First UFO Sighting Ever Recorded: Kenneth Arnold's Life-Altering UFO Experience
By Sarah Norman | September 11, 2023
How a Routine Flight Became a Historic Encounter
Seventy-five years ago, on a clear June day in 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold took to the skies and inadvertently flew into the annals of extraterrestrial lore. His encounter with an unexplained aerial phenomenon near Mt. Rainier sparked a cultural revolution, one that would add the term "flying saucer" to the global vernacular and ignite mankind's enduring fascination with the unknown.
While many have heard of Arnold's historical sighting, the incident, like the objects Arnold saw that day, has many layers yet to be uncovered. From the untold intricacies of Arnold's original descriptions and the unexpected media frenzy, to the less-known theories and the enduring legacy of this seminal UFO encounter, we invite you on a journey to rediscover the Kenneth Arnold UFO incident. Prepare to see this pivotal moment in history in a whole new light.
On a serene June afternoon, experienced pilot Kenneth Arnold, with 4,000 flight hours to his name, embarked on a seemingly ordinary journey from Chehalis, Washington. He was headed to an air show in Pendleton, Oregon, intending to refuel in Yakima, Washington, aboard his trusted single-engine CallAir A-2 light airplane. A member of an Idaho search and rescue unit, Arnold planned a minor deviation from his route that day. His eyes were set on a prize - a $5,000 reward for locating a U.S. Marine Corps Curtiss C-46 Commando transport that had tragically crashed with 32 U.S. Marines on board, somewhere along his eastward trajectory.
The clock neared 3:00 p.m. when Arnold, circling approximately 20 miles west of Mt. Rainier in his quest for the C-46 wreckage, was jolted by an unexpected spectacle. A bright flash caught his attention in the northeast direction. His initial thought was:
A military lieutenant must be having a joyride on a shiny P-51, and I've just caught a glimpse of the sunlight glancing off its wings.
Nine UFOs Sped By Arnold
As more flashes came into view, Arnold soon dismissed a nearby Douglas DC-4 airliner as the source. What he claimed to see instead was a formation of nine gleaming objects, strung together in a five-mile-long echelon.
Each of these objects bore no resemblance to any known aircraft. They were circular, roughly 100 feet in diameter, with no discernible tail to be seen. Their movement was peculiar too, flipping, banking, and weaving side to side with an uncanny similarity to the tail of a Chinese kite. Little did Arnold know, this was no ordinary detour but a journey to a groundbreaking discovery that would forever change our understanding of the skies above.
Who was Kenneth Arnold?
Kenneth Arnold was an American businessman and amateur pilot who is best known for making what is generally considered the first widely reported unidentified flying object (UFO) sighting in the United States.
Born on March 29, 1915, in Sebeka, Minnesota, Arnold grew up in a flying-enthused family. He started flying at a young age and became a salesperson for a fire control equipment company. This job required frequent flights to different states, which eventually led to his infamous UFO sighting.
Unraveling the Astonishing Speed of Arnold's Unidentified Aerial Encounter
As the peculiar formation made its way across Arnold's line of sight, his pilot instincts kicked into gear. With his focus split between piloting his CallAir A-2 and observing this enigma, Arnold decided to engage in an impromptu experiment. He wanted to understand more about these unidentified objects, particularly their speed. Using the familiar landmarks of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams as his reference points, he calculated the time taken by the formation to traverse the distance between these two iconic peaks.
His computations yielded results that would have been considered fantastical during that era of aviation. The objects, he concluded, were propelling at a breathtaking speed of approximately 1,200 mph. Some accounts even suggest he estimated their speed to be as high as 1,700 mph. These speeds were truly extraordinary, far surpassing the capabilities of the fastest aircraft of the time. To put things into perspective, the fastest aircraft during that period could reach speeds only a little over half of Arnold's estimation. It would be several months later when Col. Chuck Yeager, in the groundbreaking Bell X-1 rocket airplane, would push the boundaries of aviation by achieving a speed of 700 mph, thereby surpassing the speed of sound. Yet, even Yeager's milestone paled in comparison to the astonishing speed of the objects Arnold observed that day, thereby deepening the mystery of his extraordinary encounter.
A Fateful Flight: Kenneth Arnold's Encounter with the Unexplained
The skies were a radiant blue, disturbed only by a gentle breeze. Arnold was on his way to an air show in Oregon but had decided to undertake a bit of unofficial exploration near Mount Rainier. A Marine Corps C-46 transport plane had recently crashed in the vicinity, and a generous reward of $5,000 was promised to whoever located the wreckage.
Abruptly, as Arnold would reminisce later, a dazzling light seized his attention—a fleeting flash, similar to the sun's reflection off a mirror at just the right angle. It was imbued with a hint of blue. Initially, he believed the light originated from another aircraft; however, a scan of his surroundings revealed only a DC-4, approximately 15 miles distant and notably devoid of any flashing light.
