The “flying saucer” age began 50 years ago in the Pacific Northwest, when a traveling salesman who piloted his own plane asked a reporter whether the military was testing secret warplanes.
Bill Bequette was working for the daily newspaper in Pendleton when Kenneth Arnold walked in just before the noon deadline frenzy to claim he had seen nine “unidentified flying objects” speeding past Mount Rainier at better than 1,600 mph - twice the speed of the fastest airplane in 1947.
Bequette sent four paragraphs to The Associated Press, then went to lunch, unaware the sighting he reported on June 24, 1947, would launch the UFO era.
The first thing the newspaper’s receptionist asked when Bequette returned from lunch, was: “Where have you been? They’ve been calling from everywhere.”
“It didn’t seem to me to be that big a deal,” said Bequette, now 79, who lives in Kennewick, Wash. A longer story, filed that afternoon, was “like throwing a lighted match into a field of cheatgrass,” he said.
Since then, thousands of Americans - including former President Jimmy Carter - claimed they saw UFOs. The sightings have spawned military blunders, scientific studies, sensational hoaxes and scores of movies and books.
“When people aren’t satisfied with religions, whether they’re traditional or otherwise, then they’ll cotton onto UFOs,” said the Rev. Christopher J. Corbally, a Jesuit priest and astronomer at the Vatican Observatory in Arizona.
Although strange craft had been reported as early as 1594 B.C., the sighting by Arnold - successful businessman, skilled flier and strong supporter of President Dwight Eisenhower - had timing on its side. America was settling into the postwar technological era of televisions, jet planes and talk of space travel.
Within two weeks of Arnold’s sighting, people in 28 states, and from as far as Australia and Afghanistan, reported seeing flying saucers. Portland’s daily newspapers devoted a news page each day to a roundup of saucer stories. A publisher in Chicago offered a bounty on the crafts. The Oregon National Guard launched a fighter squadron to have a look.
The lead theory of the time was that flying saucers were experimental aircraft flown by the United States or its new archenemy, the Soviet Union.
But a few began to wonder: Is someone out there watching us?
The uproar that Arnold set off in the Pacific Northwest led two weeks later to a flying saucer controversy in New Mexico that would create its own counterculture of UFO believers.
For the next 50 years, the “Roswell Incident” would grow into a worldwide phenomenon making millions for movie companies, hotel keepers, souvenir peddlers and writers.
On July 7, 1947, an Army Air Forces colonel announced that officers of Roswell’s 509th Bomb Group had captured a flying saucer. Air Force Forces officials denied the report within hours.
It was almost forgotten for 30 years, until the National Enquirer resurrected the mystery, inspiring a rash of Roswell conspiracy theories and visions of freeze-dried aliens in government custody.
But the incident actually occurred at a sheep ranch near Corona, a desert crossroads 75 miles to the northwest of Roswell.
A ranch manager led Maj. Jesse A. Marcel and Capt. Sheridan Cavitt, intelligence officers for the 509th, to debris that had fallen on the ranch.
Cavitt, the only adult witness still alive, was released from his oath of secrecy in 1994 and told Air Force investigators what he really saw: a downed weather balloon.
“Believe me, that’s all it was,” the retired lieutenant colonel, now 78, told The Oregonian. He described a smattering of tinfoil, balsa sticks, bits of fabric and plastic. He said they threw the stuff in a Jeep, drove back to Roswell and had a beer.
It was Marcel who later claimed the debris was from a flying saucer, despite confirmation from 8th Air Force headquarters the litter was a weather balloon.
It still makes Cavitt laugh. “You had to know Marcel,” he told The Oregonian. “He was a wild Cajun from Louisiana. He made a lot of claims he couldn’t back up. He was a one-of-a-kind.”
But on Roswell’s 50th anniversary next month, up to as many as 100,000 visitors are expected in the southeast New Mexico town to celebrate UFOs.
“You can’t get a room within 120 miles of Roswell,” said Bill Pope, head of the Roswell Chamber of Commerce.
A 1996 Newsweek poll showed that 48 percent of Americans believe the government is hiding proof of UFOs from the public. Gregory D. Bothun, an astronomer at the University of Oregon, worries that Americans are losing the ability to distinguish between scientific fact and fantasy.
“We ought to have a national agenda to build scientific literacy into our technological society,” he said. “I’m afraid the lay population doesn’t understand the difference between credible and incredible information sources. They substitute entertainment for education.”
After reporting his UFOs in 1947, Kenneth Arnold was besieged was dismissed by skeptics but thousands sent him fan mail.
Arnold once delivered the keynote address at a UFO convention but in later years was disillusioned with the crackpots he believed had turned serious scientific inquiry into a circus.
“He thought this was a serious subject,” said Arnold’s daughter, Kim, of Boise, Idaho. “He thought this was something that humanity should have the answer to.”
Bequette, who spent four decades as a newspaper reporter and editor, aid he believes Arnold saw something.
“He was an honest man,” Bequette said. “And he was an experienced flier. So I think he had to see something that was out of the ordinary.”
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