May 04, 2022 I Nick Redfern

When UFOs Invaded Washington, D.C., Alien Encounters

On both July 19 and 20, 1952, there were repeated sightings of unknown aerial objects in the Washington, D.C., airspace, something that, on July 24, led USAF Major General John A. Samford to state in a Secret memorandum for the attention of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations: “We are interested in these reports in that we must always on the alert for any threat or indication of a threat to the United States. We cannot ignore these reports but the mild hysteria subsequent to publicity given this subject causes an influx of reports which since the 19th of July has almost saturated our ‘Emergency’ procedures.” The situation really escalated after weekend of July 26-27. A two-page U.S. Air Force document, prepared only days later, related the facts: “This incident involved unidentified targets observed on the radar scopes at the Air Route Traffic Control Center and the tower, both at Washington National Airport, and the Approach Control Radar at Andrews Air Force Base. In addition, visual observations were reported to Andrews and Bolling AFB and to ARTC Center, the latter by pilots of commercial aircraft and one CAA aircraft. “Varying numbers (up to 12 simultaneously) of u/i targets on ARTC radar scope. Termed by CAA personnel as ‘generally solid returns,’ similar to a/c except slower. Mr. Bill Schreve, flying a/c NC-12 reported at 2246 EDT that he had visually spotted 5 objects giving off a light glow ranging from orange to white; his altitude at time was 2,200’. Some commercial pilots reported visuals ranging from ‘cigarette glow’ to a ‘light.’

“ARTC crew commented that, as compared with u/i returns picked up in early hours of 20 July 52, these returns appeared to be more haphazard in their actions, i.e. they did not follow a/c around nor did they cross scope consistently on same general heading. Some commented that the returns appeared to be from objects ‘capable of dropping out of the pattern at will.’ Also that returns had ‘creeping appearance.’ One member of crew commented that one object to which F-94 was vectored just “disappeared from Scope” shortly after F-94 started pursuing. All crew members emphatic that most u/i returns have been picked up from time to time over the past few months but never before had they appeared in such quantities over such a prolonged period and with such definition as was experienced on the nights of 19/20 and 26/27 July 1952.” Although the portions extracted from this report speak for themselves, let us now examine an official transcript of a conversation, dated July 26, between staff at Washington National Airport and personnel from Andrews Air Force Base at the time of the sightings:

"Wash: Andrews Tower, do you read? Did you have an airplane in sight west-northwest or east of your airport eastbound? Andr: No, but we just got a call from the Center. We’re looking for it. Wash: We’ve got a big target showing up on our scope. He’s just coming in on the west edge of your airport – the northwest edge of it eastbound. He’ll be passing right through the northern portion of your field on an east heading. He’s about a quarter of a mile from the northwest runway – right over the edge of your runway now. Andr: This is Andrews. Our radar tracking says he’s got a big fat target out here northwest of Andrews. He says he’s got two more south of the field. Wash: Yes, well the Center has about four or five around the Andrews Range Station. The Center is working a National Airlines – the Center is working him and vectoring him around his target. He went around Andrews. He saw one of them – looks like a meteor…went by him…or something. He said he’s got one about three miles off his right wing right now. There are so many targets around here it is hard to tell as they are not moving very fast.

The FBI's Director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, took a deep interest in the UFO wave of 1952. Note: the photo above was taken by a U.S. government employee. That places the picture in the public domain.

Within a matter of hours of hearing of the events of July 26-27, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover instructed N.W. Philcox, the FBI’s Air Force liaison representative, to determine what had taken place and to ascertain the Air Force’s opinions on the UFO subject as a whole. On July 29, Philcox made arrangements through the office of the Director of Air Intelligence, Major General John A. Samford, to meet with Commander Randall Boyd of the Current Intelligence Branch, Estimates Division, Air Intelligence, regarding “the present status of Air Intelligence research into the numerous reports regarding flying saucers and flying discs.” Although the Air Force was publicly playing down the possibility that UFOs were anything truly extraordinary, Philcox was advised that “at the present time the Air Force has failed to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion in its research regarding numerous reports of flying saucers and flying discs sighted throughout the United States.” Philcox was further informed that Air Intelligence had set up at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, the Air Technical Intelligence Center, which had been established in part for the purpose of “coordinating, correlating and making research into all reports regarding flying saucers and flying discs.” As Philcox listened very carefully to what Boyd had to say on the matter, he noted that the Air Force had placed their UFO reports into three definable categories. In the first instance there were those sightings “which are reported by citizens who claim they have seen flying saucers from the ground. These sightings vary in description, color and speeds. Very little credence is given to these sightings inasmuch as in most instances they are believed to be imaginative or some explainable object which actually crossed through the sky.”

Philcox then learned that the second category of encounters proved to be of greater significance: “Sightings reported by commercial or military pilots. These sightings are considered more credible by the Air Force inasmuch as commercial or military pilots are experienced in the air and are not expected to see objects which are entirely imaginative. In each of these instances, the individual who reports the sightings is thoroughly interviewed by a representative of Air Intelligence so that a complete description of the object can be obtained.” The third category of encounters, Boyd advised Philcox, were those where, in addition to a visual sighting by a pilot, there was corroboration either from a ground-based source or by radar. Philcox wrote to Hoover: “Commander Boyd advised that this latter classification constitutes two or three per cent of the total number of sightings, but that they are the most credible reports received and are difficult to explain.”  “In these instances,” Philcox was told, “there is no doubt that these individuals reporting the sightings actually did see something in the sky.” And to demonstrate that Boyd was well acquainted with the UFO issue on a worldwide scale, he confided in Philcox that “sightings have also recently been reported as far distant as Acapulco, Mexico, Korea and French Morocco… the sightings reported in the last classification have never been satisfactorily explained.” The commander then came out with a true bombshell, as Philcox noted in his report on the meeting: “[Boyd] advised that it is not entirely impossible that the objects may possibly be ships from another planet such as Mars.” Not only that, none other than Albert Bender - the man who brought the Men in Black to the UFO field - claimed he had an insider in the U.S. government who knew that more than a few military personnel had been silenced by the MIB over the events of 1952.

