There are a number of well-known, and equally well-documented UFO reports that occurred shortly after World War Two in America that have kept researchers guessing for decades. Ranging from Captain Jack Puckett's close encounter with an enormous flying rocket on his way to MacDill Air Force Base in 1946, to that most infamous of alleged incidents that occurred at Roswell, New Mexico in the summer of the following year, by the end of the 1940s, newspaper reports would have many believing that our skies were literally filled with the exotic aircraft of space invaders.
Despite the popularity this subject would garner in those golden years after the War, perhaps there is no early UFO incident that has proven to be quite as influential as that of Kenneth Arnold, a civilian pilot who spotted an entire fleet of strange aircraft while flying over Washington state in June of 1947. The strange craft that Arnold observed would spark a flame that grew like wildfire, eventually forming the modern UFO phenomenon, and at the center of it all was the curious staple that became known as the flying saucer.
And yet, no matter how well-documented the report that Arnold left about his observations that day may have been, the question remains nonetheless: had he really seen "flying saucers?" While there is a good possibility, perhaps, that Arnold saw something, the curious spinning disks that are traditionally remembered of his encounter may not, in fact, be the craft he saw at all.
What is indeed known of Kenneth Arnold's strange story began on Tuesday June 24th, 1947, as Arnold had been leaving work at the Central Air Service at Chehalis, Washington, from which he left for Yakima by around 2 PM local time that afternoon. Reports that a large marine transport plane had gone down along the southwest side of Mount Rainier would pull Arnold away from his intended course, and Arnold departed for an hour long detour during which he aided the search effort.
Flying at an altitude of roughly 9,200 feet, Arnold had been headed toward Yakima when he first noticed he was not alone:
"I had not flown more than two or three minutes on my course when a bright flash reflected on my airplane. It startled me as I thought I was too close to some other aircraft. I looked every place in the sky and couldn’t find where the reflection had come from until I looked to the left and the north of Mt. Rainier where I observed a chain of nine peculiar-looking aircraft flying from north to south at approximately 9,500 feet elevation and going, seemingly, in a definite direction of about 170 degrees north to south"
These objects Arnold had been observing would come to represent the first widely-reported encounter between a civilian pilot and flying saucers. And in the hours after he landed, as his story began to spread quickly as calls came in from all different parts of the world, with reporters inquiring about the strange objects Arnold had observed. And at this time, Arnold had famously noted that the behavior of the objects as he watched them fly began to remind him of the "erratic" way a saucer would moves if one skipped it across the surface of a body of water. The words might not have been chosen any more carefully at the time, but in hindsight, this selection may also have had far more influence on the burgeoning UFO phenomenon than Arnold, or even the reporters who quoted him, might have ever guessed at the time.
It should be noted that Arnold was indeed a skilled observer and pilot, noting meticulously his recollection of a DC-9 flying behind him shortly before his sighting, and also describing how he turned his plane at one point, removed his glasses, and oriented his plane so that a window could be opened briefly to be certain that the objects were not merely reflections against the glass of his cockpit. Early depictions of those objects showed roundish shapes, ranging from a coin flattened on one end (see Arnold's own sketches, which he provided to the USAF, right), to almost boomerang or crescent-shaped craft, prompting many researchers over the years to ask whether these, or the later descriptions of "saucer-like" aircraft were the more accurate description of the shape of these objects. Further complicating the matter, Arnold would later describe seeing both; the majority of the craft had been more rounded disc-shapes, but at least one of them appeared to be an odd flying crescent, resembling a rounded "flying wing" with no tail (Arnold had always maintained that he had been frustrated at not being able to see the tails on any of these craft). If anything, while they had seemed to most closely resemble planes of some sort initially, once the press had dubbed them "saucers," even Arnold's interpretation of the craft he witnessed would, with time, seem to drift toward the disc-shaped aircraft, with the exception of that one which bore the crescent shape. It seems unlikely that Arnold saw nothing at all; and yet, it could be viewed as troubling that his description of the objects would appear to trend more toward agreement with popular terminology during the weeks and months following his encounter.
To his credit, and despite the labeling of a phenomenon he unwittingly may have helped create, Arnold would not be the only one to seem to begin endorsing "flying saucers" after his inaugural encounter took place. Well into the 1950s, a number of sightings of high-altitude aircraft seen over the Southwestern US, often leaving jet or vapor trails behind them, were referred to as "flying saucers," despite more obviously being identifiable as what appeared to be early jet aircraft, rockets, or missiles. In other words, within just a few years of Arnold's famous sighting, almost any unexplainable object seen in the skies would seem to qualify for being a "flying saucer," whether or not the actual craft being observed were disc-shaped at all.
What is perhaps of equal interest in all this is the fact that Arnold's sighting, like so many reports of flying saucers from that period, would begin to grow a mythos around it which became increasingly extraterrestrial-themed with time. At the outset, Arnold had suspected the craft he observed were representative of some kind of experimental plane. Despite attempts to maintain a very conservative approach to their interpretation, within one month of the sighting, Arnold had begun to publicly speculate about an alien origin for the craft, as a July 1947 Associated Press report indicated:
"The ex-University of Minnesota swimmer and footballer says he now believes:1. The disks are not from any foreign country.2. The Army could give the answer if it would -- 'if they don't have the explanation now they certainly could do something to find out.'3. If the Army has no explanation the disks must be -- 'and I know this sounds crazy' -- from another planet."
By April 1949, Arnold's determinations had become even more resolute, when he told the Saturday Evening Post that, "There is no doubt in my mind but what these objects are aircraft of a strange design, and material that is unknown to the civilization of this earth." (However, it should be argued that even Edward Ruppelt, who went on to become the head of the USAF's Project Blue Book, considered this Post article to be aimed at purposefully steering public opinion about the subject, and presenting UFOs negatively.)
With little doubt, Kenneth Arnold saw something as he flew over Mount Rainier in 1947. To be more precise, he saw several somethings that day, and records today, drawn from newspaper items, interviews, and Air Force investigations count more than fifteen similar reports of unidentified objects flying over the relevant portion of Washington state that day. But despite this, we must be reminded that the human mind is a funny thing, and paired with the fallibility of the senses, our ability to determine exactly what we've seen in a given instance, especially in hindsight, proves to be more difficult to account for than many would think.
Kenneth Arnold's observation is considered a pivotal case in early documented UFO reports, as it should be. To be clear, we should always regard Arnold's sighting as instrumental in the formulation of unexplained aerial phenomenon as a cultural meme, and in likelihood, a physical presence as well, whatever its origins. But the apparent evolution of Arnold's "saucers" shows us that something else should be remembered, just as well: most often, when strange aerial phenomenon are observed, the interpretation of those observed phenomenon usually tends to become more speculative and, at times, even imaginative as time spans between the incident, and mere memories of it. Somewhat ironically, it has been said that Arnold's own view toward the majority of subsequent UFO reports had been that most were misidentifications, spurred by imagination and the lore surrounding the "saucer craze" that ensued shortly after his own story made headlines.
While Kenneth Arnold may indeed have become the first famous witness of UFOs over America after the end of the Second World War, we may never really be able to answer the question of whether or not those UFOs were really "flying saucers" at all, or some other exotic looking craft that no less firmly placed the idea of unearthly saucers in the public consciousness.