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The Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting occurred on June 24, 1947, when private pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed that he saw a string of nine, shiny unidentified flying objects flying past Mount Rainier at speeds that Arnold estimated at a minimum of 1,200 miles an hour (1,932 km/hr). This was the first post-War sighting in the United States that garnered nationwide news coverage and is credited with being the first of the modern era of UFO sightings, including numerous reported sightings over the next two to three weeks. Arnold's description of the objects also led to the press quickly coining the terms flying saucer and flying disc as popular descriptive terms for UFOs.
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On June 24, 1947, Arnold was flying from Chehalis, Washington to Yakima, Washington in a CallAir A-2 on a business trip. He made a brief detour after learning of a $5,000 reward (equivalent to $57,000 today) for the discovery of a U.S. Marine Corps C-46 transport airplane that had crashed near Mt. Rainier. The skies were completely clear and there was a mild wind.
A few minutes before 3:00 p.m. at about 9,200 feet (2,800 m) in altitude and near Mineral, Washington, he gave up his search and started heading eastward towards Yakima. He saw a bright flashing light, similar to sunlight reflecting from a mirror. Afraid he might be dangerously close to another aircraft, Arnold scanned the skies around him, but all he could see was a DC-4 to his left and behind him, about 15 miles (24 km) away.
About 30 seconds after seeing the first flash of light, Arnold saw a series of bright flashes in the distance off to his left, or north of Mt. Rainier, which was then 20 to 25 miles (40 km) away. He thought they might be reflections on his airplane's windows, but a few quick tests (rocking his airplane from side to side, removing his eyeglasses, later rolling down his side window) ruled this out. The reflections came from flying objects. They flew in a long chain, and Arnold for a moment considered they might be a flock of geese, but quickly ruled this out for a number of reasons, including the altitude, bright glint, and obviously very fast speed. He then thought they might be a new type of jet and started looking intently for a tail and was surprised that he couldn't find any.
They quickly approached Rainier and then passed in front, usually appearing dark in profile against the bright white snowfield covering Rainier, but occasionally still giving off bright light flashes as they flipped around erratically. Sometimes he said he could see them on edge, when they seemed so thin and flat they were practically invisible. According to Jerome Clark, Arnold described them as a series of objects with convex shapes, though he later revealed that one object differed by being crescent-shaped. Several years later, Arnold would state he likened their movement to saucers skipping on water, without comparing their actual shapes to saucers, but initial quotes from him do indeed have him comparing the shape to a "saucer", "disc", "pie pan", or "half moon", or generally convex and thin (discussion below). At one point Arnold said they flew behind a subpeak of Rainier and briefly disappeared. Knowing his position and the position of the (unspecified) subpeak, Arnold placed their distance as they flew past Rainier at about 23 miles (37 km).
Using a dzus cowling fastener as a gauge to compare the nine objects to the distant DC-4, Arnold estimated their angular size as slightly smaller than the DC-4, about the width between the outer engines (about 60 ft (18 m)). Arnold also said he realized that the objects would have to be quite large to see any details at that distance and later, after comparing notes with a United Airlines crew that had a similar sighting 10 days later (see below), placed the absolute size as larger than a DC-4 airliner (or greater than 100 feet (30 m) in length). Army Air Force analysts would later estimate 140 to 280 feet (85 m), based on analysis of human visual acuity and other sighting details (such as estimated distance).
Arnold said the objects were grouped together, as Ted Bloecher writes, "in a diagonally stepped-down, echelon formation, stretched out over a distance that he later calculated to be five miles". Though moving on a more or less level horizontal plane, Arnold said the objects weaved from side to side ("like the tail of a Chinese kite" as he later stated), darting through the valleys and around the smaller mountain peaks. They would occasionally flip or bank on their edges in unison as they turned or maneuvered causing almost blindingly bright or mirror-like flashes of light. The encounter gave him an "eerie feeling", but Arnold suspected he had seen test flights of a new U.S. military aircraft.
As the objects passed Mt Rainer, Arnold turned his plane southward on a more or less parallel course. It was at this point that he opened his side window and began observing the objects unobstructed by any glass that might have produced reflections. The objects did not disappear and continued to move very rapidly southward, continuously moving forward of his position. Curious about their speed, he began to time their rate of passage: he said they moved from Mt. Rainer to Mount Adams where they faded from view, a distance of about 50 miles (80 km), in one minute and forty-two seconds, according to the clock on his instrument panel. When he later had time to do the calculation, the speed was over 1,700 miles per hour (2,700 km/h). This was about three times faster than any manned aircraft in 1947. Not knowing exactly the distance where the objects faded from view, Arnold conservatively and arbitrarily rounded this down to 1,200 miles (1,900 km) an hour, still faster than any known aircraft, which had yet to break the sound barrier. It was this supersonic speed in addition to the unusual saucer or disk description that seemed to capture people's attention.
