The July Crisis
During the first two weeks of July the saucers' reconnaissance of the earth was rapidly stepped up. Flying singly, in pairs, or in group formations, the strange machines were seen all over the world. But in the early stage there were few public sightings, at least in the United States. Most of the saucers were operating at night, and they seemed to be focusing on defense bases, atomic plants, and military planes.
From the 8th to the 12th, for some unknown reason, one saucer group took a special interest in our Midwest states. By the 11th, the Filter Center at Ypsilanti, Michigan, was flooded with reports. But since most of them came from Air Force pilots, Intelligence could keep them secret.
As the teletype accounts poured into Washington and Dayton, Intelligence officers watched with growing uneasiness. At first they had hoped it was only a brief flurry. But now the sighting curve was going up steeply.
No one knew the reason for the sudden mass operation. It might be a new, large-scale reconnaissance before some final decision. It could be the first step toward contact-perhaps even mass landings.
That thought was enough to give anyone cold chills. For five years silence had masked the intentions of those
who controlled the saucers. They might be planning a peaceful contact—or an all-out attack.
Even if the first contact began peacefully, no one could be sure it would end that way. Most Americans were totally unprepared, even for friendly visitors from space. Panic might lead to wild stampedes from cities. It could also set off violent armed resistance. What the visitors would do in that event was grimly easy to guess.
There was still a chance that the new operations would end before the public found out. So far, few sightings were known outside the Air Force. On July 5, one report had leaked out after several pilots saw a disc-shaped machine near the atomic-energy plant at Richlands, Washington. And from Korea a news dispatch had described a sighting by Canadian naval officers; for over an hour they had watched two discs maneuvering above their ship. But fortunately most reports were from service pilots, and these were confidential. Not even news correspondents at the Pentagon were aware of the growing tension.
On July 12 another teletype report came in from the Midwest, but this, too, was kept quiet. At 9 o'clock that night a lone saucer, glowing blue-white, flashed over Indiana. At Delphi it was seen by several civilians, among them an ex-Air Force jet pilot, Jack A. Green, who is now a flight test analyst for Northrop Aircraft Company. When Green went to the Delphi police station to report the sighting, state police were already on the wire, helping the Air Force collect detailed information. The same thing occurred at several other Indiana towns, but somehow the newspapers missed the story. Fortunately, from the Air Force viewpoint, the saucer had been too high to attract wide attention.
For 24 hours more, Intelligence officers kept their fingers crossed. But their luck was running out. On the following night the story broke wide open.
The scene was the city of Indianapolis. It was Saturday night, and the streets and parks were crowded. Suddenly
a bright yellow glow appeared in the sky. As startled citizens stared upward, a huge, oval-shaped machine raced out of the southeast and over the city. Barely 5,000 feet high, it was seen by thousands of people as it streaked overhead, trailed by a fiery exhaust.
In two minutes police, airport, and newspaper switchboards were swamped with calls from frightened citizens. Thousands more hastily spread the news to neighbors who missed the saucer. For a while a panic seemed in the making. Then, when the saucer did not return, the hysteria gradually died down.
While the strange machine was approaching Indianapolis, it had been seen by several airline pilots. One of them was Captain Richard Case, who was flying an American Airlines Convair. When he first sighted it, his airliner was 30 miles southeast of the city, cruising at 300 miles an hour.
"It was a controlled craft of some sort," he said when he landed. "We were flying at 5,000 feet when I first saw it. The saucer seemed to be at about 15,000, going three times faster than we were. Then it changed course and came toward us, losing altitude. It dropped to about our level, then took off northwest, over the city."
Five other pilots soberly told the same story. One was an Eastern Air Lines captain, another from the Air Force. Until that night all had been skeptics. Now they were convinced that the saucers were ominously real.
But it was the mass hysteria in Indianapolis that worried the Air Force.
For the first time a saucer had flown down over a large city, low enough to be seen by thousands. Until then, Intelligence could only guess what a close-range sighting would do to large groups of people. Now they knew.
Hours afterward the city was still tense from unanswered questions.
Where had the saucer come from? Who had flown it? Why had it come so low over Indianapolis?
Because the weird machine had passed over so swiftly, there had not been time for fright to grow into panic. But had it dived lower, circled the city, or landed, it might have set off a stampede.
