An unidentified flying object (usually abbreviated to UFO or U.F.O.) is any unusual apparent object in the sky whose cause cannot be identified by the observer, or (in a narrower definition) by investigators; though in popular usage it more loosely means alien spacecraft, being one explanation (among several) offered for such sightings. Though UFO sightings have occurred throughout history, modern interest in them dates from World War II, since when governments have investigated UFO reports, often from a military perspective, and UFO researchers have investigated, written about and created organizations devoted to the subject.
Studies have established that the majority of UFOs are observations of some real but conventional object—most commonly aircraft, balloons, noctilucent clouds, nacreous clouds, or astronomical objects such as meteors or bright planets – that have been misidentified by the observer as anomalies, while a small percentage of reported UFOs are hoaxes. However, after excluding these incorrect reports, between 5% and 20% of the total remain unexplained, and so can be classified as unidentified in the strictest sense. Many such reports have been made by trained observers such as pilots, police and the military; some involve radar traces, so not all reports are visual. Proponents of an extraterrestrial hypothesis believe that these unidentified reports are of alien spacecraft, though various other hypotheses have been proposed.
While UFOs have been the subject of extensive investigation by various governments, and some scientists support the extraterrestrial hypothesis, few scientific papers about UFOs have been published in peer-reviewed journals. There has been some debate in the scientific community about whether any scientific investigation into UFO sightings is warranted.
UFOs have become a prominent theme in modern culture, and this cultural phenomenon has been the subject of academic research.
The first widely publicized U.S. sighting, reported by private pilot Kenneth Arnold in June 1947, gave rise to the popular terms “flying saucer” and “flying disc”, of which the former is still sometimes used, even though Arnold said the most of the objects he saw were not totally circular and one was crescent-shaped (see Kenneth_Arnold_UFO_sighting for details).
The term “UFO” was first suggested in 1952 by Cpt. Edward J. Ruppelt, who headed Project Blue Book, then the USAF’s official investigation of UFOs. Ruppelt felt that “flying saucer” did not reflect the diversity of the sightings. He suggested that UFO should be pronounced as a word – you-foe. However it is now usually pronounced by forming each letter: U.F.O. His term was quickly adopted by the United States Air Force , which also briefly used “UFOB”. The Air Force initially defined UFOs as those objects that remain unidentified after scrutiny by expert investigators, though today the term UFO is often used for any unexplained sighting regardless of whether it has been investigated.
Because the term UFO is ambiguous – referring either to any unidentified sighting, or in popular usage to alien spacecraft – and the public and media ridicule sometimes associated with the topic, some investigators now prefer to use other terms such as unidentified aerial phenomenon (or UAP).
The equivalent acronym for UFO in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian is OVNI (Objeto Volador No Identificado, Objeto Voador Não Identificado, Objet volant non identifié or Oggetto Volante Non Identificato).
Unexplained aerial observations have been reported throughout history. Some were undoubtedly astronomical in nature: comets, bright meteors, one or more of the five planets that can be seen with the naked eye, planetary conjunctions, or atmospheric optical phenomena such as parhelia and lenticular clouds. An example is Halley’s Comet, which was recorded first by Chinese astronomers in 240 B.C. and possibly as early as 467 B.C. Such sightings throughout history were often treated as supernatural portents, angels, or other religious omens. Some current-day UFO researchers have noticed similarities between some religious symbols in medieval paintings and UFO reports though the canonical and symbolic character of such images is documented by art historians placing more conventional religious interpretations on such images.
Shen Kuo (1031–1095), a Song Chinese government scholar-official and prolific polymath inventor and scholar, wrote a vivid passage in his Dream Pool Essays (1088) about an unidentified flying object. He recorded the testimony of eyewitnesses in 11th-century Anhui and Jiangsu (especially in the city of Yangzhou), who stated that a flying object with opening doors would shine a blinding light from its interior (from an object shaped like a pearl) that would cast shadows from trees for ten miles in radius, and was able to take off at tremendous speeds.
On January 25, 1878, The Denison Daily News wrote that local farmer John Martin had reported seeing a large, dark, circular flying object resembling a balloon flying “at wonderful speed.” Martin also said it appeared to be about the size of a saucer, the first known use of the word “saucer” in association with a UFO.