Arnold landed in Yakima at about 4:00 p.m., and quickly told friend and airport general manager Al Baxter the amazing story, and before long, the entire airport staff knew of Arnold's claims. He discussed the story with the staff, and later wrote that Baxter didn't believe him.
Arnold flew on to an air show in Pendleton, Oregon, not knowing that somebody in Yakima had phoned in ahead to say that Arnold had seen some strange new aircraft. It was at this time that Arnold studied his maps, determined the distance between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, and calculated the rather astonishing speed. He told a number of pilot friends, and wrote in his account to AAF intelligence that they did not scoff or laugh. Instead they suggested that maybe he had seen guided missiles or something new, though Arnold felt this explanation to be inadequate. He also wrote that some former Army pilots told him that they had been briefed before going into combat "that they might see objects of similar shape and design as I described and assured me that I wasn't dreaming or going crazy." (See Foo fighter.)
Arnold wasn't interviewed by reporters until the next day (June 25) when he went to the office of the East Oregonian in Pendleton. Any skepticism the reporters might have harbored evaporated when they interviewed Arnold at length; as historian Mike Dash records:
Arnold would soon complain about the effects of the publicity on his life. On June 27 he was reported saying, "I haven't had a moment of peace since I first told the story." He then said a preacher had called and told him that the objects he saw were "harbingers of doomsday" and that the preacher was preparing his congregation "for the end of the world." In another encounter, a woman in a Pendleton cafe noticed him and dashed out shrieking, "There's the man who saw the men from Mars." She ran out "sobbing she would have to do something for the children," Arnold was reported as saying "with a shudder".
He then added that, "This whole thing has gotten out of hand. I want to talk to the FBI or someone. Half the people look at me as a combination of Einstein, Flash Gordon and screwball. I wonder what my wife back in Idaho thinks."
On July 7, 1947, two stories came out where Arnold again was raising the topic of possible extraterrestrial origins, both as his opinion and those who had written to him. In an Associated Press story, Arnold said he had received quantities of fan mail eager to help solve the mystery, none of it calling him a "screwball". Like the earlier doomsday preacher Arnold spoke of, many of the writers placed a religious interpretation on his sighting. But others, he said, "suggested the discs were visitations from another planet." Arnold added he had purchased a movie camera, which he would now take with him on every flight, hoping to obtain photographic proof of what he had seen.
In the other story, Arnold was interviewed by the Chicago Times:
In an Associated Press story from July 19, Arnold reiterated his belief that if they weren't Army, then they were extraterrestrial:
In April 1949, in a skeptical article in the Saturday Evening Post titled "What You Can Believe About Flying Saucers", Arnold was likewise quoted:
The article goes on to say:
Clearly Arnold was early leaning towards the Extraterrestrial hypothesis to explain what he and others had seen.
Arnold's sighting was partly corroborated by a prospector named Fred Johnson on Mt. Adams, who wrote AAF intelligence that he saw six of the objects on June 24 at about the same time as Arnold, which he viewed through a small telescope. He said they were "round" and tapered "sharply to a point in the head and in an oval shape." He also noted that the objects seemed to disturb his compass. An evaluation of the witness by AAF intelligence found him to be credible. Ironically, Johnson's report was listed as the first unexplained UFO report in Air Force files, while Arnold's was dismissed as a mirage, yet Johnson seemed to be describing a continuation of the same event as Arnold.
The Portland Oregon Journal reported on July 4 receiving a letter from an L. G. Bernier of Richland, Washington (about 110 miles (180 km) east of Mt. Adams and 140 miles (230 km) southeast of Mt. Rainier). Bernier wrote that he saw three of the strange objects over Richland flying "almost edgewise" toward Mt. Rainier about one half-hour before Arnold. Bernier thought the three were part of a larger formation. He indicated they were traveling at high speed: "I have seen a P-38 appear seemingly on one horizon and then gone to the opposite horizon in no time at all, but these disks certainly were traveling faster than any P-38. [Maximum speed of a P-38 was about 440 miles an hour.] No doubt Mr. Arnold saw them just a few minutes or seconds later, according to their speed." The previous day, Bernier had also spoken to his local newspaper, the Richland Washington Villager, and was among the first witnesses to suggest extraterrestrial origins: "I believe it may be a visitor from another planet."
