During June and July of 1947 there was a wave of UFO incidents, many of which made national news and have become the sources of persistent popular beliefs regarding UFOs, flying saucers, and Little Green Men. As a final project in my astrophysics class at New Haven School this summer, I asked my students to choose from various famous incidents and write up an analysis of what was reported and what they think actually did happen, if anything. Of the over 60 reported sightings during those two months, four stand out as the most significant. This post explores those four.
Chronologically, the first incident occurred near Roswell, New Mexico when William “Mac” Brazel found some debris on his ranch in early June 1947. It appeared to be some sort of metallic plastic with a frame of metal rods which had apparently blown or fallen onto his property. To prevent his cattle from getting tangled up in it, he gathered it all up and stuffed it under some brush to get it out of the way, not thinking much about it. A few weeks later, when the entire UFO craze hit the papers, he decided the debris must be a crashed flying saucer and the whole Roswell incident became the stuff of legends. But more on this later. First, we have to travel to Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state.
The Maury Island Incident and Kenneth Arnold sightings
On June 21, 1947, Fred Crisman and Harold Dahl made a claim that the two saw unidentified flying objects in the sky over Maury Island, and soon after received threats from the Men in Black. In popular UFO conspiracy theories, Men in Black are described to be men dressed in black suits, who supposedly are government agents. These “agents” harass, threaten or assassinate UFO witnesses to keep them quiet. After his supposed sighting in 1947, Harold Dahl claimed to have been approached by a man in a dark suit and was warned not to talk about his alleged UFO sighting on Maury Island.
Three days after Crisman and Dahl made the Maury Island claim, private pilot Kenneth Arnold allegedly saw a string of nine UFOs flying past Mount Rainier at an estimated speed of 1,200 miles per hour. When asked to describe what he saw, Arnold reported that the objects looked like tea saucers flying past the mountain. The term “flying saucers” therefore made it into the newspapers. Arnold’s report led to nationwide news coverage and caught the attention of editor Raymond A. Palmer. Palmer quickly contacted Arnold and passed on the story of two harbor patrolmen, Crisman and Dahl, who supposedly had pieces of these flying objects. Palmer suggested that Arnold fly to Tacoma to investigate and on July 28 the investigation began.
When arriving in Washington, Arnold first interviewed Harold Dahl. During the interview Dahl said, “On June 21, 1947 in the afternoon about two o’clock, I was patrolling the east bay of Maury Island […] I, as captain, was steering my patrol boat close to the shore of a bay on Maury Island. On board were two crewmen, my fifteen-year-old son and his dog. As I looked up from the wheel of my boat I noticed six very large doughnut-shaped aircraft.” Dahl continued to claim that one of the flying objects began emitting what seemed like “thousands of newspapers” from the center of the object. These “newspapers” ended up being a light weight white metal that fell to Earth. A substance resembling lava rocks fell onto the ship and ended up breaking a crewman’s arm and killing their dog. Dahl said he brought in Fred Crisman to investigate, who reported that he was able to recover debris from Maury Island. Both Crisman and Dahl continued to claim their sightings were concrete as the investigation continued.
When reading this article, I was skeptical. It turns out that I was not the only one and there were others who felt the same. As the investigation furthered, evidence began to appear that contradicted the two men’s claims. Crisman later showed this “white metal” to Arnold and it was concluded that it was inconsistent with Dahl’s story. Lt. Frank Brown of Military Intelligence was brought into the investigation along with Captain William L. Davidson. Davidson and Brown held interviews and collected fragments.
Eventually the officers planned to return to California and not further the investigation. On their way back, their B-25 Bomber crashed outside of Kelso, Washington and the two died. The FBI then took over the case and continued the investigation. The FBI was able to quickly come to the conclusion that the Maury Island UFO Incident was a hoax. They noted that during Dahl’s interview he said that “if questioned by the authorities he was going to say it was a hoax because he did not want any further trouble over the matter.” Crisman and Dahl were also found to have shared different stories to different newspapers and media outlets. It was concluded that they had shared their stories with many publications with the hope of building their story and earning a profit. The “Tacoma Harbor Patrol,” the organization both Dahl and Crisman allegedly worked for, was revealed to be a for-profit business who charged owners of vacation homes in exchange for the security of their home while they were gone. The two men just wanted money any way they could get it.
