The 1952 Washington, D.C., UFO Incident, Explained

The Great 1952 Washington, D.C., UFO Incident

It was around 11:40 p.m. on Saturday night, July 19, 1952. Air traffic controller Edward Nugent was at his radar screen at Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C., when he saw seven unusual blips on the screen. No known aircraft were in the area and there was no explanation for the presence of the objects. Nugent called his superior, Harry Barnes, to come and look. Together, they watched the mysterious objects dart across the sky. They even checked to make sure the radar was working properly.

Nugent and his boss checked with the control tower and learned that both controllers in the tower had also seen the blips. They called nearby Andrews Air Force Base, where controllers also saw strange objects on their radar screens.

Two of the objects clearly hovered over the White House, with another one over the Capitol. Controllers at both airports began tracking the objects, which they estimated to be traveling at about 130 mph when they suddenly disappeared from the radar screen. Then appeared again, zipping all around the sky. One made a 90-degree turn and another one suddenly went in reverse, both maneuvers that American airplanes could not make at the time.

An airline captain, S.C. Pierman, was waiting on the tarmac in the cockpit of his DC-4 at National Airport for authorization to take off. While waiting, he saw six objects moving about the sky. Over a 14-minute time period, Pierman would see the objects and then they would disappear, reappearing moments later. He was talking to controller Barnes this entire time. Every time Pierman reported a sighting, a blip appeared on Barnes’s radar screen. At 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, July 20, the objects disappeared entirely.

Were these really unidentified flying objects (UFOs)? Did they come back again on another day for a second look? What was the significance of the 1952 UFO sightings and how did the sightings become known as the Great UFO Flap of 1952?

The Objects Return on July 26, 1952

At around 8:15 p.m. one week later, a stewardess and a captain were on an inbound flight into Washington National Airport. They observed strange lights above their plane. At the same time, an officer at Andrews Air Force Base also observed the objects. Other pilots in the air at the time saw them, too. Similar to the occurrence from the week before, the “encore performance” of the UFOs ended around dawn on Sunday morning. The objects disappeared from sight and off of the airport radar.

News Headlines and UFO Publicity

After the UFO Washington, D.C. incident of July 19, 1952, the headlines from The Washington Post's Monday edition declared, “'Saucer Outruns Jet, Pilot Reveals.” The article stated that the Air Defense Command sent a jet pilot up “to investigate the objects,” but was unable to overtake the moving glowing lights.

According to The Washington Post, the UFOs hovered only 1,700 feet above the White House lawn. An Air Force spokesperson said that their organization took steps to properly investigate the event, but the newspaper found the investigation veiled in secrecy. An unidentified traffic controller said the radar signals ruled out the possibility that the objects were due to weather conditions. He noted that they looked like an "aircraft in flight" on the radar screen.

The government created Project Blue Book to scientifically investigate all reported UFO sightings and relevant data to determine if they posed a threat to national security, which they terminated in January 1970. During its time in existence, from 1952 to 1970, it investigated 12,618 UFO reports. It found most of the occurrences coincided with natural phenomena. Only a handful remained unexplained.

As luck would have it, Air Force Captain, Edward J. Ruppelt, supervisor of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, was in Washington, D.C. He learned of the UFO incident from reading the newspaper and discussed the situation with Captain Roy James, a radar specialist. James thought unusual weather conditions could have been responsible for objects appearing to show on radar.

Official Air Force Explanation

On July 29, 1952, Air Force Major Generals John Samford, Director of Intelligence, and Roger Ramsey, Director of Operations held the largest press conference of any since the end of World War II. The official explanation of the July UFO sightings was that:

  • The objects were “misidentified aerial phenomena,” which could mean they were stars or meteors
  • The blips on the radar were due to temperature inversions Samford also said that the since the radar blips were not caused by any solid material, there was no threat to national security. He explained that when a weather inversion occurs, lights that are really on the ground may look like they are in the air and this caused the radar to misreport ground objects being in the sky.

The explanation was not well-received. Ruppelt, from Project Blue Book, noted that during the months of June, July and August in Washington D.C. “hardly a night passed” where there wasn’t a temperature inversion and there were not routine UFO sightings on the radar. All air traffic controller involved stated that even if the weather could cause a blip on the radar, it would be as a straight line and would not appear as lights.

In 1969, a scientific report released by the Air Force concluded that a temperature inversion strong enough to create the effect attributed to it by General Samford could not possibly occur in the Earth’s atmosphere. Even so, more than 50 years later, most people still accept the temperature inversion explanation.

The Robertson Panel

The CIA commissioned the Robertson Panel in January 1953, in response to the number of UFO sightings from the year prior. The CIA encouraged Project Blue Book to be more active in debunking sightings than investigating them. There was also a huge public relations push to decrease the public’s interest in UFOs.

1952: A Busy Year for UFOs

1952 is still one of the most active times in modern history for UFOs. Not only were there reports in Washington, D.C. during that time, but all over the world. In the first six months of 1952, there were about 300 unexplained UFO sightings, four times the number during the same time period of 1951. By the end of July, there were about 400 reports — more than there had been in any other year in history.

For UFO enthusiasts, 1952 remains an important year in history. To delve deeper into the mysterious events of 1952, be sure to watch the Dark Alliance episode of Deep Space.

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