."

As papers, politicians, and public clamored for answers, the Air Force hosted the biggest press conference in history. A transcript shows that the spokesperson engaged in what amounted to double-talk, but the reporters, desperate for something to show their editors, picked up on Capt. Roy James' off-the-cuff suggestion that temperature inversions had caused the radar blips. James, a UFO skeptic, had arrived in Washington only that morning and had not participated in the ongoing investigation.

Nonetheless, headlines across the country echoed the sentiments expressed in the Washington Daily News: "SAUCER" ALARM DISCOUNTED BY PENTAGON; RADAR OBJECTS LAID TO COLD AIR FORMATIONS. This "explanation" got absolutely no support from those who had seen the objects either in the air or on the radar screens, and the U.S. Weather Bureau, in a little-noted statement, rejected the theory. In fact, the official Air Force position, which it had successfully obscured, was that the objects were "unknowns."

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CIA Involvement in UFO Debunking

illustration of ufo flight path
Intercontinental U.F.O. Galactic Spacecraft Research and Analytic Network Archives

After the Washington D.C. UFO incidents, while the nation's opinion makers -- satisfied that all was well -- went on to other stories, the aftershocks of the UFO invasion reverberated throughout the defense establishment. H. Marshall Chad well, assistant director of the CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence, warned CIA director Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, "At any moment of attack [from the Soviet Union], we are now in a position where we cannot, on an instant basis, distinguish hardware from phantom, and as tension mounts we will run the increasing risk of false alerts and the even greater danger of falsely identifying the real as phantom."

Chadwell feared that the Soviets could plant UFO reports as a psychological warfare exercise to sow "mass hysteria and panic." In fact, as The New York Times noted in an August 1, 1952, analysis, the Washington sightings and others across the country in July were so numerous that "regular intelligence work had been affected."


In fact, during the Washington events traffic related to the UFO sightings had clogged all intelligence channels. If the Soviets had chosen to take advantage of the resulting paralysis to launch an air or ground invasion of the United States, there would have been no way for the appropriate warnings to get through.

Determined that this would never happen again, the CIA approached Project Blue Book and said it wanted to review the UFO data accumulated since 1947. In mid-January a scientific panel headed by CIA physicist H. P. Robertson briefly reviewed the Air Force material, dismissed it quickly, and went on to its real business: recommending ways American citizens could be discouraged from seeing, reporting, or believing in flying saucers. The Air Force should initiate a "debunking" campaign and enlist the services of celebrities on the unreality of UFOs. Beyond that official police agencies should monitor civilian UFO research groups "because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking. . . . The apparent irresponsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind."

The panel's existence and its conclusions remained secret for years, but the impact on official UFO policy was enormous. In short order Project Blue Book was downgraded, becoming little more than a public-relations exercise.

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The Condon Report on UFOs

photo of condon report booklets
The official text of the controversial Condon Report, billed in J969 as the last (and negative) word on UFOs.
Mary Evans Picture Library

In 1966 the Air Force sponsored a project, directed by University of Colorado physicist Edward U. Condon, to conduct what was billed as an "independent" study. In fact it was part of an elaborate scheme to allow the Air Force, publicly anyway, to get out of the UFO business.­

­The Condon committee was to review or reinvestigate Project Blue Book data and decide if further inve­stigation was warranted. As an internal memorandum leaked to Look magazine in 1968 showed, Condon and his chief assistant knew before they started that they were to reach negative conclusions.


Condon sparked a fire storm of controversy when he summarily dismissed two investigators who, not having gotten the message, returned from the field with positive findings. In January 1969, when the committee's final report was released in book form, readers who did not get past Condon's introduction were led to believe that "further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified on the expectation that science will be advanced thereby." Those who bothered to read the book found that fully one-third of the cases examined remained unexplained, and scientist-critics would later note that even some of the "explained" reports were unconvincingly accounted for.

But that did not matter; Condon arid his committee had done their job, and the Air Force closed down Project Blue Book at the end of the year.

Some years later a revealing memo came to light through the Freedom of Information Act. It amounted to confirmation of a long-standing suspicion: Project Blue Book served as a front for a classified project that handled the truly sensitive reports. The memo, prepared on October 20, 1969, by Brig. Gen. C. H. Bolender, the Air Force's Deputy Director of Development, noted that "reports of UFOs which could affect national security should continue to be handled through the standard Air Force procedure designed for this purpose." He did not explain what this "standard Air Force procedure" was, and the 16 pages attached to his memo -- which presumably would have shed some light on this curious assertion -- are missing from the Air Force files.

The Bolender memo was the first whiff from the cover-up's smoking gun. There would be more --a lot more -- in the years to come.

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UFO Crash Stories

illustration of alien
Ufologist Leonard H. Stringfield has collected dozens of stones from persons who claim to be privy to some of the U.S. government's deepest UFO secrets. One informant was a military doctor who said he had performed autopsies on the bodies of large-headed humanoids recovered from a crashed spacecraft.
Jerome Clark

The stories began to circulate in the late 1940s. They were so fantastic that even those willing to seriously consider the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation responded with incredulity.

In fact, no more than a couple of weeks after Kenneth Arnold's sighting ushered in the UFO age, the first such story hit the press. On the afternoon of July 8, 1947, a New Mexico paper, the Roswell Daily Record, startled the nation with a report of a flying saucer crash near Corona, Lincoln County, northwest of Roswell, and of the recovery of the wreckage by a party from the local Army Air Force base. Soon, however, the Air Force assured reporters that it had all been a silly mistake: The material was from a downed balloon.


