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Flying Saucers and Aliens: How a Journalist's Error Gave UFOs Their Unexplained Shape

An illustrated representation of 'flying saucers', fitting the misquoted description of mysterious objects from over 70 years ago. (Image: Pinterest)

An illustrated representation of 'flying saucers', fitting the misquoted description of mysterious objects from over 70 years ago. (Image: Pinterest)

From comic strips to big screen movie theatres, mankind has continuously represented aliens as travelling in what appear to be gravity-defying spaceships that are, somehow, always shaped like saucers. Here’s why we decided so.

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Shouvik Das

Plenty of us, scientists included, believe that we are not the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. Mankind’s never-dying thirst to discover the unknown have led to us making quite a few fascinating discoveries – potential life that may have once existed on the moon, on Mars (and more recently, Venus), and in galaxies that are millions of kilometres away. However, in all of this time, one rather intriguing observation evolved into a theory so concrete that it is now woven firmly into popular culture – the shape of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Specifically, the group of physics-bending, impossible-looking objects in the sky, that are today colloquially called ‘flying saucers’.

What’s particularly intriguing to note is that in over half a century of attempting to explore space and understanding the unknown, not once have we acknowledged that an unidentified aircraft visited us from another world. Why, then, did we decide that most aliens, however intelligent they may be, chose to travel largely in objects that resemble the humble saucer? From the classic saucer in Independence Day, to the ominous, vertical one in The Arrival, it so happens that we chanced upon the shape of alien spaceships thanks to an erroneous misquote by a veteran journalist, over seven decades ago.

The first saucers

On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, an Idaho-based amateur pilot and businessman, spotted something that baffled him. While flying over the Mount Rainier region in USA on his way to an air show in Pendleton, Oregon, Arnold’s rather peaceful reverie was broken by nine sudden flashes of light. Upon looking, Arnold spotted what seemed to be unbelievable aircrafts like nothing seen by anyone until then (or by the sound of it, even now). The crafts in question were evenly spread over a distance of about 8 kilometres, were concave in shape when viewed from the top, were all flying along on a single, horizontal axis, and were even seen to be occasionally flipping and banking in apparent, gravity-defying manoeuvres.

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Alongside calculating the gross distance between each of these flying objects, Arnold also determined the distance these aircrafts covered and the time it took for them to covered, and ascertained that they were flying at a speed of over 2,700 kph. That is more than twice the speed of sound in air – a figure that was unheard and impossible 73 years ago. Apart from their shape, formation and apparent gravity-defying behaviour, this speed itself was mind-boggling – the Russian MiG-35 Fulcrum F supersonic multi-role fighter jet, deemed as one of the 10 fastest military jets of all time, today flies about this speed.

Naturally, Arnold told his mates all about his sighting when he made a refuelling pit stop on his way to Pendleton, at Yakima, Washington. Given how enigmatic this sounded, word spread fast, and by June 25, Arnold was speaking to reporters at publications based in Pendleton, where he had landed to attend the now-apparently-boring air show. While speaking to the press, Arnold described these unidentified flying objects as moving “like a saucer if you skip it across the water”. In the days to come, Bill Bequette, a journalist with the United Press in USA, seemingly misquoted Arnold’s statement and turned it into the spotting of flying saucers.

Fitting the fancy

The misquoted report was an opportune moment. Only a few days later, a United Airlines passenger aircraft crew reported that they spotted a similarly formed collective of nine saucer-like aircrafts gliding along the sky. It also fit into the infamous Roswell UFO incident that occurred just about a month later, when the crash of an US Army Air Forces observation balloon near Roswell, New Mexico was reported as the object looking like “flying discs”.

Numerous reports from that period refer to Arnold mentioning the terms “saucer” and “pie pans” in the statements he gave to various journalists, all of which transpired into the collective evolution of the very first “flying saucers”. In the years to come, it is this description of Arnold’s observation that caught public fancy, eventually leading to thousands of claimed sightings of saucer-shaped UFOs.

What could it have been?

By now, it is no real surprise that military forces conduct secret testing of experimental aircrafts all the time. However, they are done strategically to avoid as many eyes as possible, at all costs, to ensure complete secrecy. Given that a similar bunch of aircrafts were spotted at least twice, if both Arnold and the Untied Airlines crew are to be believed, it is possible that the United States Air Force was testing aircrafts that were well beyond the scope of grasp for the common people.

That is possible, too. Take the MiG-25 Foxbat, for example. Even though it looks like a ‘regular’ fighter jet, back in 1964, it achieved what stands even today as the fastest military aircraft in the skies. Used primarily as an interceptor, the MiG-25 Foxbat could cruise at 3,500 kph and reach peak speed of almost 4,000 kph. In comparison, the Boeing 727 – a newly introduced commercial airliner in 1964, could only fly at just about a fourth the speed. While such differences are regular between commercial and military aircrafts, one can see why this would catch the fancy of anyone who would spot such a sight in the sky.

As for saucer-shaped flying objects, it is only anyone’s guess as to what they may have been. It is only now, towards the end of 2019, that mankind is testing saucer-shaped aircrafts for varying purposes – China with its armed helicopter and NASA with its new atmospheric reentry vehicle for space missions. Were such designs tested in military airspace by the powers that be, over seven decades ago? Or were they really visitors from outer space, casually skimming by our atmosphere? We may never know.


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