It’s credited as the first modern UFO sighting and the origin of America’s obsession with flying saucers. But it might have all been based on what The Atlantic calls “one of the most significant reporter misquotes in history.”
On this day, June 24, in 1947, an amateur pilot was on his way to an air show in Oregon when he saw a bright blue flash of light in the sky near Mount Rainier. At first he thought it was the sun glinting off another aircraft, but the only other plane around was about 15 mi. away, and not glinting. Then he saw nine more flashes of light, in quick succession — coming from what he later described as unidentified flying objects.
It was when the pilot, Kenneth Arnold, tried to describe the motion of the objects to a reporter for the United Press that the mix-up occurred. He said they flew “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” The reporter took this to mean that the objects themselves were saucer-like, and news reports across the country repeated that Arnold had seen “flying saucers.”
Suddenly everyone was seeing what Arnold had seen, except that he hadn’t. Per TIME: “By July 4, newspapers were heralding literally hundreds of reports of ‘flying saucers’ in skies across the nation.”
On July 7, a New Mexico rancher reported finding what he thought was the crash site of a flying saucer near Roswell, N.M. When he shared his theory with officials at the Roswell Army Air Field, they concurred, and issued a press release claiming they had “captured” a flying saucer. (The next day, cooler heads prevailed higher up the chain of command. The Air Force retracted the claim and said that what they had actually captured were the remains of a weather balloon.)
But while Arnold didn’t say he’d seen saucers, he believed he’d seen something otherworldly. He’d calculated the speed of the flying objects at more than 1,200 mph — nearly twice the speed of sound, at a time when planes hadn’t yet cracked the sound barrier.
He couldn’t come up with an explanation other than the extraterrestrial, since the flying pattern of the objects was too erratic for planes and too fast for almost anything else.
“Everyone says I’m nuts,” he’s quoted as saying in a 1947 newspaper story, “and I guess I’d say it too if someone else reported those things. But I saw them and watched them closely.”
Although the objects Arnold saw have never been incontrovertibly identified, the Air Force eventually offered a better explanation for the Roswell crash site — and even admitted to a cover-up of sorts, according to TIME. That weather balloon wasn’t really a weather balloon, the Air Force acknowledged in 1994, but neither was it a flying saucer: Most likely it was one of a train of high-altitude balloons carrying acoustical equipment to monitor Soviet nuclear tests in the years following World War II.
Read more about flying saucers, here in the TIME Archives: Did Aliens Really Land?