On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold saw something that would not only change his life forever, but his experience also served as a catalyst for our modern UFO craze. His report after seeing nine unidentified flying objects, is generally considered to be the first widely reported UFO sighting in the United States.
Kenneth Arnold Sighting
Arnold, a recreational private pilot, was returning home from a flight in Wyoming when he received a radio signal requesting assistance in the Yakima, Washington area. It seems there was a missing troop transport and a aerial search party was being assembled.
At 3:00 p.m., flying at 9,000 feet, a bright flash of light caught Arnold’s attention. Turning to look our of the side window of his airplane, Arnold was amazed to see 9 saucer shaped objects flying in formation. Thinking they were some sort of military aircraft, he watched them intently as they bobbed, weaved, and darted about flying at an amazingly high rate of speed. What fascinated Arnold the most was the fact that the flying objects had no tail, but rather were round, saucer shaped, metallic and highly polished.
On June 24, 1947, Arnold was flying from Chehalis, Washington to Yakima, Washington in a CallAir A-2 on a business trip. He made a brief detour after learning of a $5000 reward for the discovery of a U.S. Marine Corps C-46 transport airplane that had crashed near Mt. Rainer. The skies were completely clear and there was a mild wind. A few minutes before 3:00 p.m. at about 9,200 feet in altitude and near Mineral, Washington, he gave up his search and started heading eastward towards Yakima. He saw a bright flashing light, similar to sunlight reflecting from a mirror. Afraid he might be dangerously close to another aircraft, Arnold scanned the skies around him, but all he could see was a DC-4 to his left and back of him, about 15 miles away.
About 30 seconds after seeing the first flash of light, Arnold saw a series of bright flashes in the distance off to his left, or north of Mt. Rainier, which was then 20 to 25 miles away. He thought they might be reflections on his airplane’s windows, but a few quick tests (rocking his airplane from side to side, removing his eyeglasses, later rolling down his side window) ruled this out. They flew in a long chain, and Arnold for a moment considered they might be a flock of geese, but quickly ruled this out for a number of reasons, including the altitude, bright glint, and obviously very fast speed. He then thought they might be a new type of jet and started looking intently for a tail and was surprised that he couldn’t find any. They quickly approached Rainier and then passed in front, usually appearing dark in profile against the bright white snowfield covering Rainier, but occasionally still giving off bright light flashes as they flipped around erratically. Sometimes he said he could see them on edge, when they seemed so thin and flat they were practically invisible.
According to Clark Arnold said that one of the objects was rather crescent shaped, while the other eight objects were more circular, but initially Arnold’s descriptions were only of the latter disk-like shape. At one point Arnold said they flew behind a subpeak of Rainier and briefly disappeared. Knowing his position and the position of the (unspecified) subpeak, Arnold placed their distance as they flew past Rainier at about 23 miles. Using a zeus cowling fastener as a gauge to compare the nine objects to the distant DC-4, Arnold estimated their angular size as slightly smaller than the DC-4, about the width between the outer engines (about 60 feet). Arnold also said he realized that the objects would have to be quite large to see any details at that distance and later, after comparing notes with a United Airlines crew that had a similar sighting 10 days later (see below), placed the absolute size as larger than a DC-4 airliner (or greater than 100 feet in length). Army Air Force analysts would later estimate 140 to 280 feet, based on analysis of human visual acuity and other sighting details (such as estimated distance).
Arnold said the objects were grouped together, as Ted Bloecher writes, “in a diagonally stepped-down, echelon formation, stretched out over a distance that he later calculated to be five miles”. Though moving on a more or less level horizontal plane, Arnold said the objects weaved from side to side (“like the tail of a Chinese kite” as he later stated), darting through the valleys and around the smaller mountain peaks. They would occasionally flip or bank on their edges in unison as they turned or maneuvered causing almost blindingly bright or mirror-like flashes of light. The encounter gave him an “eerie feeling”, but Arnold suspected he had seen test flights of a new U.S. military aircraft.
