In the control tower at Washington National Airport, Ed Nugent saw
seven pale violet blips on his radar screen. What were they? Not planes --
at least not any planes that were supposed to be there.
He summoned his boss, Harry G. Barnes, the head of National's air
traffic controllers. "Here's a fleet of flying saucers for you," Nugent
Upstairs, in the tower's glass-enclosed top floor, controller Joe Zacko
saw a strange blip streaking across his radar screen. It wasn't a bird. It
wasn't a plane. What was it? He looked out the window and spotted a
bright light hovering in the sky. He turned to his partner, Howard
Cocklin, who was sitting three feet away.
"Look at that bright light," Zacko said. "If you believe in flying
saucers, that could sure be one."
And then the light took off, zooming away at an incredible speed.
"Did you see that?" Cocklin remembers saying. "What the hell
It was Saturday night, July 19, 1952 -- 50 years ago this weekend --
one of the most famous dates in the bizarre history of UFOs. Before the
night was over, a pilot reported seeing unexplained objects, radar at two
local Air Force bases -- Andrews and Bolling -- picked up the UFOs, and
two Air Force F-94 jets streaked over Washington, searching for flying
Then, a week later, it happened all over again -- more UFOs on the
radar screen, more jets scrambled over Washington. Across America, the
story of jets chasing UFOs over the White House knocked the Korean War and
the presidential campaign off the front pages of newspapers.
" 'Saucer' Outran Jet, Pilot Reveals," read the banner headline in The
"JETS CHASE D.C. SKY GHOSTS," screamed the New York Daily News.
"AERIAL WHATZITS BUZZ D.C. AGAIN!" shouted the Washington Daily News.
As rumors spread, President Truman demanded to know what was flying
over his house. Soon the federal government was fighting the UFOs with the
most powerful weapons in the Washington arsenal -- bureaucracy,
obfuscation and gobbledygook.
That seemed to work. The UFOs never returned.
At least, not that we know of. As Big as Life
In a way, this whole strange episode began with Marilyn Monroe.
The actress appeared on the cover of Life magazine's April 7, 1952,
issue, looking sultry in a diaphanous, low-cut dress, her eyelids drooping
seductively. It was the kind of cover that attracts attention. And just
above Monroe's left shoulder was a cover line touting a different story:
"There Is a Case for Interplanetary Saucers."
The article was titled "Have We Visitors From Outer Space?" It reviewed
10 recent UFO sightings and concluded that they could not be written off
as hallucinations, hoaxes or earthly aircraft. An unnamed Air Force
intelligence officer was quoted saying, "The higher you go in the Air
Force, the more seriously they take the flying saucers."
The story ended with a series of questions that sound like something
Rod Serling might intone at the end of a "Twilight Zone" episode:
"Who, or what, is aboard? Where do they come from? Why are they here?
What are the intentions of the beings who control them?"
It wasn't the first media account of UFOs -- there had been lots of
publicity since several well-known sightings in 1947, including one in
Roswell, N.M. -- but the Life article marked the first time that a
trusted, mainstream magazine had given credence to the theory that UFOs
might be alien spacecraft.
The Life story was big news, covered in more than 350 newspapers across
America. Soon, the number of UFO sightings reported to the Air Force
skyrocketed -- from 23 in March, before Life's article appeared, to 82 in
April, 79 in May, 148 in June.
Were these increases due to saucers swarming over America? Or did
Life's story make Americans more likely to report strange things they saw
in the sky?
By mid-July, Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt -- the head of Project Blue Book,
the Air Force's official UFO study team -- was getting 40 reports of UFO
sightings a day. Many were bogus but some came from pilots and other
respectable citizens, and Ruppelt took them seriously.
Then -- a few days before the first sightings at National Airport --
Ruppelt interviewed a government scientist who made a startling prediction
that Ruppelt recorded in his 1956 memoir, "The Report on Unidentified
"Within the next few days," the unidentified scientist said, banging
his hand on his desk for emphasis, "you're going to have the granddaddy of
all UFO sightings. The sighting will occur in Washington or New York --
probably Washington."'Falling Stars Without Tails'
The blips first appeared on radar screens at National at 11:40 that
Saturday night -- seven unidentified targets about 15 miles southeast of
It was a clear, hot, humid night with very little air traffic, and the
controllers at National watched the strange blips amble across their
screens. They'd cruise at a leisurely rate of about 100 to 130 miles per
hour, then abruptly zoom off in an extraordinary burst of speed.