Though this particular incident was quickly forgotten, rumors of recovered saucers and, in addition, the bodies of their alien occupants, became a staple of popular culture -- and con games. In 1949 Variety columnist Frank Scully wrote that a "government scientist" and a Texas oilman had told him of three crashes in the Southwest. The following year Scully expanded these claims into a full-length, best-selling book, Behind the Flying Saucers, which claimed that the occupants of these vehicles were humanlike Venusians dressed in the "style of 1890." But two years later True magazine revealed in a scathing exposé that Scully's sources were two veteran confidence men, Silas Newton and Leo GeBauer. Newton and GeBauer were posing respectively as an oilman and a magnetics scientist in an attempt to set up a swindle involving oil-detection devices tied to extraterrestrial technology.

To serious ufologists, including those who suspected the government wasn't telling everything it knew about UFOs, crash stories were farfetched yarns of "little men in pickle jars." A person with such a story got a chilly reception when he or she passed it on to anyone but fringe ufologists. In 1952 Ed J. Sullivan of the Los Angeles-based Civilian Saucer Investigators wrote that such tales "are damned for the simple reason, that after years of circulation, not one soul has come forward with a single concrete fact to support the assertions. . . . We ask you to beware of the man who tells you that his friend knows the man with the pickle jar. There is good reason why he effects [sic] such an air of mystery, why he has been 'sworn to secrecy' -- because he can't produce the friend -- or the pickle jar."

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UFO Rumors and the Government

newspaper headlines after roswell ufo incident
Government authorities explained away the wreckage of a mysterious aircraft discovered near Corona, New Mexico, in 1947 as the remains of a weather balloon, but those who participated in the recovery now admit that this was false.
Jerome Clark

In 1954, after President Dwight Eisenhower dropped out of sight while visiting California (sparking a press-wire report that he had died), it was alleged that he had taken a secret trip to Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) to view alien remains -- or, as another version had it, to confer with living aliens. A soldier with the Air Force confided that in 1948 he and other soldiers were dispatched to a New Mexico site to dismantle a nearly intact craft, from which an earlier party had removed the bodies of little men.

In Europe it was said that the Norwegian military found a saucer on a remote North Atlantic island of Spitsbergën, or maybe it was the German military and the island was Heligoland. On May 23, 1955, newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen wrote, "British scientists and airmen after examining the wreckage of one mysterious flying ship are convinced that these strange aerial objects are not optical illusions or Soviet inventions but are actual flying saucers which originate on another planet."


Over Chesapeake Bay on the evening of July 14, 1952, the pilot and copilot of a Pan American DC-3 had a much-publicized encounter with eight plate-shaped UFOs. The next morning, as they waited to be interviewed separately by Air Force officers, the two agreed to ask about the crash rumors. Subsequently, the copilot, William Fortenberry, raised the question, and one of the interrogators replied, "Yes, it is true." Pilot William Nash forgot to ask until afterward, when he and Fortenberry met together with the officers.

Nash recalled, "They all opened their mouths to answer the question, whereupon Maj. [John H.] Sharpe looked at them, not me, and said very quickly, 'NO!' It appeared as if he were telling them to shut up rather than addressing the answer to me." Later Nash met a New York radio newsperson who claimed the Air Force had briefed him and two other reporters (one from Life magazine) about its recovery of a crashed UFO.

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Robert Sarbacher Confirms UFO Crash Rumors

image of government document
A memo written by Canadian government engineer Wilbert Smith concerning the September 1950 meeting with Sarbacher surfaced three decades later. This led ufologists to Sarbacher for answers. In answer to an inquirer, Sarbacher passed on what he remembered hearing about UFOs during his tenure s a scientific advisor to the Defense Department.
Jerome Clark

A remarkable interview occurred in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 1950, but the content did not leak out until the early 1980s, when Canadian ufologist Arthur Bray found a memo by one of the participants, radio engineer Wilbert B. Smith of Canada's Department of Transport. The memo described a conversation with physicist Robert I. Sarbacher, a consultant with the U.S. Department of Defense Research and Development Board (RDB), at one of the regular meetings Sarbacher and other government scientists conducted with their Canadian counterparts.

Asked about the crash rumors, Sarbacher said they were "substantially correct." He said UFOs "exist. . . . We have not been able to duplicate their performance. . . . All we know is, we didn't make them, and it's pretty certain they didn't originate on the Earth." The issue was so sensitive that "it is classified two points higher even than the H-bomb. In fact it is the most highly classified subject in the U.S. government at the present time." Sarbacher refused to say more.


Smith, who died in 1961, mounted a small, short-lived UFO investigation, Project Magnet, for his government. Through official channels he tried unsuccessfully to learn more than Sarbacher's cryptic remarks had revealed. After the memo surfaced, ufologists found a listing for Sarbacher in Who's Who in America, citing his impressive scientific, business, and educational credentials.

When interviewed, Sarbacher said he had not personally participated in the UFO project, though he knew those who had, including RDB head Vannevar Bush, John von Neumann, and J. Robert Oppenheimer -- three of America's top scientists in the 1940s and 1950s. He had read documents related to the project and on occasion had been invited to participate in Air Force briefings.

"There were reports that instruments or people operating these machines were also of very light weight, sufficient to withstand the tremendous deceleration and acceleration associated with their machinery," Sarbacher told an inquirer in 1983. "I remember in talking with some of the people at the office that I got the impression these 'aliens' were constructed like certain insects we have observed on Earth, wherein because of the low mass the inertial forces involved in operating of these instruments would be quite low. I still do not know why the high order of classification has been given and why the denial of the existence of these devices." Sarbacher could not recall where the crashes had taken place, but he did remember hearing of "extremely light and very tough" materials recovered from them.

Sarbacher's story never varied, and he resisted the temptation to elaborate or speculate. All who interviewed him were impressed. Still, his story could not be verified, since the persons he named were all dead. Sarbacher himself died in the summer of 1986.

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