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Project SIGN: Charting a Conundrum

Wendy Connors, Project SIGN Research Center

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: What had begun as perhaps one of the most important projects undertaken by the military of the twentieth century ended in a futile whimper amid administrative chaos. After just ten months from its noble beginning, Project SIGN was destined to begin falling into its own conundrum.

Even before Project SIGN was to begin organizing and initializing operations, the UFO phenomenon was taking strange turns. Not only were sightings of strange aerial vehicles increasing, but attempting to catch one would eventually prove a deadly endeavor. Unidentified Flying Objects, to the military, were becoming up close and very personal.

There is little doubt that Project SIGN personnel and the secrecy behind the project itself would lead to the belief by many people and researchers that what was reported and what was fact would constantly remain cloudy as Project SIGN began in earnest. Project SIGN would continue to fumble as the early months of the project passed.

Early cases being analyzed by the SIGN group led to the conclusion that outside consultants would be needed to assist in areas not readily available. Among the outside resources used by the Project SIGN team was the contracting of Ohio State University to review the Project SIGN Report Summaries for determining if any of the objects being reported might be of astronomical origin. Dr. Josef Allen Hynek, as the Director of the Ohio State University McMillin Observatory, was selected for the assignment.

Dr. Hynek maintained that he became involved with Project SIGN quite by accident, modestly claiming that he was the closest astrophysicist and astronomer at the time to Wright-Patterson AFB. However, Dr. Hynek was an astute scientist who later became the official consultant to the United States Air Force on astronomical physics and Senior Consultant on unidentified flying objects to the Air Force’s Project BLUEBOOK. His career in this capacity spanned twenty-two years from the early months of Project SIGN to the end of Project BLUEBOOK in 1969.

Although a skeptic of UFOs early in his career, Dr. Hynek gradually come to the opinion that the phenomenon was very real and of great scientific importance. Unfortunately, he was obligated to act as a debunker of UFO sightings for the Air Force and would spend years in a frustrating attempt to convince the Air Force and other scientists and scientific institutions that the UFO phenomenon should be investigated using sound and quantitative scientific methods and analysis.

The first civilian researcher of unidentified flying objects to use computers to build a relational database of sightings was Dr. Jacques Vallee. An ardent and meticulous scientist and researcher, Dr. Vallee’s contributions to the field of UFO research are monumental in its thoroughness and objectivity. Dr. Hynek and Dr. Vallee were close friends and research associates for many years.

Project SIGN’s beginnings were admirable, but soon became an exercise in futility. There were some basic flaws within the structure of the project itself. There was no formal intelligence gathering other than information obtained from other sources within the military and other governmental agencies. Rarely did any member of the SIGN staff go on-site to investigate, or if when they did, it was a side trip from their original course. Instead, reports were gleaned haphazardly from different sources, particularly newspaper stories, letters and word of mouth. Actually, there was no serious attempt to investigate anything using scientific principles; rather it was strictly an exercise in paper investigation.

Perhaps the largest flaw of Project SIGN was its lack of standard organizational and administrative procedures. In a rush to begin the project the fundamental precepts that dictate formal operating procedures were never conceptualized or put into appropriate action. This left everyone involved with Project SIGN pursuing their own goals, theories and hidden agendas without much quantitative analysis, evaluation or structure.

While the staff at Project SIGN was dutifully filing their reports, they did manage to save for posterity some very interesting records of sighting cases for Ufologists and historical researchers to explore.

Two weeks prior to Project SIGN beginning in earnest and under official sanction, the first and only known member of the military would die chasing an unidentified flying object. Under orders (actually a request, but to the military man the translation of the request is explicit) Captain Thomas F. Mantell, Jr., of the Kentucky Air National Guard, would encounter the unknown and not live to tell about it.


7 January 1948
Project SIGN Incident Number 33

Prior to Captain Mantell’s death on January 7, 1948, many residents of Mansville, Kentucky were observing a strange object over their city and citizens desiring an answer to what the object was they were seeing made several calls to the Kentucky State Highway Patrol. Several minutes’ later reports were being received from Owensboro and Irvington, Kentucky. The Highway Patrol was at a loss to explain what the object might be.

Checking with the Godman Army Air Field the Kentucky State Highway Patrol reported that people were seeing a, "circular object about two hundred fifty feet in diameter," and wanted confirmation if it was a military aircraft. Sgt. Cook at the Base Headquarters of Godman Field called TSgt. Quinton Blackwell, the control tower operator on duty. Sgt. Cook requested that TSgt. Blackwell check with the Army Flight Service to see if they had any unusual aircraft activity in the vicinity of Mansville, Kentucky. Blackwell immediately called Captain Gary Carter, the Base Operations Officer that a situation was developing regarding an unidentified flying object. Colonel E. Garrison Woods, Deputy Base Commander, accompanied Captain Gary Carter to the control tower.

Army Flight Service personnel reported to TSgt. Blackwell that they had no aircraft activity in the area, but did give him a position coordinate of the object over Owensboro and Irvington. TSgt. Blackwell sighted the object, which was South of Godman Field shortly after ll: 30 a.m. The object, according to Col. Woods was a,"small pinpoint of light." According to Col. Woods, there were no aircraft at Godman Field which were able to investigate the object, but the control tower operator called Captain R. L. Tyler, the Operations Officer at Standiford Field in Louisville, Kentucky and requested assistance from their aircraft availability to investigate the object and its source. It is not clear in the records who actually asked for this assistance from Standiford Field. It could be assumed that it was TSgt. Quinton Blackwell, since he was the control tower operator on duty. Standiford Field acknowledged that they had heard about the object and would send aircraft to Godman to begin investigating.

