In June 1947, two of the most important incidents in the history of ufology occurred. The well-known Roswell UFO incident in New Mexico; and the sighting by pilot Kenneth A. Arnold on Mount Rainier, considered America’s first UFO sighting and the origin of the term “flying saucers.”
In reality, there had already been strange sightings in the sky a long time ago. One of the best known is the so-called “Battle in the sky of Nuremberg of 1561”, even in the United States itself, such as the “Aurora UFO Incident” (Texas) of 1897. However, it was not until 1947, when the phenomenon UFO began to become popular, also giving birth to what is considered modern ufology.
Kenneth Arnold was a skilled and experienced pilot who had logged more than 9,000 flight hours, most of them at Boise, Idaho Fire Control during the 1940’s.
According to the pilot, on June 24, 1947, he was flying from Washington to Yakima on a business trip. He took a short detour on his way when he learned that a $5,000 reward was being offered for finding a US Marine Corps C-46 transport plane that had crashed near Mount Rainier. Finding nothing, he headed back to Yakima when he saw a bright flashing light in the sky. Afraid that it might be another aircraft that had come dangerously close, Arnold scanned the surrounding sky but only saw another commercial airliner about 15 miles away.
Half a minute after seeing the first flash of light, Arnold saw a series of bright flashes to his left, near Mount Rainier, about 25 miles away. He ruled out that the lights were any reflection of his own plane and concluded that the lights came from flying objects. Thinking it might be a new type of aircraft, he tried to look at the tail of one of the objects and was surprised to find it impossible.
The (unidentified) flying objects rapidly approached Mount Rainier, passing Arnold nine dark objects that were still emitting flashes of bright light. Arnold described them as a series of convex-shaped objects, although years later he clarified that one of the objects differed from the others because it was crescent-shaped. The pilot compared the motion of these unusual objects to the motion of saucers jumping over water.
According to Arnold’s calculations, these flying objects passed him at a distance of less than 40 kilometers and were 20 meters in size. Subsequent calculations and analyzes by Army Air Force experts estimated that from the details the pilot could describe and his visual acuity, the objects must have been between 40 and 80 meters in size. The meeting gave him a strange feeling, although he still believed that he had seen the tests of a new military aircraft of the United States Army.
To get a clearer view, the pilot opened one of the plane’s windows to be able to observe objects without glass that could produce reflections. The objects did not disappear and began to move south, from Mount Rainier to Mount Adams, where they disappeared from their sight, at a distance of 80 kilometers.
Surprised by their speed, Arnold ran his calculations and found that the speed of these flying objects was 2,700 km/h, three times faster than any manned aircraft in 1947. Not knowing the exact distance, Arnold lowered the estimated speed of the flying objects. objects at 1,900 km/h, which was still a speed that broke the sound barrier, faster than any ship known at the time.
He landed in Yakima at four in the afternoon and quickly told his incredible story to his friend and airport manager, Al Baxter, before the entire airport staff knew what had happened. Arnold was not interviewed by the press until the following day, June 25, when he flew to Pendleton, Oregon, to attend an air show.
Despite his skepticism, reporters considered him a reliable witness. Kenneth Arnold was a respected businessman and an experienced pilot. The supersonic speed and the description of disc-shaped flying objects quickly attracted the attention of the public.
Shortly after, the press took care of popularizing terms such as “flying saucers”, “flying saucers” or “flying discs”, with which UFOs would be known from then on.
The pilot complained about the effects of the publicity only two days later, according to what he said, since he told the story of him he had not had a moment of peace. He began receiving numerous fan letters to help him solve the mystery. In subsequent interviews with him, the pilot pointed out the possibility that they came from another planet, if they were not from the army, they could be aliens. Arnold claimed that the abrupt maneuvers performed by the disks would have been impossible for human pilots to withstand due to the pressure. To him, no matter where they came from, they were headed for an accessible destination and weren’t trying to hurt anyone.
In a 1949 Saturday Evening Post article titled “What You Can Believe About Flying Saucers,” Arnold claimed that since his first observation he had spent a great deal of time and money researching the subject and that he could only assure that the objects he saw were of a strange design, made of a material unknown to human civilization.