About 60 miles (97 km) west-northwest of Richland in Yakima, Washington, a woman named Ethel Wheelhouse likewise reported sighting several flying discs moving at fantastic speeds at around the same time as Arnold's sighting.
When military intelligence began investigating Arnold's sighting in early July (see below), they found yet another witness from the area. A member of the Washington State forest service, who had been on fire watch at a tower in Diamond Gap, about 20 miles (32 km) south of Yakima, reported seeing "flashes" at 3:00 p.m. on the 24th over Mount Rainier (or exactly the same time as Arnold's sighting), that appeared to move in a straight line. Similarly, at 3:00 p.m. Sidney B. Gallagher in Washington state (exact position unspecified) reported seeing nine shiny discs flash by to the north.
A Seattle newspaper also mentioned a woman near Tacoma who said she saw a chain of nine, bright objects flying at high speed near Mt. Rainier. Unfortunately this short news item wasn't precise as to time or date, but indicated it was around the same date as Arnold's sighting.
However, a pilot of a DC-4 some 10 to 15 miles (24 km) north of Arnold en route to Seattle reported seeing nothing unusual. (This was the same DC-4 seen by Arnold and which he used for size comparison.)
Other Seattle area newspapers also reported other sightings of flashing, rapidly moving unknown objects on the same day, but not the same time, as Arnold's sighting. Most of these sightings were over Seattle or west of Seattle in the town of Bremerton, either that morning or at night. Altogether, there were at least 16 other reported UFO sightings the same day as Arnold's in the Washington state area. maptable of Washington state sightings
The primary corroborative sighting, however, occurred ten days later (July 4) when a United Airlines crew over Idaho en route to Seattle also spotted five to nine disk-like objects that paced their plane for 10 to 15 minutes before suddenly disappearing.
Arnold's account was first featured in a few late newspaper editions on June 25, appeared in numerous U.S. and Canadian papers (and some foreign newspapers) on June 26 and thereafter, often on the front page. Without exception, according to Bloecher, the Arnold story was initially related with a serious, even-handed tone. The first reporters to interview Arnold were Nolan Skiff and Bill Bequette of the East Oregonian in Pendleton, Oregon on June 25, and the first story on the Arnold sighting, written by Bequette, appeared in the newspaper the same day.
Starting June 26 and June 27, newspapers first began using the terms "flying saucer" and "flying disk" (or "disc") to describe the sighted objects. Thus the Arnold sighting is credited with giving rise to these popular terms. The actual origin of the terms is somewhat controversial and complicated. Jerome Clark cites a 1970 study by Herbert Strentz, who reviewed U.S. newspaper accounts of the Arnold UFO sighting, and concluded that the term was probably due to an editor or headline writer: the body of the early Arnold news stories did not use the term "flying saucer" or "flying disc." However, earlier stories did in fact credit Arnold with using terms such as "saucer", "disk", and "pie-pan" in describing the shape. (see quotations further below)
Years later, Arnold claimed he told Bill Bequette that "they flew erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water." Arnold felt that he had been misquoted since the description referred to the objects' motion rather than their shape. Thus Bequette has often been credited with first using "flying saucer" and supposedly misquoting Arnold, but the term does not appear in Bequette's early articles. Instead, his first article of June 25 says only, "He said he sighted nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation..."
The next day in a much more detailed article, Bequette wrote, "He clung to his story of shiny, flat objects racing over the Cascade mountains with a peculiar weaving motion 'like the tail of a Chinese kite.' ...He also described the objects as 'saucer-like' and their motion 'like fish flipping in the sun.' ...[Arnold] described the objects as 'flat like a pie-pan and somewhat bat-shaped'." It wasn't until June 28 that Bequette first used the term "flying disc" (but not "flying saucer").
A review of early newspaper stories indicates that immediately after his sighting, Arnold generally described the objects' shape as thin and flat, rounded in the front but chopped in the back and coming to a point, i.e., more or less saucer- or disk-like. He also specifically used terms like "saucer" or "saucer-like", "disk", and "pie pan" or "pie plate" in describing the shape. The motion he generally described as weaving like the tail of a kite and erratic flipping.
