In late August, AMC commander Lt. General Nathan F. Twining passed the inquiry on to his director of intelligence, Colonel Howard M. McCoy, who convened a conference of experts to study the AFOIR (AC/AS-2) assessment.
On 23 September, Gen. Twining wrote to the commanding general of the Army Air Forces, to the attention of Gen. Schulgen:
It is the [AMC] opinion that:
- The phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary or fictitious.
- There are objects probably approximating the shape of a disc, of such appreciable size as to appear to be as large as man-made aircraft.
- There is a possibility that some of the incidents may be caused by natural phenomena, such as meteors.
- The reported operating characteristics such as extreme rates of climb, maneuverability (particularly in roll), and action which must be considered evasive when sighted or contacted by friendly aircraft and radar, lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically or remotely.
- Due consideration must be given the following:
- The possibility that these objects are of domestic origin - the product of some high security project not known to AC/AS-2 or this Command.
- The lack of physical evidence in the shape of crash recovered exhibits which would undeniably prove the existence of these objects.
- The possibility that some foreign nation has a form of propulsion possibly nuclear, which is outside of our domestic knowledge.18
Twining recommended that Headquarters issue a directive prioritizing a special project to conduct a more detailed study of the matter. In the meantime, T-2’s analysts considered the possibility that the Soviets could have developed a flying saucer from expropriated Nazi technologies. Having determined that they were not our technology, it was either the Soviets or extraterrestrial.
But soon, aerodynamicists at Wright Field’s Aircraft Laboratory established there was no conceivable way that any aircraft could match the reported performance of the flying saucers. No material known could withstand the loads of the reported manuevers, or the tremendous heat at the reported speeds. Even if the vehicle could be built, the human body would not survive the violent manuevers. Toward the end of 1947, the inconceivable level of technological advance demonstrated by the reports presented some unsettling implications, and a new problem. How do you collect interplanetary intelligence?19
By late December, an official exchange of letters established Project Sign as a secret official project, with the directive to collect, collate, evaluate and distribute to interested government agencies and contractors all information concerning sightings and phenomena in the atmosphere which can be construed to be of concern to the national security. . . . This project is assigned priority 2A, with a security classification of “restricted” and Code Name of “SIGN”.20
Late January 1948, Col. McCoy and the experts at Project Sign began their study. Over the next several months, project personnel looked into about 180 cases, many that they felt were profoundly puzzling. For example, on 5 April 1948, at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico three highly trained balloon observers, under the direction of Dr. J. W. Peoples, were working on a secret project for the Air Force’s Watson Laboratories. Initially, one observer saw two large, whitish, irregularly rounded objects going very high up. One veered to the right, started down in a large loop and disappeared suddenly. The second object made three vertical loops before vanishing at a tremendous speed in a large arc to the west. All were certain that the objects weren’t balloons, and faster than any aircraft.21
Then on 24 July Eastern Air Lines pilots, Capt. Clarence S. Chiles, and John B. Whitted, had a very close encounter in the skies over Alabama. Chiles first saw the object ahead emerging out of a distant squall line. Closing fast, just above their flight altitude, at first they thought it was a jet by the advancing glow of the exhaust. But as the device neared they were amazed to observe a large, wingless, cigar-shaped fuselage, with double-decked rows of large rectangular windows, or apparent openings emitting a bright glow “like burning magnesium.” Along its underside there was a bluish glow, and a flaming red-orange exhaust spewing out the rear of the object. As it passed off their starboard wing at an estimated speed of at least 500 mph, Chiles’ spontaeneous reaction was to jerk the DC-3 to the left to avoid the object. Both saw it pass aft of them and abruptly pull-up, and Whitted, on the right side, saw the object vanish after a short but fast vertical ascent. At the time, most of the passengers were asleep, though one observed a strange, intense streak of light out of his window; and a report from a crew chief at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, and a pilot flying near the Virginia-North Carolina border, also seemed to confirm the sighting.22
Eastern released the reported details to the newspapers, and the case made national news the next day: “Buck Rogers-like Plane Passes 2 Airline Pilots!” Sign investigators arrived the same day, and were impressed by the quality of the observations and general agreement of physical details. This was one of the first times that two reliable observers were really close enough to get a good look.
