"Intercept—But Don't Shoot!"
It was almost 7, the following night, when I drove into Bolling Field. Looking across the Potomac, I could see the blaze of lights at Washington National Airport, the scene of those tense hours back in July.
Riordan was waiting just inside the club entrance. He told me his friends had been delayed.
"It'll probably be a couple of hours," he said, "so we might as well eat."
We went down to the dining room and found a table at one side.
"I just heard from Sheila," said Riordan. "She's all packed, ready to move as soon as I find an apartment."
"I didn't know she gave up her job here," I said.
"She decided it wasn't fair to young Jimmy—keeping him in a day nursery, and no real home life. They've been staying with my folks. Sheila and Dad wanted me to settle down back there, but after the last three years I can't see it. I'd just be sponging off the old man anyway, moving in on his real estate business."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"Try for a commercial flying job. If that's no go, then maybe electronics—I've picked up some of the dope, this last year."
After we ordered, I gave Riordan the reports he hadn't seen. The last one he read was the Laredo case, which I'd finished the night before.
Lieutenant Earl Fogle, the Intelligence report showed, was an experienced jet pilot. But on the night of December 4 he had been flying the slower F-51, which has a top speed of about 400 miles per hour.
At 8:49, after a two-hour practice flight, Fogle called the Laredo tower and asked permission to land. But since several jets were ahead of him, the tower told him to circle outside the traffic pattern.
Flying at 6,000 feet, several miles from the base, Fogle suddenly noticed a bright, fast-moving light. At first he took it for the after-burner of a jet. Then he realized no jet could make such a swift, tight turn. As he banked toward it, he saw that the light had a queer blue tinge.
The unknown machine rose quickly to his level, circling at tremendous speed. All that Fogle could see was its bright bluish-white glow. Whether it came from an exhaust, a light on the object, or some other source, he was unable to tell.
After a moment the strange device shot up in an odd, flitting ascent. Fogle watched it, astonished. In a few seconds, it climbed almost 9,000 feet. Then it dived back to his level.
Fogle went after it at full power. The UFO seemed to stop, or turn tightly, almost in one spot. Abruptly he realized it was coming straight toward him. The terrific closing speed gave him no time to turn. Paralyzed, expecting a head-on collision, he watched the thing streak toward him.
Three hundred feet away, the machine wavered for a split second. Then it flashed to one side, hurtling past his right wing, so fast it was only a blur.
Looking fearfully over his shoulder, Fogle saw it shoot up in another flitting climb. When it plunged back, as if for a second pass, he hurriedly cut off his lights. Afraid
that a straight drive would make him too easy a target, he threw his fighter into a screaming spiral.
For a moment he thought his unknown pursuer would follow him all the way down. But at 2,000 feet the blue-lit device swiftly turned away. Climbing sharply, in another flitting ascent, it vanished in the dark . . .
Riordan reread the description of the head-on pass.
"Close call," he muttered. "It looks to me like a practice attack."
"Maybe it was only a remote-control observer unit, and whoever was guiding it didn't mean to get that close."
"Whatever they're up to, I don't like it. Some day they're going to hit a plane—if they haven't already."
"Got anything definite on that?" I said.
"There've been some peculiar crashes the last few years. Take that Northwest Airlines DC-4 that went into Lake Michigan—"
Riordan stopped as the waiter came up. While the man was putting down our orders, I thought back to the Northwest crash. It had been just before midnight, June 23, 1950. The DC-4, with 58 aboard, was flying over Benton Harbor, Michigan. It was a rough night, with wind and rain lashing the coast.
Suddenly there was a prolonged flash in the sky. Witnesses later described it as a ball of fire, lasting too long to be lightning. Whatever the answer, it was the end for the 58 aboard the big airliner. No last-second radio call gave any clue to how they had met their fate.
Next day a Coast Guard cutter crew found an oil slick offshore. For two days Navy divers tried to probe the thick mud, 150 feet down. Finally they gave up, leaving the DC-4 and its dead entombed in the deep silt.
