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  • Writer's pictureJ.P. Robinson

The Washington UFO Flap

The following article was extracted from the chapter 'Sky Ghosts' in The Alien Enigma by J. P. Robinson.

In 1952, a series of UFO sightings were reported over Washington D.C. from July 12 –29. The most publicised accounts took place on the two consecutive weekends of July 19 – 20 and July 26 – 29. On the 31st of July, the Air Force informed the Press that regular intelligence work had been seriously compromised by the inundation of “flying saucer” queries. Since the turn of the year, they had already received 432 written reports concerning “sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena”. The period during which the sightings over D.C. took place became known as ‘the Washington National Airport Sightings’ or ‘the Washington Flap’.

The July UFO sightings were a continuation of a multitude of other sightings reported nationwide during 1952 in what was the biggest UFO wave since 1947, and possibly the largest since. Former assistant director of NICAP and director of the Fund for UFO Research, Richard H. Hall wrote, “The summer 1952 UFO sighting wave was one of the largest of all time, and arguably the most significant of all time in terms of the credible reports and hardcore scientific data obtained.”

The Washington sightings involved a lot of data being reported by radar operators from both the Washington National Airport and Andrews AFB, who both recorded multiple sightings of unknown objects as blips on their radar screens. One famous photograph showing a fleet of UFOs passing above the White House has been proven to be a fake. The image (below) actually shows reflected street lamps which appear as floating lights in the sky, when in fact they all align perfectly with the White House lights in front of the building.

Still from faked UFO video

NICAP investigator Francis Ridge wrote, “According to our photo researcher, Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, the photo is actually dated 1965 and the person who took the photo is unknown, so this is not only a non-UFO-event, the date is incorrect and all the items needed to document and properly qualify this photo are absent.” There is a short video clip claiming to be from July 12, 1952 showing the UFO fleet pass over the White House but any information regarding the authenticity of the footage is non-existent. Judging by the lack of eyewitness testimonies concerning that particular incident, it is fairly unlikely to be genuine but has yet to be disproved.

On Saturday, July 19 at 11:10 p.m. Washington National Airport air-traffic controller Edward Nugent spotted seven objects on his radar. Located 15 miles south-southwest of the city, the objects did not follow any established flight paths and no known aircraft were in the area at that time. Senior air-traffic controller Harry Barnes watched the strange objects on Nugent’s radarscope and later wrote, “We knew immediately that a very strange situation existed . . . their movements were completely radical compared to those of ordinary aircraft.”

Barnes contacted the National Airport’s other radar centre and was informed by Howard Cocklin, the controller on duty there, that they also had the objects on screen. Cocklin said he could actually see one of the objects by looking outside of the control tower window, saying that he saw “a bright orange light.”

Telex from Andrews AFB dated 21 July 1952

When the objects began appearing all over the radarscope and moving above the White House, Barnes called Andrews AFB which was ten miles away from the airport. From the base’s control tower Airman William Brady reported sighting an “object which appeared to be like an orange ball of fire, trailing a tail . . . [it was] unlike anything I had ever seen before.” Before Brady had time to alert his colleagues in the tower, the object “took off at unbelievable speed” and vanished from sight. But half an hour later another object was reported back at the airport which was described as “an orange disk about 3,000 ft. altitude.”

Shortly after, a Capital Airlines pilot, S.C. Pierman was waiting for permission to take off in his DC-4 when he was told that the tower radar had picked up more unknown objects closing in on his position. The objects described as six “white, tailless, fast-moving lights” came into view and Pierman was able to watch them from the cockpit for fourteen minutes. Barnes remained in radio contact with the pilot throughout and was able to confirm the presence of the UFOs being seen by Pierman. “Each sighting coincided with a pip we could see near his plane. When he reported that the light streaked off at a high speed, it disappeared on our scope,” Barnes explained.

Staff Sgt. Charles Davenport also observed an orange-red light from Andrews AFB and insisted that the light “would appear to stand still, them make an abrupt change in direction and altitude . . . this happened several times.”

Harry Barnes stated, “There is no other conclusion I can reach but that for six hours on the morning of the 20th of July there were at least 10 unidentifiable objects moving above Washington .... I can safely deduce that they performed gyrations which no known aircraft could perform. By this I mean that our scope showed that they could make right angle turns and complete reversals of flight.”