On February 28, 1904, there was a sighting by three crew members on the USS Supply 300 miles west of San Francisco, reported by Lt. Frank Schofield, later to become Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Battle Fleet. Schofield wrote of three bright red egg-shaped and circular objects flying in echelon formation that approached beneath the cloud layer, then changed course and “soared” above the clouds, departing directly away from the earth after two to three minutes. The largest had an apparent size of about six suns.
1916 and 1926: The three oldest known pilot UFO sightings, of 1305 cataloged by NARCAP. On January 31, 1916, a UK pilot near Rochford reported a row of lights, like lighted windows on a railway carriage, that rose and disappeared. In January 1926, a pilot reported six “flying manhole covers” between Wichita, Kansas and Colorado Springs, Colorado. In late September 1926, an airmail pilot over Nevada was forced to land by a huge, wingless cylindrical object.
On August 5, 1926, while traveling in the Humboldt Mountains of Tibet’s Kokonor region, Nicholas Roerich reported that members of his expedition saw “something big and shiny reflecting the sun, like a huge oval moving at great speed. Crossing our camp the thing changed in its direction from south to southwest. And we saw how it disappeared in the intense blue sky. We even had time to take our field glasses and saw quite distinctly an oval form with shiny surface, one side of which was brilliant from the sun.” Another description by Roerich was, “…A shiny body flying from north to south. Field glasses are at hand. It is a huge body. One side glows in the sun. It is oval in shape. Then it somehow turns in another direction and disappears in the southwest.”
In the Pacific and European theatres during World War II, “Foo-fighters” (metallic spheres, balls of light and other shapes that followed aircraft) were reported and on occasion photographed by Allied and Axis pilots. Some proposed Allied explanations at the time included St. Elmo’s Fire, the planet Venus, hallucinations from oxygen deprivation, or German secret weapon.
On February 25, 1942, U.S. Army observers reported unidentified aircraft both visually and on radar over the Los Angeles, California region. Antiaircraft artillery was fired at what was presumed to be Japanese planes. No readily apparent explanation was offered, though some officials dismissed the reports of aircraft as being triggered by anxieties over expected Japanese air attacks on California. However, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson insisted real aircraft were involved. The incident later became known as the Battle of Los Angeles, or the West coast air raid.
In 1946, there were over 2000 reports, collected primarily by the Swedish military, of unidentified aerial objects in the Scandinavian nations, along with isolated reports from France, Portugal, Italy and Greece, then referred to as “Russian hail”, and later as “ghost rockets”, because it was thought that these mysterious objects were possibly Russian tests of captured German V1 or V2 rockets. Although most were thought to be natural phenomena like meteors, over 200 were tracked on radar and deemed to be “real physical objects” by the Swedish military. In a 1948 top secret document, the Swedish military told the USAF Europe in 1948 that some of their investigators believed them to be extraterrestrial in origin.
The Kenneth Arnold sightings
Main article: Kenneth Arnold Unidentified Flying Object Sighting
This shows the report Kenneth Arnold filed in 1947 about his UFO sighting.
The post World War II UFO phase in the United States began with a famous sighting by American businessman Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947 while flying his private plane near Mount Rainier, Washington. He reported seeing nine brilliantly bright objects flying across the face of Rainier.
This shows Kenneth Arnold holding a picture of a drawing of the crescent shaped UFO he saw in 1947.
Although there were other 1947 U.S. sightings of similar objects that preceded this, it was Arnold’s sighting that first received significant media attention and captured the public’s imagination. Arnold described what he saw as being “flat like a pie pan”, “shaped like saucers and were so thin I could barely see them… “, “half-moon shaped, oval in front and convex in the rear. … they looked like a big flat disk” (see Arnold’s drawing at right), and flew “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water”. (One of the objects, however, he would describe later as crescent-shaped, as shown in illustration at left.) Arnold’s descriptions were widely reported and within a few days gave rise to the terms flying saucer and flying disk. Arnold’s sighting was followed in the next few weeks by hundreds of other reported sightings, mostly in the U.S., but in other countries as well. After reports of the Arnold sighting hit the media, other cases began to be reported in increasing numbers. In one instance a United Airlines crew sighting of nine more disc-like objects over Idaho on the evening of July 4. At the time, this sighting was even more widely reported than Arnold’s and lent considerable credence to Arnold’s report.
