The Return of the Flying Saucers: Reassessing Kenneth Arnold’s UFO Vision
This essay by Martin Shough is excerpted from Darklore Volume 5, which is available in paperback on Amazon US and Amazon UK. Feature image courtesy of Alex Andreev.
Pilot and businessman Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of nine “peculiar planes” skimming the peaks of Washington’s Cascade Mountains in June 1947 has unique significance. The worldwide press coverage that followed forever defined public awareness of “flying saucers,” and we will never understand their historical origins without an understanding of what Arnold said he saw and how his story was interpreted in the context of the times.
One aspect of this question concerns Arnold’s ability to see what he said he saw and to accurately describe it in the days and weeks that followed. Was Arnold a “reliable witness”? What does that mean? What is this quality of reliability? Is there any way to measure it
Another aspect is how the event and the report changed Arnold himself, along with the world around him. Arnold’s own descriptions of the objects he saw in June 1947 have been altered over the years. The history of this change is complicated and the reasons for this are difficult to extract. Why should this confusion have arisen? How should we deal with it?
There is a rather vague and cynical view that when inconsistent variations arise in eyewitness accounts, this simply serves to prove that testimony is always useless and can tell us nothing. The history of science clearly shows that this is not the case, but it is also clear that human observers are socially integrated and highly sensitive instruments whose fluctuating results must be astutely calibrated. This is especially true when the psychosocial milieu of inclusion is as richly evolved and highly cathected as is the mythology of the flying saucer. For this reason, when the historical record shows that witness statements mutate in explicitly inconsistent ways over time, we usually require a strong justification to give greater, or even equal, weight to later forms. Logic and experience tell us that we will normally minimize corruption and contamination if we start with a presumption in favor of contemporary evidence.
Arnold’s case is the first example of this general rule. He is unique in that the initial sighting report of him was born naked, so to speak. By definition, there was no cymbal mythology yet. But as time went on, what Arnold saw and said he saw became entangled with what society at large came to believe Arnold saw. When the children’s story was handed over for inspection by admirers and detractors, it became shrouded in mythical embroidery and confusion, until at last Arnold himself apparently disowned his own offspring and rewrote his will in favor of an impostor. We need to understand how and why this happened.
Fooled by Boomerangs…
It has become a widely traded legend that Arnold never described the disk-like objects at all. Many modern accounts claim that he originally reported nine “boomerangs” or “crescents”, but that one description of their movement – “like saucers skipping over water” – was misinterpreted by a journalist thus concocting the wholly fictitious image of “flying saucers”. . The journalist responsible has been widely identified, including in fairly recent literature, as Bill Bequette , author of the original story that went on the AP Wire from Portland’s East Oregonian on June 25, 1947.
The real part of this legend is that Arnold actually claimed, years later, that he had offered the simile of cymbals jumping over water as a description of the motion of objects. But the rest is a can of worms.
Although several different movement similes appear in early published sources, and in Arnold’s own Air Force report, it should be noted that the image of “jumping saucers” is not among them. The original sources contain other similes for movement: “like the tail of a Chinese kite, kind of weaving and going at a terrific speed”; “they flipped and flashed along”; “they flew like many times I have observed geese to fly in a rather diagonal chain-like line as though linked together” ”); “like fish flipping in the sun”; . The claim that they flew “like they take a saucer and throw it across the water” does not appear on record until Arnold offered it 3 years after the sighting in a “ Telephone interview with radio host Ed Murrow in 1950:
… when I described how they flew, I told them that they flew as if they took a saucer and dropped it into the water. Most of the newspapers misinterpreted and misquoted that as well. They said I said they were like a saucer; I said that they flew in the shape of a saucer  .
Three days later, a United Press story from Boise, Idaho, quoted an interview with Arnold that day (April 10, 1950) in which Arnold again complained, that…
“…the press misquoted me when they said I described the objects as flying saucers.” Arnold said that he simply described objects in flight as appearing to glide through the air like a saucer on water  .
If “most” newspapers had misquoted him in 1947, then there should be at least one that didn’t. But apparently all the newspapers misquoted him. From day one, Arnold’s story was sought out by phone and in person by countless reporters “coming out of the lumber industry”  , so one has to assume he had an opportunity to provide clarification. However, the “misunderstanding” was spread in the media within a few days and remained there.