Meantime, oddly shredded wreckage had come to the surface—bits of blankets, sliced in strips, similar fragments of clothing, seat cushions, and plywood. But no bodies, no wreckage large enough to analyze, were ever recovered . . .
When we were alone, I told Riordan I'd been thinking over the crash.
"I know people who swear the plane was hit by a saucer," he said. "And there was a radio commentator, Frank Edwards, on Mutual—"
"I know Frank," I said. "I remember he dug into that case."
"Well, Edwards said there was something funny about the investigation."
"He thought the Civil Aeronautics Board should have kept on until they got the answer. I think myself they could have tried harder. But it would have taken a lot of dough—they might have had to dive for weeks."
"Did the CAB ever report on it?" asked Riordan.
"They said they couldn't figure out the answer. What bothers me is the way the blankets and plywood were shredded, as if something had hit the ship with terrific force. Of course, it may have been struck by lightning so that it dived in hard enough to do all that."
"And it could have been hit by the same kind of thing that almost got Fogle."
We were silent for a minute or two. Riordan ate absently, reading over the scanty description Fogle had given Intelligence.
"Too bad he didn't get more details," I said.
"You sound like an Intelligence officer. A pilot comes down, jittery from a close one like that, and before he can even get a drink to quiet his nerves, Intelligence grabs him. 'Was it round or oval? Could you see anything inside? Do you think it was—'"
He broke off. Three Army officers at the next table had stopped eating and were obviously listening. Riordan went on in a quieter voice.
"I’ll tell you this—Intelligence is dead serious about the saucers. But what gets me is the way some of the Pentagon people brush them off in public."
"They had to, once that I know of—"
Riordan made an impatient gesture.
"Who are they kidding? If the saucers were bunk, why would hundreds of careful pilots keep on seeing them? And why would Intelligence have those special UFO report forms?* They ask you everything under the sun—get you to draw sketches—and end up asking what you personally think the thing was. Same thing for the radar operators."
"You sound as if you'd been through it."
"Oh, you hear that interrogation stuff at any field," said Riordan.
"Look, Jim," I said, "I'm not asking you to break security on any particular UFO intercept. But I'd like to know how a man feels, chasing a saucer—"
"You ought to be able to dope it out—you're a pilot."
"All I've flown lately are private planes. I've never even seen a saucer from the ground, except on a radar screen."
Riordan didn't answer.
It wasn't the first time a pilot had balked at this question. Many of them had talked freely about technical angles of an encounter, but few would discuss their emotions. The nearest I'd come was when Lieutenant George Gorman told me about his dogfight with the "saucer" light at Fargo.
During this weird night battle the fight came head-on toward Gorman's F-51. At a safe margin he dived under it, missing collision by several hundred feet.
"I'd half intended to ram it," he said. "But I guess I lost my nerve. The thing didn't scare me very much—maybe it would have, if it'd been larger, or I'd seen a solid object back of the light."
Later, a captain on a major airline, who'd seen a saucer at close range, had given me his story.
"When you've got a ship full of passengers, it's no joke-even if you do kid about it later. One night a big orange-
* See Appendix III, p. 260.
red disc—it was glowing like hot metal—flew alongside and paced us for miles. Every time, when I tried to ease away, it would swerve in and follow. The same if I tried to climb away.
"At first I was just plain dumfounded. Then I realized we were helpless, if whoever controlled the thing wanted to attack. The copilot and I had a bad five minutes, before it pulled up and left us. Maybe the saucers are friendly— but I wish to heaven they'd stay off the airways."
For a long time I'd wondered about the effect of Captain Mantell's death on Air Force pilots ordered to chase UFO's. About six months before this meeting with Riordan, I'd gotten a hint from Major Lewis Norman, a jet pilot stationed at the Pentagon. He had been telling me the final steps in a UFO interception.
"First you prepare for combat—in case you're fired on. Then you try to ease in—at least I would—for a camera-gun shot."
"Suppose you got close and saw some strange machine— I mean really close. Would you signal for it to land?"
"How?" said Norman.
"Blink your lights, if it didn't answer your radio. Or maybe fire a burst to one side."
