1. Background

2. Strategic Air Command Investigations

3. Information Unavailable to Project Blue Book

4. Project Blue Book Investigation

5. Reviewing Werlich’s Data & Conclusions

6. Project Blue Book Evaluation


Investigation of UFO Events at Minot AFB
on 24 October 1968

Thomas Tulien

1. Background

The modern UFO era was ushered in on the afternoon of 24 June 1947, when private pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine, silvery crescent-shaped discs traveling at high-speed near Mt. Rainier, Washington. Based on Arnold’s description, headline writers coined the phrase “flying saucers” for the new phenomenon, heralding the story in newspapers across the country. The repercussions encouraged other citizens to come forward with their own reports of puzzling things seen in the sky — many before Arnold’s account.

The considerable increase in sightings over the first week of July 1947 brought the first official statements in the press. On 4 July, the New York Times quoted a spokesman as stating the Air Force is “inclined to believe either that the observers just imagined they saw something, or that there is some meteorological explanation for the phenomenon.” Evidently, officials assumed that flying saucers were merely some sort of transitory phenomenon and would soon go away.

The situation took an alarming turn on 8 July, when Air Force pilots, other officers, and a crew of technicians at a high-security research and development facility in the Mojave desert, observed reflecting, silver-colored “flying discs” traveling at high-speed against prevailing winds. All attested that they could not have been airplanes. Pentagon officials suddenly wanted answers, issuing orders for Air Force Intelligence to investigate all reports.

By August, analysts had concluded that the phenomenon was real, and of a disk-like aerial technology with very high-performance characteristics. For purposes of analysis and evaluation, it was assumed that the flying saucers were manned aircraft of Russian origin.[2] In January 1948, USAF headquarters established Project Sign with the directive, “to collect, collate, evaluate, and distribute to interested government agencies all information concerning sightings and phenomena in the atmosphere which can be construed to be of concern to the national security.”

Project Sign investigated several dozen sighting reports from credible observers that they could not explain, and considering the performance characteristics and inconceivable power plant requirements; possibly nuclear — or even more exotic — it was impossible they could 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 estimate made its way up into the higher echelons 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 conclusion lacked proof.

In February 1949, Sign issued its report qualifying the project as “still largely characterized by the collection of data.” 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.”

Unable to easily resolve the issue, and disengage itself from the public side of the controversy, Air Force policy shifted to downplay the significance and effectively put an end to UFO reports. Project Sign staff, and top people in the intelligence division, were transferred or reassigned. The project was even given a new name — Project Grudge. New staff operated on the premise that all reports could be conventionally explained, however, throughout 1950 attempts to terminate the project proved ineffective.

Harry G. Barnes

Senior air traffic controller for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, Harry G. Barnes, tracked some of the UFOs that were reported over Washington, D.C. in July 1952. In a widely distributed newspaper account, he wrote: “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. Nor in my opinion could any natural phenomena account for these spots on our radar. Exactly what they are, I don’t know.” The Air Force explained the cause of the reports as anomalous radar propagation due to temperature inversions. (Photo: Time-Life Books Inc.) The full text of the article is available here.

The one uncontrollable variable — UFO sightings — refused to go away. As Cold War tensions escalated with the Soviet Union, Air Force commands responsible for the air defense 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. USAF, Director of Intelligence General Charles Cabell agreed, ordering an immediate reorganization of the project.

Under the leadership of Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, new staff designed and instituted plans for a systematic study of the UFO phenomenon. In March 1952, the project received a new name, Project Blue Book, and formal authority promulgated by Air Force Letter 200-5. Reports were on a dramatic increase nationwide, culminating over two consecutive weekends in late July, when radar systems tracked UFOs 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 occasions, pilots reported lights they could not identify that corresponded 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.”

The following weekend, Washington National Airport and nearby Andrews AFB, Maryland, radar picked up as many as a dozen unidentified targets. This time, Air Defense Command scrambled F-94 jet fighter-interceptors from New Castle AFB, Delaware, resulting in what one pilot described as an “aerial cat and mouse game.” When the F-94s arrived in the area the UFOs would disappear, and when they left the UFOs reappeared.[3]

Front page of the Washington Post

The front page of the Washington Post on July 28, 1952. The full text of the article is available, click here. In addition, Revisiting One of the Classics: The Nash/Fortenberry UFO Sighting, 14 July 1952.

