In the summer of 1952 a United States Air Force F-86 jet interceptor shot at a flying saucer.
This fact, like so many others that make up the full flying saucer story, has never before been told.
I know the full story about flying saucers and I know that it has never before been told because I organized and was chief of the Air Force's Project Blue Book, the special project set up to investigate and analyze unidentified flying object, or UFO, reports. (UFO is the official term that I created to replace the words "flying saucers.")
There is a fighter base in the United States which I used to visit frequently because, during 1951, 1952, and 1953, it got more than its share of good UFO reports.
The commanding officer of the fighter group, a full colonel and command pilot, believed that UFO's were real. The colonel believed in UFO's because he had a lot of faith in his pilots—and they had chased UFO's in their F-86's. He had seen UFO's on the scopes of his radar sets, and he knew radar.
The colonel's intelligence officer, a captain, didn't exactly believe that UFO's were real, but he did think that they warranted careful investigation. The logic the intelligence officer used in investigating UFO reports—and in getting answers to many of them— made me wish many times that he worked for me on Project Blue Book.
One day the intelligence officer called me at my base in Dayton, Ohio. He wanted to know if I was planning to make a trip his way soon. When I told him I expected to be in his area in about a week, he asked me to be sure to look him up. There was no special hurry, he added, but he had something very interesting to show me.
When we got wind of a good story, Project Blue Book liked to start working on it at once, so I asked the intelligence officer to tell me what he had. But nothing doing. He didn't want to discuss it over the phone. He even vetoed the idea of putting it into a secret wire. Such extreme caution really stopped me, because anything can be coded and put in a wire.
When I left Dayton about a week later I decided to go straight to the fighter base, planning to arrive there in midmorning. But while I was changing airlines my reservations got fouled up, and I was faced with waiting until evening to get to the base. I called the intelligence officer and told him about the mix-up. He told me to hang on right there and he would fly over and pick me up in a T-33 jet.
As soon as we were in the air, on the return trip, I called the intelligence officer on the interphone and asked him what was going on. What did he have? Why all the mystery? He tried to tell me, but the interphone wasn't working too well and I couldn't understand what he was saying. Finally he told me to wait until we returned to his office and I could read the report myself.
Report! If he had a UFO report why hadn't he sent it in to Project Blue Book as he usually did?
We landed at the fighter base, checked in our parachutes, Mae Wests, and helmets, and drove over to his office. There were several other people in the office, and they greeted me with the usual question, "What's new on the flying saucer front?" I talked with them for a while, but was getting impatient to find out what was on the intelligence officer's mind. I was just about to ask him about the mysterious report when he took me to one side and quietly asked me not to mention it until everybody had gone.
Once we were alone, the intelligence officer shut the door, went over to his safe, and dug out a big, thick report. It was the standard Air Force reporting form that is used for all intelligence reports, including UFO reports. The intelligence officer told me that this was the only existing copy. He said that he had been told to destroy all copies, but had saved one for me to read.
With great curiosity, I took the report and started to read. What had happened at this fighter base?
About ten o'clock in the morning, one day a few weeks before, a radar near the base had picked up an unidentified target. It was an odd target in that it came in very fast—about 700 miles per hour— and then slowed down to about 100 miles per hour. The radar showed that it was located northeast of the airfield, over a sparsely settled area.
Unfortunately the radar station didn't have any height-finding equipment. The operators knew the direction of the target and its distance from the station but they didn't know its altitude. They reported the target, and two F-86's were scrambled.
The radar picked up the F-86's soon after they were airborne, and had begun to direct them into the target when the target started to fade on the radarscope. At the time several of the operators thought that this fade was caused by the target's losing altitude rapidly and getting below the radar's beam. Some of the other operators thought that it was a high-flying target and that it was fading just because it was so high.
In the debate which followed, the proponents of the high-flying theory won out, and the F-86's were told to go up to 40,000 feet. But before the aircraft could get to that altitude, the target had been completely lost on the radarscope.
