Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24, 1947 - The Arnold Sighting

(Blogger’s Note: I have been criticized for not updating this blog often enough. I have tried to put up something new once a week but sometimes that just doesn’t work. The problems of daily life sometimes get in the way. Sometimes there are good movies on the cable... or I have gotten involved in a good book, and sometimes, I just don’t have an inspiration.

I realized that today was the anniversary of the Kenneth Arnold sighting and thought might be something interesting to do. I cold take another look at the Arnold sighting which triggered all the modern interest in flying saucers... in fact, it was the Arnold sighting that inspired the term, "flying saucers." So here, then, is a look at the Arnold sighting...)

What is considered the modern era of UFO sightings opened on June 24, 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a Boise, Idaho businessman saw nine objects flash across the sky near Mt. Rainier, Washington. To that point, no one had actually talked about UFOs or flying saucers and the realm of alien life was solely that of science fiction. True, earlier in the century scientists had been talking of life on both Mars and Venus, and respected astronomers actually drew diagrams of what they believed to be the canal system on Mars. Some scientists thought of ways to communicate across interplanetary space, nearly all of them visual. One man suggested digging gigantic trenches in the Sahara Desert, fill those trenches with oil and set it on fire. His plan, which covered dozens of square miles was to create a beacon in geometric form that Martian astronomers could see.

In 1938 Orson Welles broadcast his War of the Worlds radio drama and sent thousands into the streets frightened by the thought of an alien invasion. Given the timing, just before the beginning of the Second World War, when tensions were at the highest, it might not be so surprising that so many reacted with so much fear. Within hours the country knew that the invasion from Mars was little more than the imaginative rambling of Welles and his radio theater company. Of course, it could be said that Welles had put the idea of Martian invaders into the heads of millions of people, even if no one acted on that notion for nine years.

After World War II people were ready from something more. The horrors of the war, culminating in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in flashes of atom heat and light had unleashed a new scientific age. Life, it was thought, was not confined to the Earth and there was speculation about who, or what lived on other planets. Not that any of this was in the overall consciousness of the country. It was there, in the background, sort of hiding from everyone and popping up in science fiction, movies and in some books.

Then Arnold made his sighting of the strange objects, flying one behind the other, at about 9,500 feet at a speed he estimated to be more than 1500 miles an hour. This was something that clearly wasn’t made in secret projects hidden in the mountains of New Mexico, and it wasn’t something that was made by the Soviet Union as they began to press for world domination. This was something strange that had no ready explanation, other than it was strange and almost impossible to believe.

When Arnold landed later in the afternoon on June 24, in Yakima, Washington, he told the assembled reporters what he had seen. In the course of describing the objects, he said they moved with a motion like that of saucers skipping across the water. The shape, however, according to drawings that Arnold completed for the Army, showed objects that were heel shaped with a blunt nose. In later drawings, Arnold elaborated, showing objects that were crescent shaped with a scalloped trailing edge and even a clear canopy over the cockpit.

Hearing Arnold's description of the motion of the objects, reporter Bill Bequette, coined the term "flying saucer," though in the next few days, most reporters and then scientists and Army officers would call the objects flying disks. The term, then, according to most investigators, didn't originally refer to the shape of the objects, but to the style of their movement through the air.

Ronald Story, a UFO researcher and editor of The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters, reported that in early 1992 he was in southeastern Washington, not all that far from Pendleton, Oregon, when he happened to see an editorial written by William C. Bequette. Story called Bequette and asked him about his interview with Arnold and the invention of the term "flying saucer." Bequette said that Arnold had described the objects as saucer shaped. So the world might owe the origin of flying saucer to Arnold.

But, as I say, nothing is ever easy with UFOs. Story said that he had read somewhere else that Bequette had said something different about it. Story wrote, "I can only repeat what he confirmed to me: that he was indeed the man who coined the term ‘flying saucer’ which was based on Arnold’s description..."

