Kenneth Arnold: The man who introduced the world to Flying Saucers

If you were searching for a specific date to pinpoint the beginning of our obsession with flying saucers, the most frequently mentioned contender is June 24, 1947. This happened to be the day that Kenneth Arnold, an amateur pilot from Idaho, was flying his small plane, a CallAir A-2, over the town of Mineral in the state of Washington.

Pilot Kenneth Arnold with a sketch of one of the UFOs he saw near Mt. Rainier in 1947
Pilot Kenneth Arnold with a sketch of one of the UFOs he saw near Mt. Rainier in 1947

The sky was clear, and there was a gentle breeze blowing. When Kenneth Arnold was on his way to an air show in Oregon, he took the opportunity to do a little exploring in the area around Mount Rainier ― the territory where been a recent crash of a Marine Corps C-46 transport plane in the vicinity, and a $5,000 prize was being offered to anyone who could locate the wreckage.

Suddenly, as Arnold would later recall, he saw a bright light — just a flash, like a glint of sun as it hits a mirror when the glass is angled just so. It had a bluish dye. At first, he thought the light must have been coming from another plane; when he looked around, though, all he could see was a DC-4. It seemed to be flying about 15 miles away from him. It was not flashing.

Kenneth Arnold: the man who introduced the world to Flying Saucers
Promotional poster for the 1950 film ‘The Flying Saucer.’ © Image credit: Colonial Productions

In interviews later, Arnold described the motion like a kite-tail in the wind, or a saucer skipping on the water. He calculated their speed to be approximately 1,200 miles an hour. Although he said he had an “eerie” feeling, Arnold didn’t believe he had seen an extraterrestrial craft. He believed it to be nothing more than some type of experimental jet.

When he landed, Arnold told a friend about what he saw. People have been seeing unknown objects flying in the sky since long before humans had achieved flight, but Arnold’s encounter was the first reported post-war UFO sighting in the US ― the news spread quickly.

The June 26th edition of The Chicago Sun ran the headline “Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot,” which is believed to be the first use of the term flying saucer.

About two weeks later, on July 8, a story broke about a flying saucer crash on a ranch in Roswell, New Mexico. The incident has notoriously become a source of ongoing contention among ufologists, as government officials claimed the wreckage, along with the small dead bodies described by witnesses, was just a downed weather balloon.

Was the crash in Roswell actually one of the unknown craft Arnold had encounter the previous month?

1947 became a banner year for UFO reports. Newspapers around the US and Canada reported 853 sightings of unidentified, saucer-like craft, at least 250 of which have been deemed credible by investigators due to the reputation of the sources or the accuracy of the details reported.