Thursday, July 5, 2018

UFOs on TV: The 1952 Washington, DC Saucer Flap

Life magazine played a pivotal role in UFO history, with their issue dated April 7, 1952, featuring the cover with the bold declaration, "There Is A Case For Interplanetary Saucers." H. B. Darrach Jr. and Robert Ginna's article, "Have We Visitors from Space?" made history, providing millions of readers with a non-threatening introduction to the hypothesis of an extraterrestrial origin for flying saucers. However it wasn't the magazine's final word on the topic.

Life magazine, April 7, 1952 and August 4, 1952 
After the July 19 and 26, 1952 radar events in Washington, DC, flying saucers were front page news again, and a matter of national security. Life magazine responded, both in print and on television.

Billboard Aug. 9, 1952
LIFE Brings UFOs to Television

We, the People, was a half-hour news magazine show. The description from the 1952 print ad run in national newspapers:
We, the People is produced by the editors of LIFE! see it every Friday evening on NBC-TV 
WHAT will you see on "We, the People" during the important weeks ahead? Each week, the television cameras of "We, the People" will present some important aspect of the political scene! 
WHY did Gulf invite the editors of LIFE to produce "We, the People'  months are bound to be important ones in the political history of the country and in order to bring to the people an interesting and dramatic presentation of all sides of the picture, we have invited the editors of LIFE magazine to produce 'We, the People,' and to bring to the program their great journalistic background and resources.

We the People focused most often focused on politics in Washington, and when the city was seemingly invaded by fling saucers, they aired a special episode on the topic. From UFOs: A History August 1952 by Loren E. Gross:
Since UFOs had appeared over the Nation's Capital two weekends in a row, some thought that perhaps the manifestations might happen a third time, so TV station WNBW, which originated the program "We the People," rented a big DC-3 airliner, filled it with 20 newsmen, and then had the plane circle over Washington between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. On the ground in the radar room of Washington National there were more newsmen and TV cameras. The "We the People" program opened in the radar room as a TV host looked into the camera lens and announced: "You may be the first television audience to see a flying saucer." Moreover, in the chartered DC-3 orbiting above a reporter told the video audience: "If during the next half hour there are any reports on these mysterious blips we're going to head straight for them --stand by!" What happened was told in newspaper headlines the next day...

The Flying Saucers

We, the People, August 1, 1952, "The Flying Saucers." Here's a partial transcript of the program, with photos and links to view some clips from it.

NARRATOR: Tonight, you may be the first television audience to see a flying saucer. This is the radar tower that sweeps the skies over Washington D.C. Three times within the last two weeks, this radar antenna has picked up strange, unidentified objects. They were seen on this screen by dozens of radar experts who are going to tell you of their experiences in a moment. Right there, that blip is a chartered plane carrying special equipment for this special telecast.

GEORGE SKINNER: ... over (Washington) National Airport in our nations capital. We've been circling over Washington for more than an hour, passing through the exact points in the sky where strange objects have been seen. As it grows darker, conditions are improving. If during the next half hour, there are any reports on these mysterious blips, we're going to head straight for them. Stand by!

Yes, tonight we'll tell you the story America has been talking about all week, the story of what seem some people call flying saucers and for the background on tonight report, here is Frank Blair in the editorial offices of Life magazine in New York. 

Tonight you may be the first television audience to see a flying saucer. This is the radar tower that sweep the skies over Washington, DC. Three times within the last two weeks, this radar antenna has picked up strange and identified objects. They were seen on the screen by dozens of radar expert were going to tell you of their experiences in a moment. Right there, that blip is a chartered plane caring a special equipment special telecast.

