Project Blue Book and other Fairy Tales — Part 1

The Sightings

On 19 September 1961, Barney and Betty Hill returned to their home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when they encountered an alien spaceship.  The couple was not the first to sight, report, or claim contact with beings from outer space. It’s been going on for a while — the claims, I mean.

The first claim, which supposedly dates back to 1440 B.C., is that Thutmose III reported “fiery disks” floating in the sky over Lower Egypt.  The claim was rendered fake by the Condon Committee, a group of academics associated with the University of Colorado, who received grants from the U.S. Air Force to study U.F.O. phenomena under the direction of physicist Edward Condon between 1966 – 1968.

The basis for the Egyptian claim was the so-called Tulli Papyrus, which wasn’t revealed to anyone until 1953 in an article published in the Fortean Society magazine Doubt by Tiffany Thayer.[1]  The Fortean Society, created to promote the ideas of Charles Hoy Fort (1874 – 1932), was a writer/researcher specializing in strange phenomena.  Several of Fort’s books influenced later science fiction writers, both in their skepticism and their ideas.  One of the Fortean Society’s early members was the journalist H. L. Mencken.  Mr. Menchken opined that Fort’s head was full of mush.  As proof, theorist Erich von Daniken included the Tulli Papyrus as part of his “ancient aliens” discoveries.

There were also “sightings” in 218 B.C. recorded by Livy, in 76 B.C., noted by Pliny, the Elder, and in 65 A.D. by Flavius Josephus during the First Romano-Jewish War.  Sightings of aerial flights by chariots and other strange instruments repeated in 1562, Nuremberg, 1883, Zacatecas, Mexico, and 1897, Aurora, Texas.

More about the Hills

Barney Hill (1918 – 1969) was a U.S. Postal employee.  Eunice (Betty) Hill (1919 – 2004) was a social worker, a church activist, and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.).  The Hills were an interracial couple at a time when interracial marriages were rare.

According to the Hills, they were driving home from a vacation at Niagara Falls and Montreal.  Just south of Lancaster, New Hampshire, Betty observed a bright point of light in the sky and moved from below the moon upward to the west.  Barney, at the time driving on U.S. Route 3, focused his attention on highway safety.  Initially, Betty thought she was seeing a falling star — except that it was moving upward, but then because it was moving erratically and growing bigger by the second, the Hills stopped the car so that they both could get a better view.

The Hills later claimed that while they had no direct memory of their abduction, they began experiencing odd sensations, impulses, and dreams.  The watches they were wearing that night stopped working and never worked again.  There was press coverage, of course — and a book, with rumors of a film (which never materialized).  Inevitably, the Hills lost their credibility.

Unidentified Flying Object (U.F.O.) expert Robert Shaeffer described the Hills as the poster children for not driving when sleep deprived.  He wrote, “I was present at the National U.F.O. Conference in New York City in 1980, where Betty[Hill] presented some of the U.F.O. photos she had taken.  She showed what must have been far more than 200 slides, mostly of blips, blurs, and blobs against a dark background.  These were supposed to be U.F.O.s coming in close, chasing her car, landing, etc.  After her talk had exceeded about twice its allotted time, Betty was jeered off the stage by what had been, at first, a sympathetic audience.  This incident, witnessed by many ufology leaders and top activists, removed any lingering doubts about Betty’s credibility — she had none.  In 1995, Betty Hill wrote a self-published book, A Common Sense Approach to U.F.O.s, filled with delusional stories, such as seeing entire squadrons of U.F.O.s in flight and a truck levitating above the freeway.”

Before Hill

Concerns about extraterrestrials pre-dated the Hill episode by fifteen years.  On 27 June 1947, the national press picked up a story about civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold seeing what became known as “flying saucers.” Within a short time, there were over 800 copycat stories.  Ten days later, rancher Mac Brazel (unaware of the flying saucer bruhaha reported debris scattered across his ranch to the sheriff in Roswell.  The sheriff notified the U.S. Army Air Field, who sent Major Jesse Marcel to investigate.  On 8 July, Marcel took the debris to his Commanding Officer, Colonel William Blanchard.  Later that day, the public affairs office issued a press release stating that Air Corps personnel had recovered a “flying disk,” which had landed on a ranch near Roswell.

