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The term UFO has become a catch-all for any unidentifiable aerial phenomenon. Floating lights in the sky, strange readings on aircraft radars, and supposed sightings of little green men on the side of the road. How long have humans been seeing things in the sky?

You'll learn about the time the White House had a close run-in with UFOs, the origin of the phrase "flying saucer," and the truth behind the UFO sightings in Roswell, New Mexico.

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Did you know that the White House once had a close encounter with UFOs?

It was July 1952, and UFO obsession was at a fever pitch, thanks in part to an article that had appeared in an April 1952 issue of LIFE magazine called “Have We Visitors From Space?” The article featured 10 UFO cases that, in the opinion of one scientist quoted in the article, “have an out-of-world basis.” As evidence of their extraterrestrial origins, he cited things like the acceleration ability of the aircrafts and the fact that no human pilot could survive the maneuvers they pulled off. So it’s easy to see why, when seven weird blips appeared on the radar of Washington National Airport not long before midnight on July 19, 1952, the man in the air traffic control tower would crack a joke about “a fleet of flying saucers.” Soon, air traffic controllers at Andrews Air Force base were also seeing strange blips moving at incredibly high speeds on their screens.

But no one was laughing when those crafts, whatever they were, flew by the Capitol Building and the White House. Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, and this is The List Show. Mysterious craft buzzing the White House is just the first of many facts about UFOs that I’m going to share today.

Let’s get started. By the time interceptor jets were mobilized back on that day in July 1952, whatever craft had paid a visit to a snoozing Harry S. Truman had disappeared.

But, according to most versions of the story, when the planes left, the blips came back! When night ended, they left—and then came back again the following Saturday. Jets were called up again—but just when they would get to an area where the blips had been seen on radar, the blips would vanish from radar.

The incident was officially blamed on temperature inversion, an event in which—simplistically speaking—a layer of warm air traps cooler air underneath; radar signals bounce off the layer and appear to show objects that are actually near the ground in the sky. But the radar operators who saw the phenomenon, as well as the people behind Project Blue Book, didn’t accept that explanation, and what really happened remains unsolved to this day. Before we dive into any more facts about UFOs, we should discuss terminology.

UFO, of course, stands for Unidentified Flying Object, a term that the Oxford English Dictionary says was coined in 1953 by writer Donald Keyhoe in an issue of Air Line Pilot. In the article, though, Keyhoe mostly uses the term in quotes from Air Technical Intelligence Center reports, which is part of the U. S.

Air Force. In a document from the ‘50s, they defined a UFOB as “any airborne object which by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type, or which cannot be positively identified as a familiar object.” Things that fall into the category of familiar objects include balloons, birds, and planets. UFO isn’t the only acronym used to refer to these crafts.

A recently released government report that we’ll talk about later uses UAP, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon, amongst other creative abbreviations. And just because we call something a UFO doesn’t necessarily mean there are aliens involved, although of course the two terms are associated in the public consciousness. But if you do want to talk about little green men and sound super official about it, you can call them ETBs, or extraterrestrial beings.

There are also ETCs, or Extraterrestrial Crafts. These terms, by the way, come from an NSA list of terms included in unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act requests. If you were curious, yes, people did want government documents containing the word ALF.

And Big Bird. For some reason. You know Foo Fighters as a totally badass rock band headed up by Dave Grohl, but the term dates back to World War II.

The word foo seemingly originated from Smokey Stover, a popular comic at the time; members of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron paired it with the word fighters to describe the weird, annoying balls of light they spotted in the air over Germany. Grohl was apparently reading a lot of books about UFOs at the time, and—take note, wannabe rock stars—he has said that “there's a treasure trove of band names in those UFO books!" The phrase flying saucer has a pretty fascinating history. It seems to have gotten its big break after an incident that occurred on June 24, 1947.

Pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier looking for plane wreckage when he spotted nine metallic objects in the sky. They were huge—Arnold estimated they were each about the size of a DC-4 plane—and moving around 1200 mph. He thought they were military planes and reported them, at which point the press misquoted him as saying the objects were “flying saucers.” As Arnold recalled in an interview with legendary journalist Edward

Murrow: The misquote took flight, you might say—in the weeks afterward, flying saucers were spotted in 40 other states. And for a time, the phrase was basically shorthand for a UFO. Long before Kenneth Arnold saw flying saucers, people were spotting UFOs in the skies—and either drawing them or writing about them. As Richard Stothers put it in a 2007 piece for The Classical Journal, In that Classical Journal paper, Stothers focused on the Ancient Romans, who wrote about strange things in the sky all the time.

Some of them can definitely be explained by natural phenomena, like eclipses or meteor showers. Others, not so much. In 74 BCE, thousands of people witnessed a strange event in which, as Plutarch wrote around 150 years later, “a huge, flame-like body,” silver in color and shaped like a wine jar, interrupted two warring armies.

Pliny the Elder wrote that It eventually became as large as the Moon before going back into the sky. And in the 200s BCE, there were reports of things like “a spectacle of ships” and “round shields” seen in the sky. Things don’t get any less weird when you fast forward to the 1560s, when people living in Germany and Switzerland reported seeing strangely shaped objects doing aerial battle and flying around.

