City Paper is not for tourists
Decades later, Washington’s fabled UFO invasion has witnesses,
skeptics, and true believers asking: “Where were you in ’52?”
Illustrations by George Toomer
Paula: What happened, Jeff?
Jeff: I saw a flying saucer.
Paula: A saucer? You mean the kind from up there?
Jeff: Yeah, or its counterpart. It was shaped like a huge cigar. Dan saw it, too. When it passed over, the whole compartment lighted up with a blinding glare. Then there was a tremendous wind that practically knocked us off our course.
Paula: Well, did you report it?
Jeff: Yeah, radioed in immediately and they said, ‘Well keep it quiet until you land.’ Then, as soon as we landed, big Army brass grabbed us and made us swear to secrecy about the whole thing. Oh, it burns me up. These things have been seen for years. They’re here, it’s a fact. And the public oughta know about it.
Paula: There must be something more you can do about it.
Jeff: Oh no, there isn’t. Oh, but what’s the point of making a fuss? Last night, I saw a flying object that couldn’t possibly have been from this planet. But I can’t say a word. I’m muzzled by Army brass! I can’t even admit I saw the thing!
Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1959
Howard Cocklin, assistant chief of Washington National Airport’s control tower, was working the graveyard shift on Saturday night, July 19, 1952. Just after he settled into a chair behind a radarscope, an unidentified white blip blinked onto his screen.
“We were tracking a flight that had just taken off, when all of a sudden, we had another target show up,” says Cocklin, now 82 years old and living in Fairfax, Va. “It was very erratic. It went left and right. We knew it wasn’t an airplane, because a plane flies in one direction. But it was a strong signal, just like an airplane. Then a man named Harry Barnes in the Air Route Traffic Control [ARTC] center down below called the control tower. He wanted to know if we had seen what he saw, whatever it was.”
Three days later, the muddled headline “Radar Spots Air Mystery Objects Here” ran in three decks across the front page of the Washington Post. Controllers at National Airport, the article reported, had picked up a gaggle of unidentified flying objects”perhaps a new type of ‘flying saucer’”on radar over the weekend.
The article supplied the opening paragraphs to the story of history’s biggest UFO flap. More than 500 UFO-sighting reports were reported to the U.S. Air Force that July, still a record. Pulp magazines had long lavished pages on the subject, but the Washington sightings stole front-page headline space from the 1952 Democratic National Convention and had President Harry Truman hounding the Air Force for an explanation. The Washington invasion, as it’s referred to in the UFO literature, had the CIA wringing its hands over how to squelch the public hysteria.
UFO sightings had been steadily mounting since World War II, when the atmosphere was clogged with more Earthling-manned vehicles than ever before, but the Washington sightings marked a seismic shift in UFO history. And not for the reason that the Post reported: “For the first time…the objects were picked up by radar.” That had happened before.
But the Post didn’t report that, as morning broke on July 20, the U.S. Air Force sent an F-94 fighter jet to intercept the airborne objects, which had been tracked in the restricted airspace over the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Or that at one point that night three separate radars, two at National and another at Andrews Air Force Base 10 miles east, simultaneously picked up the same unidentified targets before they vanished. Or that, for one of the first times ever, a batch of unidentified radar blips had been complemented by a spate of ground reports of strange lights in the sky.
Before calling Cocklin in the tower that night, Barnes, National’s senior ARTC controller, had a technician inspect the radar equipment at ARTC for glitches. The tech could find nothing wrong.
Around 1 o’clock in the morning, an ARTC controller radioed Capital Airlines Flight 807, which had just taken off, to ask about any suspicious lights in the air around it. A moment later, 17-year veteran pilot Casey Pierman’s voice roared through the radio: “There’s oneoff to the rightand there it goes.” And a controller on the ground watched the blip to the right of the airplane’s blip disappear.
Pierman reported a half-dozen more lights in the next 14 minutes, describing them as “like falling stars without tails.” All of them corresponded to blips on the ARTC radarscopes. Some of the lights, he said, moved faster than shooting stars. Every time Pierman “reported that the light streaked off at high speed,” Barnes wrote in an article for a New York newspaper a few days later, “it disappeared on our scope.”
