When UFOs Buzzed the White House and the Air Force Blamed the Weather

1952 was the year America caught flying-saucer fever.

So when a rash of strange sightings was reported in the skies over Washington D.C. that summer, the press and the public demanded answers. Were these unexplained radar blips, crafts that in some cases outran jets, part of a nuclear-armed Soviet invasion—a very real threat at the height of the Red Scare? Or were they evidence of something far more mysterious?

The Washington, D.C. sightings of July 1952, also known as “the Big Flap,” hold a special place in the history of unidentified flying objects. Major American newspapers were reporting multiple credible sightings by civilian and military radar operators and pilots—so many that a special intelligence unit of the U.S. Air Force was sent in to investigate. What they found—or didn’t find—along with the Air Force’s official explanation, fueled some of the earliest conspiracy theories about a government plot to hide evidence of alien life.

UFO mania takes hold

It all started in 1947, when a search-and-rescue pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported nine “saucer-like things…flying like geese in a diagonal chainlike line” at speeds exceeding 1,000 m.p.h. near Mount Rainier in Washington State. Within weeks, “flying saucer” sightings had been reported in 40 other states.

In the name of national security, Air Force General Nathan Twining launched Project SIGN (originally named Project SAUCER) in 1948, the first official military-intelligence program to collect information on UFO sightings. Its investigators dismissed the vast majority as hoaxes or misidentifications of known aircraft or natural phenomena.

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