On the clear bright summer afternoon of 24 June 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying above the Cascades, a mountain range in Washington, USA, when he saw nine bat-wing shaped objects that “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water”.
When he later tried to calculate their size and speed he was amazed to find they were moving at 1,200 miles per hour. This was double the speed of the most advanced jet aircraft at that time; it was not until October 1947 that test pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier (760 mph at sea level).
Arnold’s sighting 74 years ago, and the famous ‘Roswell incident’ that followed two weeks later, gave birth to the age of the ‘flying saucer’, a phrase coined by a newspaper sub-editor. The pilot’s story went viral and prompted thousands of others to report their own observations of strange flying objects that many believed were craft piloted by advanced, intelligent beings from other words.
More than seven decades later, fascination with UFOs is still attracting international attention – the latest from former US president Barack Obama.
When did our fascination with UFOs begin?
Interest in the existence of extra-terrestrials can be traced back to ancient times. But the idea that mysterious flying objects, UFOs, are alien craft visiting Earth – and this fact has been covered up by successive governments – can be traced to beginning of the Cold War.
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Initially the craze for seeing ‘flying saucers’ was compared to the Loch Ness Monster, and those who reported them were often unfairly disbelieved or subjected to ridicule. But when military pilots and others began to report experiences and were supported by high-profile names such as royal relation Lord Mountbatten and astronaut Edgar Mitchell, it was clear the subject was not going to die.
Seven decades of stories, sensational claims and counter claims have spawned books, films, TV shows and media articles that all seek to cater for the public’s insatiable demand for all things do to with UFOs. Historian Hilary Evans once remarked that most of us have never known a time when there was no such thing as a UFO. “UFOs are a creation of our time,” he wrote. “And when their time came, they were born.”
From the birth of UFOlogy the developing mystery has drawn in US presidents and British prime ministers. Ronald Reagan, was (according to his biographer Lou Cannon) a fan of the Cold War sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In 1985 he surprised USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev at a summit in Geneva by saying he was confident the two superpowers would cooperate if Earth was ever threatened with alien invasion. Jimmy Carter reported his own sighting of a bright white light in 1969, two years before he became governor of Georgia, that was later identified as the planet Venus. And during a live TV interview in 2014 Bill Clinton revealed how, shortly after he was re-elected for a second term as president, he had ordered a review of the records on the famous Roswell incident that had ushered in the UFO era 50 years earlier.
The latest presidential intervention came from Barack Obama who, when asked about UFOs seen by US Navy aircrew on The Late Late Show, cracked a few jokes and then said: “There’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so … people still take [UFOs] seriously, trying to investigate and figure out what this is.”
A governmental cover-up?
For governments and military intelligence agencies, reports of flying saucers and UFOs evolved from a nuisance to a potential threat that could not be ignored in the context of growing international tensions. Ever since Arnold’s report the US government – and to a lesser degree their British allies – have been accused of covering up the truth about UFOs. Cold War secrecy and rumours about concealed evidence have combined to spawn conspiracy theories and gave rise to an international movement that demands disclosure of what many believe is an established fact: that Earth is under observation by advanced extra-terrestrials.
This has presented intelligence agencies with the impossible task of proving that UFOs do not exist. As one exasperated British civil servant put it in a 1958 memo: “As it is not possible to release official information about something which does not exist, it is difficult to satisfy those with preconceived ideas to the contrary.”
Action in the form of expensive investigations and analysis of statistics and data has only occurred due to pressure from the media or the intervention of the more open-minded politicians. In 1952 the British prime minister Winston Churchill famously demanded to be told “the truth about flying saucers” after a flap of radar and visual sightings over Washington DC led the USAF to scramble fighter jets over the nation’s capital.
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Churchill was told “a full intelligence study” had been carried out by the MoD that had adequately explained all reported sighting as natural phenomena, mistaken identifications of aircraft and balloons, optical illusions and hoaxes. But within months of that conclusion being delivered a new flap of saucer sightings by RAF aircrew forced the Air Ministry to open its own UFO desk to collate and scrutinise reports for any “defence significance”.
