In the summer of 1952, a series of strange sightings took place in Washington, D.C.. From July 19 to July 27, authorities were inundated with reports of unexplained objects in the sky and extraterrestrial craft. The people observing these unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, weren’t just ordinary citizens; air traffic controllers and pilots were among the first to detect strange craft and even stranger phenomena – ranging from weird white glows to orange balls of fire – repeatedly over those few weeks. These events panicked everyone from local D.C. citizens all the way up to President Harry Truman, who called the Air Force to demand an explanation for what was occurring. Was Washington, D.C. truly experiencing…(narrator pause)…an alien invasion? Imagine you’re a reporter working at the Washington Post in 1952. You’re a journalist reporting on breaking news and current events for one of the most prestigious publications in the country, and you are still blissfully unaware of what terms like “clickbait” and “Buzzfeed” mean and how they will ruin your entire profession.
On Saturday, July 19, just before midnight, you get a tip that air traffic controller Edward Nugent has spotted seven suspicious blips on his radar located 15 miles south-southwest of the city. It can’t be a case of human error as his superior, senior air traffic controller Harry Barnes, saw and confirmed the objects on the radarscope himself.
Nugent started the night by joking about the “fleet of flying saucers” that seemed to be on his screen. Soon, however, he sees the unidentified objects streaking by near the White House and Capitol building. The situation now seems to be less of a joke and more of a “national security threat” situation.
The controllers desperately try to confirm what the blips could be, but there are no aircraft in the vicinity of the objects on the radar, and the objects aren’t following any known flight paths. Barnes adds an even stranger observation, confiding in you, “we knew immediately that a very strange situation existed . . . their movements were completely radical compared to those of ordinary aircraft”.
Perhaps it’s a machine malfunction, you wonder. After all, there has to be some kind of reasonable explanation.
Barnes insists that’s impossible. Two controllers double checked Nugent’s radar and found it to be in perfect working order. Furthermore, Barnes called yet another two controllers in a separate tower of the National Airport, who also saw seven unidentified objects moving erratically on their screen.
Or as one of the controllers, Howard Cocklin, succinctly put it: “Did you see that? What the hell was that?” Cocklin and his coworker Joe Zacko – yes, that’s his real name – also report seeing an incredibly bright white light zoom away at top speed. Not on the radar; with their own eyes.
At that moment, Barnes suddenly stops talking, stunned. UFOs are multiplying all over the radarscope, converging over the White House and the Capitol. There is a heightened sense of urgency as the UFOs approach high value targets. Andrews Air Force Base – around ten miles away from the National Airport – confirms that the strange objects have appeared on their radar as well. You call the base to hear that Airman William Brady also personally witnessed an object like an orange ball of fire with a tail that “took off at an unbelievable speed”.
What are these erratic balls of light doing, and how are they moving at more than hypersonic speeds? Are they the objects showing up on the radar? Later in the night, you get confirmation that the balls of light are exactly what the radar is detecting. Capital Airlines pilot S.C. Pierman, waiting on the runway for permission to take off, spots what he believes to be a meteor, but then spots a series of white, tailless, fast-moving lights – six in total, over a 14 minute period. Those can’t be meteors. He is in communication with Barnes, who confirms that the objects on radar correspond with the appearance and direction of the lights Pierman is seeing.
Some of those observing the lights are convinced they are stars and meteors; in fact, they are even able to prove it for a few of the lights spotted, though not all. This must be the explanation, you think. Perhaps it was an especially active night for meteor showers.
However, that doesn’t line up with the behavior and speed of the lights seen in person. Staff Sergeant Charles Davenport at Andrews Air Force Base sighted an orange-red ball that “would appear to stand still, then make an abrupt change in direction and altitude”. You know no meteor in the universe moves like that.
Barnes sends you a tip, his last communication of the night. He thinks whatever the lights are, they are aware they are being watched. That’s right; he is actually sitting here telling you the lights are sentient.
Why does he think this? Well, earlier that night, two F-94 Starfire jet fighters deployed from Delaware to try to get a closer look at the phenomena. The pilots fly all over D.C. searching for the lights, but it’s all in vain; the creepy lights that have baffled the city have disappeared. Realizing they are running low on fuel, the pilots head unwillingly back to base….at which point the lights mysteriously reappear! Barnes’ conclusion is at once logical and frightening: “the UFOs were monitoring radio traffic and behaving accordingly”.