The F-86's continued to search the area at 40,000 feet, but could see nothing. After a few minutes the aircraft ground controller called the F-86's and told one to come down to 20,000 feet, the other to 5,000 feet, and continue the search. The two jets made a quick letdown, with one pilot stopping at 20,000 feet and the other heading for the deck.
The second pilot, who was going down to 5,000 feet, was just beginning to pull out when he noticed a flash below and ahead of him. He flattened out his dive a little and headed toward the spot where he had seen the light. As he closed on the spot he suddenly noticed what he first thought was a weather balloon. A few seconds later he realized that it couldn't be a balloon because it was staying ahead of him. Quite an achievement for a balloon, since he had built up a lot of speed in his dive and now was flying almost straight and level at 3,000 feet and was traveling "at the Mach."
Again the pilot pushed the nose of the F-86 down and started after the object. He closed fairly fast, until he came to within an estimated 1,000 yards. Now he could get a good look at the object. Although it had looked like a balloon from above, a closer view showed that it was definitely round and flat—saucer-shaped. The pilot described it as being "like a doughnut without a hole."
As his rate of closure began to drop off, the pilot knew that the object was picking up speed. But he pulled in behind it and started to follow. Now he was right on the deck.
About this time the pilot began to get a little worried. What should he do? He tried to call his buddy, who was flying above him somewhere in the area at 20,000 feet. He called two or three times but could get no answer. Next he tried to call the ground controller but he was too low for his radio to carry that far. Once more he tried his buddy at 20,000 feet, but again no luck.
By now he had been following the object for about two minutes and during this time had closed the gap between them to approximately 500 yards. But this was only momentary. Suddenly the object began to pull away, slowly at first, then faster. The pilot, realizing that he couldn't catch it , wondered what to do next.
When the object traveled out about 1,000 yards, the pilot suddenly made up his mind—he did the only thing that he could do to stop the UFO. It was like a David about to do battle with a Goliath, but he had to take a chance. Quickly charging his guns, he started shooting. . . . A moment later the object pulled up into a climb and in a few seconds it was gone. The pilot climbed to 10,000 feet, called the other F-86, and now was able to contact his buddy. They joined up and went back to their base.
As soon as he had landed and parked, the F-86 pilot went into operations to tell his story to his squadron commander. The mere fact that he had fired his guns was enough to require a detailed report, as a matter of routine. But the circumstances under which the guns actually were fired created a major disturbance at the fighter base that day.
After the squadron commander had heard his pilot's story, he called the group commander, the colonel, and the intelligence officer. They heard the pilot's story.
For some obscure reason there was a "personality clash," the intelligence officer's term, between the pilot and the squadron commander. This was obvious, according to the report I was reading, because the squadron commander immediately began to tear the story apart and accuse the pilot of "cracking up," or of just "shooting his guns for the hell of it and using the wild story as a cover-up."
Other pilots in the squadron, friends of the accused pilot— including the intelligence officer and a flight surgeon—were called in to "testify." All of these men were aware of the fact that in certain instances a pilot can "flip" for no good reason, but none of them said that he had noticed any symptoms of mental crack-up in the unhappy pilot.
None, except the squadron commander. He kept pounding home his idea— that the pilot was "psycho"—and used a few examples of what the report called "minor incidents" to justify his stand.
Finally the pilot who had been flying with the "accused" man was called in. He said that he had been monitoring the tactical radio channel but that he hadn't heard any calls from his buddy's low- flying F-86. The squadron commander triumphantly jumped on this point, but the accused pilot tended to refute it by admitting he was so jumpy that he might not have been on the right channel. But when he was asked if he had checked or changed channels after he had lost the object and before he had finally contacted the other F-86, he couldn't remember.
So ended the pilot's story and his interrogation.
The intelligence officer wrote up his report of a UFO sighting, but at the last minute, just before sending it, he was told to hold it back. He was a little unhappy about this turn of events, so he went in to see why the group commander had decided to delay sending the report to Project Blue Book.
