Having last year waded into a topic that reporters seem perpetually ill-equipped to handle—unidentified flying objects—The New York Times has done it again. In the August 3, 2018, edition, reporter Laura M. Holson revisited the July 1952 “invasion of Washington” flap with the obvious intention of peddling a mystery, along with selling newspapers. The Times checked in with pro-UFO groups and cautious government sources, while largely ignoring science-based UFO investigators.
The 1952 Washington, D.C., light show was the main event in what is now known as the Great UFO Flap of that year. It was a time when the public’s attention was increasingly drawn to the skies, and science fiction had popularized the notion of extraterrestrial visitations.
The first of two series of sightings took place in the area during July 19–20. It began before midnight on July 19 when Air Route Traffic Control (ARTC) at Washington National Airport observed seven radar targets—first on their long-range radar, then confirmed by short-range radar. Andrews Air Force Base was notified, and an airman called in to report having seen several bright objects. A tower operator stated he saw a fiery object with a tail. Then, over the course of several minutes, an airline pilot observed six lights—some moving fast, others hovering. Another pilot reported a light seeming to follow his plane. A second wave of sightings occurred July 26–27.
Generally, the lights were described as “completely radical compared to those of ordinary aircraft.” They sometimes hovered and even darted up and down—as if they were some type of illusion. Indeed, an Air Force captain on the ground who had observed a light changing color and seeming to float and dip went outside to look again at the light and determined he was only looking at a star and the illusory effects of scintillation. A tower operator referred to the “power of suggestion” that could animate a star or turn meteors into alien spaceships (see Curtis Peebles, Watch the Skies, 1995, 68–80), and the events in question occurred during the annual Perseids meteor shower (July 17 to August 24).
Three radar sites (National Airport, Andrews Air Force Base, and Bolling Air Force Base across the Potomac) overlapped with their radar coverage, but only once did all three radars pick up the same target in the overlap area, which lasted just thirty seconds. A subsequent Air Force investigation of the incidents attributed many of the radar echoes to weather: turbulent air and temperature inversions (involving a layer of cool, dry air surmounted by a warm, humid one, that can cause radar signals to strike the ground and thus be reflected back). A later government study of unknown radar targets during a three-month period revealed that “a temperature inversion had been indicated in almost every instance when the unidentified radar targets or visual objects had been reported” (quoted in Peebles 1995, 79). Despite claims to the contrary, radar could not distinguish between a real target and a mirage (or “ghost”) image. (See also Ronald D. Story, ed., The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters, 2001, 644–645.)
To label the Washington case as unexplained is really to ignore the preponderance of evidence. The flap was obviously caused by the lights of bright meteors and stars and, on the radar, by temperature-inversion false images. Reporter Holson happily concludes, “And so the mystery continues,” engaging in the logical fallacy known as an argument from ignorance: that the lack of an utterly conclusive explanation implies the “objects” were flying saucers. Actually, that is the least likely explanation.