Up until 1952, much of the coverage of “flying saucers” in the American media remained unsympathetic to the idea that some unusual new phenomenon was appearing in our skies. That was the case, at least, until Saturday Night Fever erupted over our nation’s capital, marking one of the most well known, and often written about UFO flaps in American history.
It was almost midnight on the evening of Saturday, July 19, 1952. Air-traffic controller Ed Nugent (not to be confused with a particular raucous guitarist with a similar name) was working the tower at Washington National Airport, when he observed something odd on the radar screen in front of him: it appeared to be a group of six or seven slow-moving objects moving together over the region, well outside the flight paths of any known aircraft, military or civilian, in the area at that time.
At that time, it had been treated as something of a joke (Nugent reportedly told his supervisor, tongue planted firmly in cheek, that he had just spotted an entire “fleet of flying saucers”). However, shortly thereafter another of the ATC operators noticed something odd and out of place: a strange light in the distance, which appeared to accelerate and disappear “at incredible speed.”
Thereafter, the incident received notable coverage in the press, with many articles emphasizing the USAF’s apparent interest in the matter. This was particularly the case following a statement given to the press by Major General John A. Samford, who appeared on camera on July 31, 1952, addressing the “flying saucers” seen over Washington, DC:
“The Air Force today investigated reports that several ‘flying saucers’ had been spotted by radar virtually in its own backyard on the outskirts of the nation’s capital,” journalist Jack Rutledge later wrote of the incident for Louisiana’s Monroe News-Star. “Not only were unidentified objects seen on radar–indicating actual substance instead of merely light–but two airline pilots and a newsman saw lights fitting the general description of flying saucers the same night.”
Indeed, a number of pilots claimed to have seen lights similar to those observed from Washington National Airport. However, among the most notable accounts had been that given by Captain S. Casey Pierman of Detroit, who was flying Capital Airlines Flight 807 on the night in question, headed southbound from National Airport, who observed seven objects while en route from Washington to Martinsburg, West Virginia. Pierman described the objects as at times “hanging motionless” like stars, while at other times “moving at tremendous speed” and resembling “falling stars without tails.”
In a statement Pierman gave to the press, he noted that “In my years of flying I’ve seen a lot of falling or shooting stars… but these were much faster… They couldn’t have been aircraft. They were moving too fast for that. They were about the same size and as the brighter stars, and were much higher than our 6000-foot altitude.”
Many years have passed since this now famous incident, allowing plenty of time for questions to be raised as far as what, precisely, might have been observed on the night in question (which, in truth, had been one of several similar incidents occurring near Washington at that time). However, even in the years shortly after the series of sightings over Washington took place, there were those who were of the mind that the phenomenon had stemmed from secret U.S. military activities, rather than extraterrestrial “saucers” from another world.
Leon Davidson, Ph.D, an early proponent of the idea that UFOs were largely a result of technologies and misdirection from our own government, noted that radar technology had existed by 1950 that would have allowed the creation of “false positives” that could easily have explained the radar traces observed by ATC controllers at Washington National. The question, rather than being one of what the “objects” were, was one of who might be behind such activities, which were apparently intentionally aimed at confusing the public, the media, and even members of the military?
Davidson wrote an interesting article on this, which appeared in the Saucer News in 1959, titled “ECM + CIA = UFO, or How to Cause a Radar Sighting.” In it, Davidson wrote:
By about 1950, ECM (electronic countermeasures) was standard equipment on our advanced bombers and was being developed for missiles. Advertisements started to appear about 1956 showing that this equipment could be used for creating simulated targets for training radar operators. I quote from an article in Aviation Research and Development, March 1957, pg. 22:
“A new radar moving target simulator system — which generates a display of up to 6 individual targets on any standard radar indicator — has been developed … to train radar operators … and for in-flight testing of airborne early-warning personnel… Target positions, paths, and velocities can … simulate … realistic flight paths… Speeds up to 10,000 knots (about 11,500 mph) are easily generated… The target can be made to turn left or right… For each target there is … adjustment to provide a realistic scope presentation.”
The reader should keep this quotation in mind when reading about radar sightings of high speed UFOs.
Davidson raises a number of good points, and the description he provides does resemble the circumstances presented in a number of the better known UFO radar reports from over the years. However, if the objects in question had indeed merely been the result of such experimental “war games” being carried out covertly, as Leon Davidson suggested (the CIA was a favorite culprit for this in Davidson’s narratives), can the idea of physical lights observed by pilots be similarly explained in some way?
We may never know the full story behind the objects seen and tracked on radar over Washington in 1952. However, when it comes to military technologies used for misdirection of the public, nothing can be ruled out, as Davidson was already suggesting within years of when the initial sightings took place. In the ever complex annals of Ufology, one thing that should always be kept in mind is that if there’s a will, there’s a way… or as cases like this may indicate, if there’s a way, then someone can find an excuse for a will.