The 1952 D.C. UFO Sightings: What Really Happened?

Did the air traffic controllers actually see UFOs? Did the government really try to cover it up?

This March 9, 2013 photo shows the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER        (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)


This week in 1952, a rash of UFO sightings were reported by air traffic controllers at Washington National Airpot. This photo shows the air traffic control tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, DC on March 9, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)



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It was just before midnight on July 19, 1952, at the Washington National Airport (now the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport) when an air traffic controller spotted seven unidentified flying objects in the sky southwest of the nation’s capital.

The controller, Edward Nugent, asked colleagues to double-check what he was seeing. They confirmed the equipment was working properly, and what they could see was not following a typical flight pattern. Not long after, the controllers could see other bright objects hovering over the White House (then occupied by President Harry S. Truman) and the Capital Building.

Fighter jets were scrambled from nearby New Castle Air Force Base in Delaware in the pre-dawn hours of July 20, 1952, but the UFOs disappeared from the radar and from sight when the fighter jets arrived over the city. When a lack of fuel forced the jets to return to Delaware, the radar detected UFOs again, leading the air traffic controllers to believe the mysterious crafts could intercept and understand radio traffic. By daybreak, the objects were no longer visible on radar or by eye.

To learn more about the history of D.C.'s UFO programs, stream UFOs: The Lost Evidence Season 2, Episode 6 on discovery+.

The following weekend, the strange phenomena happened again. Around 8 p.m. on the evening of July 26, a pilot and flight attendant on a plane bound for the airport noticed strange lights above their aircraft. Again, fighter jets raced from Delaware to Washington, and air traffic controllers could see numerous unidentifiable objects across the radar. That night, one of the fighter pilots saw the strange lights and attempted to chase them, but his craft was no match for the speed of the UFOs, and ended his pursuit.

After two consecutive weekends of UFO activity over the city, President Truman asked to be briefed by a representative from Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s new program for documenting and studying reported UFO sightings. Specifically, Project Blue Book wanted to determine if UFOs posed a national security threat — 1952 was in the midst of the Red Scare, and the Cold War was simmering on the horizon — and to analyze data and reports about UFO in a scientific manner.

The Air Force claimed the event was weather-related.

On July 29, just three days after the second event the Air Force held a press conference at the Pentagon to explain the phenomena to the public. Press coverage of the UFOs zipping through the skies in Washington had reached a fever pitch, and there were concerns that there would be public hysteria without an official explanation. Air Force Major General John Samford told the gathered reporters that the air traffic controllers and fighter pilots must have seen stars, meteors, and other optical illusions while the radar anomalies could be explained by a temperature inversion over the city making it simply a weather-related event.

There was just one problem.

The leader of the Air Force’s own Project Blue Book, Capt. Edward Ruppelt, was not consulted prior to the press conference. Ruppelt later publicly denounced the Air Force’s explanation, saying that temperature inversions were already well-documented radar anomalies, and what happened in Washington, D.C., was not related to an inversion.

So was it a true cover-up? Did the Air Force know more than they said and officials simply wanted to quell public panic?

Project Blue Book operated until 1969, and in its final report, officials said that no UFOs had ever been a national security threat and there was no evidence any sightings were extraterrestrial in nature or represented advanced technology.

In June 2021, a long-anticipated UFO report was released.

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in conjunction with various national security entities and branches of the armed services released an unclassified 9-page document discussing what they called “unidentified aerial phenomena” between 2004 and early 2021. The ultimate determination? UFO reporting practices impede the government’s attempts to explain the phenomena. Officials did not rule out extraterrestrial activity in their June report.

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