Then the phenomenon repeated—this time, as a sequence. Nine rapid, successive flashes streaked across his field of vision.
Kenneth Arnold's Account Reaches Fellow Aviators
Arnold decided to share his bewildering experience with his good friend, Al Baker, the general manager of Central Aircraft Company. Being well aware of Arnold's formidable experience as a pilot — with over 4000 hours spent navigating mountainous terrains — Baker received the account with patience and courtesy. However, he maintained a jovial skepticism, finding it hard to believe Arnold's tale.
Later that day, Arnold took off for an air show held in Pendleton, Oregon. He narrated his encounter to his fellow pilots, who, unlike Baker, refrained from dismissing his claims with laughter or ridicule. They instead mused over the possibility that the human body could endure such high speeds and erratic maneuvering. The consensus was that the mysterious objects could either be advanced Russian machinery or classified US technology, possibly a rocket-propelled ship.
From Denial to Doomsday: Reactions to Arnold's Unidentified Aerial Phenomena
Following Kenneth Arnold's astonishing account, newspapers started to churn out their own interpretations of the phenomenon. They suggested he might have mistaken reflections from his aircraft's instrument panel for unknown entities or succumbed to a bout of snow blindness induced by a towering mountain peak. More daring theories ventured into the realms of secret weaponry, proposing Arnold had observed guided missiles, possibly of Russian origin. Others downplayed the occurrence to mere mirages, optical illusions, or even a flock of swans coursing through the sky.
However, the burden of these explanations and the intense public scrutiny took its toll on Arnold. He confessed to the Oregon Journal:
Since the moment I shared my encounter, peace has become a stranger to me.
Amidst the whirlwind of speculation, a Texan minister rang him up with a prophetic interpretation, viewing the unidentified objects as a sign of the impending apocalypse. Consequently, he was readying his congregation for the expected end of the world. The range of reactions to Arnold's sighting was indeed as vast and bewildering as the event itself.
Arnold's Detailed Disclosure: Illustrated Report to AAF Intelligence
Kenneth Arnold's extensive report to Army Air Forces Intelligence, drafted on July 12, 1947, encompasses more than just a written account of his experience. It includes meticulous sketches of the individual objects within the group of nine that he witnessed. These illustrations provide a comprehensive visual reference, marking the unique characteristics and shapes of the unidentified flying objects. The careful detailing in Arnold's annotations brings to life the inexplicable entities he observed, giving a tangible aspect to his narrative and adding to its credence. His report stands as a significant contribution to our understanding of early UFO sightings, continuing to provoke curiosity and discussion to this day.
Lost in Translation: The Origin and Misinterpretation of 'Flying Saucers'
Arnold was unequivocal in asserting that he never initially characterized the objects as "flying saucers." However, as journalist Megan Garber highlighted in her comprehensive article for The Atlantic dated June 15, 2014, the narratives of that time attributed Arnold with using terms such as "saucer," "disk," and "pie-pan" when describing what he had observed.
In his bid to share his unique experience, Arnold relayed his account to journalists Bill Bequette and Nolan Skiff of the East Oregonian newspaper just a day after his sighting. Skiff, interpreting Arnold's account, employed the term "saucer-like aircraft" in his subsequent print article. Recognizing the potential significance of Arnold's sighting, Bequette proposed the idea of a wire story, hypothesizing it might elicit comments from the military on possible test flights of experimental aircraft that could account for Arnold's experience.
Acting on this idea, Bequette released a brief story that was promptly picked up by the Associated Press wire service. It was in this article that the phrase "nine bright saucer-like objects" was first used, encapsulating Arnold's description of his encounter. In this way, a simple narrative interpretation spiraled into the coinage of the now infamous term, "flying saucers."
Arnold's Unintended Rise to National Fame and the Birth of 'Flying Saucer' Phenomenon
As the afternoon sun descended on that fateful day, the story of Arnold's sighting had already taken flight, spreading rapidly across the nation. The terminology, "flying saucers," birthed from interpretation rather than Arnold's own words, became the talk of the town. On June 26, during an interview with Arnold, a radio host remarked on the speed and extent to which the story had propagated, stating, "The Associated and United Press, all over the nation, have been hunting down this story. It's made its way into every newscast, broadcasted across the airwaves, and featured in every newspaper I can think of."
The headline of The Chicago Sun summed up the public sentiment, proclaiming, "Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot." Arnold, an unsuspecting figure at the heart of this sensation, found himself thrust into the media spotlight. Far from relishing in the newfound attention, he found it burdensome. Reflecting on this period 30 years later, Arnold expressed his discomfort, stating:
Of course, I've experienced embarrassment on occasions due to misquotes and misinformation spread through various channels.
