Summary: In 1953, Page, an astrophysicist, and Durant, a Navy test pilot, participated in a CIA-sponsored study of unidentified flying objects that became known as the Robertson Panel.
Just what Thornton Page meant in a September 1966 letter to Fred Durant isn't exactly clear. Durant says he doesn't remember the correspondence, which is understandable after 36 years. Page's note was retrieved from the Smithsonian Institution several years ago, where Durant once served as the assistant director for astronautics.
In 1953, Page, an astrophysicist, and Durant, a Navy test pilot, participated in a CIA-sponsored study of unidentified flying objects that became known as the Robertson Panel. The Robertson Panel was a direct response to an avalanche of public sightings of UFOs -- 500 in July 1952, alone -- that culminated in some spectacular nocturnal encounters above Washington, D.C., on the weekends of July 19 and July 26. Jet fighters were scrambled in a futile game of cat-and-mouse. The incidents generated a 90-minute press conference at the Pentagon, the longest exchange between media and brass since the end of WWII.
The official explanation from the Civil Aeronautics Administration: the objects that provoked visual and radar contacts were byproducts of temperature inversions. Under that scenario, warm air layers trapped above cool air can bend radar waves downward, which then mirror ground objects and trick radar scopes into reading them as airborne anomalies. Airborne mirages, added the CAA, are also byproducts of those conditions.
After reviewing some 50 cases of UFOs prowling American skies during the Cold War and the McCarthy hearings, the Robertson Panel's clear priority was national security. "The continued emphasis on the reporting of (UFOs) does, in these perilous times, result in a threat to the orderly function of the protective organs of the body politic." Recommendation: "National security agencies . . . take immediate steps to strip the UFOs of the special status they have been given."
In 1966, several months after a Walter Cronkite-narrated "CBS Reports" documentary on UFOs reassured American viewers that the phenomenon was largely the product of hoaxes or self-delusion, Page wrote a letter to Durant, who'd been a Robertson Panel secretary. He told Durant how he'd "helped organize the CBS TV show around the Robertson Panel conclusions."
Today, from his home in Raleigh, N.C., the 85-year-old Durant insists he "wouldn't change a word" in the Robertson report. "You have to remember the times," says Durant. "These UFO reports were clogging the phone lines, and we had absolutely no idea of what the Soviet interest in this was. If this phenomenon could be controlled, they could have used it for psychological warfare."
Although a 1969 study by the Air Force Environmental Technical Applications Center refuted the CAA's temperature inversion sightings explanation ("UFOs would need temperatures of several thousand (degrees) Kelvin in order to cause the mirages attributed to them"), Durant contends the mirage scenario is viable because he's seen automobile headlights reflected into the sky at night. As for radar data, "You get enormous speed readings on oscilloscopes when two radar systems are looking at each other," says the former operative for the CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence. "They're called fast tracks, and they'll produce readings that'll give you false alerts on objects that seem to be reaching speeds of 1,000 miles an hour or more."
So maybe that's what happened again over Washington early Friday morning, nearly to the exact hour of the flap that engaged the CIA 50 years ago. "It was this object, this light blue object, traveling at a phenomenal rate of speed," suburban witness Renny Rogers told the Washington Post. "This Air Force jet was right behind it, chasing it, but the object was just leaving him in the dust."
According to the report, after radar detected an unresponsive bogey entering restricted air space around 1 a.m., the North American Aerospace Defense Command was alerted, and two loaded F-16s screamed out of Andrews Air Force Base to intercept. Only, when the jets got airborne, the object disappeared.
Said NORAD's Maj. Douglas Martin: "Everything was fine in the sky, so they returned home." Added Lt. Col Steve Chase with the Air National Guard 113th Air Wing, "It was a routine launch."
Well, sure. Nothing unusual in this day and age about a low-flying object closing in on the nation's capital, refusing to identify itself, then out-maneuvering an F-16. No media demand for a press conference to hear about temperature inversions, either. Actually, aside from the BBC and a blurb in the Post, no media coverage, period.
"There's just so much crap in this field, all these conspiracy theories," says Durant. "You've got another generation coming up that's increasingly ignorant of the facts. I guess it's fun to fantasize."
Downright contagious, actually.