Once the U.S. Air Force Defense Command were notified, several F-94 jets were sent to pursue the UFOs, however, any attempt to get close to one of them was futile because the UFOs disappeared every time the planes got airborne, reappearing only once the jets were back on the ground. Once they managed to sight the objects whilst in the air, any attempts to approach them were thwarted as the planes were either outrun by the UFOs or they simply vanished.

Pilot William Paterson told investigators, “I tried to make contact with the bogies below 1,000 ft. I was at my maximum speed but . . . I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking them.”

Newspapers reported on the events over the capital; the Charleston Gazette used the headline “Pilots Ordered to Shoot Down ‘Saucers’ in Range”, along with the story that jet pilots were under orders to maintain a nationwide 24 hr. “alert” against “flying saucers” and shoot them down of necessary.

The Washington Post printed the headline “‘Saucer’ Outran Jet, Pilot Reveals” and included an article which began with “Investigation On in Secret After Chase Over Capital”. And the headline from the Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa read, “Saucers Swarm Over Capital”.

The publicity gathered momentum and questions were being answered from people in power to the people on the street. The supervisor of the Air Force's Project Blue Book investigation into the UFO mystery, USAF Captain Edward J. Ruppelt (below stood centre), was in Washington at the time of the sighting. He gave the official Air Force explanation for the sightings, claiming that the objects caught on radar were probably due to “temperature inversion”, which in layman’s terms relates to a weather phenomenon which gives the illusion of lights in the sky.

July 29, 1952 photo showing from left, Captain R.L. James, Maj. Gen. Roger Ramey (seated, left), Capt. Edward Ruppelt (standing, center), Maj. Gen. John A. Samford (seated, right), Col. Donald L. Bower, and B.L. Griffing.

This explanation did not satisfy public curiosity; in fact it had the reverse affect. Dr. James McDonald from the University of Arizona believed that it was “physically impossible” that the objects tracked on the radarscopes could have been as a result of strange weather. Too many collaborative reports from in the air, on the ground and from three different radar stations seemed to disprove Ruppelt’s dismissive suggestion.

The Pentagon quickly arranged a press conference in an attempt to pacify the nation and put to rest any security concerns that were beginning to surface. Gen. John A. Samford (below) addressed the public on July 29, stating that the Air Force had managed to explain the “great bulk” of reports, “as hoaxes, as erroneously identified friendly aircraft, as meteorological or electronic phenomena or as light aberrations.”

Gen. John A. Samford

Continuing, Samford added, “However, there have been a certain percentage of this volume of reports that have been made by credible observers, of relatively incredible things. It is this group of observations that we now are attempting to resolve.” He concluded by suggesting that they had found no reason to suspect any “conceivable threat to the United States” despite their current lack of understanding regarding the recent sightings.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill became aware of the increasing volume of UFO reports from across the Atlantic, and in August 1952 he wrote a personal minute to Lord Cherwell, Secretary of State for Air. “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience”, requested Churchill.

Cherwell responded by dismissing the American preoccupation with UFOs by claiming that they were simply “a product of mass psychology”. The Minister of Supply, Duncan Sandys replied to Cherwell’s comments, “There may, as you say, be no real evidence of the existence of flying saucer aircraft, but there is in my view ample evidence of some unfamiliar and unexplained phenomenon.”

The events which occurred during Washington that month sent shock-waves throughout the nation, particularly the Truman administration who were left with the responsibility of running the country despite the possibility of an outside threat from another world. President Truman however, was all too familiar with the UFO presence, and had already publicly announced his opinions on the subject two years previous. “I can assure you the flying saucers, given that they exist, are not constructed by any power on Earth”, he declared.

This article was extracted from the chapter Sky Ghosts in The Alien Enigma by J. P. Robinson.


[i] Hall, Richard – The 1952 Sighting Wave: Radar-Visual Sightings Establish UFOs As A Serious Mystery, 2005



[iv] Clark, Jerome - The UFO Book: Encyclopaedia of the Extraterrestrial. Visible Ink,1998.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Hall, Richard - The 1952 Sighting Wave: Radar-Visual Sightings Establish UFOs As A Serious Mystery, 2005

[viii] Charleston Gazette – July 28, 1952

[ix] The Washington Post – July 28, 1952


[xi] UFOTV Presents Out Of The Blue, narrated by Peter Coyote, released 09/11/2011

[xii] White House Press Conference, Washington D.C. – April 4, 1950


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