In the summer of 1952, the mayor of Alexandria was trying to clean up the city’s “skid row” on lower King Street, Virginia farmers were suffering through a punishing drought, the United States Senate was investigating a communist plot to infiltrate the Boy Scouts. But over the nighttime skies of the Washington area, something far more dramatic was happening.
“Until unidentified objects — we call them targets — began moving onto our radar scopes, I thought people who reported flying saucers were just seeing things,” said Air Force Radar Specialist James Ritchey at the time. “Now, I don’t know what to think.”
Ritchey’s bewilderment — splashed across the front page of the July 29, 1952 edition of the Alexandria Gazette — was understandable. Experiencing the unexplainable can be an existential threat for many people. But for an Air Force guy whose job it was to identify objects in the sky, being unable to recognize an airborne craft can be a tough pill to swallow.
“I don’t think the objects were balloons or anything moving with the wind because their speed was greater than that of the wind,” Ritchey told a Gazette reporter. “I don’t see how they could have been ducks, geese or any kind of night birds — these can be picked up on radar, but they wouldn’t explain the lights. As I said, I just don’t have an explanation, and neither does anyone else as far as I know.”
Over the next few weeks, several explanations emerged in the pages of the Gazette. Winthrop Coxe and Rollin Gillespie — two writers with the International News Service — theorized that the unexplainable phenomenon had been “swarms of electrical particles” whirling through the air at high speeds. In a column that appeared on the editorial page, they attempted to put a scientific face on debunking the widespread notion that Washington was being visited by extraterrestrials.
“In the laboratory, any studious schoolboy can wind a wire around an iron bar, send through the wire a current of electricity and produce a magnetic field,” Coxe and Gillespie wrote. “They are real, but there is nothing to fear from them.”
Their explanations didn’t wash for many skeptics, and Washington’s famous 1952 experience with UFOs became a local legend. To this day, events from that summer have yet to be fully explained. And for many who research UFOs, this is only one story among thousands — disparate pieces of a mystery that has yet to be solved.
<b>FOR MANY YEARS</b> after World War II, UFOs gripped the American imagination. The phenomenon began in the summer of 1947, when a west-coast pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine disk-like objects flying over Mount Rainier, Wash. He said they were traveling at tremendous speeds, which he estimated to be at least 1,200 miles per hour. The next month, mysterious debris was found at a crash site near Roswell, N.M. The subsequent newspaper coverage opened a floodgate, with reports of UFO sightings becoming commonplace.
“Right after the war, people started seeing things that nobody could identify,” said Don Berliner, chairman of the Alexandria-based Fund for UFO Research. “The press doesn’t cover these things anymore, so it appears that nothing is going on. But we have just as many UFO sightings now than we did back then. It’s just that people are afraid of being laughed at.”
Berliner doesn’t want people to laugh. He’d rather that they think — and maybe apply a little science. The fund that he helped create in 1979 has been doing this for more than 25 years: providing grants to clinical psychologists, publishing scientific articles, sponsoring conferences, hosting seminars and holding press conferences. From his apartment on the second floor of Hunting Point, Berliner oversees the operation of the fund.
“I want proof,” said Berlinier. “Scientists say that there could be millions of other civilizations. Are they interested in travel? We don’t know?”
Half the money comes from the sale of publications like “UFO Sightings in the New Millennium” by Richard Hall or “Final Report on the Psychological Testing of UFO Abductees” by Ted Bloecher. The other half of the fund’s money comes from donations from private individuals. The group’s executive committee meets when needed to make decisions about how and when to invest.
“Unfortunately, we don’t make that many decisions because we don’t have that much money,” said Rob Swiatek, a member of the executive committee. “Things pick up when there is more interest in the subject, like in 1997 when it was the 50th anniversary of the 1947 sightings.”
Swiatek, a physics patent examiner with the United States Patent Trade Office, said that he would like to see more mainstream scientists and academics working on the subject. He said that would lend some credence to the topics, which is often overlooked or scorned. The mystery of unexplained events is a lingering source of interest for Swiatek and many devotees, who see the UFO phenomenon as a series of unanswered questions.
“I am convinced that something is going on that is not prosaic or mundane,” Swiatek said. “We’re having encounters with non-human intelligence.”
<b>CRITICS OF UFO</b>s say that it’s all a hoax, or that weather patterns are responsible. Yet those who claim to have seen them swear by their presence. After the Washington flap in the summer of 1952, the Air Force was at great pains to explain itself. So it initiated Project Bluebook, a 17-year investigation of the UFO sightings culminating in a controversial report by nuclear physicist Edward Condon. Titled “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects,” the document was popularly known as the “Condon Report.”
“Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge,” the 1968 report said. “We feel that the reason that there has been very little scientific study of the subject is that those scientists who are most directly concerned, astronomers, atmospheric physicists, chemists, and psychologists, having had ample opportunity to look into the matter, have individually decided that UFO phenomena do not offer a fruitful field in which to look for major scientific discoveries.”
Essentially, Condon’s committee of scientists reported, there was nothing to it. But many critics of the Air Force investigation said that the unexplained events in the body of the text were not considered in the sweeping denial at the conclusion of the report. At the time the report was issued, Don Berliner was working for a group known as the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena — a private group that acted as a central clearinghouse for reports of UFO sightings, making television appearances and conducting radio interviews from its Dupont Circle office.