The early press certainly reported Arnold’s frustration with the way his story was being mishandled. An interviewer said Arnold “harassed” “sighed” at all the “screaming and hysterics,” complaining, ” I haven’t had a moment of peace since I first told the story… This has all gotten out of hand. I want to talk to the FBI or someone. Half the people I see look at me as a combination of Einstein, Flash Gordon, and screwball. I wonder what my wife in Idaho thinks” . However, not a single early source reports that Arnold protested that his use of the word “saucer” had been misinterpreted, or reports the statement that they flew like saucers over water; while various sources, including Arnold’s own AAF report, contain claims, contrary to Arnold’s late claim, that they were saucer-shaped.
The original press stories were written by Pendleton’s East Oregonian journalists Bill Bequette and Nolan Skiff . The phrase “flying saucers” does not appear in any of them, but was invented by an unknown journalist or editor elsewhere (probably around June 27) on the basis of Bequette’s stories.
Bequette and Skiff had a first interview with Arnold at the newspaper office around noon on the morning of June 25, after which the initial stories were quickly written. Columnist Nolan Skiff’s first short story, written just in time to make the bottom cover of that day’s edition of the East Oregonian, uses the phrase “saucer-shaped plane,” proving that Skiff all along interpreted Arnold’s use of the word “saucer” that morning to be a form simile.
Bequette had suggested to Arnold that a cable story might reveal some information about the strange objects that he and Arnold assumed were some kind of Army Air Force jets or rockets. He wrote a separate, slightly longer story, which he placed on the Associated Press wire at the same time. Consistent with Skiff’s story, he also said that Arnold (misidentified as a US Forest Service employee) had described seeing “nine shiny saucer-like objects.”
At this point, the two journalists innocently went to have lunch. When they returned, they were surprised to find the office secretary struggling to receive phone calls and messages from all over the country demanding more information. Bequette’s AP cable seemed to have stirred up the entire Fourth Estate and he realized he had misjudged the impact of the story, so “I had to go to the hotel, find Arnold and wring out every last detail” [ 6 ] .
Bequette spent another two hours interviewing Arnold at his Pendleton Hotel that afternoon. A follow-up article appeared in the East Oregonian the next day, June 26, and was also telephoned to Portland from where it came out on the United Press wire. Naturally, it contained much more detail and corrected the mistake about Arnold working for the Forest Service; but he conspicuously failed to correct the use of the word “saucer” as a simile of form in the Skiff article and in Bequette’s earlier AP story the day before. The new story not only repeats the simile, but this time puts it explicitly in the mouth of Arnold himself, who is now quoted as describing the objects as “saucers” [7 ] .
Bequette also cites two different movement similes offered by Arnold. Neither of these is the “jumping into water” simile that Arnold much later claimed to have given Bequette. Instead, Bequette first quotes Arnold as saying that his erratic movement was “undulating like the tail of a Chinese kite” and then adds: “He also described the objects as ‘saucer’ and their movement ‘like a fish spinning in the sun’. ‘”. We should note that Bequette here explicitly separates the “saucer” shape descriptor from an associated motion simile (one that Arnold also used elsewhere).
When questioned by sociologist Pierre Lagrange in 1988, Bequette evidently did not recall the simile of “jumping saucers” motion; he also did not believe that he had coined the phrase “saucer” as a simile in itself. His original story had put this phrase in quotation marks and attributed it to Arnold. But he told Lagrange that it was possible and that he was willing to give Arnold the benefit of the doubt as to what he had meant  . However, when talking to author Ronald Story in early 1992 his memory seemed clearer on this point, saying that Arnold had used “Saucer” as a form simile that day. Aware that Lagrange had recorded a less explicit response, Story commented: “I can only repeat what he confirmed to me: that (it was) based on Arnold’s description”  .
The record tends to support Bequette’s memory. In addition to the Bequette and Skiff stories, there are several other early news sources that quote Arnold in the same terms, including, for example, additional reports sent by Pendleton by anonymous reporters on June 25 and 26. A UP dispatch quotes a local businessman as having been described by Arnold as “saucer-shaped”  .
A “special” correspondent for the Chicago Tribune filed a story after an interview with Arnold on June 25, quoting Arnold as saying the objects were “silver and shiny and appeared to be shaped like a pie plate.” There is no mention of dishes “jumping over the water”. The simile of crockery appears only for the form, not for the movement. Regarding the movement, Arnold is quoted as saying that they “rippled in flight like the tail of a kite” and “went past me like a bullet”  .