Arnold's sighting wasn't just an account of unexplained aerial objects, but also a tale of media frenzy and the unintended consequences of public attention.
Unraveling the Mystery of the Mount Rainier UFOs
Kenneth Arnold, the respected pilot hailing from Idaho, known for his startling report of nine unidentified flying objects near Mount Rainier in 1947, later shared his visual impressions of the experience. He crafted a sketch of the crescent-shaped object that etched itself into his memory. The remainder of the fleet, he noted, exhibited a roughly circular formation, adding another layer of intrigue to his extraordinary sighting.
How Arnold's Account Morphed and Shaped the World's Perception of UFOs
Arnold's narrative of his sighting took on an intriguing evolution over time. In a report submitted to the U.S. Air Force in the following month, July, he sketched a shape reminiscent of a shoe heel to represent the objects he'd seen. This figure exhibited a rounded leading edge, tapering off to a gentle point at its tail end.
Interestingly, an aircraft displayed at the National Air and Space Museum, the Vought V-173, colloquially known as the "Flying Pancake," mirrors the shape that Arnold illustrated in his report. Regardless of the similarities to known aircraft, the truth of what Arnold witnessed in the sky that day remains a mystery.
Despite Arnold's evolving description, the term "flying saucer" stuck. This choice of words from his initial interviews would go on to define and categorize unexplainable aerial sightings for decades to come. Around the globe, countless reports of unidentified flying phenomena would be labelled as "flying saucers," a term inadvertently popularized by Arnold's historic encounter.
Fate Magazine's Inception: Arnold's Groundbreaking UFO Article
In the spring of 1948, the very first issue of what would become a long-standing publication, Fate Magazine, graced the world. Even after almost seven decades, the magazine continues to intrigue and entertain readers with its unique blend of content. One of the most captivating features of that debut issue was an article penned by none other than Kenneth Arnold, titled "The Truth About The Flying Saucers." This insightful piece provided an in-depth exploration of Arnold's personal experiences and perspectives on the UFO phenomena.
Kenneth Arnold's Determination to Unravel the Mystery
On that day, a wishful Kenneth Arnold, aged 32, admitted:
I yearned for a telephoto-equipped movie camera at that moment. From this point forward, I won't leave home without one.
Arnold took it upon himself to communicate with the commanding general of Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, via cable. He had sent a detailed account days earlier, only to receive silence in response:
Your inability to provide an explanation for these aircrafts has left me disappointed, as I initially thought they were a part of our national arsenal. While they seem harmless thus far, if weaponized alongside our atomic bomb, they could possess the potential to annihilate life on Earth.
Stepping Back in Time: The Lewis County Historical Museum's UFO Exhibits
Stepping through the doors of the Lewis County Historical Museum is like stepping into another world - one where history comes to life and the mysteries of the skies take center stage. Recently, the museum has unveiled a series of intriguing new exhibits, all revolving around the captivating topic of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). The focal point of this fresh collection is an exhibit solely dedicated to the iconic pilot Kenneth Arnold, providing an in-depth exploration of his sightings in the skies over Lewis County back in 1947. But that's not all - other exhibits delve into broader UFO activity in Lewis County and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the "flying saucer" phenomena. To top it all off, the museum hosts a dynamic “flying saucer” drop event, bringing an exciting, interactive element to the displays. Truly, these exhibits are a testament to the continued fascination with the unexplained that has kept us looking to the stars.
The Chehalis Flying Saucer Party: A Unique Celebration of Arnold's Legacy
A cheerful, carnival-like atmosphere filled the air outside the Lewis County Historical Museum during the Chehalis Flying Saucer Party. Chanelle Schanz and her daughter Summer, both direct descendants of Kenneth Arnold, joined Museum Director Jason Mattson in embracing the spirit of the celebration. The party, thrown in honor of the 75th anniversary of Arnold's renowned sighting, saw the trio gleefully tossing mini Frisbees into an excited crowd. The flying discs were, of course, identifiable, contrary to the enigmatic saucers Arnold reported seeing in the skies above Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947. A photo by Owen Sexton captured the merriment and paid tribute to the event that has kept Arnold's memory alive in the realm of the unexplained.
The Birth of 'Flying Saucers': A Historical Encounter
On the morning of June 25, 1947, journalists Nolan Skiff and Bill Bequette found themselves in a historic conversation with Kenneth Arnold at the East Oregonian office in Pendleton. Based on his observations of the objects' flight path from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams, Arnold calculated their speed to be a staggering 1,692 miles per hour – an unfathomable figure in 1947, considering the existing world speed record was a mere 647 mph. Despite the incredulity of his calculations, Arnold felt compelled to downplay the speed to 1,200 mph. Intriguingly, he never referred to the objects as "saucers," but rather likened their fluid motion to that of a saucer skipping across water.