The case was then closed, having been proven that it was a fake story. Written later in 1956, Air Force officer Edward J. Ruppelt stated “the whole Maury Island Mystery was a hoax. The first, possibly the second-best, and the dirtiest hoax in the UFO history.” The conclusion of this case had many opinions. The majority of people who believed in the UFO story felt it was true because the government never prosecuted or exposed the two hoaxers. It was later stated that the reason for the thorough investigation was that the government had full intent to prosecute them for the death of Lt. Brown and Capt. Davidson. After talking to Dahl and Crimson, they decided that the hoax had no ill intent and the death of Davidson and Brown could not be placed on the hoaxers. The story ultimately brought popularity to the Men in Black theory, and the concept of flying saucers, just as Dahl and Crisman had hoped for. In the end, the scientific evidence discovered provides enough to agree with the FBI’s claim, the Maury Island Incident was a hoax.
Flight 105 Sighting
Throughout human history, there have been countless reported sightings of extra-terrestrial interactions. Perhaps the most famous of these are the identifications of these alien’s modes of transportation; they are known as “Unidentified Flying Objects,” or, more simply, “UFOs.” UFO sightings are often the butt of jokes made at the expense of hillbillies, hicks, and red necks. But what happens when the witnesses of an extraordinary occurrences are reported by educated members of society? The Flight 105 incident gives us some insight.
On July 4th, 1947, United Airlines Flight 105 departed Boise, Idaho at 9:04 PM. After eight minutes, Co-pilot Stevens turned on the aircraft’s landing lights. He did this because he saw two groups of objects ahead of the plane, and thought that they were other planes. Upon further investigation, Stevens and Captain Emil J. Smith realized that the objects had neither fins nor wings. They called a flight attendant into the cockpit to get a third opinion and witness. After attempting to receive ground-confirmation from Ontario, Oregon, they watched the objects for a few more minutes before they spurted “ahead and disappear(ed) at high speed off to the west (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968).”
When considering the reliability of a report of something scientifically disputable, there are many factors to consider. For instance, the reputability of the witnesses, the conditions in which the incident was reported, outside influences on perceptions, and more. We can consider these closely. To provide some context on potential outside influences, we look to the sensational reported sighting by private pilot Kenneth Arnold, not a week before. This certainly creates potential for susceptibility to influenced conclusions on the part of the Flight 105 witnesses. However, when being interviewed by James E. McDonald, (Senior Physicist, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and professor, Department of Meteorology, The University of Arizona), “Smith emphasized that he had not taken seriously the previous week’s news accounts… But, after seeing this total of nine unconventional, high-speed wingless craft on the evening of 7/4/47, he became much more interested in the matter. Nevertheless… he stressed that he would not speculate on their real nature or origin (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968).”
An additional factor to consider is the reputability of the witnesses themself. Had the witnesses been known for eccentric and sometimes fanciful beliefs, it would be easy to pass off the report as nothing more than a fantastic feat of imagination. However, Emil J. Smith’s “complete reputability” was vouched for firmly by interviewed United Airlines employees who had known Smith for years (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968). A final factor worth considering is the environment in which the sighting was reported. Natural weather phenomena such as Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, have been cited in past as explanations for “UFOs.” In this specific instance, though, the witnesses reported “no cloud phenomena to confuse them (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968),” and that the weather was completely clear.
The Flight 105 incident is, “by no means the most impressive UFO sighting by an airliner crew, nevertheless, it is a significant one. It occurred in clear weather, spanned a total time estimated at 10-12 minutes, was a multiple-witness case including two experienced observers familiar with airborne devices, and was made over a 1000-ft altitude range (climb-out) that, taken together with the fact that the nine objects were seen well above the horizon, entirely rules out optical phenomena as a ready explanation. It is officially listed as Unidentified (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968).”
The Roswell Incident
The Roswell Incident occurred near Roswell, in southeastern New Mexico, in 1947.
