Project Blue Book: The U.S. Air Force Verses the Flying Saucers

This scene of alien craft attacking Washington D.C. from the film Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers promoted the "aura of mystery" about UFOs that the Air Force very much wanted to get rid of.

After investigating over 12,600 incidents, the military's 22 year-long effort to crack the mystery of UFOs ended with anger, suspicion and claims of a cover up.

On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, a businessman and pilot, reported observing 9 flat disc-like aircraft flying at high speed near Mt. Rainer, Washington. Arnold's report of these objects, which the press would dub "flying saucers," and his clear identification of them as some kind of aircraft, seemed to open the floodgate to similar reports. Over the next few months and years thousands of other observations of strange things in the sky would be reported from across the United States. This created a dilemma for the U.S. Air Force: As the agency charged with the security of the nation's air space, what would they do about these sightings of unknown aircraft that seemed to brazenly cruise above American soil? This was the beginning of the cold war: Were these strange craft invaders from the Soviet Union, or somewhere else?

The Air Force's initial response to this phenomenon was the creation of Project Sign. Project Sign and the investigations that would follow it (including project Blue Book) would be the twenty-two year-long effort by the Air Force to deal with the UFO problem. An effort, which many claimed was designed not to discover the truth, but cover it up.

Project Sign

Project Sign lasted for just over a year working out of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. According to U.S Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt (who would later be a director of project Blue Book and author of the book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects) Sign was a very serious attempt to resolve the UFO problem:

ATIC's intelligence specialists were confident that within a few months or a year they would have the answer to the question, "What are UFO's?" The question, "Do UFO's exist?" was never mentioned. The only problem that confronted the people at ATIC was, "Were the UFO's of Russian or interplanetary origin?" Either case called for a serious, secrecy-shrouded project.

Captain Ruppelt (left) with Maj.Gen.John A.Samford at a UFO conference in 1952.

Sign's official results were inconclusive with the final report stating that the existence of "flying saucers" could neither be confirmed nor denied. According to Ruppelt, internally the group had become split between those who favored the idea that "flying saucers" were extra-terrestrial in origin and those that believed they were not.

In 1948 the project authored a document known as The Estimate of the Situation which was sent up the Air Force command chain. According to Ruppelt, most of the personel at Sign had been impressed by what has become known as the Chiles-Whitted UFO Encounter that occurred on July 24, 1948. In this incident, two pilots flying a Douglas DC-3 reported that they had nearly collided with a strange torpedo shaped flying object. Many of Sign's investigators became convinced of the truth of the report. They concluded that based on the level of the technology that must have been involved the object could neither be of U.S. or U.S.S.R origin and therefore must have been extra-terrestrial. The Estimate document reflected this belief.

Ruppelt wrote that Air Force brass rejected the Estimate for lack of physical evidence and had all copies destroyed. In fact, an Air Force spokesman denied the Estimate ever existed and all attempts to use the Freedom of Iinformation Act to get a hold of it have failed. Several other sources, however, including Dr. Allen Hynek, who was a scientific consultant to Sign and Blue Book, have confirmed its existence.

Project Grudge

Sign was replaced by Project Grudge. The project's name reflected the Air Force's new antagonistic attitude toward handling UFO reports. According to Ruppelt, the project was the "Dark Ages" of USAF UFO investigation with Grudge operating under a debunking directive that all UFO reports were to be judged to have natural explanations. Little investigation was conducted, and many of the "explanations" strained credulity.

Special Report No: 14 contained a statistical analysis of UFO sightings.

The situation came to a boil in September of 1951 when there was a UFO sighting near Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. Pilots and radar operators reported observing a number of fast-moving, highly maneuverable disc-shaped aircraft. Project Grudge personnel were ordered to investigate and report directly to Major General Charles P. Cabell, the head of Air Force intelligence at the Pentagon. During the meeting it became apparent that the Grudge investigators, in particular Lt. Gerry Cummings, believed that the discs in the Monmouth incident were "intelligently controlled." However, they were frustrated by Grudge's mandate to debunk all reports. Cummings told Cabell that any UFO sighting examined by the project was taken as a huge joke.

Cabell, who believed the flying saucer problem deserved serious scrutiny, was furious and under pressure from him Grudge was dissolved to be replaced by Project Blue Book, so named because it was considered to be as important as a college exam (which were traditionally written in standard blue books).

Project Blue Book

Early in 1952 Grudge was reorganized into Project Blue Book under the direction of Ruppelt who was a Captain at the time. Ruppelt, in general, is thought to have been one of the most open-minded commanders of Blue Book. Also the time during which the project was running under his command was thought to have been its most productive.

Ruppelt started by creating the term Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) to replace more popular but somewhat unscientific "flying saucer" and "flying disc" terms used in the press. He also streamlined the reporting process for UFOs and hired Battelle Memorial Institute to create a standard reporting form that could be used to gather information about sightings to be placed in a computerized data base. Rupplet hoped to learn something about UFO phenomenon by applying statistical methods.

