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Today, I am informed, is World UFO Day and for a subject long considered to be ‘fringe’ and the realms of imagination and misinterpretation, this in itself is something of an accomplishment.  For the study of unidentified flying objects to have come far enough to have a world day, even if it isn’t an official one, would never have been imagined when I first learned about such matters, some twenty-odd years ago.  So how did we end up here?  What is the basic history of the UFO phenomena?

Pre-UFO Sightings

Wood cutting of the Nuremberg sightings

Wood cutting of the Nuremberg sightings

While the 20th century saw the rise of the phenomena we recognise today, the sighting of a strange, unexplained object in the sky goes back much further.  One of the earliest sightings referred to as a UFO came from Nuremberg, Germany in April 1561.  Here the locals were shocked to see strange crafts in the sky, engaged in some form of battle and likened them to globes, crosses and plates.  They were so confused by what they saw, they even went to the trouble of creating wood cuttings of the day.

In Aurora, Texas, April 1897, one of the first UFO crashes was reported.  A cigar shaped craft hit a windmill and crashed.  The body found inside was buried in an unmarked grave and the Texas Historical Commission later even had a plaque erected to show the spot where a spaceship crashed and his body was recovered.

Early sightings by pilots, today a category in its own right, were detailed by NARCAP and included one from a UK pilot in 1916 near Rochford, who saw a row of lights like the lights on a railway carriage that rose from the ground and vanished.  Another in 1926 near Wichita Kansas reported seeing six ‘flying manhole covers’.

Famous cases

The first sighting to use the now famous phrase ‘flying saucer’ came from a man named Kenneth Arnold.  On June 24th 1947, he was flying his private plane when a set of nine shiny objects flew past him near Mount Rainier at speeds he guessed to be over 1200 mph.  His description said they were like a saucer, disc or a pie pan being convex and thin.

Local newspaper report on crash

Local newspaper report on crash

Roswell, New Mexico will forever be associated with UFOs after the events of July 1947.  A rancher near the town discovered a crashed object and reported it to the authorities with some of those with him claiming to have even seen alien bodies.  The case was famously dismissed as a ‘weather balloon’ and debate about what really crashed in the desert still rages.

A series of UFO sightings in an area over a short period of time is often referred to as a ‘flap’ and one such flap took place over Washington DC in July 1952.  A number of sightings were reported and both Washington National Airport and Andrew Air Force Base recorded the items on radar.  It was later dismissed as some sort of temperature inversion phenomena.

Around the world

Nor was the US the only place to be receiving these mysterious extra-terrestrial visitors.  One example comes from Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, England when in 1980 a series of sightings were reported.  One of the main reports came from the deputy commander of the US Air Force base near the forest, RAF Woodbridge who described seeing a UFO.  The Ministry of Defence decided that the incident wasn’t a threat to national security and never investigated what happened.

Triangle UFO

Triangle UFO

Another flap came from Belgium and lasted from November 1989 to April 1990.  What made it particularly notable was that the UFOs spotted were triangular in shape, rather than the most common disc or plate shape.  The craft flew at low altitude, made no sound and had lights underneath them.  Two Belgian Air Force F-16s even gave chase to the craft and there were over 13,000 reports from witnesses on the ground.

Why UFO?

The term UFO or Unidentified Flying Object came to replace the original ‘flying saucer’ to describe the crafts in the sky when it became apparent that there were more than just saucer shaped crafts being seen.  The term came from Captain Edward J Ruppelt, head of Project Blue Book, the official investigation into UFOs on behalf of the US government.

Nor was Blue Book the only official investigation into the subject.  One of the earliest reports was Project Sign, which as early as 1948 said that some analysts believed the flying saucers being reported were extra-terrestrial in origin.  It was followed by Project Grudge and it was then replaced with Blue Book.  These spawned a number of UFO organisations and studies, many of which are prominent today including the MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network.  The US government’s official study of the phenomena ended with the Condon Committee of 1968, which was widely criticised for its approach and findings.


So some sixty years since flying saucers were first named and hundreds of years since they were first seen, there is no definitive proof either way about their existence and what exactly is in them.  Yet we have a World UFO Day, sightings reported by major news outlets on a daily basis and thousands of websites and blogs talking about the subject.  Surely, all of this isn’t just down to misinterpretation and imagination?