The Great Saucer Snafu
For a full understanding of the Air Force problem, and the evidence I later showed Riordan, it is necessary to go back to the start of the great saucer scare. Some of the facts I have learned throw new light on those earlier years. And tracing the investigation, on up into 1953, shows not only the strange incidents of the past year but the reasons for the present Air Force dilemma.
The first official reports came in '44. During World War II, hundreds of American pilots encountered mysterious round, glowing objects over Europe and the Far East. Dubbed "foo-fighters"—sometimes "Kraut fireballs"—these early UFO's appeared both singly and in formations. Apparently their purpose was a close-range observation of aerial-war operations. Time after time they paced our bombers and fighters, maneuvering around them at high speed.
Suspecting a Nazi device, Intelligence officers checked when the war ended. But they found no trace of any such secret machine. Both the Nazi and Jap pilots, too, had been baffled by the foo-fighters.
In the next year or so a few strange reports trickled in to the Air Force. Most of them were brushed off as illusions.
Then on June 24, 1947, an Idaho private pilot named Ken Arnold set off the saucer uproar.
While flying near Mount Rainer, Washington, Arnold sighted nine huge, gleaming discs, racing along in a column. He estimated their size at 100 feet in diameter, the speed at more than 1,200 miles per hour.
Unfortunately Arnold described the discs as "saucer like," and the ridiculous name was born. Had he called them "flying discs," or simply unknown objects, the whole story might have been different. But from the start the "saucers" have been a big joke, a handicap to any serious investigation.
Within a few days after Arnold's story hit front pages, weird objects were reported all over the country. There were a few hoaxes. Many reports were caused by hysteria. But mixed in with these were several serious accounts.
At Muroc Air Force Base, veteran pilots reported silvery discs circling at high speeds. A United Airlines crew, until then hardheaded skeptics, sighted two groups of discs over Emmett, Idaho. Other stories came in from competent, trained observers.
Even then, contradictions were the order of the day. At Muroc and other air bases, commanders worried by the thought of a Russian secret weapon kept fighters alerted. But when the United report came in to Washington, a Pentagon spokesman quickly debunked the story.
"No investigation is needed," he said. "The saucers are only hallucinations."
On that same day officers at Dayton admitted that the Air Materiel Command was seriously investigating the saucers.
On through '47 the excitement alternately flared and faded. By this time reports were world-wide. One small group of Intelligence officers urged the Air Force to set up a secret probe. Perhaps they would not have succeeded, but for the strange death of Captain Mantell.
Early on the afternoon of January 7, 1948, a huge, round,
glowing object was sighted by hundreds of people at Madisonville, Kentucky, and later by thousands throughout the state. State police, in warning Fort Knox, estimated the object to be at least 250 feet in diameter.
Thirty minutes later, the strange device appeared over Godman Air Force Base, not far from Fort Knox. As it hovered over the field, alternately glowing red and white, Captain Thomas Mantell and three other F-51 pilots flew past on a training flight. Mantell, a war veteran, was contacted by radio from the Godman tower and asked to investigate.
After a few minutes, climbing through broken clouds, Mantell called the tower.
"I've sighted the thing. It looks metallic—and it's tremendous in size . . . Now it's starting to climb . . ."
After a brief silence he called again.
"It's still above me, making my speed or better. I'm going up to 20,000 feet. If I'm no closer, I’ll abandon chase."
Minutes passed. The tower called Mantell again, but there was only silence. Later that day Mantels’ body was found near his wrecked plane, some 90 miles from the field. One witness said the F-51 seemed to explode in midair. There was no sign of fire, but the fighter had disintegrated before it struck the ground.
Next day, a few papers carried the story of the fatal "saucer chase." Rumors began to fly. In one story Mantels’ body had been pierced by a mysterious ray. According to another, no body was found—Mantell had been spirited away for examination by unknown spacemen. The Air Force refusal to release any pictures of the wreckage or Mantels’ body naturally heightened public suspicion.
Actually, as Intelligence has told me, this was out of respect for the feelings of Mantels’ relatives. While his body was not badly mutilated, there was one detail the Air Force preferred not to make public, though there was nothing mysterious about the wound.
Soon after Mantels’ death, Air Force Intelligence established Project "Sign," the first investigating agency. Beside Intelligence officers, several rocket experts, aeronautical engineers, an astrophysicist, and other scientists were put to work on the riddle. The project, at first, was top-secret.
On July 24, 1948, two Eastern Air Lines pilots, Captain C. S. Chiles and First Officer John B. Whitted, dumped a new mystery into the project's lap.