For example, in a surviving recorded radio interview from June 26, 1947 made by reporter Ted Smith, United Press correspondent in Pendleton, and aired on KWRC, the local radio station of Pendleton, Arnold described them as looking "something like a pie plate that was cut in half with a sort of a convex triangle in the rear." His motion descriptions were: "I noticed to the left of me a chain which looked to me like the tail of a Chinese kite, kind of weaving... they seemed to flip and flash in the sun, just like a mirror... they seemed to kind of weave in and out right above the mountaintops..."
In the weeks that followed Arnold's June 1947 story, at least several hundred reports of similar sightings flooded in from the U.S. and around the world—most of which described saucer-shaped objects. A sighting by a United Airlines crew of another nine disk-like objects over Idaho on July 4 probably garnered more newspaper coverage than Arnold's original sighting, and opened the floodgates of media coverage in the days to follow.
Bloecher collected reports of 853 flying disc sightings that year from 140 newspapers from Canada, Washington D.C, and every U.S. state save Montana. This was more UFO reports for 1947 than most researchers ever suspected. Some of these stories were poorly documented or fragmentary, but Bloecher argued that about 250 of the more detailed reports (such as those made by pilots or scientists, multiple eyewitnesses, or backed by photos) made a persuasive case for a genuine mystery.
Adding intrigue to Arnold's story, the U.S. military denied having any planes at all in the area of Mount Rainier at the time of his sighting. Likewise, on July 6, speculation arose in newspaper articles that the objects being sighted were due to either the "flying wing" or "flying flapjack", a disc-shaped aircraft, both experimental planes under development by the U.S. military at the time. The military repeated that neither aircraft could account for the sightings, which is also borne out by historical records.
The most famous UFO event during this period was the Roswell UFO incident, the alleged military recovery of a crashed flying disk, the story of which broke on July 8, 1947. To calm rising public concern, this and other cases were debunked by the military in succeeding days as mistaken sightings of weather balloons. Just before the Roswell story came out, the Army Air Forces in Washington issued a press statement saying they had the matter under investigation and had decided the flying discs definitely were not "secret bacteriological weapons designed by some foreign power", "new-type army rockets", or "space ships".
The first investigation of Arnold's claims came from Lt. Frank Brown and Capt. William Davidson of Hamilton Field in California, who interviewed Arnold on July 12. Arnold also submitted a written report at that time. Regarding the reliability of Arnold's sighting, they concluded:
Despite this, the Army Air Force's formal public conclusion was that Arnold had seen a mirage.
In addition, on July 9 AAF intelligence, with help from the FBI, secretly began an investigation of the best sightings, mostly from pilots and military personnel. Arnold's sighting, as well as that of the United Airline's crew, were included in the list of best sightings. Three weeks later they came to the conclusion that the saucer reports were not imaginary or adequately explained by natural phenomena; something real was flying around. This laid the groundwork for another intelligence estimate in September 1947 by Gen. Nathan Twining, commanding officer of the Air Materiel Command, which likewise concluded the saucers were real and urged a formal investigation by multiple government agencies. This in turn resulted in the formation of Project Sign at the end of 1947, the first publicly acknowledged USAF UFO investigation. Project Sign eventually evolved into Project Grudge, and then the better known Project Blue Book.
Steuart Campbell has said that the objects Arnold reported could have been mirages of several snow-capped peaks in Cascade Range. Campbell's calculation of the objects' speed determined that they were travelling at roughly the same speed as Arnold's plane, indicating that the objects were in fact stationary. Mirages could have been caused by temperature inversions over several deep valleys in the line of sight.
James Easton was the first of several skeptics to suggest that Arnold may have misidentified pelicans: the birds live in the Washington region, are rather large (wingspans of over 9.8 ft (3 m) are not uncommon), have a pale underside that can reflect light, can fly at rather high altitudes, and can appear to have a somewhat crescent-shaped profile when flying.
In response to skeptical explanations, Bruce Maccabee says a meteor theory would require impossibly slow speeds and durations for brightly glowing meteors on a horizontal trajectory. He says it is impossible for a bird to be as bright as reported by Arnold, and that birds—which could not fly as fast as Arnold's plane—would have steadily moved backward, not forwards, relative to his position.
Donald Menzel was a Harvard astronomer and one of the earliest UFO debunkers. Over the years, he offered several possible explanations for Arnold's 1947 UFO sighting. Bruce Maccabee disputed Menzel's explanations in a 1986 monograph.
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