FLYING SAUCERS OVER THE WHITE HOUSE
The Inside Story of Captain Edward J Ruppelt and His Official U.S. Air Force
Investigation of UFOs
By Colin Bennett
Cosimo Books 2010
Colin Bennett’s new book is a worthy addition to the burgeoning literature about UFOs. It is particularly welcome at the present time because it covers a portion of UFO history that many people who are newly interested in the subject are not familiar with. Indeed, if one looks superficially at the mass of presently available literature one might get the impression that the history of the subject consists of a few sightings and the Roswell crash (of something!) and moved immediately into abduction phenomenon. Bennett’s book shows that there was a lot more going on and helps to fill in the gap between Roswell and abduction reports.
Besides presenting a discourse on what might be called the philosophy of and problems with investigation of the paranormal, with an emphasis on UFOs, the book presents the history of one man’s introduction to and immersion in the schizophrenic, even chaotic, approach the Air Force took to the problem of “flying saucer” sightings. The Air Force was handed this sighting problem soon after pilot Kenneth Arnold saw and reported disclike objects flying past Mt. Rainier at much more than the speed of sound. Arnold’s report was widely publicized as were a number or other similar reports in late June and early July, 1947. The Air Force denied responsibility, not only to the general public through the newspapers but also to the FBI in private communications. Air Force Intelligence investigated as reports continued to be made during the summer of 1947 and at the end of the year the Air Force set up an investigation effort, “Project Sign,’ to find the cause of these reports. Project Sign lasted about a year and was replaced with Project Grudge. During this time Air Force Intelligence analysts discovered that there were sightings they could not explain so they essentially “covered up” these sightings with the mass of other sightings that they thought they could explain. For example, for public consumption they might say they could explain 90% of the sightings, therefore it is probable that with a little more information they could explain them all.
By the time Ruppelt became involved, in 1951, the public policy of the AF toward such sightings was that no AF flying device was responsible for sightings, that all sightings were probably explainable as misidentifications of known objects or phenomena, hoaxes of delusions and that they were not a threat to the United State. It is no wonder, then, that when Ruppelt was introduced to the subject, in early 1951, soon after he was stationed at Wright Field (later Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio), at the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC), he was surprised to learn that at least some of the men at ATIC did not believe that all cases could be explained. Some of these intelligence analysts, while seemingly happy to treat sightings with disinterest and willing to poke fun at saucer reports during general multi-person discussions, actually treated the reports seriously in private conversations with Ruppelt. This “schizophrenic” situation was a result of the “higher ups” who were anti-saucer and thus one did not advance one’s career by being pro-saucer.
Bennett discusses how Ruppelt must have felt when confronted by this contradictory behavior of his compatriots in ATIC. Then he became more than just a casual observer in the late fall of 1951 when he was appointed to run the investigations project known then as Project Grudge. This came about after a meeting of the ATIC staff with their boss, General Charles Cabell, in early October, 1951. This meeting was convened by the general because of sightings that occurred during the 10th and 11th of September that involved radar tracking by personnel of the Fort Monmouth Army Radar School in New Jersey as well as visual sightings by Air Force pilots. The general was irked by the fact that he was not immediately informed by the Grudge staff about these important sightings. Instead, he learned about these important sightings from a newspaper story about two weeks after they occurred. As soon as he learned of them he ordered the Grudge staff to report to him the results of their analysis. Cabell had been told that Grudge was working smoothly to analyze and, if possible, to explain all sightings so, naturally, he expected that Grudge staff could tell him about the details of the sighting and the nature of what had been tracked on radar and seen by pilots. Instead, during the meeting he was told that Grudge was a mess and sightings were being treated like comedian Rodney Dangerfield who became famous for complaining “I get no respect.” This angered Cabell greatly and he complained that he had been “lied to” by the underlings who had told him that all sightings were being treated seriously. Cabell complained that the so-called “Grudge Report” published in late 1949 was a piece of “worthless tripe,” meaning that he could see through the poor reasoning and verbal obfuscation that make up that report. Cabell ordered the Grudge staff to revitalize the project because he wanted an answer, “a good answer” to the UFO mystery.