Over at Andrews, Air Force personnel were spotting lights in the sky. “I saw a strong light South of Andrews AFB traveling from east to west at a terrific rate of speed,” around 2 o’ clock in the morning, wrote Sgt. Charles T. Davenport in an Air Force report dated July 21, 1952. “The light traveled from Andrews to approximately the Potomac River in about 5 to 15 seconds….Its color was orange red. Later on we spotted what seemed to be a star northwest of the field. It was very bright but not the same color. This was a bluish silver. It was very erratic in motion, it moved from side to side. Three times I saw a red object leave the silver object at a high rate of speed and move east out of sight.”
Davenport saw a second string of strange lights that night; that sighting ended near 3:30 a.m., about a half-hour before a commercial pilot closing in on National from the south called the control tower to report a light off his left wing. The object showed on the scopes both at the tower and at ARTC, where a half-lit hall glowed with lavender from all the radars. When the pilot gave word that the light was trailing off, the corresponding blips faded.
The runways at Washington’s Bolling Air Force Base were undergoing repairs, so an F-94 left New Castle Air Force Base in Delaware at dawn to investigate the capital’s airspace. The Air Force Command Post had been stonewalling ARTC’s requests for help all night, according to a controller’s Air Force report.
In a 3 a.m. phone call, a combat officer at Air Force Command “said that all the information was being forwarded to higher authority and would not discuss it any further,” wrote a controller. “I insisted I wanted to know if it was being forwarded tonight and he said yes, but would not give me any hint as to what was being done about all these things flying around Washington.”
By the time the F-94 left the runway, the targets had already vanished from the radarscopes. After a few minutes of searching, the jet hooked a U-turn and went home.
Barnes plotted out Saturday night’s events in an article he penned for the New York World-Telegram and Sun, which ran on the same morning as the Post’s account. “For six hours on the morning of the 20th of July there were at least 10 unidentifiable objects moving above Washington,” he wrote. “I can safely deduce that they performed gyrations which no known aircraft could perform. By this I mean that our scope showed that they could make right angle turns and complete reversals of flight….[We] could detect no pattern to the movement of these objects. However, they did seem to become most active around the planes we saw on the scope.”
The Air Force had already been investigating UFOs for five years by the time of the summer of ’52 sightings. Capt. Edward Ruppelt, the recently appointed head of that investigationcode named Project Blue Book and based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohiolanded in Washington at 10 o’clock in the morning on July 20 on a previously scheduled visit and stumbled across news of the sightings in the morning paper. The press had scooped Air Force intelligence.
By late afternoon, after a day of briefings and meetings and staving off the press at the Pentagon, Ruppelt was anxious to crack the weekend mystery. He planned to visit National and Andrews, the airline offices, and the Weather Bureau.
But the Pentagon wouldn’t give him a staff car; its finance office suggested riding in cabs and charging his expense account. Ruppelt’s $9 per diem, designated for a hotel room and meals, wouldn’t begin to cover a long night’s worth of cab fares. He caught the next flight back to Dayton.
When asked what he thought was behind the blips on his radarscope that night, Cocklin gives a long chuckle that putters into a dry, staccato cough. “At the time, I thought it was something alien,” he says. “I still do.”
Exactly one week later, on the night of July 26, several pilots flying over the D.C. area spied peculiar airborne lights, like a string of five glowing orange-and-white objects. A B-29 Air Force pilot cruising at nearly 10,000 feet eyed “three amber edged white flashing objects,” according to an Air Force report dated July 31, 1952. “Traveling at approximately speed of sound each caused [a] yellowish trail. First object moved across sky in horseshoe path; second appeared to drop vertically; and the movement of the third not identifiable.”
On the ground, a sergeant at Andrews saw “a bluish white light move…at an incredible rate of speed,” according to an Air Force report. “About one minute later…I saw the same kind of light. These lights did not have the characteristics of shooting stars. There was no trails and [they] seemed to go out rather than disappear, and traveled faster than any shooting star I have ever seen.”
At exactly the same time, 10:23 p.m., an Air Force report shows, a sergeant on a radarscope at Andrews noted “a great many targets….We observed targets following very erratic courses, sometimes appearing to stop, then reverse course, accelerating momentarily, and then slowing down….The biggest problem appeared to be the large No. of targets present which made it difficult to have any definite targets singled out for checking.”
Al Chop, Blue Book’s civilian PR man, was in bed with his wife at their Alexandria, Va., home when the telephone rang just before midnight on July 26. A Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) official from National’s ARTC room was on the line. “He told me they were getting UFOs on the radar and that they were getting the same returns at Andrews,” says Chop, now 85 and living in Palm Desert, Calif. “He said that there were a lot of reporters there and that they were practically banging down the door. He told me to get down there. I said that I’d be there as quick as I could.”
