Flying Saucer Origins: Debunking Debunkery

NASA's Flying Saucer

Last week's planned testing of NASA's flying saucer lookalike, the 'Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator' (LDSD, pictured above), has inspired a few news stories discussing the iconic nature of the alien saucer image (see for example the BBC's "The Lasting Allure of the Flying Saucer"). On Sunday The Atlantic joined in with "The Man Who Introduced the World to Flying Saucers", a look back at the seminal Kenneth Arnold sighting in 1947 and the idea that the flying saucer mythos has its origins in a misquote:

On June 25, Arnold ended up at the offices of the East Oregonian, a Pendleton newspaper. He told reporters about his sighting. He emphasized the “unidentified” as much as the “flying objects.” He described their movements, saying that they flew “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.”

...Arnold himself, however, would say that he was misquoted — or, at least, taken out of context. Some argue that the entire idea of a flying saucer was based on a reporter's misunderstanding of Arnold's "like a saucer" description as describing a saucer itself—making it "one of the most significant reporter misquotes in history." A 1970 study reviewing U.S. newspaper accounts of the Arnold UFO sighting concluded that the term had been introduced by an editor or headline writer, since the bodies of the early Arnold news stories didn't mention "flying saucers" or "flying discs."

...Was it a "historical misquote," or the second thoughts of reluctant source? (Just after the sighting, on June 27, Arnold would tell reporters that "I haven't had a moment of peace since I first told the story.") More than a half century later, it's even more difficult than it was back then to determine the lines between phantom and fact. The first draft of history can be a rough one.

What is clear, in retrospect, is that, starting on June 26, the flying saucer—as an idea, if not an object—was introduced to Americans. Newspapers began using the terms "flying saucer" and "flying disk" (occasionally: "flying disc") to describe the objects Arnold had seen. And the concept spread; once the idea had been planted in people’s minds, they, too, began seeing saucers.

Readers of our Fortean anthology series Darklore would know that this 'debunking' of the Arnold flying saucer story is itself a bit of a myth. In "Return of the Flying Saucers" (in Volume 5 of Darklore, also available as a free PDF download on the DL site), Martin Shough examines the history of the sighting in detail and comes to the conclusion that Arnold probably did see (or at least, thought he saw) something disk-shaped - though not perfectly circular - on that day:

Arnold himself used both “saucer like objects” and “saucer-like discs” as shape-similes in his own original Air Force report typed by his own hand on or about July 08 1947. Once again, just as important as the fact that Arnold uses these phrases is the conspicuous fact that he does not use these terms in the context of any motion simile.

The Oregon Journal, June 27, said that Arnold “clung stoutly to his story that he saw nine shiny crescent-shaped planes”, but these words are not in quotes from Arnold, they are the writer’s. Where Arnold is actually quoted in the same article he says, “They were
half-moon shaped, oval in front and convex on the rear. I was in a beautiful position to watch them...they looked like a big flat disk [emphases added].” This describes the sort of shape Arnold drew for the Army Air Force, a flat plate with a trimmed off or tapered rear edge, and the “half-moon” clearly plays the same role here as the
“half pie-pan” in the description used by Arnold elsewhere: “half a pie-pan with a convex triangle in the rear”. The shape in Arnold’s drawing suggests that he may have had in mind a gibbous moon, i.e. between half and full; howsoever the reporter has interpreted “half ” to mean “crescent” (in some people’s imaginations “moon” and “crescent” might be almost synonymous) and neglected the rest of the description.

Kenneth Arnold Saucer Drawing

Shough argues that the morphing of Arnold's memory of the objects into 'boomerang-shaped' may have had its origin in a meeting with military officials a month after his sighting:

On July 31 1947 Army CIC officers Brown and Davidson exposed Arnold to what they called a “flying wing” photographed by William Rhodes in Phoenix, intimating that it was “genuine”. Arnold’s reaction is consistent with a tendency to seek the endorsement of conservative military authorities.

It's certainly a story that can be interpreted in various ways, but Martin's essay in Darklore 5 I think is one of the most authoritative histories available.

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