On Wednesday, June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold watched nine shining objects fly from Mt. Rainier past Mt. Adams at twice the speed of sound. Eight looked like “a pie plate cut in half with a convex triangle in the rear.” The ninth, a bit larger, resembled a donut. The next day, 140 newspapers ran an Associated Press story about “flying saucers,” and the name entered the language.
Arnold wasn’t the first American to see a mysterious disk aloft. In January 1878, John Martin told the Denison, Texas, Daily News he saw a “dark flying object…cruising high in the sky at a wonderful speed.” Martin said it resembled a “saucer.”
Within days after Arnold’s sighting, hundreds of eyewitnesses reported strange craft — saucer-, oval-, or cigar-shaped, small disks, blinking dots — over 30 states. Among those in California, Richard Rankin went public about the ten flying disks he’d seen over Bakersfield the day before Arnold saw his.
In New Mexico, odd blips began appearing on Army radar; they darted across the screen and changed direction in unimaginable ways. The military paid special attention because the blips violated restricted air space above White Sands, the Army’s guided-missile “proving ground” (where it tested the German V-2 rocket), and nearby Alamogordo, the nuclear-testing facility.
Tuesday, July 1, 1947
San Diegan George Snead, a riveter at Consolidated Vultee, got off work at 4:00 p.m. As the 29-year-old drove east on Market, he saw unfamiliar objects flying toward Mexico “about 1000 feet overhead.”
They looked like “soup dishes,” he said, but he assumed they were planes, “droning south at a speed between 150 to 200 miles.” He slowed down and followed them through his windshield until they vanished. “I never saw anything resembling them before,” he told the San Diego Union.
Wednesday, July 2, 1947
The Union published Snead’s account and concluded: “These flying discs were strictly fourth rate in comparison to the ones reported in the Northwest. There, discs shaped like saucers were reported traveling at 1200 miles an hour.”
That afternoon, the San Diego Tribune-Sun ran the story, along with reports from Oregon (ten disks over the Columbia River), West Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana (a silver “shield” in a sweeping north-south arc), and Tucson. At Albuquerque, New Mexico, Max Hood of the chamber of commerce spotted a “disk-like, bluish object following a zigzag path in the northwestern sky.”
The Union headline — “At Last Flying Discs Pay Visit to S.D.” — made it sound as if San Diegans were feeling left out. Their most recent sighting had taken place October 9, 1946. That day, radio broadcasts encouraged people to watch “the meteor shower of the century,” starting at 7:30 p.m., and count the number that fell per minute.
Under clear skies and an almost-full moon, hundreds of tiny red or bluish-white particles streaked high above. Just after the shower concluded, radio station KFMB received over 100 calls. Each claimed to have seen a “cylindrical-shaped” craft hovering north of the city.
Through a six-inch telescope at Palomar Gardens, George Adamski and a group of friends “all noticed high in the sky a large black object, similar in shape to a gigantic dirigible, and apparently motionless.”
Adamski assumed it was a government blimp observing the shower. Either that or some new craft without wings or a cabin.
The object’s complete darkness troubled him, as did its exit. “It pointed its nose upward and quickly shot up into space, leaving a fiery trail behind it which remained visible for a good five minutes.”
Adamski, who later became notorious for claiming contact with aliens from Venus, said he tried “very hard to discredit the whole thing,” until one of his friends turned on KFMB. The descriptions “tallied with what we had seen.”
At 12:45 on July 2, chief petty officers Robert L. Jackson and William Baker were eating lunch in Jackson’s car at the Naval Air Station on North Island. As they watched planes take off and land, Baker noticed three shining objects coming toward them from over the ocean.
They didn’t look like birds or any known airplane. And they were moving at at least 400 miles per hour.
“About halfway up from the horizon,” said Jackson, “they appeared to be round as saucers, and were flying close together in formation.”
About 20 miles west of Coronado, the objects made a sudden 180-degree turn, still in formation, and shot back out to sea.
“When they banked, they looked like saucers turned sideways,” said Jackson, “just as round as a saucer,” and they “gleamed in the sun like aluminum. All in all, they were visible for about three minutes.” They made no noise.
Jackson and Baker were motor machinists, able to identify known aircraft. They compared the shape to nearby seagulls and planes. “The disks were distinctly different,” said Jackson, “about twice as large as the Navy planes and going twice as fast.
“When I first read in the newspapers about those disks up in the Northwest,” Jackson concluded, “I didn’t believe it. I believe it now.”
Around 10:00 p.m. that night, Dan Wilmot and his wife watched a far-off summer storm from their front porch in Roswell, New Mexico, where he owned a hardware store. A lightning bolt lit a large oval object — “like two inverted saucers” — overhead. “The entire body glowed as though light were showing through from inside.” It disappeared over the treetops on Six Mile Hill, headed toward the storm.
The Wilmots estimated it was maybe 20 feet in diameter and had to be going at least 400–500 miles an hour. He didn’t hear anything; she said it made a “swishing sound for a very short time.” At first they didn’t try to make much of it: summer thunder and lightning play tricks, as do shooting stars and experimental aircraft. They decided they’d only come forward if someone else claimed to have seen it.
Steve Robinson tracked the same object until it disappeared to the west. It was “elliptical and solid,” he said, not “a sequence of lights, like the military aircraft out of the 509th” (the airfield on Roswell’s outskirts). Just stormy weather, he concluded, electrical tricks.
Thursday, July 3, 1947
Silvery flying disks over Richland, Washington; a “football-shaped” shiny vehicle, Lockland, Ohio; three disks “on a straight course,” Cincinnati, Ohio; “ball-shaped, silver-colored,” Staten Island, New York; “undulating, circular object,” Nampa, Idaho; “flying triangle,” Redding, California; three “coffee can tops,” 5000 feet over Denver.