Frank Blair

FRANK BLAIR: For the past three months, the editors of Life have been bringing you a special political campaign and convention series on this We the People program. Each of our political programs dealt with men and events, politics and parties, personalities and rivalries. Tonight, we have left the political arena for the arena where men's minds in an imagination take over from established facts and provable theories. We're going to examine that unfathomable area of outer space for the lead story in the country today. Just this morning, jet fighters raced aloft over Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio to an intercept a reported saucer. Returning pilots swore it was a light that could not have been a reflection and that it evaded them at a very high rate of speed. However, you will hear an Air Force spokesman say that the phenomena in our skies can probably be explained and we will hear experts and observers who say that as yet they have not been explained.

We'll bring you the dramatic story of what happened over our nations capital just one week ago tonight and during the entire half hour, one of our reporters will be standing by in a plane over Washington, ready to describe any lights or unnatural phenomenon that may appear. We will give you the amazing story of the flying saucers after this word from Bill Rogers.


FRANK BLAIR: The story of the flying saucers begins at the Air Route Control Center of the CAA in Washington D.C.
David Brinkley
DAVID BRINKLEY: This is David Brinkley in the radar room at Washington National Airport. These men and women you see here are radar experts and technicians employed here by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. They work eight hour shifts in this room and they spend their time checking on everything that moves in the air over a 2,800 mile area. On these radar screens last Saturday, they saw something strange and unusual and at the moment unexplainable, it was not an airplane, it was not a cloud, nobody knows what it was. But all these people here stood enraptured and looked at it. Watching with them was Clay Blair Jr. who is LIFE Magazine's military correspondent. Come in, Clay, will you?
Clay Blair, Jr, Pentagon reporter for Life and Time


DAVID BRINKLEY: He was out here at the time. Clay, will you tell us what you were doing and what you saw?

CLAY BLAIR JR.: My job is to cover the Pentagon for Time and LIFE and I've being doing that for two years. Part of that job is to cover the airports and when CAA Andrews Air Force Base picked these blips up on the radar, I made a six­-day investigation of the story. I thought it was a pretty exciting story and I went to Andrews Air Force Base and talked to the radar operators, people in the tower, I talked to people in the tower here at National Airport and to Harry Barnes and his radar operators here. Then last Saturday, I went back to the office, filed my story, then went home. Before I left, I told Harry Barnes here in the CAA if he ever got any of these blips on the radar to call me again. As soon as I got home, phone rang, Harry said, he had blips all over the radar. So I got in my car and tore down to the airport. Sure enough, he had blips all over the radar and I stayed here for about six hours, tracking the blips with him and watching the Air Force jet interceptors come down and chase it, uh, so­-called blips, and then..­.

DAVID BRINKLEY: Well, I've got an explanation from this room somebody like the Air Force, did it have any?

CLAY BLAIR JR.: Well, I went back to the Pentagon after I left here, I got a couple hours sleep and I talked to the Secretaries of Defense and the high ranking Air Force officers and I must say that up until Tuesday, there was no clear explanation from the Air Force.

DAVID BRINKLEY: But the United States Air Force is responsible for keeping us protected and informed on things that happen in the air. So Major General John A. Samford, the Air Force's Chief of Intelligence last Tuesday had a news conference and this is what he had to say.

MAJOR GENERAL JOHN A. SAMFORD (recording): Of this great massive report, we have been able adequately to explain the great bulk of them, explain them to our own satisfaction. We've been able to explain them as hoaxes, as erroneously identified friendly aircraft, as meteorological or electronic phenomena or as light aberration. However, there've been a certain percentage of this volume of report that have been made by credible observers of relatively incredible things. It is this group of observation that we now are attempting to resolve. We have, as of date, come to only one firm conclusion with respect to this remaining percentage and that is that it does not contain any pattern of purpose, or of consistency that we can relate with any ­­ to any conceivable threat to the United States.

DAVID BRINKLEY: That was Major General Samford of the Air Force expressing the Air Force's attitude. Now, before the editors of LIFE present their viewpoint on this flying saucer thing, let's hear another report from the We the People plane, which is flying overhead now. Our camera is pointed skyward ready to pick you up at any time if any time you have any visual evidence of anything. So George Skinner , will you come in and tell us what you see and where you are? 