The Chiles-Whitted sighting proved to be a watershed event. How could a wingless, tailess fuselage fly? It was not simply a missile, it had windows, and it must be able to take off, manuever and land. But how? By this time Sign had investigated several dozen sighting reports from credible observers that they could not explain, and considering the performance characteristics, and inconceivable powerplant requirements, possibly nuclear—or even more exotic—it was impossible they could be be ours, or even the Soviets.
In September 1948 they drafted a formal intelligence summary, or “estimate of the situation,” concluding that the flying objects were interplanetary spacecraft. The following excerpt, partially describing the contents of the Sign estimate, was written by Capt. Edward Ruppelt:
As documented proof, many unexplained sightings were quoted. The original UFO sighting by Kenneth Arnold; the series of sightings from the secret Air Force Test Center, Muroc AFB; the F-51 pilot’s observation of a formation of spheres near Lake Meade; the report of an F-80 pilot who saw two round objects diving toward the ground near the Grand Canyon; and a report by the pilot of an Idaho National Guard T- 6 trainer, who saw a violently maneuvering black object.
As further documentation, the report quoted an interview with an Air Force Major from the Rapid City AFB (now Ellsworth AFB) who saw twelve UFO’s flying a tight diamond formation. When he first saw them they were high but soon they went into a fantastically high speed dive, leveled out, made a perfect formation turn, and climbed at a 30 to 40 degree angle, accelerating all the time. The UFO’s were oval-shaped and brilliant yellowish-white.
Also included was one of the reports from the AEC’s Los Alamos Laboratory. The incident occurred at 9:40 AM on September 23, 1948. A group of people were waiting for an airplane at the landing strip in Los Alamos when one of them noticed something glint in the sun. It was a flat, circular object, high in the northern sky. The appearance and relative size was the same as a dime held edgewise and slightly tipped, about 50 feet away.
The document pointed out that the reports hadn’t actually started with the Arnold Incident. Belated reports from a weather observer in Richmond, Virginia, who observed a “silver disk” through his theodolite telescope; an F-47 pilot, and three pilots in his formation, who saw a “silver flying wing”; and the English “ghost airplanes” that had been picked up on radar early in 1947, proved this point. Although not received until after the Arnold sighting, they all had taken place earlier. [Unedited MS of The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects in Ruppelt files].23
The Top Secret estimate made its way up into the higher eschelons of the Air Force, but when it reached all the way to Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, it was “batted back down” without his approval. The report lacked proof. The general wouldn’t buy the extraterestrial theory, and he wanted everyone to know. Some month’s later it was declassified and relegated to the incinerator.
Despite Vandenberg’s rebuke of the estimate, Project Sign personnel were undaunted, and continued to explore their advanced propulsion theory. But behind the scenes, opposing elements in the Pentagon were marshalling forces to impose a different outcome. Following the Chiles-Whitted sighting, Director of Intelligence Maj. General Charles Cabell requested that his Office of Air Intelligence, Defensive Analysis (AFOIA-DA) prepare a study examining “the possible tactics of the flying objects reported over the U.S.” Contrary to Sign’s extraterrestrial estimate, the resulting document, Analysis of Flying Object Incidents in the U.S., focused the issue on national security, and the responsibility of the Air Force in the air defense of the U.S.:
THE FREQUENCY of reported incidents, the similarity in many of the characteristics attributed to the observed objects and the quality of observers considered as a whole, support the contention that some type of flying object has been observed… The identification of that object cannot be readily accomplished on the basis of information reported on each incident. It is possible that the object, or objects, may have been domestically launched devices such as weather balloons, rockets, experimental flying wing aircraft, or celestial phenomenon. It is necessary to obtain information on such domestic activity to confirm or deny this possibility. Depending upon the degree with which this may be accomplished, foreign devices must then be considered as a possibility.
