The Lockheed UFO Case
Nr. Agoura, California
December 16, 1953
(Report of incident is in a separate FILE )
Lockheed: Star Company
The U-2 has a unique place in UFO
well. It was first test flown at Groom Lake, a secret airbase deep
inside the Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada nuclear test range. Groom
Lake, or "Area 51," has become inextricably intertwined with fantastic
rumors of "captured UFOs," "reverse-engineered alien technology" and
endless other exotic ideas. While maintaining silence on such matters,
the CIA has officially stated that the U-2 and its successor, the 2,400
mph A-12 OXCART, were themselves responsible for UFO reports in the
1950s and 60s. Given its stellar aerospace achievements, it's fitting
that Lockheed's company logo has always been a winged star, and its
aircraft and missiles were traditionally named after stars or celestial
phenomena: Orion, Vega, Polaris, Constellation, Starfire,
It's somehow fitting, too, that in
December 1953, at the very moment of the U-2's birth, a group of
Lockheed's top engineers and pilots made what is potentially one of the
significant UFO sightings ever recorded. As intriguing as the UFO
incident is, it has languished in the Project Blue Book files for
nearly half a century, stamped "Identified," buried, and nearly
Recent study of the Blue Book case file yielded the names of seven
eyewitnesses - a crew of Lockheed flight test engineers in the air,
and Lockheed's Chief Engineer and his wife on the ground. The Chief
Engineer was Clarence L ("Kelly") Johnson - the creator of the U-2.
Johnson was undisputedly one of the greatest aeronautical engineers of all time. In his 42-year career with Lockheed he participated in or oversaw the development of many of the company's most famous airplanes. Born into the large family of a poor immigrant laborer in Michigan, Johnson was a study in contrasts: scrappy and hardworking, studious and awed by airplanes, he built houses to help support his family while still excelling in school. Determined to become an engineer, Johnson was fortunate to be accepted by the outstanding aeronautical engineering department at the University of Michigan, where he eventually became the assistant of Professor Edward Stalker, an expert in aerodynamics.
Johnson with early Electra wind tunnel model at University of Michigan
Johnson joined Lockheed in 1933 as an
aerodynamicist and assistant to chief engineer Hall Hibbard. By 1938
Hibbard and his
young partner had developed the P-38 Lightning fighter, the world's
first 400 MPH combat aircraft.
YP-38 prototype, 1941
The conservative Army Air Force was not ready for near-sonic speed jet fighters in 1941, but three years later, confronted with Nazi Germany's advanced aircraft, it turned to Hibbard and Johnson with an urgent request to build a no-frills operational jet fighter around a less technically advanced, but more developed, British jet engine. Under the most stringent security measures, Johnson undertook one of the first "black" airplane projects, hand-picking a cadre of his best engineers and setting up a special division of the Burbank, California-based company, soon dubbed the "Skunk Works," to design and build the new fighter, the XP-80 Shooting Star, within a matter of months. The airplane was a huge success, and Johnson and his Skunk Works engineers were on their way to becoming legends.
Kelly Johnson was pugnacious, stubborn, serious and combative. Yet he had an almost artistic flair for matters aeronautical. One of his bosses remarked that Johnson could "see air." His successor, Ben Rich, commented on Johnson's more earthy side this way:
All of us had seen him rushing around in his untucked shirt, a paunchy, middle-aged guy with a comical duck's waddle, slicked-down hair, and a belligerent jaw. He had a thick, round nose and reminded me a lot of W. C. Fields, but without the humor. Definitely without that. Johnson was all business and had the reputation of an ogre who ate young, tender engineers for between-meal snacks. We peons viewed him with the knee-knocking dread and awe of the almighty best described in the Old Testament.By the end of his eventful career, Johnson had won every major aeronautical award, some more than once, and had received special citations and medals from scientific organizations, the CIA, and President Ronald Reagan.
Lockheed and UFOs
Lockheed's official public pronouncements on UFOs had been negative. For example, on July 7, 1947, Hall Hibbard had made disparaging remarks to Los Angeles Times reporters who inquired about the saucers being reported nationwide:
They're either reflections from planes flying singly or in formation, or mass hysteria and the desire of various persons to get their names in the paper. I know of no secret aviation projects which would have the slightest bearing on these so-called 'phenomena.’Nevertheless, the company harbored at least two prominent engineers who were interested in UFOs - as well as two notorious UFO "contactees."
Beginning in January 1952, former Lockheed aircraft mechanic George Van Tassel experienced a series of mental communications with a retinue of extraterrestrials who, he said, were based in a spacecraft hovering 80,000 feet over Giant Rock, a remote desert airfield near Yucca Valley, California. Van Tassel produced a book later that year, and by early 1954 he was hosting public ET "channeling sessions" which evolved into the famous annual Giant Rock saucer conventions. In August 1953, one of the extraterrestrials finally landed and gave Van Tassel a tour of his saucer.
Van Tassel, 1930s
Around the time Van Tassel and Angelucci were reporting their tales of encounters with astronauts from other worlds, Lockheed propulsion expert Nathan Price began to devote a considerable amount of effort to the creation of two fascinating concepts for disc-shaped aircraft of extreme performance. Price's place in the history of turbojet engine development in the US is seldom highlighted, but given that he was working on an extremely sophisticated jet powerplant as early as 1938, his visionary disc aircraft designs are noteworthy.
Filed in early 1953 (and not granted until a decade later), the patents depict a 50-foot diameter, 55,000 pound lens-shaped flying wing which incorporated a huge central turbo-ramjet of unique design. Much like today's Lockheed Martin X-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the 1952-3 Lockheed saucer was to be able to take off vertically by vectoring its central engine's thrust downward. Once airborne, the engine's nozzles would rotate to an aft-facing position and the saucer would accelerate in a shallow climb to 50,000 feet, where it would reach supersonic speeds, its engine gradually transitioning from turbojet to ramjet mode. When it leveled off at 100,000 feet, the vehicle would be cruising at four times the speed of sound - approximately 2,700 mph.
As advanced as these ideas were, anticipating in some respects the engine systems of the famous "Blackbirds" that flew ten years later, perhaps the most striking aspect of Price's saucer is that it was intended to use propane, butane or liquid hydrogen fuels, and the patents cover some of the sophisticated engineering details and special tank technologies that cryogenic fuels require. Standard histories of Lockheed's work on hydrogen-powered aircraft indicate that the Skunk Works only attempted to actually build such components under the highly-classified Air Force-sponsored SUNTAN reconnaissance aircraft project circa 1956-7. Engine designer Price was thinking years ahead with his saucer, and given the amount of airframe detail that the patents show, it's tempting to speculate that the designs, like the L-133 of a decade before, were the result of more than his work alone.
While Kelly Johnson and other Lockheed engineers have long been rumored to have been interested in UFOs, the Blue Book sighting file, as will be seen, provides definitive proof.
Birth of the U-2
The Wright Air Development Center engineers who were writing the specification for the new airplane had not approached Lockheed for a proposal for this requirement, planning instead to work with smaller, more easily managed airframe contractors. Based on the CIA's own history of the U-2's development, and on chronologies by experts Jay Miller and Chris Pocock, it seems likely that the unofficial source of the information about the reconnaissance requirement was Johnson's personal friend Philip Strong, a Reserve US Marine Corps Colonel who was Chief of the Operations Staff of CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence. In addition to his concerns over building a CIA role in technical intelligence gathering, Strong had a keen interest in UFOs, having been an organizer and attendee at the CIA's Robertson Panel meetings in January 1953.