When a slew of saucer-like sightings was reported over Washington, D.C. in 1952, the Air Force blocked its own investigator from checking them out.
1952 was the year America caught flying-saucer fever.
So when a rash of strange sightings was reported in the skies over Washington D.C. that summer, the press and the public demanded answers. Were these unexplained radar blips, crafts that in some cases outran jets, part of a nuclear-armed Soviet invasion—a very real threat at the height of the Red Scare? Or were they evidence of something far more mysterious?
The Washington, D.C. sightings of July 1952, also known as “the Big Flap,” hold a special place in the history of unidentified flying objects. Major American newspapers were reporting multiple credible sightings by civilian and military radar operators and pilots—so many that a special intelligence unit of the U.S. Air Force was sent in to investigate. What they found—or didn’t find—along with the Air Force’s official explanation, fueled some of the earliest conspiracy theories about a government plot to hide evidence of alien life.
UFO mania takes hold
It all started in 1947, when a search-and-rescue pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported nine “saucer-like things…flying like geese in a diagonal chainlike line” at speeds exceeding 1,000 m.p.h. near Mount Rainier in Washington State. Within weeks, “flying saucer” sightings had been reported in 40 other states.
In the name of national security, Air Force General Nathan Twining launched Project SIGN (originally named Project SAUCER) in 1948, the first official military-intelligence program to collect information on UFO sightings. Its investigators dismissed the vast majority as hoaxes or misidentifications of known aircraft or natural phenomena.
But a few cases remained “unexplained.”
By 1952, the UFO-investigation unit was called Project Blue Book, led by Captain Edward Ruppelt at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Ruppelt and his team would probably have continued to investigate a couple dozen sightings a month if not for the April 1952 issue of LIFE magazine. Just above its knockout cover shot of Marilyn Monroe ran an equally eye-catching headline: “There is a Case for Interplanetary Saucers.”
The article, written with Ruppelt’s full cooperation, explained the Air Force’s national-security interest in UFOs. And it made a convincing case—through the colorful retelling of 10 unexplained UFO “incidents”—that these unidentified objects were extraterrestrial in origin. As one rocket scientist working on “secret” projects for the U.S. told LIFE: “I am completely convinced that they have an out-of-world basis.”
According to The Washington Post, the number of UFO sightings reported to the Air Force jumped more than sixfold, from 23 in March 1952 to 148 in June. By July, the precise conditions were in place for a wildfire of UFO mania: widespread Cold War anxiety, mainstream press coverage of unexplained UFO incidents and a healthy dose of “midsummer madness.” All that was needed was a spark.
Mysterious radar blips buzzing over the White House
Shortly before midnight on Saturday, July 19, 1952, air-traffic controller Edward Nugent at Washington National Airport spotted seven slow-moving objects on his radar screen far from any known civilian or military flight paths. He called over his supervisor and joked about a “fleet of flying saucers.” At the same time, two more air-traffic controllers at National spotted a strange bright light hovering in the distance that suddenly zipped away at incredible speed.
At nearby Andrews Air Force Base, radar operators were getting the same unidentified blips—slow and clustered at first, then racing away at speeds exceeding 7,000 mph. Looking out his tower window, one Andrews controller saw what he described as an “orange ball of fire trailing a tail.” A commercial pilot, cruising over the Virginia and Washington, D.C. area, reported six streaking bright lights, “like falling stars without tails.”
When radar operators at National watched the objects buzz past the White House and Capitol building, the UFO jokes stopped. Two F-94 interceptor jets were scrambled, but each time they approached the locations appearing on the radar screens, the mysterious blips would disappear. By dawn of July 20, the objects were gone.