THE ORIGIN of the devices is not ascertainable. There are two reasonable possibilities: (1) The objects are domestic devices, and if so, their identification or origin can be established by a survey of all launchings of airborne objects… (2) Objects are foreign, and if so, it would seem most logical to consider that they are from a Soviet source… As early as 1924 Tscheranowsky developed a ‘Parabola’ aircraft, an all wing design, which was the outcome of considerable Soviet experimentation with gliders of the same general form. Soviet aircraft based on such designs might have speeds approaching trans-sonic speeds attributed to some flying objects or greater over-all performance assuming the successful development of some unusual propulsion device such as atomic energy engine…
ASSUMING THAT the objects might eventually be identified as foreign or foreign-sponsored devices, the possible reason for their appearance over the U.S. requires consideration. Several possible explanations appear noteworthy, viz:
- To negate U.S. confidence in the atom bomb as the most advanced and decisive weapon in warfare.
- To perform photographic reconnaissance missions.
- To test U.S. air defenses.
- To conduct familiarization flights over U.S. territory.24
Essentially the AFOIA analysis ignored the extraterrestrial theory; the flying objects were probably real, and if so, possibly Soviet and therefore dangerous. The objects present a potential psychological threat. Echoing these concerns, on 3 November 1948, Gen. Cabell asked Project Sign for another opinion—not extraterrestrial:
The conclusion appears inescapable that some type of flying object has been observed. Identification and the origin of these objects is not discernible to this Headquarters. It is imperative, therefore, that efforts to determine whether these objects are of domestic or foreign origin must be increased until conclusive evidence is obtained. The needs of national defense require such evidence in order that appropriate countermeasures may be taken.25
Col. McCoy’s response was a carefully worded letter essentially agreeing with Cabell, while strongly implying extraterrestrial between the lines.
All information that has been made available to this Headquarters indicates that the discs, the cigar shaped objects, and the “balls of light” are not of domestic origin. Engineering investigation indicates that disc or wingless aircraft could support themselves in flight by aerodynamic means. It is probable that the problems of stability and control could also be solved for such aircraft. However, according to current aerodynamic theory in this country, aircraft with such configurations would have relatively poor climb, altitude and range characteristics with power plants now in use.26
The Pentagon must have recognized the letter for what it was—a diplomatic refusal to give up—leading to a confrontational meeting in Washington between Sign personnel, to bolster their position, and the opposing forces in the Pentagon. The argument was lost. When the smoke cleared the Pentagon was victorious, and Sign was ordered to send all of its case summaries to the Pentagon and the USAF Scientific Advisory Board for assessment.
In February 1949, Project Sign issued its final sanitized report, qualifying the project as “still largely characterized by the collection of data.”
No definite and conclusive evidence is yet available that would prove or disprove the existence of these unidentified objects as real aircraft of unknown and unconventional configuration. It is unlikely that positive proof of their existence will be obtained without examination of the remains of crashed objects.27
On the other hand, “proof of non-existence is equally impossible to obtain unless a reasonable and convincing explanation is determined for each incident,” acknowledging that the lack of data in reports by qualified and reliable witnesses “prevents definite conclusions being drawn.” An appendix prepared by Dr. James E. Lipp of Project RAND addressed the feasibility of the flying objects being extraterrestrial:
It is hard to believe that any technically accomplished race would come here, flaunt its ability in mysterious ways and then simply go away… The lack of purpose apparent in the various episodes is also puzzling. Only one motive can be assigned; that the spacemen are “feeling out” our defenses without wanting to be belligerent. If so, they must have been satisfied long ago that we can't catch them. It seems fruitless for them to keep repeating the same experiment. Conclusions: Although visits from outer space are believed to be possible, they are believed to be very improbable. In particular, the actions attributed to the “flying objects” reported during 1947 and 1948 seem inconsistent with the requirements for space travel.28