American UFO researcher Ted Bloecher, in his comprehensive review of newspaper reports (including cases that preceded Arnold’s), found a sudden surge upwards in sightings on July 4, peaking on July 6–8. Bloecher noted that for the next few days most American newspapers were filled with front-page stories of the new “flying saucers” or “flying discs”. Speculation as to what the flying saucers were was rampant in the newspapers. Theories ranged from hallucinations, mass hysteria, optical illusions, hoaxes, reflections off airplanes, unusual atmospheric conditions, and weather balloons to byproducts of atomic testing or U.S./Russian secret weapons, to even more esoteric interdimensional or interplanetary visitors. Reports began to rapidly tail off after July 8, when officials began issuing press statements on the Roswell UFO incident, in which they explained debris found on the ground by a rancher as being that of a weather balloon.
Over several years in the 1960s, Bloecher (aided by physicist James E. McDonald) discovered 853 flying disc sightings that year from 140 newspapers from Canada, Washington D.C, and every U.S. state except Montana.
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UFOs have been subject to investigations over the years that vary widely in scope and scientific rigor. Governments or independent academics in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Peru, France, Belgium, Sweden, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Spain, and the Soviet Union are known to have investigated UFO reports at various times.
Among the best known government studies are the ghost rockets investigation by the Swedish military (1946–1947), Project Blue Book, previously Project Sign and Project Grudge, conducted by the United States Air Force from 1947 until 1969, the secret U.S. Army/Air Force Project Twinkle investigation into green fireballs (1948–1951), the secret USAF Project Blue Book Special Report #14 by the Battelle Memorial Institute, and Brazilian Air Force Operation Saucer (1977). France has had an ongoing investigation (GEPAN/SEPRA/GEIPAN) within its space agency CNES since 1977, as has Uruguay since 1989.
Project Sign in 1948 wrote a highly classified opinion (see Estimate of the Situation) that the best UFO reports probably had an extraterrestrial explanation, as did the private but high-level French COMETA study of 1999. A top secret Swedish military opinion given to the USAF in 1948 stated that some of their analysts believed the 1946 ghost rockets and later flying saucers had extraterrestrial origins. (see Ghost rockets for document). In 1954, German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth revealed an internal West German government investigation, which he headed, that arrived at an extraterrestrial conclusion, but this study was never made public. Classified, internal reports by the Canadian Project Magnet in 1952 and 1953 also assigned high probability to extraterrestrial origins. Publicly, however, Project Magnet, nor later Canadian defense studies, ever stated such a conclusion.
Project Sign was dismantled and became Project Grudge at the end of 1948. Angered by the low quality of investigations by Grudge, the Air Force Director of Intelligence reorganized it as Project Blue Book in late 1951, placing Ruppelt in charge. Blue Book closed down in 1970, using the Condon Commission’s negative conclusion as a rationale, ending the official Air Force UFO investigations. However, a 1969 USAF document, known as the Bolender memo, plus later government documents revealed that nonpublic U.S. government UFO investigations continued after 1970. The Bollender memo first stated that “reports of unidentified flying objects that could affect national security… are not part of the Blue Book system,” indicating that more serious UFO incidents were already handled outside of the public Blue Book investigation. The memo then added, “reports of UFOs which could affect national security would continue to be handled through the standard Air Force procedures designed for this purpose.” In addition, in the late 1960s, there was a chapter on UFOs at the U.S. Air Force Academy in their Space Sciences course, giving serious consideration to possible extraterrestrial origins. When word of the curriculum became public, the Air Force in 1970 put out a statement the book was outdated and that cadets were now being informed of Condon’s negative conclusion instead.
The initially classified USAF Regulation 200-2, first issued in 1953 after the Robertson Panel, which first defined UFOs and how information was to be collected, stated explicitly that the two reasons for studying the unexplained cases were for national security reasons and for possible technical aspects involved, implying physical reality and concern about national defense, but without opinion as to origins. (For example, such information would also be considered important if UFOs had a foreign or domestic origin.) The first two known classified USAF studies in 1947 also concluded real physical aircraft were involved, but gave no opinion as to origins. (See American investigations immediately below) These early studies led to the creation of the USAF’s Project Sign at the end of 1947, the first semi-public USAF study.
Air Force Regulation 200-2, issued in 1953 and 1954, defined an Unidentified Flying Object (“UFOB”) as “any airborne object which by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type, or which cannot be positively identified as a familiar object.” The regulation also said UFOBs were to be investigated as a “possible threat to the security of the United States” and “to determine technical aspects involved.” As to what the public was to be told, “it is permissible to inform news media representatives on UFOB’s when the object is positively identified as a familiar object,” but “For those objects which are not explainable, only the fact that ATIC [Air Technical Intelligence Center] will analyze the data is worthy of release, due to many unknowns involved.”