Chop arrived at the ARTC with his wife, whom he says he was afraid to leave home by herself, just past midnight. “I looked at the radarscope and there were about 10 or 14 unknowns,” he says. “They looked just like aircraftthey had the same kind of strong signalbut we couldn’t contact them. We just looked at each other as if to say, ‘What should we do?’ We just watched them. We were kind of helpless.”
When a pair of F-94s was dispatched for Washington from New Castle shortly after midnight, something strange happened, even by the standards of what had already transpired: “The very instant those planes appeared,” Chop recalls, “the UFOs disappeared. After about 20 minutes, the pilots decided there was nothing for them to do. So they left. But the minute they left, the UFOs came back. It was the most eerie thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life.”
According to Ruppelt’s 1956 Blue Book memoirs, titled The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, the blips didn’t vanish when the jets nosed into Washington’s airspace. Instead, they relocated to Newport News, Va. The Air Force’s own records jibe with Ruppelt’s account. Stargazers phoned Langley Air Force Base near Newport News with reports of lights poking through the night sky. An F-94 climbed up from Langley, its pilot locking his radar onto a target. After three successful lock-ons, he lost it. That’s when, according to Ruppelt, the blips crept back onto Washington’s radar.
Before the F-94s had lifted out of New Castle, a Life magazine reporter named Robert Ginna had phoned Ruppelt in Dayton to ask how the Air Force was responding to the latest sightings. Ruppelt hadn’t heard about themas had happened the previous weekend, the press had scooped military intelligenceso he hung up. He called Maj. Dewey Fournet, who’d been designated Blue Book’s government liaison, in Washington, and told him to get over to National. Fournet picked up a Navy electronics expert named Holcomb and headed to the airport, where Chop was waiting.
In the early-morning hours of that SundayAir Force records don’t give the exact timeFournet dialed the Pentagon’s Air Force Command Post and two more F-94s swept out of New Castle to scour the Washington sky. The pilots were steered toward the radar targets by ARTC controllers. Chop says he scribbled down the conversation between the pilots and the ground crew for an Air Force report.
“The ground asked one of the pilots, [Lt.] William Patterson, if he saw anything,” Chop recalls. “And he responded, ‘I see them now and they’re all around me. What should I do?’ And nobody answered, because we didn’t know what to tell him.”
According to Ruppelt’s account, Patterson told reporters about the enveloping lights the next morning. “I tried to make contact with the bogeys below 1,000 feet, but [ARTC controllers] vectored us around,” he said. “I saw several bright lights. I was at my maximum speed, but even then I had no closing speed. I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking them.”
By the time the first rays of light ushered in Sunday morning, the radarscopes were clear of any unknown targets. Fournet, Holcomb, and Chop drove home. The “invasion” of Washington, D.C. was over.
When asked the same question as CocklinWhat did he think was behind the blips on the radarscope that night?Chop gives nearly the same reply: “At the time, I felt that we were being visited by somebody from another planet,” he says. “I still think so after all these years.”
Ruppelt touched down in Washington again on Monday afternoon, July 28, 1952. The city was abuzz.
Evening newspapers were assaulting the Air Force with headlines like “Fiery Objects Outrun Jets Over CapitalInvestigation Veiled in Secrecy Following Vain Chase.” Newspapermen smothered Ruppelt as he checked into a downtown hotel. President Harry Truman had an aide ring Ruppelt the very next morning for an explanation.
The Air Force had to say something, so Maj. Gen. John Samford, the director of Air Force Intelligence, announced an afternoon press conference at the Pentagon for that very afternoon. According to a July 29 memorandum circulated by the office of the Air Force’s inspector general, there wasn’t much to tell. The memo chided the Air Force for stoking news reports of the sightings. “Much of the publicity has been based on authorized news releases by the Air Force,” it read. “The Director of Intelligence advises that no theory exists at the present time as to the origin of the objects and they are considered to be unexplained.”
If Air Force Intelligence did get the memo, it ignored it. That afternoon at the Pentagon, its top brass gave their longest and best-attended press conference since the close of World War II seven years earlier.
Samford told reporters that the sightings were most likely due to temperature inversionsblankets of warm air that lie atop cooler air in the Earth’s atmosphere. The blankets are called inversions because air temperature normally declines at a regular rate as altitude increases. These anomalous pockets, the theory went, act as airborne mirrors, bending radar beams back to the ground. When those beams pick up solid matter on Earthsay, a building or a truckradarscopes are fooled into detecting “airborne” objects.
