Up on the tower's top floor, controller Joe Zacko saw a strange blip streaking across his radar screen. He looked out the window and spotted a bright light hovering in the sky. And then the light zoomed away at an incredible speed.
It was Saturday night, July 19, 1952. Before the night was over, a pilot reported seeing unexplained objects, radar at two local Air Force bases — Andrews and Bolling — picked up the UFOs, and two Air Force F-94 jets streaked over Washington, D.C., searching for flying saucers.
Then, a week later, it happened all over again. Across America, the story of jets chasing UFOs over the White House knocked the Korean War and the presidential campaign off newspapers' front pages.
President Truman demanded to know what was flying over his house. Soon the federal government was fighting the UFOs with the most powerful weapon in the Washington arsenal: gobbledygook.
That seemed to work. The sightings stopped.
In a way, this whole strange episode began with Marilyn Monroe.
The actress appeared on the cover of Life magazine's April 7, 1952, issue, looking sultry in a low-cut dress. Just above her shoulder was a cover line touting a different story: "There Is a Case for Interplanetary Saucers."
The article, titled "Have We Visitors From Outer Space?," reviewed 10 recent UFO sightings and concluded they couldn't be written off as hallucinations, hoaxes or earthly aircraft. It wasn't the first media account of UFOs — there had been lots of publicity since several well-known sightings in 1947, including one in Roswell, N.M. — but it was the first time a mainstream magazine had given some credence to the theory that UFOs might be alien spacecraft.
The number of UFO sightings reported to the Air Force skyrocketed: from 23 in March, before Life's article appeared, to 82 in April, 148 in June.
By mid-July, Capt. Edward Ruppelt — head of Project Blue Book, the Air Force's official UFO study team — was getting 40 UFO sightings a day. Many were bogus but some came from pilots and other respectable citizens, and Ruppelt took them seriously.
Then, a few days before the first sightings at National Airport, Ruppelt interviewed a government scientist who made a startling prediction that Ruppelt recorded in his 1956 memoir, "The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects."
"Within the next few days," the unidentified scientist said, "you're going to have the granddaddy of all UFO sightings. The sighting will occur in Washington or New York — probably Washington."
The blips first appeared on radar at National at 11:40 that Saturday night: seven unidentified targets about 15 miles southeast of the city.
It was a clear, hot, humid night with very little air traffic, and the controllers watched the strange blips amble across their screens. They'd cruise leisurely at 100 to 130 mph, then abruptly zoom off in an extraordinary burst of speed.
Harry Barnes, head of National's air traffic controllers, called his counterparts at Andrews and Bolling. They were getting blips in the same places.
At National, controller Howard Cocklin looked out his window and saw what he recalls as a "whitish blue light" emanating from a solid object that was "round with no distinguishing marks such as wings or a nose or a tail." It looked, he says, "like a saucer."
Sometime after 1 a.m., National's control tower radioed Capital Air Flight 807, from Washington to Detroit, and asked the pilot if he saw any unusual objects. Capt. S.C. "Casey" Pierman, a pilot with 17 years of experience, radioed back: "There's one — and there it goes."
For the next 14 minutes, as he flew between suburban Herndon, Va., and Martinsburg, W.Va., Pierman saw six bright lights that streaked across the sky at tremendous speed. "They were," he said, "like falling stars without tails."
Watching the radar blips flying over the Capitol and the White House, Barnes called the Air Force. But it was very late on a Saturday night and the Air Force bureaucracy responded sluggishly. By the time F-94 interceptor jets left New Castle Air Force Base in Delaware — Andrews' runways were closed for repairs — it was after 3 a.m.
When the F-94s soared over Washington, the strange blips disappeared from National's radar screens. The F-94 pilots cruised for a while but saw nothing. When they headed back to New Castle, the blips reappeared.
The controllers watched the UFOs flit across their screens until dawn, then disappear.
Nobody bothered to call Ruppelt about the sightings. When he flew to Washington a couple of days later on unrelated business, he learned about them by reading newspapers at the airport.
At the Pentagon, Ruppelt found the Air Force brass deeply concerned about one particular aspect of the sightings: What should they tell the press?
Reporters, Ruppelt wrote, "were now beginning to put on a squeeze by threatening to call congressmen — and nothing chills blood faster in the military."
Ruppelt volunteered to stay overnight to interview the controllers at National and Andrews, then report what he learned to the press. But instead he was ordered to fly back to Ohio that night.
