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From 1947 through 1951, the U.S. Air Force UFO investigation (at first Project Sign, then Project Grudge and by 1952 Project Blue Book) had logged 700 UFO reports, an average of just over 150 per year. The staff had yet to encounter much pressure, or much attention from the press or the public. It was a fairly routine military intelligence gathering effort.36

This was the situation until the middle of 1952. The year started out as the previous one had begun, with fewer than one sighting per day in the first three months. In April and May, the flow increased to three per day, with the rate doubling in June. For the first half of the year, there had been 300 reports, at four times the annual rate, and still the peak had not been approached.

For the first three weeks of July, there was an average of eight reports per day, many of them coming from Air Force jet interceptor pilots sent aloft in response to radar or visual sightings from the ground. Starting on the 22nd and lasting through the 29th, reports jumped to an average of 27 per day. By the end of that extremely busy month, almost 400 reports had been recorded, which was more than in any previous full year.

The Project Blue Book office at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, was headed by Captain Edward Ruppelt, whose tiny staff was completely overwhelmed by the volume of work. Reports poured in by mail, teletype, telephone and messenger faster than they could be processed, let alone investigated. They were stacked up with vague plans to investigate when things finally calmed down.

As important as the sheer number of reports received was the particular nature of some of them, especially those from three nights of intense activity over Washington, D.C. On July 19/20, July 26/27 and August 2/3, the skies above the nation's capital were crowded with UFOs darting here and there, over the White House, over the Capitol Building, over the Pentagon.

They were seen from the ground and from control towers at Washington National Airport, Bolling Air Force Base across the Potomac River, and from nearby Andrews Air Force Base. They were also tracked on radar from all three airfields, as radar operators conferred by telephone to ensure they were tracking the same targets. (See below) In many instances, airline pilots flying in the area were able to provide visual confirmation of radar tracking.

The appearance of unidentified objects flying with impunity over the heart of the American government and its military establishment was embarrassing to the Department of Defense, whose responsibility it was to protect the country from airborne intrusion. A flood of questions from reporters led the U.S. Air Force to call its biggest press conference since World War II.

Capt Ed Ruppelt (standing)

Captain Edward J. Ruppelt [standing], director of Project Blue Book,
and Major General Samford, Chief of Air Intelligence.
Photograph courtesy of United Press InternationalPhoto.

Diagram of UFO Tracking

Diagram of the UFOs tracked by Washington's National Airport radar scope on July 20, 1952. At A, 7 objects approach the Nation's capital from the south. At B, some are seen over the White House and Capitol. At C, they appear over Andrews Air Force Base. At D, one UFO tracks an airliner. At E, one is seen to make a sharp right-angular turn. Courtesy of UFOs - A Pictorial History From Antiquity to the Present, by David C. Knight. (McGraw Hill Book Co., 1979.)

It was held in Room 3E-369 of the Pentagon, and was presided over by Air Force Intelligence Chief, Major General John Samford. The main explanation given for the rash of sightings over Washington was something called a "temperature inversion," which is the immediate cause of a mirage. General Samford suggested that lights on the ground may have looked like they were in the air because an inversion can act like an "air lens" and bend light rays. He added that something similar could have "tricked" radar into thinking it was tracking aerial targets, which were actually ground objects.37

The press left the 1_ hour conference confused, but convinced that the UFOs were no more than atmospheric phenomena. It wasn't until 1969 that an Air Force scientific report made it clear that inversions strong enough to create the effects with which General Samford credited them, could not exist in the earth's atmosphere! Moreover, probably no UFO report had ever been caused by a temperature inversion or mirage.38

The same day that General Samford held his press conference, the wheels began to turn at the Central Intelligence Agency. A memo from Ralph Clark, Acting Assistant Director for Scientific Intelligence to the Deputy Director for Intelligence, stated:

"In the past several weeks, a number of radar and visual sightings of unidentified aerial objects have been reported. Although this office has maintained a continuing review of such reputed sightings during the past three years, a special study group has been formed to review this subject to date."39

A few days later, a note was sent to Mr. Clark by Edward Tauss:

" long as a series of reports remains 'unexplainable' (interplanetary aspects and alien origin not being thoroughly excluded from consideration), caution requires that intelligence continue coverage of the subject."40

CIA interest in the UFO phenomenon increased and led to a secret panel of five prominent scientists, convened in January 1953. The "Scientific Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects" was chaired by astrophysicist Dr. H. P. Robertson and included Dr. Luis Alvarez, (who received the Nobel Prize for Physics many years later), Dr. Thornton Page of John Hopkins University and later NASA Johnson Space Center, and other top scientists. The negative conclusions of the so-called Robertson Panel would exert tremendous influence on all federal policy vis-a-vis UFOs. The Panel recommended in part:

"That the national security agencies take immediate steps to strip the unidentified flying objects of the special status they have unfortunately acquired."41



36. Ruppelt, Edward J., The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Doubleday & Co., 1956.

37. Transcript of General Samford's press conference at the Pentagon, July 29, 1952.

38. Menkello, F.V., ibid.

39. CIA memorandum to the Deputy Director/Intelligence, July 29, 1952, re "Recent Sightings of Unexplained Objects."

40. Informal CIA memorandum to Deputy Assistant Director/SI, August 1, 1952, re "Flying Saucers."

41. Central Intelligence Agency, "Report of the Scientific Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects," January 1953.