Ruppelt observed that the press was uneasy. “Major Dewey Fournet and Lieutenant Holcomb, who had been at the airport during the sightings, were extremely conspicuous by their absence,” he wrote in his memoir. “Especially since it was common knowledge…that they weren’t convinced the UFOs picked up on radars were weather targets.”
According to a transcript of the press conference, one reporter brought up the name of Pierman, the pilot who had radioed reports of darting lights to ARTC on the first weekend of the sightings. “Pierman described it as a light that was zooming and all such things and this was not once but Barnes told me he instructed him on that target three times,” the reporter said. “Then, this past Saturday night, when they all saw these blips, Barnes vectored at least a half-dozen airline pilots and planes into these things and they all reported seeing lights.”
“I can’t explain that,” Samford responded. “I can’t explain it at all.”
But the Air Force’s temperature-inversion hypothesis won over most reporters, even though Samford called it a “a 50/50 proposition.” As the summer faded, newspaper coverage of UFO sightings thinned with the sighting reports themselves, though Life ran a story that August suggesting that the Air Force had “known more about the blips than it admitted.”
Nearly a year after the press conference, in May 1953, the CAA released a report that was supposed to close the case on the sightings. It concluded that unidentified radar blips, “do not represent new phenomena; nor are they peculiar to the Washington area.”
The report argued that temperature inversions often drift on the wind, giving the illusion of moving targets on radarscopes. It devoted a couple of sentences to explaining the corresponding visual sightings, too: “It should be noted that abrupt temperature inversions aloft can refract light in much the same way as radar waves and produce mirage effects.”
CAA investigators had interviewed Cocklin about the first Saturday night of the sightings. “They were very careful to discount anything that we had to say,” Cocklin remembers. “So we just kept quiet. As I recall, we saw several things that night but made no mention of them because they just kept laughing at us. We didn’t particularly care for it.”
Oddly, the CAA report drew on weather data from Aug. 13 and 14, 1952, not from the two July weekends that sent UFOs to the top of the CIA’s priority list.
Previous sightings had usually involved small numbers of observers. In January 1948, a pilot with the Kentucky Air National Guard on a low-altitude training flight from Georgia to Kentucky chased what he though was a flying saucer until he reached around 25,000 feet. Then he fainted from lack of oxygen and his plane spiralled back to Earth, breaking up completely before it got there. Later that year, another Air National Guard pilot entered a “dog fight” with what he claimed was a UFO over Fargo, N.D. It had him flying so fast that he temporarily blacked out.
At the same time, sightings were gaining space in the mainstream press. In April 1952, Life magazine carried an article headlined “Have We Visitors from Space?” about recent accounts of floating “discs” and “globes of green fire” that could not “be explained by present science as natural phenomenabut solely as artificial devices, created and operated by a high intelligence.”
Over the next couple of months, the letter-sized envelopes that Blue Book used to collect UFO-related newspaper clippings from around the country were replaced first with big manila envelopes and then with shoeboxes.
The previous year, 169 UFO-sighting reports had trickled into Air Force Intelligence, 22 of them never fully explained. In 1952, April alone brought 82 reports. And by the close of July, the month of the Washington incidents, 536 reports buried Blue Book’s staff and persuaded at least some of them that interplanetary spacecraft had indeed pierced the stratosphere. “Project Blue Book was still trying to be impartial,” wrote Ruppelt. “But sometimes it was difficult.” UFO hysteria was running full throttle.
And Hollywood was cashing in. The 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, which opens with a flying saucer landing on the National Mall, anticipated the following year’s Washington “invasion.” But the invasion itself set the paradigm for subsequent UFO films, such as 1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that hinge on government cover-ups.
In the wake of the Washington sightings, public opinion increasingly did, too. Publicly, the Air Force was dismissing the threat of UFOs; privately, it was still looking for explanations for many sightings. And its reluctance to publicly address the UFO issue was interpreted, at least by some, as a conspiracy.
An Air Force document in the declassified Blue Book files, housed at the National Archives at College Park, Md., lists dozens of sightings
around the country for the end of July 1952. Explanations like “Balloon,” “Aircraft,” or “Astro (METEOR)” sit beside descriptions of the time and place of each sighting. Beside the Washington, D.C., and Andrews Air Force Base July 26 sightings, typed in blocky letters, is the word “UNIDENTIFIED.”
