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Weapons of Mass Deception

Washington, 1952: How the CIA created the flying saucer craze

washington ufos

Illustration by Etienne Gilfillan/Alex Tomlinson/Lee Iljdo


On 19 July 1952 – and again on the 26th – an event took place that must have seemed as unthinkable then as it would be considered impossible now: Washington DC was buzzed by several unidentified aircraft. These fast-moving phantoms hopped like fleas across radar screens and evaded all attempts to intercept them with jets; they made fools of jumpy Air Force personnel and generated front-page news all around the world.

The incident illustrated perfectly the threat that UFOs posed to America’s defence establishment, which carried painful memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor and now lived in the shadow of the burgeoning Soviet atomic programme, and would shape the UFO phenomenon – and the attitude of America’s custodians to it – for the next 60 years.

Although the case has been dismissed as a dramatic example of a temperature invers­ion – whereby objects on the ground are picked up on radar and appear as aircraft – the facts are complex enough to deserve more than a simple brush-off, and may point to a deliberate attempt to exploit the phenomenon.

But who by? And for what purpose?

America’s relationship to the flying saucer changed dramatically between 1949 and 1953. After two years of intermittent “UFOria” sparked by Kenneth Arnold’s original 1947 sighting, by late 1949 it looked as if the public might finally be losing interest in the elusive intruders. This was largely thanks to the Air Force’s Project Grudge, which had spent the year doing its best to play down public enthusiasm for the phenomenon – largely by ridiculing it – and, most importantly, inocul­ating its own pilots against the UFO bug.

In late December 1949, however, all Grudge’s hard work came undone thanks to an article in the hugely popular men’s magazine True. “Flying Saucers are Real” by pulp author Donald Keyhoe, a retired Major from the US Marine Corps naval aviation division, was a shocking exposé of the Air Force cover-up of the awful truth – that flying saucers were real, and they were from Outer Space.

Although the Extraterrestrial Hypo­thesis (ETH) had always been a contender for the discs’ origin, until then most people, civilian and military, thought the saucers were American or possibly Soviet in origin. Even Kenneth Arnold had spoken publicly of his belief that what he saw were experimental US craft, perhaps powered by atomic energy. It was these comments that caused him to be drawn into the Maury Island UFO affair in July 1947, a bizarre honey-trap involving Air Force Intelli­gence, the FBI and, possibly, the powerful Atomic Energy Commission. Arnold was lured to Tacoma, Washington, by the promise of UFO debris, but his investigat­ion inadvertently led to the deaths of two Air Force intelligence agents (the newly-formed USAF’s first ever casualties) in a plane crash and a lucky escape for Arnold in his own aircraft.

Although Arnold wouldn’t have known it, the Air Force did have a nascent atomic aircraft project at the time – Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft – so it’s not surprising that he became the subject of an intense investigation, especially given how seriously the US authorities took the threat of Soviet infiltration. It was only eight months since the Venona intelligence decryption project – so secret that not even Presidents Roosevelt and Truman knew of its existence – had made its first breakthrough, and the situation it unravelled was nothing short of devastating. Venona identified Soviet moles inside the Man­hattan Project and in government bodies including the Office of Strategic Services (which became the CIA in 1947), the Army Air Force, the War Production Board (chief spymaster Victor Perlo headed the Aviation Section) the Treasury, the State Department, and even amongst President Roose­velt’s trusted White House administrators. The United States was paranoid, and with good reason: there really were Reds under the bed, including the four-posters at the White House.

The strange brew of technology and paranoia that led to the first outbreak of the UFO bug was fomented by the breakdown of relations between the US Air Force and the Navy. As they fought over post-war funding, each side accused the other of corruption in pursuing government contracts and leaked one another’s internal documents in what was described by some as a civil war. Things deteriorated so badly that a chronically depressed Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who had previously headed the Navy, leapt to his death from the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, an incident that has launched a thousand conspiracy theories.

The feud also meant that neither side was showing the other its new toys, which in the Navy’s case meant the brand spanking new XF-5U flying flapjack, a saucer-like, propeller-driven Vertical Take Off and Landing aircraft, of which at least two fully functional models were built. The flapjack neatly fits the silhouette of the whooshing, heel-shaped aircraft photographed by William Rhoads over Phoenix, Arizona, on 7 July 1947 (the first photograph of the UFO era) and also the aircraft described in the USAF’s first internal saucer report as a “thin metallic object” seen flying over Muroc Army Air Field (later Edwards AFB) in California the following day.

