Five legendary UFO sightings in America (and the real explanations of what happened)

UFOs — or UAPs, as they’re now being called — have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years.

It began with the explosive New York Times story, followed by congressional hearings that showed videos of mysterious high-speed objects darting in front of US fighter planes.

But UFO sightings in America stretch back for decades — many involving the US Air Force and cutting-edge military hardware. 

Nigel Watson, author of ‘UFOs of the First World War’, told that many of the most famous UFO sightings actually involved secret and cutting-edge military hardware.

Here are five legendary UFO sightings along with an explanation of what was really happening (spoiler alert: and it wasn’t little green men).

The Gorman Dogfight, 1948

Edward James Ruppelt investigated the Gorman case for Project Blue Book

In 1948, a World War II veteran pilot had a 27-minute encounter with a white orb above Fargo, North Dakota.

George F Gorman told a local newspaper: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. If anyone else had reported such a thing I would have thought they were crazy.’

The incident was recorded in Project Blue Book, a US government attempt to analyze and document early UFO sightings.

Captain Edward Ruppelt headed up the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book UFO-hunting project, and actually proposed the use of the term UFO. 

Gorman, 25, was a former fighter pilot and was flying a P-51 Mustang.

Gorman was flying a P-51 Mustang

Gorman was flying a P-51 Mustang

While flying alone for night-flight practice, he saw what he at first thought to be the tail lights of another aircraft.

He said: ‘It was about six to eight inches in diameter, clear white and completely without fuzz at the edges. It was blinking on and off. As I approached, however, the light suddenly became steady and pulled into a sharp left bank. I thought it was making a pass at the tower.’

Gorman tried crashing into it, he said, describing the object as a ‘disk’, but said it dodged him at speeds of over 600mph.

He said: ‘Once, when the object was coming head on, I held my plane pointed right at it. 

‘The object came so close that I involuntarily ducked my head because I thought a crash was inevitable. But the object zoomed over my head.’

Two air traffic controllers and another pilot corroborated his story.

Gorman continued his service, never speaking publicly about his UFO experience.

Air Force investigators officially concluded that it was an encounter with a weather balloon.

Washington National Airport Sightings, 1942

Was this what was behind the airport sightings? (Getty)

Was this what was behind the airport sightings? (Getty) 

In July 1942, radar at the Air Routing and Traffic Control Center (ARTC) in Washington picked up seven targets — moving faster than any aircraft of the period.

Air Traffic Controller Edward Nugent’s radar scope indicated they were 15 miles south-southwest of Washington DC.

The Washington National Airport’s control tower radar also displayed unidentified blips and the two controllers saw a bright light move at incredible speed.

Aircraft were scrambled, and some observers claimed to see lights in the sky, with one pilot describing four white glows traveling 1,000ft below him and too fast to chase.

The situation caused headlines around America and a hastily convened press conference explained that the radar blips had been caused by temperature inversions.

But what about the sightings?

Watson said: ‘What seems likely is that sightings were caused by the expectation of seeing something to account for these radar blips.

‘Some of the sightings were explained as due to weather balloons and meteors.’

The death of Captain Thomas Mantell, 1958

Mantell investigated the object, but was never heard from again

Mantell investigated the object, but was never heard from again

An unidentified flying object was spotted by control tower operators at Godman Air Force Base, Kentucky.

Captain Thomas Mantell was requested to investigate it in his P-51 Mustang, reporting: ‘It appears to be a metallic object or possibly the reflection of the sun from a metallic object, and it is of tremendous size.’

Mantell told operators he was flying higher to get a closer look, but then he stopped communicating. The wreckage of his aircraft was found near Franklin, Kentucky.

Watson said it is now believed Mantell’s death was related to a then-classified Skyhook balloon — developed by the US Navy and 20ft in diameter.

The balloons were used for atmospheric research, particularly for constant meteorological observations at high altitudes. 

As it reached 100,000ft, the Skyhook expanded to a massive 70ft in diameter and 100ft tall.

Watson said that to this day, UFO fans insist that Mantell’s aircraft was fired on by a UFO — but in reality, he probably blacked out while investigating a Skyhook.

Watson said: ‘Lacking oxygen, he had passed out as his aircraft climbed higher into the sky and was unable to regain consciousness to prevent the crash.’

Flying saucer over Alaska, 1997

The incident sparked panicked calls from members of the public

The incident sparked panicked calls from members of the public

Locals called police in Fairbanks, Alaska after spotting something truly unearthly in the sky — a 300-foot saucer which loomed bigger than a planet.

It remained visible through the summer night.

What people had seen was not a visitor from beyond, but a NASA project using a balloon to obtain data about the concentration and weight of stratospheric gases at sunrise.

The Observations of the Middle Stratosphere (OMS) balloon was launched on 8 July 1997 — carrying a 1,700lb gondola housing scientific instruments (which local people saw and confused for a UFO).

Watson said: ‘Although publicity was given about the project, the local Fairbanks police force received several telephone calls reporting a UFO in the sky. After recording their data, the large gondola suspended beneath the balloon was parachuted to the ground, where it made a perfect landing.’

Red lights in the sky, 1952

A second CIA briefing paper prepared in August 1952 revealed how Captain Ruppelt, who led the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book UFO-hunting project, was called out at dusk to investigate red lights in the sky.

Even with binoculars, they couldn’t make out what the object was, so an F-94 pilot was sent to investigate — finding that it was a cluster of three Skyhook balloons.

Telephone reports described the objects as violently moving ‘saucers’ of different shapes and colors, some of which were ‘looping’ around observers.

But staff at the airfield refused to believe the objects were truly balloons, despite the official report, Watson said.

He said the staff turned in a report saying that the sighting ‘must have been of some other unknown origin.’

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