We will never know exactly what private pilot Kenneth A. Arnold saw 75 years ago while flying past Mt. Rainier on June 24, 1947. What he said he saw, and spent the rest of his life trying to explain, added the words “flying saucer” to the vocabularies of millions of people around the world.

Kenneth A. Arnold stands in front of the CalAir A-2 light airplane he was flying when he sighted the “flying saucers” (Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo).

That June afternoon, Arnold took off from Chehalis, Washington, on his way to an air show in Pendleton, Oregon, with a planned fuel stop at Yakima, Washington. He was an experienced pilot with 4,000 hours of flying time logged, and a member of an Idaho search and rescue unit. He was piloting a single-engine CallAir A-2 light airplane. Skies were clear and the winds light. He planned to detour a bit en route. A U.S. Marine Corps Curtiss C-46 Commando transport had crashed with 32 U.S. Marines on board somewhere near his eastward course, and Arnold hoped to find the downed aircraft and claim a $5,000 reward.

Shortly before 3:00 p.m., as Arnold circled his airplane about 20 miles west of Mt. Rainier, searching for the C-46, he saw a bright flash to the northeast. “It startled me. I just assumed it was some military lieutenant out with a shiny P-51 and I had [caught] the reflection of the sun hitting the wings of his plane.” After more flashes appeared, Arnold ruled out a nearby Douglas DC-4 airliner as the source. He claimed they emanated from nine shiny objects flying in an echelon formation about five miles long. Arnold described each object as circular, about 100 feet across, and with no discernible tail. The objects periodically flipped, banked, and weaved side-to-side, “like the tail of a Chinese kite.”   

The formation was crossing in front of Arnold and he decided to time its passage from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams. He calculated the objects were flying at about 1,200 mph (some accounts say 1,700 mph), two times faster than any airplane known at that time. Months would pass before Col. Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 rocket airplane to a speed of 700 miles per hour and exceeded the speed of sound.

Arnold emphatically denied that he initially described the objects as “flying saucers,” but as Megan Garber wrote in her June 15, 2014, article for The Atlantic, “Stories of the time credit Arnold with using the terms “saucer,” “disk,” and “pie-pan” in his description of the objects he had seen.” He told his story to reporters Bill Bequette and Nolan Skiff of the East Oregonian newspaper the day after his sighting. Skiff used the words “saucer-like aircraft” when he published a short print article that same day. After suggesting to Arnold that a wire story might generate comments from the military on flights of experimental aircraft that could explain Arnold’s sighting, Bequette published a brief story picked up by the Associated Press wire service, using the words “nine bright saucer-like objects” to describe what Arnold said he saw. By afternoon, the tale that he had seen “flying saucers” had spread nationwide. A radio host interviewing Arnold on June 26 noted how rapidly the story was shared, saying, “The Associated and United Press, all over the nation, have been after this story. It’s been on every newscast, over the air, and in every newspaper I know of.” The Chicago Sun ran the headline, “Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot.” Arnold became a media sensation, but he did not welcome the attention. Interviewed 30 years later, Arnold said, “I have, of course, suffered some embarrassment here and there by misquotes and misinformation” published in various outlets.

The idea of “flying saucers” gained popularity across the nation as this comic strip from the early 1950s depicts. (US National Archives)

Arnold’s description of what he saw changed over time. In a report that he sent to the U.S. Air Force in July, Arnold drew a shape not unlike the heel of a shoe. It had a rounded leading edge and the trailing edge came to a shallow point. A National Air and Space Museum aircraft, the Vought V-173 Flying Pancake, resembles the form that Arnold drew in his report.

The Flying Pancake has no conventional fuselage. The broad and narrow low-aspect ratio wing completely encloses the cockpit and twin engines. (Smithsonian Institution)

Whatever Kenneth Arnold saw remains unexplained but subsequent reports used the words “flying saucer.” During the next decades, people around the world labeled many sightings of unexplainable aerial phenomena “flying saucers.”

Now people in ever-increasing numbers are exploring the skies using drones, balloons, dirigibles, helicopters, private airplanes, commercial airliners, military warplanes, and other types of aircraft. We encourage and celebrate this exploration but also strongly urge all observers to apply critical thinking when evaluating the true nature of whatever they discover in the skies above us.

Related Topics Aviation Society and Culture Science fiction
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