Was the Navy taunting its rivals with its superior technology? Were Keyhoe’s True article, and a pro-ET follow-up by Robert Mclaughlin, head of the Navy’s miss­ile programme at White Sands, all part of the game? Certainly the timing of the art­icles was infuriating to the Air Force, coming just as Grudge seemed to have put a lid on the simmering saucer mania.

Whatever intentions lay behind them, the True articles helped to transform flying saucers from something of a joke into a respectable topic for research and discuss­ion amongst American men of all ages: the era of scientific ufology was born.

The DC overflights were the culmination of a series of events that cast the mould for the UFO myth as we know it. The first was the release of Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still in September 1951, a film that perfectly crystallised America’s flying saucer moment. With its message of peace brought by the Christ-like extra­terrestrial Klaatu and enforced by Gort, the robot policeman with the power to destroy the Earth, it reflected the hopes and fears of what an encounter with beings from Outer Space might bring, while cannily echoing the role that America felt it could, and should, play on the world stage.

The film coincided with, or, some might say, sparked, a sudden surge of UFO witness reports, many from within the armed forces. In response the Air Force issued JANAP 146(B), which instructed members of all the armed forces to report sightings of unknown aircraft and made the unauthorised release of information about a UFO incident a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a 10,000 dollar fine. With the Soviets watching America’s every move, UFOs – and that included clandestine balloons, missile launches and test flights of new aircraft – were a growing intelligence and security problem that needed to be contained.

Another key moment came in April 1952, when LIFE, America’s most popular magazine, ran an article entitled “Have We Visitors From Space?” As if UFOs weren’t enough of a draw, the issue featured a pouting Marilyn Monroe on the cover, making it irresistible to any red-blooded American male.

“The Air Force,” the article began, “is now ready to concede that many saucer and fireball sightings still defy explanation; here LIFE offers some scientific evidence that there is a real case for interplanetary saucers.” Its authors, HB Darrach Jr. and Robert Ginna, had spent a year in consult­ation with the Air Force, so the pro-ET tone was a surprise to many, who expected them to play down the hype. Instead, the article gave flying saucer studies, and the ETH, another boost of respectability and added to the deluge of press reports that the phenomenon was now generating, with US newspapers carrying over 16,000 UFO items in the first six months of 1952 alone.

All of this made America’s policy-makers nervous. In early 1952, CIA director Walter B Smith wrote to Raymond Allen, director of the secretive Psychological Strategy Board: “I am today transmitting… a proposal in which it is concluded that the problems associated with unidentified flying objects appear to have implications for psycho­logical warfare as well as for intelligence and operations.” Smith’s concerns would prove to be uncannily prescient.

On two nights in July 1952, a number of unidentified objects blipped onto radar screens at Washington DC National Airport. At close to midnight on the first night, 19–20 July, seven objects were tracked 24km from the capital city, gradually homing in on the White House at about 160km/h. A bright, orange ball of light was seen from nearby Andrews Air Force Base, making “a kind of circular movement” according to an airman on the scene, before taking off at “an incredible speed” and disappearing.[1] Six bright white, fast-moving lights were also spotted by the pilot of a passenger jet flying in the area.

Sightings and radar tracking of “unident­ifieds” continued until 3am, when two interceptors flew in to try to get a closer look, at which point the remaining UFOs vanished from the skies and from radar. They reapp­eared as soon as the jets had returned to base, leading Harry Barnes, a senior Air Traffic Controller, to suspect that the UFOs were listening in on radio communications and planning their actions accordingly. Adding to his frustration, Barnes’s attempts to interest senior Air Force officials in the incident seemed to fall on deaf ears. Creating further grounds for suspicion that someone knew what was going on, Edward Ruppelt, head of the Air Force’s recently created Project Bluebook, heard nothing about the incident until he read about it in a Washington newspaper two days later.

On 26 July, the UFOs returned. This time, 12 were spotted on radar, again flying at a not particularly impressive 160km/h. As before, there were sightings of lights from the air and from the ground and, once more, two jets were scrambled. One of the pilots chased four white “glows” that suddenly “shot toward him and clustered around his plane”,[2] but the UFOs remained as elusive as ever.