John F. Cole, an astronomer, watched ten “luminous objects” fly “like a swarm of bees” over Harborside, Maine. Each was 50 to 100 feet wide. His trained eye couldn’t account for the speed — from 600 to 1200 miles per hour — or the formation.
Navy sources, quoted by the San Diego Union, stated that mysterious craft seen in over 25 states weren’t the experimental, “flying flapjack” — a wingless fighter plane — since the project had been cancelled; and no Navy plane “has been operating in the areas where so-called ‘flying disks’ have been reported.”
The Army Air Forces announced that a foreign power may have had something to do with the phenomenon — Russia, most likely. Since the Cold War had already begun in earnest, the United Press wire story added that the AAF was taking the matter “a little seriously.”
The day before, as two highway patrolmen crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, they watched six basketball-sized objects spin out of the sky and hurtle into San Francisco Bay.
The next day, Ole J. Sneide wrote a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle (published in the San Diego Tribune-Sun). The disks were “oblate spheroid space ships from the older planets and other solar systems,” Sneide claimed. “This space navigation has been going on for millions of years.” But the disks “had been gone since the great master left earth for the outer galaxy by Fehatic teleportation before the fall of the Roman Empire.”
“Mankind will just have to learn their physics all over again,” Sneide concluded. “Someday, if they live. Ah! If they live!”
The Tribune-Sun called the letter tongue-in-cheek. But up to this point, after hundreds and hundreds of sightings, very few believed they were not of this earth. The prospect of aliens opened up the possibility of an even colder war, with outer space.
The Tribune-Sun ran an editorial. “Can it be that our own scientists have perfected gadgets which they are trying but not talking about? Or maybe the Men from Mars at long last have arrived and are scouting us from the air. There is a vague possibility, too, that the summer heat may be turning the reason of observers.
“The Loch Ness Monster hasn’t been doing his stuff this year, and the seagoing whatsis that suns his horny, humped back in Puget Sound hasn’t been heard from. Our annual summer tests for human credulity thus have been lacking.
“Might it not be that the Loch Ness and the Puget Sound monsters, gone modern, have taken to the air with all their offspring? Ridiculous? Indeed not. The suggestion is just as reasonable as a half dozen others that have been advanced.”
Friday, July 4–Sunday, July 6, 1947
Dan Whelan, a private pilot, took off from the Santa Monica airport with his friend Duncan Underhill. On their way to San Diego, they spotted a “disk-shaped object” about 2000 feet above them and heading north by northwest.
“It was traveling 400 to 500 miles an hour,” said Whelan. “It was not spinning but looked exactly like a skeet,” [the target used in rifle practice. Both men figured 40 to 50 feet in diameter. Wilson said the craft “scared me silly.”
Whelan and Underhill were among the first to report a sighting on what became the “Fourth of July Weekend Deluge.” Across the nation, people on holiday combed the skies for strange objects. An average of 500 per day reported something.
“In Air Force terminology,” writes Edward J. Ruppelt, “a ‘flap’ is a condition, or situation, or state of being of a group of people characterized by an advanced degree of confusion that has not quite yet reached panic proportions.” Ruppelt, who was head of Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s UFO investigative group, coined the term “unidentified flying object” in the early 1950s.
In more current terminology, during that July Fourth weekend, reports of “flying saucers” went “viral.”
Hauser Lake, Idaho: 200 Fourth of July picnickers watched a large disk hovering over the water bolt away at an impossible speed.
Near Emmett, Idaho: Shortly after 8:00 p.m., captain Emil J. Smith, a United Air Lines pilot, took off from Boise, Idaho. He told his first officer, Ralph Stevens, “I’ll believe in these disks when I see them.”
Ten minutes later, says the San Diego Union, Smith “radioed, shaken, from his plane that he had spotted five of them.”
Smith and Stevens called stewardess Marty Morrow to confirm what they were seeing. It’s a “disk-shaped object heading west,” she said, like the ones they’d been reading about. Then four or five satellite-like spheres trailed behind the object in a “loose” formation. About an hour later, as Flight 105 left Portland for Seattle, the trio saw five disk-shaped, flat-bottomed objects also heading west. “They were thin and they traveled fast,” Smith told reporters. He changed course and followed them for 15 miles. Then they zoomed away. “We could not tell whether they out-sped us or simply disintegrated.”
John Kuder told the San Diego Union a “luminous flying disk” had circled about a half mile off Mission Beach. Suddenly, it dove into the ocean, leaving a “ball of fire visible for a few seconds.”
In California, 465 people reported seeing something unusual in the sky, most during the day: about half were single objects, the others, multiple. Since Kenneth Arnold had gone public with his sighting, witnesses not only knew where and how to report what they saw, they felt free to declare themselves without fear of ridicule.
This would soon change.
- George Adamski: "Flying saucers look like anything but flying saucers."
- Kenneth Arnold: "I don't believe it either — but I saw it."
- Edward J. Ruppelt: "The week of July 4, 1947, set a record for reports that was not broken until 1952."
Berliner, Don, UFO Briefing Document: The Best Available Evidence, New York, 1995.
Bloecher, Ted, Report of the UFO Wave of 1947, NICAP, 1967.
Fuller, Curtis, “The Flying Saucers — Fact of Fiction?” Flying Magazine, July 1950.
Keyhoe, Donald, The Flying Saucers are Real, New York, 1950.
Leslie, Desmond, and Adamski, George, Flying Saucers Have Landed, New York, 1953.
Project 1947, “UFO Reports, 1947,” project1947.com
Ruppelt, Edward J., The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, 1956.
Vallee, Jacques, UFO’s in Space: Anatomy of a Phenomenon, New York, 1965.
Articles in various newspapers.
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