The term flying saucer was coined on June 24, 1947, after pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine UFOs flying over Mount Rainier, Washington. He said they flew erratically, fluttering and tipping their wings in a diagonal formation. He estimated that they traveled from the direction of Mount Rainier to Mount Adams at a speed of 1,200 mph. The craft were like pie plates that were cut-off at the rear, and reflected sunlight off their metallic surfaces. At Pendleton, Oregon, he described their motion to a reporter, as like that of “a saucer if you skip it across water” – and from this the term flying saucer evolved.
At the time aeronautical experts were skeptical, but others believed he saw the testing of secret weapons, or even, fantastically enough, that doomsday was about occur. In August 1947 when a Gallup poll asked people “What do you think these saucers are?” the majority confessed ignorance or regarded them as figments of the public imagination, mirages, or optical illusions. Since then conventional aircraft, mirages, balloons, snow showers, earth lights, and oddly-shaped clouds have been some of the explanations for Arnold’s sighting.
Nonetheless, the idea of flying saucers captured the public imagination and at least 1,000 UFO sightings were reported in the American press in 1947 alone, peaking during June and July. A further 1,700 reports appeared in newspapers throughout the world.
In the six decades since, flying saucers have inspired scores of movies, TV shows and a mini publishing industry. They’re supposedly the source of crop circles and cattle mutilations, and they’ve spawned several cults and a minor religion. Fodder for government commissions, both real and imagined, the mysterious vehicles have also fed government conspiracy theorists, who believe we’re being lied to.
Days after Arnold’s sighting, in July 1947, the Roswell Daily Record claimed that the Roswell Army Air Field had recovered a crashed flying ‘disc’. The Army explained the crash as the wreckage of a weather balloon. The incident was largely forgotten until the late 1970’s, when eyewitnesses began to come forward claiming the balloon was an alien craft. The Roswell case has become the foundation stone for belief that the U.S. government secretly recovered alien technology and collaborated with extraterrestrials. The Air Force has always denied this, and it published The Roswell Report: Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert to detail its side of the argument. Nonetheless, belief in the Roswell story continues unabated.
As UFOs continued to be reported without any satisfactory explanation, amateur UFO groups and clubs were formed to investigate and discuss the subject. In the USA the two most important groups were the Aerial Phenomena Research Organisation (APRO) founded by Jim and Coral Lorenzen in 1952, and the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), which began in 1956. NICAP under the leadership of UFO author Donald E. Keyhoe supported the idea that UFOs were extraterrestrial spacecraft; it also alleged that the USAF was trying to cover up the evidence for the reality of UFOs. Ironically, NICAP had many CIA staff as members, including Vice-Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter who was on their board of directors until 1962.
With the arrival of the Internet, UFO rumors are even more widespread and increasingly elaborate. For example, in 2005, a large document, allegedly written in the late 1970s, came to light that claimed that six aliens were recovered from the Roswell crash. An alien called EBE 1 was said to have survived and organised a team of specially trained humans to visit his home planet Serpo. The 12 humans stayed there from 1965 to 1978. Two stayed there and the others either died on the planet or on returning to Earth, due to exposure to high levels of radiation. It is almost certainly a hoax but represents the type of UFO rumors in circulation at the moment.