At 11:40 p.m. on July 19, 1952, Washington National Airport air traffic controller Edward Nugent noticed seven unknown objects on his radar. Little did he know that he was the first of many to witness what would later be called the 1952 Washington, D.C. UFO sightings.
The sightings took place on two consecutive weekends, July 19-20 and 26-27 and were reported by multiple civilian and military witnesses. The objects Nugent detected were 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the city and out of any established flight paths. Nugent and his superior, Harry Barnes were amazed at the movement of the unknown objects and quickly notified the National Airport’s second radar center. The controller there confirmed the radar anomaly and added that he also had visual contact with one of the flying objects. “It’s a bright orange light. I can’t tell what’s behind it,” he said.
The seven objects were joined by many others, some of which were detected over the White House and the Capitol. Barnes decided it was high time to notify the nearby Andrews Air Force Base. The people over there hadn’t seen anything but one of their airmen soon radioed in, reporting the sighting of an “orange ball of fire” unlike anything he’d ever seen before. The object took off at an unbelievable speed and disappeared from sight and radar.
Soon after, reports started coming in as pilots, airmen and civilians saw bright orbs and disks in several places over D.C. Two jet fighters were scrambled from Newcastle Air Force Base in Delaware and as they arrived over Washington, the mysterious objects suddenly vanished, a fact confirmed by all the radar operators tracking them. Running low on fuel, the jets had to leave and that’s when the UFOs reappeared, leading some to believe they were in fact, intelligent.
The objects were last seen around sunrise, when a civilian radio engineer spotted five disk-shaped objects rapidly ascending in formation.
The sightings made front page in newspapers all over the United States and were quickly picked up by news agencies from the rest of the world.
The next Saturday, at around 8 p.m., it started happening again. A pilot and a stewardess on a plane heading to Washington spotted some strange orbs flying in parallel with their plane. The objects and several others were soon picked up by the radar centers at Washington National Airport and Andrews AFB. The UFOs were being picked up in all radar sectors and behaved unlike any aircraft or known natural phenomena. They went from being stationary to hypersonic speeds in a matter of seconds. They made sharp turns even modern aircraft would not be able to perform and even reversed. Some of the fastest were clocked in at over 7,000 mph (11,000 kilometers/hour).
Again, two jets were sent from Newcastle AFB and this time one of them engaged in the pursuit of “four white glows”. Piloting the jet was Lt. William Patterson, who was understandably surprised to see the “glows” turn and surround him. They flew together for several seconds, after which the orbs sped up and vanished. Two more jets were scrambled and one of the pilots reported witnessing a white light that disappeared as he got closer to investigate. When morning came, the UFOs disappeared, this time for good.
The media went wild. Headlines read ‘Saucers Swarm Over Capital’ or similar titles. On July 29, the Pentagon held the largest press conference since WWII and many concerns were expressed. The official Air Force explanation was that a temperature inversion had been present over the city and that was the source of all the commotion. It was immediately met with criticism since said meteorological phenomenon was present over Washington, D.C. during the entire month of July yet the strange orbs were only visible on two nights.
Temperature inversion occurs when a large mass of hot air is located above one of lower temperatures. This atmospheric condition sometimes interferes with radar systems, as radio waves travel at slightly different speeds through the air masses.
U.S. Navy radar specialist Lt. John Holcomb, who had been present at National Airport’s radar center believed the mysterious lights couldn’t have been caused by a weather phenomenon due to radar evidence strongly pointing towards solid metallic objects.
The following investigation went on as you would expect: witnesses coerced into silence. The personnel at the Washington National Airport, despite being the first to spot the flying objects, had all changed their opinions, claiming they had witnessed nothing more than a bright star. The supervisor of USAF’s Project Blue Book, Edward J. Ruppelt had personally interviewed them and said he heard from a trustworthy source that “the tower men had been ‘persuaded’ a bit” by their superiors.
Worried that the large number of sightings could be used by an enemy nation to cause mass panic and easily launch a sneak attack, the CIA supervised the creation of the Robertson Panel, a scientific committee aimed at debunking the UFO sightings. The panel was quick to dismiss almost all cases of UFO sightings collected by Project Blue Book.
The 1952 Washington, D.C. UFO sightings still remain unexplained.