Arnold Briefs the Military
Later Arnold would provide the military with a written description of the events. In a document that was originally classified, but that has long since been released, Arnold wrote:

On June 24th... I had finished my work... and about two o’clock I took off for Chehalis, Washington, airport with the intention of going to Yakima, Washington... I flew directly toward Mt. Rainier after reaching an altitude of about 9,500 feet, which is the approximate elevation of the high plateau from with Mt. Rainier rises... There was a DC-4 to the left and to the rear of me approximately fifteen miles distance, and I should judge, a 14,000 foot elevation... I hadn’t flown more than two or three minutes on my course when a bright flash reflected on my airplane. It startled me as I thought I was too close to some other aircraft. I looked every place in the sky and couldn’t find where the reflection had come from until I looked to the left and the north of Mt. Rainier where I observed a chain of nine peculiar looking aircraft flying from north to the south at approximately 9,500 foot elevation and going, seemingly, in a definite direction of about 170 degrees.

They [the objects] were approaching Mt. Rainier very rapidly, and I merely assumed they were jet planes. Anyhow, I discovered that this was where the reflection had come from, as two or three of them every few seconds would dip or change their course slightly, just enough for the sun to strike them at an angle that reflected brightly on my plane... I thought it was very peculiar that I couldn’t their tails but assumed they were some type of jet plane. I was determined to clock their speed, as I had two definite points I could clock them by... I watched these objects with great interest as I had never before observed airplanes flying so close to the mountain tops... I would estimate their elevation could have varied a thousand feet one way or another up or down...

They flew like many times I have observed geese to fly in a rather diagonal chain-like line as if they were linked together... Their speed at the time did not impress me particularly, because I knew that our army and air forces had planes that went very fast.

A number of news men and experts suggested that I might have been seeing reflections of even a mirage. This I know to be absolutely false, as I observed these objects not only through the glass of my airplane but turned my airplane sideways where I could open my window and observe them with a completely unobstructed view... When these objects were flying approximately straight and level, there were just a black thin line and when they flipped was the only time I could get a judgement as to their size.

Arnold's sighting didn't gain front page status immediately. Stories about it appeared in newspapers a day or two later usually on page eight or nine, and then with a comment about strange objects in fast flight. It was, at that time, the story of an oddity. Arnold claimed later that he thought he had seen some sort of the new jet aircraft and he was a little concerned about breaking the security around it.

Corroboration for Arnold?

Arnold wasn't the only person to see strange objects in the sky that day. Fred Johnson, listed as a prospector, reported watching five or six disk-shaped craft as they flew over the Cascade Mountains about the time Arnold had lost sight of his. He said they were round with a slight tail and about thirty feet in diameter. They were not flying in any sort of formation and as they banked in a turn, the sunlight flashed off them. As they approached, Johnson noticed that his compass began to spin wildly. When the objects finally vanished in the distance, the compass returned to normal.

After learning of the Arnold sighting, Johnson wrote to the Air Force on August 20, 1947, saying:

"Saw in the portland (sic) paper a short time ago in regards to an article in regards to the so called flying disc having any basis in fact. I can say am a prospector and was in the Mt Adams district on June 24th the day Kenneth Arnold of Boise Idaho claims he saw a formation of flying disc (sic). And i saw the same flying objects at about the same time. Having a telescope with me at the time i can asure you there are real and noting like them I ever saw before they did not pass verry high over where I was standing at the time. plolby 1000 ft. they were Round about 30 foot in diameter tapering sharply to a point in the head and in an oval shape. with a bright top surface. I did not hear any noise as you would from a plane. But there was an object in the tail
end looked like a big hand of a clock shifting from side to side like a big magnet. There speed was far as I know seemed to be greater than anything I ever saw. Last view I got of the objects they were standing on edge Banking in a cloud."

It is signed, "Yours Respectfully, Fred Johnson."