“We established ourselves as a reliable source of information in a field where there’s not a lot of reliable information,” Berliner said. “I had never worked so many hours in my life. I was supposed to be a staff writer and sighting analyst, but I did everything except sweep the floors.”
In the late 1960s, the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena was expanding its membership dramatically, and the involvement of prominence scientists gave the organization academic credibility. But after the 1968 Condon Report, mainstream scientists abandoned the cause in droves. The Air Force shut down its investigation, and reports of UFO sightings became the topic of ridicule and scorn.
“Even today, the vast majority of people who see UFOs keep quiet about it,” Berliner said. “They are afraid of being laughed at.”
But reports of sightings persist, and questions linger. That’s why Berliner and others continue to investigate the subject, asking questions they say remain unanswered. Berliner has written a number of books on UFOs, published countless articles and remains one of the country’s preeminent experts on the topic. For him, the Holy Grail of UFO research would be for his organization to get its hand on a piece from the 1947 crash landing at Roswell.
“Somebody out there had to have taken a piece when nobody was looking,” Berliner said. “We’ve got pages of protocol for what we want checked.”
<b>A NATIVE OF COLUMBUS</b>, Ohio, Berliner graduated from Bexley High School in 1947. He studied journalism and accounting at Ohio State University before joining the Air National Guard to help pay for college. One day, he read a newspaper account in the Ohio State Journal of a UFO story that was being investigated by a Ground Observer Corps headquartered across the street from his father’s accounting office.
“So I threw around some military language and BS’d my way in,” Berliner said. “I had no more business there than my Aunt Sophie. But they didn’t know that.”
Berliner said that he then passed along a series of reports to newspaper reporters covering the subject in the local press that documented regional UFO sightings of aluminum-colored discs zooming through the air at tremendous speeds. The chance encounter was an early experience with UFO sightings, and Berliner later left the Air National Guard and took a job as a reporter for the Painesville Telegraph.
“The city editor found out that I had an interest in UFOs,” Berliner said. “So I got calls from all the people who said they had seen UFOs. Most of the calls were nothing, but one sighting was a real mystery.”
He wrote a story about that sighting in 1961 and sent one copy to the Air Force and another copy to the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena. The Air Force initially claimed it was a rocket launch at Wallops Island, Va. That didn’t seem to make sense to Berliner, who wrote a letter disputing the ability to see such a launch from Ohio. An Air Force officer wrote again to change the explanation to a scientific research balloon launched in Iowa that was 600 miles away from the eyewitnesses who reported the sighting. He wasn’t satisfied with that explanation either.
“The government was playing fast and loose with the truth,” Berliner said. “If I hadn’t challenged their initial explanation, it would have gone into the record book that way.”
<b>IN 1962, BERLINER</b> packed up and headed for Washington, D.C. He wanted to be at the center of things, and he knew that the nation’s capital would offer him the kind of research opportunities he wanted to pursue a writing career. He took a series of jobs writing newsletters for various Washington associations like the National Aeronautics Association, which was then engaged in a massive effort to put a man on the moon. But his interest in UFOs persisted, and he eventually joined the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena as a staff writer and sighting analyst.
“We were at the center of the world,” Berliner said. “Every week, we would get calls from airline pilots who had seen things. This convinced me even more that were was something going on.”
But the Condon Report abruptly ended public fascination with UFOs in 1968, and Berliner left the organization to launch a freelance writing career that includes a wide range of subjects: aviation, space travel and, of course, UFOs. He moved to Hunting Point in 1969, and has lived in the same second-story apartment ever since. By the late 1970s, the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena had all but vanished — and many people skeptical of the official explanation were eager to continue its work.
“The press wasn’t covering it anymore,” Berliner said. “So it appeared that nothing was going on. But it was.”
By 1979, Berliner and others decided to take matters into their own hands. They created the Fund for UFO Research as a way to funnel resources toward investigating the unexplained UFO sightings as well as alleged alien abduction stories.
“Some of my best friends are abductees,” Berliner said. “Their stories are consistent in ways even they don’t recognize.”
One of the Fund of UFO Research’s major undertakings involved giving a grant to a clinical psychologist who looked for similarities in the psychological makeup of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. The study was unable to find any — evidence to Berliner and others that there is more to their stories than delusion.
“People all over the world are having highly consistent experiences,” Berliner said. “There’s got to be something to it.”
<b>WITH PUBLIC INTEREST</b> in the topic of UFOs at an all-time low, the subject receives little attention outside of late-night cable television. The Fund for UFO Research continues to conduct seminars on UFO-related topics and host conferences where abductees can get together and share their stories. But the group continues to have a hard time attracting scientists and academics.
“Scientists flee in terror when you bring up the subject,” Berliner said. “Probably 90 percent of the people who see things don’t’ want to report them. And those 10 percent who do have no idea who to call.”
But Berliner’s group carries on — with every phone call to the group’s voice mail and every hit its web site. For many people, the mystery of the unidentified flying objects continues to be obscured by unknown facts and missing pieces to the puzzle.
“I’ve been at this for 40 years, and I still don’t know what the blasted things are,” Berliner said, staring out the window into the middle distance of the sky over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. “A lot of people want to know. I want to know.”