"They acted like a bunch of small kids out playing," Barnes, the head
controller, wrote a few days later in a piece for a New York newspaper.
"It was helter-skelter, as if directed by some innate curiosity. At times,
they moved as a group or cluster, at other times as individuals."
Barnes called his counterparts at Andrews and Bolling to ask if they
saw anything unusual on their radar screens. They did. They were getting
blips in the same places.
At Andrews, controller William Brady looked out the control tower
window and saw what looked like "an orange ball of fire, trailing a tail."
It was, he later told Air Force investigators, "unlike anything I had ever
At National, Cocklin looked out his window and saw what he recalls as a
"whitish blue light" that emanated from a solid object that was "round
with no distinguishing marks such as wings or a nose or a tail." It
looked, he says, "like a saucer."
Sometime after 1 a.m, National's control tower radioed Capital Air
Flight 807, from Washington to Detroit, and asked the pilot if he saw any
unusual objects. Captain S.C. "Casey" Pierman, a pilot with 17 years of
experience, radioed back: "There's one -- and there it goes."
For the next 14 minutes, as he flew between Herndon and Martinsburg,
W.Va., Pierman saw six bright lights that streaked across the sky at
tremendous speed. "They were," he said, "like falling stars without
Watching the radar blips flying over the Capitol and the White House,
Barnes called the Air Force to report unidentified aircraft in restricted
air space. But it was very late on a Saturday night and the Air Force
bureaucracy responded sluggishly. By the time F-94 interceptor jets left
New Castle Air Force Base in Delaware -- the runways at Andrews were
closed for repairs -- it was after 3 a.m.
When the F-94s soared over Washington, the strange blips disappeared
from the radar screens at National. The F-94 pilots cruised around the
area for a while but saw nothing. When they headed back to New Castle, the
The controllers watched the UFOs flit across their screens until dawn,
then disappear.Trying to Clear the Air
Nobody bothered to call Ruppelt about the sightings. When he flew to
Washington a couple of days later on unrelated Project Blue Book business,
he learned about them by reading newspapers at the airport.
"Radar Spots Air Mystery Objects Here," read the headline on the front
page of The Washington Post.
"Air Force 'Saucer' Expert Will Probe Sightings Here," said the
Washington Daily News.
Ruppelt asked his colleagues who the expert was. You are, they told
At the Pentagon, Ruppelt found the Air Force brass deeply concerned
about one particular aspect of the sightings: What should they tell the
Nobody had any idea what -- if anything -- had been in the air over
Washington on July 19, but the newspapers were demanding answers.
Reporters, Ruppelt wrote, "were now beginning to put on a squeeze by
threatening to call congressmen -- and nothing chills blood faster in the
Ruppelt volunteered to stay overnight to interview the controllers at
National and Andrews, then report what he learned to the press. But
Ruppelt got entangled in the thicket of military bureaucracy.
He called the Pentagon's transportation section to get a car so he
could travel to the various airports. Only colonels and generals can get
cars, he was told. He called two generals, but it was after 4 p.m. and
they were gone for the day.
He went to the finance office to get permission to rent a car. Take a
bus, the woman there told him. It takes a lot of buses to go from the
Pentagon to National to Andrews, he replied. Take a cab, she said, and pay
for it out of your per diem. But his per diem was $9, he said, and he had
to pay for food and lodging.
The woman then informed Ruppelt that his orders were to fly back to
Ohio that night, and unless he got those orders amended, he'd technically
be AWOL. He asked to talk to her boss. He'd left at 4:30 to avoid traffic,
she said, and now it was 5 and she was leaving, too.
Ruppelt gave up. "I decided that if flying saucers were buzzing
Pennsylvania Avenue, I couldn't care less," he wrote. "I caught the next
airliner to Dayton."A Return Engagement
About 10 o'clock Saturday night, July 26, Ruppelt was at home in Dayton
when a reporter called to say that UFOs were back in the sky over
What, the reporter asked, did the Air Force plan to do about it?