The Army Air Forces had asked the FBI to interview some of those seeing flying disks. Johnson was one of those interviewed. The FBI report contained, essentially the same information as the letter that Johnson had sent to the Army. The FBI report ended, saying, "Informant appeared to be a very reliable individual who advised that he had been a prospector in the states of Montana, Washington and Oregon for the past forty years."

Dr. Bruce Maccabee, a physicist with the Navy and who has a private interest in UFOs, wrote in the International UFO Reporter, that the Johnson sighting is important, not because it takes place near where Arnold saw the nine objects, but because it seems to be an extension of the Arnold sighting. It provides independent corroboration for the Arnold sighting, strengthening that case, and reducing, to ridiculous, some of the explanations that have been offered to explain it.

I will note here that Johnson also made one claim that Arnold had not. He said that his compass was spinning wildly when the objects were near suggesting some kind of magnetic interference. If that is accurate, we have, not only another witness to what Arnold saw, but we have the objects interacting with the environment and providing us with a clue about them. This interaction would be an important part of some of the other major UFO cases that we’ll look at later.

Dr. Donald H. Menzel, the late Harvard scientist, decided that Johnson was being honest in his report, that is, Johnson was not lying about it. Johnson, according to Menzel, was merely mistaken in his analysis of the sighting. Menzel wrote that Johnson had probably seen bright reflections from patches of clouds. It didn't seem to matter to Menzel that Johnson saw the objects only about a thousand feet over his head, watched them through a telescope, and had them in sight for almost a minute before they vanished, disappearing into a cloud.

The Project Blue Book files there is one note that says, "If we want to take an objective look, we must be aware that Arnold said there were nine objects but Johnson said he only saw six... There are several major differences, notably as Dr. [J. Allen] Hynek points out, that these objects had tails, and that the inferred size, as determined from the estimated distance, is quite different."

Overlooking the fact that witnesses in different locations and from different perspectives can be correct in their observations, or in his case, both could be correct, the Air Force investigators are also correct in their observations. There are some discrepancies. These may or may not be significant.

But then some Air Force officer in what had been labeled it as "Incident No. 37," wrote, "The report cannot bear even superficial examination, therefore, must be disregarded. There are strong indications that this report and its attendant publicity is largely responsible for subsequent reports."

Note content with a negative observation in the file. This unidentified officer also wrote, "It is to be noted that the observer has profited from this story by selling it to Fate magazine."

Here, for the first time were two accusations that would be made about many UFO cases, that is, the witnesses were in it for the money, and a suggestion that UFO reports were the result of the "snowball effect." It seems to suggest that Arnold invented his tale with an eye to writing a story about it for Fate. There is no evidence to support this and Arnold had not written any articles for any magazines prior to his sighting. The editors at Fate, and Ray Palmer specifically, who would become one of the first and most vocal proponents of the flying saucers, induced Arnold into writing about he had seen. The point, then, becomes irrelevant. The article doesn’t seem to have been a motive for Arnold, but more of a serendipitous reward for seeing and reporting the objects in the first place.

As a sort of ancillary thought, what would have induced Arnold to invent this tale? It wasn’t as if there had been many sightings, or that Arnold would have heard about them even if there were. The initial motivation doesn’t seem to be there. After the first of the reports in the newspapers, it became clear that some of the others jumped on the band wagon and began inventing tales. But with Arnold, he was the first and we have to ask where he would have gotten the idea. And the evidence for the hoax, at least here, is somewhat thin.

Second, though it has been studied by many and suggested by more that a single UFO report will generate additional reports, that doesn’t seem to be the case. When studying these things in statistical detail, it seems that the news media learns about them after many sightings have already been made. Often the first of the articles comes about the time the peak has been reached and the number of sightings is actually dropping off.

Once the first of the sightings enters into the public arena, then there are those who come forward with their tales, many of which are hoaxes. After Arnold’s sighting got national attention in late June, and after the July 4 weekend when there were a number of interesting and credible sightings, the number of stories in the newspapers and the number of hoaxes then skyrocketed.