Even before the Indianapolis report reached the Air Force, they knew that some strange, high-speed craft was operating in the area. Just before the sighting, Air Force radar men at Kirksville, Missouri, had picked up a mysterious device flying with terrific velocity. Before the track could fade from their scope, they quickly computed its speed.
The unknown machine had been making over 1,700 miles an hour. From the size of its blips, the radar men estimated it was as large as a B-36 bomber.
Though this sighting was kept secret, by the next day the whole country knew the Indianapolis story. But this was just the beginning.
That very night, while the Air Force was still nervously watching the Midwest reaction, another dramatic sighting hit the headlines. This time the scene was the East coast.
At 9:12 p.m. a Pan American DC-4 approached Norfolk, Virginia, on its way to Miami. At the controls was First Officer W. B. Nash. Second Officer W. H. Fortenberry was acting as the copilot. Both men had been flying for more than ten years, with thousands of hours in airliner cockpits.
Cruising at 8,000 feet, the DC-4 was a few miles from Newport News when a red glow appeared ahead. The pilots saw six huge, disc-shaped machines racing toward them, but at a lower altitude. The discs, which were flying in the flat position, had a brilliant orange glow like red-hot metal.
As the formation approached, in echelon, the leader suddenly slowed, then flipped up on edge. As if on signal, the five other discs also flipped up edgewise. Almost reversing its course, the leading machine flipped back to the horizontal and streaked off to the west. Following through,
the others also swiftly changed their direction, then again lined up behind the leader.
A second later two more discs shot out from under the DC-4. As they speeded up to overtake the formation, the pilots saw their color suddenly brighten. Apparently this was a clue to the strange machines' propulsion, for the first six discs had dimmed as they slowed for the turn, then had brightened again as they speeded up.
Amazed and disturbed at what they had seen, the pilots radioed Norfolk and reported the sighting in detail. By the time Air Force Intelligence officers met them at Miami, the story was already on the press wires.
Twelve hours later, near Newport News, a commercial pilot encountered two saucers with pulsating lights. Their speed, more than 600 miles an hour, gave him no chance to close in for a better look. That same night another saucer was sighted by naval officers at Miami and still more reports came in from Norfolk, the Bahamas, and Hampton, Virginia.
The ink was hardly dry on these stories when a sighting near Denver broke into print. On the night of the 17th, Captain Paul L. Carpenter, flying an American Airlines DC-6, received a radio warning from a flight ahead. A flying saucer formation had just raced past the leading plane. Cruising at 25,000 feet, Carpenter and his crew turned down their cockpit lights and stared into the night.
Then suddenly they saw four lights, moving at fantastic speed. The saucers' course took them to one side, too far to see any details. But by checking the time in sight, and the angle of sky traversed, Carpenter made a rough estimate of their speed.
It was 3,000 miles an hour.
For the third time in three days the saucers were front-page news. Beside Carpenter's report, the July 18 papers carried a saucer story from Veronica, Argentina. Within hours of the American Airlines sighting, six discs had been seen over the Argentine city. Hundreds of Veronica residents
had watched them maneuver and circle before they climbed into the night.
By this time reports were coming in from all over the United States. Some were caused by the growing excitement. People searching the sky for saucers were sometimes misled by balloons, by planes banking in the sun, or searchlights on clouds at night.
Some Defense officials, even a few Air Force officers who hadn't seen the evidence, believed most of the sightings were caused by the saucer hysteria. But the Intelligence officers knew better. Too many veteran pilots, both military and airline, were reporting identical discs, lights, and maneuvers. Many reports from the general public had also been confirmed, though with tension increasing it did not seem wise to admit it.
It was plain now that air bases, cities, key industries— every vital phase of our national life—were under close observation. At least three types of UFO's had been seen, one with colored, revolving lights, another with lights that blinked at intervals. It was possible the lights were some kind of signal, an attempt to communicate with the earth. But the radio silence made it seem unlikely. Intelligent beings who had mastered space travel would certainly be able to duplicate our radio transmission system. But no strange codes, or unfamiliar word-sounds, had been heard by our monitors.
There was nothing the Air Force could do but wait. All Ground Control Intercept stations had their orders. Saucers would be tracked as swiftly as possible. If there was any hope of an interception, jets would be scrambled instantly. The pilots had their orders, to get every detail possible in hope of a clue to the sudden increase in sightings.