Norman eyed me. I had a feeling he thought I wasn't too bright.
"That's the last thing I'd do, unless it attacked me," he said grimly. "Cutting loose your guns might be suicide."
I asked Riordan the same thing now, expecting an even blunter answer.
"Suppose you'd been Fogle, and the ship had had guns, would you have fired when the thing made that head-on pass?"
"Not me," Riordan said curtly. "I'd have just sat there and prayed."
"But as a last resort—"
"Who knows what kind of weapons that thing had?" he demanded. "It might even have been a flying bomb. You'd
fire on it, and the damned thing might blow up right in your face."
We finished dinner and headed for the Visiting Officers Quarters to see if Riordan's friends had checked in there. But they had not arrived, and Operations had no word of the plane.
"Might as well wait here," said Riordan. He filled his pipe and we found chairs in a corner of the lobby. After I got a pack of cigarettes from the vending machine, I tried again to get Riordan to talk.
"I wouldn't quote you by name, Jim. But the public ought to know its serious business, chasing a saucer. Right now, they read some newspaper story where the pilot says the object made a tight turn and came near his ship, but he couldn't tell much because the light was too bright. It sounds like a breeze. Even people who don't brush it off as a joke won't feel any need to worry—and I think it's time they did begin to worry."
Riordan turned and gazed out of the window. Then he looked back.
"They don't all feel the same. Some pilots never get very close—"
"What about the ones that do?"
"They're on edge—what the hell do you think?" Riordan glowered at me a second, then he said abruptly, "All right, I’ll give you the picture, but it sounds kind of silly when you're on the ground, good and safe."
He rattled his pipe stem against his teeth, took a long drag.
"OK," he said, blowing out the smoke, "you're flying an F-94 jet, with a radar operator behind you. You're on a routine patrol. Ground Control Intercept calls you. They've got an unknown on their radar, which is a surveillance type, with a longer range than yours. Their tracks show the unknown is making tight turns and speeds too high for any aircraft. So they give you the word—it's a UFO."
Riordan's black eyes jerked across at me.
"Right then, it stops being an ordinary intercept. Going after a MIG, it's different. You know what you're up against. When you get him in your sights, you're ready to fire. With the saucers, you're on the spot. The orders are to intercept but not to shoot—unless you're sure they're hostile."
I knew about that. Major General Roger Ramey, chief of the Air Defense Command, had told me about the instructions.
"How're you going to tell if they're hostile or not?" Riordan said harshly. "Who knows what they—well, anyway, GCI vectors you in. All of a sudden you see a light, circling faster than any plane. Your radar picks it up, too, and you lock on, so you're automatically following the thing. About that time Ground Control calls and says they've got you both on their scope, and the UFO's right where your radar shows it. That does it. You know the thing's real—not a reflection or a set malfunction."
He dragged on his pipe for a moment, his lean face somberly looking into space.
"It's your job to get in close. Maybe you'll learn something Intelligence doesn't know. So you open up and go on in. The UFO is still circling, or perhaps it's hovering by now, or it's slowed down. If it didn't do one of those things, you'd never get within miles—even at 100 per cent power. Then it makes a quick turn toward you. You know you've been spotted, and you start getting butterflies in your stomach—"
Riordan broke off, looked at me ironically.
"Sounds pretty dopey, huh? A fighter pilot sitting behind 50-caliber guns and rockets and scared of a light in the dark."
"Go ahead," I said.
"You watch the thing start a tight turn around you. Nobody on earth could take all the gs in that turn. It's so fast you almost twist your neck off, trying to keep it in
sight. Maybe you see a shape behind the light, maybe not. Even if you do, you can't tell its size—you don't know if the thing's close or half a mile away."
Riordan's pipe had gone out. He sucked on it, made a sour face, emptied the ashes.
"One thing's sure," he said. "Something with intelligence is in control of the thing, the way it maneuvers. Even if it's remote-controlled, it must have a TV 'eye' or something like that—so you know you're being watched, maybe on a screen a long way off."