Another media flurry followed, leading to an Air Force press conference at the Pentagon, its largest since World War II. In his 1956 memoir The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt describes the scene as chaotic, with General John Samford of Air Force Intelligence doing his best to be noncommittal about the sightings and focusing on calming fears that they were stray guided missiles or new American aircraft. When asked directly whether the objects had been US secret weapons, Samford gave the oblique and enigmatic response: “We have nothing that has no mass and unlimited power.” Then came Captain Roy James, a radar specialist from the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright Patterson AFB, who pointed out that at least some of the radar returns were the result of a temperature inversion, a layer of warm, moist air on top of cool air on the ground, which had caused radar systems to detect a steamboat and other large objects at ground level. Rupp­elt himself was unconvinced by the explan­ation – in fact he’d hastily cooked it up without having time to study the incident properly – but the press lapped it up and that, for now at least, was the end of that.

The following month, technical specialists from both the CIA and the Air Force met to discuss the UFO problem and, having rejected both the secret weapon and ET hypothesis, agreed that the sightings were down to a combination of misperceptions and ‘mental conditioning’ by the media. H Marshall Chadwell, the CIA’s Assistant Director for Scientific Intelligence, wrote to Director Walter B Smith to suggest that they investigate the extent to which the phenomenon could be “controlled… predicted” and “used from a psychological warfare point of view”. Noting that “a fair proportion of our population is mentally conditioned to the acceptance of the incredible”, he worried about the potential for mass hysteria and that in the event of a Soviet attack, neither civilian nor military observers would be able to “distinguish hardware from phantom”.

To address the UFO question, in January 1953 the CIA convened a secret panel under Dr Howard Percy Robertson, dir­ector of the Pentagon’s Weapons Systems Evaluations Group. Over four days with long lunch breaks, they watched UFO films, read reports and listened to testimony from experts in various fields, before reaching a conclusion similar to Chadwell’s. While the UFOs themselves seemed to present no “direct physical threat to national security”, the reporting of them did, “clogging… channels of communication by irrelevant reports” and creating a ‘cry wolf’ situation that could lead to so many false alarms that genuine hostile actions might be ignored. What’s more, the general interest in the subject threatened to inculcate “a morbid national psychology in which skilful hostile propaganda could induce hysterical behaviour and harmful distrust of duly constituted authority”.

Flying saucers could make a rebel out of you – or worse, a Communist. The national security agencies were, therefore, to “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 authorities were now at war with ufology.

Born in New York in 1922, Leon Davidson had always been something of a scientific prodigy. By the age of 13, he had declared himself a chemical engineer, and a few years later he would be plucked from his PhD course at the engineering school of Columbia University to work on the Manhattan Project. He eventually became a supervising engineer at the Los Alamos laboratories, working for many years in the nuclear industry.

Like many scientists working in the late 1940s and early 1950s within what President Eisenhower would later term the “military-industrial complex”, Davidson became fascinated with the UFO problem. Soon after starting work at Los Alamos in 1949, he joined the lab’s Astrophysical Association, an in-house flying saucer group interested in, amongst other things, the strange green fireballs seen around New Mexico. While no official explanation for the fireballs was forthcoming, Davidson gradually came to believe that secret military tests lay behind these and most other UFO incidents, including the Washington overflights. In the splendidly titled essay “ECM+CIA=UFO”,[3] Davidson described the basic Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) technology available to the Air Force by 1950:

“A ‘black box’ in our bombers would pick up the enemy’s radar impulses; amplify and modify them; and send them back, drowning out the normal radar return from the bomber. The modification could be a change in timing or phase and could cause the ‘blip’ on the radar screen to have an incorrect range, speed, or heading.”[4]

The origins of this new technology lay in a wartime incident, when Navy scientists noted that the proximity of several powerful ships’ radars during the South Pacific campaign produced phantom returns known as the “galloping ghosts”. These, the scient­ists realised, could be put to good use in deceiving the enemy. A March 1957 article from Aviation Research and Development magazine discussed how this ghosting technology had improved and was now entering the civilian domain:

