Flight of Fantasy

Easton, James, August 2000

For over 50 years, the ‘flying saucer’ has been a pervasive and powerful icon, inspiring dreams and hopes as well as countless books and movies. James Easton re-examines the 1947 sighting that gave us that descriptive phrase and comes to a conclusion that will send shockwaves through the UFO community.

The modern UFO era is widely believed to have begun on Tuesday, June 24, 1947, when American private pilot Kenneth Arnold encountered nine, unidentified flying objects over the Cascade mountain range in Washington state. Arnold was a former football star from North Dakota who now sold, installed and maintained fire control equipment. He travelled extensively and flew a Call-Air light aircraft that had been especially designed for "high mountain country".

On that fateful day, he was flying to Pendleton, Oregon, via a stop at Yakima, Washington, after completing some work at Chehalis Air Service, Washington. His route took him close to a region where a missing Marine transport C-46 aircraft was believed to have crashed, south-west of Mt. Rainier in the Cascades. There was a five thousand dollar reward to anyone who located it, so Arnold had allowed an hour scouting for any wreckage. It was during this search that he observed nine objects in a "screwy" formation.

At first, Arnold thought they were geese. Then, as their airspeed seemed much too fast, he next assumed they must be military aircraft; however, he was puzzled why he couldn’t see any tails on them.

The objects seemed to be heading in the direction of Mt. Adams. As the speed capabilities of military jets were a hot topic of debate amongst pilots at that time, Arnold decided he would try to ‘clock’ their airspeed. Using both mountains as markers, he timed the passage at one minute and forty-two seconds, which he thought was "pretty fast".


"Arnold described how those nine objects in formation resembled "the tail of a Chinese kite" blowing in the wind, or "speed boats on rough water". Using an unusual simile, he added: "they flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water". In the media frenzy that followed, this phrase, intended to describe their motion, was misconstrued to be a description of how the objects looked. So ‘flying saucers’ were born and the true facts swept aside in the ensuing hysteria.

From these newspaper reports - before the ‘flying saucer’ mythology got a firm grip on popular imagination - we can locate Kenneth Arnold’s earliest expressions. He described the objects as "flat like a pie pan and somewhat bat-shaped", according to Pendleton, Oregon, East Oregonian of June 26. They were "crescent-shaped planes", stated the Oregon Journal on June 27, reporting Arnold as saying: "They looked like they were rocking. I looked for the tails but suddenly realized they didn’t have any. They were half-moon shaped, oval in front and convex in the rear".

Photograph of Kenneth Arnold with a drawing of crescent-shaped craft

Arnold displays a sketch of the objects he believed had been observed [click on the photograph to see an enlargement]. This is notably different from the profile which accompanied his 'official' report to the Air Force.

It’s clear that Arnold is not describing ‘flying saucer’ UFOs as we have come to picture them. In a formative radio interview for KWRC on 26 June, he confirms these odd details: "I couldn’t find any tails on ‘em. And, uh, the whole, our observation of these particular ships, didn’t last more than about two and a half minutes and I could see them only plainly when they seemed to tip their wing, or whatever it was, and the sun flashed on them. They looked something like a pie plate that was cut in half with a sort of a convex triangle in the rear".

It is interesting to note how even at this early stage, Arnold refers to the objects as 'ships'. Was he already thinking that these objects were not from Earth?...