For the Central Intelligence Agency, determining whether the 1952 Washington invasion could be written off as a case of Mother Nature toying with primitive radar technology was half the problem. Since the summer of 1947, when a pilot passing over Mount Rainier in Washington State claimed that he happened upon a chain of nine saucers cruising at an estimated 1,700 miles an hour, UFO sightings had been steadily mounting.
The CIA had been monitoring UFO reports since the Mount Rainier sighting and was fixing for a major investigation. According to Curtis Peebles’ 1994 book Watch the Skies, a series of top-secret CIA briefings issued in the months following the Washington sightings warned of escalating national security concerns: “A fair proportion of our population is mentally conditioned to the acceptance of the incredible. In this fact lies the potential for the touching-off of mass hysteria and panic….Perhaps we, from an intelligence point of view, should watch for any indication of Russian efforts to capitalize upon this present American credulity.”
The other prime CIA fear was purely military: “Our air warning system,” an August 1952 CIA briefing read, “will undoubtedly always depend upon a combination of radar scanning and visual observations. We give Russia the capability of delivering an air attack against us, yet at any given moment now, there may be a dozen official unidentified sightings plus many unofficial. At the moment of attack, how will we, on an instant basis, distinguish hardware from phantom?”
At base level, the U.S. government was itching for an explanation as to what UFOs were. According to Fred Durant, a retired Navy test pilot who was on assignment with the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence in 1952, the CIA queried the White House about any secret military activities that could be causing the UFO sightings. Truman said he had no information on any such covert operations.
“No one seemed to have a handle on these UFO reports,” Durant, 85, says over the phone from his retirement home in Raleigh, N.C. “The feeling was, If we don’t find out what [UFOs] are, they may be something that the Russians could use as a weapon against us. That may sound silly today, but nobody knew what these things were.”
Faith in what had come to be known as the “Extraterrestrial Hypothesis” spread into upper levels of government. H. Marshall Chadwell, the assistant director for scientific intelligence and the author of a major fall 1952 CIA briefing on the national security threats posed by UFO hysteria, wrote, “Sightings of unexplained objects at great altitude and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major U.S. defense installations are of such nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles….”
On Wednesday, Jan. 14, 1953, a CIA-sponsored team of distinguished civilian scientists gathered in Washington for a four-day review of the evidence on UFOs. According to a 1997 article “CIA’s Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90,” the group undertook an analysis of “the possible danger of the phenomena to U.S. national security.” It was dubbed the Robertson Panel, taking its name from H.P. Robertson, the physicist who chaired it.
The Robertson Panel reviewed 50 UFO reports from around the country and watched a pair of films of weird aerial phenomena, which the Air Technical Intelligence Center, the Air Force division that housed Blue Book, considered the best proof that the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis rang true.
But distinguished scientists on the panel were wary about their assignment. “The panel members insisted that their names not get out,” recalls Durant, who served as the group’s secretary and authored its report. “They didn’t want to be associated with flying saucers. They were concerned about their reputations.”
The panel wasn’t much impressed by what the Air Force considered its most baffling sightings reports. “Luis Alvarez [the panel’s radar and electronics expert] said, ‘These [ground controller] chaps don’t know how to handle the equipment,’” recalls Durant. “He threw up his hands after scanning half the reports, and said, ‘There’s no data. There’s no facts. These are all personal reactions of people with all sorts of backgrounds, and the great majority have no knowledge of science or technology.’”
The Robertson Panel’s final report only underlined the CIA’s national security concerns. “The continued emphasis on the reporting of [UFOs] does, in these perilous times, result in a threat to the orderly function of the protective organs of the body politic,” it reads. “We cite as examples the clogging of channels of communication by irrelevant reports, the danger of being led by continued false alarms to ignore real indications of hostile action, and the cultivation of a morbid national psychology in which skillful hostile propaganda could induce hysterical behavior and harmful distrust of duly constituted authority.”
Speculation on the causes of the UFO sightings was consigned to the meeting minutes, also written up by Durant. “Reasonable explanations could be suggested for most of the sightings and by ‘deduction and scientific method it could be induced that other cases might be explained in a similar manner,’” wrote Durant. “Because of the brevity of some sightings and the inability of the witnesses to express themselves clearly, conclusive explanations could not be expected for every case reported….”