On Monday morning, the front pages across America heralded the story of UFOs outrunning fighter planes. 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.” Responding to banner headlines and public alarm, President Truman ordered the Director of Central Intelligence, General Walter Bedell Smith, to look into the matter.

General Smith assigned a special study group in the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI), anchored by Assistant Director of Scientific Intelligence, Dr. H. Marshall Chadwell. The group was to focus on the national security implications of UFOs, and the CIA’s statutory responsibility to coordinate the intelligence effort required to solve the problem.

In August and September, OSI consulted with some of the country’s most prominent scientists. Chadwell’s tentative conclusions addressed national security issues, recommending psychological-warfare studies and a national policy on how to present the issue to the public. He also acknowledged the air vulnerability issue, and the need for improved procedures for rapid identification of unknown air traffic — a vital concern of many at the time, since the U.S. had no early warning system against a surprise attack.

Furthermore, Chadwell briefed Gen. Smith on 2 December, convinced “something was going on that must have immediate attention.”

Sightings of unexplained objects at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major U.S. defense installations are of such nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles.

He recommended an ad hoc committee be formed to “convince the responsible authorities in the community that immediate research and development on this subject must be undertaken,” with an expectation that this would lead to a National Security Council, Intelligence Directive for a prioritized project to study UFOs. What he got was something quite different.

In January 1953, the CIA convened a panel of prominent scientists, chaired by Caltech physicist and defense consultant Dr. Howard P. Robertson, in order “to evaluate any possible threat to national security posed by Unidentified Flying Objects and to make recommendations thereon.” After four days, the panel concluded that the evidence presented shows no indication that UFOs constitute a direct threat to national security, however, continued emphasis on UFO reporting does “in these parlous times,” threaten the orderly functioning of the government, while cultivating a “morbid national psychology in which propaganda could induce hysterical behavior and distrust of duly constituted authority.” A clearly defined approach to the problem was established. The Robertson panel recommended that the national security agencies debunk UFO reports and institute policies of public education designed to reassure the public of the lack of evidence (and “inimical forces”) behind the UFO phenomenon.[4]

Air Force Regulation 200-2

Responding to the Robertson panel recommendations, USAF headquarters promulgated Air Force Regulation 200-2 on 26 August 1953, codifying the official UFO policy chiefly as a public relations issue.[5] Indeed, a 1959 revision was unequivocal in declaring that, “Air Force activities must reduce the percentage of unidentifieds to the minimum” (AFR 200-2, par. 2c).

To achieve this, air base Commanders were responsible for “all investigative action necessary to submit a complete initial report of a UFO sighting,” and instructed to make every effort “to resolve the sighting in the initial investigation” (par. 3b). Further, “all Air Force activities will conduct investigations to the extent necessary for their required reporting action (see paragraphs 14, 15 and 16).” This amounted to collating a formatted list of Basic Reporting Data and transmitting it to Blue Book; with the caveat, “no activity should carry an investigation beyond this point” without first obtaining verbal authority from Blue Book at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio (par. 5).

Thus, Air Force investigators were explicitly limited to compiling responses to a formatted list of questions prescribed by AFR 200-2 (par. 14), and restricted from conducting any full-scale investigations and gathering all the available data. Blue Book was relieved of any investigative burden. If the UFO report remained unidentified at the base level, it was their responsibility to simply evaluate the data it received and submit a final case report.

In order to “reduce the percentage of unidentifieds to the minimum,” Blue Book adopted the premise that all UFO reports result from either hoaxes, or the misidentification of a natural object or phenomenon. They broadened the identified category to include possible and probable explanations, allowing investigators to identify a report based on the probability that a sighting was of a known phenomenon. In press releases, and year-end Blue Book evaluation statistics, the possible and probable subcategories simply disappeared and the sightings were listed as identified.