GEORGE SKINNER: All right, David . We're flying at 5,000 feet now. We're under radar control. And in our plane, we'd like to mention that there are representatives of IMS, AP, UP and the Washington Star. Our pilot Byron Mole and co­pilot Bob Berthold have been helping me keep a sharp lookout for anything that looks a bit suspicious in the sky. So far, we have seen nothing. The sun is setting, it's a beautiful sight up here, there is a slight haze and we feel that perhaps when it gets just a little bit darker, we would have a better opportunity of seeing anything if it should be up here. We'll be back for another report. Right now we turn you over into David Brinkley on the ground.

DAVID BRINKLEY: Thank you, George. We'll be standing by here in the radar room, ready to call you back in at any time. But in the meantime, let's go back to LIFE's editorial offices in New York.

FRANK BLAIR: Reports of strange flying objects in the sky are older than the United States. Some of them reported in scientific journals that date back to the 16th century, but they've usually been classed with Loch Ness Monsters and relegated to the Sunday supplements. Until World War II showed us that some of the most fantastic dreams can be very real, like atomic bombs, for instance. And since the close of the war, hundreds of reports of strange objects in the sky have been filed with the Air Force and most of them have been easily explained, experimental jet aircraft, weather balloons, reflected ground lights, unusual cloud formations, and so on. But here is a picture that was released just today by the United States Coast Guard. It shows four luminous objects in formation in the sky over Salem, Massachusetts and this picture was taken at 9:35 AM on July 16th by a Coast Guard photographer and it was released just today by the Coast Guard. Now here on this map, are pinpointed locations where some thirty saucers have been sighted and are still unexplained.

NARRATOR: Item, June 24th, 1947 between Chehalis and Yakima in the state of Washington, private pilot Kenneth Arnold sighted nine saucer­like things flying like geese in a chain-like line. He estimated the speed of the saucers at 1,200 miles per hour.

NARRATOR: Item, January 7th, 1948 over Fort Knox, Kentucky. Captain Thomas Mantell and two other Air Force fighter pilots chased a strange object like an ice cream cone with red on top to 20,000 feet. Captain Mantell kept going while the others turned back. Captain Mantell's plane was found the next day scattered over a half mile of farmland.


NARRATOR: Item, January 20th, 1951 Mid-Continent Airlines plane over Sioux City, Iowa. The pilot Captain Lawrence Vinther tells his own story.

CAPTAIN LAWRENCE VINTHER: This is Captain Vinther, Mid-Continent Airlines. When we took off, circled to the field, we followed this light in a much smaller circle than it was making. The most interesting and most astounding part of what we saw, and the thing came within approximately 200 feet of us, was when it came down across our nose and back behind us, at about a 160 degree angle, we wondered where the thing had gone. Time we could turn around, thing was - - reversed its direction and it was going to the same way we were and we know of nothing on the drawing boards, to say nothing of in the air, which can do that.


NARRATOR: And from the ground, the testimony of a technical writer of the Aerophysics Department of North American Aviation in Downey, California, Mr. Ed Sullivan.

ED SULIVAN (recording): Two other technical writers and myself were just before quitting time, this happened Advance up into the sky and we saw four objects sprayed in from the East like out of the mouth of a Roman candle. They swung off to the north making a clean right hand turn and our eyes, of course started following them. Then we were amazed to see more of them coming and more and more until finally a full 90 degree of the azimuth filled with the speeding lights, like stars of great magnitude.

Carl Hart Jr's version of the Lubbock Lights

NARRATOR: And down in Lubbock, Texas, reports of lights that street across the sky on a clear dark sky observed by Dr. W. I. Robinson, Professor of Geology and two fellow professors from Texas Technological College. On 12 separate occasions between August and November 1951, these gentlemen saw flights of luminous objects. On the night of August 30th, Carl Hart Jr., a student made photographs of the lights.