At 2:45 a.m., as they were flying near Montgomery, a brilliant cigar-shaped craft came hurtling toward their airliner.
"It was heading southwest," Captain Chiles said later, "and it flashed toward us at terrific speed. We veered to the left. It veered sharply, too, and passed us about 700 feet to the right."
Both pilots saw two rows of windows and noted an intense blue glow from inside—possibly caused by an unknown means of propulsion. The speed of the weird-looking ship, they estimated, was between 500 and 700 miles an hour. As it raced past, trailing a red-orange exhaust, it pulled up sharply. The propulsion blast rocked the DC-3 for a moment, before the unknown craft climbed into the night.
This strange UFO, called a "space ship" in newspaper stories, was also sighted at Robbins Field, near Macon, Georgia. Except for the windows, witnesses' descriptions tallied with those of the pilots.
Two months later, on October 1, the Fargo "saucer" fight report came in from Lieutenant George Gorman. When Project investigators flew to the scene, two airport tower operators confirmed Gorman's sighting of the eerie "flying light."
Then in November there was a sudden flurry of reports from our air bases abroad. On November 1, radar men at Goose Bay Air Force Base, in Labrador, picked up a strange object flying at 600 miles an hour. Five days later
Air Force radar men in Japan tracked two oddly maneuvering UFO's for over an hour. On the scope they appeared like two planes, dogfighting. But there were no conventional aircraft in the area.
Three weeks later another radar case startled Air Force officers in Germany. On the night of November 23 an F-80 jet pilot was flying near Furstenfeldbruck when he sighted a circling object with a bright red light. At about the same moment the UFO was picked up by Air Force ground radar. It was tracked as flying in circles at 27,000 feet— the altitude where the pilot encountered it.
As the F-80 drew near, the red-lighted device swiftly climbed out of sight. But before it went off the scope, operators tracked it to 40,000 feet, circling at speeds estimated as high as 500 m.p.h.
On through '48 and in the winter months of '49, saucer reports steadily poured in. But few of them were made public, and the excitement had died down. In the spring of '49, Ken W. Purdy, editor of True magazine, began a private investigation which he later asked me to take over. One of the first Air Force officers I saw was Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Dewitt R. Searles, a pilot assigned to the press branch.
Searles and I went over the first Project report, in which Intelligence admitted it had no answers for the Mantell, Chiles-Whitted, and Gorman sightings.
The possibility that the saucers came from Mars or Venus was also admitted; but it was more likely, said the Air Force, that they came from outside our solar system. In discussing nearby star systems, the Project Sign report stated:
"Outside the solar system other stars—22 in number-have satellite planets. Our sun has nine. One of these, the earth, is ideal for existence of intelligent life. On two others there is a possibility of life. Therefore, astronomers believe reasonable the thesis that there could be at least
one ideally habitable planet for each of the 22 other eligible stars.
"The theory is also employed that man represents the average in advancement and development. Therefore, one half the other habitable planets would be behind man in development, and the other half ahead. It is also assumed that any visiting race could be expected to be far in advance of man. Thus, the chance of space travelers existing at planets attached to neighboring stars is very much greater than the chance of space-traveling Martians. The one can be viewed as almost a certainty, if you accept the thesis that the number of inhabited planets is equal to those that are suitable for life and that intelligent life is not peculiar to the earth."
After discussing numerous sightings, the report ended by saying the saucers were neither jokes nor any cause for alarm.
"What do you personally think?" I asked Major Searles. He shook his head.
"You can't ignore the testimony of competent pilots. We don't know the answers, but we're making a careful investigation."
In my own check-up, I talked with pilots who had seen saucers, with rocket designers, aircraft engineers, flight surgeons, and Washington officers I knew personally from my days at Annapolis. Among the latter were Captain (now Admiral) Delmar Fahrney, who was then top figure in the Navy guided-missile program, and Admiral Calvin Bolster, another Naval Academy classmate of mine. Bolster, now the Director of the Office of Naval Research, was then in charge of the special design section of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Though he has since been fully briefed on the saucers by Air Force Intelligence, at that time he was puzzled by the sightings.
"Don, I swear it's nothing the U. S. is doing," he said. "I'm in on all special weapon programs and I'm sure I
would know. Our big cosmic-ray research balloons may have caused a few 'saucer' reports, but they don't explain all the sightings—especially those by experienced service and airline pilots. I honestly don't know the answer."
When I saw Fahrney, I was already convinced that the saucers were not American guided missiles. But I put the question to him, anyway.
"We're years from anything like the saucers' performance," Fahmey told me. "And if we ever do match them, nobody'd be crazy enough to test the things near cities or along airways. If anyone under me ever tried it, I'd court-martial him—you ought to know that."
