The Beginning: Monday, June 23, 1947
Richard Rankin stretched himself out on his front lawn in Bakersfield, California. He wanted to sunbathe and give his aching back, injured in an auto accident, a rest. Rankin had over 7000 hours of flying time. And as pilots are trained to do, he didn’t just stare blankly upward. He “kept his head on a swivel” as he probed the skies and noticed a formation of what? Planes? No, more like ten silver disks, flat on the bottom, heading north at 9000 feet. Nine flew in a V formation at “maybe 300 or 400 miles an hour.” The tenth trailed behind.
Not long after, seven similar disks returned on the same course in V formation. “I couldn’t make out…their propellers,” Rankin told a reporter a week later, or “distinguish any wings or tail. They appeared almost round.”
He assumed they were XF5U-1’s, the Navy’s experimental “Flying Flapjack.” The wingless XF5U-1 had a round body and propellers on each side of the fuselage. It could fly 550 miles an hour and was to be the Navy’s next fighter. But by 1946, the military began switching to jets. In March 1947 the Navy scrapped the project, which went way over budget.
The Navy claimed it built only one prototype that “never left Connecticut.” Never left the ground, some said.
Rankin decided not to make a report until someone else did. That way, people wouldn’t think he was crazy.
Tuesday, June 24, 1947
“I would have given almost anything that day to have had a movie camera with a telephoto lens,” said Kenneth Arnold, 32. “From now on I will never be without one.”
Arnold owned a ranch in Boise, Idaho, where a hayfield was his runway. His company, Great Western Fire Control Supply, manufactured fire-fighting equipment. He was a deputy federal marshal and a member of the Idaho Search and Rescue Mercy Flyers.
On June 24 he took off from Chehalis, Washington, around 2:00 p.m. He planned to stop at Yakima. But when he heard the military was still looking for a C-46 Navy transport that had crashed on Mt. Rainier, he decided to join the search. The $5000 reward was an added enticement.
For an hour he inspected the snow-packed southwest side of the high plateau. When he found nothing, he climbed to 9200 feet and headed back for a second look.
With the sun to the right of his red, single-engine Call-Air, Arnold noticed a DC-4 to his left-rear, 15 miles off at about 14,000 feet, probably going to Seattle. The skies were so clear and turbulence-free that “flying was sheer pleasure.” He “simply sat in my plane observing the sky and the terrain.”
Then a flash — “mirror bright” — shot across the canopy and “almost blinded” him. Had he flown too close to another plane? Did a prankster P-51 pilot “give me a buzz job across my nose and that was the sun reflecting off his wings?”
No. He looked left and right. A second beam flashed. It came from north of Mt. Rainier. Arnold turned and saw “a chain of nine peculiar-looking aircraft flying from north to south at approximately 9500-foot elevation” and outlined against the snow.
Arnold first assumed they were jet planes. But their motion was wrong for “jet jobs.” And the “black thin line” flew twice, maybe even three times as fast as anything he’d seen before.
Must be newfangled aircraft, Arnold thought. They moved on a diagonal like snow geese, in a general direction. Then they’d swerve as if joined together, like playing “follow the leader.” Every now and then they’d tilt, catch the sunlight, and shoot “arc light” — like reflections across the sky.
Arnold could see they were separate objects. And “geese don’t fly that high.” For that matter, geese don’t go south in June.
They must have been 20–25 miles off and fairly large, since he could make them out so clearly at that distance. He knew “most all flying objects, whether I am close to the ground or at higher altitudes.” The more he watched, the more upset he became.
Planes don’t fly that close to mountains. Up-drafts and turbulence are too tricky. Yet these wound around snow-covered ridges — dangerously close — in a five-mile-long chain. Although they weaved over the 47-mile hogback between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams “like the tail of a Chinese kite,” Arnold couldn’t “make out any tail on them.”
For a better view, he slanted his plane toward them and rolled back the side window. Eight looked “something like a pie plate cut in half, with a sort of convex triangle in the rear” — or a half-moon, with a small pyramid in the center. The ninth was different: round, with a hole in the middle. It shone like a silver- or nickel-plated donut.
Maybe it wasn’t different. “I thought it was the angle from which I observed this particular one…I wasn’t completely positive about it.”
The objects didn’t bounce up or down, “as would rockets or artillery shells.” They flew “straight and level.” Arnold became convinced “they were some type of airplane, even though they didn’t conform with the…conventional type of planes that I know.”
Arnold followed them for at least two minutes. Since they moved so fast, “it would have been very difficult from the ground to observe these for more than four or five seconds.”
After they were gone, he searched for the C-46. But he couldn’t shake the encounter and “became more disturbed, so…I headed for Yakima.”
Arnold reported the sighting to his close friend, Al Baker, general manager of Central Aircraft Company. Baker knew Arnold had over 4000 hours as a pilot and was expert at flying over mountainous territory. “He listened patiently and was very courteous,” Arnold recalled, “but in a joking way didn’t believe me.”
Later that afternoon, Arnold flew to an air show at Pendleton, Oregon. He told pilots his story. “They didn’t scoff or laugh.” Their first thoughts: the human body can’t stand that velocity or the erratic twists and swerves; must be something Russian or a top-secret U.S. rocket-propelled ship.
Read more: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4