You note the last sighting of the UFOs – 5:30 AM. Still no closer to an explanation as to what may be happening to cause these increasingly strange phenomena, you make a mental note to communicate with the Air Force Base tomorrow and see if they have any ideas.
The next day, you wake up and see the most exaggerated headlines you can imagine: “Saucers Swarm Over Capital”, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. You write a much more nuanced article explaining the events of last night to the public, and exploring possible theories – admittedly, none of which sound that convincing, even to you. But an alien invasion seems too far fetched a story to run with at this time.
On Monday, July 21, you get a call from USAF Captain Edward J. Ruppelt. He announces himself as the supervisor of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book research into UFO Sightings. Frustrated by the fact that he only learned of the sightings from your article two days later, he is now seething at the Pentagon’s lack of support as he tries to obtain a staff car to drive around Washington, D.C. and investigate the sightings. You ask him if between his dealings with the Air Force and the Pentagon he has any idea of what may have happened.
Ruppelt says Air Force radar specialist Captain Roy James thought unusual weather conditions may have occurred. What kind of weather creates orange balls of fire streaking through the sky at lightning speeds, you wonder? The rest of the week passes by mostly uneventfully. You’re working late in the office again on Saturday, July 26, because you really need a life. You suddenly notice another call from the National Airport has come in. Finally! Perhaps they have finally figured out some sort of terrestrial explanation.
Instead, the night is about to take an even stranger turn.
The man on the other end of the line sounds distrubed. At around 8:15 PM, a pilot and flight attendant on a National Airlines flight in the air observed some strange lights above the plane. Within seconds, unidentified objects similar to those a week ago suddenly appeared on the radar screen at National Airport and Andrews base. At the base, USAF master sergeant Charles E. Cummings frustratedly denies any theories by those around him that these might be natural phenomena. Later, to an inquiring press, he would state, "these lights did not have the characteristics of shooting stars. There was [sic] no trails . . . they traveled faster than any shooting star I have ever seen." You decide you need to be where the action is this time. You head right over to the National Airport and are granted access to the control rooms with the radar screens. The press spokesman for Project Blue Book, Albert M. Chop, also decides he has to arrive on the scene himself to get a better idea of what’s happening. It is now 9:30 PM, and everyone is preparing for a night of chaos, just like the Saturday before.
The UFOs don’t disappoint. The visuals on the radar screen are astounding: unknown objects are showing up in every single sector (emphasis) of the screen. No one knows what to make of the situation. Sometimes the objects travel slowly, other times they reverse course, and at times, they move at speeds calculated to be up to 7,000 mph (11,250 km/h). Since it’s 1952, you don’t know this yet, but that speed record won’t be reached by humans until 2010, when NASA’s X-43A scramjet hits speeds of Mach 9.6, just under 7,000 mph. There is no man-made object in the world that can fly that fast in a world where “I Love Lucy” has just wrapped up its first season. In fact, sound itself moves at only 767 mph (1,234 km/h).
The atmosphere in the room is one of extreme confusion. In an attempt to get a better look at the lights, the Air Force decides to scramble two F-94 Starfire jet fighters one more time from Delaware. Captain John McHugo attempts to approach the radar blips but sees absolutely nothing. The other pilot, Lieutenant William Patterson, has better luck.
While flying over Washington, Patterson identifies four white “glows”. He starts to chase them, but eventually reaches his maximum speed and realizes he doesn’t have a shot at catching up to the glowing UFOs. However, it appears he might not need to catch up to them after all. Because suddenly, Patterson looks around and realizes he is surrounded by the glows.
He quickly informs ground control, “I see them now and they’re all around me. What should I do?”. You look around the room to see who’s going to answer Patterson’s command. After a few tense moments of everyone staring at each other, ground control responds with…(maybe insert sounds of crickets chirping)…absolutely nothing. Because truly, no one on the ground has any idea what to do.
A week after the original bizarre UFO sightings, these objects have come back. How is this possible? And why are they showing up on a Saturday again, and again at the nation’s capitol? Is flying over Washington D.C. and terrifying locals some kind of bizarre weekend road trip for these aliens? The situation has escalated to the point where it has now alarmed the President of the United States himself, Harry Truman. The entire US has caught UFO fever, and people are calling the events of the past couple of weeks “The Big Flap” – because the 50s were a boring time for naming things.