Captain Carter, after confirming the object was indeed visible, contacted the Godman Field Base Commander, Colonel Guy F. Hix. Shortly after Col. Hix’s was notified, Col. Woods noticed four P-51 aircraft approaching Godman Field. Col. Woods asked TSgt. Quinton Blackwell to, "…try all his VHF channels to see if they could be contacted." Communications was established and Captain Thomas F. Mantell, Jr. responded that they were not the planes sent by Standiford, but were returning from a ferry flight from Altanta to Standiford. Captain Mantell agreed to seek out and investigate the object, but wanted the aircraft coming from Standiford to be aborted (presumably to avoid congestion while they investigated).

Besides Captain Mantell, the other three pilots accompanying him were Lt. B.A. Hammond, Lt. A.W. Clements and Lt. Robert Hendricks. Lt. Hendricks notified Captain Mantell that he was getting low on fuel and Mantell told him to proceed to Standiford Field. Capt. Mantell, Lt. Clements and Lt. Hammond then proceeded to seek out and make contact with the object.

Arriving at the control tower, Colonel Hix was briefed on the situation from Col. Woods while the Captain Mantell and the other P-51 pilots were proceeding towards the object in an attempt to make contact and inform Godman Tower of the identity of the object. While Col. Hix’s and TSgt. Blackwell were in radio contact with the pilots, Col. Woods began tracking the object using a theodolite (measures both the horizontal and vertical angles degrees of distant objects) and continued doing so until 7:30 p.m.

Captain Mantell radioed to Godman Tower that the object was, "ahead and above. I’m still climbing." At 15,000 feet Mantell again reported that, "The object is directly ahead of me and above me now, moving about half my speed." Col. Hix’s radioed to Captain Mantell and asked for a description of the object. Mantell replied, "It appears (to be) metallic and tremendous in size."

It was 3:15 p.m. January 7, 1948. Captain Mantell would issue no more radio traffic for Godman Army Air Field at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Lt. Clemments and Lt. Hammond were following Captain Mantell, but were not in visual range of him. Clements although did hear him shout, "Look, there it is at 12 o’clock." Lt. Clemments viewed the object and later told a reporter for the Louisville Carrier-Journal that the object looked like a, "bright shining star."

Both Lt. Hammond and Lt. Clements passed the 12,000-foot elevation where oxygen would be required, but only Lt. Clements aircraft was fitted with oxygen. At 15,000 feet Hammond was feeling the effects of oxygen starvation and at 22,000 feet he pulled his P-51 close to Lt. Clements’ aircraft and signaled that he was did not have an oxygen mask and was suffering from oxygen starvation. Lt. Clements and Lt. Hammond abandoned the chase for the unidentified flying object and returned to Standiford Field and reported that Captain Mantell was missing. They did not know where Captain Mantell was, nor did they witness Mantell’s plane crashing to the ground.

Lt. Clements, after landing at Standiford Field, had his aircraft refueled and returned to the area where he and Mantell saw the object. He was unable to locate the object and eventually returned back to Standiford Field. Later, both he and Lt. Hammond would learn of the death of their squadron leader.

It was not until 7:30 p.m. that word reached Godman Field that Captain Mantell’s P-51 came down on the Joe Phillips farm near Franklin, Kentucky at about 3:45 p.m.

In the Project SIGN files the Mantell Incident is listed as Project SIGN Case Number 33. However, even before Project SIGN actually began the day-to-day investigation of "Flying Discs," it would become embroiled in controversy and Incident Number 33 would be the catalyst.

Initially, Project SIGN personnel began receiving and reviewing cases of "Flying Disc" sightings; collating the data and preparing summaries to be distributed to the Pentagon, government agencies and consulting companies for evaluation. Incident Number 33 would be investigated outside the official Project SIGN office, but the analysis of the Mantell case would be done in-house and it would not be a good start for a project full of promise.

The Air Force Office of Intelligence handled the Mantell crash investigation. It was their conclusion that Captain Mantell died from lack of oxygen while pursuing the planet Venus. If Colonel E. Garrison Wood was correct in his comments that, "Officers from Project Saucer came to Godman the next day to investigate and took the whole thing as a joke." Col. Wood related that he had also called a University of Louisville astronomer who told him, "Under no circumstances could that object be a planet." The astronomer’s comments were made to Col. Wood after he had been informed of Col. Wood’s constant monitoring of the object using a theodolite for approximately four hours.

Colonel J. C. Harvell, Chief of the Equipment Laboratory at Air Materiel Command submitted his report of investigation regarding the Mantell Incident. This report has been transcribed and reads as follows:

"It is the ATID (Air Technical Intelligence Division) opinion that Captain Mantell lost consciousness due to oxygen starvation, the aircraft being trimmed continued to climb until increasing altitude caused a sufficient loss of power for it to level out. The aircraft then began a turn to the left due to torque and as the wing dropped so did the nose until the aircraft was in a tight diving spiral. The uncontrolled descent resulted in excessive speed causing the aircraft to disintegrate. It is believed that Captain Mantell never regained consciousness. This is borne out by the fact that the canopy lock was still in place after the crash, discounting any attempt to abandon the aircraft. The UFO was in no way directly responsible for this experienced pilot conducting high altitude flight without the necessary oxygen equipment.

…There are two conceptions as to the identity of the object; Venus, one of the brightest objects in our heavens, or a large balloon used for high altitude experimental flights and known as "Sky Hooks." These balloons fly at altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet and reach diameters of approximately 100 feet.

