The one uncontrollable variable, and crux of the controversy—UFO sightings—refused to go away. In June 1950 communists invaded South Korea, and with cold war tensions escalating with the Soviet Union, major Air Force commands—including Far East Air Forces, in command and control of USAF forces engaged in the Korean War; and Continental Air Command, responsible for the air defenses of the North American continent—were continuing to experience unexplained UFO incidents, and justifiably concerned if not perturbed, about the way the Pentagon was handling intelligence on these matters.32 General Cabell agreed, and began a revitalzation of Project Grudge, although, Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC; AMC Intelligence Division’s new name) chief Lt. Colonel Harold Watson, and Grudge head James Rodgers, continued to assure Cabell that real investigations were quietly continuing. The moribund situation would soon take a dramatic turn.
On 10 September 1951, at 11:10 a.m. a student operator at the Army Signals Corps radar center at Fort Monmouth, NJ, was giving a demonstration to visiting Air Force officers when he picked up an unknown object moving too fast to be tracked automatically. The object went off the scope traveling to the north along the coastline at an estimated speed of 700 miles per hour. Twenty-five minutes later, a T-33 jet trainer piloted by Lt. Wilbert Rogers with Maj. Edward Ballard was flying over Point Pleasant, NJ, and spotted a dull silver, disk-like object, far below them. They described the size between 30-50 feet in diameter, and estimated the speed at 900 mph. The UFO was descending toward Sandy Hook when Rogers nosed the jet down after it. As he did, the object stopped its descent, hovered, flew to the south and made a 120-degree turn before vanishing out to sea. The following day, Fort Monmouth radar picked up more UFOs that could not be tracked automatically.
When a detailed account of the Fort Monmouth episode arrived at ATIC, Rodgers tried to casually ridicule the report, leading to a disagreement with Rodgers replacement as head of Grudge, Lt. Jerry Cummings. A phone call to Cabell’s office settled the matter. Hours later Cummings and Lt. Colonel N. R. Rosengarten (chief of the Aircraft and Missiles branch) flew to New Jersey to investigate. They then flew to Washington to brief Cabell personally. Upon arrival, they were taken into a meeting already in progress with Cabell and his staff, including a scientist from Republic Airlines. Cabell asked Cummings to summarize what was going on within the project. Cummings cut loose. He explained how every report was taken as a huge joke, that Watson and Rodgers were doing everything to degrade the quality of the reports, and how the only analysis consisted of Rodgers trying to think up new and original explanations that hadn’t been sent to Washington before.33
A furious Cabell wanted to know, “Who the hell has been giving me these reports that every decent flying saucer sighting is being investigated?” “And who released this big report anyway?” another added, picking up the Grudge Report and slamming it back down on the table.34 Colonel E. H. Porter responded that he thought the reports were all misinterpretations, impressionable emotionalism, and crackpots. Cabell pointedly informed him that he had doubts about what UFOs were, and did not consider himself a crackpot, characterizing the Grudge report as the “most poorly written, inconclusive piece of unscientific tripe” that he had ever seen.35
General Cabell ordered an immediate reorganization of the project. Under the leadership of Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the new staff designed and instituted plans for a systematic study of the UFO phenomenon. The Air Force’s attitude was to be more respectful of the witnesses, it would admit that there were objects not reasonably explained, but it would not encourage further speculation. In an April 1952 Office of Public Information memorandum, Col. William Adams wrote that the public should know the UFO phenomenon was not
considered a joke or something which can be brushed off lightly as readily explainable, but rather it is considered to be something which warrants constant vigilance and thorough Intelligence analysis in an attempt to provide a satisfactory solution.36
In March 1952 the code name was changed to Project Blue Book, and the renewed effort was provided formal authority promulgated by Air Force Letter 200-5.37 Reports were on a dramatic increase nationwide, resulting in an unprecedented tidal wave of UFO sightings during the summer of 1952.38
In late July, for two consecutive weekends UFOs were detected on radar systems cavorting in high-security areas above Washington, D.C. On Saturday 19 July, at 11:40 p.m., a group of unidentified flying objects appeared on the long-range radarscopes in the Air Route Traffic Control (ARTC) center, and the control tower radarscopes at Washington National Airport. The objects moved slowly at first, and then shot away at fantastic speeds. Several times targets passed close to commercial airliners, and on two occassions pilots reported lights they could not identify, corresponding to radar returns at ARTC. Captain S.C. "Casey" Pierman, a pilot with 17 years of experience, was flying between Herndon and Martinsburg, W.Va., when he observed six bright lights that streaked across the sky at tremendous speed. "They were," he said, "like falling stars without tails."39 The clincher came in the early morning hours, when ARTC called the control tower at Andrews Air Force Base, ten miles to the east, informing them that there was a target directly over the Andrews Radio range station. Controllers observed a “huge fiery-orange sphere” hovering in the sky.40
Reflecting on the incredible events, Harry G. Barnes, a senior air traffic controller for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, wrote in a widely distributed newspaper account that the UFOs seemed to
become most active around the planes we saw on the scope. . . . They acted like a bunch of small kids out playing. 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 over widely-scattered areas…
