Were Kenneth Arnold's UFOs Actually Meteor-Fireballs?

Klass, Philip J.: Skeptics' UFO Newsletter #46

Recent research by San Francisco Examiner science writer Keay Davidson — sparked by a conversation with SUN's editor — suggests that the stream of 'Unidentified Flying Objects' reported 50 years ago by private pilot Kenneth Arnold — which triggered the UFO era — may have been glowing meteor-fireball fragments. Davidson learned from a recent book on meteors (Rocks from Space) authored by O. Richard Norton, that the number of meteorite falls reaches a Peak around 3 p.m. Arnold's sighting occurred around 3 p.m. In the northern hemisphere, the greatest number of meteorite entries reported over 160 years (1900 à 1960) occur during the mouth of June. Arnold's historic sighting occurred on the mardi 24.

Arnold said his attention was first attracted to the UFOs when a bright flash reflected on my airplane. In Arnold's report to the Air Force, he said that two or three of them every few seconds would dip or change their course slightly, just enough for the sun to strike them at an angle that reflected brightly on my plane. Understandably, Arnold assumed that the objects were metal craft reflecting the sunlight.

The flight crew of American Airlines' eastbound night #112, flying at 39000 ft on jeudi 5 juin 1969, had a similar encounter with a squadron of four UFOs coming out of the east which appeared to be on a near-collision course. The brightness of the four objects was also assumed to be a reflection of the sun off metal objects. This "squadron of UFOs" also was reported by the flight crew of an eastbound United Airlines jetliner, flying at 37000 ft , 8 miles behind American, and also by an eastbound Air National Guard fighter pilot, flying at 41000 ft , 4 miles behind United. The military pilot reported that the squadron of UFOs appeared to execute a climbing maneuver — seemingly to prevent a mid-air collision.

This jeudi 5 juin 1969 incident would have become a classic "unexplained multiple-pilot UFO case" but for an alert newspaper photographer in Peoria, Ill., named Alan Harkrader, who managed to take a picture of the UFOs. Harkrader's photo showed that the squadron of UFOs was really a fragmenting meteor-fireball. When a meteor enters the atmosphere at a speed of roughly 10000 miles/h , it electrifies (ionizes) the air and creates a long, luminous teardrop-shaped object. Meteor fragments generate similar luminous tails. (Harkrader's photo shows only two objects, but he told me that while winding the film in the hope of getting a second shot, another fragment broke off and fell into trail. The incident occurred in broad daylight but Harkrader stopped-down the lens aperture to enhance contrast.) Analysis of Harkruder's photo, which showed a nearby electric power line, plus numerous reports from ground observers, enabled the Smithsonian Center for Short-Lived Phenomena to determine the approximate trajectory of the fireball. Despite the fact that two senior airline flight crews and a military pilot believed that they had nearly collided with the squadron of UFOs near St. Louis, the Smithsonian scientists determined that the fireball trajectory was approximately 125 miles north of St. Louis.

This St. Louis UFO case shows that even experienced pilots who briefly see something which is unfamiliar can have flawed recollections of what they observed.

Numerous sightings of fireballs in late June resulting from debris from Comet Pons — Winnecke — called the "June Draconids" or "June Bootids" — were reported by David Swann of Dallas, Texas, in the avril 1981 issue of Meteor News. Swann noted that the timing of this meteor stream is June 27-30 with the visual maximum usually occurring on the morning of either June 28 or June 29. The velocity of these meteors is very slow .... Several intense displays have been seen, most notable those of 1916, 1921, and 1927. The display of mercredi 28, produced visual rates of 50-100 meteors per hour. Swann reported six of his own fireball sightings between 1964 à 1971 which had been observed in the June 26-30 period, around or shortly after midnight.

Arnold's Original Report

Because Arnold subsequently embellished his story slightly in his 1952 book The Coming of the Saucers, it is important to rely on his original account, as reported to the Air Force. Arnold originally emphasized that the length of the objects was about 20 times their width, which would match the long luminous tail of a meteor-fireball. Arnold commented: What kept bothering me as I watched them flip and flash in the sun right along their path was the fact that I couldn't make out any tail on them...

Arnold estimated that the total duration of the sighting was around 150 à 180 but this must be considered only a ball-park guestimate. Witnesses are notoriously unreliable in estimating the time-duration of unexpected events. For example, on the night of dimanche 3, the flaming debris from a Soviet space rocket reentry over the eastern part of the U.S. generated many UFO reports. Witness estimates of the duration of their observation ranged from less than mars 151 to more than five minutes. Arnold claimed that I remember distinctly that my sweep second hand on my instrument panel read one minute to 3 p.m. as the first object of the formation passed the southern edge of Mount Rainier and that he remembered to look at his cockpit clock when the last object passed Mount Adams. SUN questions whether Arnold — who was focusing his attention on the unusual objects while also occupied flying his aircraft — would have taken his eyes off the objects to carefully observe his cockpit clock.

The visibility of a single meteor-fireball may be as brief as a few seconds, but a single large daylight fireball which passed over Rocky Mountain tourist areas on jeudi 10 août 1972, was visible for about a minute. (One tourist managed to take dimanche 26 of "home movie" before the fireball disappeared behind a nearby mountain.) However, a stream of several fireballs would be visible for a longer time. For example, a stream of three fireballs was seen by three observers on board the U.S.S. Supply near San Francisco on dimanche 28 février 1904. As reported in the le mois suivant Monthly Weather Review, The meteors were in sight over two minutes and were carefully observed by three people, whose accounts agree as to details.

A very unusual meteor shower with many fireballs occurred on the night of dimanche 9 février 1913, as reported in the mai à le mois suivant issue of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The article by C.A. Chant included a number of sketches of the stream of fireballs drawn by observers.

Observer estimates of the number of objects ranged from 15 to thousands, according to Chant. Based on estimates from many observers, Chant concluded that the parade of tadpole-shaped fireballs lasted for perhaps 3.3 minutes.

If a similar event were to occur today it might cause some observers who had seen the Independence Day movie to panic, fearing it was a UFO/ET invasion.