The Flying Saucer Menace
The true, interwoven history of flying saucers in American folklore.
by Brian Dunning
September 29, 2015
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:
He said he sighted nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation at 3. p.m. yesterday, extremely bright — as if they were nickel plated — and flying at an immense rate of speed. He estimated they were at an altitude between 9,500 and 10,000 feet and clocked them from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams, arriving at the amazing speed of about 1200 miles an hour. "It seemed impossible," he said, "but there it is — I must believe my eyes."
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:
The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer.
According to information released by the department, over authority of Maj. J. A. Marcel, intelligence officer, the disk was recovered on a ranch in the Roswell vicinity, after an unidentified rancher had notified Sheriff Geo. Wilcox, here, that he had found the instrument on his premises...
After the intelligence officer here had inspected the instrument it was flown to higher headquarters.
The intelligence office stated that no details of the saucer's construction or its appearance had been revealed.
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:
Brazel related that on June 14 he and his 8-year-old son, Vernon, were about 7 or 8 miles from the ranch house of the J.B. Foster ranch, which he operates, when they came upon a large area of bright wreckage made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks.
At the time Brazel was in a hurry to get his round made and he did not pay much attention to it.
Eleven days later, Kenneth Arnold's story of "flying saucers" spread across the nation. The interview of Mac Brazel continued:
The next day he first heard about the flying disks, and he wondered if what he had found might be the remnants of one of these.
Monday he came to town to sell some wool and while here he went to see sheriff George Wilcox and "whispered kinda confidential like" that he might have found a flying disk.
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:
As they passed over the tower I called them on "B" channel, VHF and asked the flight leader, NG 869, if he had enough gas and if so, would he mind trying to identify an object in the sky to the South of Godman Field. He replied in the affirmative and made a right turn around with two planes and proceeded South from Godman Field... The three ship formation proceeded South on a heading of 210 [degrees], climbing steadily. About 1445 the flight leader, NG 869, reported seeing the object "ahead and above, I'm still climbing". To which a wing man retorted, "What the Hell are we looking for"? The leader reported at 15,000 ft that "The object is directly ahead of and above me now, moving about half my speed or faster. I'm trying to close in for a better look." This last contact was at about 1515. About 5 min. afterward, the other two ships in the flight turned back. As they passed over Godman NG 800 reported "It appears like the reflection of sunlight on an airplane canopy".
The grim news came shortly thereafter, as reported by PFC Stanley Oliver:
I received a call from Standiford Operations that the plane had crashed and the pilot was killed at Franklin, Kentucky.
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:
An examination by the army revealed last night that mysterious objects found on a lonely New Mexico ranch was a harmless high-altitude weather balloon — not a grounded flying disk. Excitement was high until Brig. Gen. Roger M. Ramey, commander of the Eighth air forces with headquarters here cleared up the mystery.
The bundle of tinfoil, broken wood beams and rubber remnants of a balloon were sent here yesterday by army air transport in the wake of reports that it was a flying disk.
But the general said the objects were the crushed remains of a ray wind target used to determine the direction and velocity of winds at high altitudes.
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.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Flying Saucer Menace." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
29 Sep 2015. Web.
20 May 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4486>
References & Further Reading
Bartholomew, R., Radford, B. Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2003.
Bequette, B. "Impossible! Maybe, But Seein'
Is Believin', Says Flier." East Oregonian. 25 Jun. 1947, Newspaper: A1.
Boshers, L. "Beware of Hypoxia." Airman Education Programs. Federal Aviation Administration, 12 Mar. 2011. Web. 22 Sep. 2015. <http://www.faa.gov/pilots/training/airman_education/topics_of_interest/hypoxia/>
Editors. "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region." Roswell Daily Record. 8 Jul. 1947, Newspaper: A1.
Gardner, M. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover Publications, 1952. 55-68.
Klass, P. "New Research Suggests Kenneth Arnold's UFOs Were Meteor-Fireballs." Skeptics UFO Newsletter. 1 Jul. 1997, Number 46: 1-2.
Peebles, C. Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1994.
Randle, K. "An Analysis of the Thomas Mantell UFO Case." The Mantell Case. National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, 16 Nov. 2002. Web. 22 Sep. 2015. <http://www.nicap.org/docs/mantell/analysis_mantell_randle.pdf>
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