There is no other conclusion I can reach but that for six hours on the morning of the 20th of July there were at least 10 unidentifiable objects moving above Washington. They were not ordinary aircraft. I could tell that by their movement on the scope. I can safely deduce that they performed gyrations which no known aircraft could perform. By this I mean that our scope showed that they could make right angle turns and complete reversals of flight. Nor in my opinion could any natural phenomena account for these spots on our radar. Neither shooting stars, electrical disturbances nor clouds could either. Exactly what they are, I don’t know.41
Once again, the following weekend Washington National Airport and nearby Andrews AFB radar picked up as many as a dozen unidentified targets. Air Defense Command (ADC) scrambled F-94 jet fighter-interceptors from New Castle Air Force Base, Deleware resulting in what one pilot described as an “aerial cat and mouse game.” When the F-94’s arrived in the area the UFOs would disappear, and when they left the UFOs reappeared. In one instance, a few minutes after the targets had left the radarscope in Washington, bright lights were reported over Langley AFB in Virginia, “rotating and giving off alternating colors.” The tower operators visually vectored an F-94 to the bright object but the light went out “like somebody turning off a light bulb.” The F-94 stayed in the area and had several radar lock-ons that lasted a few seconds before the object would apparently speed away.42
A few minutes after the events at Langley ended; the targets came back on the radarscopes at Washington National, and two F-94’s were again scrambled. This time, however, the targets stayed on the radarscopes when the interceptors arrived. One of the pilots, Korean war veteran, Lt. William Patterson chased after fast-moving targets but to his horror they surrounded his plane, and he nervously asked the controllers what he should do. Patterson’s predicament was met with stunned silence by operators in the radar control room who were monitoring the situation, but after a tense moment, the lights moved away and left the area.43
On Monday morning, the story of UFOs outrunning fighter planes was splashed across front pages all over America. In Iowa, the headline in the Cedar Rapids Gazette read like something out of a sci-fi flick: “SAUCERS SWARM OVER CAPITAL.” An unidentified Air Force source told reporters “We have no evidence they are flying saucers, … Conversely we have no evidence they are not flying saucers. We don't know what they are.” The Air Force tried to reassure the nation by promising to keep jet fighters poised to chase the saucers at a moment's notice. But that statement didn't reassure Robert L. Farnsworth, president of the United States Rocket Society, who warned President Truman not to attack the UFOs. “Should they be extra-terrestrial, such actions might result in the gravest consequences, as well as possibly alienating us from beings of far superior powers;” Farnsworth telegraphed Truman, the Secretary of Defence, and the Secretary of the Army, “Friendly contact should be sought as long as possible.”44
Truman was as baffled as everyone else. Nobody knew, not even Maj. General John Samford, the Air Force's director of intelligence. But Samford called a press conference at the Pentagon at 4 o'clock Tuesday afternoon. It was the largest Pentagon press conference since World War II, Ruppelt wrote, and Samford's performance proved to be a brilliant demonstration of the art of bureaucratic hedging.45
Accompanied by Ruppelt and several other officials, Samford opened with a rambling monologue on the history of UFOs, which, he noted, dated “to biblical times.” He mentioned UFO sightings in 1846 but never got around to the UFO sightings of 1952. When reporters asked about the Washington sightings, Samford told a story about radar picking up a flock of ducks in Japan in 1950. When they asked if radar at National and Andrews had seen the same blips simultaneously, he speculated about the definition of the word “simultaneously.” When they asked if the UFOs could be material objects, he mused about the definition of the word “material” reducing the saucers to “something” with unlimited power and no mass. “You know what no mass means,” he added. “There is nothing there.” When they asked if the F-94 pilot who chased the strange light was a qualified observer, he wondered about the meaning of the word “qualified.” Speaking about what that pilot saw, Samford uttered the sentence:
That very likely is one that sits apart and says insufficient measurement, insufficient association with other things, insufficient association with other probabilities for it to do any more than to join that group of sightings that we still hold in front of us as saying no.
Along the way, Samford deferred to Capt. Roy James from ATIC concerning radar questions. James had just arrived that morning, and didn’t know much more than he had read in the newspapers. James responded to queries about the AF’s “temperature inversion” theory—by which a layer of hot air in the sky might have caused radar to deflect downward, and mistake objects on the ground for flying objects. He repeated the possibility, but when pressed admitted that he didn’t have the details. Samford raised this to a probability saying, “I think that the highest probability is that these are phenomena associated with intellectual and scientific interests that we are on the road to learn more about.”
He talked until 5:20, then the reporters dashed back to their offices to meet their deadlines. Sifting through notebooks they seized on temperature inversion. It was an irresistible concept for newspapermen. The UFOs, they wrote, were caused by Washington's famous “hot air.”46
Highly-qualified ARTC and National Airport tower radar controllers disagreed with the probable AF explanation. UFOs were tracked on other occasions over Washington, but when Ruppelt later checked the strength of the inversions according to methods used by the Air Defense Command Weather Forecast Center he found that they were never strong enough to affect the radar. He also noted an interesting fact: “hardly a night passed in June, July, and August 1952 that there wasn’t an inversion in Washington, yet the slow-moving, ‘solid’ radar targets appeared on only a few nights.”47
In the days following the two weekends when sightings were most intense, vital intelligence channels in the nation’s capitol were swamped with UFO-related communications, sparking high-level fears that UFO reports—if not the UFOs themselves—might constitute a threat to national security. Alarmed by the massive buildup of sightings, President Truman directed the Central Intelligence Agency to look into the problem.48