"I have no idea what the Air Force is doing," Ruppelt replied. "In all
probability, it's doing nothing."
He hung up, then called the Pentagon and learned that he was right: The
Air Force was doing nothing. He made more calls, dispatching two
officers -- Maj. Dewey Fournet and Lt. John Holcomb, a radar expert -- to
National's control tower to see what was happening.
Fournet and Holcomb arrived to find National's controllers tracking a
dozen unexplained blips. An Air Force B-25 happened to be passing through
the area, so the controllers asked it to check out some of the radar
targets. The B-25 went to one site and spotted nothing except a tourist
boat cruising the Potomac.
Perhaps, the controllers surmised, a temperature inversion -- a layer
of hot air between two layers of colder air in the sky -- had bent the
radar beam, causing it to mistake objects on the ground for things in the
air. Temperature inversions were common in Washington on hot days, and the
controllers were familiar with the phenomenon.
But Fournet and Holcomb were convinced that some of the radar blips
were solid metal objects, not inversion-induced mirages. Radar operators
at Andrews saw them, too. And civilian planes flying into Washington
reported seeing strange glowing objects in places where the radar was
The controllers called for interceptors, and about 11 p.m. the Air
Force dispatched F-94s to search the sky over Washington. When the first
jets arrived, the blips disappeared from National's radar screens and the
F-94 pilots saw nothing unusual. But when they returned to New Castle, the
blips returned to the radar screens.
About 1:30 a.m., the jets soared back over Washington. This time,
pilots saw several strange lights. One pilot gave chase but he couldn't
catch the streaking light.
"I tried to make contact with the bogies below 1,000 feet," pilot
William Patterson told investigators. "I was at my maximum speed but . . .
I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking
On Monday morning, the story of UFOs outrunning fighter planes was
splashed across front pages all over America. In Iowa, the headline in the
Cedar Rapids Gazette read like something out of a sci-fi flick: "SAUCERS
SWARM OVER CAPITAL."
"We have no evidence they are flying saucers," an unidentified Air
Force source told reporters. "Conversely we have no evidence they are not
flying saucers. We don't know what they are."
In the absence of hard information, the Washington Daily News printed a
roundup of rumors. The "most persistent rumor" was that the saucers were
American aircraft secretly produced by Boeing "at some remote site." An
"absolutely weird" rumor was that the saucers were alien aircraft that had
crashed and then been repaired and flown by the Air Force.
That Monday, the Air Force tried to reassure the nation by promising to
keep jet fighters poised to chase the saucers at a moment's notice. But
that statement didn't reassure Robert L. Farnsworth, president of the
United States Rocket Society, who warned President Truman not to attack
"Should they be extra-terrestrial, such actions might result in the
gravest consequences, as well as possibly alienating us from beings of far
superior powers," Farnsworth telegraphed Truman. "Friendly contact should
be sought as long as possible."
Truman was as baffled as everyone else. He asked his Air Force aide,
Brig. Gen. Robert B. Landry, to find out what the UFOs were. On Tuesday
morning, Landry called Ruppelt, who'd flown back to the Pentagon. Ruppelt
said the sightings might be weather-related mirages but he didn't really
Nobody knew, not even Maj. Gen. John Samford, the Air Force's
director of intelligence. But Samford called a press conference at the
Pentagon at 4 o'clock Tuesday afternoon. It was the largest Pentagon press
conference since World War II, Ruppelt wrote, and Samford's performance
proved to be a brilliant demonstration of the art of bureaucratic
He arrived in Room 3E-869 precisely at 4, accompanied by Ruppelt and
several other officials. He opened with a rambling monologue on the
history of UFOs, which, he noted, dated "to biblical times." He mentioned
UFO sightings in 1846 but never got around to the UFO sightings of
When reporters asked about the Washington sightings, Samford told a
story about radar picking up a flock of ducks in Japan in 1950. When they
asked if radar at National and Andrews had seen the same blips
simultaneously, he speculated about the definition of the word
"simultaneously." When they asked if the UFOs could be material objects,
he mused about the definition of the word "material." When they asked if
the F-94 pilot who chased the strange light was a qualified observer, he
wondered about the meaning of the word "qualified."