As ‘World UFO Day’ approaches on 2 July, a worldwide mystery that refuses to die is once again making headlines across the world. In one of his final acts as US president, Donald Trump signed off a request for a report on ‘Advanced Aerial Threats’ that was demanded by influential senators as part of the Covid relief bill. The tasking, supported by President Biden, requests “a detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena data and intelligence reporting” to be delivered to the congressional armed services committee, along the identification of any threats posed to national security that “may be attributed to one or more foreign adversaries”.
Pressure has grown after three years of news coverage of sightings made by US Navy fighter pilots that forced the Office of Naval Intelligence to establish a ‘UAP Task Force’. UAP stands for ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’, an acronym coined by the west’s intelligence services to replace UFO. An object implies the presence of a piloted craft whereas ‘phenomena’ includes other less exotic sources for mysterious things in the sky.
As speculation grows about the content and conclusions of the report it is worth revisiting the conclusion of an earlier intelligence study commissioned for Britain’s Ministry of Defence in 2000 on a much tighter budget.
“That UAPs exist is indisputable,” author Ron Haddow boldly stated in his introduction to Defence Intelligence Staff study of UAPs, that I obtained via a Freedom of Information request in 2006. “Credited with the ability to hover, land, take-off, accelerate to exceptional velocities and vanish, they can reportedly alter their direction of flight suddenly and clearly can exhibit aerodynamic characteristics well beyond those of any known aircraft or missile -either manned or unmanned.”
Despite this startling admission, when the MoD and the Pentagon refer to UAPs they are not talking about advanced craft produced by ‘non-human intelligences’. The most recent MoD study concluded that some UAPs that cannot be easily explained are observations of a type of rare natural phenomena similar to ball lightning that the report calls “atmospheric plasmas”. But it seems odd to invoke one entirely new and theoretical phenomena in order to explain another when a range of less exotic, and more probable, explanations continue to apply to most UFO reports.
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The MoD study also admits an even smaller number are caused by the activities of experimental aircraft, both manned and unmanned, that are tested and flown by friends and perhaps foes. And here lies a dilemma for those in President Biden’s intelligence agencies who are working on the UAP report. How is it possible to prove a negative (that alien craft are not visiting Earth) whilst concealing the existence of your own covert experimental aircraft and drone programmes?
The new report from the US Director of National Intelligence will analyse data collected by US intelligence agencies along with the FBI. But this is not the first time that US intelligence agencies have taken action to assess potential threats posed by UFOs. In 1953, at the height of the Cold War UFO flap, a panel of security-cleared scientists chaired by physicist Dr Bob Robertson were asked to review the ‘best evidence’ at the request of the CIA. After three days examining data provided by the USAF, they decided there was no evidence the mysterious flying objects posed any threat to national defence. Their report, classified for 13 years, recognised the danger posed by UFO ‘false alarms’ for the disruption of military communication channels at periods of international tension.
The Robertson panel’s paranoid language was typical of the McCarthy era. This was reflected in their recommendation that federal agencies “take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired”. The panel even toyed with enlisting the resources of the Walt Disney company to help them produce a public education campaign to debunk UFO sightings.
A ‘Second Cold War’
Today, as tensions grow between the USA and its main adversaries Russia and China, how fitting that unidentified flying objects should once again become a factor in what some historians have called the ‘Second Cold War’. As sceptics point out, the U in UFO stands for ‘unidentified’. It does not mean alien craft. As the White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained in response to a question on the report, “we take reports of incursions into our airspace by any aircraft, identified or unidentified, very seriously and investigate each one”.
In effect this is same position taken by the UK MoD until 2009 when, in the wake of the global financial crash, sweeping defence cuts led it to abolish its so-called ‘UFO desk’ and the telephone answer-machine facility that allowed members of the public to report unusual sightings. With resources committed to a long and expensive ground war in Afghanistan, the task of evaluating UFO reports figured very low on its list of core priorities.
Announcing the closure, defence minister Bob Ainsworth said that “in more than 50 years no UFO sighting reported to [MoD] has indicated the existence of any military threat to the UK” and there is “no defence benefit…in recording, collating, analysing or investigating UFO sightings”. In drawing a line under their own UFO investigations, MoD drew directly upon the example of the Americans who closed their last formally acknowledged public investigation, Project Blue Book, in 1969 and transferred its records to the National Archives.
