Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kenneth Arnold: The Pilot Who Launched the UFO Phenomenon

There are few vantage points in the world that can top the view from the pilot’s seat in an aircraft.

When you’re airborne, the views are magnificent.  And when you’ve got the skies to yourself, there are few experiences that can compare to the exhilaration of flight.

But sometimes, even decades ago before airplanes filled the skies, pilots have company up there.

Unidentified company.


Kenneth Arnold


Kenneth Arnold was a skilled pilot.  Born in 1915 in Minnesota, the aviator later moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he began the Great Western Fire Control Supply company in Boise, Idaho.

The entrepreneur Arnold logged thousands of hours in the cockpit, both with his business and on search and rescue efforts.

But on June 24, 1947, Arnold would encounter something in the skies over Washington State that he could not explain.

And it would launch a phenomenon.

Arnold had taken off in his CallAir A0-2 from Chehalis, Washington, en route to Yakima on the other side of the Cascades.  Skies that day were described as being completely clear.

At around 3 p.m., while flying at 9,200 feet in altitude near Mount Rainier, he saw a bright flashing light, much like sunlight reflecting on a mirror.

The only other plane he could see was a DC-4, about 15 miles away.

About 30 seconds after that flash of light, Arnold saw a series of further bright flashes to his left, by his calculations, to the north of Mount Rainier.

He soon determined that these reflections came from some type of flying objects.

The chain of nine unidentified objects approached Mount Rainier at a rapid pace.  They passed in front of the snow-capped volcano, appearing dark in profile.

According to Arnold, one of the objects was crescent shaped, and appeared to be so thin as to be invisible when viewed from the side.  The others, he said, were more circular in shape.

They flew in a “diagonally stepped-down, echelon formation”, more or less on a level horizontal plane he said.

Arnold didn’t know what he was seeing, but his first suspicion was that it was test flights of some sort of new military aircraft.  He said the experience gave him an “eerie” feeling.

The fast-moving objects soon disappeared from view as they moved south towards Mount Adams.



Unheard of Speed

Arnold knew the objects were moving at an incredible speed, but only later, when he had time to do some calculations, did he realize they would have been flying at over 1,700 miles per hour – about three times faster than any other aircraft was capable at that time.

News Spreads


When he landed at Yakima Airport, Arnold shared his incredible story.

In the days that would follow, varying reports would come from witnesses who appeared to corroborate the scenario described by Arnold.

But the most credible report occurred just ten days later, when a United Airlines crew had a similar sighting in the area.  Comparing notes with them, Arnold estimated the objects to be larger than a DC-4 airliner, or more than 100 feet in length.

Army Air Force analysts would later peg the size at 140 to 280 feet.

The Impact

What was it that Arnold saw?  That has been the subject of much debate in the decades since his sighting.

But this event was significant for a number of reasons.

It’s regarded as the first widely known account of “unidentified flying objects”.

Newspaper accounts in the days afterward also used the terms “flying saucer” and “flying disc” for the first time.

And following the news of Kenneth Arnold’s encounter with these UFOs, reports became more widespread.

The infamous Roswell incident occurred just two weeks after Arnold’s experience.

So, regardless of the origin of the strange aircraft spotted by this pilot on June 24, 1947, the fact remains – it was the story that launched the UFO phenomenon.

Here’s a 1947 radio interview with Kenneth Arnold.

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