“A new radar moving target simulator system which generates a display of up to 6 individual targets on any standard radar indicator has been developed… to train radar operators… and for in-flight testing of airborne early-warning personnel… Target positions, paths, and velocities can… simulate… realistic flight paths… Speeds up to 10,000 knots are easily generated… The target can be made to turn left or right… For each target there is… adjustment to provide a realistic scope presentation.”[5]

Davidson recognised this description as being close to what was seen on radar over Washington in July 1952 – and he thought he knew just who had been behind it: “Since 1951, the CIA has caused or sponsored saucer sightings for its own purposes. By shrewd psychological manipulation, a series of ‘normal’ events has been served up so as to appear as quite convincing evidence of extra­terrestrial UFOs… [including] military use of ECM on a classified basis unknown to the radar observers who were involved.”[6]

A 1957 incident that took place over the UK appears to be a classic case of radar spoofing at the expense of a terrified American pilot (see FT242:34–35). 25-year-old Lieut­enant Milton Torres was based at RAF Manston in East Kent, then an outpost for America’s Strategic Air Command. On 20 May, Torres received the order to scramble his F86D Sabre in pursuit of a large aircraft the size of a B52 bomber, picked up on radar about 24km away. He was given the order to arm his weapons and fire on sight, something that no airman would expect to have to do over the Kent countryside, except in time of war. As he feared, he was informed that the aircraft was hostile and probably Russian.

Torres and a wingman in another Sabre hurtled towards the object at Mach 0.92. It now registered as the size of an aircraft carrier, but zipped about on his radar screen like an insect. He was ready to fire a full salvo of 24 rockets at the intruder, yet neither he nor his wingman could see a visual target. Was the aircraft invisible? Suddenly the radar signature disappeared and the Sabres were called back to base. The next day, a shaken Torres was visited by a trench-coated American who claimed to be from the National Security Agency. The mystery man warned Torres that if he ever wanted to fly again he would keep his mouth shut. And for 30 years, he did.[7]

By the early 1960s, the CIA and NSA were collaborating on a project known as Pallad­ium, designed to provide the Americans with electrical (ELINT), communications (COMINT) and signals (SIGINT) intelli­gence from Soviet aircraft, ships, submarines, ground radars and missile batteries. The technology allowed the CIA to create ghost aircraft that would be detected on Soviet radar, while the NSA monitored the way in which the phantoms were received, tracked and transmitted. These ghost aircraft could be ‘built’ to order in any shape and size, and could fly at any speed or altitude.

Former CIA signals specialist Eugene Poteat describes a complex operation during the Cuban Missile Crisis that used both the Palladium system and submarine-launched metallic spheres on parachutes to confuse Cuban radar. Poteat’s CIA team flew a radar ghost into Cuban airspace, prompting fighter planes to be scrambled to intercept. Using the Palladium system’s controls, the CIA kept their phantom aircraft just ahead of the Cuban fighters, waiting for the right moment. Then, when the NSA team heard that the Cuban pilot was about to shoot their ghost plane down, “We all had the same idea at the same instant. The engineer moved his finger to the switch, I nodded yes and he switched off the Palladium system.”[8] Another UFO, another pilot’s unbelievable tale.

So were the Washington UFOs an early attempt to put the galloping ghosts under human control? It had been seven years since the phenomenon was first observed on radar screens, plenty of time to tame and contain the phantoms, and a number of clues would seem to suggest that Davidson’s suspicions were not unreasonable, even if he was perhaps accusing the wrong agency of conducting the tests.

Davidson notes that during the month that the overflights took place, due to alleged runway repairs, the Air Force interceptors tasked with protecting the capital were moved from their usual home at Andrews AFB, 6.4km from DC, to New Castle, Delaware, 145km away. This considerably delayed the jets’ arrival on the scene and would have prevented them from identifying the source of the radar returns, which were only flying at 160km/h. He also wondered whether the bright lights seen on the nights in question were created by the ‘Hell Roarer’, a missile-bay-mounted magnesium lighting device that burned at 10 million candlepower and had caused a flood of saucer reports when tested by the Air Force over Connecticut in October 1951.

Adding to the intrigue, days after the incident General Samford told the New York Times: “We are learning more and more about radar… [which is] capable of playing tricks for which it was not designed.”[9] Was this a tacit admission that someone, perhaps the Air Force, had pulled a fast one over the Capital? Is it a coincidence that four years later Samford became the second director of the National Security Agency, which rout­inely used the Palladium system alongside the CIA?

