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How UFO Sightings Became an American Obsession

In 1947, Kenneth Arnold was flying his CallAir A-2 between Chehalis and Yakima, Washington, when he took a detour to search for a downed Marine Corps aircraft. There was a reward for anyone who could find the plane, and who couldn’t use $5,000?Arnold flew around searching for a while, and accidentally found something else—something much…

In 1947, Kenneth Arnold was flying his CallAir A-2 between Chehalis and Yakima, Washington, when he took a detour to search for a downed Marine Corps aircraft. There was a reward for anyone who could find the plane, and who couldn’t use $5,000?

Arnold flew around searching for a while, and accidentally found something else—something much stranger than what he’d actually been looking for. As he watched, rapt, nine objects flew through the air in formation.

Courtesy of Pegasus Books

Excerpted from They Are Already Here by Sarah Scoles. Buy on Amazon.

That’s nothing crazy, really. You’d call it a fleet and go on with your day. But the craft appeared to be traveling much faster than the jets of the time. Arnold allegedly clocked them, as they flew between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, at significantly more than 1,000 miles per hour. When he landed back on the ground, he—he claimed later—told an East Oregonian reporter that the objects skipped like saucers on water, referring to their motion and not their shape. The reporter wrote, however, that the craft appeared “saucer-like.” That line soon rushed out on the AP wire. The term “flying saucer” showed up a day later—the first time of many times to come—when the Chicago Sun ran the headline “Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot.” The actual path of the saucer description, from Arnold’s mouth to our modern ears, is more complicated: The reporter held fast to the transcription, and as a National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena analysis notes, Arnold had plenty of opportunities to correct the record earlier.

“It seems impossible, but there it is,” the article ended, quoting Arnold.

Arnold’s sighting marks the origin point of modern UFO lore and terminology. His story contains several archetypal characteristics (which it would, of course, itself being the archetype): lights in the sky, spotted by a pilot who knows the sky and what should be in it (what insiders call “a reliable observer”), moving fast and with erratic, intelligent-seeming choreography. You could almost swap Arnold with the pilots in the videos from the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which ran secretly from around 2007 to 2012, and the military personnel who have come forward since, saying (probably honestly!) that they have seen quick, creepy, inexplicable things up there. Their status as hardened fighter jocks is what lends their stories credibility and unnerves the softer and less experienced rest of us.

For talking about his story, Arnold got more—and different—attention than he would have liked: People didn’t believe him. It was only a reflection on the glass, a meteor. He had made it all up. In his own book, Coming of the Saucers, Arnold wrote, “I have been subjected to ridicule, much loss of time and money, newspaper notoriety, magazine stories, reflections on my honesty, my character, my business dealings.” He was not happy about it, and according to the 1975 book The UFO Controversy in America, Arnold said: “If I saw a 10-story building flying through the air, I would never say a word about it.” (This statement, though, remains hard to reconcile with the fact that he published his own book, today’s edition complete with pulpy cover art showing bathing-suit-clad women holding pictures of outer space up for some saucer pilots to see.)

Arnold’s sighting, however he felt about it, began an epidemic. Soon, other people around the US started to see their saucers. The night sky opened up, kicking off a ufological period insiders refer to as a “flap”: a period of increased sightings. The term also has the contextual tinge of the word’s other definition, “an increased state of agitation.” Edward Ruppelt, an Air Force officer who would go on to be part of governmental UFO investigations, wrote that “in Air Force terminology a ‘flap’ is a condition, or situation, or state of being of a group of people characterized by an advanced degree of confusion that has not quite yet reached panic proportions.” In this case, the people were not yet panicking about strange sights in the sky.

If Arnold hadn’t said a word, history probably would have nevertheless been set on a similar course. Someone else’s sighting would likely have catalyzed a similar flap—a year later, maybe two, or five. All events unfold in a cultural medium, after all. And the medium of Arnold’s time—colored by the fear of outsiders, fear of invasions, and awe of technology, just like today—was fertile ufological ground. Perhaps, in a world without Arnold’s encounter, people would have described “the phenomenon” differently. Perhaps we wouldn’t have the term “flying saucer” at all. Maybe it would have been pancakes or spheres. But Arnold and saucers are what we’ve got. So the flap that followed—and, really, all flaps to follow—bear his imprint, however faint.

While we humans like to feel that we choose our own actions autonomously, math and geometry can actually describe their collective nature quite well. So our waves of UFO sightings tend to take one of two distinct shapes: a sharp peak or a bell curve. The first type is explosive, with lots of people reporting lots of UFOs at once, and then sightings dropping off around the same time. The second has a more tame, tapered onset and a more gradual offset.

Maybe, during either kind of crest, more people really do see truly strange things, as could be the case if spaceships or air forces are actually descending. Or maybe the upsurge happens because of what social scientists call “perceptual contagion”—a catching disease, whose sole symptom is that you suddenly notice things that have always existed and interpret them differently because someone else pointed them out. It’s like if a friend said to you, “Everyone who wears Abercrombie and Fitch has something to prove.” Maybe you’d never noticed anyone in an Abercrombie and Fitch shirt before at all. Now, though, you not only see them but also feel like you know something about them.

Either way, a clear relationship also exists between flaps in the general population and the onset of government programs—a symbiosis that former NASA employee Diana Palmer Hoyt has mapped out. When you view the citizens’ sightings and the feds’ research side by side, she noted in a thesis paper on the topic, “the dose-response mechanism becomes clear”: When the population begins to see saucers, the press begins to say so in the papers. Faced with citizens who expect their leaders to demystify the potentially dangerous mystery, the government has historically tried to (not always in good faith). When the flaps were fierce, its agents looked into UFO cases, adding their investigations to the quotidian explanations for the majority of sightings. Citizens are meant to believe that whatever may fly by in the future has a similarly prosaic origin. Don’t worry: It’s just a weather balloon, a too-twinkly star, Venus, atmospheric physics at play.

When a big flap pops, in other words, codified programs crop up. You can see this happening today, when in April 2019, the Navy confirmed that, given the number of unauthorized or unidentified craft that military personnel had encountered recently, it was “updating and formalizing the process by which reports of any such suspected incursions can be made to the cognizant authorities,” as Politico reported. Long before that, the first official program came together the year after Arnold’s sighting. Like the two programs that would immediately follow, spanning more than two decades of federal effort, this initial effort aimed to soothe—and redirect—the masses, while also more quietly attempting to determine whether these saucers were something the military should worry about. The ethos in general? “Publicly debunk and treat the matter lightly,” Hoyt noted, “and privately investigate, and take the matter seriously.”

The government’s first UFO investigation program began the year Scrabble became a game, and the year the US passed the Marshall Plan, an effort in part to stop the spread of communism in Europe. Also, it was around the time the country began rampant missile testing in New Mexico, thanks in no small part to the German scientists and engineers. After World War II, the government gave German scientists (often from the Nazi party) new identities and fresh lives in America, as part of an initiative call

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