As the objects passed Mt Rainer, Arnold turned his plane southward on a more or less parallel course. It was at this point that he opened his side window and began observing the objects unobstructed by any glass that might have produced reflections. The objects did not disappear and continued to move very rapidly southward, continuously moving forward of his position. Curious about their speed, he began to time their rate of passage: he said they moved from Mt. Rainer to Mt. Adams where they faded from view, a distance of about 50 miles, in one minute and forty-two seconds, according to the clock on his instrument panel. When he later had time to do the calculation, the speed was over 1,700 miles per hour. This was about three times faster than any manned aircraft in 1947. Not knowing exactly the distance where the objects faded from view, Arnold conservatively and arbitrarily rounded this down to 1200 miles an hour, still faster than any known aircraft, which had yet to break the sound barrier. It was this supersonic speed in addition to the unusual saucer or disk description that seemed to capture people’s attention.
Infamous News Conference
Arnold radioed in his sighting and the uproar began. When he landed he was surprised to find a news conference scheduled at the Pendleton field in Oregon. It was at this news conference that Arnold gave the world the first description of a saucer shaped object (Arnold explained that they looked like saucers skipping across water). The term ‘flying saucers’ was coined and the UFO craze began.
Arnold landed in Yakima at about 4.00 p.m., and quickly told friend and airport general manager Al Baxter the amazing story, and before long, the entire airport staff knew of Arnold’s claims. He discussed the story with the staff, and later wrote that Baxter didn’t believe him. Arnold flew on to an air show Pendleton, Oregon, not knowing that somebody in Yakima had phoned in ahead to say that Arnold had seen some strange new aircraft. It was at this time that Arnold studied his maps, determined the distance between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, and calculated the rather astonishing speed.
He told a number of pilot friends, and wrote in his account to AAF intelligence that they did not scoff or laugh. Instead they suggested that maybe he had seen guided missiles or something new, though Arnold felt this explanation to be inadequate. He also wrote that some former Army pilots told him that they had been briefed before going into combat “that they might see objects of similar shape and design as I described and assured me that I wasn’t dreaming or going crazy.” Arnold wasn’t interviewed by reporters until the next day (June 25) when he went to the office of the Pendleton East Oregonian. Any skepticism the reporters might have harbored evaporated when they interviewed Arnold at length; as historian Mike Dash
Arnold had the makings of a reliable witness. He was a respected businessman and experienced pilot … and seemed to be neither exaggerating what he had seen, nor adding sensational details to his report. He also gave the impression of being a careful observer … These details impressed the newspapermen who interviewed him and lent credibility to his report.
Arnold’s sighting was partly corroborated by a prospector on Mt. Adams, who wrote AAF intelligence that he saw six of the objects on June 24 at about the same time as Arnold, which he viewed through a small telescope. He said they were “round” and tapered “sharply to a point in the head and in an oval shape.” He also noted that the objects seemed to disturb his compass. An evaluation of the witness by AAF intelligence found him to be credible.
A Seattle newspaper also mentioned a woman near Tacoma who said she saw a chain of nine, bright objects flying at high speed near Mt. Rainier. Unfortunately this short news item wasn’t precise as to time or date, but indicated it was around the same date as Arnold’s sighting. However, a pilot of a DC-4 some 10 to 15 miles north of Arnold en route to Seattle reported seeing nothing unusual. (This was the same DC-4 seen by Arnold and which he used for size comparison.)
Other Seattle area newspapers also reported other sightings of flashing, rapidly moving unknown objects on the same day, but not the same time, as Arnold’s sighting. Most of these sightings were west of Seattle in the town of Bremerton, either that morning or at night.
The primary corroborative sighting, however, occurred ten days later (July 4) when a United Airlines crew over Idaho en route to Seattle also spotted five to nine disk-like objects that paced their plane for 10 to 15 minutes before suddenly disappearing. The next day in Seattle, Arnold met with the pilot, Cpt. E. J. Smith, and copilot and compared sighting details. The main difference in shape was that the United crew thought the objects appeared rough on top. This was one of the few sightings that Arnold felt was reliable, most of the rest he thought were the public seeing other things and letting their imaginations run wild. Arnold and Cpt. Smith became friends, met again with Army Air Force intelligence officers on July 12 and filed sighting reports, then teamed up again at the end of July in investigating the strange Maury Island incident
The United States Air Force officially classified the report as a mirage.