But there was one thing for which the Air Force was not prepared—the insistent demands from papers that had formerly jeered at the saucers.
At first most of these newspapers had gone on scoffing. More than one Air Force officer prayed they would keep
it up; wisecracks might keep down hysteria. But now many papers had stopped joking and were demanding the answers.
On the morning of the 18th the United Press at Dayton asked for an interview with Captain Ed Ruppelt. Though General Samford's directive prohibited such interviews, Ruppelt was told to answer the questions—refusal to talk, at this time, would only increase suspicion.
"Does the Air Force think these sightings are just hallucinations?" the UP man asked Ruppelt.
"No," said Ruppelt, "We’re convinced that people making these reports actually see something in the sky. But what the objects are is another question."
Answering another query, he admitted that jet fighters guided by radar had chased UFO's but had failed to catch them.
"Some of the objects," he said, "have been tracked at speeds up to 2,000 miles an hour."
These were honest answers. But Ruppelt's failure to identify the saucers led to new trouble. Several editors, worried by stories of Russian-built saucers, warned then-readers that this might be the answer. One foreign dispatch, which helped to bolster this fear, was based on an account in the Saarbrucken Zeitung. Published on June 28, 1952, it appeared to be a semiofficial report on a large disc found near Spitzbergen.
According to the Zeitung, six Norwegian jet fighters had been flying near Hinlopen Straits when their radio was jammed by a strange interference. As the jet pilots circled, looking for the cause, Flight Captain Olaf Larsen spotted an enormous blue-metal disc, wrecked on the snowy ground.
Accompanied by a rocket expert named Norsel, several Norwegian Air Force officers landed near the disc in ski-planes. No one was found aboard. The disc, said the Zeitung, was 125 feet in diameter and made of some unknown metallic substance. A plexiglass domed compartment
in the center contained a mass of remote-control equipment—it was one of the remote-control radio units which had caused the signal interference.
The disc, as described in the news story, was powered by 46 jets on the outer rim. When the jets were in operation, this caused the outer ring to rotate around the stationary control unit.
When the disc was dismantled and taken to Narvik, experts were supposed to have discovered these facts: The flight range was over 18,000 miles. The altitude range, 100 miles. The disc was equipped to carry high explosives.
Then came the line that, in the present tense situation, could easily be dynamite:
"The chronometers and instruments bear Russian symbols ... It is assumed the disc came from the Soviet Union and was grounded by receiver failure."
No one in the Air Force had believed the story, but a routine check had been made. As was expected, the Norwegian government denied any knowledge of the disc. But the damage had been done. Many Americans, unaware of Norway's denial, tied the report to Dr. Mirachi's warning of another, more terrible Pearl Harbor. And so the fear of the saucers grew.
The sighting curve was still rising. But even the confidential reports gave no hint of the reason for the nationwide reconnaissance. Only once, on the night of July 18, did a saucer maneuver as if preparing to land. Just before this, airmen at Patrick Air Force Base, in Florida, saw four of the strange devices circling near the field. Shortly after they turned away a fifth saucer came out of the west. Angling in over the base, it made a 180-degree turn, like a plane in a traffic pattern. Then, accelerating at terrific speed, it raced back to the west and vanished.
Until this time, no other case had matched the Indianapolis sighting in its effect on the public. With all the reports from defense bases, this was thin comfort to the
Intelligence men in Washington. But at least the hysteria had not gotten out of hand.
Then, on the morning of the 20th, even that thin consolation was snatched away, as Washington itself took the spotlight. The action covered a wide area, in and around the capital. But the most dramatic scenes took place in a strange, windowless room—the Air Traffic Control Center at Washington National Airport.
Although its operations dovetail with those of the tower, the Center is located in a separate building, a fourth of a mile away. In the tower, operators control only the final approaches, landings, and take-offs. But the men at the Center reach out by long-range surveillance radar to track planes 100 miles away. Heavy traffic, even in clear weather, must be carefully funneled in to the airport approach lanes. After take-offs, airliners must be dispatched from congested areas to their assigned levels. In fog, storms, and when cloud ceilings are low, planes must be guided in by two-way radio, kept separated while pilots are flying blind, and "stacked up" when necessary, to wait their turn for landing.