Of course, press stories can be incomplete. The only early source where we can be absolutely certain that we have all of Arnold’s words correctly recorded without loss of context is the KWRC radio interview of June 26, 1947. Two things about this broadcast are noteworthy for our present purpose. The first is background press activity well described by host Ted Smith , who indicates that Arnold had been interviewed directly by the United Press for UP staff reporting in Portland and perhaps elsewhere, as himself. Smith:
“Well, Kenneth, thank you very much. I know you’ve certainly been busy these last 24 hours, because I’ve spent some time with you, and I know that the press associations, both the Associated Press and our press, the United Press, have been behind you every minute. The Associated and United Press, across the country, have been behind this story. It’s been all over the news, on the air, and in every newspaper I know of. Uh, the United Press in Portland has made several phone calls to me here in Pendleton, and this morning, and from New York, I understand, they are behind this story…” 
Arnold also tells us in the interview that he had already given his own story directly to the Associated Press, not just secondhand via the wire and phone reports that we know were sent by Bill Bequette on June 25 and 26. This reinforces our impression of the kind of opportunities that were available for Arnold to correct a press misrepresentation directly to the wire services, had it really been the case that he had reported nine “boomerangs.” And the second point: in this definitive original source, broadcast June 26, Arnold does not mention anything about “jumping in the water,” nor does he correct Nolan Skiff’s article from eastern Oregon from the day before, attributing it to the description “aircraft like a saucer.” He wasn’t required to, of course;
We also discover that Arnold himself used both “saucer-shaped objects” and “saucer-shaped discs” as shape similes in his own original Air Force report typed by his own hand on or after July 8, 1947 or less. Again, just as important as the fact that Arnold uses these phrases is the conspicuous fact that he does not use these terms in the context of any simile of movement. Even if previous attempts to correct the journalists’ misunderstandings had indeed failed, especially if they had failed, this was Arnold’s chance, two weeks later, to establish the record firsthand in the most important official forum. But far from taking the opportunity to explain that he only mentioned cymbals in the first place to suggest a jumping motion, . And even though the “disc” shape Arnold drew in this report (and repeated several times in carbon copies for others) was more spade- or shell-shaped than true plate-shaped, with a “longer” axial relationship ( in the direction of movement) than wide”, most emphatically it was not remotely crescent- or boomerang-shaped (which of course would have been wider than it was long).
Page from Kenneth Arnold’s original report to the Air Force
…and puzzled by bats
There are two frequently cited early references that appear to be significant exceptions to the dominant discoidal description. An early newspaper report uses the phrase “crescent-shaped”; another says that Arnold described the objects as “something in the shape of a bat.” We will consider these in turn.
The Oregon Journal , June 27, said that Arnold “held firmly to his story that he saw nine crescent-shaped airships” but these words are not in quotes from Arnold, they are from the writer. When Arnold is quoted in the same article, he says: “They were crescent-shaped, oval at the front and convex at the back. I was in a beautiful position to see them…they looked like a big flat disk (emphasis added).” This describes the type of shape that Arnold drew for the Army Air Force, a flat plate with a cut edge or tapered trailing edge, and the “half moon” clearly plays the same role here as the “half pie pan” in the description used by Arnold elsewhere: “half pan with a convex triangle at the rear.” The shape in Arnold’s drawing suggests that he may have had a gibbous Moon in mind, that is, between half and full; however, the journalist has interpreted that “media” means “crescent” (in the imagination of some people “Moon” and “crescent” could be almost synonymous) and neglected the rest of the description.
The other sentence is found in the second Bill Bequette story published in the East Oregonian and telephoned to Portland on June 26 (see above). In this case, the phrase appears in quotation marks, and at first glance it is more problematic. Arnold described the objects to Bequette as “planes like a cake pan and something in the shape of a bat.” A modern reader whose mindset is influenced by the images in the form of flying wings that progressively took control during Arnold’s later years (beginning with his August 1947 claim that only one of the objects had been a sharp-winged crescent) , and ending with the belated statement that all nine were crescent-shaped) tends to interpret “something bat-shaped” as indicative of flying mammals of the genus Chiroptera which seem to imply broad, spread wings. But one’s first impression is spoiled by the fact that Arnold is also quoted in the same interview as saying that the objects were “saucer-like”.
