A Brief History
On June 24, 1947, veteran pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing what he described as a line of shiny UFO’s flying past Mount Rainier (Washington) at a rate of “at least 1200 miles per hour.” The incident, known later as the Kenneth Arnold UFO Sighting, was widely reported and became the first post-World War II UFO incident, becoming the first in what is considered the “modern era” of UFO sightings. Arnold’s description of the flat, metallic shiny objects led to the term “flying saucer” that became so familiar with UFO sightings. The incident and worldwide reporting spawned many other reports of UFO’s over the next couple weeks.
Ken Arnold was a person of considerable credibility, having been a seasoned pilot for many years and having flown 4500 hours of search and rescue missions among his 9000 hours of flight time. He had started a fire suppression business in 1940 and was a graduate of the University of Minnesota. (He was born in Minnesota, raised in Montana, and lived as an adult in Idaho where he founded his company.) While flying on a business trip in a CallAir A-2 light airplane (single engine 2 or 3 seat monoplane, propeller driven, similar to a Cessna 150) Arnold spotted 9 shiny objects whizzing by at high speed past Mount Rainier. (Arnold had diverted his course a bit to look for a lost USMC C-46 transport plane with a $5000 reward offered for anyone that located the plane.) He described the objects variously as similar to pie plates, or half pie plates, thinking at first the objects were a flock of geese, but quickly realized they were too high and fast to be geese. Arnold reported the objects, which he also surmised might be some new form of jet aircraft, were flipping around through the sky in frantic maneuvers, appearing very thin when viewed from the side. Arnold’s later descriptions included expanded details such as one object being crescent shaped and the UFO traveling similar to stones skipping on water. Arnold estimated their distance from his plane at about 23 miles. He lost sight of the objects when they flew behind a local mountain peak.
At first Arnold estimated the size of the UFO’s at about 60 feet, but later amended his analysis to claim a size closer to 100 feet across. Army Air Force analysts later used Arnold’s description and his use of range estimation as a basis for delivering an estimate of the size of the UFO’s at 140 to 280 feet across, accounting for human visual acuity. Arnold reported the objects to be flying in a diagonal formation over a distance of about 5 miles from front to back. He said the formation of UFO’s darted through valleys between mountains and at times banked on their edges. His later calculations estimated their speed at 1700 miles per hour. (No, we do not know how he could come up with such a deduction when no aircraft had ever flown that fast before.)
Arnold told people at the Yakima airport about his observation when he landed, and word quickly spread among airport workers. Arnold later wrote that Yakima airport manager Al Baxter did not believe the story, but apparently some people did, for at least one of them phoned ahead to Arnold’s next destination, an air show at Pendleton, Oregon. When Arnold arrived, people were ready to ask him about his experience, but he did not speak to reporters until the next day. Within 3 days of the incident Arnold was besieged by reporters and other people asking questions and he complained of having constant distractions. Arnold did not reportedly surmise an extraterrestrial origin of the UFO’s until articles appeared on July 7, 1947, including an Associated Press story. Public speculation about the odd sighting included foreign aircraft of some unknown technological advanced state, alien space craft, or even religious implications. By July 19, 1947, Arnold was convinced himself that the objects had been extraterrestrial in origin. Arnold fiercely defended his observations as real and true, and wrote about his experience himself. Arnold seemed desperate for some sort of corroboration of his story.
After the widespread reporting of the Arnold UFO other reports of similar sightings started to reach the news. Reports of “flying saucers” came from locations around the United States and around the world (hundreds of them), and the term “flying saucer” became part of the American lexicon. In fact, Arnold himself had first used the term “flying disc,” and not “flying saucer,” although various news sources gave different details on quotes attributed to Arnold. The infamous “Roswell UFO Incident” allegedly occurred on July 8, 1947 only a couple weeks after the Arnold UFO. Army Air Force analysis of an interview with Arnold concluded that Arnold was an honest man and was telling the truth, though they publicly stated it was their belief Arnold had observed a mirage. Other explanations offered by skeptics include clouds of snow blown off mountain tops, regular clouds, meteors, or even small spots of water on the canopy of Arnold’s plane! Some skeptics were convinced Arnold had seen some sort of flock of birds, perhaps pelicans. (What???)
By 1950, Ken Arnold reported 3 more sightings of UFO’s, and of course many others had reported other UFO incidents. Arnold wrote a book about his experiences, The Coming of the Saucers, in 1952. The book was self-published. Ken Arnold died at the age of 68 in 1984 in Boise, Idaho, leaving an indelible legacy on the subject of UFO’s. His CallAir A-2 that he was flying on the fateful day in 1947 is on display at the North Cascade Vintage Aircraft Museum in Concrete, Washington reportedly still flyable.
Do you believe Ken Arnold saw something not of the Earth in 1947? Feel free to offer your opinions or any further information about this intriguing incident.
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For more information, please see…
Arnold and Palmer. The Coming of the Saucers. CreateSpace, 2014.
O’Connel, Mark. The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs. Dey Street Books, 2017.