…During the period of this sighting the Navy was conducting a program utilizing "Sky Hook" balloon. The Navy program was classified at this time and therefore these balloon flights were known only to those with a "need to know." It was subsequently determined that on the date of the Godman sighting a balloon was released by the Navy from Clinton County airport in Ohio. The release time of the balloon was related to a wind plot for 7 January 1948, and it revealed that the balloon would have been in the area of Godman at the time of the sighting.

…On 7 January 1948, at the time of the sighting, Venus was also in a directional position which coincided with that of the UFO.

…It is the Air Force conclusion in this case that Venus was probably the original cause of the sighting since the object remained in the area for a long period of time and was relatively stationary. The object pursued by Captain Mantell is believed to have been the sky hook balloon, and this object was probably seen by other witnesses who described the object as pear shaped and metallic."

Many possible explanations exist for the cause of Captain Thomas Mantell, Jr.’s death in pursuit of an unidentified flying object on January 7, 1948. It is possible that he actually was pursuing a Sky Hook balloon for which he may not have known existed or had never seen before. It may have been the planet Venus, but current thought by astronomer’s lead to this possibility being rather remote. Perhaps Mantell did come in contact with a true unidentified flying object and in the excitement of the moment, went to high causing oxygen starvation and subsequent unconsciousness. After 50+ years all that is available to researchers is what are in the news accounts of the incident and the files in the Project Bluebook files. All of the above explanations and scenarios can be argued on their merits, but the only true fact that remains is that there will always be more questions than answers. Some of these questions are inherently more important than others. Consider the following:

1. Captain Mantell was an experienced pilot. He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his work during World War II. During that time most of his flying was at low altitudes, but there is no reason not to believe that they were all accomplished at altitudes that did not require oxygen. Pilots are trained to learn to recognize the effects of oxygen starvation on themselves so as to avoid personal danger to themselves while flying. An extremely strong point can be made that Captain Mantell would not have abandoned his own safety, even in the excitement of pursuing a UFO.

2. Sky Hook balloons, although classified at the time, was designed to reach altitudes between the stratosphere and the ionosphere, which is considerably in excess of 50,000 feet. They would pose no danger to pilots traveling in the troposphere and the P-51 Mustang could not obtain altitudes close to those of SkyHook balloons. Since the diameter of a SkyHook balloon averaged 100’ in diameter, a pilot would not be able to see one, especially since the balloon envelope was opaque. Observers on the ground would be in a better position to see the reflection of the balloon envelope more so than a pilot.

3. Alfred C. Loedding, in his analysis of the Mantell Incident, states that theodolite measurements were not taken. In fact, Col. E. Garrison Woods took constant measurements of the horizontal and vertical angles of the UFO for over three hours from the Weather Station located on the roof of the Godman Army Air Field hanger. Alfred Loedding was also and aeronautical engineer, not an astronomer, so his analysis of the incident must be considered extremely flawed.

By Summer, 1948, SIGN personnel had begun to compile a working hypothesis that could only later be described as: Reversus Maximus Glutamus Chompus (a hypothesis that would later come back to bite them in the butt and known as the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis or ETH), but they were also busy with cases that caused great excitement and conversation throughout the military and governmental echelons. True, the top brass at the Pentagon was still being taciturn regarding the UFO phenomenon, but on July 24, 1948, the halls of the Pentagon again started buzzing and it was not from the cafeteria coffee. A UFO sighting by two Eastern Airlines pilots had grabbed the attention of the world. The military sat up and took notice. So too did the news media!


24 July 1948
Project SIGN Incident Number: 144

2:45 a.m. A red-eye flight. Captain Clarence S. Chiles and co-pilot John B. Whitted, flying an Eastern Air Lines DC-3 from Houston, Texas to Boston, Massachusetts are relishing the quiet of the flight cabin. The flight was going well. Passengers were content and subdued. The drone of the engines were methodical and soothing. They were at 5,000 feet and about twenty miles Southwest of Montgomery, Alabama. The full moon illuminated the blackness of the sky.

John Whitted notices an object to the right and slightly above the plane heading in their direction. Captain Chiles also notices what at first to his trained eye to be a jet, but like a scene out of an old Flash Gordon movie serial, they immediately change their minds.

Seconds later they knew for sure that the object was not a military jet aircraft. An object, without wings and looking like a cross between a cigar and a torpedo passes within 500 feet of their aircraft. The object was extremely bright and passed the right side of the aircraft within a few seconds. It did not take long for their eyes to adjust and put their lower jaws back into their mouths. Their nerves would take a little longer to adjust.

Captain Chiles immediately contacted Eastern Air Lines in Columbus, Georgia and related the incident to the control tower personnel. Chiles thought that the object could have been an experimental military jet aircraft from Ft. Benning, Georgia. A radio operator at Eastern Air Lines in Columbus checked and notified Capt. Chiles that what they had seen was not, according to Ft. Benning Operations Center, one of their aircraft. The pilots were immediately ordered to land in Atlanta, Georgia.

The object, to both of the pilots, was rather unearthly looking. About 100 feet long, it had two rows of square windows along its fuselage. Flame shot out 50 feet or more from the rear. According to Captain Chiles, "the underneath had a blue glow of light." The light coming from both the windows and tail flame of the object momentarily blinded both Chiles and Whitted.

At 3:49 a.m., Chiles and Whitted landed their DC-3 at Atlanta, Georgia. The near miss of their plane and the unknown object necessitated caution and debriefing of the pilots. Before they could get to their hotel room they were at the center of a media feeding frenzy. The Project SIGN staff was also chomping at the bit and Major Raymond A. Llewellyn, Chief of the Special Projects Section of T-2 Technical Intelligence Division at Wright-Patterson AFB, was sent to gather the details.