It is a precision job. The Center controllers never see the planes they guide in, as they track them on the main scope. But thousands of lives depend on their quick, accurate tracking and split-second recognition of the various aircraft blips.
The radar room at the Center, where this night's action started, is a long dim-lit chamber, darkened so that scopes can be easily read. At midnight, as the 20th of July began, eight traffic experts, headed by Senior Controller Harry G. Barnes, entered this room and took over the watch. The night was clear, traffic was light, and the men settled down for a routine eight-hour duty.
For a few minutes Barnes bent over the main scope, a phosphor-coated glass 24 inches in diameter, with a pale lavender glow. Traveling around the glass, like a clock hand, was a purplish streak called the "sweep." As Barnes
knew, the sweep's revolutions, six per minute, matched the rotation of a huge parabolic antenna on a nearby hill. The compass bearing of the sweep showed the direction of the radio beam transmitted by the antenna.
At the time the Center was tracking a single airliner, several miles from the airport. As the rotating beam struck the plane, its echo or return was reflected to the antenna-station receiver. Highly amplified, it showed as a small round spot on the face of the cathode-ray scope. Every ten seconds a new purplish blip appeared, showing the airliner's changed position.
From the track made by these blips, it was simple to read off the plane's course—the phosphor-coated glass retained seven blips before the first one faded. Barnes' practiced eye measured the distance between the round purplish spots. Using the ten-second interval, he could tell the plane's speed at a glance. From measurements on the scope, he also could tell the plane's location, distance from the field, and its compass bearing.
When traffic was heavier, he and the other controllers could pencil in the tracks, marking each plane's position with a numbered plastic chip. But there was no need tonight; the sky was practically empty.
At about 12:30, Bames went out to the supervisor's desk, leaving Controller Ed Nugent at the main scope. Two other controllers, Jim Ritchey and James Copeland, were standing a few feet away.
At exactly 12:40, seven sharp blips suddenly appeared on the scope. Nugent stared at the glass. The strange planes, or whatever they were, seemed to have dropped out of nowhere. There was only one possible answer. The unknown machines had raced into the area at terrific speed, between sweeps, then had abruptly slowed, there in the southwest quadrant.
"Get Barnes in here—quick!" Nugent told Copeland.
The senior controller came on the run. Both console
scopes showed the strange blips. Bames hastily buzzed the tower, got Operator Howard Cocklin.
"Our scope shows the same blips!" Cocklin said swiftly. "I can see one of the things. It's got a bright orange light— I can't tell what's behind it."
Now really alarmed, Bames flashed word to the Air Defense Command. Then he turned back to the main scope. The unknown machines had separated. Two were over the White House, a third near the Capitol—both prohibited areas. Keeping his eyes on the glass, Bames called Andrews Field, across the Potomac in Maryland.
"We're tracking them, too," a worried radar man told him. "We've got them the same place you have."
"Are you sending up interceptors?" Bames asked quickly.
"No, the field's being repaired. Our jets are up at Newcastle."
Bames hung up, looked at the other controllers.
"The interceptors will have to come from Delaware. It may be another half-hour."
For several minutes they silently tracked the saucers. Then Controller Jim Ritchey saw that one was pacing a Capital airliner which had just taken off. He cut in his mike and called the captain, a veteran named "Casey" Pierman. Giving Pierman the saucer's position, Ritchey vectored him toward it.
Until then, the saucer's tracked speed had been about 130 miles an hour. Suddenly, to all the controllers' amazement, its track came to an abrupt end. Where the next blip should have been was only a blank space.
A moment later Pierman called back.
"I saw the thing, but it streaked off before I could get close. It climbed out of sight in three to five seconds."
The controllers stared at each other. Here was the answer to the blip's disappearance. Incredible as it seemed, the saucer had zoomed completely out of their radar beam
between sweeps. That meant it had accelerated from 130 miles an hour to almost 500 in about four seconds.
A few minutes after this, Barnes and the others got a new jolt. One blip track showed an abrupt 90-degree turn —something no plane could do. Then as the sweep came around, another saucer suddenly reversed—its new blip "blossoming" on top of the one it had just made. From over 100 miles an hour, the mystery machine had stopped dead and completely reversed its direction—all in about five seconds.
