In summer 1952 – five years after the Roswell Incident, one of the strangest and mysterious UFO sighting events occurred, where a series of unidentified flying objects reportedly swarmed over Washington D.C. for two consecutive weekends. The incident later became known as the ‘Washington Invasion or ‘Washington Flap’.
July 19-20, 1952
On July 19, at around 11:40 p.m, an air traffic controller at Washington National Airport, Edward Nugent, spotted seven unidentified objects on his radar, located 15 miles southwest of Washington D.C. where no known aircraft was in the area. None of the objects, according to Nugent, was following any established flying path.
Nugent contacted his superior Harry Barnes to report what he saw. Barnes had two controllers check Nugent’s radar for any malfunction and found that it was working normally. Barnes then called the National Airport control tower; the controllers there, Howard Cocklin and Joe Zacko confirmed they also had unidentified blips on their radar, and even saw a hovering “bright light” which departed at an incredible speed.
“Did you see that? What the hell was that?” Cocklin asked Zacko when both had visual contact.
At this point, several unknown objects appeared in all sectors of the radarscope; two of which hovered over the White House and another over the Capitol. Barnes then alarmingly called Andrews Air Force Base, located 10 miles from National Airport which initially didn’t want to reveal that they were also tracking unidentified flying objects. Although they too had mysterious anomalies on radar, they attempted to justify them as meteors.
An airman called the base’s control tower to report the sighting of a strange object at a nearby proximity. Airman William Brady, who was in the tower at that time, reported seeing an “object which appeared to be like an orange ball of fire, trailing a tail…unlike anything I had ever seen before.” As Brady tried to alert the other personnel in the tower, the object “took off at an unbelievable speed”.
Controllers at both airports began tracking the objects, which they estimated to be travelling at 130 mph when they suddenly disappeared from the radars’ screens. The objects then reappeared again, zipping all around the sky. One made an abrupt 90-degree turn, and another suddenly went in reverse direction. Manoeuvres that American aircrafts could not perform at the time.
An airline captain, S.C. Pierman was waiting in the cockpit of his DC-4 at National Airport for authorization to take off, when he saw six objects – “white, tailless, fast-moving lights” disappearing and reappearing moments later, for over a 14-minute period of time. During his sighting, Pierman was in radio contact with Barnes, who related that “each sighting coincided with a pip we could see near his plane. When he reported that the light streaked off at a high speed, it disappeared on our scope.”
F-94 fighter jets were deployed from New Castle Air Force Base in Delaware towards the nation’s capital, in an attempt to identify the source of the sightings. Shortly before the jets arrived over Washington at around 3:00 a.m., all the objects mysteriously vanished from radar and controllers at National Airport completely lost track of them.
However, when the jets ran low on fuel and returned back to Delaware, the objects reappeared on radar again. This led Barnes to suspect that “the UFOs were monitoring radio traffic and behaving accordingly.”
At 5:30 a.m., the objects disappeared entirely.
The events of July 19-20, 1952 made front-page headlines in newspapers around the U.S. Headlines such as “Saucers Swarm Over Capitol” led to a real fear among the public, believing that the United States was being invaded by extraterrestrials.
The Air Force’s official statement reported the sightings and all connected radar data as unusual weather phenomenon.
One week later, on July 26, the mysterious objects returned, swarming the radar once again around Washington D.C.
July 26-27, 1952
At 8:15 p.m. a pilot and a stewardess aboard an airline flight into Washington observed strange lights high around their plane and above the Capitol. At the same time, both radar controllers at National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base were tracking unknown objects, similar to the ones from the weekend before. U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Charles E. Cummings visually observed the objects from Andrews Air Force Base. He later reported that “these lights did not have the characteristics of shooting stars. There was no trails… they travelled faster than any shooting star I have ever seen.”
By this time (9:30 p.m.) unknown objects appeared in every sector of Washington National Airport. Some objects were reported to move slowly, others reversed direction and moved across the radarscope at an estimated speed of 7,000 mph.
At 11:30 p.m., two F-49 fighter jets from New Castle Air Force in Delaware once again arrived over Washington. This time, Captain John McHugo, the flight leader, was vectored towards the radar anomalies, but saw nothing despite several attempts. His wingman, however, Lieutenant William Patterson, made visual contact with four “glowing” lights and attempted to chase them. He later told investigators “I tried to make contact with the bogies below 1,000 feet. I was at my maximum speed but…I ceased chasing them because I saw no chance of overtaking them.”
According to Air Force’s Project Blue Book spokesman, Albert Chop, who was present at radar control center at Washington National Airport, when ground control asked Patterson “if he saw anything”, Patterson replied: “I see them now and they’re all around me. What should I do?’…And nobody answered, because we didn’t know what to tell him.”
That night, a U.S Navy radar specialist, Lieutenant John Holcomb, arrived at the radar center at National Airport, alongside a Pentagon representative of Project Blue Book and USAF major Dewey Fournet; all three men and everyone else present in the control room were convinced that the radar anomalies were most likely caused by solid metallic objects.
Fournet relayed that there were weather anomalies on the radar too, caused by a slight temperature inversion as confirmed by the Washington National Weather Station. But this was a common occurrence that controllers “were paying no attention to them,”
At dawn of July 27, the objects once again disappeared.
The sightings of July 26-27, 1952, also made front-page headlines, and led President Truman to ask the Air Force Base for an explanation. Despite the accounts of eyewitnesses and what everyone in the control room at National Airport that night believed to be radar evidence of solid unidentified flying objects, the Air Force officially said that the sightings were likely caused by a temperature inversion, in which a layer of warm, moist air covers a layer of cool, dry air closer to the ground.
President Truman’s concern however, led the CIA to form the Robertson Panel in January 1953, which would address the UFO situation.
This panel concluded that UFOs pose no threat to national security, and that most UFO sightings could be easily explained as misidentification of natural aerial phenomena.