NARRATOR: And finally, just six months ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a man who makes his living taking pictures.

C. E. REDMAN: My name is C. E. Redman of 2108 East Gold, a commercial photographer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On the morning of February 18th of this year at 6:43 a.m., I was startled to see two bright objects in the sky over Tijeras Canyon, east of Albuquerque at an estimated distance of 20 miles and 4 miles high. They had a diameter of about a 136 feet, one was standing on edge, the other horizontal. They gave off a very brilliant blue white light, was soundless and definitely not vapor trails from aircraft. After watching them for about 4 minutes they just they appeared to start dropping down.

NARRATOR: And another Albuquerque Observer.
Redman and Morris from LIFE magazine.

W. S. MORRIS: I am W. S. Morris, 418 Dartmouth Drive, Southeast Albuquerque, New Mexico. February 18th, 1952, I saw two flying saucers over Tijeras Canyon at 6:45 a.m. they were not moving and had the appearance of a very bright blue white color. They were approximately 50 yards of above one of these Sandia Peaks, which is about 9,000 feet high and approximately 2 miles from where I was standing. They remained in a stationary position, one in a horizontal plane the other inclined at a 45 degree angle above and to the right. They disappeared instantly without a trace, I did not hear any sound during the time I'm sure of the objects. They had the appearance of a coffee cup turned upside down on a saucer.

NARRATOR: Allen Dumont, an Air Force photographer stationed in Illinois, states that he saw something like this.


ALLEN DUMAS: (Transcript ends) From a July 1952 newspaper article: "Allen C. Dumas, Culver City, Calif., claims to have made this photo of a saucer he saw a year ago. It looked like 'two straw hats stuck together' with a dome on the top and bottom."

The rest of the program is not transcribed, but the next segment discusses the possibility of flying saucers as "artificial devices created and operated by a high intelligence, and no power plant has been made or known on this earth that could account for the performance of these devices."

They check in with the George Skinner with the journalists on the plane, but he has no saucers to report. George Skinner plane clip

Dr. Walther Riedel

The far-out portion of the program was represented by a guest described in the 1964 book, The UFO Evidence
"A former German rocket scientist, Dr. Walther Riedel, headed the now defunct Civilian Saucer Investigation of Los Angeles, which attained national prominence in 1952 after being publicized in Life and Time. Dr. Riedel stated his opinion that UFOs were of Extraterrestrial origin."
On We, the People, asked about his view about flying saucers, Riedel said, “I’m firmly convinced that all these phenomenas are based on visits from outer space, from other planets, or from satellites of our solar system."

James Ritchey being interviewed by Clay Blair

James Ritchey of the CAA was on duty monitoring the radar a the airport during the events of the previous Saturday night. Ritchey was interviewed by David Brinkley and Clay Blair, who him to describe the experience.

JAMES RITCHIE: Well, on Saturday night so we were working here when all of a sudden we got about 12 pips appeared, kind of a shotgun effect, and they were moving from the northwest to the southeast. We tried them all the way across until they got down around Mount Vernon. We had an aircraft heading northbound, an  air carrier, that’s a commercial aircraft headed northbound. We asked, we gave the pilot traffic, told him he had traffic, and he took a look. He said he had a light there, said he couldn’t see anything else. He said it didn’t look like an airplane because it was a steady white light. We vectored him over - and he was in close proximity to another one of the pips on our screen, so he said he’d like to see another one, did we have any more of them. So we vectored him on over to Andrews Field where he saw....

DAVID BRINKLEY: (pointing to the radar screen) Did it look like one of these, one of these spots here?

JAMES RITCHEY:  It was, a little bit weaker than they are, slightly smaller, however it traveled along as these are. These pips appeared to be going about 40 miles an hour.

(Interruption to discuss basics of radar equipment.)