Unlike many UFO sightings, the Roswell incident had no witnesses of the object in the sky. In 1947 a rancher named William “Mac” Brazel found debris in one of his pastures. The debris included, “metallic rods, chunks of plastic and unusual, papery scraps” (Waldek, 2017, para. 6). He believed that the remains were related to the stories of flying discs and flying saucers that had been published previously before the discovery. He reported what occurred to Sheriff George Wilcox of Roswell, which was then brought to the attention of Colonel William Blanchard, the commanding officer of the Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF). The day after, the RAAF released a statement hinting at the wreckage being part of a flying disc. However, when the Roswell Daily Record attempted to write a story about the RAAF’s claim, the RAAF retracted their previous statement, stating that it was actually the remains of a weather balloon. In 1994, the U.S Air Force admitted via a report that the weather balloon story was fake. Their explanation was that the scraps were actually from a classified project named Project Mogul, which was testing a new spy device. Their reasoning for lying was to ensure that no details of the project would be leaked, thus ruining the classified nature of the project.
Despite the evidence, many people formed their own opinions about what happened.
Conspiracy theorists worked hard to prove that the wreckage Brazel discovered was the result of an extraterrestrial. Ray Santilli, a conspiracy theorist with the belief that the wreckage was extraterrestrial, released a video in 1995 of a supposed “alien dissection” that occurred after the incident. Later, in 2006, Santilli confessed that the video was staged, however, he continued to claim that it was based on real footage. In addition, another theory was argued by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore. According to Britannica, “They argued that the original debris, which they believed was from a crashed flying saucer, had been flown to Wright Field (later Wright- Patterson Air Force Base) near Dayton, Ohio, and material from a weather balloon was ‘hastily substituted’” ( In order to spread their argument in 1980 they published The
Roswell Incident, a book supporting their beliefs about the incident. Furthermore, some conspiracists forged a document by the name of Majestic 12 (MJ-12), a document supposedly authorized by Harry S Truman that explains, “… how the crash of an alien spacecraft at Roswell in July 1947 had been concealed, how the recovered alien technology could be exploited, and how the United States should engage with extraterrestrial life in the future” (Wikipedia, 2022). Afterwards, the documents were determined to be fake due to the lack of evidence to support the existence of the MJ-12.
As a result of all the widespread news coverage of the Roswell incident, other media sources used this opportunity to produce more content. The articles that were released were by, but are not limited to, The Roswell Morning Dispatch, The Roswell Daily Impact, and more. In addition, numerous books were published, such as, The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen, The Roswell Legacy by Marcel Jr., The Roswell UFO Crash: What They Don’t Want You to Know by Kal K. Korff, and many more. Furthermore, movies and films used the Roswell incident as inspiration or as the main plot. Some popular examples being: Independence Day, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Roswell: The Aliens Attack, etc.
Because of the widespread news coverage that this incident had, it sparked interest among the public,. For instance, Roswell became known as a major hotspot for UFOs and aliens. According to Britannica, “In 1992 the International UFO Museum and Research Center opened in Roswell, and since 1996 Roswell has been the site of an annual UFO festival” (Brittanica, 2022). Due to the Roswell Incident, it stimulated and became a significant part of the city’s economy.
Most of the rash of UFO sightings during these two months in 1947 can be attributed to weather phenomena, copy-cat accounts, or general hysteria. The Roswell incident is explained as a radar experiment undertaken by the local air force base, with the supposed Little Green Men as plastic dummies suspended from a weather balloon to see if they would create a radar return. The Maury Island incident is most likely a hoax made up by the two men. No samples of the mysterious metal have ever come to light.
The Kenneth Arnold sighting had no other witnesses; despite the credibility of Mr. Arnold, one person can be easily fooled by a trick of the light or a sun dog or lenticular cloud. But Flight 105 is harder to explain away. Here we have three credible witnesses all agreeing on the details of what they saw.
As with any extraordinary claim, extraordinary proof is required and none is available other than the statements of the witnesses. It is hard to say what they saw; their flight path from Boise to Oregon isn’t near any air force bases where experimental aircraft might have been tested. They were all trained airline personnel, and the angle of their ascent out of Boise makes weather phenomena unlikely.
These four incidents shaped the future of UFOlogy, or the study of UFOs. They provided much of the mythology that has grown up around such incidents, including the Men in Black, flying saucers, and Little Green Men.