The 50th anniversary of the flying saucer phenomenon is upon us, and thoughts time-warp back to the case that started it all, Kenneth Arnold's sighting of nine objects speeding by Mount Rainier on a sunny June afternoon. At the time it was a sensation which made the front page of newspapers across the nation. Faster than any airplane of the era, Arnold's objects were a puzzle that eluded quick solution. The pilots of such craft would have claimed victory in the race to break the sound barrier, but none ever came forward. Officials in the American military denied it was anything of ours. Russian spokesmen denied they had anything to do with it. Reports of flying saucers multiplied in the wake of the mystery surrounding Arnold's objects and never entirely stopped.
Unusual aerial phenomena, all well acknowledge, long pre-date the Arnold case, but his report set fire to a controversy which made it a benchmark in the history of the subject. Whether it should be called a classic or a significant case is a thorny issue dependent mainly on one's perspective. In terms of cultural influence, no case could be more important. In terms of weight of evidence for an extraordinary phenomenon requiring the belief of extraterrestrials or some new set of scientific concepts, the Arnold case sinks below a landscape of multiple-witness cases, physical traces, and photographically documented UFOs. In its initial presentation, the Arnold case was a single witness case with no corroboration. The pilot of a DC-4 that was twenty miles away reported nothing unusual could be seen.1 Jacques Vallee termed it "by no means one of the best reports."2 In a 1965 survey asking UFO groups for the most significant cases, neither APRO or NICAP listed the Arnold sighting.
Even so, the credibility of that single witness seemed good. Arnold was an experienced pilot. Skeptical journalists were readily convinced of his honesty.3 The report he offered doesn't have the taste of a tall tale in the sense that it is devoid of supernatural trappings. The speed of the objects isn't merely stretching current aviation wonders; it is bizarrely over double what the fastest planes were doing at the time. It is also pointlessly over-complicated, most particularly in the details concerning erratic motions by the objects and an echelon formation that was backward from that practiced by the Air Force. It is almost as if he is going out of his way to be disbelieved when he has nine objects going at these record speeds. Why not simply report a single snazzy-looking jet on a bullet-straight trajectory rushing past the nose of his plane? That alone would have been enough to grab attention if publicity was the intent.
While there are no grounds to question his sincerity, some ufologists express reservations about the psychology of the man. His unorthodox speculations about UFOs being space animals with the ability to change their density have bothered Frank Salisbury and Ronald Story.4 The relevance of this belief to the 1947 sighting has never been articulated however. Others have branded Arnold a "repeater" because of several other UFO sightings he has reported seeing in subsequent years. Particularly notable is a 1952 report of two living transparent UFOs that Arnold felt was aware of him.5 This sounds suggestive of a delusion of observation and the possible presence of paranoia. A 1981 interview reinforces this supposition with Arnold expressing beliefs about J. Allen Hynek secretly still being in league with the Air Force and the government being fearful that the idea of UFOs would cause their destruction.6 It is reasonably probable that this paranoid cast of thought was rooted in a knee injury which thwarted Olympic ambitions and blew apart plans he had to use his athletic talent to forward his college education.7 It is a common syndrome that has been termed "the athlete's neurosis."8 Such an incident could inculcate a habit of emotionally-generated misinterpretation.
On the positive side of the ledger, paranoia is frequently associated with enhanced perception and could be regarded as grounds for trusting the basic validity of the experience.9 We may accept he saw something and reported it accurately, but his interpretation of it and the choice of which details are important might be skewed. What he was looking at may not be identical to what he saw. Arnold's initial belief that the objects were secret experimental aircraft is bizarre on the face of it. Besides the impossible speed for the era, you would not expect an experimental craft to be flown in a group of nine and for all of them to display erratic motion. You would expect one craft with perhaps a conventional plane tagging along to keep an eye on it. If it was aiming for new speeds, the introduction of erratic fluttering motions sounds suicidal. It also makes little sense to test a craft near Mount Rainier, a tourist spot and major landmark, if you want it to remain a secret.
The issue of what Arnold was actually looking at has spawned a sizable literature and invites the comment that Arnold's must be the most solved case in ufology. Regrettably, I am not saying it is the case with the most loose ends snipped clean, but that more solutions have been offered for the Arnold case than any other.
ATIC, Blue Book, William K. Hartmann (a co-author of the Condon report) and Ian Ridpath argued Arnold was looking at a group of conventional aircraft that was closer than Arnold thought and possibly seen through a mirage layer to account for the skipping motion that Arnold reported.10 The problems with this idea include the fact that the DC-4 pilot didn't notice this group of planes, the fact that none of the pilots came forward to clear things up on learning of the ruckus they caused, the unconventional" formation, and the absence of visible tails.
Donald Menzel suggested the objects were billowing blasts of snow ballooning off mountain ridges.11 Captain Ruppelt of Blue Book rejected this as impossible because you just don't get powder snow low in the mountains in June.12
Martin Gardner has twice suggested the objects were balloons.13 This ignores the flat side profile drawn by Arnold. Arnold reported the air was very smooth traveling that day, which seems inconsistent with the undulatory motions he described.
