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Estimating the Situation: UFOs and Government, Then and Now

On July 24, 1948, pilot Clarence Chiles and copilot John Whitted were flying an Eastern Airlines DC-3 over Montgomery, Alabama. The night sky was calm, and with the exception of the occasional gleaming of starlight through the patchwork of clouds that blanketed the Southeast, there had been no signs of other traffic at 2:45 AM, all except for the single lone aircraft to their right and slightly above them, which was yet some distance away. It had been, at least, only moments ago; but now this aircraft appeared to be on fast approach.

Before the pilots had time for it to register that this was no typical aircraft, it was already streaking past them, illuminating the early morning like the colored light of fireworks. Whitted called it “like one of those fantastic Flash Gordon rocket ships in the funny papers,” although both men said that the aircraft—whatever it was—had been larger than any plane they recognized, comparing it to the fuselage of a B-29 bomber, but without wings, and roughly three times the size. Two rows of what appeared to be square windows or portholes lined the side of the craft, which gave off an eerie glow. As Chiles would later recall, there had been flames shooting out the back of the object creating a fiery tail which he estimated to have been 50 feet long. Later, the pilots learned that one of the passengers who had been awake at the time had also seen it and that additional sightings had been made by ground observers the same night.

Chiles and Whitted

The Chiles and Whitted Encounter (Credit: Micah Hanks).

The Chiles and Whitted incident has remained one of the most widely discussed incidents in UFO literature for decades. Significantly, it became a central focus of Project Sign, the US Air Force’s investigation into reports of unidentified aircraft at that time and a predecessor to the more famous later program, Project Blue Book. Within days of Chiles and Whitted’s incredible observation, a Top Secret “estimate of the situation” was produced, which made the bold suggestion that this, and other unidentified aircraft being observed since the summer of 1947, could have an otherworldly origin.

Some who actually read the Estimate recalled what it looked like. “It was a rather thick document with a black cover and it was printed on legal-sized paper,” recalled Edward Ruppelt, who wrote about it later in his book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. “Stamped across the front were the words TOP Secret.”

However, the conclusions in the Estimate were not accepted by everyone who read it, which included Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. “The general wouldn’t buy interplanetary vehicles,” Ruppelt wrote. “The report lacked proof. A group from ATIC went to the Pentagon to bolster their position but had no luck, the Chief of Staff just couldn’t be convinced.”

As Ruppelt tells it, “The estimate died a quick death. Some months later it was completely declassified and relegated to the incinerator. A few copies, one of which I saw, were kept as mementos of the golden days of UFOs.” The notion that copies of this Estimate might have survived is indeed tantalizing; for years researchers have combed the National Archives searching for it, but to no avail.

National Archives

The National Archives building in Washington, DC (Public Domain).

“Several incomplete searches have been made for this document,” says Jan Aldritch of the Project 1947 website, noting that he “searched the Directorate of Intelligence, TOP SECRET Current Intelligence Files Branch 1946-1954, and all available ATIC documents at National Archives II,” the same as most other researchers that have visited the National Archives. “A re-look at declassification would be helpful.”

If copies of the infamous “Estimate of the Situation” do exist someplace, they are only among the many long-sought documents produced by the United States government which chronicle the history of its involvement with the UFO subject. Although perhaps a majority of the government’s documents have now been declassified and made available, it stands to reason that there is still much that remains in the classified world. Efforts by researchers over the last several decades have worked toward obtaining such official documentation through the Freedom of Information Act, and at times with much success… although this is not always the case.

In recent months, the announcement that a UAP Task Force under the U.S. Navy has renewed hope among government transparency advocates. The UAP Task Force will purportedly be reviewing information on the UFO or UAP topic from several government agencies and producing a report, at least parts of which are to be made available to the public. That is, unless setbacks prevent that from happening.

In recent statements he provided to Fox News, Florida Senator Marco Rubio noted that he wasn’t sure whether the UAP Task Force report would be ready in time for its June deadline, let alone whether it would reach any conclusions about what the unidentified aerial phenomena it analyzed might be or originate from.

Last month, Bryan Bender reported in Politico that certain intelligence and military agencies appeared to be “blocking or simply ignoring the effort to catalog what they have on [UAP],” according to information provided from several officials. As a result, “the Biden administration will likely delay a much-anticipated public report to Congress,” Bender reported.

So when—or if—we will see the much anticipated UAP Task Force report remains somewhat questionable. However, if it does arrive any time in the near future, Americans and people around the world may finally get a glimpse at the government’s latest installment of its ongoing estimates regarding the enduring UFO situation.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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