High Strangeness: Happy Anniversary, UFOs!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Happy Anniversary, UFOs!

On this day in 1947, the modern era of flying saucers began, when private pilot Kenneth Arnold was cruising past the Cascade Mountains in Washington State and saw a series of reflections of sunlight off of metal at a distance of 20 to 25 miles. He watched in amazement as a string of nine shimmering discs zoomed around the mountain peaks, apparently under intelligent control. Arnold later estimated the speed of the objects at 1,200 miles an hour, and when he compared their motion to saucers skipping across the water, an imaginative reporter coined the term "flying saucer," and the world was never the same...

Looking back from 67 years later it's hard for us to appreciate just how significant Arnold's sighting actually was. Humans had been seeing weird things in the sky for years, of course, so in one sense this was nothing new. But the mystery "airships" of the late 19th century were clearly held aloft by terrestrial technology; Arnold's saucers had no wings, no tails, and no visible means of propulsion -- what the hell were they?

“The phrase allowed people to place seemingly inexplicable observations in a new category,” said David Michael Jacobs in his authoritative book The UFO Controversy in America (1975, Indiana University Press). “Witnesses scanning the sky could now say they saw something identifiable: a flying saucer. Moreover, the term subtly connoted an artificially constructed piece of hardware; a saucer is not a natural object.”
Jacobs also noted that Arnold’s report encouraged scores of Americans to come forward with reports of unusual objects seen in the sky. “Many of these sightings occurred before Arnold’s. In this sense the Arnold sighting acted as a dam-breaker and a torrent of reports poured out.”

A little over six months later, the Air Force got into the UFO game with "Project Sign," and in due course the Sign investigators took a look at Arnold's report. When my man J. Allen Hynek reviewed the file, he came up with "certain inconsistencies" in Arnold’s estimates of size, speed and performance of his "saucers," according to a Project Sign memorandum.
Kenneth Arnold, and an artist's conception of the first flying saucer.

Although he allowed that he couldn't explain the incident away as "sheer nonsense," Hynek contended in his report to Project Sign that the reflections of sunlight on the strange objects that first caught Arnold's eye were troubling. "For a direct reflection, the angle between the observer, sun and object must 'just right,'" he wrote, "and at such distances of 20 to 25 miles, the chance of a series of direct reflections is extremely small."

For Arnold to have noticed the objects as a result of direct reflections, Hynek reasoned, the objects had to be either far closer than 20-25 miles, or they had to be extraordinarily huge, perhaps 100 feet in height. It followed that if Arnold's estimates of the objects' distance and size were in question, then so was his staggering estimate of their speed.

"In view of the above," Hynek reported, "it appears that whatever objects were observed were traveling at sub-sonic speeds and may, therefore, have been some sort of known craft."

In Hynek's mind, the case was closed, and there was no mystery. Little did he know...

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