The Air Force began slicing its wrist shortly after it retracted its initial claim to replace it with a story about weather balloons.  The national press liked the first announcement best because it was more sensational — so, of course, that was the headliner. Neither story was true. Today, we know this as the Roswell Incident. The debris discovered by Brazel was part of a top-secret Air Corps effort to spy on the Soviet Union with high-altitude balloons.  The Americans came up with this idea from the Japanese, who, during World War II, attempted to send incendiary weapons against the U.S. west coast using high-altitude balloons.  The so-called Fu-Go balloons didn’t work well then, either.[2]

Oddly enough, the Air Corps (soon to be U.S. Air Force) turned to a civilian industry to help develop a high-altitude balloon program.  General Mills Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota — known for manufacturing breakfast cereals- was a significant innovator in aerospace technology, particularly in scientific balloons.

Established in 1946, the Aeronautical Research Division fell under the leadership of the recent German émigré Otto Winzen. Winzen determined that the latex balloons weren’t cut out for high-altitude missions, whereas polyethylene materials were up to the tasks assigned to such operations. General Mills worked closely with the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research.

The codename for the first of these balloons was Skyhook — launched in September 1947.  They proved tremendously successful in carrying a wide range of scientific payloads.  They were exactly what the Air Force needed for reconnaissance overflights — codenamed MOGUL.  Earlier, in 1944, a geophysicist named Maurice Ewing realized that at a certain depth below the ocean, pressure and temperature combine to create a zone of water in which the speed of sound is at a minimum — so that any sound produced in this zone will bounce off the layers of water above and below allowing it to propagate over long distances.[3]

From Ewing’s work, the Navy created a device known as the SOFAR bomb, which allowed downed Navy pilots to communicate their position at sea.  After the war, scientists realized that a similar sound channel exists in the upper atmosphere.  The sounds of distant enemy nuclear tests and missile launches were detectable by flying balloons equipped with instruments into this channel.  To this end, technicians fitted MOGUL balloons with ultra-sensitive microphones, telemetry systems for transmitting recorded data to ground stations — and automatic systems for maintaining the balloons’ altitude.

To disguise the project’s true nature during the testing phase of MOGUL, unclassified weather balloons contained sensitive military equipment designed and launched by a research team from the University of New York.  As it happened, MOGUL flight No.4 launched on 4 June 1947 — and this equipment fell into the ranch abutting Roswell, New Mexico.

To allow the monitoring teams to track these balloons, researchers fitted them with a chain of kite-shaped radar reflectors consisting of lightweight balsa wood frames covered in metal foil.  According to Charles Moore, working at the time as a General Mills engineer attached to Project MOGUL, the foil was fixed to the frames using metallic tape purchased from a New York City toy factory.  The packing tape was stamped with decorative patterns, which included the kinds of designs that appealed most to children — hearts, flowers, sea shells, and so forth.  During the Air Force’s investigation of the material collected from Bezel’s ranch, U.F.O. experts identified these designs as extraterrestrial hieroglyphics.  There was no other possible explanation.

The Air Force Takes Charge

The first Air Force U.F.O. study fell under Project SIGN.  The project began in 1948 under the direction of Air Force General Nathan Farragut Twining, who commanded the Air Technical Services Command.  Earlier, Project SIGN was called Project SAUCER. Twining’s task was to collect, evaluate, and distribute (within the government) all information relating to U.F.O. sightings — on the premise that they might represent a national security concern.[4]

In late April 1947, the Air Force released a paper prepared by the Intelligence Division of the Air Material Command (Wright-Patterson A.F.B.).  The report was anti-climactic, stating that while some U.F.O.s appeared to represent actual aircraft, the Air Force didn’t have enough data to determine their origin.  And recommended a continuation of the investigation of all sightings.  According to Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, U.S.A.F., later director of Project BLUE BOOK, Project SIGN produced an “Estimate of the Situation,” which endorsed an interplanetary explanation for U.F.O.’s.  General Hoyt Vandenberg, U.S.A.F. Chief of Staff, shut down Project SIGN for “lack of proof.” There is no verification of Ruppelt’s claim remains unverified.

Project GRUDGE followed Project SIGN.  The GRUDGE staff concluded that a foreign power could exploit U.F.O. reports to induce panic among the population and be useful to foreign secret services.  Accordingly, Project GRUDGE publicly disparaged all U.F.O. reports as (a) misidentification of conventional objects, (b) a form of mass hysteria and post-war nervousness, (c) hoaxers and liars, and (d) psychotic persons.

The Caldwell Investigation

In 1949, Air Force officials received information from a shareholder of an aeronautical company advising them that his company was developing aircraft fashioned after the saucers spoken about in the press.  This followed revelations of Kenneth Arnold of seeing U.F.O.’s over Mount Rainier and the Roswell Incident (already discussed).[5]  The reason for this letter was that the Air Force had asked for reports of flying saucers, and the shareholder believed that his company’s efforts might explain them.