Arnold’s sighting was also corroborated by other witnesses. A local prospector named Fred Johnson who was on Mount Adams (in the so-called Cascade Range) on June 24, 1947, reported seeing six of the objects with a small telescope at the same time as the pilot.
On July 4, the Portland Oregon Journal received a letter from G. L. Bernier, who claimed that he had seen three strange flying objects east of Mount Adams, about 140 miles from Mount Rainier. Bernier said that the three objects were part of a larger formation and that he observed them a little before Kerneth Arnold, because of their great speed, assumed that they must be the objects that the pilot saw. In total, 16 UFO sightings were ultimately reported on the same day as Arnold throughout the State of Washington.
On July 4, 1947, another event occurred that seemed to definitively corroborate the story of Kenneth Arnold. The crew of a United Airlines flight over Idaho to Seattle said they saw several disk-shaped flying objects hover near their plane for more than 10 minutes before finally disappearing.
Another similar sighting occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on July 12, 1947. In this case, a photo of these “flying saucers” was published the next day in the Tulsa Daily World. Enlo Gilmore, the photographer who took the photograph of this supposed UFO, nevertheless believed that it was a secret fleet of army planes. He had been a Navy artillery officer during the War and also did the calculations for him, estimating that the objects were traveling at a speed of 2,700 km/h.
Several photographs of a similar lone object were taken by William Rhodes over Phoenix, Arizona on July 7, 1947 and published in various local Phoenix newspapers. It was a rounded object, with a crescent on the back and a kind of hole in the center. The negatives and Rhodes prints were eventually seized by the FBI.
When Arnold saw the photos he commented that the object was almost identical to the flying saucer unlike the others he had observed a few days earlier. The pilot considered the Rhodes photographs to be authentic.
There is some controversy over what words Arnold actually used and how he defined these strange flying objects. Beginning June 26 and 27, newspapers began using the terms “flying saucers” and “flying disks” to describe them.
This definition is actually believed to be an error by some editor in quoting the words of Arnold, who spoke of “disks” or “cymbals” whose erratic motion resembled that of a saucer jumping through water. One way or another, the press popularized the terms and almost every headline about UFOs would refer to saucers or flying discs.
In his written statement to the Army Air Forces (AAF) on July 12, 1947, Kenneth Arnold described the saucer- or disc-shaped objects. At the end of the report he made a drawing of one of these objects. The text of the document is public and can be consulted here: Project 1947 – By Kenneth Arnold
In the weeks following the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting near Mount Rainier, there were hundreds of reports of similar sightings across the United States. Among them, the UFO sightings already mentioned of the United Airlines flight, the one from Tulsa or the one from Phoenix stood out. The most famous UFO case of that period was the Roswell UFO Incident, which had actually happened before the Mount Rainier incident (the remains of the alleged alien craft were recovered by a local farmer on June 14, 1947), however However, it was not until several weeks later, when the Roswell Affair appeared in the media.
To quell growing public concern, the military debunked many alleged UFO cases (including the Roswell case) as mistaken sightings of weather balloons. Before the Roswell story broke, the Army Air Forces also issued a statement to the press saying they were investigating the matter and had concluded that the “flying discs” were not some secret weapon designed by a foreign power, nor any kind of new missile or space rocket.
Although the Roswell case brought fame and great media attention for decades, the sighting of pilot Kenneth Arnold is undoubtedly one of the most important UFO events in the history of ufology. Not only for giving rise to the popular terms “flying saucers” or “flying discs,” his case was taken seriously by the Army Air Force and led to the initiation of Project Sign in late 1947, the first investigation United States Government official information on Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO). Later the Grudge Project and the best known of all, the Blue Book Project (Project Blue Book Archive) would be developed.
Kenneth Arnold would be associated with the world of ufology forever. As a curiosity, the pilot never actually stated that the objects were extraterrestrial ships, although he did leave doubts in the air, in his own words: “If they are not made by our science or by our Armed Forces, I am inclined to think that they are of extraterrestrial origin.