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.
Wednesday, June 25, 1947
Reporters Nolan Skiff and Bill Bequette interviewed Arnold at the East Oregonian office in Pendleton. Judging by the time it took the objects to fly from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams, Arnold estimated “they traveled 48 to 50 miles in one minute and 42 seconds.” That’s 1692 miles per hour, he calculated, much faster than the speed of sound. This was unthinkable in 1947, since the world record was 647 mph. Arnold found the figure so hard to believe, he lowered it to 1200. He never called them “saucers” but told reporters the thin craft moved “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.”
Bequette wrote the story. The next morning, the Associated Press ran it in 140 newspapers. Somewhere in the transmission, either by Bequette or the AP writer, the half-moon-shaped craft became round, and the terms “flying disks” and “flying saucers” made headlines.
Thursday, June 26, 1947
A page-two story in the Chicago Sun: “Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot.”
San Diego Union: “AT INCREDIBLE SPEED: Forest Service Man Sees Mystery Objects.” Along with Arnold’s story, the Union reported that a man in Ukiah, California, saw similar objects over the mountains. Another saw “mystery missiles” high above Portland, and a woman in Vancouver found a strange, egg-shaped object in her backyard. A meteorite?
According to the Union story, officials in Washington, DC, denied knowledge of objects able to fly 1200 miles per hour. “As far as we know,” said an unnamed spokesman, “nothing flies that fast except a V-2 rocket, which travels at about 3500 miles an hour — and that’s too fast to be seen.”
Friday, June 27, 1947
San Diego Union headline: “Fast Disc-Like Objects Noted in Wide Areas.” Five or six weeks before Arnold’s sighting, Byron Savage of Oklahoma City watched a flat disk shape, larger than any known airplane, “hurtling through the sky at tremendous speed.” Savage was an experienced pilot. When his wife said it must have been lightning, he kept quiet. But when he “read about that man seeing nine of the same things, I thought it only fair to back him up.”
Savage’s wife saw how “worked up” he became after he “read about the man in Washington,” and she changed her mind about the object being lightning.
While repairing a roof in Kansas City, W.I. Davenport, a carpenter, watched nine aluminum-colored objects racing overhead. Contrary to other sightings, he heard “the faint sound of motors,” and they left a vapor trail and appeared to be “radio-controlled.”
After Arnold’s story broke, 20 people across the Northwest reported flashing disks. A woman near Tacoma identified “nine bright objects flying near Mt. Rainier” around the time of Arnold’s encounter. Elvira Forsyth, of Seattle, drew a heel-shaped object for reporters, the curved part facing forward.
At 3:00 p.m. on June 24, Fred M. Johnson was prospecting on Mt. Adams. He noticed five or six oval-shaped objects a minute after Arnold saw his. They moved in a straight line. Whenever they banked in a turn, sunlight flashed.
“Having a telescope with me,” he said, “I can assure you they are real and nothing like them I ever saw before.” He watched for almost a minute. When they passed overhead at 1000 feet, they looked “about 30 foot in diameter, tapering sharply to a point in the head and in an oval shape.” He heard no noise but noticed an object on the tail “like a big hand of a clock shifting from side to side like a big magnet.” They moved like nothing he’d ever seen. His watch had a compass. When he checked the time he noticed that the needle “spun wildly.”
According to researcher Donald Keyhoe, “Johnson insisted he had not heard of the Arnold report, which was not broadcast until early evening.”
Newspapers began to offer explanations: Arnold saw “reflections from his instrument panel”; he had “a touch of snow blindness from a mountain peak.” These were: “guided missiles,” “mirages,” “illusions,” or “a flock of swans.” There were “whisperings of secret Russian weapons.”
“I haven’t had a moment of peace since I first told the story,” Arnold told the Oregon Journal. A minister from Texas phoned him to say that the objects were a “harbinger of doomsday.” The man was preparing his flock for the end of the world.
Arnold kept to his story. “It’s God’s truth — I will swear it on a Bible.” At a café in Pendleton, a woman couldn’t take her eyes off him. Then she jumped up and screamed, “There’s the man who saw the men from Mars!”