The apparent incongruity of a bat-like image among the other descriptions and drawings of June/July 1947 may be a matter of our excessive literalism. Researcher Barry Greenwood has noted  that the Batman comic book franchise was popular at the time and that the “bat”-inspired design was widely circulated in print and on other products. This image was often far from naturalistic. Such an image might have influenced Arnold to think of the pointed trailing edges of his saucers as “something in the shape of a bat.”
Another interpretation of that early phrase could be that Bequette quotes the phrase out of context. Other possible explanations are that Arnold was referring to table tennis bats and/or aircraft classification signal bats.
Table tennis bats are widely (though not universally) known in the US as “paddles”. A table tennis bat, not quite round and with its “tail” tapering towards the handle, might well be an apt simile for the objects Arnold described and drew, but an American in 1947 might have been much more likely to think in the word “paddle” than the word “bat” in this context.
Perhaps for Arnold, as an aviator, a more likely allusion would be to the bat signal used on classification aircraft during that era. This object, “a flat round stick with a short handle, resembling a table tennis bat, used by a man on the ground to guide the pilot of an airplane when taxiing”  seems to have been universally known as a “bat” (“bat”), and the activity was known as “batting”. Arnold may well have been familiar with this “hitting” practice from the former Army Air Force flyers he mixed with, as well as from newsreels and scandal in the general aviation community.
Looking at the famous crescent flying wing illustrated in his 1950 brochure and 1952 book (an artist’s rendering of a wooden model Arnold said he made for the AAF) many have assumed this explains an early use of the phrase “something in bat form”, but this is a misunderstanding based on a failure to carefully examine the order of the dates. The flying wing model represents only one of the objects, and Arnold’s first realization of its unique shape postpones his use of that phrase, which he used only in the context of his early descriptions of “disc” and “saucer,” by at least five weeks. ”.
Kenneth Arnold showing the crescent-shaped UFO in 1952
By his own account, Arnold did not tell a soul that a ninth object could have been different from his “saucer-like objects” and “large flat disks” (i.e., it could have been wing-like, crescent) until saying so in private to the two Officers of the Army Counterintelligence Corps Capt. Brown and Lieutenant Davidson who interviewed him on July 31, 1947  . Reflecting on this omission when he first discussed the matter publicly in 1952, he excuses himself, explaining that it had been too uncertain an impression to even mention it to his wife. All of this is clearly inconsistent with the theory that he had told the newspapers about a bat-shaped crescent wing on June 25, 1947.
In addition, Bequette’s June 26 quote implies that all the objects (“they” – “them”) were “somewhat bat-shaped”. The crescent Moon model accurately reflects the sketch she had drawn for the FBI in August 1947 of only one of the objects, “a very spectral-looking thing (that) was not round at all” [17 ], which he said he selected for the purpose because he had found it distinctive. That first draw was held a couple of weeks after Arnold had been exposed to Captain Brown’s drawing of the Rhodes object, and Lt. Brown’s description of it as a “flying wing,” and was captioned in his own handwriting. as follows: “the object looked like this, the second from the last in the array. It seemed a little smaller.” Clearly the newly remembered form of this stranger has nothing to do with the phrase “bat-shaped” used to characterize all objects weeks before when Arnold hadn’t even been clear in his own mind that there was a stranger at all. . equally simple,
Once the story of the singular flying wing emerged, Arnold seems to have consistently kept it in the public eye for many years. As far as can be determined, he never described this object as bat-shaped. The allusion to bats disappears from the record early, before Arnold even acknowledged the existence of the flying wing. It was apparently a simile he used once that day in 1947 and, unlike “cymbal” and “disco,” it was never repeated. In later years, he doesn’t talk about mammalian bats, but about manta rays, rafts, medieval axes, and other things.
In the end we cannot know for sure what Arnold meant when he said whatever he said to Bequette and other journalists and intermediaries in June 1947, only what was printed, or broadcast and recorded. But, whichever way you look at it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the term “saucer” must have been chosen by Arnold that day to imply something significant about the shape of the objects he also described as bright, “great flat disks.” as featureless mirrors, objects that, while not truly circular, are somewhat round  .
And although Arnold since 1950 has denied using the word “saucer” exclusively or exactly as a simile of shape, this is not the same as a denial that the objects were discoidal. A preponderance of evidence shows that he was required to use the word “saucer” at least in part as a simile of shape for his “great flat disks.”
