Seventy years ago, Idaho pilot Kenneth Arnold saw something near Mount Rainier that brought the term “flying saucers” into the lexicon. It was the viral story of its day. What he saw remains a mystery.
Before June 24, 1947, terms such as UFOs and flying saucers had not entered popular vocabulary. Then, on that afternoon 70 years ago, it all changed because of Kenneth Arnold:
“Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot.”
Arnold reported seeing near Mount Rainier nine “circular-type” objects flying in formation at more than twice the speed of sound.
His was the first widely reported UFO sighting in this country, and it set off a wave of other reported sightings.
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Arnold would pay the price for describing something so fantastic.
In a now-declassified document, the Air Force Materiel Command wrote it off: “The report cannot bear even superficial examination, therefore, must be disregarded.”
Another Air Force document concluded, “It is the Air Force conclusion that the objects of this sighting were due to a mirage.”
For Arnold, it stung.
He didn’t consider himself some kind of kook. He had over 4,000 hours of mountain high-altitude pilot time; he was in the Idaho search and rescue.
“I have been subjected to ridicule, much loss of time and money, newspaper notoriety, magazine stories, reflections on my honesty, my character, my business dealings,” Arnold wrote in his 1952 book, “Coming of the Saucers.”
A long time ago, in 1977, I interviewed Arnold after reaching him by phone.
He died in 1984 at age 68, and in all those years, and with me, he never wavered in his descriptions.
“I made my report because I thought it was my duty. It was the only proper and American thing to do. I saw what I saw,” he said.
You can draw a direct line between what Arnold repeatedly recounted in detail to FBI and military investigators and our collective fascination with the possibility that aliens have visited us.
It’s become so much a part of our culture that even the CIA website has a section titled “Take a Peek Into Our “X-Files” that is chock-full of declassified files.
The CIA helpfully lists “Top 5 CIA Documents Mulder Would Love To Get His Hands On,” and “Top 5 CIA Documents Scully Would Love To Get Her Hands On.”
Interested in a 1952 drawing of “flying saucers over Belgian Congo uranium mines?” It’s in the CIA files.
Arnold was an unlikely candidate to become embroiled in such a controversy.
He lived in Meridian, Idaho, and sold fire-extinguishing equipment. About as unusual as his life got was that he piloted a small airplane to get to his clients around the Northwest.
A month after Arnold was in the news, a now-declassified report made in July 1947 by Army Air Force Counter-Intelligence Corps Officer Frank M. Brown said, “Mr. Arnold is a man of 32 years of age, being married and the father of two children … It is the personal opinion of the interviewer that Mr. Arnold actually saw what he saw … To go further, if Mr. Arnold can write a report of the character that he did while not having seen the objects that he claimed he saw, it is the opinion of the interviewer that Mr. Arnold is in the wrong business, that he should be writing Buck Rogers fiction.”
That was one of the few sympathetic portrayals in government documents of Arnold’s sighting.
In another declassified intelligence report in July 1947, First Lt. Hal L. Eustace of the Army Air Corps put Arnold’s report as part of “silly-season episodes.”
The lieutenant wrote that Arnold “seems to be reasonably well balanced, although excitable, and has no apparent ulterior motive … other than to prove he is not ‘nuts.’ ”
The lieutenant wrote that Arnold revealed “an antagonistic attitude toward the Army” by stating, “Well, if the Army doesn’t know what they are, it sure ought to be trying to find out!”
Bright flash lit the sky
Arnold’s sighting of the craft was the 1947 version of a story going viral.
“It was a beautiful day. Just as clear as a bell,” Arnold said. He was flying from Chehalis to Yakima and decided to spend an hour or so searching for a downed C-46 Marine transport that had crashed into the southwest side of Mount Rainier.
There was a $5,000 reward for finding it.
It was at 3 p.m., he remembered, “when a very bright flash lit up the plane and the sky around me.”
At first, Arnold thought it was the sun reflecting off another plane.
“But the flash happened again, and that’s when I saw where it was coming from. It came spasmodically from a chain of nine circular-type aircraft way up from the vicinity of Mount Rainier,” said Arnold.
“… I could not find any tails on these things. They didn’t leave a jet trail behind them. I judged their size to be at least 100 feet in widespan. I thought it was a new type of missile.”
His plane had a big sweep 24-hour clock on the instrument panel. Arnold measured that the craft covered the distance between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in 1 minute 42 seconds.
“That figured out to something like 1,760 miles an hour, which I could hardly believe. I knew that figure couldn’t be entirely accurate, but I’d say it was within a couple of hundred miles accurate,” he said.
From Yakima, Arnold then flew to an air show in Pendleton, Oregon. The next day, on June 25, he stopped by the local newspaper, the East Oregonian. He wanted to know if the military had been testing secret warplanes in the area.
He ended up talking to reporter Bill Bequette, who, in subsequent years, remembered that Arnold “came off as honest, level headed and credible,” said a story in the East Oregonian.
So Bequette wrote a brief story about what Arnold said he witnessed.
But the brief also went out to The Associated Press, got picked up by numerous newspapers, and the furor began. For the first time, a mass-media story and subsequent headlines used the term, “flying saucers.”
There were no reported riches for Arnold because of his notoriety. Instead, he complained to Frank Brown, the Air Force investigator, “that his business had suffered greatly … at every stop in his business routes, large groups of people were waiting to question him …”
Brown concluded his report, “Mr. Arnold stated further that if he, at any time in the future, saw anything in the sky, to quote Mr. Arnold … ‘If I ever saw a ten story building flying through the air I would never say a word about it,’ due to the fact that he has been ridiculed by the press to such an extent that he is practically a moron in the eye of the majority of the population of the United States.”
A mystery to this day
Despite that statement to Brown, in the coming years Arnold was driven to prove he was right.
There were “many long hours of fruitless flying with a camera, trying and failing to find anything like his saucers again,” says Martin Shough, a well-regarded researcher of the UFO phenomena who has written a detailed analysis of Arnold’s account.
In an email, Shough, who lives in the Highlands of Scotland, says, “I am resigned to never knowing what Arnold saw.”
He concludes, “Seventy years on, when so much of the flying saucer mythology that Kenneth Arnold triggered has been explained away, it is somewhat embarrassing that Arnold’s own sighting remains obstinately resistant.
“But there it is.”