ASKED to come up with examples of long-running modern-day phenomenon, you might think of the Rolling Stones or Coronation Street.
But 75 years ago today, another one was born out of a misreported remark – “flying saucers”.
It’s inconceivable to think of our language without “flying saucers” being such well-known words.
Yet before June 24, 1947, no one had heard of them, or took the possibility of visitors from space seriously.
It was the stuff of pulp magazines and movie serials.
This changed when a pilot called Kenneth Arnold, taking an hour to search for the wreck of a military aircraft in the Cascade Mountains, Washington State, spotted something remarkable.
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From his aircraft, Arnold saw a line of nine shiny objects, fast-moving things that reflected the sun.
One looked “heel-shaped” with an angled side.
He calculated their speed using the time they took to traverse known landscape features – over 1,300 mph, twice the speed that any man-made aircraft could fly at back then.
Interviewed by Frank Brown from the Counter-Intelligence Corps soon after the incident, the agent wrote: “If Mr. Arnold can write a report of the character that he did while not having seen the objects that he claimed he saw, it is the opinion of the interviewer that Mr. Arnold is in the wrong business, that he should be writing Buck Rogers fiction.”
Journalists soon got wind of Arnold’s tale and he found himself answering questions everywhere he went.
One mistook his description of the objects’ movement – “like a saucer if you skip it across water” – as the shape of them and came up with the term “flying saucers”.
An enduring phenomenon was born.
Soon, flying discs – the term that the military started using to describe these mysterious intruders – were being spotted all over America and across the world.
Air force intelligence officers were at a loss to explain the sightings. In December 1947, the first of three investigation programs, namely Project Sign, was set up.
Its remit? To collect reports, analyse them and discover what these flying discs were and where they came from.
Whilst Sign searched for answers, the reports continued. Thomas Mantell, an Air National Guard pilot, died in January 1948 whilst chasing after a “flying saucer”, climbing to a height beyond safe limits as he was not carrying oxygen.
The UFO was officially evaluated as being a weather balloon.
Another military pilot, George Gorman, got into a dogfight with a fast-moving light that made head-on passes at his F-51 Mustang in October 1948.
He lived to tell the tale.
Airliner crews spoke of seeing huge objects with rows of “windows” or lights along their sides and some had to take avoiding action to prevent what might have been mid-air collisions with these things.
The military appeared powerless to stop these unknown intruders from flying over US airspace.
Sign – and its successor, Project Grudge – collected hundreds of reports during their brief existences.
After countless hours of analysis in 1948 and 1949, military intelligence was no further forward.
A third program, Blue Book, was created in 1952. Despite running until 1969, it seemed to be nothing more than a public relations exercise, with mundane explanations being proposed for extraordinary encounters.
Yet UFO reports continued after its cancellation – the lack of knowledge has continued to this day.
A fourth American military UFO investigation program – the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force – was set up in 2020, and a new body with an unpronounceable set of initials is being created at this very moment.
Yet no-one still appears to have the answer to what is happening.
If you’d asked Kenneth Arnold if we’d still be wondering what “flying saucers” were 75 years later, I’m sure he would have shaken his head in disgust.
Graeme Rendall is the author of “Dawn of the Flying Saucers”, a look at UFO encounters between 1946 and 1949, and “UFOs Before Roswell”, a detailed examination of the “Foo Fighter” UFO phenomenon during World War 2.