Richard J. Reed suggested orographic clouds.14 Since these tend to stay motionless, the large a angular distance traveled by the objects is hard to account for. So, too, the angular velocity cannot be explained. These objections also apply to notions involving wave clouds and detached mountain top mirages.15
Menzel tried again in his last book with the idea that Arnold might have been tricked by water droplets on the airplane window.16 This overlooks the fact that Arnold explicitly states he rolled down the window to get a better look at the objects.17
Otto Billig proposes that Arnold was suffering a regression suggestive of reduced personality cause the undulations of the objects indicate the surfacing of serpent imagery like that common to religions.18 Such an analysis is contradicted by Billig's own mythography which says undulations signify benevolence. Arnold explicitly felt the objects to be a threat, a bother, and disturbing.
Paul Devereux proposed Arnold saw earth lights.19 This would mean the objects would be emitting light. This is inconsistent with Arnold's description of the objects as forming a "black-thin line" when silhouetted against snowy mountain ridges. He also indicated that he saw the sun reflected off the objects from time to time. It is also difficult to imagine how earthlights could maintain an unconventional formation for over a minute without scattering or merging due to electrical charges.
Stuart Campbell has proposed an exotic scheme involving mirages of distant mountains. Easily the funniest detail is the necessity for Arnold to confuse Mount Rainier and Mount Adams with Pinnacle Peak and Lookout of the Tatoosh Range even knowing they are roughly half as big.20
Extraterrestrials begin to look pretty good at this point. They at least could potentially account for the exotic speed which otherwise seems impossible for the era. The undulations which Arnold warned would have killed a human pilot might be acceptable to an alien biology. Gerald Heard, for example, proposed the notion of some super-bee evolved in the hostile environment of Mars.21 One might question if insect physiology truly would be more resilient in high gee maneuvers, but the more attractive point could be that insects might be psychologically pre-disposed to fly in erratic ways and this could undermine presumptions that no intelligent being would fly in such a bizarre fashion. One could perhaps even point out that, though it took close to two decades before close encounters with them began showing up, some people have reported insectoid beings in UFOs.22 A preference for traveling in groups could also be attributable to bug psychology, albeit the echelon formation seems problematic. Is this, then, a good resolution to the paradoxes of the Arnold report?
"Pilot Says He Saw Big 'Saucers' Fly Over West Coast — Officials Skeptical of Report of 1200 Mile-an-hour Object," St. Louis Post Dispatch, June 26, 1947.
Vallee, Jacques & Janine, Challenge to Science, Ace Star, 1966, p. 251.
Spencer, John & Evans, Hilary, Phenomenon, Avon, 1988 pp. 26-45.
Salisbury, Frank, The Utah UFO Display, Devin-Adair, 1974, p. 218. Story, Ronand D., UFOs and the Limits of Science, William Morrow, 1981, pp. 48-56.
Oberg, James, "Repeaters," Omni, August 1980, p. 32.
Hansen, Kim, "UFO Casebook" in Evans, Hilary & Spencer, John, UFOs: 1947-1987. Fortean Times, 1987.
Long, Greg, "Kenneth Arnold Revisited," MUFON UFO Journal, #230, June 1987, pp. 3-7.
Kottmeyer, Martin S. "Ufology Considered as an Evolving System of Paranoia," in Stillings, Dennis, Cyberbiological Studies of the Imaginal Component in the UFO Contact Experience, Archaeus, 1989, pp. 51-60.
Little, J. Crawford, "The Athlete's Neurosis - A Deprivation Crisis," Acta Psychiat. Scand., 45, (1969) pp. 187-97.
Fried, Yehuda & Agassi, Joseph, Paranoia: A Study in Diagnosis, D. Reidel, 1976, pp. 4-5.
Ruppelt, Edward, Report on UFOs, Doubleday, 1956, p. 17.
Hartmann, William K., "Historical Perspectives: Photos of UFOs" in Sagan, Carl & Page Thornton, UFOs: A Scientific Debate, Cornell, 1972, p. 15.
Ridpath, Ian, Messages from the Stars, Harper & Row, 1978, p. 218.
Maccabee, Bruce S. "Still in Default" MUFON 1986 UFO Symposium Proceedings, pp. 131-60.
Ruppelt, op. cit. p. 19.
Gardner, Martin, Fads and Fallacies: In the Name of Science, Dover, 1957, p. 58.
Gardner, Martin, The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher, Prometheus, 1988 p. 209.
Reed, Richard J., "Flying Saucers over Mount Rainier,"Weatherwise, April 1958, pp. 43-5, 65-6.
Menzel, Donald & Taves, Ernest, The UFO Enigma, Doubleday, 1977, pp. 5-6.
Maccabee, op. cit. p. 141.
Billig, Otto, Flying Saucers: Magic in the Skies, Schenkman, 1982, pp. 128-31.
Devereux, Paul & McCarthy, Paul & Robins, Don, "Bringing UFOs Down to Earth," New Scientist, September 1, 1983, p. 629.
Kottmeyer, Martin, "Mirage Sale," MUFON UFO Journal, #327 July 1995, pp. 16-18.
Heard, Gerard, Is Another World Watching? Bantam, 1953, ch. 11 & 12.
Kottmeyer, Martin, "Space Bug a Boo Boo," Talking Pictures, #15, September 1996, pp. 10-14.