Decades before the modern fascination with Unidentified Aerial Phenomena and years before the UFO craze, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold sighted nine unusual objects speeding past his plane near Mt. Rainier, Washington, in June of 1947. His description of the unidentified objects led to the coining of the term 'flying saucer.' His sighting is widely regarded as the incident that propelled the modern era of Ufology.
On Tuesday, June 24, 1947, at approximately 3:00 PM, Idaho businessman Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mt. Rainier, Washington, at about 9,200 feet. He left from the Chehalis, Washington Airport in search of a downed C-46 Marine transport airplane that crashed on December 10, 1946, with 32 Marines on board.
While on his quest, Arnold noticed several mirror-like reflections about 25 miles to his left. He lowered his window to take a closer look. He then realized that the strange reflections were coming from nine oddly-shaped craft weaving in a tail-like formation over the mountain tops.
(Kenneth Arnold's Original Sketch)
The most exciting aspect of this sighting is the otherworldly speed of the objects. As an experienced flyer, Kenneth clocked the incredible speed of the nine unidentifiable objects at about 1,200 miles per hour. For comparison, the speed of sound is approximately 760 miles per hour, and the first person to fly faster than that was Capt. Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager in October of 1947. Additionally, the top speed of the fastest man-made turbojet-powered aircraft in 1947 was a world-record 650 mph.
With immense curiosity about what he had sighted, Kenneth decided to visit a local newspaper to see if they had any information on what he sighted. He met with reporters Nolan Skiff and Bill Bequette of the Pendleton East Oregonian newspaper on June 25, 1947. According to Bequette, the meeting lasted no more than five minutes. They listened to what Arnold had to say and were perhaps just as puzzled as he was. Skiff managed to jot down notes on Arnold's claims and wrote a short piece on the incident. Bequette then squeezed the story into a small section at the bottom of page one.
The paper quoted Arnold as saying that the craft he sighted were "saucer-like"; however, this differed slightly from his actual description. By the time Bequette returned to his office after lunch, his receptionist had notified him that they were receiving calls from all over the United States and Canada asking for more details about the saucers. Kenneth's story was sent to the Associated Press and was unexpectedly picked up all over the U.S.
Amazed by the attention, Bequette then spent two hours interviewing Arnold in his hotel room to gather more information on his sighting and publish a more detailed column on the story. By the next morning, almost every newspaper in the United States had published Kenneth's Saucer story as a front-page feature. It has been said that, within just a few days, Kenneth Arnold became the most famous man in the United States.
The reason this incredible sighting is forever immortalized in Ufology History is for the simple fact that it led to the coining of the iconic term 'flying saucer.' Without Kenneth's description, this term would likely have never existed.
The term 'flying saucer' became immensely popular in the United States as it was spread through newspapers throughout the nation. Several more reports were made once the unidentified objects finally got a name.
Impact on Kenneth
Following the publicity of his sighting, Arnold received thousands of letters from all over the world. People wrote to him to offer their belief in his story and share their perspectives. Naturally, he received both support and ridicule for what he had claimed. By July of 1947, it was reported that Arnold had invested $150 in a movie camera in hopes of capturing the amazing flying objects on film. As a fire equipment salesman, he flew often and covered a territory of five states. After his unbelievable sighting, he flew everywhere he could with his camera. Having been flying since he was 16 years old, Arnold was considered an experienced pilot, and logged over 4,000 flying hours by 1947. He had six years of experience flying over Mt. Rainier before he saw the strange objects pass over the nose of his airplane. He was determined to capture these objects, whatever they were, on film to prove that he was telling the truth.
In the thousands of letters received by Kenneth was one written by a man named Raymond Palmer. The two wrote to each other and developed a friendship. In 1952, Arnold released a book in collaboration with Palmer titled The Coming of the Saucers. According to Kenneth's daughter Kim, the book was not too financially successful.
Kenneth initially reported his sighting with beliefs that a foreign nation was piloting aircraft in U.S. territory. He believed the craft to be from an enemy arsenal. However, Arnold soon received support from all over the world as there was no earthly explanation for what he had sighted. Arnold then began to believe that what he had sighted that summer day was a formation of craft from another world. Moreover, he believed that, rather than the craft being mechanical, they were living organisms of extraterrestrial origin.
According to a 1981 interview by researcher Greg Long, Kenneth showed him 16 mm footage of a glowing cylinder-shaped craft he had sighted over Idaho Falls in 1966. Despite the implications of the potentially fantastic footage, Arnold felt the time was never right to come forward with it.
In a 2012 interview, Arnold's youngest daughter, Kim Arnold, explained her father's historic sighting by stating, "He thought, at first, perhaps it was the sun's reflection off another airplane close by. When the second flash happened, he could see in the distance where the flash had come from. He saw these very bright objects traveling very close to the mountaintops in the Cascade mountain range near Mount Rainier, and he thought they might be a formation of jets. He rolled down his window of his airplane to make sure he could see clearly what he was seeing. He was very confused about what he was seeing. He just could not see any tails on them like ordinary aircraft."
When reporting on the flying saucer mystery, a July 1947 edition of The Owensboro Messenger newspaper reported:
The ex-University of Minnesota swimmer and footballer says he now believes:
- The discs are not from any foreign country.
- The Army could give the answer - "if they don't have the explanation now they certainly could do something to find out."
- If the Army has no explanation the discs must be - "and I know this sounds crazy" - from another plant.
In a 1950 radio interview, Kenneth said:
"It was while I was searching for this crash that I noticed a terrific blue flash pass the nose of my airplane. I noticed that the flash came from a chain of very peculiar-looking objects that were rapidly approaching Mt. Rainier at about 107 degrees. Some of the reports they did take from newspapers which did not quote me properly. Now, uh, when I told the press, they misquoted me, and in the excitement of it all, one newspaper and another one got it so styled up nobody knew just exactly what they were talking about, I guess. When I described how they flew, I said that they flew like if you take a saucer and throw it across the water. Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted that too. They said that I said that they were saucer-like. I said they flew in a saucer-like fashion. I, more or less, have reserved an opinion as to what I think. If it's not made by our science or our Army Air Forces, I'm inclined to believe that it's of an extraterrestrial origin."
Impact on Ufology
Kenneth Arnold's incredible 1947 sighting is often overshadowed by another flying saucer incident that occurred just two weeks later, the Roswell UFO Crash. On July 8, 1947, it was first announced that the U.S. Army had captured a flying saucer on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. This single event has led to decades of speculation of a UFO cover-up and is consequently much more recognized than Kenneth's sighting.
Nonetheless, Kenneth Arnold's sighting led to the coining of likely the most famous term in Ufology. As a result, June 24th is celebrated annually as Flying Saucer Day.