1952 was the year the United States caught the flying-disk fever.
So when a sudden surge of weird sightings was officially reported over the capital that summer, the public and the press demanded answers. Were these part of a Soviet invasion, or were these evidence of something more mysterious?
July 1952’s The Washington, D.C. sightings, also called “the Big Flap,” hold a very special place in UFO history. Primary American newspapers were reporting various credible sightings. It was so many that a dedicated U.S. Air Force special intelligence unit was sent to investigate. What they didn’t find–or found–along with official explanations, fueled earliest conspiracy theories about the government’s plot to hide alien life evidence.
It all began in the year 1947 when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing “saucer-like things” speeding 1,000 m.p.h. in the skies near Mount Rainier, Washington State. In just a few weeks, flying disk sightings had been reported in around 40 other states.
In 1948, General Nathan Twining of the Air Force launched a so-called Project SIGN, initially named Project SAUCER. This is the first-ever official military-intelligence program to gather details on UFO sightings. Investigators dismissed most of them as misidentifications or hoaxes.
However, some of those remained unexplained.
By 1952, Project Blue Book was formed. It was a UFO investigation unit headed by Captain Edward Ruppelt. It was based in Dayton, Ohio, at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Ruppelt and his staff would probably have continued to look through 24 sightings each month if not for LIFE magazine’s April 1952 issue. An article in that magazine explained the United States’ Air Force national security interest in unidentified flying objects. It established a very convincing case by retelling 10 unresolved UFO incidents.
Right before midnight on July 19, 1952, Edward Nugent, an air traffic controller at the Washington National Airport, saw seven slow-moving objects on the radar screen. It was so far from any known military or civilian flight paths. Thus, he called his supervisor and joked about seeing flying saucers. Two more air traffic controllers at the same airport spotted almost the same thing — bright lights hovering, and then zipped away at incredible speed. Radars at the nearby Andrews Air Force Base were getting the same blips.
When the radar operators watched the flying objects buzz past the Capital Building and White House, all the UFO jokes stopped. A couple of F-94 interceptor jets were set out, but every time they approached the areas appearing on the radars, the blips would disappear. The objects were gone by the dawn of July 20.
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