The Flying Saucer Menace
The term "flying saucer" conjures up images of campy science fiction films from the 50s and 60s, with people in shiny metallic suits backed by experimental electronic music. They were something of a national obsession for a while, with "saucers" reported in the sky manned by everyone from Russians to little green men. Air Force pilots chased them to their doom, and occasionally they would crash and spawn legends like Roswell. It turns out that the true genesis of flying saucer folklore is at least as fascinating as any of the fables themselves, and a worthy place to turn our skeptical eye.
Most historians of the strange trace flying saucers back to a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold, who had an encounter while flying his small plane in Washington state on June 24, 1947. His was not especially unusual; UFOs had always been reported, and there was nothing new about aliens; this was nearly a decade after Orson Welles' famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Arnold's story was merely the first time the term "saucer" had been used, when it was reported in the East Oregonian newspaper the next day, on June 25:
Arnold's story was syndicated and made his story famous, at least in the general public's eye; as far as the UFO literature was concerned, his story made him immortal. Buoyed by the attention, UFO stories began to get traction in the newspapers, like any trending topic. Here's an example of one from July 8, less than two weeks later:
This one may sound familiar to you. It is, of course, the original newspaper article that launched the Roswell canon of alien lore. Less well known is that the very next day on July 9, the same newspaper, the Roswell Daily Record, reported that the rancher who found the debris, Mac Brazel, stated that he had actually found it a few weeks earlier, on June 14, but thought nothing of it at the time:
Eleven days later, Kenneth Arnold's story of "flying saucers" spread across the nation. The interview of Mac Brazel continued:
The very next day was July 8, when the Roswell Daily Record reported that the find was a flying saucer. Mac Brazel saw something in the desert sufficiently unremarkable that he left it there and didn't feel compelled to report it to anyone; then when he heard about flying saucers in the news, he went back and collected it and took it to the sheriff; and even then it was only because he happened to be headed into town anyway to sell some wool. Neither crashed aliens nor even anything spectacular-looking in the desert triggered the Roswell mythology; a buzzword in the national news did.
And what happened just a few months later cemented the place of flying saucers into the national consciousness: an American fighter pilot was killed by an alien spacecraft he was pursuing (at least, that was the perception). His name was Captain Thomas F. Mantell, and his story became one of the standards of flying saucer mythology.
On January 7, 1948, six months after Mac Brazel's find in the desert, four P-51 Mustang fighters with the Kentucky Air National Guard happened to be passing by Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Airfield personnel, having received a phone call from the Kentucky Highway Patrol, were observing a small white object in the sky which had appeared motionless for some ninety minutes. T Sgt Quinton Blackwell was the chief tower operator on duty and gave the following statement:
The grim news came shortly thereafter, as reported by PFC Stanley Oliver:
Descriptions from base personnel ranged from a full moon, to an umbrella, to an ice cream cone with a red stripe. But what had killed Capt. Mantell? Fortunately there was never any disagreement on this point: He'd simply ascended too quickly and been rendered unconscious from hypoxia. He is believed to have lost consciousness between 22,500 and 25,000 feet, and his plane continued up to about 30,000 feet before falling. As it dived out of control, it exceeded its aerodynamic limits and broke up, and Mantell, still unconscious, was killed on impact. The Mustang has a service ceiling of over 40,000 feet, but pilots were required to use oxygen over 14,000. Without oxygen, there was no way Mantell could have survived the flight he made, UFO or not.
"Weather balloons" as a skeptical explanation for UFO reports has always sounded a bit annoying to me. It's presumptuous and it's patronizing. It seems completely dismissive of an eyewitness' intelligence. Who wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a balloon and a spaceship? But patronizing or not, it turned out to be a fact that balloon debris was indeed what Mac Brazel found in the Roswell desert. The same day the Roswell Daily Record ran its interview of Brazel, they also published this update:
It was a radar reflector (called a RAWIN target, pronounced ray-win) from a train of weather balloons strung together, part of the classified Project Mogul intended to fly equipment for detecting the radio signature of Soviet nuclear tests. There's a full Skeptoid episode on the Roswell story if you want all the details, but suffice it to say here that there's no serious doubt a Mogul balloon was what they found at Roswell.
In June and July of 1947, the giant polyethylene balloons similar to what we normally think of as weather balloons were not yet available, so these earliest Project Mogul flights used long trains of ten or more smaller balloons. New York University was the primary engineering contractor, and constructed 200-meter-long trains of neoprene rubber balloons, with the microphone and radio payloads strung vertically beneath them.
Author Martin Gardner wrote that the nine saucers "in formation" that Kenneth Arnold reported "tallies remarkably well with what he would be expected to see had he flown near a group of smaller plastic balloons." Is that what he saw? It's impossible to say. But since he reported the distance as 25 miles, he couldn't reasonably be expected to have very accurate details. We know that such balloon trains were in the sky in those days; I don't see much reason to conclude alien spaceships must be the more probable explanation.
By 1948 huge high-altitude balloons were used all over the country for all sorts of purposes. One was Project Skyhook, which started in September of 1947 and used a single, large, metallic balloon. These would often bunch up into a jellyfish-like shape, round on the top, and a long empty tail hanging below. They could arguably be described as ice cream cone shaped, umbrella shaped, or like a full moon. So it was no surprise when investigators identified the balloon that Captain Mantell chased to his doom as a Skyhook that had been launched that morning in Clinton County, Ohio, and had been observed en route by at least two separate amateur skywatchers. We know the Skyhook was there; and since Mantell and his fellow pilots didn't report seeing two objects, it's hard to defend the claim that there was also something other than the Skyhook there.
This explanation is understandably annoying to those who believe aliens must have been behind these three events. But the balloons are the only explanation for which we have evidence, and the only thing counter to that evidence is a preference for an alien explanation. But whatever our preferences or our beliefs, we can scarcely deny the influence that flying saucers — and the reporters who promoted them — had on our twentieth century's popular mythology.
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