Watershed - The Chiles-Whitted "rocketship" sighting
Watershed - The Chiles-Whitted "rocketship" sighting
In the early hours of Saturday, July 24, 1948, the pilots of Eastern Air Lines reported a remarkable series of sightings of bizarre objects over the southeastern US. Their accounts -- particularly one that described a dramatic encounter with an object that seemed to be a giant rocket that strongly resembled the RAND World-Circling Spaceship -- generated a great deal of publicity and concern and split the Air Force's UFO intelligence analysts into two camps. One group, centered in Project SIGN's headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, allegedly issued a top secret intelligence "estimate" that argued that the objects were genuine interplanetary spaceships. The other faction, within the Air Force Intelligence heirarchy in the Pentagon, pursued the "Soviet secret weapon" angle for the remainder of the year, and produced an equally fascinating top secret report in December that examined the possibility that the objects were some sort of Russian reconnaissance vehicles.
Project SIGN's Chiles-Whitted case file is one of the most fascinating and significant in the early history of Air Force UFO research, reflecting an almost desperate search for a solution to the question posed by the bizarre object, and marking the first open suggestion, within the Wright-Patterson Air Force UFO research organization, of the hypothesis that flying objects might be extraterrestrial vehicles.
The 1948 Berlin Crisis: Talk of War
Three years after the Nazi surrender, divided Germany continued to be a major trouble spot. Friction between Stalin and the three Western Allies over the governance of the defeated nation grew more intense as 1948 progressed, and secret military intelligence estimates exacerbated war worries in the Pentagon. In early March, General Lucius Clay notified Army Intelligence that he had received indications that the Soviets were preparing for armed conflict, sending the Washington military establishment into an alert posture.
The Soviets reacted with anger to signs that the western Allies were planning to establish an independent government in the Western Zone of Germany. At the end of March, the Soviet representative walked out of a meeting of the Allied Control Council. A few days later, the Soviets notified the other powers that Westerners attempting to travel to Berlin, deep inside the Soviet Zone, would be required to pass through Soviet inspections. The next day, some rail lines into Berlin were shut down as a token of Soviet resolve. Air Force Chief of Staff Spaatz notified the Air Staff that he wanted Alaskan air defenses augmented immediately, and issued a top secret order that Alaskan radar stations were to go on 24-hour watch.
The US Air Force stepped up supply deliveries to Berlin in the first few days of April, and the Soviets countered this with intimidation tactics. On April 5, a British airliner on a scheduled flight within one of the defined air corridors to Berlin was suddenly buzzed head-on by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter. The fighter streaked past the transport, turned, then made another pass at the airliner's nose. The aerial game of chicken ended in tragedy. The two planes collided and went down, killing ten passengers and crew in addition to the Soviet pilot.
The US detonated the sixth atomic bomb in a test called "Sandstone X-Ray" on April 14 -- the first nuclear test in nearly two years.
When Navy Secretary John Sullivan told a Senate hearing that unknown submarines had been sighted in the Pacific, a Washington newspaper screamed that "Russian Subs Prowl West Coast Waters."
On June 7, the Western Allies announced that a West German government would be set up within a year. The Soviets reacted by pulling out of the four-power administrative commission for Berlin.
The Western Allies announced replacement of the German Reischsmark with a new currency, the Deutschmark, on June 18th. The Soviets refused to recognize the new money. It was a de facto admission that Germany would be economically as well as politically sliced apart.
The post-war Four Power government of Germany was dead. As of midnight on June 20, all traffic into the Soviet Zone of Germany was halted by hostile Russian border guards. Three days later, the Soviets began a blockade of the isolated city of Berlin.
On June 28, representatives of the US State and Defense Departments met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the possibility of war. President Harry Truman and the National Security Council believed that Stalin and the Politbureau did not want war, but mulled over a proposal by General Clay to send armed convoys through the blockade as a test of Soviet will. Would the Russians allow them to pass? Truman was in the middle of a tough reelection fight against Republican Thomas Dewey, and decided that air power, and aerial supply of Berlin, were less risky alternatives. He also resisted pressure from Defense Secretary Forrestal to transfer custody of nuclear weapons from the Atomic Energy Commission to the Pentagon.