The Robertson report offered only one concrete recommendation to the CIA: Quash the public discourse on UFOs. According to the 1997 CIA article, included in the agency’s semiannual Studies in Intelligence, “The panel recommended that the National Security Council debunk UFO reports and institute a policy of public education to assure the public of the lack of evidence behind UFOs. It suggested using the mass media, advertising, business clubs, schools, and even the Disney Corporation to get the message across. Reporting at the height of McCarthyism, the panel also recommended that private UFO groups…be monitored for subversive activities.”
Durant still adheres to the Robertson Panel’s findings. “After nearly 50 years, I wouldn’t change a single bit of its conclusions,” he says. “You can’t prove a negative. There’s no proof that some of these sightings were extraterrestrial visitors.
“But,” he adds, “there’s no proof that they weren’t.”
In the mid-’70s, more than 20 years after the sightings and the Robertson report, a D.C.-area UFO enthusiast named Don Berliner heard through the grapevine that a recent Air Force study had debunked the CAA’s explanation of UFO ground sightings as mirages caused by temperature inversions.
A former member of the National Guard, Berliner moved to Washington from the Midwest in the early ’60s to volunteer, and later work, for the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), the largest international group devoted to UFO phenomena in the ’50s and ’60s.
Investigating the tip on the Air Force’s new report, Berliner scheduled a meeting with Bill Coleman, the last Air Force public information officer designated to handle UFO queries. When Berliner arrived at the Pentagon, Coleman’s office mates were streaming by his desk, offering their hands and wishing him a happy retirement.
“All his old cronies had come to wish him well,” says Berliner, 71, who’s worked as a freelance aviation journalist and author since NICAP’s demise. “While all these colonels and majors were cooling their heels, he and I sat there for three-quarters of an hour talking UFOs. He stuck by the official Air Force line, but he told me about his own sighting: He’d been flying a B-25 across the country with two other guys and they spotted an aluminum-colored disc-shaped thing. They decided to chase it. They chased it down to treetop level and got within an eighth of a mile of it before it finally flew away.”
Before Berliner left the Pentagon that day, Coleman handed him a copy of the rumored report, titled Quantitative Aspects of Mirages. It didn’t broach the subject of radar sightings, but the 1969 studyconducted by the Air Force’s Environmental Technical Applications Centerfound that, contrary to what the CAA had concluded more than 15 years earlier, mirages associated with temperature inversions could not give rise to visual UFO sightings. “Thus far,” it read, “we have been unable to find any UFO sighting explained as mirages.”
The report debunked the science behind the inversion theory. “Our results clearly show that the temperatures and temperature gradients needed to produce mirages which occur at an angle of one degree or more from the horizontal are extraordinarily large,” it reads. “[T]hese temperatures and temperature gradients are not found in our atmosphere. The inversions postulated by Menzel [a scientist cited by the Air Force at its July 29, 1952, press conference] would need temperatures of several thousand Kelvins in order to cause the mirages attributed to them.” In the 1953 CAA study, temperature inversions above Washington of just 3 degrees for July 20, 1952, and 1 degree for July 26, 1952, were reported.
The 1969 Air Force report argued that although inversions could produce mirages, the inversion layer would need to be drastically warmer than the air layer underneath in order to produce a mirage visible from the ground. “That kind of inversion would turn everything on the earth to cinders,” Berliner chuckles in his dimly lit Alexandria apartment. “There would have been nobody left to make UFO reports.”
Although Berliner was delighted that a government-sponsored report had stamped a question mark on Washington’s 1952 sightings, it had come a decade and a half after the fact. “Nobody paid attention to it,” Berliner says of the report. “It wasn’t news anymore.”
Even before obtaining the report, Berliner had felt dubious about the government’s flip-flopping on UFOs. As a young reporter with the now-defunct Painesville, Ohio, Telegraph, Berliner had written up a local UFO sighting and contacted the Air Force for an official explanation. He says the Air Force told him records showed that a research balloon had been launched in the area that day, which was likely the cause of the UFO. But Berliner says the balloon was actually floating over Iowa when two men separately eyed a shapeless, multicolored light in the northeastern Ohio sky at dawn.
He’d also written to NICAP for an explanation. In a reply letter, the fledgling group cited a scientific research rocket launched from Wallops Island, Va., the morning of the sighting. That rocket was visible from Ohio, according to NICAP. When Berliner wrote the Air Force again with this information, the Air Force retracted its original reply and took up NICAP’s explanation as its own.
“What interested me was the Air Force’s behavior,” says Berliner, reclining on his plaid sofa with a pillow propped up behind his head. “They obviously tossed off something initially, then had to correct themselves. Something was wrong.”