About 10 o'clock the following Saturday night, Ruppelt was in Dayton when a reporter called to say UFOs were back in the sky over Washington, D.C.
He dispatched two officers — Maj. Dewey Fournet and Lt. John Holcomb, a radar expert — to National's control tower.
Fournet and Holcomb arrived to find controllers tracking a dozen unexplained blips. Perhaps, the controllers surmised, a temperature inversion — a layer of hot air between two layers of colder air in the sky, common in Washington on hot days — had bent the radar beam, causing it to mistake objects on the ground for things in the air.
But Fournet and Holcomb were convinced some of the radar blips were solid metal objects. Radar operators at Andrews saw them, too.
About 11 p.m. the Air Force dispatched F-94s. When the first jets arrived, the blips disappeared from National's radar screens and the F-94 pilots saw nothing unusual. But when they returned to New Castle, the blips returned to the radar screens.
About 1:30 a.m., the jets soared back over Washington. This time, pilots saw several strange lights. One pilot chased but couldn't catch the streaking light.
On Monday morning, the story of UFOs outrunning fighter planes was splashed across front pages nationwide. In Iowa, the headline in the Cedar Rapids Gazette read like something out of a sci-fi flick: "SAUCERS SWARM OVER CAPITAL."
"We have no evidence they are flying saucers," an unidentified Air Force source told reporters. "Conversely we have no evidence they are not flying saucers. We don't know what they are."
The Air Force tried to reassure the nation by promising to keep jet fighters poised to chase the saucers at a moment's notice. That didn't reassure Robert Farnsworth, president of the United States Rocket Society, who warned Truman not to attack the UFOs.
"Should they be extraterrestrial, such actions might result in the gravest consequences, as well as possibly alienating us from beings of far superior powers," Farnsworth telegraphed Truman. "Friendly contact should be sought as long as possible."
Truman asked his Air Force aide, Brig. Gen. Robert Landry, to find out what the UFOs were.
Nobody knew, not even Maj. Gen. John Samford, the Air Force's director of intelligence. But Samford called a press conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday afternoon, Ruppelt recalled. He opened with a rambling monologue on the history of UFOs, which, he noted, dated "to biblical times." He mentioned UFO sightings in 1846 but never got around to the sightings of 1952.
When reporters asked about the Washington sightings, Samford told a story about radar picking up a flock of ducks in Japan in 1950. When they asked if radar at National and Andrews had seen the same blips simultaneously, he speculated about the definition of "simultaneously." When they asked if the UFOs could be material objects, he mused about the definition of "material." When they asked if a F-94 pilot who chased the strange light was a qualified observer, he wondered about the meaning of "qualified."
Speaking about what that pilot saw, Samford extemporized: "That very likely is one that sits apart and says insufficient measurement, insufficient association with other things, insufficient association with other probabilities for it to do any more than to join that group of sightings that we still hold in front of us as saying no."
Samford mentioned the "temperature inversion" theory, first as a "possibility." Later, he said it was "about a 50-50 proposition." Then he said it was a "probable" explanation.
He talked until 5:20, then the reporters dashed back to their offices to meet their deadlines. The UFOs, they wrote, were caused by Washington's famous "hot air."
Ruppelt was amazed.
"Somehow," Ruppelt wrote, "out of this chaotic situation came exactly the result that was intended — the press got off our backs."
When newspapers stopped writing about the UFOs, people stopped reporting UFOs. "Reports dropped from 50 per day to 10 a day within a week," Ruppelt noted.
The report is called "A Preliminary Study of Unidentified Targets Observed on Air Traffic Control Radars." It was issued by the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1953, shortly after Philip Klass began writing for Aviation Week. "The gist of the report," he says, "is that the Washington sightings were temperature inversions."
Klass, now 82, became America's most prominent UFO debunker. He has written five books on the subject. He says: "If there are UFOs and they want to make themselves known, land! And if they don't want to make their visits known, turn off the lights! "
Bruce Maccabee, 60, is a civilian physicist for the Navy and a prominent UFO believer. In the '70s, he filed the Freedom of Information Act request that led to the release of the FBI's file on UFOs. The file was called "Security Matter X" — "the real X-Files," he says.
Maccabee believes "solid objects" were in the air 50 years ago. "And I think those solid objects were not made by us," he says.
Maccabee cites the 1969 Air Force report "Quantitative Aspects of Mirages." He says, "They proved in their own study that there wasn't enough temperature inversion to cause this effect."
The debate goes on.