Capt. Chiles and John Whitted told Major Llewellyn that the object passed them at about 700 mph. Chiles further stated that, "After it passed, it pulled up into some light broken clouds and was lost from view." The pilots gave Major Llewellyn sketches of the object. To many of the Project SIGN team, this incident would add more credence to the belief that the "Flying Disc" phenomenon was more indicative of extraterrestrial technology rather than idea of advanced German technology being developed by the Russians.

The Chiles-Whitted incident was of supreme importance for the Project SIGN team because there were multiple witnesses, both from within the aircraft and on the ground. Any case investigation by the SIGN team became more credible when this aspect was considered. One of the passengers aboard the Eastern Air Line flight was Clarence L. McKelvic of Columbus, Ohio. Mr. McKelvic reported to Major Llewellyn that, "suddenly [he awoke] and saw this strange, eerie streak…It was very intense, not like lightning or anything I had ever seen. I couldn’t discern nothing in the way of a definite shape or form, but I was so startled that I couldn’t get my eyes adjusted before it was gone." McKelvic did confirm to Major Llewellyn that the light was moving in a straight line and traveling at a higher altitude than the plane.

Further investigation by the SIGN team discovered that at Robbins AFB in Georgia, Walter Massey, an aircraft maintenance mechanic, observed what was probably the same object seen by Captain Chiles and John Whitted an hour before their sighting. Massey stated that at about 1:40 a.m., he saw a "stream of fire" coming out of the North. As the object got closer and overhead of his position, he noticed that it was a cylinder-shaped object with a fire-like exhaust spewing from the rear. Massey further told Major Llewellyn that the object exhibited the following characteristics:

1. Object he witnessed had no visible wings.
2. A faint bluish phosphorescence-like glow was surrounding the underside of the craft.
3. The object traveled straight and level.
4. Size of the object approximated that of a B-29 Stratofortress, but larger in circumference.
5. It was a dark metallic color.
6. The object disappeared due to distance rather than dropping down out of sight.

Back at Air Materiel Command’s Technical Intelligence Division, Captain Robert Sneider, began the evaluation and analysis of the incident. Discussion centered on reports coming in from Scandinavian countries about the same time regarding rocket-like objects with windows and traveling at high speed. Also, Capt. Sneider compared the Chiles-Whitted incident to the famed "Ghost Rockets" sightings of 1946. It wasn’t long before Capt. Sneider logged into his own report that the SIGN team had discussed the incident from an engineering perspective and that the shape of the object was aerodynamically possible to be able to fly. He stated in his report, "That this development is possibly of foreign origin [and] would seem to be a logical premise."

Dr. J. Allen Hynek however, was in disagreement with Captain Sneider’s assessment of the Chiles-Whitted incident. His analysis, based on an astronomical premise, was that the object "must have been an extraordinary meteor." Even the brass at the Pentagon jumped on the bandwagon by proclaiming that what Chiles and Whitted observed was a weather balloon. Officially, Hynek’s explanation would be listed in the SIGN Report Summary, but both Hynek and the Pentagon would go down in defeat over their explanations from the Fourth Estate. The Project SIGN staff had cemented their belief in an extraterrestrial hypothesis for unidentified flying objects and this case would be considered by many researchers as the final proof of that hypothesis. However, the controversy regarding the ETH’s viability continues among Ufologists even today.


1 October 1948
Project SIGN Case Number: 172

The third most publicly celebrated UFO case of the Project SIGN period would again involve one of the military’s own personnel. A drama would be played out in the North Central area of the United States. In a sparsely populated area of the country a modern cowboy would face a showdown with an unidentified flying object. This case would be listed in the Project SIGN files as Incident Number 172, and to be commonly known as, "The UFO Dogfight over Fargo."

Twenty-five year old George F. Gorman of Fargo, North Dakota and a Second Lieutenant in the Air National Guard, was putting in some flying time on a cross-country flight in his P-51 Mustang. It was October 1, 1948 at 8:30 p.m. Lt. Gorman was a few minutes away from an incident that would cause an immediate response from the SIGN team at Wright-Patterson AFB.

Lt. Gorman was enjoying his flight. He headed west on this clear, crisp autumn evening toward Valley City, North Dakota. Getting night flying hours under his belt would be good, or so he thought. Turning 180º he headed back toward Fargo, ND and began circling the football field, enjoying glimpsing the game from the air.

As he circled the football field he noticed, to the North, a Piper Cub airplane that was approximately 500 feet lower than his P-51. A few moments later a light traveling from the East toward the West caught his eye. The light is between Hector Airport and the football field. It is moving rapidly. Gorman does not know what the object is and decides to radio the control tower at the Hector Airport. Mr. L.D. Jensen, the Air Traffic Control Operator on duty radios back that the only traffic in the near vicinity of Gorman’s aircraft is the Piper Cub being piloted by Dr. L.N. Cannon and his friend, Einar Johnson.

At this moment Lt. Gorman decided to investigate the object. Heading his plane toward it he found that the object apparently does not take kindly to close inspections. As Gorman would later relate to Major Paul Kubala of Air Technical Intelligence at Wright-Patterson AFB and Major Donald C. Jones of the 178th Fighter Squadron of the North Dakota Air National Guard in two separate interviews:

"My first reaction was to keep it [the lighted object] in sight and circle with it. At the time the object was making a circle around the city of Fargo at approximately 1000 feet [and] traveling at the same rate of speed as I [was]. Putting it in the light of the city, myself above it, I checked it for wings and fuselage but appeared to have none. I could distinguish the outline of the cub [Dr. Johnson’s Piper Cub] distinctly."