As Bequette set about writing the story, a transformative error occurred. The Associated Press picked up the story the following morning, disseminating it across 140 newspapers. During this process, the original description of Arnold's sighting underwent a change – the half-moon shaped objects somehow became round, and the headlines worldwide reverberated with the newly coined terms "flying disks" and "flying saucers." This seemingly innocuous miscommunication would forever imprint on the collective consciousness, birthing a phenomenon that continues to captivate and mystify to this day.
Eisenhower's Extraterrestrial Encounter
By the close of 1947, the United States was abuzz with talk of the unexplained, as nearly 1,000 domestic reports of unidentified flying objects flooded in. The escalating number of sightings soon proved too significant for the U.S. Air Force to dismiss.
Fast-forward to 1954, during a golfing getaway to Palm Springs, then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower paid an unexpected nighttime visit to a dentist at Edwards Air Force Base. The media, upon discovering the president's unconventional dental appointment, couldn't help but question the bizarre timing, sparking a wildfire of speculations.
Dwight Eisenhower, the esteemed military officer, statesman, and 34th President of the United States (1953 - 1961), suddenly found himself at the heart of a burgeoning conspiracy. The whirlwind of rumors suggested a far more outlandish narrative: that Eisenhower hadn't met with a dentist that night, but with extraterrestrial beings.
According to the fantastical tale, the "Nordics," a group of aliens masquerading in human form, had supposedly convened with Eisenhower. They were said to have struck a deal that allowed them to abduct humans for their otherworldly experiments, given that these individuals were returned unharmed. A few months after the alleged incident, a self-proclaimed mystic surfaced, asserting that he'd been present at the base that night and witnessed Eisenhower mingling with the aliens and their flying saucers.
In this extraordinary sequence of events, Eisenhower inadvertently ascended the ranks to become the first U.S. President rumored to have made contact with extraterrestrial beings.
Echoes of Arnold's Encounter: Eight UFOs Captured Above Tulsa, Oklahoma
A remarkable sighting mirrored Kenneth Arnold's account on July 12, 1947, when eight objects reminiscent of Arnold's description were photographed soaring over Tulsa, Oklahoma. This extraordinary event, documented in the Tulsa Daily World, served as tangible evidence, further invigorating public fascination and debate around the existence of unidentified flying objects. This was yet another instance in a wave of sightings that seemed to ripple out from Arnold's initial report, painting a sky filled with the unexplained and unknown.
Kenneth Arnold's 'The Coming of the Saucers' Book Unveils The Enigmatic
In Kenneth Arnold's riveting book, The Coming of the Saucers, he unveils the hair-raising exploration into the notorious Maury Island Incident. This incident was marked with a chilling end as two Air Force intelligence officers met their untimely demise post their flight past Mount Rainier - the same location where Arnold reported sighting the mysterious discs.
Adding to the eerie atmosphere, Arnold narrates how he found himself being tailed by ominous Men in Black, realizing his hotel room had been secretly surveilled, and even being exploited by Fred Lee Crisman, a CIA asset who later emerged as a suspect in the JFK assassination. This flurry of uncanny events culminated in Arnold narrowly escaping a potentially fatal plane crash!
Not one for the public eye, Arnold seldom lectured or appeared in public. His book, The Coming of the Saucers, is thus an invaluable first-hand account for all UFO enthusiasts and researchers. It doesn't just cover the inaugural two major UFO sightings in the U.S., but also unveils the genesis of the Men in Black lore.
Endorsements add further intrigue to this extraordinary tale, with Gray Barker, author of They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, dubbing it as a "sobering tale about what happens to those who know too much." John Keel, in Flying Saucer to the Center of Your Mind, acknowledges it as "the key to understanding all that has gone on in ufology, particularly the relationship between UFOs and the MIB." Lastly, Ray Palmer from Fate Magazine acclaims it as "an amazing array of factual evidence that still informs us today."
The Dawn of Alien Cinema: The Flying Saucer (1950)
Stepping into the annals of cinema history, The Flying Saucer (1950) holds the distinction of being the first-ever depiction of a 'flying saucer' in the medium of film. This low-budget independent movie pioneered the representation of extraterrestrial phenomena in popular culture, paving the way for countless subsequent movies in the sci-fi genre. Despite its limited resources, The Flying Saucer succeeded in sparking the public's imagination, drawing upon the mystery and fascination surrounding unidentified flying objects that had been growing since Kenneth Arnold's infamous sighting just a few years prior. This film marked the beginning of an era, where the concept of 'flying saucers' transcended the boundaries of eyewitness reports and newspaper articles to become a cornerstone of science fiction and cinema.