On top of this uncanny discovery, a startling report came in from the tower. Operator Joe Zacko had been watching his ASR scope, which was built to track high speeds, when a saucer abruptly appeared on the glass. One look and he knew it was moving at fantastic rate. Fascinated, he watched its blips streak across the screen as the saucer raced over Andrews Field toward Riverdale.
When the trail suddenly ended, Zacko hastily called Cocklin. Together, they figured the saucer's speed.
It had been making two miles per second—7,200 miles an hour.
From the trail it was plain that the saucer had descended vertically into the ASR beam. It had leveled off for a few seconds. Then, climbing at tremendous speed, it had zoomed out of the beam again.
For some unknown reason, the jets had not arrived. (There were rumors later that another saucer alarm, near New York, had taken all available fighters. Though the Air Force denied this, the delay was not explained.)
The saucers now had been circling Washington for almost two hours, and controllers' nerves were getting taut. Until tonight, some had laughed off the idea of visitors from other planets. But now they were badly shaken. For the simultaneous radar tracks and visual sightings added up to only one answer.
Up there in the night some land of super-machines were reconnoitering the capital. From their controlled maneuvers,
it was plain they were guided—if not manned—by highly intelligent beings. They might be about to land— the capital would be a logical point for contact. Or they might be about to attack.
Being cooped up in this windowless room didn't help. The tower men and the airline pilots at least could see the strange machines' lights. Whatever happened, they'd have a few moments' warning. All Barnes and his men could do was track the machines and pray they were not hostile.
By now Barnes had an eerie feeling that the mysterious visitors were listening to his radio calls. Two or three times saucers darted away the instant he gave pilots directions for interception. Not once did a pilot get close enough to see behind the lights.
It was almost 3 o'clock when the Air Force jets reached Washington. Just before this, the saucers vanished. Apparently they had sighted the distant fighters or heard them call the Center. Five minutes after the jets left, the queer machines reappeared, swarming all over Washington. One of them, its shape hidden by a large white light, followed a Capital airliner close to the airport, then raced away.
As the sky began to lighten, the saucers ended their five-hour survey of Washington. But before they left, at least one witness distinctly saw the shape of the elusive machines. At about 5:30 a radio engineer named E. W. Chambers was leaving the WRC transmitter station when he saw five huge discs circling in a loose formation. As he watched, dumfounded, the discs tilted upward and climbed steeply into the sky.
Fortunately the saucers were gone before most people awoke. As it was, hysteria grew rapidly after the story broke. At first the Air Force tried hard to play down the Washington sightings. For several days officers denied that Andrews Field radar men had tracked the machines. One spokesman insisted the Control Center scope had been defective. Another officer, to prove the incident was
unimportant, said that no fighters had been sent to the area. But their attempts to reduce public fear were in vain.
Telegrams, long-distance calls, letters by the thousands poured into the Pentagon. Congressmen, under pressure from voters, demanded action. Newspapers, syndicates, and radio commentators began to insist on a press conference.
The demands put Intelligence on the spot. If they admitted the saucers were real, the fat would be in the fire. They would have to tell the country just what the evidence showed. All they could do was refuse to talk, and pray the cycle would end.
But as new sightings came, the pressure grew. From Texas a weather bureau observer reported a saucer racing by at 1,000 miles an hour. Civil Defense aircraft spotters told the press of circling discs in New Jersey, California, and a dozen other states. Scores of other reports, by private citizens, appeared in local papers and were picked up by the wire services.
In many cases the secret Intelligence reports backed up the published stories. On the night of July 23 a saucer showing a bluish-green light was seen over Boston. A few minutes later it was picked up by GCI radar. When Ground Control vectored an F-94 pilot toward the saucer, he saw the weird light and locked onto the object with his own radar. But the jet was swiftly outdistanced. In another case Intelligence officers confirmed a series of sightings at West Coast aircraft plants. Engineers at one plant, who watched the discs maneuver, told reporters the saucers were "definitely controlled machines."
This news story revived fears of a secret Russian weapon, as two or three radio commentators tied it to an article in the London Sunday Graphic.
According to the Graphic, a 50-foot metallic disc had been seen in a forest clearing near Hasselbach, Germany. Since this was in the Soviet zone, the story implied that it was a Russian machine.