Allen Hynek was a trained astronomer who participated in Project Bluebook after doing research as a federal government employee. He formed the opinion that some UFO reports could not be scientifically explained. Through his founding of the Center for UFO Studies and participation at CUFOs he spent the rest of his life researching and documenting UFOs. The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a character loosely based on Hynek. Another group studying UFOs is Mutual UFO Network. MUFON is a grass roots based organization known for publishing one of the first UFO investigators handbooks. This handbook went into great detail on how to document alleged UFO sightings.
Jacques Vallée, a scientist and prominent UFO researcher, has argued that most UFO research is scientifically deficient, including many government studies such as Project Blue Book, and that mythology and cultism are frequently associated with the phenomenon. Vallée states that self-styled scientists often fill the vacuum left by the lack of attention paid to the UFO phenomenon by official science, but also notes that several hundred professional scientists continue to study UFOs in private, what he terms the “invisible college”. He also argues that much could be learned from rigorous scientific study, but that little such work has been done.
There has been little mainstream scientific study of UFOs, and the topic has received little serious attention or support in mainstream scientific literature. Official studies ended in the U.S. in December 1969, subsequent to the statement by Edward Condon that the study of UFOs probably could not be justified in the expectation that science would be advanced. The Condon report and these conclusions were endorsed by the National Academy of Scientists, of which Condon was a member. However, a scientific review by the UFO subcommittee of the AIAA disagreed with Condon’s conclusion, noting that at least 30% of the cases studied remained unexplained, and that scientific benefit might be gained by continued study.
It has been claimed that all UFO cases are anecdotal and that all can be explained as prosaic natural phenomena. On the other hand, it has been argued that there is limited awareness among scientists of observational data, other than what is reported in the popular press.
No official government investigation has ever publicly concluded that UFOs are indisputably real, physical objects, extraterrestrial in origin, or of concern to national defense. These same negative conclusions also have been found in studies that were highly classified for many years, such as the UK’s Flying Saucer Working Party, Project Condign, the US CIA-sponsored Robertson Panel, the US military investigation into the green fireballs from 1948 to 1951, and the Battelle Memorial Institute study for the USAF from 1952 to 1955 (Project Blue Book Special Report #14).
Some public government conclusions have indicated physical reality but stopped short of concluding extraterrestrial origins, though not dismissing the possibility. Examples are the Belgian military investigation into large triangles over their airspace in 1989–1991 and the recent 2009 Uruguay Air Force study conclusion (see below).
Some private studies have been neutral in their conclusions, but argued the inexplicable core cases called for continued scientific study. Examples are the Sturrock Panel study of 1998 and the 1970 AIAA review of the Condon Report.
US investigations into UFOs include:
The Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit (IPU), established by the US Army sometime in the 1940s, and about which little is known. In 1987, British UFO researcher Timothy Good received a letter confirming the existence of the IPU from the Army Director of Counter-intelligence, in which it was stated, “… the aforementioned Army unit was disestablished during the late 1950s and never reactivated. All records pertaining to this unit were surrendered to the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations in conjunction with operation BLUEBOOK.” The IPU records have never been released.
Project Blue Book, previously Project Sign and Project Grudge, conducted by the United States Air Force from 1947 until 1969
The secret U.S. Army/Air Force Project Twinkle investigation into green fireballs (1948–1951)
Ghost rockets investigations by the Swedish, U.K., U.S., and Greek militaries (1946–1947)
The secret CIA Office of Scientific Investigation (OS/I) study (1952–53)
The secret CIA Robertson Panel (1953)
The secret USAF Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14 by the Battelle Memorial Institute (1951–1954)
The Brookings Report (1960), commissioned by NASA
The public Condon Committee (1966–1968)
The private, internal RAND Corporation study (1968)
The private Sturrock Panel (1998)
Thousands of documents released under FOIA also indicate that many U.S. intelligence agencies collected (and still collect) information on UFOs, including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), as well as military intelligence agencies of the Army and Navy, in addition to the Air Force.
The investigation of UFOs has also attracted many civilians, who in the U.S formed research groups such as National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena (NICAP, active 1956–1980), Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO, 1952–1988), Mutual UFO Network (MUFON, 1969–), and Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS, 1973–).
