The 1952 Washington, D.C. UFO Incident (Washington National Airport Sightings
/Washington Flap)

The 1952 Washington, D.C. UFO incident, also known as the Washington National Airport Sightings
and the Washington flap reference a series of unexplained lights, some moving fast some slow or stopped, that were observed visually and tracked on radar in the skies over Washington, D.C. between July 12 and July 29, 1952. The most reported sightings taking place on the weekends of July 19-20 and July 26-27.

At 11:40 p.m. on Saturday, July 19, seven objects were spotted on radar 15 miles (24 km) south-southwest of the city by Edward Nugent an air traffic controller at Washington National Airport (today Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport). Following verification by two other controllers, Harry Barnes, Nugent's superior, called National Airport's other radar center and was told by Howard Cocklin, the controller there, that not only did he have them on radar but that by looking through the window he could see one, “a bright orange light” in the sky nearby.

When the objects moved over Capitol Hill and the White House, an alarmed Barnes called Andrews Air Force Base, 10 miles away, to find Andrews personnel trying to make sense of what was happening. During this initial contact while radar showed nothing unusual, direct observation told a different story: Staff Sergeant Charles Davenport watched an orange-red light zig-zag in all directions; while another airman, William Brady, watching from the tower, saw an orange ball of fire, trailing a smoking tail, appear then disappear at great speed into the distance.

Back at Washington National, S.C. Pierman, a pilot waiting for permission to take off, observed six white, tailless, fast moving lights. Barnes,who was in radio contact with Pierman, later stated that the sightings coincided with the radar blips we could see near his plane. At one point radar centers at Andrews and Washington National were simultaneously tracking an object hovering over a radio beacon. All objects disappeared with the arrival of jet fighters from Newcastle AFB in Delaware, returning when the jets left to refuel. The UFOs of the first wave were last detected by radar on July 20 at around 5:30 a.m.

The sightings of the second wave began at 8:15 p.m. on July 26 with the observations by crew of a National Airlines plane inbound into Washington. Within minutes radar operators were watching their screens light up with unknown objects. A master sergeant at Andrews, observing the objects visually, dismissed talk of the lights being shooting stars with “there were no trails . . . they traveled faster than any shooting star I have ever seen.”   

At 11:30 p.m., jet fighters from Newcastle AFB arrived on the scene, one of the fighters almost immediately surrounded by a number of white glows. A request by fighter pilot, Lt. William Patterson for instructions, was allegedly met with silence; the situation eventually resolved with the lights braking away and disappearing.

During the early morning of July 27, Project Blue Book's [1] liaison to the Pentagon, Major Dewey Fournet, and navy radar specialist Lt. John Holcomb arriving at Washington National Airport were told by those present, in the radar center, that they believed the objects were solid and not weather related. A stance reinforced when a Capital Airlines flight flying out of Washington spotted “odd lights” along their flight path. As on the weekend previous, the visuals and radar returns ended with sunrise.

The concern spread to the White House, with then President Harry Truman allegedly ordering the Air Force to shoot down the UFOs if they refused to acknowledge orders to land.

The Air Force for its part, however, apparently in an effort to diffuse the situation and avoid panic, stated they believed the objects were an illusion, a product of temperature inversion or misidentified aerial phenomena (meteors and so forth), and no threat to the United States. A position supported when the crew of a B-25, was vectored over radar targets and saw nothing unusual. (One target turned out to be a steamboat.) Likewise an Eastern Airlines flight, when told a UFO was following them, also saw nothing. While turning to double check, they were advised by National Airport's radar center that the contact had disappeared.

Project Blue Book labeled the radar objects “as mirage effects caused by double (temperature) inversion” and the visuals as “meteors coupled with the normal excitement of witnesses.” UFO skeptics, Dr. Donald Menzel, a Harvard astronomer, and Phillip Klass, an editor for Aviation Week magazine, upon review, agreed.

If there were those that were in agreement with Blue Book's hypothesis there were also many (witnesses, researchers and air force personnel) who weren't. It was pointed out that while temperature inversions were commonplace during the summer of 1952, slow-moving, solid radar targets were not. It was also pointed out by the United States Weather Bureau that temperature inversions appeared on radar screens as a steady line, rather than the single objects seen on the airport radarscopes at the time. After interviewing four pilot eyewitnesses and five radar operators, James E. McDonald, a physicist at the University of Arizona. argued that in his opinion the Air Force explanation was “physically impossible.”

The large number of purported UFO sightings in 1952 worried both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force. Both groups felt an enemy entity could cause mass panic and open the way for a sneak attack on the homeland by swamping the United States with false UFO reports. In September of that year the CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) sent a memo to Walter B. Smith, the CIA's Director. The memorandum expressed their concerns and called for action. The result was the creation of the Robertson Panel, a group of scientists chaired by Howard P. Robertson, a mathematician and physicist.

The panel dismissed nearly all of the UFO cases it investigated (mostly collected by Project Blue Book) as non threatening as regards national security. Its recommendation, that Project Blue Book and the Air Force should spend less time analyzing UFO reports and more time publicly repudiating them. Following the Panel's report, Project Blue Book would rarely mention any UFO event that they had not labeled “solved,” while unsolved events were seldom mentioned by the Air Force.

[1] Project Blue Book was a controversial U.S. Air Force study of the UFO phenomenon whose goal was ostensibly to determine both the validity of unidentified flying objects and whether or not they were a threat to American national security. Started in 1952 and terminated in 1969 it was considered by many in the UFO community to be little more than a government whitewash and part of a general cover up. Its final conclusion was that there was nothing either extraordinary or extraterrestrial about UFOs.

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