The details gave it an authentic sound. Two figures, witnesses said, had climbed into the conning-tower. The outer rim began to glow, then became bright red as the ring rotated. With the tower retracted, the saucer rose straight up, spinning like a top.
To make it worse, from the Air Force viewpoint, the chief designer of Vickers Aircraft had partly backed the report.
"If the description is accurate," said the Vickers expert, "it may be a military hovering craft. From the glow, it could house a jet plant to provide vertical take-off. The metallic suits (worn by the two figures) could be protection at high altitudes ... But I'd have to be shown a saucer to believe in it."
Several American commentators, in repeating this story, left an alarming question in many minds. Were the saucers a Soviet spotting device, now marking key American targets for later attack? Intelligence officers knew it wasn't true, but that didn't help the frightened people who were writing the Pentagon.
By the morning of July 23, even high Air Force officers were urging Intelligence to hold a press conference and relieve public tension. The Director, Major General John A. Samford, found himself in a hot crossfire. But he knew the dangers of a public discussion and he stubbornly held out.
When the next two days passed with no highly dramatic reports, Samford and his staff began to breathe easier.
Then, on the 26th, the dam broke.
The trouble began at Key West. Early that evening a red-lighted saucer flashed over the Naval Air Station. It was seen by hundreds of people. A destroyer escort hastily put to sea, following the course the machine had taken. Then official silence fell.
Shortly after this, at 9:08 p.m., a formation of saucers descended on Washington for the second time. Luckily, they were too high to be seen by most people in the city.
But as before, jittery controllers at the Center tracked the strange machines. Again, Andrews Field and Washington Airport tower men confirmed the saucers' maneuvers, pinpointing them simultaneously at spots where lights were seen by airline pilots.
Oddly enough, the Air Force jets were again delayed in getting to the scene. But this time, when the first fighters arrived, some saucers were still in sight. Flying at top speed, over 600 m.p.h., Lieutenant William L. Patterson tried to chase the nearest machine. But it quickly left him behind.
Meantime, Air Force Intelligence had gone into action. Major Dewey Fournet, Jr., the Pentagon's top investigator, had been rushed to the Center. With him were Albert M. Chop and an officer specialist on radar. For two hours they watched the saucer blips, Fournet and Chop quizzing Barnes and his men while the radar specialist checked the set.
Several newsmen, tipped off to the sightings, were waiting when Fournet and the others came out. The three men refused even to speculate on what the saucers might be, but they confirmed Patterson's report on the unsuccessful chase.
The new Washington story broke with a bang in papers all over the country. Within 48 hours newspaper editors from coast to coast were hammering at the Air Force. One demand for the truth, a typical editorial, came from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
"It is incredible—as well as a terrifying thought—that our Air Force, with all of its facilities, hasn't been able to identify these objects ... If these so-called saucers involve experiments cloaked by military secrecy, it is time to take off that cloak in the interests of national sanity. There are enough real dangers in the world without the unnecessary addition of imaginary ones.
"On the other hand, if they do not actually know what these objects are, then let there be no more boasting of our
scientific and military advances until they do come up with the right answer."
Even under the furious barrage from within and outside the Pentagon, General Samford still battled against any public discussion. But in the end he had no choice.
From somewhere higher up, General Samford was given an order. I have reliable evidence that it came from Lieutenant General Nathan Twining, now the Air Force chief of staff. Regardless of the source, Samford was told, in effect: "You will hold a press conference."
At no time in the five-year saucer scare was any man put in a tougher spot than the Director of Intelligence.
What could he say? What was safest, the best for the country?
Without actually saying so, he could let Americans believe the saucers were a secret U. S. device. It was not true, and probably few papers would accept it, after all the denials.
Even if the public believed it, this could cause a dangerous complacency, and Congress was sure to cut badly needed appropriations. With a superior weapon like the saucers, there would be less need for new long-range bombers and conventional guided missiles.
So that answer was out.
There was only one safe step, in the nation's present mood.
The saucers would have to be debunked.
It was a hard step for General Samford to take. It meant reversing the new, sober approach which Intelligence was making. It was risky, too—this time the public might not believe the Air Force statements.
But it was the only way to stop the rising tide of fear.