After 1947 sightings
Following the large U.S. surge in sightings in June and early July 1947, on July 9, 1947, Army Air Force (AAF) intelligence, in cooperation with the FBI, began a formal investigation into selected best sightings with characteristics that could not be immediately rationalized, which included Kenneth Arnold’s and that of the United Airlines crew. The AAF used “all of its top scientists” to determine whether or not “such a phenomenon could, in fact, occur”. The research was “being conducted with the thought that the flying objects might be a celestial phenomenon,” or that “they might be a foreign body mechanically devised and controlled.” Three weeks later in a preliminary defense estimate, the air force investigation decided that, “This ‘flying saucer’ situation is not all imaginary or seeing too much in some natural phenomenon. Something is really flying around.”
A further review by the intelligence and technical divisions of the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field reached the same conclusion, that “the phenomenon is something real and not visionary or fictitious,” that there were objects in the shape of a disc, metallic in appearance, and as big as man-made aircraft. They were characterized by “extreme rates of climb [and] maneuverability,” general lack of noise, absence of trail, occasional formation flying, and “evasive” behavior “when sighted or contacted by friendly aircraft and radar,” suggesting a controlled craft. It was thus recommended in late September 1947 that an official Air Force investigation be set up to investigate the phenomenon. It was also recommended that other government agencies should assist in the investigation.
This led to the creation of the Air Force’s Project Sign at the end of 1947, one of the earliest government studies to come to a secret extraterrestrial conclusion. In August 1948, Sign investigators wrote a top-secret intelligence estimate to that effect. The Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg ordered it destroyed. The existence of this suppressed report was revealed by several insiders who had read it, such as astronomer and USAF consultant J. Allen Hynek and Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, the first head of the USAF’s Project Blue Book.
Another highly classified U.S. study was conducted by the CIA’s Office of Scientific Investigation (OS/I) in the latter half of 1952 after being directed to do so by the National Security Council (NSC). They concluded UFOs were real physical objects of potential threat to national security. One OS/I memo to the CIA Director (DCI) in December read, “…the reports of incidents convince us that there is something 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 a nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or any known types of aerial vehicles.” The matter was considered so urgent, that OS/I drafted a memorandum from the DCI to the NSC proposing that the NSC establish an investigation of UFOs as a priority project throughout the intelligence and the defense research and development community. They also urged the DCI to establish an external research project of top-level scientists to study the problem of UFOs, now known as the Robertson Panel, to further analyze the matter. The OS/I investigation was called off after the Robertson Panel’s negative conclusions in January 1953.
A public research effort conducted by the Condon Committee for the USAF, which arrived at a negative conclusion in 1968, marked the end of the US government’s official investigation of UFOs, though documents indicate various government intelligence agencies continue unofficially to investigate or monitor the situation.
Controversy has surrounded the Condon report, both before and after it was released. It has been claimed that the report was “harshly criticized by numerous scientists, particularly at the powerful AIAA … [who] recommended moderate, but continuous scientific work on UFOs”. In an address made to the AAAS, James E. McDonald stated that he believed science had failed to mount adequate studies of the problem, criticizing the Condon report and prior studies by the US Air Force for being scientifically deficient. He also questioned the basis for Condon’s conclusions and argued that the reports of UFOs have been “laughed out of scientific court.” J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer whose position as USAF consultant from 1948 made him perhaps the most knowledgeable scientist connected with the subject, sharply criticized the report of the Condon Committee and later wrote two nontechnical books that set forth the case for investigating seemingly baffling UFO reports.
Ruppelt recounted his experiences with Project Blue Book in his memoir, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956).
The Battle of Los Angeles in 1942, where unidentified flying objects were sequently thought to be part of a Japanese airstrike.
The Roswell Incident (1947) involved New Mexico residents, local law enforcement officers, and the US military, the latter of whom allegedly collected physical evidence from the UFO crash site.
The Mantell UFO Incident January 7, 1948
The Betty and Barney Hill abduction (1961) was the first reported abduction incident.
In the Kecksburg Incident, Pennsylvania (1965), residents reported seeing a bell shaped object crash in the area. Police officers, and possibly military personnel, were sent to investigate.
The Travis Walton abduction case (1975): The movie Fire in the Sky was based on this event, but embellished greatly the original account.
The “Phoenix Lights” March 13, 1997