For nearly two decades Air Force officials led the public, as well as members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, to believe they were engaged in a meticulous and objective investigation of the UFO phenomenon. In fact, they viewed the UFO program as a low-priority public relations problem, which they were mandated to implement in order to assure the public of their responsibility to the nation’s air defense.

For instance, in July 1968, a research assistant to the USAF-funded, University of Colorado UFO study, Herbert Strentz, queried Project Blue Book chief Lt. Col. Hector Quintanilla regarding the nature of the Blue Book investigations:

Our primary responsibility is to collect data and then check the subjective material to see what the stimulus might be . . . We’re not an investigative force. . . . We collect data. It’s a misnomer to think we investigate.

Quintanilla was then asked to clarify his statement since it was contradictory to published statements by Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Thomas D. White, that “all unidentified flying object sightings are investigated in meticulous detail by Air Force personnel and qualified scientific consultants. So far, not a single bit of material evidence of the existence of spaceships has been found,” and by Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Brown, who explained to the House Committee on Armed Services on 5 April 1966, that

the Air Force is both objective and thorough in its treatment of all reports of unusual aerial objects over the United States. . . . In evaluating these sightings, the Air Force has used carefully selected and highly qualified scientists, technicians, and consultants. These personnel have utilized the finest Air Force laboratories, test centers, scientific instrumentation, and technical equipment for this purpose,” and “will continue to investigate such phenomenon with an open mind and the finest technical equipment available.”

Quintanilla clarified:

We are more or less a collection agency…. We contact everybody we can with regards to trying to identify the stimulus, which caused the observer to report a UFO sighting, however, this is not really investigating, this is checking details. We do use scientific disciplines to evaluate the information, however, this is an after the fact evaluation. We have only subjective statements made by the witnesses to work with … but we are not empowered to check the individuals background…Collection is part of the investigative process and we accept the data as fact, however, we seldom really complete the cycle…. You don’t really do much investigating when you check out satellite observations, astronomical observations, moving lights, weather balloons, etc.” In addition: “We have certain characteristics for sightings … characteristics for astronomical reports, aircraft, balloons. If any of these (UFO reports) have characteristics that fall into such categories, the plausible answer is that it (the UFO) was that. … Sometimes there is a thin line in classifying a UFO, but if it falls in the category, it’s in the category. You can quibble…. But I cut them off when I think we’ve got the answer.” [6]

The 24 October 1968, Minot UFO case provides an excellent case study of the methods the USAF incorporated to investigate UFO reports. [See, for example, the Memos for the Record in the DOCUMENTATION. section.] Following the Robertson panel recommendations in 1953, a clearly-defined authoritative approach to the problem was established. Expressly, the claim that UFOs are not a threat to national security and the need to institute policies for public education designed to reassure the public of the lack of evidence behind the UFO phenomenon, thereby encouraging self-censorship. In addition, the policy obligated Air Force investigators to adopt requisite techniques for making UFOs known without actually trying to find out what they are.

Furthermore, to control the flow of information to the public and media, Blue Book forwarded a copy of the final case report to the Secretary of the Air Force, Office of Information, which was solely responsible for “release to the public or unofficial persons or organizations all information or releases concerning UFO’s, regardless of origin and nature” (par. 7). The only exception being “in response to local inquiries regarding any UFO reported in the vicinity of an Air Force base, when “the commander of the base concerned may release information to the press or general public only after positive identification of the sighting as a familiar or known object” (par. 8). Only if Blue Book could positively identify the sighting as a hoax or misidentification would the Air Force release the information to the public.

AFR 200-2 effectively institutionalized secrecy. In December 1953, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued Joint-Army-Navy-Air Force-Publication-146 (JANAP-146), entitled, Communications Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings (CIRVUS). The directive details the procedures to be followed in the filing of reports from pilots and crews of military aircraft and surface vessels regarding information of vital importance to national security. JANAP 146 included unidentified flying objects under information to be reported, but did not designate Project Blue Book to receive the reports. The directive also applies to civilian pilots and prohibits the unauthorized transmission or revelation of the contents of CIRVIS reports under the laws of the Espionage Act. These policies remained in effect through 17 December 1969, when the Air Force announced the termination of Project Blue Book.[7]

2. SAC Investigations ››