Bennett points out that this was probably a futile hope by Cabell. ATIC was set up to study foreign technology that would represent the state of the art in known science and technology, not to investigate something so far removed from presently known physics as to appear as “magic” (a la Arthur C. Clark). Thus the probable reason the sightings were treated so poorly was that, when you get to the bottom of it, “no one knew exactly what he or she was looking for in the first place.” In other words, whereas a competent scientist or research group might be able to make some sense out of this seemingly nonsensical, “liminal” phenomenon of flying saucer/UFO sightings, “the insular collective brain of the Air Force did not have the intellectual capacity to analyze the UFO situation.”
General Cabell left his mark on UFO history by appointing the lead character in this play on science known as ufology by naming Ruppelt to replace a retiring staff member and thereby revitalize Project Grudge. The Cabell bowed out some weeks later as General John Samford became Director of Air Force Intelligence. This may have been a smart move on Cabell’s part, considering what was to come. Had he known what was coming he could have departed the UFO scene while uttering the famous phrase of Louis Quinze (Louis XV) of France, “Apres moi, le deluge” (after me, the deluge), because a few months later a flood of sightings would begin, which would reach a level which had not been seen before or since.
But before this flood began Ruppelt had about 6 months of “grace period” to upgrade the UFO investigation. He increased the staff size and hired experts in various fields as well as the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, to help analyze the sightings and evaluate the credibility of the people who made sighting reports. He required that sightings be treated seriously and that the staff members provide “unbiased evaluations” of reports., which meant providing reasonable explanations if possible and admitting the failure to explain if there appeared to be no reasonable explanation. Ruppelt began a process of briefing various Air Force technical advisors and others about the activities of the project and at the same time receiving recommendations for improvement in the nature of the sighting evidence. He was given good support in his efforts to turn the project, under its new name, Blue Book, into a real research and analysis effort. Ruppelt accepted the recommendations to try to get “accurate measurements of the speed, altitude and size of reported UFOs” because, as Bennett points out, “once some part of the UFO could be got into the objective Cartesian frame, the project would be getting somewhere.” However, because of its “now you see it, now you don’t” sort of non-repeatability it was difficult to obtain valid data on these “liminal” phenomena,
Bennett cites a number of cases in his book, among the most important of which are the sightings by the men who launched high altitude balloons (General Mills balloon project personnel). Bennett writes, “The experienced Mills crews, familiar with all kinds of sky lighting and atmospheric conditions, meteorology, aerodynamics and astronomy, said they saw so many UFOs they had long since ceased taking any notice of them.”
Another sighting that had a great impact on Ruppelt involved a fighter aircraft that chased a saucer until it “made a quite astonishing 180 degree turn, accelerated rapidly,” and left the aircraft behind. An attempt to explain the object as a balloon failed miserably and Ruppelt had to agree with the pilot’s own assessment that, “maybe it was a spaceship.”
These inexplicable sightings were, as Bennett says, a “massive blow to the ego.” We consider our culture to be advanced and yet we are faced with “the possibility (that we are) living alongside (as distinct from being invaded by) a culture whose nature is almost inconceivable.” As Bennett points out, the discovery that there is another culture “just as complex and multifarious as is (our) culture,” that is operating at a technical level above (way above?) our own could cause us to go into a “cultural shock” similar to that which happened to “the Australian aboriginals and the cargo worshippers of the Solomon Islands.” Bennett says that the strong possibility that this sort of culture shock would be detrimental to our society could be a justification for “skeptical blindness” to the sightings themselves and for “militant skepticism” as a means for maintaining control of our own society.