They talked over the possible reactions to the report. If it went out it would cause a lot of excitement, maybe unnecessarily. Yet, if the pilot actually had seen what he claimed, it was vitally important to get the report in to ATIC immediately. The group commander said that he would made his decision after a talk with his executive officer. They decided not to send the report and ordered it destroyed.
When I finished reading, the intelligence officer's first comment was, "What do you think?"
Since the evaluation of the report seemed to hinge upon conflicts between personalities I didn't know, I could venture no opinion, except that the incident made up the most fascinating UFO report I'd ever seen. So I batted the intelligence officer's question back to him.
"I know the people involved," he replied, "and I don't think the pilot was nuts. I can't give you the report, because Colonel ——— told me to destroy it. But I did think you should know about it." Later he burned the report.
The problems involved in this report are typical. There are certain definite facts that can be gleaned from it; the pilot did see something and he did shoot at something, but no matter how thoroughly you investigate the incident that something can never be positively identified. It might have been a hallucination or it might have been some vehicle from outer space; no one will ever know. It was a UFO.
The UFO story started soon after June 24, 1947, when newspapers all over the United States carried the first flying saucer report. The story told how nine very bright, disk-shaped objects were seen by Kenneth Arnold, a Boise, Idaho, businessman, while he was flying his private plane near Mount Rainier, in the state of Washington. With journalistic license, reporters converted Arnold's description of the individual motion of each of the objects—like "a saucer skipping across water"—into "flying saucer," a name for the objects themselves. In the eight years that have passed since Arnold's memorable sighting, the term has become so common that it is now in Webster's Dictionary and is known today in most languages in the world.
For a while after the Arnold sighting the term "flying saucer" was used to describe all disk-shaped objects that were seen flashing through the sky at fantastic speeds. Before long, reports were made of objects other than disks, and these were also called flying saucers. Today the words are popularly applied to anything seen in the sky that cannot be identified as a common, everyday object.
Thus a flying saucer can be a formation of lights, a single light, a sphere, or any other shape; and it can be any color. Performance-wise, flying saucers can hover, go fast or slow, go high or low, turn 90- degree corners, or disappear almost instantaneously.
Obviously the term "flying saucer" is misleading when applied to objects of every conceivable shape and performance. For this reason the military prefers the more general, if less colorful, name: unidentified flying objects. UFO (pronounced Yoo-foe) for short.
Officially the military uses the term "flying saucer" on only two occasions. First in an explanatory sense, as when briefing people who are unacquainted with the term "UFO": "UFO—you know—flying saucers." And second in a derogatory sense, for purposes of ridicule, as when it is observed, "He says he saw a flying saucer."
This second form of usage is the exclusive property of those persons who positively know that all UFO's are nonsense. Fortunately, for the sake of good manners if for no other reason, the ranks of this knowing category are constantly dwindling. One by one these people drop out, starting with the instant they see their first UFO.
Some weeks after the first UFO was seen on June 24, 1947, the Air Force established a project to investigate and analyze all UFO reports. The attitude toward this task varied from a state of near panic, early in the life of the project, to that of complete contempt for anyone who even mentioned the words "flying saucer."
This contemptuous attitude toward "flying saucer nuts" prevailed from mid-1949 to mid-1950. During that interval many of the people who were, or had been, associated with the project believed that the public was suffering from "war nerves."
Early in 1950 the project, for all practical purposes, was closed out; at least it rated only minimum effort. Those in power now reasoned that if you didn't mention the words "flying saucers" the people would forget them and the saucers would go away. But this reasoning was false, for instead of vanishing, the UFO reports got better and better.
Airline pilots, military pilots, generals, scientists, and dozens of other people were reporting UFO's, and in greater detail than in reports of the past. Radars, which were being built for air defense, began to pick up some very unusual targets, thus lending technical corroboration to the unsubstantiated claims of human observers.
As a result of the continuing accumulation of more impressive UFO reports, official interest stirred. Early in 1951 verbal orders came down from Major General Charles P. Cabell, then Director of Intelligence for Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, to make a study reviewing the UFO situation for Air Force Headquarters.