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UFO/Alien spacecraft emerging from clouds

Flying Saucer Origins

I’ve previously mentioned the research of Martin Shough, who sets the benchmark when it comes to investigation of UFOs/UAPs – just recently, he’s written detailed, expert reports on the 2007 Channel Islands sighting and also the 1954 BOAC Labrador sighting. You can now add to that list what will probably be known as the authoritative report of the UFO case that is said to have started it all: the Kenneth Arnold sighting of 1947. In a 147-page essay/book titled “The Singular Adventure of Mr Kenneth Arnold” (PDF download), Martin sorts through and analyses the data, the commentaries, and the criticism of this case attempting to present the facts in clear light. Here’s part of the introduction, in which he sets out the reasons why this case – some 63 years old – is worth revisiting:

In one sense it would be true to say that this seminal sighting of nine “peculiar looking aircraft” over the Cascade Mountains of Washington on June 24 1947 needs little introduction. As a result of it pilot and businessman Kenneth Arnold acquired a fame and notoriety far beyond anything he could ever have envisaged when he took off from Chehalis, Washington, and set a course for Yakima in his little CallAir plane that sunny afternoon. News of what the press dubbed “flying saucers” instantly captured the imagination of the world, and reports of things seen in the sky have ever since continued to fuel one of the 20th century’s – and now the 21st’s – most widespread, most persistent and most influential popular mythologies.

Yet that mythology has effloresced into many extraordinary forms, most of which the Kenneth Arnold of 1947 would hardly have recognised as having anything to do with his own puzzling but straighforward observation. And it is necessary to record that despite more than 60 years of sometimes scholarly debate about this hydra-headed mythological monster, its origins remain not well-understood, its meanings controversial, its ultimate cultural value uncertain. Simply by being the first, Arnold’s experience enjoys a unique position of pre-eminence in both the history and the semiotics of saucerdom, ensuring that his narrative has been retold and repackaged innumerable times. Tracing the progress of that one narrative in its transactions with the co-evolving meta-narrative of our times becomes a social history in itself, one which few historians have tried conscientiously to unravel. Instead, Arnold’s narrative or some version of it has all too often been exploited, to the detriment of history and objectivity, as a mere didactic fable enlisted to serve conflicting ideological agendas.

A survey of the literature reveals a good deal of inaccuracy and even misrepresentation. Such is to be expected in parts of the enthusiast literature. But all too often it comes from otherwise well-informed and sensible critics from whom one expects better. Perhaps in some cases this reflects the significance of the Arnold sighting as a laboratory for testing our theories about the psychosocial roots of the UFO myth – the issues are exposed with unique clarity, and the stakes are that much higher, the temptation to find confirmation of our prejudices that much greater.

Of course most of science and society today remains aloof from the question. Keeping a cautious distance is understandable – a too-impressionable intimacy with the facts has undoubtedly left many enthusiasts in thrall to the myth itself. In-depth studies with no agenda do exist, but they are few and much published material is undeniably discouraging. The unhelpful result is that our opinion formers by and large keep so prudent a distance from the myth that they cannot clearly make out the nuclear facts at all, leaving the rest of us relying with scant confidence on popular rumour.

So there is still a need for a rigorous re-examination of what Arnold said he saw, as well as a mature understanding of the ways in which his story reflected, and was reflected by, the contemporary culture.

Martin’s report has detailed calculation of flight speeds, trajectories, altitude and so-on, and these sections make for the heaviest reading – but these are necessary, and are complemented by some fascinating analysis of other aspects of the case. He also takes on some of the alternative explanations for the objects, such as a flock of pelicans, or an experimental aircraft (often said to be a Horten Flying Wing or Flapjack). And in an appendix Martin confronts one of the most often-mentioned disputes of the sighting: that in his original reporting Arnold said that they ‘skipped like saucers’, rather than they were ‘shaped like saucers’ (which thus implies the last 60 years of ‘saucer’ sightings were influenced by a mistaken claim). His conclusion? “It appears that Arnold really did originally report what could be fairly described as distorted saucers, which he himself described as “saucer-shaped”, “saucer like” and “big flat discs”.

I can’t do the report justice in this short space. If the UFO topic is of interest to you, this is a must read given the primary place this sighting occupies in the history. Kudos to Martin Shough for another brilliant job.

Previously on TDG:

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