Bennett’s book recites the history of Project Blue Book as portrayed by Ruppelt with the climax occurring in late July, 1952, during the press conference of General John Samford. The buildup to that conference is “vintage ufology” as Bennett describes the interplay between the investigators and the analysts and the media people and, of course, the UFOs themselves. The period of time from January 1952 through August of that year should be studied by everyone seriously interested in coming to grips with this phenomenon. It long has been this reviewer’s opinion that if we really knew what happened during this period of time we would know much or maybe most of what is to be learned about the UFO phenomenon (barring abductions, which weren’t a recognized part of the phenomenon for at least another decade). It is to his credit, therefore that Bennett has devoted roughly half of his book to this period of time. I just wish that he had written a few pages more on the pre-Ruppelt days of Projects Sign and Grudge because the reader who is not familiar with the early history might think that little of import happened before Ruppelt took over the investigation.
As one example, Bennett did not mention the early involvement of the FBI, and involvement that became important for demonstrating the existence of a “cover up” that occurred on the day of Samford’s press conference. On that day General Samford, the voice of Air Force Intelligence, told the assembled media representatives that there was no evidence of a threat to the United States and that, as far as he was concerned, all the unexplained sightings, including those in the Washington, D.C. area (which led to the title of the book), resulted from weather phenomena. So, where is the cover up? Here it is: on that same day an FBI agent was told by one of the Air Force intelligence staff at the Pentagon, i.e., one of Samford’s employees, that roughly 2% of the sightings could not be explained and that “it was not entirely impossible that the objects sighted may possibly be ships from another planet such as Mars.” (quote from an FBI document dated July 29, 1952) It seems clear to this reviewer that if Samford had said that at the press conference he would have “blown the lid off” the cover up and the history of the UFO subject since then would have been different.
I was also somewhat disappointed to see that Bennett did not present the full impact of the several months leading up to the press conference. He does point out that by the middle of July ATIC was swamped with reports from the USA and around the world and was preparing for “an expected invasion of flying saucers.” However, he could have made this revelation even more astounding by “committing statistics” and also by citing some of the headlines in major newspapers. This portion of the “Year of the UFO” was truly amazing. It was equally amazing that, after it was over, thanks to “nothing there” Samford and the “ha ha” boys in the newsmedia (“flying saucers are hot air”), the events were quickly forgotten or at least pushed to the background of unimportant events in history. (Does anyone know of a conventional history book that mentions the “saucer craze” in 1952?) So, as a supplement to what Bennett has written about 1952, here are the numbers of sighted objects recorded by Project Blue Book by month which will give the reader an overview of this “saucer craze” : Jan. – 15, Feb. – 17, Mar. – 23, Apr. – 82, May – 79, June – 148, July – 536, Aug. – 326, Sep. – 124, Oct. – 61, Nov. – 50, Dec. – 42. Of these roughly 20% were considered to be unexplained. (Statistics from Blue Book Special Report #14 by the Battelle Memorial Institute.) The seriously interested reader can learn more about the Year of the UFO at www.brumac.8k.com. While on the opening page of this website scroll down to “The Legacy of 1952” and download the Word file, Legacyof1952.doc. A shorter, html version (with less illustration) is available at http://www.brumac.8k.com/1952YEAROFUFO/1952YEAROFUFO.htm
The main text of Bennett’s book ends with his discussion of Samford’s press conference and Ruppelt’s reaction to it. In an Appendix Bennett summarizes the three chapters that Ruppelt added to the second edition (19 59) of his 1956 book. He points out that, although this is generally perceived as a radical change in attitude, being more negative than the first edition, the change is not really as much as one might think. To understand why, one should read this book.
Amusing aside: I knew that Colin Bennett has experience in electronic and other technologies so I was not surprised to see various erudite discussions of electronic devices. However, I was mildly “shocked” to see a reference to something I hadn’t thought about in many years. According to Bennett, the MIG 15 avionics package included “acorn-sized” “Gnom” type vacuum tubes. This brought to mind my own experience, about 50 years ago, with what are called “acorn tubes,” which were developed in the middle 1930’s for use in high frequency electronics and avionics. In particular, I discovered a low plate voltage, positive grid voltage condition which produced a previously unknown dynamic negative resistance effect in a 955 type acorn triode.