Have you ever heard of the Washington Flap? How about the Washington National Airport Sightings? If you’re a dedicated UFO enthusiast, you should have. In July 1952, Washington D.C. was plagued by one of the most publicized series of consecutive UFO sightings ever.
It all started when Edward Nugent, an air traffic controller working the late shift at the Washington National Airport, noticed seven objects on his radar. This would not have normally been a big deal but the objects weren’t following any established flight plan and, and as far anyone knew, there wasn’t supposed to be any aircraft in the area. Perhaps it was a glitch in the radar then? Nugent’s supervisor, Harry Barnes, instructed two other controllers to check the machinery, but no faults could be found. Barnes then put through a call to the National Airport’s other radar centre and was told that the objects had also shown up on their radar.
Even more than that, the controller there could actually look out the window and see one of the objects, which had an orange glow. A Capital Airlines pilot, S.C. Pierman, was waiting on one of Washington National Airport’s runways when Barnes contacted him to let him know that unknown objects were closing in on his position. Over a period of fourteen minutes, he counted what appeared to be six white lights that moved at a very high speed.
By this time other objects had shown up on the radar, even moving over the United States Capitol and the White House. Barnes decided it was time to get the air force involved and contacted Andrews Air Force Base. Nothing untoward was showing up on their radar system but Airman William Brady reported a physical sighting of an “object which appeared to be like an orange ball of fire, trailing a tail…” Before he could alert other base personnel, whatever it was sped off.
Not all of the radar blips were unexplained. Personnel at the Andrews Air Force Base were able to prove that at least one of the objects was a star or meteor. However, some of them showed unusual behavior. For example, all of the objects disappeared from the National Airport’s radar at 3:00 a.m., right around the time two jet fighters from Delaware arrived over Washington D.C. Once the jets left to refuel, the objects returned. They vanished again right before sunrise.
So many people saw these unidentified objects that their appearance actually made the front page headlines in the next day’s newspapers. It just so happened that ASAF Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the current head of Project Blue Book, was in the Washington area and saw the headlines. He received a run around while trying to investigate the sightings and eventually returned to Project Blue Book’s headquarters in Ohio, but not before he spoke to an Air Force radar specialist who stated his belief that the phenomenon could have been caused by unusual weather conditions.
However, that could not explain the sightings on the weekend of Jul 26th – 27th, 1952. Both the pilot and a stewardess on a National Airlines flight to Washington noticed strange objects flying a little above their airplane. It was only a matter of minutes before they showed up on radar. Requests by the media to photograph the radar screens were denied by Albert M. Chop, press spokesman for Project Blue Book. They objects defied any known flight plan, sometimes reversing direction, sometimes moving slowly before taking off at unbelievable speeds. Two jet fighters were dispatched to investigate but the flight leader, Captain John McHugo, was unable to verify anything. His wingman however saw what he described as ‘four white glows’ and he gave chased, only to have them surround his plane before speeding off. It was noted that there was a slight temperature inversion over Washington D.C. at the time, but it was felt that this wasn’t strong enough to explain the radar blips.
However, when Captain Ruppelt was called in by President Harry Truman to account for the phenomenon, this was the very reason that he gave. Temperature inversions occur when moist, warm air covers the cooler air closer to the ground. This can theoretically cause false radar signals, but Ruppelt had not yet had a chance to talk to any of the eyewitnesses or conduct any sort of formal investigation. It’s clear why the President of the United States would be concerned. If these UFOs were actually extraterrestrial in nature, could they be a foreshadowing of a planned attack? Unconfirmed stories ran in several newspapers stating that the military had been given orders to shoot down the UFOs. This was in direct contravention of Air Force statements that the UFOs were some sort of natural phenomenon and posed no threat.
In order to calm some of the prevailing public anxiety, the USAF Director of Intelligence and the USAF Director of Operations held a press conference at the Pentagon on July 29th, 1952. Both temperature inversions and misidentified aerial phenomena were cited as possible explanations for the sightings. This was supported by the fact that a B-25 bomber, dispatched over Washington during the second set of sightings, had picked up nothing unusual. However, there were a few things contradicting this assessment.
Firstly, temperature inversions had occurred practically every night during the height of summer. Why hadn’t the objects appeared throughout that period? Secondly, even the United States Weather Bureau stated that temperature inversions tended to appear as steady lines on radar screens, not as single objects. Thirdly, the eyewitnesses all agreed that they had actually seen things, ranging from strangle glows to fiery orange spheres. Others such as Army artillery officer, Joseph Gigandet, claimed to have actually seen a structured craft as opposed to just a glow. And fourthly, Rupplet received reports that some eyewitnesses who had recanted their stories had been pressured to do so by their superior officers.
The end result was the formation of the Robertson Panel in January, 1953. Their mandate was to examine evidence from the ‘best’ UFO cases investigated by Project Blue Book. Their conclusion was that nearly all of the UFO cases examined were capable of being debunked, and that Project Blue Book needed to do a little less analyzing and a lot more debunking. However, they were unable to give a suitable explanation for the 1952 sightings. Nor were they able to say why 100% of the UFO reports collected could not be discredited.