Gorman described the object as, "a white light with no apparent glare and a clear cut edge…it seemed flat…from 6 to 8 inches in diameter."

Major Jones asked Lt. Gorman to describe what had been happening during the 27 minutes that Gorman was chasing the object. Lt. Gorman replied:

"After the initial peel off, I realized the speed of the object was too great to catch in a straight chase, so I proceeded to cut it off in turns. At this time my fighter was under full power. My speed varying between 300 and 400 [MPH]. The object circled to the left, I cut back to the right for a head-on pass. The pass was made at approximately 5000 feet, the object [was] approaching head-on until a collision seemed inevitable.

The object veered and passed approximately 500 feet or less over the top [of my aircraft] above me. I chandelled around, still without the object in sight. The object made a 180º turn an initiated a pass at me.

This time I watched it approach all the way and as it started to pull up, I pulled up abruptly, trying to ram the object until [it] was straight up; with me following. At approximately 14,000 feet I stalled out with the object apparently 2000 feet above me circling to the left.

We made two circles to the left. The object then pulled out away from me and made another head-on pass. At this time the pass started and the object broke off a large distance from me heading over Hector Airport to the northwest at apparently 11,000 feet. I gave chase circling to the left trying to cut it off until I was 25 miles southeast of Fargo.

I was at 14,000 [feet], the object at 11,000 [feet] when I again gave the aircraft full power [attempting] to catch it in a diving turn. The object turned around and made another head-on pass. This time, when pulling up, I pulled up also and observed it traveling straight up until I lost it. I then returned to the field [Hector Airport] and landed."

Interestingly, Dr. Cannon and Einar Johnson upon landing their Piper Cub went immediately to the control tower at the Hector Airport and listened to the radio transmissions of Lt. Gorman. Dr. Cannon watched the object through binoculars but couldn’t follow the action as well as he wanted to. When the team from Project SIGN arrived they checked out Gorman’s aircraft with a Geiger Counter. The aircraft showed signs of radiation. Unfortunately, the team would later discard this aspect of the incident.

As was becoming commonplace among the Project SIGN personnel, the investigation of the Gorman Incident would be an exercise in gross inaccuracies and inconsistent reporting, coupled with an affinity to immediately discount a witness statement because it could cause trouble further up the chain of command. Alfred C. Loedding makes this aspect clear in his memorandum of the Gorman Incident to Colonel Howard McCoy. Portions of his memorandum are transcribed as follows:

"A review of Lt. Gorman’s statement and facts presented, which were considered highly reliable by interrogation from this Headquarters [MCIAXS – Project SIGN], suggests the following…

The positive statement that the aerial object sighted by Lt. Gorman was a piloted aircraft is unjustified and may lead to serious complications. Although the object apparently performed in a superior manner and as though human thought was involved, nothing was reported to indicate or permit assumption that the object was an aircraft, as the term is accepted today.

A check with MCIA personnel involved in this case and Project SIGN disclosed that their concept of the configuration was spherical or "ball-like," furthermore, it was officially reported and recorded as such. Actually, the configuration is round, but flat or "disc-like…This error on the part of the Intelligence Department could cause some serious embarrassment and repercussions.

…It is recommended that the entire comment 2 from MCIAXS be disregarded and not made a matter of official record of the subject incident No. 172…"

That Alfred C. Loedding was doing in sending his memorandum to Colonel Howard McCoy was two-fold. It alerted Col. McCoy to the fact that the Project SIGN team were making errors in their reports, but more importantly, that the reports were being doctored to avoid both errors in reporting the intelligence data being gathered and to temper the ardent belief of the SIGN team that these objects were obviously extraterrestrial in nature. Loedding was already astute to the fact that the Pentagon brass were extremely divided over whether the UFOs being reported were advanced technology from Russia or really "space ships" from another planet. It did not take long for Col. McCoy to cover his bases. He immediately requested clarification from Major Donald Jones at the North Dakota National Guard.

Early cases investigated and/or analyzed by the Project SIGN team or through the use of consultants, left much to be desired as far scientific acumen goes. The members were few; there was little support from the Pentagon for the efforts expected by the SIGN project and cooperation was helter-skelter at best. These cases, Mantell, Chiles-Whitted and Gorman have become classics over the last fifty years. Most of them still cause intense debate among Ufologists, but they represent the cream of the crop as far as the early incidents were considered by both the military and the media. They played well in the newspapers of the time and brought the public insight and some comfort knowing that the phenomenon was being investigated. The fears of war were still in the hearts of the American citizens and the Cold War continued to fuel the feeling that the nation and its people were not safe.

This small group of men comprising the forces of Project SIGN remained extremely busy with reports of unidentified flying objects pouring into the small office at Wright-Patterson AFB. Although the project was understaffed and under funded, the work of gathering the data from the various sightings continued at a frenzied pace. Even so, the Project SIGN team did make a bold attempt to return to the earlier sighting cases that flooded the Air Force Office of Intelligence at the Pentagon and attempt to gather the data into one place and review the analyses that had gone before under the pseudo project known as SAUCER.

There is little doubt that the Project SIGN staff was aware that many excellent sightings or cases involving UFOs were never assigned to them. Dr. J. Allen Hynek and other prominent researchers have expressed frustration regarding this aspect for many years. There are many elements of the Project SIGN reports that cryptically signal that more was going on regarding the UFO phenomenon than was being expressed or included in the Project SIGN files.

Looking back into those earlier years, it is of value to rediscover the incident that actually started the process toward the evolution of Project SIGN. That case has become infamous in the annuals of UFO history. Incident Number 17 in the files of Project SIGN was commonly referred to as the Arnold Sighting.