But the initial point remains the same. The number of sightings reported can be correlated to the number of newspaper articles, but that is a side effect. The number of legitimate reports doesn’t seem to be geared to the reporting in the newspapers.

What I’m doing here is splitting a fine hair. The sightings are not tied to the newspapers and publicity but the number of reports are. In other words, people who have made sightings now know where to report them. These stories suggest, if nothing else, that the newspaper or radio stations are interested in the reports. People report the sightings that they have made over the last several days and weeks.

Over the years, a number of explanations have been offered for the Arnold sighting. Some of them are simply ridiculous. Pelicans have been offered, but had they been birds, at some point during the sighting, Arnold would have seen that they were birds. He had them in sight for a long time, and even turned the aircraft to make sure that the objects weren’t some kind of reflection on the canopy. During that turn, had this been birds, then he would have seen their wings flapping.

It was suggested that he had seen drops of water on the windshield. But Arnold had thought of that as well, and he opened a side window so that he didn’t have an unobstructed view of the objects. Clearly they were not water drops on the windshield.

Dr. Menzel, in one of his many different explanations, suggested wind blowing the snow around on the peaks of the mountains and this optical illusion had fooled Arnold. I am reluctant to buy into that simply because Arnold had flown the area before and had seen wind blowing around snow. He shouldn’t have been fooled by it.

I suppose we could speculate all day about what Arnold saw. If his sighting is stand-alone, then we have a report of one man and that doesn’t do much to advance our knowledge. If the Johnson sighting is truly independent of Arnold, then we have corroboration, not to mention the EM Effects which suggest the objects were interacting with the environment.

In the end, though the Air Force eventually labeled the sighting as a "mirage" [meaning they bought the blowing snow explanation, or one similar to it], there isn’t a good explanation for what Arnold saw.

Could he have been lying? Sure, but there is no evidence for it.

Could he have been mistaken? Sure, but we don’t have a good reason to believe that.

Could he have seen aircraft? No. There was nothing flying at that time, in tha formation for him to have seen.

Could it have been birds? Unlikely.

Could it have been a mirage? Probably not.

Were they alien spacecraft? Although the description fits nothing flying in that time, there is no reason to leap to that conclusion either.

In the end, the answer is "Unknown." I just don’t know what he saw.


Sarge said...

I appreciate all your work and time. Thanks.

Bob Koford said...

Ditto what Sarge said.

This is a very good outline of the Arnold case. I would maybe only add that he described them as flying as if they were linked by a chain, and that they followed the contours of the terrain below perfectly. Today we know this as Fly-by-wire, I believe.

The six silvery objects I witnessed flying over Highway 37 many years ago also flew like geese, in a loose "V" formation. They even traded places, leader-to-back...back-to-front, the same way as geese do. They tumbled slowly through the air, each at its own rate, which I believe Mr. Arnold also described.

cda said...

You omitted to say that Arnold was on the lookout for the wreck of a crashed AF plane, which had been missing for several months. Although it was eventually found, together with a number of bodies, it took 6 months or more to locate it. Not relevant to the UFOs of course. However, if Arnold had not made the diversion to do the search, he might never have seen the UFOs. And if he had never seen any UFOS, how would history have been altered?!

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Trevor said...

Dr. Randle,

I actually interviewed a couple of witnesses in my hometown who reported two large rectangular objects (football field sized) and have a very good description of what they saw, including drawings. One witness actually saw two other objects during the time of the rectangles sighting. One was an 'orb-like' object and the other cylindrical(larger than a helicopter).

Anyway, would love to get your take on this sighting. My email is


Frank Stalter said...

I strongly recommend any UFO buff grab Google Earth and start using it and take a look at some of these great UFO cases. It's a fantastic visualization tool and in the Arnold case you get a sense of his amazing view of the vehicles flying southward across his view and can easily check his math and yes they were moving about 1200 mph, give or take.

Seeing for yourself, even in a virtual simulation, is often believing.