On July 16, the US Air Force and the British Air Ministry announced the deployment of two US B-29 medium bomber groups to England. The next day, thirty B-29s of the 28th Bomb Group flew to RAF Scampton, and on the 18th, thirty more B-29s deployed to RAF Lakenheath. On the 20th, 16 F-80 Shooting Star jet fighters from Selfridge AFB in Michigan flew to Germany by way of Iceland and the UK.
The same day, a strange, Zeppelin-like thing was seen in the sky over Arnhem, in the Netherlands.
According to Project SIGN's case file, the early morning of July 24 was also full of strange flying objects over the US. At 2:30 AM, the crew of Eastern Airlines flight 571/23, a Douglas DC-3 flying near Blackstone, Virginia (not far from Richmond), noticed a brilliant, slow meteor-like light traveling on a dead-horizontal path. It lasted for three seconds, and seemed to be moving on a southwesterly heading. Its unusual horizontal trajectory riveted their attention. Eastern Flight 573, not far away, noticed it too.
A few minutes later, another Eastern DC-3, Flight 576, was cruising northeast on the airway between Mobile and Montgomery Alabama, heading for Atlanta at an altitude of 5,000 feet and an airspeed of 150 knots. The ship had taken off from Houston around 8:40 on a seven-hour flight with twenty passengers aboard. A bright, nearly full moon lit the scattered clouds, and a thunderstorm flickered in the distance. In the cockpit were the captain, thirty-one year old Clarence Shipe Chiles, a native of Tennessee, and the first officer, John B. Whitted, thirty, from North Carolina.
Chiles was a highly experienced transport pilot who had logged over 8,500 flying hours. He had a distinguished wartime flying career in the Army Air Force, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and being named commander of the Air Transport Command's Ascension Island base. Though now a full-time civilian pilot, Chiles held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve. Whitted also had military experience, having flown B-29s during the war. Chiles had filed a visual flight plan, so the two pilots were watching carefully for traffic in their path.
It was 2:45 when Chiles saw an unusual light dead ahead. It seemed to be closing rapidly, and he noticed it was leaving a glowing streak. "Look, here comes a new Army jet job," he said to Whitted. It continued to speed directly at them, in a slight dive and growing rapidly. Chiles suddenly was hit with the overwhelming sensation that the light -- whatever it was -- was about to run into them head on. He racked the DC-3 into a bank to the left. At the same time, the strange thing turned to its left, as if to avoid the airliner. Whitted gaped out his right side windows as the apparition streaked silently by, seemingly about a half-mile off their wingtip and five hundred feet higher. It looked like a 100-foot-long rocket ship straight out of a Buck Rogers comic strip. It had two rows of brightly-lighted windows or ports of some type, and its belly glowed with a strange bluish tint. Just as it drew abreast, the exhaust plume at its tail increased in brilliance to the point that they nearly lost their dark-adaptation, and Whitted watched as it disappeared in a climb into a thunderhead. It had been in view for about five seconds.
The shocked pilots took a few moments to recover their composure, and Chiles decided to go aft to see whether any of the passengers had seen the strange thing. Only one, Clarence McKelvie, an editor from Columbus, Ohio, had been awake. McKelvie told Whitted that he had seen only a "strange eerie streak" of cherry-red fire, but no detail.
Here was a major sighting, at a sensitive time, by two seemingly unimpeachable observers with weighty military flying experience. As soon as they landed, the pilots talked to reporters, and stories about the incident were page-one news in papers across the country the next day.
Atlanta Journal, July 25, 1948
The Air Force was besieged with questions. Major General Charles P. Cabell, Director of Air Force Intelligence, personally ordered a Project SIGN investigation of the Chiles-Whitted report. Air Force insiders must have shocked by the sketches the two pilots produced - they looked exactly like the RAND "World-Circling Spaceship" and the Navy HATV studies. General George Kenney, the chief of Strategic Air Command, said wistfully in Santa Monica, Project RAND's headquarters, that the Air Force didn't have anything like the object, but he "wish[ed] it did." The Chiles-Whitted sighting was long considered one of the most significant early UFO reports by both Air Force and civilian researchers, but the existence of the secret space launcher designs, with their strong resemblance to the object, provides an important clue to the urgency and magnitude of the Air Force reaction to the report.