A common misconception in the American vernacular came from Incident Number 17. It has always been assumed and reported that Kenneth Arnold coined the term, "Flying Saucers." However, this fact is a misnomer. Although the term was used in newspapers following Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, the term "Flying Saucers" was first used by John Martin, a Texas farmer in 1867. He actually called the unidentified object he saw on a hunting trip, a "Flying Saucer."


24 June 1947
Project SIGN Case Number: 17

Kenneth Arnold, a businessman and private pilot from Boise, Idaho, was piloting his CallAir near Yakima, Washington, on Tuesday, June 24, 1947. His business took him to various states in the Northwest and since he was a member of the Idaho Search and Rescue Mercy Flyers Association as well as an acting Deputy Federal United States Marshall flying for the Ada Country Aerial Posse, he was hoping to find the wreckage of a U.S. Marine C-46 transport aircraft that had crashed in the Cascade Mountain Range several days earlier. At the time of his flight he was unaware that the C-46 had been located.

Flying at approximately 9,000 feet on a crisp, clear afternoon around 3:00 p.m., his attention was directed to the reflection of light coming off of nine, crescent-shaped crafts flying in an echelon formation. The objects weaved close to, and around, the tops of the mountain range.

He described the objects, "like pie tins skipping through the air." Observing no tail rudders on the objects, they first appeared to Arnold as, "jet aircraft traveling at a high rate of speed." At no time did he feel panic or the feeling of being threatened as the objects made a pass near Mount Rainer, but he was somewhat upset by the way the crafts moved and the lack of a tail rudder on the objects.

When Arnold landed at the Yakima, Washington Airport for refueling, he told a friend what he had seen. Although his friend was doubtful of the story, as soon as he had taken off for Pendleton, Oregon, word of the sighting began to spread. At Pendleton Arnold told several more people and before the day was over he would find himself amid a bevy of publicity.

Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of the nine crescent-shaped discs was the beginning of astounding public interest in unidentified flying objects. The "Flying Disc" phenomenon being reported from within the military was to become a national phenomenon of unprecedented proportions. Arnold would later tell Edward R. Murrow, a pioneer Television news broadcaster, on an April 7, 1950 interview, "I could never understand why the world got so upset about nine discs, as these things didn’t seem to be a menace. I believe that they had something to do with our Army Air Force."

This incident was important for two reasons. Not only did it call attention to the UFO phenomenon, but further showed that General Nathan Twining was involved in "Project Saucer" prior to Brigadier General George F. Schulgen’s verbal request that the Air Materiel Command submit a preliminary report regarding the "Flying Discs" incidents being reported throughout the military commands. General Twining sent a telegram to Kenneth Arnold immediately after the incident requesting information from him. Arnold responded to him in a July 12, 1947 telegram that General Twining had permission to, "quote, give out or reprint my written account… This report was sent to you some days ago." The following is a transcription of that telegram:







What is not known at this time is why General Twining was investigating the incident immediately after it happened. Consequently, it can be assumed that "Project SAUCER" was more formal than it appears in the written record. It becomes obvious that the Pentagon had already had some type of official and organized channel of communications and operations in existence prior to the decision to commence the official Project SIGN UFO investigation. Since all records and discovery is not complete at this time, the aspect of the historical scenario of the UFO phenomenon remains open to the researcher/historian. A transcript of Kenneth Arnold’s written statement to General Twining is provided:


I was born March 29, 1915 in Subeka, Minnesota. I was a resident of Minnesota until I was six years old when my family moved to Scobey, Montana, where they homesteaded. My grandfather also homesteaded in Scobey, Montana and became quite prominent in political circles along with Burton K. Wheeler, the famous Montana senator.

I went to grade school and high school at Minot, North Dakota. I entered scouting at twelve years of age and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout before I was fourteen. My former scout executive was H. H. Prescott, now a regional commissioner for the Boy Scouts in Kansas City, Kansas.

As a boy, I was interested in athletics and was selected as an all-state end in 1932 and 1933 in the state of North Dakota. I entered the U.S. Olympic trials in fancy diving in 1932; I was a Red Cross Life Saving Examiner during the years of 1932, ’33 and ’34. I taught swimming and diving at scout camp and the municipal pool in Minot, North Dakota. I went to the University of Minnesota, where I swam and did fancy diving under Neils Thorpe, and also played football under Bernie Bierman, but upon entering college I was unable to continue my football career because of an injured knee. My high school football coach was Glen L. Jarrett, who is now the head football coach of the University of North Dakota. I had little or no finances, and my ambition in furthering my education in college was through athletics. As a boy in Minot, North Dakota, I did a good deal of dog sled racing, placed first with my dog in 1930 in the Lion’s Club Dog Derby.

In 1938 I went to work for Red Comet, Inc. of Littleton, Colorado, a manufacturer of automatic fire fighting apparatus. In 1939 I was made district manager for them over a part of the Western states, and in 1940 I established my own fire control supply known as the Great Western Fire Control Supply. I have been working as an independent fire control engineer since, and I handle, distribute, sell and install all types of automatic and manual fire fighting equipment in the rural areas over five Western states.

My flying experience started as a boy in Minot, North Dakota, where I took my first flying lesson from Earl T. Vance, who was originally from Great Falls, Montana. Due to the high cost at that time, I was unable to continue my flying and did not fly of any great consequence until 1943. I was given my pilot certificate by Ed Leach, a senior CAA inspector of Portland, Oregon, and for the last three years have owned my own airplane, covering my entire territory with same and flying from forty to one hundred hours per month since. Due to the fact that I use an airplane entirely in my work, in January of this year I purchased a new CallAir airplane, which is an airplane designed for high altitude take-offs and short rough field use.

