UFOs are seen all over the world, by people from all walks of life, and some of these cases have managed to cement themselves into the annals of great unsolved cases. Such incidents are especially intriguing when they take place over well-monitored airspace or internationally recognized landmarks, and one of these cases is the time that a fleet of UFOs blatantly invaded airspace over Washington D.C., mocking all attempts to catch them and parking over the White House.
At 11:40 PM on July 19, 1952, an air-traffic controller by the name of Edward Nugent was on duty at Washington National Airport at Washington D.C. on an otherwise uneventlful night when his attention was drawn to something rather strange and alarming popping up on his radar screen. There, only about 15 miles south-southwest of the city were seven anomalous blips, in an area where there was no scheduled traffic at the time. As Nugent watched he soon became aware that whatever these objects were, they were not following established flight paths, and this was alarming enough that he called his superior, Harry Barnes, who was also startled by the radar images.
It was so odd that they reportedly checked to see that the radar was even functioning properly, and when there turned out to be nothing wrong with it they called air control towers at both their own airport and nearby Andrews Air Force Base to learn that air-traffic controllers there in both locations were also registering the anomalous blips. In addition, a controller at National Airport's radar-equipped control tower claimed to have made actual visual confirmation of a bright light in the distance that suddenly shot away at “incredible speed.” A controller at Andrews AFB also spotted what he called an “orange ball of fire trailing a tail,” and airline pilot Captain S.C. "Casey" Pierman was waiting for takeoff at one of National Airport's runways when he would claim to have seen a series of fast-moving lights in the sky that looked “white, tailless, fast-moving lights like falling stars without tails.” Staff Sgt. Charles Davenport at Andrews AFB also saw an orange-red light to the south, of which he said "it would appear to stand still, then make an abrupt change in direction and altitude . . . this happened several times." Nugent and Barnes did not actually see the objects, but with the radar blips and sightings reports knew that something very weird was going on, with Barnes later saying of these radar blips:
We knew immediately that a very strange situation existed . . . their movements were completely radical compared to those of ordinary aircraft. They acted like a bunch of small kids out playing. It was helter-skelter, as if directed by some innate curiosity. At times, they moved as a group or cluster, at other times as individuals.
As several independent radar operators looked on, two of the blips could clearly be seen to approach the White House, where they appeared to hover for some time before moving off again, while another one did the same over the Capitol and yet another hovered over a radio beacon. The mysterious objects then simultaneously vanished from radar for a time, before appearing once again to orchestrate a series of impressive aerial maneuvers that were far beyond what any known aircraft was capable of, making 90 degree turns, speeding up and slowing down with amazing speed and precision, and even abruptly going in reverse.
All of this strangeness over the U.S. capital was enough to cause quite a panic, and two United States Air Force F-94 Starfire jet fighters were scrambled and sent from New Castle Air Force Base in Delaware to investigate. However, as soon as the jets entered Washington D.C. air space the objects vanished once again. The confused jets circled around until they ran low on fuel and had to head back, and rather oddly as soon as they were gone the strange phenomena started right back up again, almost as if they had been waiting for the jets to leave. The anomalies proceeded to lurk in the area before vanishing for good at approximately 5:30 AM. The incident would soon be splashed all over the front page of newspapers nationwide with sensational headlines like “SAUCERS SWARM OVER CAPITAL!” and “Jets Chase D.C. Sky Ghosts!” and considering that this was in the midst of a major flap of UFO sightings all over the country people were in a bit of a mass hysteria over it, with talk of an alien invasion being seriously discussed among the populace.
It was one of these papers that alerted USAF Captain Edward J. Ruppelt to what was going on, which is odd considering that he was the supervisor of the Air Force's Project Blue Book official investigation into UFO sightings and also just so happened to have been in Washington at the time. It was very strange that he would not have been told about the incident, and things got even weirder when he tried to get out to the scene of it all, but was refused permission to use a staff car, instead told to take a taxi cab on his own dime. Frustrated and not a little irritated by the military bureaucracy he was facing, Ruppelt gave up and flew back to his headquarters at Dayton, Ohio without gaining any further information. However, it would soon become apparent that the UFOs of Washington D.C. were not gone after all.
The following week, at around 8 PM on July 26, 1952, the crew of a National Airlines flight into Washington radioed in that they had observed some anomalous lights in the sky above their plane, and right after this report was made mystery blips began showing up on radar at National Airport and Andrew AFB, and they had apparently brought friends. This time there were reportedly at least a dozen objects, and there were once again sightings of something strange in the sky, such as that made by USAF master sergeant Charles E. Cummings, who said of them, “these lights did not have the characteristics of shooting stars. There was [sic] no trails . . . they traveled faster than any shooting star I have ever seen.”