A 1974 trip to the Air Force Archives in Montgomery, Ala., where the declassified Blue Book files were housed before they moved to the National Archives later that year, left Berliner even more suspicious. In Ohio, he had “fast-talked” his way into the local filter center for the Civilian Ground Corpsa national government-run network of volunteers who monitored the sky for Soviet planes. “People went out on rooftops and into the fields with binoculars, and they’d call reports into filtering centers,” he says. “Of course, they didn’t see any Soviet bombers; there’s never been any over here. But they did see UFOs.”
Over the course of two years, Berliner looked over hundreds of UFO reports from northern Ohio at the filter center in Columbus. But when he dug through Blue Book fileswhich served as the national depository for UFO reports from 1951 until the project’s closure, in 1969Berliner couldn’t find a single report from his Ohio days. “Where they went,” Berliner says, “is anyone’s guess. That got me interested in the government’s behavior.”
After more than 40 years on the UFO trail, Berliner says he’s still not a true believer in the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis. “I’m not ready to say absolutely that UFOs are of alien origin, but I’m creeping closer to that,” he says, his fingers walking down the arm of the sofa. “I just want to see an answer. Mysteries are supposed to be solvable. On TV, they do it in 40-some minutes. We’ve been working for half a century.”
The dozen or so books that Berliner’s authoredwith names such as Crash at Corona and Airplanes of the Futurestand proudly in a row atop a short bookcase near the door of his bare-walled bachelor pad. The apartment doubles as the home office of the Fund for UFO Research, a group that came together 20 years ago out of “crying-in-our-beer sessions” attended by former NICAP staffers. The old NICAP headquarters, vacated soon after Blue Book was dismantled, was knocked down in the mid-’70s to clear space for the north entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station.
About 9 o’clock at night, Berliner’s phone rings. He picks up the receiver, listens for a couple of seconds, then drops into a swivel chair behind a dark wood desk, the lone piece of distinctive furniture in his Spartan living space. He reaches for a pen, grabs a sheet of a clean white paper, and begins scribbling. “In what part of the sky is it?..No, I can’t see north from my window….Is there any pattern to the blinking?…Is there anybody else there with you?…Can you make a sketch of it for me?”
After three or four minutes, Berliner hangs up the receiver and lets out a sigh. “You can’t get much information from seeing a light at night,” he says, “because what’s it attached to? I’m much happier with daytime sightings. Plus, the fact that it wasn’t doing anything. If it’s a UFO, it will let you know. It will do something very unusual to let you know.”
Calls from UFO witnesses are pretty rare these days, says Berliner. Just about one every two weeks. And there hasn’t been a major sighting wave for more than a quarter of a century.
In fact, Berliner says he’s skeptical about most of the calls that do come in, adding that reports from folks convinced that UFOs are interplanetary spacecraft drive him up a wall.
“You run into anyone who claims to have the answers to UFOs, turn around and run like hell,” he says a few days later, driving his dusty red 1992 Toyota Tercel to a UFO conference at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. “Because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Which isn’t to say Berliner’s exactly a skeptic. At the mention of Philip Klass, a retired magazine editor and probably the 20th century’s most outspoken critic of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, Berliner cringes. “I have reason to believe Klass is a covert government agent,” he barks. “He’s the only journalist I’ve ever known who always followed the government line, no matter what. I’ve pulled out of TV interviews because I knew he would be there. He’s universally hated in the UFO community. He’ll show up at UFO conferences just because he knows everyone detests him. He loves it.”
A ribbon of white tape across the front door of Klass’ house in Southwest Washington bears the message: “Resident is handicapped needs five minutes to come.”
Atop a staircase fitted with an electronic chair lift, Klass, 82, slouches in a swivel chair behind a computer in his office. Two round ashtrays, overflowing with the butts of Marlboro 100s, flank his keyboard. A half-finished 10-pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups stares up from the floor near his feet.
Six months before the July 1952 sightings in Washington, Klass took a job as an editor with Aviation Week in New York. A 10-year stint as an engineer with General Electric, where he helped develop the remote-control turret system for B-29 bombers during World War II, left him doubtful that the Air Force took UFOs very seriously. “At no time did any Air Force or military guy say that we had to develop a defense against UFOs,” he whispers. An anesthesiologist’s slip-up five years ago damaged one of Klass’ vocal cords. Everything he says comes across as a secret.