With the help of Maryland State Police, Air Force investigators discovered the remains of the inventor John Caldwell’s flying machine in a barn just outside Baltimore.  In as much as these prototypes never gained airworthiness, there was no way Caldwell’s invention could have been mistaken for U.F.O.’s.  But in response to the Air Force’s request for information, letters and telegrams flooded in from all across the country — along with an inexhaustible number of photographs of the Caldwell machine described as wreckage from alien spacecraft.

The Ruppelt Period

Captain Ruppelt referred to the GRUDGE period as the “dark ages” of the Air Force U.F.O. effort.  Of course, the GRUDGE standard line was that spacecraft were natural phenomena and nothing to see — while admitting that there was no acceptable explanation for a quarter of all reports.  By the end of 1951, several Air Force generals were so dissatisfied with the service’s handling of U.F.O. investigations that they dismantled GRUDGE and replaced it with BLUE BOOK in 1952.  Two of those unhappy generals were Charles Cabell and William Garland.  Having claimed to have witnessed a U.F.O., Garland thought the question of U.F.O.’s deserved serious consideration.

The term BLUE BOOK refers to the booklets used at some colleges and universities for final exams.  According to Captain Ruppelt, the name was inspired by the attention of high-ranking officers to the project — which led to the creation of the Air Force Aerial Phenomenon Department.

Ruppelt was the first to head the project.  He was a decorated airman from World War II with a degree in aeronautics — and it is said that it was Ruppelt who first coined the term “Unidentified Flying Object.” To him, it was better than a flying saucer or flying disk.  Some years later, Ruppelt resigned from the Air Force and wrote a book entitled The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  In this book, he described the study of U.F.O.s by the Air Force from 1947 to 1955.  One scientist opined that Captain Ruppelt led the last serious effort to analyze U.F.O.s.

During his tenure at BLUE BOOK, Ruppelt scream lined the process of U.F.O. reporting in the hopes of alleviating the ridicule of the U.F.O. project.  Not everyone in America believed in such things.  But he developed a questionnaire for witnesses to standardize the information to be analyzed.  These efforts led to qualitative statistical analysis and computerized storage of data.

Ruppelt wanted to avoid the factionalism that existed under Project SIGN.  He took his job seriously, and he expected his staff to do so as well.  Early in his post, he fired three of his staff because they couldn’t be objective.  Through his commander, Ruppelt tasked each U.S. Air Force Base to collect U.F.O. reports and forward them to his desk.  To accomplish his task, Ruppelt was authorized to interview all military personnel who witnessed U.F.O.s irrespective of the chain of command.  It was an unprecedented authority that illustrated the seriousness of BLUE BOOK.

Under Ruppelt’s direction, BLUE BOOK investigated several high-profile cases.  They were high-profile because they were featured in the national press.  Dr. J. Allen Hynek (1910 – 1986), an astronomer, served as the project’s scientific consultant.  It was Hynek that established the categories known today as Close Encounters.  Dr. Hynek regarded himself as a wavering skeptic.  In 1953, Ruppelt returned to his office after a short period of temporary duty and found that his superiors had dismissed most of his staff.  Frustrated, Ruppelt recommended that BLUE BOOK turn over U.F.O. investigations to the Air Defense Command.  He then resigned.  He died from a heart attack in 1960 — aged 37.


  1. Blum, H.  Out There: The Government’s Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials.  Simon & Schuster, 1990.V
  2. Ruppelt, E. J.  Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.  Doubleday, 1960.
  3. Swords, M. D.  UFOs, the Military, and the Early Cold War Era.  Kansas University Press, 2000.
  4. Valle, J.  Passport to Magonia: On UFOs, Folklore and Parallel Worlds.  Contemporary Books, 1993.


[1] Tiffany Elworth Thayer (1902 – 1959) was an American actor, writer, and one of the founding members of the Fortean Society (1931). 

[2] Five people enjoying a picnic on 5 May 1945 were killed near Bly, Oregon, where a Japanese balloon fell on them.

[3] Today, we know that whales and other marine creatures use this zone, which Ewing called the Sound Fixing and Ranging channel (SOFAR), to communicate across entire oceans.

[4] Nathan Twining (later to become Chairman of the JCS, was the elder brother of Merrill C. Twining and the nephew of Rear Admiral Nathan C. Twining.  

[5] Arnold was a private pilot, a businessman, and a politician.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Air Force/Space Force, American Military, Corruption, Extraterrestrials, History, Mythical stories, U.S. Government. Bookmark the permalink.

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