I waited as he refilled his pipe and got it going again.
"It's a queer feeling, knowing a thing like that," Riordan said slowly. "You'd give anything if it was suddenly daylight, so you could see exactly what the thing is. But all you really know is that you're a sitting duck, if whoever's watching you wants to let you have it. Then the saucer pulls away, so fast you feel like you're standing still. You go back home and Intelligence pumps you. Then you make a big joke of it, so nobody in your outfit will get the idea you were scared."
Riordan shrugged, stood up.
"I told you it'd sound silly. I'm going to phone Operations again."
The trouble was, it wasn't silly. Fear of the unknown could get anyone, even a veteran combat pilot.
Riordan came back, swearing under his breath.
"I've got to get over to Washington Airport—those jokers came in on a MATS plane an hour ago. I just thought to phone my hotel, and they've been calling there every ten minutes."
"Got your car here?" I said.
"No—don't have one yet. I came down on a Bolling bus."
I told him I'd run him over; the airport was on my way home. Riordan was still growling as we rolled out through the main gate.
"Same old snafu. They swear they told me Washington Airport—I know blamed well they said Bolling."
We turned left, into the Bolling Field road to Washington. To get Riordan's mind off the mix-up, I asked about the sighting tip he'd mentioned. The report, he told me, was made by Colonel Curtis Low, commanding officer of the 86th Fighter Wing, in Japan. The sighting had happened around the last of December. Colonel Low and crews of two other planes had seen a unique type of UFO with revolving red, green, and white lights.
"There was a news item on it," said Riordan. "Tokyo Headquarters let it out. But the papers didn't come within a mile of the important part. You ask ATIC for Colonel Low's report—I know Intelligence in Tokyo took it pretty seriously."
We rode in silence for a while. The lights of Washington began to loom up, and in a few minutes we were rolling through the southeast section, taking the waterfront shortcut to Fourteenth Street Bridge. I was thinking of Riordan's somber expression as he talked back in VOQ, when he swung around in the seat.
"You're right—people should know all about those UFO intercepts. The way it is, too many of 'em think the saucers are some U. S. secret weapon."
"Not so many think so now," I said. "If we'd had anything with that power and speed back in '47, by now they’d be in operating squadrons. We wouldn't be building jets—they'd be completely obsolete. And those remote-controlled types would be perfect guided missiles. We'd be able to tell Russia where to head in, fast."
Riordan wagged his head.
"I know all that—but you still hear people say the saucers are our secret weapon, so we needn't be afraid of Russia."
"Yes, and you'll hear some others say they're Soviet weapons—"
That's even crazier," snapped Riordan. "The Reds were barely crawling out of the wreckage of World War II, back in '47. They couldn't possibly have produced the
saucers in that short time, even if they'd stumbled on some new method of propulsion. And even if they could have, they wouldn't be shooting them all over the world, taking a chance one would crash and give away the secret."
"You don't have to sell me," I said. "I dropped that answer years ago, and I don't know anyone in the Pentagon who gives it a serious thought."
"Besides," said Riordan, "the Reds would own the world now if they'd jumped that far ahead in '47. At least they'd be holding a gun at our heads."
We swung off the bridge on the Virginia side. Over to the right the Pentagon's sprawling shape loomed in the darkness. Riordan glanced at it, looked back at me.
"I still think its queer, your getting those Intelligence reports."
"I told you it was a new policy."
Riordan eyed me sharply.
"Sure you're not back on active duty, for some kind of undercover deal?"
"I may go on active duty, but I'm not now." I told him about Ed Ruppelt's suggestion.
"What's back of all this?" said Riordan. "Why are you getting this inside stuff?"
"General Samford—Director of Intelligence—just decided to release the sightings."
Riordan frowned. "You can publish them?"
"All the ones they've cleared."
"You got any hotter cases than the ones you showed me?"
"Quite a few. And when you add them all up—"
"I'd like to see all of them," Riordan cut in.
"OK, come out to my place next week and I’ll show you the works."
Riordan was silent until we turned into the airport road.