Arnold apparently never believed or claimed that his objects were perfectly circular disks, but his reaffirmation of this fact is too often presented as tantamount to admitting that he had really said the objects were boomerang-shaped. I have found no source in which Arnold ever described any of the objects as “boomerangs” and the uncritical echo of this claim throughout much recent skeptical literature has been damaging. However, the combination of vagueness and imagery creeps into Arnold’s own post-1950 descriptions, culminating in his denial of ever employing a “saucer” shape simile, are at least partially responsible.
Of flying discs and flying wings
Would Arnold have had any special reason to expect to see discoidal planes in June 1947?
At that time, images of roughly discoidal aeroforms were not totally unheard of. It is well known that some of the hundreds of imaginative spacecraft of all shapes depicted on the cover of Amazing and similar publications over the previous decades did indeed have discoidal symmetry. But Arnold, by his own account, was completely unfamiliar with science fiction and fantasy magazines, and certainly didn’t interpret his observation in a fantastical context. He thought he had seen Army “planes” or perhaps “guided missiles.”
The idea of a disc-shaped plane existed on the fringes of the aeronautical world. A speculative article on the design of a circular-wing aircraft appeared in print in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories in 1946. The magazines Science et Vie in France and Mechanix Illustrated in the US had published photographs of the abortive USAF experimental aircraft. – The heel-shaped “Flying Flapjack”, only one of which flew briefly in Connecticut before being scrapped, during the previous year. But there is no evidence in any documents that Arnold heard of these ideas at the time, let alone that he was influenced by an interest in them.
Vought V-173 “Flying Pancake”, the predecessor of the “Flying Flapjack”
In contrast to this, the flying wing designs were more than a fringe idea and a great hope: they were an engineering reality, developed in various forms in the US by former Lockheed designer Jack Northrop since 1939 ( of a concept pioneered by Northrop in 1929) and made famous in Nazi Germany by (among others) the Horten brothers, whose designs had been the subject of great interest in Britain and the United States in the immediate post-war period. This image spread much more widely in popular culture.
In fact, one witness (a Forest Service observer in the Cascades who saw a line of glowing things on the same day as Arnold) thought it prudent to emphasize to reporters that what he saw “was not the flying wing” [ 19 ] ; while Clyde Homan , manager of a tulip business who along with his farm foreman saw nine similar objects billowing and casting glints of the sun like shiny metal near Woodland, Washington on June 27, “I ventured the opinion that the objects could have been the new type of tailless aircraft known as flying wings”, although he could not make out any shapes behind the bright reflections, except that they were “very flat and very, very thin”  .. A couple of days later, a Portland newspaper quoted security Colonel Carl Spaatz : “The Army doesn’t have any aircraft that could fit the description of the discs; it is not the flying wing”  . A 3-page illustrated spread of the Northrop XB-35 appeared in January 1947 in Popular Science magazine . It would probably be fair to say that the flying wing was the iconic image of futuristic aviation in post-war America.
If Arnold’s sighting had been influenced by notions of what advanced aircraft should look like, one would expect his report to emphasize features of flying wings rather than Frisbees. And there are features of Arnold’s early verbal description that, taken out of context, can be interpreted as suggestive of flying wings. He talked about the “wing of the objects” or whatever, and emphasized that what puzzled him most about their shapes was that he “couldn’t find any tails on them.” If we ignore the talk about plates and disks, and if we also ignore Arnold’s own drawings, with his notation that flat disks were “longer than they are wide,” so your description of “half plate with a convex triangle at the rear” could also be interpreted as some kind of flying wing (wider than long) with a little “triangle” that is kind of a rudimentary fuselage, and from this we could get Arnold’s later image of the sharp-winged crescent. Is it possible that these details are, so to speak, fossils of Arnold’s true first impression, preserved within a more discoidal image that Arnold cobbled together over the first few weeks as he subtly tailored his story to conform to popular expectation?
It is understandable that there has been a cultural pressure in this direction, and one can point to individual influences. Arnold’s discoidal sketch in his Air Force letter must have been drawn after the United Airlines 4th of July case referenced in the letter. By July 4th the “flying saucer” or “flying disc” stereotype is becoming established everywhere, and Capt. EJ Smith , an impressive and influential witness Arnold allied himself with in his Army Air Force appeals to take saucers seriously – that day he had seen nine “discs” described as “circular, flat on the bottom and rough on the top, bigger than our plane (DC-3)” silhouetted against the Idaho sunset.