(Nick Redfern)

The curious and fantastic events of July 1952 deeply troubled the FBI and the Air Force. They greatly worried the CIA, too – and for very intriguing and alternative reasons that had very little to do with literal alien invasion or visitation. On December 2, 1952 the CIA’s Assistant Director H. Marshall Chadwell noted in a classified report on UFO activity in American airspace: “Sightings of unexplained objects at great altitudes and traveling at high speeds in the vicinity of major U.S. defense installations are of such nature that they are not attributable to natural phenomena or known types of aerial vehicles.” Believing that something really might be afoot in the skies of America, Chadwell prepared a list of saucer-themed recommendations for the National Security Council: "The Director of Central Intelligence shall formulate and carry out a program of intelligence and research activities as required to solve the problem of instant positive identification of unidentified flying objects. Upon call of the Director of Central Intelligence, Government departments and agencies shall provide assistance in this program of intelligence and research to the extent of their capacity provided, however, that the DCI shall avoid duplication of activities presently directed toward the solution of this problem. This effort shall be coordinated with the military services and the Research and Development Board of the Department of Defense, with the Psychological Board and other Governmental agencies as appropriate. The Director of Central Intelligence shall disseminate information concerning the program of intelligence and research activities in this field to the various departments and agencies which have authorized interest therein." 

Forty-eight-hours later, the Intelligence Advisory Committee concurred with Chadwell and recommended that “the services of selected scientists to review and appraise the available evidence in the light of pertinent scientific theories” should be the order of the day. Thus was born the Robertson Panel, so named after the man chosen to head the inquiry: Howard Percy Robertson, a consultant to the Agency, a renowned physicist, and the director of the Defense Department Weapons Evaluation Group.  Chadwell was tasked with putting together a crack team of experts in various science, technical, intelligence and military disciplines and have them carefully study the data on flying saucers currently held by not just the CIA, but the Air Force too – who obligingly agree to hand over all their UFO files for the CIA’s scrutiny. Or, at least, the Air Force said it was all they had. Whatever the truth of the matter regarding the extent to which the USAF shared its files with Chadwell’s team, the fact that there was a significant body of data to work with was the main thing. And so the team – which included Luis Alvarez, physicist, radar expert (and later, a Nobel Prize recipient); Frederick C. Durant, CIA officer, secretary to the panel and missile expert; Samuel Abraham Goudsmit, Brookhaven National Laboratories nuclear physicist; and Thornton Page, astrophysicist, radar expert, and deputy director of Johns Hopkins Operations Research Office – quickly got to work.

The overall conclusion of the Robertson Panel was that while UFOs, per se, did not appear to have a bearing on national security or the defense of the United States, the way in which the subject could be used by unfriendly forces to manipulate the public mindset and disrupt the U.S. military infrastructure did have a bearing – and a major one, too - on matters of a security nature. According to the panel’s members: “Although evidence of any direct threat from these sightings was wholly lacking, related dangers might well exist resulting from: A. Misidentification of actual enemy artifacts by defense personnel. B. Overloading of emergency reporting channels with ‘false’ information. C. Subjectivity of public to mass hysteria and greater vulnerability to possible enemy psychological warfare.” There was also a recommendation that a number of the public UFO investigative groups that existed in the United States at the time, such as the Civilian Flying Saucer Investigators (CFSI) and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), should be “watched” carefully due to “the apparent irresponsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes.” The panel also concluded that “a public education campaign should be undertaken” on matters relative to UFOs. Specifically, agreed the members, such a program would “result in reduction in public interest in ‘flying saucers’ which today evokes a strong psychological reaction. This education could be accomplished by mass media such as television, motion pictures, and popular articles. Basis of such education would be actual case histories which had been puzzling at first but later explained. As in the case of conjuring tricks, there is much less stimulation if the ‘secret’ is known. Such a program should tend to reduce the current gullibility of the public and consequently their susceptibility to clever hostile propaganda.

“In this connection, Dr. Hadley Cantril (Princeton University) was suggested. Cantril authored ‘Invasion from Mars,’ (a study in the psychology of panic, written about the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1938) and has since performed advanced laboratory studies in the field of perception. The names of Don Marquis (University of Michigan) and Leo Roston were mentioned as possibly suitable as consultant psychologists. Also, someone familiar with mass communications techniques, perhaps an advertising expert, would be helpful. Arthur Godfrey was mentioned as possibly a valuable channel of communication reaching a mass audience of certain levels. Dr. Berkner suggested the U. S. Navy (ONR) Special Devices Center, Sands Point, L. I., as a potentially valuable organization to assist in such an educational program. The teaching techniques used by this agency for aircraft identification during the past war [were] cited as an example of a similar educational task. The Jam Handy Co. which made World War II training films (motion picture and slide strips) was also suggested, as well as Walt Disney, Inc. animated cartoons.”

What all this tells us is that both the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community were deeply concerned about the undeniably strange events of the summer of 1952.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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