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Flying Saucers

HistoryLink.org Essay 2067 : Printer-Friendly Format

The modern phenomena of UFOs and “flying saucers” began in Washington state on June 24, 1947, when Kenneth Arnold spotted nine mysterious, high-speed objects “flying like a saucer would” along the crest of the Cascade Range. His report made international headlines and triggered hundreds of similar accounts of “flying saucers” locally and across the nation. The rash of sightings peaked on July 8, 1947, when the U.S. Army reported that flying saucer wreckage had been found near Roswell, New Mexico. This was retracted the following day, and despite relentless debunking and the absence of concrete evidence, reports of flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects (UFOs) persist to the present day.

"Mystery Discs Hurtling in Sky" -- Seattle P-I

While flying in his private airplane near Mt. Rainier en route from Chehalis, Washington, to his home in Boise, Idaho, Kenneth Arnold (1915-1984) was startled by a bright light shortly before 3 p.m., on June 24, 1947. He looked north and saw nine gleaming objects racing southward along the crest of the Cascades. They were roughly circular in form -- except for one crescent-like object -- about 50 feet across, and appeared metallic. He watched them for approximately two minutes until they disappeared over Oregon.

During a refueling stop in Pendleton, Oregon, Arnold described his experience to East Oregonian editor Nolan Skiff. He said the vehicles flew in an undulating formation “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water” and weaved in and out of the mountain peaks at speeds approaching 1,400 m.p.h. Skiff’s report of Arnold’s encounter with “nine bright saucer-like objects” was picked up by the Associated Press and the “mystery discs” made national headlines on June 26.

Local newspapers and authorities were immediately inundated with other reports of “flying discs” (the term “flying saucers” came later). Several residents of Bremerton, Washington, reported seeing a number of discs during the previous week. The most spectacular reports came on July 4, 1947. In Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, scores of citizens and police officers claimed to see dozens of discs overhead. As many as 50 residents of Boise also reported spotting a large formation, and Emil J. Smith, pilot of a United Air Lines DC-3, said his plane was buzzed by several flying disks while en route from Boise to Pendleton that evening.

Roswell and The Maury Island Mystery

The first photograph of an alleged flying disc was published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on July 5, 1947. Taken by U.S. Coast Guard Yeoman Frank Ryman the previous afternoon, the photo showed a small bright disc which he spotted flying over his Lake City home. Three days later, the U.S. Army reported that it had recovered fragments of a crashed flying disc near Roswell, New Mexico. The Army retracted its Roswell report on July 9, declaring that the wreckage was that of a balloon. Despite this, the military monitored reports of Unidentified Flying Objects (a term coined in 1950) for two more decades chiefly out of fear that they might represent a Russian aeronautical breakthrough.

Perhaps the most fantastic report of 1947 was told by two timber salvage workers from Tacoma, Washington. Shortly after Arnold made headlines, Harold Dahl and Fred Crissman claimed that they had witnessed the explosion of a doughnut-shaped flying disc while boating near Maury Island in Puget Sound on June 21. They further claimed that they had recovered some of the debris, which a “man in black” later tried to take from them. Dahl and Crissman offered to sell their “evidence” to pulp magazine publisher Ray Palmer, who commissioned Ken Arnold and Emil Smith to investigate the claim.

Arnold and Smith arranged for the alleged flying disc wreckage to be turned over to U.S. Army specialists. When the B-25 carrying this material crashed shortly after leaving Tacoma on August 1, 1947, it spawned the first reports of a possible “cover-up” of flying disc evidence (the official cause was an engine fire). The FBI investigated and Dahl and Crissman confessed to fabricating the “Maury Island Mystery.” The saucer wreckage was just bits of pumice and scrap metal collected on the beach.

They Came Here First

By late summer 1947, initially neutral press references to mysterious discs had turned into derisive treatments of “flying saucers.” This only fueled hundreds of science fiction stories, films, and television programs, and it did not prevent future rashes of sightings. When Arnold and Palmer published the Maury Island tale in 1952, they introduced the now-popular themes of sinister “men in black” and a government conspiracy to conceal the presence of alien visitors.

Analysts later dismissed the Ryman photograph as merely showing a weather balloon. An official Air Force investigation also concluded that Arnold had seen a mirage or cluster of disc-shaped lenticular clouds, which often form over mountain peaks. In 1969, the Air Force concluded that UFO reports no longer warranted military or scientific investigation. Regardless of whether flying saucers are extraterrestrial, meteorological, or psychological in origin, Washington state can rightly claim, “They came here first!”

Sources:
Kenneth Arnold and Ray Palmer, The Coming of the Saucers (Boise, ID, and Amherst, WI: Private, 1952); Walt Crowley, "They Came From Way Out Here," Seattle Weekly June 25, 1997; J. Allen Hynek, The Hynek Report (New York: Dell, 1977); Curtis Peebles, Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth (New York: Berkeley Press and Smithsonian Institution, 1994); Edward J. Ruppelt, Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956).


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Captain E.J. Smith, Kenneth Arnold and co-pilot



Kenneth Arnold



Model of the disk Kenneth Arnold reported over the Cascades



 
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