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Science: Something in the Air

4 minute read

Off the Aleutian Islands, in the dangerous summer of 1943, the radar watch of a Navy task force picked up the blips of enemy warships. In a brisk, 45-minute fire fight, the battle fleet expended more than 1,000 rounds of 14-in. and 8-in. ammunition. From their battle stations, lookouts reported the flares and star shells of the otherwise invisible Japanese. Radar operators called in corrections for what seemed to be near misses. But there was no return fire. Eventually, a bewildered Navy decided that it had been slugging it out with phantoms.

Last week in Washington, Vice Admiral Robert C. Giffen (ret.), who had commanded U.S. forces during the great Alaskan “Battle of the Blips.” had reason to recall his embarrassing adventure. Washington itself had just lived through a phantom invasion when unidentified blips on a Civil Aeronautics Authority radar brought jet fighters screaming over from Delaware to hunt “flying saucers” (TIME, Aug. 4). The fighters had shot down no night-flying saucers, but two of them had found radar targets. It appeared later that they had been drawing a bead on each other.

The Navy, said Admiral Giffen, was convinced by now that its Alaskan battle force had steamed in under a high-riding layer of warm air that acted as a kind of electronic ceiling. Radar pulses bounced off the “inversion” layer and echoed back from the Amchitka mountains, more than 100 miles away. A similar temperature inversion was hovering over the capital when the saucers flew in. Admiral Giffen thought that atmospheric conditions were still the best explanation for the ghostly targets.

Crockery. But Washington was not the only city attacked last month by the airborne crockery. From all over the country frightened phone calls and irate demands for information rang through the Pentagon. Air Force intelligence, official guard ian of saucer information, was smothered by an alltime record of reported sightings. Items:

¶ In Salem, Mass., Coast Guard Photographer Shell Alpert glanced out the window and saw several bright lights shimmering in the morning sunshine. After calling a friend to verify what he could not quite believe, Alpert managed to photograph the strange formation just before it vanished. Even a dirty screen on the photo-lab window did not blot out the luminous formation near the power plant smokestacks (see cut). ¶ Flying over Greenfield, Ind., an airline pilot reported a brilliant green, tear-shaped light “going like a bat out of hell.” ¶ In Chenango County, N.Y., citizens gathered in crowds to watch a “whole flotilla of bright, shiny balls moving rapidly in a northerly direction.” Jet fighters scrambled from Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome. N.Y., but found nothing. ¶ Over the AEC’s atomic laboratory at Los Alamos. N.M., observers watched a shiny and “apparently metallic” object jerk through the sky for 30 minutes at high speed. ¶ Off Korea, the crew of a Canadian destroyer spotted two “flying discs” that disappeared at dawn. By radar, the objects were fixed two miles high and seven miles away.

Satisfaction. Last week, in an effort to clear the air and take the heat off its frantic Intelligence Section, the Air Force answered some questions. Major General Roger M. Ramey, Director of Operations, and Major General John A. Samford, Director of Intelligence, did their best to explain away the excitement. All the reports together, said General Ramey, do not establish any pattern that can be construed as menacing. After six years of study, he is “reasonably well” convinced that there is no such thing as a “flying saucer.”

Like the Navy, the Air Force was sure that temperature inversions over the nation’s capital had permitted high-angling radars to pick up trucks and other moving targets on the ground. But what about the other 1,000 or more sightings elsewhere? In a Pentagon press conference, just as if he meant to be reassuring, General Samford went on to state that such things as missiles, ice formations, birds, meteors, and honest misinterpretations of natural phenomena account for all but 20% of them. That still left plenty unexplained. So the Air Force plans to distribute 200 special cameras to competent observers and has ordered some powerful new telescopes that will scan the sky continuously from horizon to horizon.

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