In an attempt to understand what is happening in his country, Truman has his Air Force aide call Ruppelt, the aforementioned supervisor of Project Blue Book. He listens in on the two mens’ conversation without interrupting.
Ruppelt’s best theory at the moment? A temperature inversion made radar signals bend and show irregularities on the screen. An inversion occurs when a layer of warm air forms in the lower atmosphere, trapping cool air beneath. This can cause radar to bounce off this low layer, and show objects that are near the ground as appearing high up in the sky instead.
However, Ruppelt himself admits he has not yet interviewed any witnesses or investigated the security issue in depth. How can a temperature inversion explain several eyewitness accounts, including those of Air Force personnel, control tower employees, and pilots, which all corroborate each other, as well as the blips on the radar? As a responsible journalist, you know you owe it to your readers to put forth another account of this weekend’s events, as well as the possible explanation, even though it makes little sense. You decide to give your readers a little hope for a future explanation by including the fact that the CIA would be working alongside the Office of Scientific Intelligence and the Οffice of Current Intelligence to review the two weekends’ events and monitor any future developments.
On July 29, Air Force Major Generals John Samford along with USAF Director of Operations Roger Ramey hold a press conference with representatives from almost every newspaper in the US in attendance. When people with such long official sounding titles are stepping up to talk, you know the situation is serious. The room is absolutely packed; it is the most well-attended press conference held by the Pentagon since World War II. Everyone is looking for answers.
The Air Force insists the most likely explanation is a combination of misidentified stars or meteors to explain in-person sightings, and temperature inversion explaining the numerous radar blips. Reports did confirm that a temperature inversion phenomena was present the nights the UFOs were seen on the radar. Samford reassured the press that since the observed blips did not seem to be “solid material objects”, they did not pose a threat to national security. Some eyewitness accounts actually seem to reinforce the Air Force’s explanation. The entire crew of a B-25 bomber flying over Washington had been told they were surrounded by these strange radar blips, but never saw anything to confirm an actual object. The same thing happened with an Eastern Airlines flight. Others remained unconvinced, including most of the radar and control tower personnel who observed the UFOs. They insisted that the repeated strange phenomena over a period of hours that multiple people witnessed could not simply have been misidentified meteors and temperature inversion. Ruppelt himself, standing next to you, tells you he doesn’t believe the original temperature inversion theory anymore, and trusts his colleagues’ eyewitness accounts instead over this government theory. During the conference, you notice that Samford keeps dodging questions regarding specific eyewitness accounts. It looks to you like he doesn’t have much of an answer for these questions. Collecting all the data and stories, you publish both the Air Force account and the contradicting eyewitness accounts, completely lost as to what conclusion to draw. You decide to let readers sort through the facts and draw a conclusion themselves. As life goes on, you check in on developments relating to that July in 1952 from time to time. In later years, as the Air Force’s explanation would be more critically examined, two knowledgeable men on the topic came out strongly in favor of the official explanation. Harvard astronomer Dr. Donald Menzel believed most of the in-person sightings were the result of a mirage effect, partly thanks to the strange atmospheric conditions those nights. Philip Klass, the senior editor of “Aviation Week” magazine, also pointed out that radar technology in 1952 was relatively primitive. The radarscope would have had trouble differentiating common objects such as weather balloons, birds, or temperature inversion, from UFOs. He also threw some shade at the controllers on duty that night, stating that perhaps, “we had two dumb controllers at National Airport on those nights.” Burn. However, as to Klass’ less offensive point regarding radar technology, he brings up the logical argument that UFO sightings on radar have rapidly declined after digital filters were introduced in the 70s. Or perhaps the aliens operating these UFOs took one look at 70s fashion and decided there was no need to visit the Earth again. One day, you hear from a surprising person regarding the UFO case. It’s Faith McClory, the daughter of Captain Pierman, the National Airlines pilot who saw the white-bluish lights with his own eyes. McClory insists, as did her father, that what he saw that night could not have been weather-related. She is disgusted by what she sees as a government attempt to deflect real questions about the events of 1952. Her stance is clear: “I don’t want to use the words ‘cover up’. But it was very clear. He saw it. Everything was seen on radar”. The truth is, we may never know what occurred those strange summer nights in Washington, D.C., but while waiting on the next alien invasion, make sure to pass the time by clicking on this video here, or this one!
First viewed at Military Shocked By Real UFO Invasion Above Washington, D. C.