"Sure, I know it, Del. I was just relaying what some people think."
"Well, they ought to know better. All the services test their missiles over uninhabited areas or over the ocean. And even over water, we never fire a missile if a ship's near the danger zone. As for the saucers, I wish to heaven we did have something like that. We wouldn't have to worry about Russian air raids—the things would make perfect defense missiles."
"Back in '47," I said, "two or three Air Force officers said the saucers might be Russian. Not that I believe it—"
"It's impossible," Fahrney said flatly. "That was just a hasty reaction, before they thought it out. The Soviet couldn't possibly have gotten that far ahead of us in '47— or even now—no matter how many Nazi scientists they kidnapped. No, either the saucers don't exist—and those reports are hard to brush off—or else they're interplanetary."
It wasn't the first time I'd heard that idea. But from a practical man like Fahmey, it was a little startling. And yet it was ridiculous to think that the earth was the only inhabited planet in the whole universe. Civilizations probably had developed on many planets, some of them ahead of us, some not so far advanced.
We ourselves were working hard for space travel; we'd
undoubtedly reach the moon within the next 20 years. It was certainly possible that some higher civilization, perhaps centuries ahead of us, had already conquered space travel and was now exploring our solar system.
After weeks of checking, I was finally convinced it was the only answer. But saying so under my by-line was a lot different. It had taken me more than 20 years to establish myself with national magazines. If this article drew nothing but ridicule, it could set me back a long way. Yet the evidence all added up. Still a little uneasy, I decided to go ahead.
During the hubbub over the published article the Air Force took an unusual step after denying that the saucers existed. It was arranged for an INS staff writer to interview Major Jere Boggs, a Project Intelligence officer who served as liaison man between the Pentagon and Wright Field. During the interview Boggs was asked for definite answers to the Mantell, Chiles-Whitted, and Gorman cases —which I had said were still unsolved.
Captain Mantell, said Boggs, had been misled by the planet Venus; Chiles, Whitted, and the other witnesses in that case had seen a meteor flash by; and Gorman had chased a lighted weather balloon.
When I phoned the Pentagon, I was told that Boggs was preparing to leave for Germany and could not see me. But press officials finally gave in, and I met Boggs in the office of General Sory Smith, deputy director for Air Information. (General Smith is now the director.)
With General Smith and several press officers sitting in, I asked Major Boggs if he had been quoted correctly.
"Yes, I was," said Boggs. "Captain Mantell was chasing the planet Venus when he was killed."
"But Venus was practically invisible that day," I said. "And that's a flat contradiction of the April Project report. After checking for 15 months, they said it was not Venus— that the object was still unidentified."
"They rechecked after that," Boggs said calmly.
"Why?" I asked.
But Major Boggs refused to be pinned down.
"There's no other possible answer—Captain Mantell was chasing the planet Venus."
It was the same in the other two cases. Boggs insisted that the Eastern pilots saw a meteor—a bolide (one which exploded in a shower of sparks). And Gorman, in chasing a lighted balloon, had been tricked into imagining the object's maneuvers. Each time I reminded him that the Project had investigated for months before calling the cases unsolved in its April report. When I asked him what new facts had been discovered, he admitted there were none. The Project had simply made a new analysis—and there, apparently to their surprise, were the answers.
After Boggs left, General Smith asked if I was convinced I was wrong.
"No," I said frankly, "I'm more certain than ever I was right. I'd like to see the complete files on those cases."
"I don't know why you can't see them," said General Smith. "I'll ask Wright Field." (It was this request which was later denied, after I repeated it twice.)
Before I left, General Smith told me that the Mantell case had shaken him at first. He had known Mantell personally, and the Godman Field CO., Colonel Hix, had been a West Point classmate of his. Neither one, said Smith, was the kind of man to have hallucinations. But when I asked if he believed the Venus answer, the general looked surprised.
"Well, I don't know the details—but if Wright Field says that's the answer, it must be right."
As it turned out, Wright Field—or rather, ATIC—hadn't said anything of the kind. Boggs apparently had been put on the spot at the Pentagon—someone had to knock down my three main cases, as quickly as possible. But unfortunately, in a mix-up of signals, Project "Sign" had sent on case summaries of these and other sightings—declassifying them from confidential and secret. Within an hour after
the Boggs interview these cases were in my hands—summaries which completely refuted all that he had told me.
In discussing the Mantell case, the Project analysis quickly let the cat out of the bag:
"Under exceptionally good atmospheric conditions, and with the eye shielded from direct rays of the sun, Venus might be seen as an exceedingly tiny bright point of light. However, the chances of looking at just the right spot are very few.