This air carrier was vectored on over to Andrews. He saw another. We asked him to describe it, he said he couldn't describe it, it was just a small white light. Shortly after that we had another aircraft coming down from the northwest, and we vectored it, and he saw one, and we asked him what he saw when he got close to his traffic. He said he saw a yellow and red and yellow light.

James Ritchey, in the hot seat on temperature inversions.
Clay Blair asks about General Samford and the Pentagon's explanation that the radar returns were caused by temperature inversions. Ritchey seems a bit uncomfortable in his reply, seeming caught between the brass and his own experience:

JAMES RITCHEY: I haven’t talked to General Samford, I’m sure he knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. However, I can't think that that explains the lights that we see tearing across the sky that these pilots have reported, the pilots seeing lights. However, that no doubt, can be explained by some sort of weather phenomenon, too. I’m sure the Air Force is going to try to do it, they're going to try to point things out and make everybody satisfied that that's what they're seeing, it’s something caused by weather inversion.

Thank you and goodnight. (Just a guess)
The program ended with some closing words from Frank Blair from the offices of Life magazine. Sadly, the stunt that opened the program failed to produce. No flying saucer - or even a radar blip - was spotted during the show. The news coverage centered solely on the negative results.

Gettysburg Times - Aug 2, 1952

NBC Saucer Hunt For TV Program Proves Fruitless
Blytheville, Arkansas Courier Aug. 2, 1952
WASHINGTON -- A bunch of news reporters went hunting flying saucers last night.
They zoomed and banked over the capital city for more than an hour to a chartered airliner, looking for anything strange in the sky.
And not a thing suspicious did they see.
It was the National Broadcasting Company's idea. Someone there had a hunch a saucer other two might show up, just in time to be televised on last night's "We the People" program.
After all, airport radar had picked up strange unidentified objects over Washington three nights within the past two weeks.
So the broadcasters hired a plane, invited newspapermen and photographers to come along, and assigned announcer George Skinner to radio back reports.
And to the persons at the program's opening in the radar control center at Washington national Airport, they announced hopefully that "you may be the first television audience to see a flying saucer."
They did not.
Sunday Herald, Aug. 3, 1952

Thirty minutes in the air on live television was an ambitious attempt, but insufficient to document a phenomenon that seems so elusive. Nevertheless, the half-hour program packed in a lot and was an outstanding presentation of the events, witness testimony, and the conflicting positions and beliefs of those studying the topic.
. . .

Further Resources

The story of a photo falsely associated with a real UFO case:
Photo Fakery: Washington, DC Flying Saucers 1952

Project 1947: July 1952 - Washington, D.C., Area Radar-Visual Sightings and Related Events.

"Radar Employee Tells of 12 Objects Seen on Radarscope" by James M. Ritchey
Chester, Pennsylvania Times - July 29, 1952: Saturday Night Uforia 

James Ritchey radio interview from Aug. 3, 1952 (approx. 3 minutes):
UFOLOGY: A Primer In Audio 1939 -1959 "Faded Discs" by Wendy Connors

Major General John A. Samford of the Air Force on Flying Saucers from 1952:
General John A. Samford's 1952 UFO Disclosure

NICAP: The Washington National Sightings reports and documents, including to Project Blue Book case files:


  1. JUNE ‘51 - ILLINOIS - ALLEN DUMAS/Dumont? Sure looks like Robert Kirk's photo from 1950 to me.
    True Magazine July 1950, p. 44
    Flying Saucers on the Attack plates facing page 166
    Coming of the Saucers p. 175

    1. The show spelled his name wrong, it was Allan C. Dumas. Maybe they used the wrong picture. Here's a clipping with a photo of his saucer:


The Professor's Message from Space

In 1952, UFO reports seemed to indicate an impending invasion by monstrous aliens: June 1952: News of Oskar Linke’s 1950 sighting of a lande...