The clearest hint that the Washington sightings were no accident was given to Bluebook’s Edward Ruppelt a few days before events kicked off. Ruppelt wrote that he and a scientist “from an agency I can’t name” had a two-hour discussion about UFOs, at the end of which the scientist made a ‘prediction’: “Within the next few days… they’re going to blow up and you’re going to have the granddaddy of all UFO sightings… in Washington or New York… probably Washington.”[10] A few days later it happ­ened, just as the scientist had said it would. As Ruppelt complains in his book, Air Force Intelligence were the last to know about the Washington event and when Ruppelt then tried to get from Wright Patterson (near Dayton, Ohio) to DC to investigate, he found that he couldn’t get a staff car to take him there: “Every time we would start to leave,” he wrote, “something more pressing would come up.”[11]

A final tantalising piece of the puzzle comes in a memo sent from Dr Howard Clinton Cross to Edward Ruppelt on 9 January 1953.[12] Cross was a metallurgist working at the Battelle Memorial Institute, a private research body that was processing all the Air Force’s UFO data under the codename Project Stork. The memo, classified Secret, points out that the CIA’s Robertson Panel was due to meet in less than a week’s time and that Project Stork and the Air Force’s Air Technological Intelligence Center should work out beforehand “what can and what cannot be discussed at the meeting”.

Why would the Air Force consider restricting the information that they shared with the CIA, and what might that information have been? Given the Agency’s concern that the Soviets might use the UFO hysteria to launch a phantom attack over the US, it also seems odd that no one on the Robertson panel mentioned that the technology to do so was already available – and that it might have been responsible for the Washington flap. Was this one of the things that Cross wanted to keep back from the CIA? In the same memo, Cross recommends that “a controlled experiment be set up” to launch “many different types of aerial activity” over a target area and then assess civilian and military responses to these false UFOs. Was it the Air Force – and not the CIA as Davidson believed – who were behind the incident? Had Stork already made a special delivery over Washington DC?

Whether the Washington “invasion” of July 1952 was the result of accident or intrigue, and whichever department, if any, was behind it, the event focused the attentions of the US establishment on the UFO’s potential as both a weapon and a threat. From now on, the CIA, the FBI, the Air Force and the NSA would keep a close eye on what civilian UFO groups were doing and saying; the Air Force and the CIA would collaborate to use Project Bluebook to mask spyplane flights over the USA and USSR, while the CIA and NSA’s ghost planes flew rings around disorientated pilots.

Over the next six decades, the UFO mythology, and those who engaged with it, would continue to be exploited, steered and shaped by America’s armed forces and intelli­gence agencies. Who knows how differ­ently things would have evolved if the UFO community had paid more attention to Leon Davidson, ufology’s lost prophet.

1  Jerome Clark: The UFO Book, Visible Ink, 1998.
2  Ibid.
3  Leon Davidson: “ECM+CIA=UFO”, Saucer News, Feb/Mar 1959.
4  Ibid.
5  Ibid.
6  Ibid.
7  “US airman Milton Torres told to shoot down UFO when based at RAF Manston”; Times, 20 Oct 2008.
8  Eugune Poteat: “Some Beginnings of Information Warfare, Stealth, Countermeasures, and ELINT, 1960–1975”, Studies in Intelligence, vol. 42, No.1, 1998.
9  New York Times, 30 July 1952.
10  Edward J Ruppelt: The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Doubleday, 1956.
11  Ibid.
12  The document was discovered by astronomer and UFO researcher Jacques Vallée in 1967, though it wasn’t made public until the publication of Vallée’s diaries in 1992.

Mark's new book, Mirage Men (Constable and Robinson), reveals the long history of UFOria and its origins in espionage, psychological warfare and advanced military technology. For your chance to win a copy, click here.

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washington - keyhoe

Donald Keyhoe's 'The Flying Saucers Are Real'.

  washington ufo - poster

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) crystallised America's UFO moment.

  washington ufos - ufos

Blips over the Capitol building.

washington ufo - flapjack

An early version of the XF5U-1 Flying Flapjack.
Courtesy of nasaimages.org

Author Biography
Mark Pilkington is a regular contributor to Fortean Times. His new book, Mirage Men, is published on 29 July 2010.


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