In the type of flying I do, it takes a great deal of practice and judgment to be able to land in most any cow pasture and get out without injuring your airplane; the runways are very limited and the altitude is very high in some of the fields and places I have to go in my work. To date, I have landed in 823 cow pastures in mountain meadows, and in over a thousand hours a flat tire has been my greatest mishap.

The following story of what I observed over the Cascade Mountains, as impossible as it may seem is positively true. I never asked nor wanted any notoriety for just accidentally being in the right spot at the right time to observe what I did. I reported something that I know any pilot would have reported. I don’t think that in any way my observation was due to any sensitivity of eye sight or judgment than what is considered normal for any pilot.

On June 24th, Tuesday, 1947, I had finished my work for the Central Air Service at Chehalis, Washington, and at about two o’clock I took off from Chehalis, Washington Airport with the intention of going to Yakima, Washington. My trip was delayed for an hour to search for a large Marine transport that supposedly went down near or around the Southwest side of Mt. Rainier in the State of Washington and to date has never been found.

I flew directly toward Mt. Rainier after reaching an altitude of about 9,500 feet, which is the approximate elevation of the high plateau from which Mt. Rainier rises. I had made one sweep of this high plateau to the Westward, searching all of the various ridges for this Marine ship and flew to the West down and near the ridge side of the canyon where Ashford, Washington is located.

Unable to see anything that looked like the lost ship, I made a 300 degree turn to the right and above the little city of Mineral, starting again toward Mt. Rainier. I climbed back up to an altitude of approximately 9,200 feet.

The air was so smooth that day that it was a real pleasure flying and, as most pilots do when the air is smooth and they are flying at a higher altitude, I trimmed out my airplane in the direction of Yakima, Washington, which was almost directly East of my position, and simply sat in my plane observing the sky and the terrain.

There was a DC-4 to the left and to the rear of me approximately fifteen miles distance, and I should judge, at 14,000 foot elevation.

The sky and air was clear as crystal. I hadn’t flown more than two or three minutes on my course when a bright flash reflected on my airplane. It startled me as I thought I was too close to some other aircraft. I looked every place in the sky and couldn’t find where the reflection had come from until I observed a chain of nine peculiar looking aircraft flying from North to South at approximately 9,500 foot elevation and going seemingly, in a definite direction of about 170 degrees.

They were approaching Mt. Rainier very rapidly, and I merely assumed they were jet planes. Anyhow, I discovered that this was where the reflection had come from, as two or three of them every few seconds would dip or change their course slightly, just enough for the sun to strike them at an angle that reflected brightly on my plane.

These objects being quite far away, I was unable for a few seconds to make out their shape or their formation. Very shortly they approached Mt. Rainier, and I observed their outline against the snow quite plainly.

I thought it was very peculiar that I couldn’t find their tails but assumed they were some type of jet plane. I was determined to clock their speed, as I had two definite points I could clock them by; the air was so clear that it was very easy to see objects and determine their approximate shape and size at almost fifty miles that day.

I remember distinctly that my sweep second hand on my eight day clock, which is located on my instrument panel, read one minute to 3 p.m. as the first object of this formation passed the southern edge of Mt. Rainier. I watched these objects with great interest as I had never before observed airplanes flying so close to the mountain tops, flying directly South to the Southeast down the hog’s back of a mountain range. I would estimate their elevation could have varied a thousand feet one way or another up or down, but they were pretty much on the horizon to me which would indicate they were near the same elevation as I was.

They flew like many times I have observed geese to fly in a rather diagonal chain-like line as if they were linked together. They seemed to hold a definite direction but rather swerved in and out of the high mountain peaks. Their speed at the time did not impress me particularly, because I knew that our Army and Air Forces had planes that went very fast.

What kept bothering me as I watched them flip and flash in the Sun right along their path was the fact I couldn’t make out any tail on them, and I am sure that any pilot would justify more than a second look at such a plane.

I observed them quite plainly, and I estimate my distance from them, which was almost at right angles, to be between twenty to twenty-five miles. I knew they must be very large to observe their shape at that distance, even on a clear a day as it was that Tuesday.

In fact I compared a "Zeus Fastener" or cowling tool I had in my pocket with them, holding it up on them and holding it up on the DC-4 that I could observe at quite a distance to my left, and they seemed smaller than the DC-4; but, I should judge their span would have been as wide as the furthest engines on each side of the fuselage of the DC-4.

The more I observed these objects, the more upset I became, as I am accustomed and familiar with most all objects flying whether I am close to the ground or at higher altitudes. I observed the chain of these objects passing another high snow-covered ridge in between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams, and as the first one was passing the South crest of this ridge the last object was entering the Northern crest of the ridge.

As I was flying in the direction of this particular ridge, I measured it and found it to be approximately five miles so I could safely assume that the chain of these saucer-like objects were at least five miles long. I could quite accurately determine their pathway due to the fact that there were several high peaks that were a little this side of them as well as higher peaks on the other side of their pathway.

As the last unit of this formation passed the southern most high snow-covered crest of Mt. Adams, I looked at my sweep second hand and it showed that they had traveled the distance in one minute and forty-two seconds. Even at the time this timing did not upset me as I felt confident after I would land there would be some explanation of what I saw.

A number of newsmen and experts suggested that I might have been seeing reflections or even a mirage. This I know to be absolutely false, as I observed these objects not only through the glass of my airplane but turned my airplane sideways where I could open my window and observe them with a completely unobstructed view (without sunglasses).

Even though two minutes seems like a very short time to one on the ground, in the air in two minutes time a pilot can observe a great many things and anything within his sight of vision probably as many as fifty or sixty times.