The results of this study (which were detailed in Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14) were very interesting. Of the 3200 reports included in the study, 69% were thought to be misidentifications of known objects. Nine percent were deemed to have insufficient information to make a conclusion. Within the "known" catogory only 1.5% were attributed to crackpot reports and 8% fell into a miscellaneous category that included probable hoaxes. Twenty-two percent of all reports were listed as "unknown." Strangely enough, the better the information that was available about a case, the more likely it was to be placed in the unknown category. This is exactly the opposite of what the skeptics had expected.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek started out as a UFO skeptic.

Dr. J Allen Hynek

Astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who had originally been hired as a scientific consultant under Sign, continued on with project Blue Book. Hynek, who was in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Ohio State at the time, had started out as a UFO skeptic. He thought that all reports could be explained either as hoaxes, cases of mistaken identity or misunderstood natural causes. He expected that the "fad" would soon pass, thinking that the "whole subject seems utterly ridiculous."

Hynek later admitted that in the earlier years of Project Blue Book he saw his role as that of a debunker and sometimes stretched possible natural explanations far beyond what was reasonable. His declaration that witnesses at an incident in 1966 had mistaken "swamp gas" for a flying saucer was met with much ridicule in the national press.

Despite this, Ruppelt, thought very highly of Hynek. "Dr. Hynek was one of the most impressive scientists I met while working on the UFO project, and I met a good many. He didn't do two things that some of them did: give you the answer before he knew the question; or immediately begin to expound on his accomplishments in the field of science."

Hynek similarly respected Ruppelt thinking that the captain was taking the project in the right direction. When Rupplet departed the project in 1953, Hynek wrote that after that Blue Book became not much more than a public relations device, noting that little or no research was undertaken using the scientific method.

The Robertson Panel

A rash of UFO reports in 1952 caused the CIA to convene a panel of scientists under the direction of physicist Howard Percy Robertson to look into the problem. The panel met for 12 hours over the course of four days. Ruppelt, Hynek and others involved in UFO investigation presented their most interesting cases. Despite some dissenting opinions, the panel's final report stated that 90 percent of all UFO cases could be explained by meteorological, astronomical, or natural phenomena and it was likely that the last 10 percent could also if only enough time and effort were spent on investigating them. The only threat to national security posed by UFOs, the panel concluded, was that the many erroneous reports coming in from the public might overwhelm the Pentagon's communication channels and cause them to miss some real threat to the country.

For this reason the panel recommended that the government start a public relations campaign designed to "debunk" UFOs and remove the "aura of mystery" from them to reduce public interest. They also recommended monitoring civilian UFO groups as they thought that might be used for "subversive" purposes.

Project Blue Book was soon stripped of most of its resources and a dispirited Ruppelt left. For most of the rest of its existence under a number of directors, Blue Book acted only to debunk UFO reports rather than investigate them. For a brief period between 1958 and 1963 while Major Robert J. Friend ran the project, there was an effort to reverse this trend and become more scientific about UFO investigations, but the Major was frustrated by a limited budget and little cooperation.

The End of Project Blue Book

In 1966 the Condon Committee (under the direction of Dr. Edward U. Condon who was a physicist and one-time head of the American Association of the Advancement of Science) reviewed the work of Blue Book and recommended it be shutdown. In the final report Condon said the effort had added nothing to scientific knowledge and further study was probably unnecessary. Cordon also said, "it is safe to assume that no ILE [intelligent life elsewhere] outside our solar system has any possibility of visiting Earth in the next 10,000 years." This estimate, given the lack of information about life and technology outside our solar system, has been widely disputed.

By then, however, the civilian consultant hired by Blue Book, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, had had a change of heart. While publically continuing to agree with the Air Force line on UFOs, Hynek had started to have his own doubts after investigating a number of cases that resisted explanation. The Air Force's habit of denying all reports without any investigation did not sit well with his scientific nature. Of the period when the project was lead by Major Hector Quintanilla he wrote, "Quintanilla's method was simple: disregard any evidence that was counter to his hypothesis." He added that under Quintanilla's direction, "the flag of the utter nonsense school was flying at its highest on the mast."

After the end of the project Hynek decided to continue the investigations by forming his own agency in 1973 with other researchers named the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). Of the thousands of UFO reports investigated by CUFOS, roughly 80 percent of them can be explained while 20 percent remain a mystery.

A UFO sighting report from the Project Sign era.

After Project Blue Book was terminated in 1969, all of its files were declassified and made available to the public. Over the course of its operation, Blue Book and its predecessors had investigated 12, 618 sightings of which 701 remained unidentified. The records are currently held by the National Archives.

Interestingly enough, however, other UFO-related documents not held by Project Blue Book have remained classified. Private UFO groups have sued to have those files opened to the public.

Unfortunately, Bluebook's attempt to discredit witnesses and debunk reports has been very effective even after the termination of the project. There is no way of knowing how many valid reports of UFOs have been squelched because of witnesses' fears of being labeled as "crackpots" or liars.

Despite its public stance, it is believed that the Air Force continues to secretly investigate certain UFO reports even to this day, if they consider the object to be a threat to national security.

Copyright 1996-2009 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.

A Partial Bibliography

USAF Fact Sheet 95-03: Unidentified Flying Objects and Air Force Project Blue Book J.

Allen Hynek; The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry; 1972; Henry Regenery Company

Blum, Howard, Out There: The Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials, Simon and Schuster, 1990 Edward J. Ruppelt; Report On Unidentified Flying Objects; London 1956


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