“She ran out sobbing,” Arnold shuddered, “as if she went to protect her kids.”
“This whole thing has gotten out of hand,” he added. “I want to talk to the FBI or someone. Half the people look at me as a combination of Einstein, Flash Gordon, and screwball. I wonder what my wife back in Idaho thinks.”
That day Arnold cabled the commanding general of Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. He’d mailed a complete account, days before, and received no reply. “It is with considerable disappointment you cannot give the explanation of these aircraft, as I felt certain they belonged to our government,” he wrote. “They have apparently meant no harm, but used as an instrument of destruction in combination with our atomic bomb, the effects could destroy life on our planet.”
Saturday, June 28, 1947
The San Diego Union printed three short paragraphs: “Flying Discs Might Be Jet Airplanes.” Lt. Col. Harold Turner, of White Sands, New Mexico, said that “jet planes have circular exhaust pipes” and that “when heated might give an illusion of discs.” (Two days later he changed his mind and said they were meteorites.)
The story added that “the area over which ‘flying saucers’ were reported seen widened to Southwestern New Mexico today.”
Arnold stayed in Pendleton, Oregon, to gather information. He flew home to Boise on the 27th. The next day his hometown paper, the Idaho Statesman, quoted Arnold: “I saw what I saw. No one can change my mind. If I was running the country and someone reported something unusual, I’d certainly want to know more about it.”
In spite of all the growing hoopla, he said, “Everybody should be concerned, but I don’t think it’s anything for people to get hysterical about.”
Sunday, June 29, 1947
San Diego Union: “Those Discs Just Beer Bottle Caps.” Ray Taro of Everett, Washington, claimed to have solved the mystery. The bright, swiftly moving lights weren’t reflections from distant planes or fragments of meteors or “the migraine condition of certain people. It’s me — my foundry — that’s responsible.”
Taro’s ironworks boiled down bottle caps for alloying metal. The cork on the inside burns, and the steel melts, he said, but each bottle cap has a little aluminum disk under the cork that doesn’t melt. So, during melting periods, he would blow “hundreds of thousands of them” from his 40-foot-high stacks.
“Big blowers attached to my furnaces…send the little disks hundreds of feet into the air, and they’re carried away by air currents.”
And that, said Taro, is what “Ken ‘Saucer’ Arnold saw.”
Next time: Sightings Everywhere
- 1. Kenneth Arnold (to Edward R. Murrow): “I never could understand at the time why the world got so upset about nine disks, as these things didn’t seem to be a menace. I believed that they had something to do with our Army and Air Force.”
- 2. Ted Bloecher: “To many it must have come as a relief to read of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, and to discover that they had not taken leave of their senses.”
- 3. Kevin P. Randle: “Once the first of the sightings enters into the public arena, then there are those who come forward with their tales, many of which are hoaxes.”
- Kenneth Arnold (to Edward R. Murrow): “I never could understand at the time why the world got so upset about nine disks, as these things didn’t seem to be a menace. I believed that they had something to do with our Army and Air Force.”
- Ted Bloecher: “To many it must have come as a relief to read of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, and to discover that they had not taken leave of their senses.”
- Kevin P. Randle: “Once the first of the sightings enters into the public arena, then there are those who come forward with their tales, many of which are hoaxes.”
Arnold, Kenneth, “Interview with Edward R. Murrow,” broadcast April 7, 1950; “How It All Began,” in Fuller, Curtis G., Proceedings of the First International UFO Congress, 1980; The Coming of the Saucers, Amherst, 1952; “I Did See the Flying Discs,” FATE Magazine, Spring, 1948.
Berliner, Don, UFO Briefing Document, New York, 1995.
Bloecher, Ted, Report of the UFO Wave of 1947, NICAP, 1967.
Keyhoe, Donald, Flying Saucers Are Real, New York, 1950.
Project 1947, “UFO Reports, 1947,” project1947.com.
Randle, Kevin P., “A Different Perspective: June 24, 1947, the Arnold Sighting,” kevinrandle.blogspot.com.
Vallee, Jacques, UFO’s in Space: Anatomy of a Phenomenon, New York, 1965.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Tribune-Sun, and other newspapers.
Read more: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4