These lights once again began a series of insane maneuvers, slowing down to a stop, blasting off to speeds of up to 7,000 mph, performing sharp turns, and reversing, and considering the reports of visual confirmation of the objects coming in aircraft were scrambled again. At around 11:30 PM, two F-94 jets were once again sent to engage the targets, this time guided in by radar operators, but the blips seemed to be very evasive and then vanished again. As they headed back the blips reappeared and the jets turned back around to engage. One of the pilots was unable to get a visual on the mystery objects, but the other, Lieutenant William Patterson, did see two of the objects and gave chase but was unable to match their speed, of which he has said:
I tried to make contact with the bogies below 1,000 feet. I saw several bright lights. I was at maximum speed, but even then I had no closing speed. I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking them.
At the same time this was going on there were several reports of aircraft in the area also seeing anomalous darting or streaking lights. These reports of what seemed to be physical solid objects was contrary to a theory that had been going around, which was that the radar blips were being caused by a temperature inversion, which basically entails a layer of warm air forming in the low atmosphere, which traps cooler air beneath and can bounce radar signals back towards the source. However, although there had apparently been a slight temperature inversion recorded that evening, it was doubted that it was strong enough to produce such strong radar returns to fool experienced operators, and with the visual sightings involved air-traffic control were convinced that they were dealing with physical, solid objects. Eerily, one of the objects would once again hover directly over the White House at an altitude of 1,700 feet before vanishing off of radar. The objects eventually left and did not return.
Once again the strange incident hit the news in a major way, and people were now starting to demand answers. The Air Force, still apparently not really sure what was going on themselves, struggled to come up with something to tell an increasingly nervous public living in a climate of a mass UFO mania going on at the time and Cold War anxiety, even as President Harry Truman himself demanded that the Air Force figure out what was happening. Pressed for time and needing to come up with something fast, the Air Force hastily assembled a press conference at the Pentagon on July 29, 1952, during which they remained extremely and frustratingly vague and obtuse about the situation, and force fed reporters the idea that this was all due to the temperature inversion weather phenomenon even as professionals watching groaned at this theory. UFO researcher Alejandro Rojas has said:
The investigators had ruled out the inversion. They had examined that situation. The radar operators said, ‘Inversions happen. We know what inversions look like. This is not an inversion. This is not the same thing at all.’
In other words, the Air Force was being deliberately evasive and just trying to get the press off their back and allay public fears to avoid a mass panic by giving everyone a nice, pat, easily understandable and digestable explanation. And it worked. Before long the public had fully accepted the weather theory, despite the fact that the Air Force itself knew that something very strange was going on, although what that was could not be determined. In the absence of any solid answers, the case was officially labelled as the result of radar reflections caused by temperature inversion, and the visual sightings that were made caused by nothing more mysterious than misidentified meteors, stars, city lights, flocks of birds, weather balloons, and Venus.
For his part, Project Bluebook’s Captain Edward J. Ruppelt was very skeptical of the temperature inversion theory, and when he was finally able to adequately interview the numerous witnesses, pilots, and air-traffic controllers involved he found that no one at all bought the official Air Force explanation. However, this investigation process would get a bit strange when some of the witnesses began to retract statements they had made, even when it didn’t make sense. For instance, one air-traffic control crew who claimed that they had seen "a huge fiery-orange sphere" suddenly changed their tune to say that it had just been a star, even though astronomical information showed that no star in the sky on that night would have been bright enough to account for what they said they had observed in their original report. Ruppelt also began to hear rumors that Air Force higher ups were intentionally approaching the witnesses and persuading them to not contradict the official explanation in the name of national security. In the end, he had the very strong impression that something was not quite right, and was more convinced than ever before that what had been experienced over Washington was no radar mirages and that it was perhaps being covered up.
Not long after the Washington D.C. incident, in January of 1953 the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would launch the Robertson Panel, which included top officials and scientists and went about trying to debunk UFO cases in the interest of stemming mass public panic and hysteria. The panel would recommend that Project Blue Book basically keep its mouth shut on truly inexplicable cases and spend more time publicly debunking UFO cases and stripping them of their mystique, and after this genuine unsolved cases were rarely discussed. However, the Washington UFO incident certainly ranks among these truly compelling cases in that it has never really had all aspects of it satisfactorily explained.
Here is a case that really checks off a lot of the boxes of a great UFO case surrounded by dark conspiracy. We have these objects being tracked on radar from several sources and also being visually observed by reliable, trained witnesses. We have these objects witnessed displaying very unusual behavior and properties not consistent with conventional aircraft. Then there is the hasty official attempt to explain it all away with a wave of the hand and what has been seen by most researchers as a flimsy hypothesis that doesn’t really fit all of the features and evidence of the incident, as well as the specter lurking in the background of possible government intimidation of witnesses, and the Air Force’s clear desire to just sort of sweep it all away. Yet, although the official report still stands there are plenty of mysteries and unanswered questions orbiting the incident, and this has made the case very tenacious in the world of UFOlogy. What happened over Washington D.C. in July of 1952? Was this just a bunch of well-timed misidentifications and radar mirages or something else? The true answer has remained elusive and what has come to be known as the Washington flap, the Washington National Airport Sightings, or the Invasion of Washington remains mysterious.