One of Klass’ early pieces for Aviation Week, “That Was No Saucer, That Was an Echo,” summarized the 1953 CAA study concluding that the Washington radar sightings had been caused by temperature inversions. He still adheres to that theory. But the visual sightings, which in 1953 he attributed to inversion-triggered mirages, he now chalks up to a much simpler phenomenon: people looking too hard at the sky.
“If you go out tonight and spend three hours looking up at the sky,” Klass says, “you’ll see something unfamiliar. It’s a psychological effect. Have you ever heard of Bigfoot? In 1976, the Washington Post ran a story about a Bigfoot sighting out in the California or Oregon woods. Next day, there was a dozen reports of Bigfoot in the Washington area.”
Klass says that radar technology in 1952 wasn’t sophisticated enough to filter out many ordinary objects, such as flocks of birds, weather balloons, or temperature inversions, that might clutter radarscopes. UFO proponents argue that seasoned controllers even then could differentiate between spurious targets and solid, metallic objects. Klass disagrees. It may be that “we had two dumb controllers at National Airport on those nights,” he says, adding that the introduction of digital filters in the late ’70s precipitated a steep decline in UFO sightings on radar.
Then there are the Air Force accounts that weren’t included in the Blue Book files. In 1978, Klass received a letter from a retired Air Force pilot who’d flown one of the F-94s over Washington the night of July 26, 1952, the second weekend of the Washington sightings. “The one transmission by Lt. Patterson keyed the entire incident to get it blown out of all proportions,” it read, referring to the pilot who’d seen “several bright lights.” “All other air crew were sure that nothing was ‘out of order’ over the capitol that night. And we were quite certain that Patterson simply confused light from a ground vehicle with an airborne light. This is most easy to do when at low altitude. Lights from a vehicle climbing a gentle hill will get a pilot’s attention, as they tend to shine upward.”
A 1983 letter from another Air Force retiree reads, “During the UFO mass hysteria of late 1951/52 I was on active duty as Group Intelligence Officer at Andrews AFB. We received an alert one evening of a UFO in the Washington, DC area. An F-94 was scrambled and directed to the vicinity of Washington National Airport. When vectored to the location of the UFO, the pilot asked the National Airport controller ‘Where is it?’ The tower controller responded, ‘You’re in it.’ I debriefed the air crew on their return and, like so many other debriefings on UFO alerts, nothing further was heard. These UFO debriefings were long and tedious to completeair crews disliked the choreespecially after a tiring night time search.”
Klass hasn’t always shared those pilots’ skepticism. A 1965 string of sightings in Exeter, N.H., which began when a local civilian and a pair of police officers witnessed a “brilliant, roundish object” that bathed a field in red light, nearly had him persuaded of the possibility of alien visitors. “I thought, If I can be the first aerospace journalist who could prove we had extraterrestrial visitors, I’d win a Pulitzer,” Klass says, “and I’d get a big bonus.”
But when Klass began writing a review of John Fuller’s 1966 book Incident at Exeter for the Washington Post, he discovered that engineers at the Exeter Power Plant who were quoted in the book had never spoken with the author. Klass wound up theorizing that the sightings had been caused by electrical phenomena associated with the power lines, near which the sightings usually occurred.
Thirty-five years later, Klass insists, “If we have E.T. visitors, I want to be first to report the details.” In the meantime, however, “it’s fun being the voice in the wilderness.”
When told that Berliner has used the word “skeptic” to describe himself, Klass cracks a smile. “If he’s a skeptic,” he says, “you’re an Arab terrorist. But I’m considering making a donation to the Fund for UFO Research to help them stay alive. They provide ammunition for my newsletter.”
Klass pulls a stack of stapled yellow-paper packets, back issues of his Skeptics UFO Newsletters (SUN), from his desk. He’s published SUN since 1989 but switched from monthly to quarterly editions last spring because of his poor health. A pair of recent spinal surgeries has slowed him down considerably. Last year, he missed the Mutual UFO Network’s annual conference, the biggest of its kind, for the first time since 1987.
The March 2001 edition of SUN includes an update on Klass’ condition. “My future, and that of SUN, is most uncertain,” it reads. “Fortuitously, there is not much of great importance transpiring in UFOlogy at the present time. WE HOPE TO KEEP SUN SHINING BUT WILL REFUND IF UNABLE TO DO SO.”
Klass remains secure in his skepticism. “If we have extraterrestrial visitors and they want us to know, they can land,” he says. “If they want to keep those visits secret, why don’t they turn off their lights?” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by George Toomer.