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Science: Blips on the Scopes

4 minute read

Air traffic was light at Washington Airport one midnight last week, and the radar scope of the Civil Aeronautics Authority was almost clear. At 12:40 a.m. a group of bright blips showed. The operator estimated that they were about 15 miles southwest of Washington. Then the blips disappeared abruptly and reappeared a few seconds later over northeast Washington. The operator called his boss, Senior Controller Harry Barnes, 39, a graduate of the Buffalo Technical Institute who has worked for the CAA as an electronics expert since 1941. The operator told Barnes: “Here are some flying saucers for you.”

Barnes laughed at first, but the blips kept popping up all over the scope. They sometimes hovered, sometimes flew slowly and sometimes incredibly fast. Technicians checked the radar; it was in good working order.

Over the White House. Barnes began to get worried when he saw the blips apparently flying over the White House and other prohibited areas. He called the airport control tower. Sure enough, its radar showed the strange blips too. When the towermen measured the speed of a fast blip, they found that it had flown for eight miles at 7,200 m.p.h.

Now the blips on Barnes’s scope were moving toward Andrews Air Force Base about ten miles to the east. Barnes called the Andrews tower. Nothing strange showed on its radar, but both towermen and an enlisted man on the field saw a single, round, orange light drifting in the southern sky. That was enough for Barnes. He called the Air Defense Command and reported an unidentified object was over the Washington area. Then he told an airline pilot, C. S. Pierman of Capital Airlines, who was about to take off for Pittsburgh, to watch for mysterious objects. Pierman climbed to 6,000 ft. and headed northwest. Barnes & Co. saw a group of strange blips cluster around the blip made by Pierman’s plane, and Pierman spotted a white light “like a falling star.” It sped away, and its blip disappeared from Barnes’s scope.

Air Force to the Rescue. Over from a Delaware base came a flight of radar-equipped F94 jet fighters. Before they reached Washington, all the blips vanished. The jets saw nothing at all. But when the jets departed the blips reappeared, playing all over the scope, Barnes said, “like a bunch of kids.” He called all airliners flying near Washington, asked their pilots to report any strange objects. One pilot saw a white light, moving fast. But during all this uproar, other radars near Washington (e.g., Quantico and Fort Meade) saw nothing unusual.

All the rest of the week, a few strange blips appeared now & then. Then on Saturday night they broke out all over, crisscrossing the capital as they had the week before. This time, the radar at Andrews was seeing the things too. One blip hung over Boiling Field, across the Potomac from the airport, but observers at Boiling saw nothing in the sky. Some airline pilots saw mysterious lights; others saw nothing.

The Saucer Flies Again. Down from Delaware roared another flight of night fighters. This time the blips did not vanish. They stayed on the ground scopes while the jets screamed among them. But only one pilot saw a light; another saw a doubtful blip on his scope. It vanished before he could shoot.

What were the mysterious blips? The Air Force, unless it was trying to conceal some mysterious gadget of its own (e.g., a radar countermeasure), was as baffled as everyone else. As might be expected, the phantom invasion touched off a whole new rash of flying-saucer stories. But if the men from Mars were really overhead, the oddest part of the whole strange story was the fact that among all the conflicting reports, no radar outside of a ten-mile radius in Washington reported seeing anything unusual at any time.

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