By Frank Warren
By 1952 the Air Force was in “full debunking mode,” and that summer would offer a grandiose example of how far the Air Force would go to explain away the Flying Saucer (UFO) Phenomenon.
Common folk (those “mildly” knowledgeable about UFOs) have often said, “If they are from another planet, why don’t they just land on the Whitehouse lawn?” Ironically, in July of 1952 they came very close to doing just that!
The headline of the Washington Post’s Final Edition of July 28th, 1952 declared, “’Saucer’ Out Ran Jet, Pilot Reveals.” The article went on to reveal a “secret military investigation” of what were described as “glowing aerial objects“ that were appearing on radar screens in the Washington area for the second consecutive week. Pilots sent up by the ADC (Air Defense Command) reported that they were unable to overtake the UFOs that were near Andrews Air Force Base.
The Air Force’s official response was that they were investigating the incidents and that it was classified as “secret.” They further stated, “we have no evidence they are “flying saucers”; conversely we have no evidence they are not “flying saucers.” We don't know what they are.“
To be clear, the UFOs were not just “blips on a screen” they were simultaneously witnessed from the ground as well as from the air (radar/visual sightings) by the pilots pursuing them in addition to civilian airline pilots.
In an interview with “The Alexandria Gazette,” James Ritchy, an “air traffic controller and radar specialist” for The Washington Air Traffic Control Center said, “These objects were about 30 miles from the airport when we first made contact with them. We spotted 12 objects, and judged that they were moving in a southeasterly direction at a speed of about 40 mph . . .. The Air Force sent some jet planes up to investigate, and we would help 'vector' the pilots toward the objects . . ..
When we 'vector' a plane onto an object, we are in radar contact with both the object and the plane, and also in radio contact with the pilot of the plane. We keep telling the pilot how to turn to approach the object until he makes a sighting. The first jet pilot to go out Saturday night reported that he sighted a steady white light that appeared to be about 10 miles distant. When we tried to draw closer, it just disappeared . . ..
A commercial pilot got much closer to one of the objects, and reported to us that he sighted a yellow light that appeared to turn red and then yellow again. He reported to us that the object appeared to be about two miles away and the flying parallel with him.
Radar confirmed that he was between two and three miles from the object.
A third pilot sighted two bluish lights and later five more white lights. Our radar continued to show unidentified objects through the night, until 6 a.m. the next morning, but the pilots did not get closer to them."
The pursuit planes used were F-94s with a top speed of 600 mph. The targets (UFOs) were tracked at speeds as slow as 90 mph and faster then that of their pursuers. (Substantially faster, as when planes approached in some instances, the UFOs would simply disappear from radar—presumably retreating faster then it took the “radar antenna” to make a full sweep).
As one might imagine, since this was an ongoing phenomenon (for two weeks) and it was taking place near the nation’s capitol, it created quite a hubbub! With telegrams, phone calls and letters by the thousands pouring into the Pentagon, as well as pressure from the constituents of local Congressman, and topping it off with a lot of noise from the media; the powers-that-be needed to do something, and quickly! That something ended up initiating “the largest press conference held since the end of the Second World War.”
On July 29th at 4:00 pm in the conference room at the Pentagon, Major General John A. Samford, Director of Intelligence of the Air Force proceeded to engage in the one of the largest cover-ups ever perpetrated on the American public! With him in this machination was Major General Roger M. Ramey, Director of Operations, a veteran in confabulating UFO events (a la Roswell), Colonel Donald L. Bower, Technical Analysis Division, ATIC (Air Technical Intelligence Center), Captain Roy L. James, Electronic Branch, ATIC, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, Aerial Phenomena Branch, (head of Project Blue and future author of “The Report On Unidentified Flying Objects) ATIC, and Mr. Burgoyne L. Griffing, Electronics Branch, ATIC.
On the other side of the table were the media’s elite, top correspondents from all the major newspapers and national magazines were in attendance; heavy hitters from radio and the new medium, “TV” were also there; in the midst of that crowd was one “Major Donald E. Keyhoe,” who had penned, “The Flying Saucers Are Real” and was a considerable thorn in the Air Force’s side.
Samford’s opening statement recapped the Air Force’s investigation of the UFO phenomenon since 1947; he mentioned the Air Force’s concern of possible air born menaces to the United States, talked about Project Saucer (Project Sign) and it’s current “more improved” organization. He noted the mass amount of reports that have been analyzed, and quickly put them to rest as some easily explainable phenomenon, e.g., our own aircraft, weather aberrations, hoaxes etc.
His oratory was mild mannered and done in an academic fashion; Keyhoe later commented that the “tension in the crowd was eased” by his simple explanations of the UFOs. Samford didn’t shy away from the “20%” of the reports that couldn’t be “identified,” either, and gave the impression that with more data those could be laid to rest as well.
In concluding he made a point that the Air Force’s role was to ensure that UFO sightings didn’t pose a threat to the United States; he said there was no pattern to indicate there was one.
At this point the rest of the conference would proceed as a Q & A session with the reporters. As would be expected, the reporters began a barrage of some very poignant questions, but Samford held his ground, and calmly gave rational explanations for the previous weeks UFO sightings and consequent “radar tracks.”
When asked about “solid returns” Samford talked about “birds and temperature inversions”; when asked about multiple radar units tracking the same objects, “simultaneously” he mentioned the same phenomenon can pass from scope to scope, and indicated that the timing can be off. (I.e., it wasn’t simultaneous). When asked about the “expertise” of the radar operators he politely indicated that even the “best can be fooled.”
As you can see, no matter the question Samford and or one of his panel had a very “logical explanation” for the recent UFO phenomenon; even when he left room for further investigation he firmly stated, “there is nothing in them that is associated with materials or vehicles or missiles that are directed against the United States.”
The conference lasted an hour and twenty minutes, at it’s finale the members of the media had a mixed response, some thought that Samford and his group were on the level, others didn’t buy it for a moment, but by and large they would “accept the more feasible explanations” and that is what would “go to print.”
The following day the “New York Times” published an article entitled, “Air Force Debunks ‘Saucers’ As Just ‘Natural Phenomena.’” The “Herald Tribune” published the same article, and the “Post” headlined an article, “Saucer Blips Over Capitol Laid To Heat.” The “AP” ran with “those stories” and premise was spread across the country.
Some might wonder how the press could be so naïve . . . but those were different times, and we were much more trustful of the powers-that-be. Still, after taking in Samford’s explanations, it must have given people pause if they had to board an airplane, since their very lives depend upon the air traffic controllers who apparently couldn’t tell a plane, or another solid object from a flock of birds and or heat inversions.