"It has been unofficially reported that the object was a Navy cosmic-ray research balloon. If this can be established, it is to be preferred as an explanation. [This was later proved false.] However, if one accepts the assumption that reports from various other localities refer to the same object, any such device must have been a good many miles high in order to have been seen clearly, almost simultaneously, from places 175 miles apart ... no man-made object could have been large enough and far enough away for the approximate simultaneous sightings.
"It is most unlikely, however, that so many separated persons should at that time have chanced on Venus in the daylight sky . . . The sighting might have included two or more balloons (or aircraft) or they might have included Venus (in the fatal chase) and balloons ... Such a hypothesis, however, does still necessitate the inclusion of at least two other objects than Venus, and it certainly is coincidental that so many people would have chosen this one day to be confused (to the extent of reporting the matter) by normal airborne objects."
This was Major Boggs' proof that the UFO was Venus.
When it came to the Chiles-Whitted case, the summary at first backed Boggs, then cut the ground from under him. It was admitted that flight schedules of 225 aircraft had been checked by ATIC, and that no known plane was flying in the vicinity of the DC-3. Then the report went on:
"The sheer improbability of the facts, in the absence of any known aircraft, makes it necessary to see whether any
other explanation, even though farfetched, can be considered."
With this candid admission of his purpose, the Project analyst did his best to turn the "space ship" into a meteor.
"It will have to be left to the psychologists," he concluded, "to tell us whether the immediate trail of a bright meteor could produce the subjective impression of a ship with lighted windows." A bit lamely, he added, "Considering only the Chiles-Whitted sighting, the hypothesis seems very improbable."
To offset the confirmation from Robbins Air Force Base, an hour earlier, the Project investigator suggested a one-hour error in time. The reason: the airliner might have been on Daylight Saving Time. If this were true, he said, then observers at both spots saw a meteor, which was traveling so fast that it covered the distance between them in a very few moments.
But actually, as was proved later, there was no error in the reported times. And here is where the Project analyst tripped up Boggs.
"If the difference in time is real, the object was some form of known aircraft, regardless of its bizarre nature."
The summary did not try to explain the "bizarre" nature of the UFO, and the analyst shied away from even discussing the space-ship possibility.
In the Gorman case the Project report barely hinted at the balloon answer, carefully avoiding any definite claim. There was good reason to play it down. Though a weather balloon had been released at Fargo, the Weather Bureau observer, tracking it with his theodolite, recorded a course that took it away from the "dogfight" area.
I have detailed these old cases because they show the tendency, at that time, to explain away all sightings. All through the summaries of the first 244 cases I found such comments as these:
"It is tempting to explain the objects as ordinary aircraft observed under unusual light conditions, but the evidence
is strongly contradictory . . . despite these conjectures, no logical explanation seems possible . . . possibly fireballs, but unlikely. This investigator does not prefer that interpretation, and it should be resorted to only if all other possible explanations fail . . . this investigator would prefer the meteor hypothesis even though the evidence is entirely insufficient to establish it."
Two years later I was told the reason for this "explaining away" policy. But when I first saw the summaries, I was amazed that the Air Force had released them. For the determination to find some explanation in each case, no matter how farfetched, was impossible to miss.
Of the 244 cases in this first group, 210 were listed as answered, many on mere conjecture, some in spite of contrary evidence. The other 34 cases, the Project admitted, were unexplained. But reviewing officers in the Air Materiel Command refused to let this stand. In an appendix to the summaries, they quickly disposed of all but three cases.
The method used is illustrated by Case 1.
On July 8, 1947, two silver-colored discs had maneuvered over Muroc Air Force Base. After circling tightly at 8,000 feet, the discs had reached speeds which Air Force officers estimated between 300 and 400 miles an hour. When Project investigators confessed they were stumped, the Air Materiel Command tersely explained the report:
"The sightings were the result of misinterpretation of real stimuli, probably research balloons."
This answer was so incredible that I couldn't believe the AMC had meant it to be public. Aside from the fact that balloons do not maneuver in tight circles, it would have taken a 300-400 mile wind to move them at the reported speeds. Such a wind—which has never been known on earth—would have flattened Muroc and killed everyone on the base.
When I finished the Project report I was badly puzzled.
Why had the Air Force let me see these cases, the unbelievable "explanations," and especially the evidence wrecking Boggs' claims?
After weighing the possible answers, I came to these conclusions:
1. The Air Force was puzzled, and some officials were worried, when the discs were so widely reported in 1947.