I continued my search for the Marine plane for another fifteen or twenty minutes and while searching for this Marine plane, what I had just observed kept going through my mind. I became more disturbed, so after taking a last look at Tieton Reservoir I headed for Yakima.

I might add that my complete observation of these objects, which I could even follow by flashes as they passed Mt. Adams, was around two and one-half or three minutes, although, by the time they reached Mt. Adams, they were out of my range of vision as far as determining shape or form. Of course, when the sun reflected from one or two or three of those units, they appeared to be completely round; but, I am making a drawing to the best of my ability, which I am including, as to the shape I observed these objects to be as they passed the snow-covered ridges as well as Mt. Rainier. When these objects were flying approximately straight and level, they were just a black thin line and when they flipped was the only itme I could get a judgment as to their size.

These objects were holding an almost constant elevation; they did not seem to be going up or to be coming down, such as would be the case of rockets or artillery shells. I am convinced in my own mind that they were some type of airplane, even though they didn’t conform with the many aspects of the conventional type of planes that I know.

Although these objects have been reported by many other observers throughout the United States, there have been six or seven other accounts written by some of these observers that I can truthfully say must have observed the same thing that I did; particularly, the descriptions of the three Western Air Lines (Cedar City, Utah) employees, the gentleman (pilot) from Oklahoma City and the locomotive engineer in Illinois, plus Capt. E.J. Smith and Co-Pilot Ralph Stevens of United Air Lines.

Some descriptions could not be very accurate taken from the ground unless these saucer-like discs were a quite a great height and there is a possibility that all of the people who observed peculiar objects could have seen the same thing I did; but, it would have been very difficult from the ground to observe these for more than four or five seconds, and there is always the possibility of atmospheric moisture and dust near the ground which could distort one’s vision.

I have in my possession letters from all over the United States and people who profess that these objects have been observed over other portions of the world, principally Sweden, Bermuda and California.

I would have given almost anything that day to have had a movie camera with a telephoto lens and from now on I will never be without one, but, to continue further with my story, when I landed at the Yakima, Washington airport I described what I had seen to my very good friend, Al Baxter, who listened patiently and was very courteous but in a joking way didn’t believe me.

I did not accurately measure the distance between these two mountains until I landed at Pendleton, Oregon, that same day where I told a number of pilot friends of mine what I had observed and they did not scoff or laugh but suggested they might be guided missiles or something new. In fact, several former Army pilots informed me that they had been briefed before going into combat overseas that they might see objects of similar shape and design as I described, and assured me that I wasn’t dreaming or going crazy.

I quote Sonny Robinson, a former Army Air Force pilot who is now operating dusting operations at Pendleton, Oregon, "What you observed, I am convinced, is some type of jet or rocket propelled ship that is in the process of being tested by our government or even it could possibly be by some foreign government."

Anyhow, the news that I had observed these spread very rapidly and before the night was over I was receiving telephone calls from all parts of the world; and, to date I have not received one telephone call or one letter of scoffing or disbelief. The only disbelief that I know of was what was printed in the papers.

I look at this whole ordeal as not something funny as some people have made it out to be. To me it is mighty serious and since I evidently did observe something that at least Mr. John Doe on the street corner or Pete Andrews on the ranch had never heard about, is no reason that it does not exist. Even though I openly invited an investigation by the Army and the FBI as to the authenticity of my story or a mental or physical examination as to my capabilities, I have received no interest from these two important protective forces of our country; I will go so far as to assume that any report I gave to the United and Associated Press and over the radio on two different occasions which apparently set the nation buzzing if our Military Intelligence was not aware of what I observed, they would be the very first people that I could expect as visitors.

I have received lots of requests from people who told me to make a lot of wild guesses. I have based what I have written here in this article on positive facts and as far as guessing whit it was I observed, it is just as much a mystery to me as it is to the rest of the world.

My pilot’s license is 24 333487. I fly a CallAir airplane; it is a three-place single engine land ship that is designed and manufactured at Afton, Wyoming as an extremely high performance, high altitude airplane that was made for mountain work. The national certificate of my plane is [blacked out].


Kenneth Arnold

Boise, Idaho

The Kenneth Arnold, Captain Thomas F. Mantell, Jr., Clarence Chiles and John Whitted and Lt. George F. Gorman UFO incidents are undoubtedly the most recognized early cases in the history of unidentified flying objects. There were other cases that caused concern among the upper echelons of government and the military, but these cases were not high profile ones that allowed the public to gain insight into the unidentified flying object phenomenon and how it was being handled by the government or the defense forces of the nation. These cases were profiled in newspapers throughout the world and are regarded as "classics" of the modern UFO phenomenon’s beginnings.

But, the Project SIGN team were inundated with a myriad of interesting cases that have been long forgotten by successive generations who have come to know Ufology only by the developments in the latter part of this century; alien abductions, cattle mutilations and the Roswell Incident to name a few. The history, not only of Project SIGN, but of the unidentified flying object phenomenon as a whole warrant continuous review, investigation and discussion.

What had begun as perhaps one of the most important projects undertaken by the military of the twentieth century ended in a futile whimper amid administrative chaos. After just ten months from its noble beginning, Project SIGN was destined to begin falling into its own conundrum. In all fairness it must be stated that the Project SIGN staff made a noble attempt to determine if the "Flying Discs" were of advanced German technology from World War II that had found its way into the hands of the Russians, or if astronomical aberrations were the possible answer. But this attempt was thwarted from within and without by forces beyond those whose duty it was to find the truth. What could have been a monumental triumph of science became a morass of hypocrisy that continues to this day.

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