The first thing Project SIGN wanted to do was to impress airline pilots with the idea that they should not reveal such incidents to the press before they reported them to the Air Force. On July 30, Alfred Loedding, Project SIGN's civilian engineering analyst, arrived at Eastern's office in New York and and personally asked the airline's vice president of operations to forward any future flying object sightings directly to Col McCoy at Wright Field. Eastern's President, Eddie Rickenbacker, was suspicious about Loedding and wrote directly to McCoy to confirm the instructions. When Rickenbacker was satisfied that Loedding was who he said he was, he issued orders to his pilots to do as Project SIGN asked.
It's not difficult to understand the dilemma that the Chiles-Whitted sighting presented to Project SIGN. If the description of the object was accurate, a huge rocket resembling current US concepts for a satellite launcher (which had not been revealed to the public, but obviously were familiar to Air Force Intelligence personnel, since Cabell had requested RAND assessment of UFO propulsion technology just days before) had been hurtling over the southeast US. It was almost impossible to believe that a secret US vehicle of this type actually existed, and even harder to believe that it was foreign. What other alternatives were there?
Had the pilots mistaken some more conventional aircraft for a giant missile? This seemed to be ruled out by the prominent flame the object was emitting. Few jets had afterburners in 1948, and even those that did would not be likely to be mistaken for something as large and weird as the object the pilots reported. A meteor seemed to be another possibility, but the fact that the pilots were sure it had maneuvered and climbed ruled this out in the minds of the investigators.
The double row of windows described by Chiles caught the attention of some of the SIGN investigators when they were studying the newspapers immediately after receiving the report, because by coincidence, stories about the cross-country flight of a new US Navy/Lockheed transport plane, the RV6 Constitution, shared the headlines with stories about the pilot sighting. The huge RV6 was unusual in that it had two decks and two rows of portholes on the sides of its cigar-shaped fuselage. Was it possible that Chiles and Whitted had had a near-miss with the enormous Navy plane? Could fatigue and surprise have led them to percieve it as a bizarre, flame-spewing rocket? Project SIGN was determined to leave no stone unturned in attempting to solve this case, so on August 2 Col McCoy of Project SIGN dutifully sent a teletype to the Navy's flight operations office at Patuxent River Naval Air Station to enquire about the exact position of the RV6 at the time of the sighting.
USN/Lockheed RV6 Constitution
Courtesy Goleta Air and Space Museum
But SIGN went much further than that. It began the herculean task of attempting to determine the positions of all aircraft in the southeastern United States on the night of 23-4 July 1948 in order to rule out a near-miss with any other plane. The case file is crammed with scores of teletype messages to airports, military air bases and airline operations offices, requesting departure and arrival times of all flights at their location, as well as identity and type of aircraft involved. Within hours, bewildered air traffic controllers and dispatchers began replying with the requested information, and when all 255 flight reports had been received, SIGN compiled the data into a huge table that served mainly as evidence of the intense pressure the Wright Field technical intelligence personnel were feeling from their superiors.
The Constitution lead turned out to be dry. Only one of the air movement reports even remotely matched with the sighting time and place (it was a C-47 heading northwest miles from the Eastern plane, and was ruled out). Most SIGN members doubted the meteor explanation. The existence of secret US or foreign rockets with performance and appearance matching the Alabama object was highly improbable. The Air Force saucer investigators were unwilling to dismiss the report and needed to give Cabell an answer. There was one other alternative, as some of SIGN's personnel saw it, and the time had come for action. On or about August 5, the faction within the project that leaned toward the extraterrestrial hypothesis issued an intelligence "estimate," classified top secret, that argued that the Chiles-Whitted object was an interplanetary spaceship.
Could the Eastern pilots have seen a supersecret US rocket? The answer has to be an unequivocal "no," for a number of reasons. It is obvious that a rocket in the HATV or RAND class would not be seen flying along horizontally a few thousand feet above the surface, even if out of control (and if it had been out of control, it would have crashed soon after the encounter). The launch site for such a complex vehicle could not be concealed somewhere in the Montgomery, Alabama area, and even if one had existed, some evidence should have surfaced in the last 50 years. (Conspiracy theorists should note that the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Alabama had not yet been converted into a research and development facility for the Army's German rocket experts under Wernher von Braun).
Likewise, an immense foreign rocket speeding through the US air corridors was a virtual impossibility. Nevertheless, such was the tenor of the times that Project SIGN looked into the concept. Given the war worries at the time, it seems that Cabell's Air Force Intelligence staff was attempting to rule out even the wildest possibilities, including enemy missile overflights. It would not be the first or last time such studies were demanded from the SIGN analysts.