With the permission of the writer, Byron D. Varner, of the privately published book Living on the Edge: An American war hero's daring feats as a Navy fighter pilot, civilian test pilot, and CIA mercenary, and interviews with the author and principal, Rolan D. Powell by Walt Andrus, the following article was composed. Mr. Varner served as a Navy Public Affairs Officer during the last thirteen years of his naval career.
"There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."
The U.S. Navy used slogans like these to emphasize the importance of flight safety when Byron D. Varner was an aviation cadet during World War II. That particular one stayed embedded in his mind through out his flying experience because he saw many would-be heroes kill themselves trying to be bold pilots. Mr. Varner hadn't thought of this slogan for a long time until he met Rolan D. Powell, the only "old" pilot he ever knew who totally disproved it. Mr. Powell retired as a Lt. Cdr. USNR after not only serving in World War II aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown, but also in Korea and Vietnam on other assignments. On November 29,1996, Rolan celebrated his seventieth birthday.
The following narrative begins on page 72 of the Varner/Powell book.
His parents are relieved to learn that Rolan will be at Naval Air Station, Pasco, Washington, for the next few months. They try not to think about his going back to the war zone, and make him promise to come home as often as possible on weekends.
Several former shipmates arrive at NAS Pasco when he does, along with a number of new pilots untested by war. The Navy selected them to form a new air group and prepare for carrier operations in the Pacific. Rolan looks forward to imparting his expertise to the new pilots recently out of flight training. It will require daily practice in air tactics, maneuvers, bombing, strafing, dog fighting, gunnery, and other tricks of the trade necessary for air combat. A lot of flying. For certain he will try to impress upon them the importance of survival tactics.
The base has another mission for the experienced pilots, as well. About 60 miles away stands the Hanford plant, its atomic activities known to only a very few. These battle-scarred veterans are to protect that plant in the event of an air attack. Although they don't know what this is all about, they will follow orders, as military people are taught.
The standby aircraft are always armed and ready to defend the plant, although few pilots seriously believe it will ever come under enemy attack, given the current state of Japan's diminishing effectiveness. But, like the shark attack that Rolan never expected to face, an air emergency does occur. It is noon time, and no planes are in the air. The bullhorn's jarring sound of General Quarters sends the pilots rushing to the ready room for a quick briefing and on to the aircraft for immediate takeoff. Radar had detected a fast-moving object that is now in a holding pattern directly above the Hanford plant. It is extremely high and Rolan can't see it at first. As they rapidly increase altitude the pilots all spot it at about the same time and head directly for its position.
None of them can recognize it, but they can see it well from their vantage point. It has a saucer-like appearance, is bright, extremely fast, and very high. The F6F has an operating ceiling of 37,000 feet, but on this day they exceed that considerably and still can't get close enough.
"What the hell is that?" one pilot yells over the radio.
"Nothing I've ever seen before," answer another.
Rolan calls the base to report the situation. They tell him to go higher.
"If we go much higher we can ruin these engines."
"Blow the engines if you have to, but use full military power, full throttle injection, maximum, continuous. Go for it!"
Rolan wonders what the pilots will do when the engines quit and the tower operator tells them to "glide back towards the airport and hope that you make it."
Even with the emergency settings, the F6F can't get close enough to determine the exact nature of this object. It doesn't make any overt moves, gives no signals, just hovers there as if observing, staying well enough out of reach. The pilots can't believe its ability to hover like this. When some of the engines begin to fail, and fuel consumption gets critical, the planes return to base one by one, and the strange craft disappears as quickly as it came. It doesn't return.
Although a number of people witness this incident, the local newspaper carries no report of it in the days that follow. Rolan can only surmise that the government stepped in and clamped a lid on the whole affair, according to war security measures.
After this episode, the pilots return to their normal routine of getting ready for combat.
To obtain more details on this pre Kenneth Arnold sighting and how such events were treated during World War II, Walt Andrus interviewed Rolan Powell, who now resides in Round Rock, Texas, with his lovely wife Donna.
The six F6F "Hellcats" made visual contact with the object described by Rolan as the size of three aircraft carriers side by side, oval shaped, very streamlined like a stretched-out egg and pinkish in color. Rolan reported that some kind of vapor was being emitted around the outside edges from portholes or vents. He speculated that the vapor was being discharged to form a cloud for disguise. The object was observed at noon in a clear sky at an estimated altitude of 65,000 feet.
Rolan and his fellow pilots pushed their F6Fs to 42,000 feet, which was well above the aircraft's rated ceiling of 37,000, but they were unsuccessful in making contact with this large unknown craft above them. After hovering in a fixed position above the Hanford Nuclear Reactor for an additional twenty minutes, the object disappeared going straight-up as the six Hellcats limped back to the Pasco Naval Air Station (Washington). Mr. Powell does not know where the other five pilots now live or their full names. The squadron consisted of 12 veteran fighter pilots, survivors from a former squadron of 45 called Air Group III aboard the second U.S.S. Yorktown, fondly known as "The Fighting Lady."
When quizzed about the exact date of the sighting, Rolan didn't have his flight log available as a reference, but estimated that it was six weeks before the Japanese surrendered aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. This would place the sighting during the middle of July 1945.
Library research disclosed that the Hanford Engineering Works Plant (Richland, Washington) was actually a large plutonium-production facility constructed adjacent to the Columbia River, using the water to cool the reactor piles. Opening for operation in September 1944, the Hanford site was a Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) to provide material for producing atomic bombs. This ultimately led to the dropping of bombs over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, on August 9. Hostilities ceased on August 14, 1945.
It is conceivable that unidentified flying objects may have had an interest in our nuclear energy program in 1945. Now, Rolan and his fellow Navy fighter pilots know what they were guarding at Hanford, which at that time was part of the ultra-secret Manhattan Project.
Rolan D. Powell, Byron D. Varner, Walter Andrus
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