Washington Post commemoration of 1952 UFO sighting omits telling details of report that explained radar blips – News and Comment

Phillip J. Klass

The July 21, 2002, WASHINGTON POST “commemorated” the fiftieth anniversary of a UFO incident that made headlines around the globe when mysterious blips appeared briefly on the primitive radars at several airports near Washington. At the time, in 1952, barely five years after UFOs first attracted national attention, there were some even in high positions who suspected that UFOs might be extraterrestrial craft. If so, perhaps they were reconnoitering the nation’s capital prior to an attack. The recent Washington Post article by staff writer Peter Carlson was headlined “Alien Armada.”

Although Carlson’s article occupied nearly two pages, regrettably he opted to omit important derails from a sixteen-page report on the results of an investigation by the Civil Aeronautics Administration–now the Federal Aviation Administration. During our two-hour interview I loaned him a copy of the CAA report and urged him to read or at least scan it. This CAA investigation was conducted immediately following the Washington radar-UFO incidents, but the report, issued the following spring (May 1953), is never even mentioned by those who believe that UFOs are ET craft because it offers prosaic explanations for the incidents. Carlson mentions the CAA investigation report only very briefly.

I also gave Carlson a copy of a recent issue of my Skeptics UFO Newsletter (SUN) containing a review of the recent book Invasion Washington: UFOs Over The Capital, by pro-UFOlogist Kevin Randle. SUN noted that Randle did not even mention the CAA report in his 312-page book. My review quoted briefly from the CAA report, which stated that mysterious blips on radar “do not represent a new phenomena nor are they peculiar to the Washington area.” Thus the details of the CAA investigation and its finding would be newsworthy for Washington Post readers. Instead, Carlson devoted much of his article to extracts from a book published in the mid-1950s by then recently retired Capt. Edward Ruppelt, who had headed Project Blue Book, the United Stares Air Force’s office for investigating UFO reports.

Early in the CAA investigation the logs of radar controllers were examined to list all instances of mysterious radar blips from May through August of 1952. The tabulation, contained in the CAA report, was then taken to the Weather Bureau’s analysis section. “It was then found that a temperature inversion had been indicated in almost every instance when the unidentified radar targets or visual objects had been reported,” according to the CAA report. (Normally, the temperature of the air decreases with increasing altitude. During temperature-inversion conditions, which often occur during the hot, humid summer months, a patch of warmer air exists at higher altitude. This causes the upward-looking beam of an airport radar to be refracted downward so it is reflected off of autos, ships, and surface objects. As the temperature-inversion conditions shift location, a surface-object’s radar blip may disappear from one part of the radar’s display and another may appear some distance away. If a traffic controller errone ously assumes the two blips are from the same object, he can conclude that the single object is travelling at very high speed.)

Because the Washington enroute traffic control center was the only such center then outfitted with long-range radar, the CAA investigators checked with airports equipped with shorter-range terminal area radars to determine if they too had experienced mysterious radar blips. The CAA report stated that Chicago’s Midway airport had displayed unidentified targets “on many occasions, particularly when temperature inversions had been in effect.” Similar experience was reported by Cleveland’s airport, and Boston’s Logan airport reported anomalous blips “on rare occasions.”

But the CAA investigation included observation of the enroute center’s radar with data measurement. For example, on the night of August 13, 1952, the radar’s Moving Target Indicator had been set to filter out (not display) nonmoving ground targets up to ten miles from the radar’s antenna. According to the CAA report, “Beyond this range the scope was clear except for a few permanent echoes that were visible. Suddenly, at approximately 19:57 Eastern Standard Time (EST) a group of seven strong stationary targets became visible in an area about fifteen miles north-northeast of the radar antenna. During the next two or three antenna revolutions, the area on the scope between Washington and Baltimore became heavily sprinkled with stationary targets in a belt about six miles wide.

“A group of additional targets became visible in an area approximately ten to fifteen miles south of the radar antenna. This was evidence of the beginning of a temperature inversion. Within the next minute at approximately 19:58 EST, four unidentified moving targets showed up five miles southeast of the radar antenna and moved in a southerly direction. … For the next four and one-half hours, many unidentified targets were carefully plotted with grease pencil on the face of the scope. The time for each was entered on these plots in order to calculate ground speed.” CAA investigators conducted several such experiments in mid-August, as disclosed in their report. “In each case, target directions corresponded with the wind directions reported aloft,” according to the CAA report.

As Carlson reports in his article, when mysterious blips appeared on the Washington radars a week later (July 26-27), the USAF dispatched two F94C interceptors from an air base near Wilmington, Delaware. The F-94C was equipped with the most advanced air-borne radar and a separate radar operator to spot enemy aircraft. (The F-94C’s radar operated at a higher frequency than airport radars and therefore was not as susceptible to temperature inversion effects.) When the two F-94Cs were vectored to the vicinity of the UFO blips, their radars were unable to spot any craft. When they were running low on fuel and returned to base, two more F-94Cs were dispatched to the Washington area and were vectored to the mysterious radar blips. None of the four aircraft radars detected any craft, as one of the F94C pilots (Capt. John W. McHugo) later wrote me. In McHugo’s letter he said that “One pilot reported a light but we are confident it was a motor-vehicle headlight.” (I gave a copy of McHugo’s letter to Carlson, who opted not to mention its content in his article.)

During both July 19-20 and July 26-27 incidents, the traffic controllers asked aircraft flying in the vicinity if they saw the mysterious craft. And a few reported seeing a very fast-moving light, which might have been fireballs from the Aquarids meteor shower, reaching its peak activity around July 29. A few other pilots reported seeing a very bright light, but the planet Jupiter (which triggers many UFO reports) was especially bright after midnight during late July of 1952.

In the concluding portion of Carlson’s article, he quotes well-known pro-UFOlogist Bruce Maccabee, a Navy physicist: “Maccabee believes there were solid objects in the air over Washington fifty years ago. ‘And I think those solid objects were not made by us.’… Like KIass, Maccabee buttresses his argument with an official government report. It’s called ‘Quantitative Aspects of Mirages’ and it was issued by the Air Force in 1969. ‘They proved in their own study there wasn’t enough temperature inversion to cause this effect,’ he says. ‘The Washington sightings cannot be explained as a radar mirage.'”

If Maccabee had studied more carefully the report he cited, he would discover that it deals with visual mirages, and its author (First Lieutenant Frederick V. Menkello) does not even mention “radar” or the 1952 radar incidents anywhere in his report.

Carlson’s article concludes by quoting former Washington traffic controller Howard Cocklin, who remains convinced that mysterious craft visited the nation’s capital in 1952: “I saw it on the screen and out the window. It was a whitish-blue object. Not a light a solid form. An object. A saucer-shaped object.” Presumably, mysterious blips have appeared on Washington area and other FAA radars during the last fifty years, but they have been correctly identified.

Veteran Washington, D.C., aerospace journalist Philip J. Klass is author of numerous books critically examining UFO claims, chairman of the CSICOP’s UFO Subcommittee, and editor of Skeptics UFO Newsletter.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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