Public interest in the possibility of unusual objects flying around in American airspace may be experiencing a resurgence thanks to the revelation that the Pentagon had been secretly funding investigations into the phenomena as recently as 2012, but the American military has already had a long and storied history of playing cat and mouse with mysterious lights in the sky (and elsewhere).
From sightings of “Foo Fighters” over the European theater in World War II to reports of Air National Guard P-51 Mustangs chasing lights through the skies of North Dakota in 1948, it’s clear that the United States military has had an interest in unexplained sightings reported by trained aviators dating back decades, and some would contend that this interest is justified. All professional pilots develop a keen understanding of norms in the sky, but military aviators—perhaps better than any—have been trained to look for and identify potential threats on the horizon. They know better than most what is and isn’t actually there, despite the sky’s propensity for weather-system-based tomfoolery.
It’s because of that trust in the judgment of military aviators that many of the most intriguing and long-lasting UFO-related mysteries tend to revolve around such reports. The eyewitness account of now-retired Navy Commander David Fravor regarding a series of attempted intercepts over the USS Nimitz carrier battle group in 2004, for instance, has served as an interesting—and troubling—addition to FLIR footage captured from the nose of his F/A-18 Super Hornet as he and another fighter attempted to intercept the unusual object that seemed to toy with them in the airspace around their carrier. The combination of video evidence, official Navy reports, and the clear and sober recollection of a fighter pilot have made the Nimitz incident perhaps the most prominent UFO sighting in modern history…but then, there have been some spectacular sightings in the past that seem to fall away from the American consciousness over time. That includes some that have involved scrambled fighters, official reports, and credible eyewitness accounts.
Back in July of 1952, while (it’s important to note) America was gripped by both the pop-culture phenomenon of “flying saucers” and a growing concern for Soviet aggression, a series of unusual blips appeared on the radar screens of Washington National Airport in the nation’s capital. These seven radar signatures were first spotted by controller Ed Nugent, who quickly got the attention of his supervisor, Harry G. Barnes.
“Here’s a fleet of flying saucers for you,” Nugent recalls kidding with his boss. Soon after spotting the strange readings on their radar screens, however, the humor in Nugent’s joke began to wain.
“Look at that bright light,” another flight controller, Joe Zacko, recalled interjecting in a 2002 interview. “If you believe in flying saucers, that could sure be one.”
Radar at two nearby military installations, Andrews Air Force Base and Bolling Air Force Base, both tracked the same objects. Soon, two Air Force F-94 fighter jets were scrambled to intercept these aircraft flying over the nation’s capital.
“They acted like a bunch of small kids out playing,” Barnes, the head controller, wrote in a piece for a New York newspaper days after the incident. “It was helter-skelter, as if directed by some innate curiosity. At times, they moved as a group or cluster, at other times as individuals.”
The lights and radar returns promptly vanished. Unusual as it was, some may have been happy to forget about the incident and move on…but then it happened again the following weekend.
This time, it was a dozen blips on the radar screen and F-94s were promptly scrambled to intercept. As the fighters closed with the radar readings, a number of their pilots reported seeing lights in the sky that coincided with the technical data.
“I tried to make contact with the bogies below 1,000 feet,” pilot William Patterson later told investigators. “I was at my maximum speed but…I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking them.”
Not all the pilots dispatched that night saw similar lights, however. One B-52 pilot passing through the airspace looked in the vicinity of one of the radar returns but saw only a small passenger boat bobbing along in the Potomac River—certainly nothing that could provide a return on radar screens from three separate airstrips.
These two incidents now had the nation, and its president, concerned. Headlines across the country brought the sightings to the nation’s attention. Stories out of Washington included “Radar Spots Air Mystery Objects Here” in the Washington Post and “Air Force ‘Saucer’ Expert Will Probe Sightings Here” in the Washington Daily News. The Cedar Rapids Gazette ran the headline, “SAUCERS SWARM OVER CAPITAL.”
“We have no evidence they are flying saucers,” an unnamed Air Force official reportedly told reporters. “Conversely, we have no evidence they are not flying saucers. We don’t know what they are.”
President Truman dispatched his Air Force aide, Brig. Gen. Robert B. Landry, to find out what these unusual objects were that kept flying over his house. Landry returned touting what would become the official Air Force line: The sightings were the result of a weather-related mirage.
The radar returns and the lights witnessed by pilots were formally attributed to a naturally occurring phenomenon known as temperature inversions.
“It’s very much like when you’re riding down the highway and it’s very hot out and you see a mirage on the highway,” explained Bruce Press of National Capital Area Skeptics, a group dedicated to debunking reports of the paranormal. “As you drive toward it, it doesn’t get any closer, so you assume that because it doesn’t get any closer, it’s moving away from you at the same speed you’re driving.”
Some aren’t as eager to dismiss the 1952 sightings, however, arguing that fighter pilots are trained observers that wouldn’t be so easily fooled by a weather system. Others, like Robert Swiatek of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) contend that the radar operators believed “the anomalous signals were good, solid targets, as though they were being reflected from the surface of metallic aircraft.”
Bruce Maccabee, a civilian physicist who worked for the U.S. Navy, counters those claims with another government report produced in 1969 called the “Quantitative Aspects of Mirages.”
“They proved in their own study that there wasn’t enough temperature inversion to cause this effect,” he says. “The Washington sightings cannot be explained as a radar mirage.”
Ultimately, for believers, the most frustrating thing about this pair of sightings over the nation’s capital in the summer of 1952 has been how quickly the American public forgot all about it. Some UFO sightings, like the infamous Roswell incident of 1947 or the “Phoenix Lights” of 1997, manage to worm their way into the American cultural identity, regularly resurfacing in discussion or debate. Somehow, though, the Washington incident of 1952 just never developed that level of notoriety.
Among believer and skeptic circles, however, the debate regarding this incident rages on as it does for every supposed sighting.
“You have dueling experts and dueling reports,” said Kevin D. Randle, who wrote the book “Invasion Washington: UFOs Over the Capitol.” “One expert says it was temperature inversion. Another says it wasn’t. In that situation, you have to refer back to the air traffic controllers and the pilots who actually saw the objects.”