Prior to its closure the USAF awarded a $313,000 contract to the University of Colorado for a study of its 12,618 reports, led by physicist Dr Edward Condon. Their report concluded that around six percent remained unidentified but, despite 700 unexplained cases, “no UFO report had ever given any indication of a threat to national security”. It also added there was no evidence that sightings categorised as ‘unexplained’ were extra-terrestrial spacecraft.
But there is evidence that intelligence agencies including the CIA, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and their British counterparts continue to collect and monitor unusual reports from military sources away from prying eyes. UK MoD records released at the UK National Archives reveal that DI55, the British intelligence branch responsible for UFOs until 2000, monitored foreign news reports in order to track Russian spy satellites and collect debris from crash-sites.
And earlier in the Cold War, the CIA admit their analysts used the USAF’s Blue Book as a cover to monitor flights by advanced reconnaissance aircraft such as the U2 spyplane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the other products of the CIA’s advance stealth programme. So-called ‘black project’ missions were made in radio silence often without notification even to friendly countries on their flight paths. On occasions prototype aircraft on test flights triggered early warning systems in the UK and along the Soviet bloc border in Germany.
Speculation about the United States military’s renewed interest in UFOs/UAPs had been growing since December 2017, when the New York Times first revealed the existence of a semi-secret programme that investigated UFOs and was funded with $22 million from Department of Defense (DoD) budgets. This revelation helped to legitimise the idea that UFOs should be taken seriously by governments and has prompted a new wave of media interest that looks likely to surpass even the coverage of the 50th anniversary of the birth of UFOlogy in 1997.
The leak of three cockpit videos that show UAPs captured by US Navy Super-Hornet crews in Pacific and Atlantic led the DoD, in April 2020, to officially confirm the footage was genuine and ‘unidentified’. Then in August the office of Naval Intelligence took the lead in a new UAP Task Force whose mission is “to detect, analyse and catalogue UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to US national security”. This development followed a series of near-miss incidents with small, drone-like flying objects that had been reported by US aircrew off the North Atlantic coast since 2014. The DoD said the safety of military personnel and the security of its operations were of “paramount concern” and that included intrusions “that are initially reported as UAP when the observer cannot immediately identify what he or she is observing”.
A social phenomenon?
Historians have tended to avoid UFOs despite its fascination for everyone else including folklorists, like myself, who are interested in why people believe what they believe rather than whether their stories and experiences are true or false. Greg Eghigian, professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, is one of the few who have recognised the value of UFOs as a social phenomenon “in the absence of any generally accepted, verified forensic evidence” of ET visitations. Eghigian is currently writing a book on the global history of the UFO and contact phenomenon. He points to an early Gallup Poll, in 1947, that found that nine out of 10 Americans had heard about flying saucers within weeks of the first ‘sighting’ by pilot Kenneth Arnold.
“Surely something on this scale warrants analysis by historians,” he says. “It is more than just a silly season story or an urban legend. The subject’s longevity makes it interesting and unique.”
Eghigian argues the idea of UFOs, in a very concrete way, was powered by the Cold War with its “vision of competing political ideologies, its investment in large scale scientific and technological innovations and the spectre of a nuclear holocaust”. Coupled with Government secrecy, these fears and anxieties all played their part in the construction of the contemporary UFO phenomenon and the conspiracy theories that are now part of its DNA. The post-WW2 context in which UFOs first appeared is fundamental to any understanding of how the idea of UFOs has spread, evolved and conquered the world without a shot, or even ray gun blast, having been fired.
If Kenneth Arnold had never made that fateful flight in 1947 and ‘flying saucers’ had never been born, then they would have had to be invented by someone else. Like all myths, UFOs will never die while they continue to mean something to the people who see and believe in them.
Dr David Clarke is associate professor in the Department of Media Arts and Communications at Sheffield Hallam University and co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Legend (CCL). From 2008-13 he was consultant for the The National Archives UFO project and is the author of How UFOs Conquered the World: the history of a modern myth (Aurum Press 2015). He tweets as @shuclarke