Speaking about what that pilot saw, Samford uttered a sentence that
ought to have a place in the Bureaucratic Gibberish Hall of Fame: "That
very likely is one that sits apart and says insufficient measurement,
insufficient association with other things, insufficient association with
other probabilities for it to do any more than to join that group of
sightings that we still hold in front of us as saying no."
Along the way, Samford mentioned the "temperature inversion" theory --
that a layer of hot air in the sky might have caused radar to mistake
things on the ground for flying objects. First, he said it was a
"possibility." Later, he said it was "about a 50-50 proposition." Then he
said it was a "probable" explanation.
He talked until 5:20, then the reporters dashed back to their offices
to meet their deadlines. Sifting through notebooks full of gobbledygook,
they seized on temperature inversion. It was an irresistible concept for
newspapermen. The UFOs, they wrote, were caused by Washington's famous
Ruppelt was amazed. Samford hadn't really explained anything, but
whatever he had done, it worked.
"Somehow," Ruppelt wrote, "out of this chaotic situation came exactly
the result that was intended -- the press got off our backs."
When newspapers stopped writing about the UFOs, people stopped
reporting UFOs. "Reports dropped from 50 per day to 10 a day within a
week," Ruppelt noted.
And the UFOs never returned to the sky over Washington. Perhaps they'd
Arguments Still Fly
Sitting at his desk, wearing blue pajamas and a gray bathrobe, Philip
J. Klass holds up a government report and smiles mischievously.
"I will let you borrow it," he says, "provided that you provide one
testicle as security."
The report is called "A Preliminary Study of Unidentified Targets
Observed on Air Traffic Control Radars." Not many people would trade a
testicle for it.
The report was issued by the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1953,
shortly after Klass began writing for Aviation Week. He's still writing
for that magazine, but not often these days because he is 82 and ailing.
"The gist of the report," he says, "is that the Washington sightings
were temperature inversions."
He wrote about the report in Aviation Week in 1953. That began his
career as America's most prominent UFO debunker. Over the past 49 years,
he's written five books on UFOs and engaged in countless debates with UFO
believers. He can cite evidence and quote reports all day long, but he
seems to prefer rattling off one-liners.
He says: "If there are UFOs and they want to make themselves known,
land! And if they don't want to make their visits known, turn off
He says: "If UFOs are abducting people, why do they choose only ugly
people? If they abducted Olympic athletes, I could understand."
Bruce Maccabee isn't laughing. "One thing you have to understand: This
is serious business," he says. "The skeptics like to make fun of us."
Maccabee, 60, is a civilian physicist for the Navy and a prominent UFO
believer. In the '70s, he filed the Freedom of Information Act request
that led to the release of the FBI's file on UFOs. The file was called
"Security Matter X" -- "the real X-Files," he says.
Maccabee believes there were "solid objects" in the air over Washington
50 years ago. "And I think those solid objects were not made by us," he
says. "And by us, I mean human beings."
Like Klass, Maccabee buttresses his argument with an official
government report. It's called "Quantitative Aspects of Mirages" and it
was issued by the Air Force in 1969.
"They proved in their own study that there wasn't enough temperature
inversion to cause this effect," he says. "The Washington sightings cannot
be explained as a radar mirage."
After 50 years, the debate over the Washington UFOs goes on and on.
"You have dueling experts and dueling reports," says Kevin D. Randle,
author of "Invasion Washington: UFOs Over the Capitol," a new book on the
1952 sightings. "One expert says it was temperature inversion. Another
says it wasn't. In that situation, you have to refer back to the air
traffic controllers and the pilots who actually saw the objects."
Former controller Howard Cocklin is still convinced that he saw an
object over National that night. "I saw it on the screen and out the
window," he says. "It was a whitish-blue object. Not a light -- a solid
form. An object. A saucer-shaped object."
Now 83 and retired, Cocklin says he never saw anything like that saucer
-- not before, not since.
"It just went away," he says, sitting in an armchair in his Fairfax
living room. "Where did it go? Why don't people see these things today?
Why 50 years ago?"