How the ‘Era of the Flying Saucer’ Began 75 Years Ago — in the Skies Over the Pacific Northwest


Flying his small, private plane near Mount Rainier on a bright June day in 1947, Kenneth Arnold couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“Nine shiny objects, like fish flipping in the sun, in formation, undulating along at 1,382 miles an hour,” the 32-year-old businessman later wrote.

The Russians, Arnold surmised, were coming.

These strange, shiny aircraft off in the distance – blasting along at a speed dramatically faster than any known plane at the time could manage – must be on some kind of reconnaissance mission, possibly in preparation for an invasion.

After he landed his single-engine CallAir A-2 in Pendleton, Arnold went over to the local newspaper, The East Oregonian, and told a reporter all about it. He said the aircrafts’ movements had looked “like a saucer if you skipped it across the water,” bringing about the now-famous term “flying saucer.”

It’s now been 75 years since Arnold’s sighting, and he’s largely unknown to the American public.

But his influence is profound.

“Why are the spaceships of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Independence Day’ shaped the way they are?” Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic in 2014.

Her answer: Arnold’s vivid account of his experience. “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.”

Arnold, who died in 1984, worried that he “sounded like a crackpot,” but insisted he never considered keeping the sighting to himself. “If I had not reported it,” he said, “it would have constituted a disloyalty to my country. Wouldn’t you think so?”

Reporters, meanwhile, believed he had “the makings of a reliable witness.” He offered sober assessments and telling details of what he saw, and he made clear that he couldn’t identify the flying objects.

Arnold eventually changed his mind about what he saw. They weren’t experimental Soviet aircraft that bested America’s aviation technology. They probably weren’t even mechanical. The objects were “living bodies” – extraterrestrials.

“It’s the way they move,” he said. “It’s more like something alive than a mechanical craft.”

Arnold wanted to believe that most people did not think he was a nut. He sought to prove it by trying to launch a political career in Idaho. The results were mixed. He won the 1962 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor but lost in the general election.

He would remain identified chiefly for unidentified flying objects.

A decade after Arnold’s failed political campaign, The New York Times pinned the beginning of the “era of the flying saucer” to his experience in the sky on June 24, 1947.

“Since then, if these reports are to be believed,” the newspaper of record wrote, “no part of the earth has been left unvisited by unworldly aircraft in the shape of saucers, sausages, cigars, balls, crescents, eggs, mushrooms and disks.”