"These foreign sightings—how many have there been?"
"Hundreds, anyway. Probably as many as we have here, only we don't get all the reports."
"How many countries that you know of?"
"Every country in Europe and South America, and most of the Far East. They've been seen in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Africa, Hawaii, the Bahamas, Greenland—practically everywhere, even the Antarctic."
"Somebody's certainly damn curious about this earth. Any foreign air force pilots report the things?"
"Plenty," I said. "And foreign airline crews, too."
"Any other countries investigating the saucers?"
"Five, at least—Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, and England. Probably more. Canada has two projects, one of them top-secret."
"Secret—secret!" growled Riordan. "They're all so blasted hush-hush. Even our own Intelligence people won't talk. In five years they must have found out something. But you ask them and they clam up. 'Don't worry, Captain, you're not crazy. We've got reports even stranger than this.'"
We pulled up in front of the MATS terminal. Riordan opened the door, then stopped and gave me a searching look.
"What have they told you? Do you know the answers?"
"I know part of the picture, Jim. I think maybe they'll show me the rest, but—"
A taxi honked impatiently behind us.
"Keep your shirt on!" Riordan snapped. He turned back.
"I’ll tell you when you come out," I said. "Maybe by then I’ll know what the Air Force is going to do about making all their evidence public."
Riordan climbed out.
"I hope they don't wait too long. But how they're going to break it without scaring people is beyond me."
When I got home, I typed out the details of what Riordan had told me. Then I put the latest ATIC reports in my sighting file. Beside the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps sightings, this file included reports by general
military personnel—radar men, guided missile trackers, crews of naval vessels, and members of ground combat forces. In addition, there were sightings by competent civilians: Civil Aeronautics airport traffic controllers, Weather Bureau observers, astronomers, Ground Observer Corps members, FBI agents, state, county, and city police, reputable private pilots, aeronautical engineers, and other specially qualified observers. The last group included veteran airliner crews—captains and copilots of American, United, Eastern, Pan-American, Northwest, Chicago and Southern, Mid-Continent, Western, Trans World, and many other lines.
It would have been hard to find a group better qualified to observe and report on the saucers. But time and again, since '47, these men had been publicly ridiculed.
Up in the front of one filing drawer was a bulky folder labeled, "Official statements on flying saucers." I took it out and ran over a few items.
"We have no experimental craft of that nature; we're completely mystified." (From a 1947 statement by an Air Force spokesman.)
"The mere existence of some yet unidentified flying objects necessitate a constant vigilance on the part of Project personnel and on the part of the civilian population." (From an Air Force report dated April 27, 1949.)
"The saucers are misinterpretations of various conventional objects, mild hysteria, meteorological phenomena, aberrations, or hoaxes." (From an Air Force public statement on December 27, 1949.)
"Such a civilization might observe that on Earth we now have atomic bombs and are fast developing rockets. In view of the past history of mankind, they should be alarmed. We should therefore expect at this time above all to behold such visitations.
"Since the acts of mankind most easily observed from a distance are A-bomb explosions, we should expect some relation to obtain between the time of the A-bomb explosions,
the time at which the space ships are seen, and the time required for such ships to arrive from and return to home base." (From a formerly secret Project report, released by the Air Force on December 30, 1949.)
"At the end of nearly every report tracked down stands a crackpot, a religious crank, a publicity hound, or a malicious practical joker." (Published statement by Colonel Harold E. Watson, Chief of Intelligence at Dayton, November, 1950, after an interview with Bob Considine, for International News Service.)
"These reports come from sincere people; they are not crackpots. They are seeing something; we have to find out what." (From a statement by an ATIC colonel at Dayton, published in Look, June 24, 1952.)
It was small wonder that the American people were confused about the saucers.
After the last few months the reason for these contradictions was fairly clear. The situation had changed several times. Individual opinions had changed with it. Some officials had retracted earlier statements—or their words had been offset by still other officials. But these five years of contradictions, along with the various "expert" explanations of the saucers, had put the Air Force in a difficult spot. It couldn't have been worse if they had deliberately planned it.