The first written record of UFOs in what eventually became the United States comes from the 1630s, when some men who were out on Boston’s Muddy River at night reported seeing a light in the sky. In the words of Governor John Winthrop, who recorded the incident Even stranger, by the time the incident was over, the boat the men were in had somehow moved a mile upstream—and then men weren’t sure how that had happened. Let’s jump forward in time to post-World War II, when modern UFO research really ramped up.

Sightings of weird things in the sky spiked, and the government responded by having the U. S. Air Force investigate the incidents.

The Air Force formed the first of several task forces, Project Sign, in 1948. It was quickly succeeded by Project Grudge, which itself was superseded by the most famous UFO inquiry, Project Blue Book, in the early 1950s. We’ll get back to Project Blue Book in a minute, but first, we have to talk about what is probably the most famous UFO incident of all time—the one that occurred near Roswell, New Mexico.

Here’s what happened: At some point in the summer of 1947, something crashed on a ranch outside of Roswell. The rancher who discovered the debris said it was “bright wreckage made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks.” In early July, he delivered some of the debris to the sheriff, who called in the big guns: the military. Men based at the Roswell Army Air Field went out to collect the rest of the debris, and soon, their press representative released a statement, which said: The statement made news around the country, even as the Army was backpedaling.

As Dick Pearce at the San Francisco Examiner reported on July 9, 1947, he called General George Ramey at a base in Fort Worth, Texas, who described the disc and noted his belief that it was a piece of a weather balloon, saying, Pearce described the initial statement as “the boner of” the Army’s public relations official and no, you’re 12 years old. Anyway, Pearce wrote that the debris was actually “the box kite radar reflector of a weather balloon” and that “while the mistake lasted, it was a honey.” And for a while, that was that—until the 1970s, when people who believed the government was covering something up started casting doubt on the official story. And in a way, they weren’t wrong.

What crashed outside Roswell may not have been extraterrestrial in origin, but it also wasn’t a weather balloon—most likely, it was part of Project Mogul, which was an experimental project to acoustically spy on the Soviets. OK, back to Project Blue Book—which was named after those little blue books you take college exams in, by the way. To handle UFO sightings, Project Blue Book asked people to fill out standardized questions, including “when did you see the object?” “where were you when you saw the object?” “what was the condition of the sky?” and “if there was more than one object, then how many were there?” UFO spotters were also asked to draw what they had seen, describe what sound it made, and note if its edges were fuzzy, bright, or sharply outlined.

Project Blue Book was active until 1969 and in that time, according to Britannica, recorded 12,000 incidents which were either identified—as things like atmospheric phenomena or man-made objects like weather balloons—or “unidentified.” The unidentified incidents accounted for 6 percent of the cases recorded by Project Blue Book. There are plenty of things that can be mistaken for UFOs. Venus, for example, is a prime culprit behind many supposed UFO sightings, probably because it’s so bright and so close to the horizon.

SpaceX rocket launches have been mistaken for UFOs, and so has an Army parachute team. Drones and certain cloud formations also make the list. But hands-down my favorite mistaken UFO story belongs to one UK resident actually called the police to report a bright object lingering near their home … which they later realized was the Moon.

What happened to Betty and Barney Hill is less easy to explain. Betty worked in child welfare, and Barney at the post office, and in September 1961, they spontaneously decided to take a vacation to give themselves a little R&R. They took a three-day trip, driving from their home in New Hampshire to Niagara Falls and Montreal.

On the way back, they were driving on dark, empty roads of New Hampshire’s White Mountains when they spotted a light in the sky that moved strangely—it moved upward instead of falling like a shooting star would. It got bigger and bigger, and eventually seemed to be keeping track of their car as they drove. When they looked at it through binoculars, they could see that it was a spinning object.

They kept driving, but eventually, Barney had had enough. He got out to confront the craft and saw grayish aliens inside with huge eyes. He felt like they were going to be abducted—he ran back to the car and hit the gas.

As they continued to drive, the Hills encountered some kind of roadblock and a fiery orb and passed out. When they woke up a couple of hours later, they were 35 miles away from where they’d been with zero memory of how they’d gotten there. Their clothes and shoes were mussed, and their watches weren’t working.

There were strange metal marks on the trunk of their car that made compasses go wild. Understandably disturbed, the Hills filed a report with Project Blue Book and went to a psychiatrist, who used hypnosis to help them remember what supposedly happened: Gray beings took them into a huge metallic craft, where they were separated and examined. The beings took samples of their hair, nails, and skin, and a needle was inserted into Betty’s abdomen.

Finally, their memories were erased. The Hills didn’t tell anyone about the incident until 1963. Ultimately, despite therapy, research, and getting the government involved, the Hills didn’t find out what had happened to them.

Many have been skeptical of their accounts, of course, including a young Carl Sagan, who, in 1967, was a Harvard Professor on a panel discussing the possible abduction. Project Blue Book officially filed their case under “insufficient data.” Let’s wrap up with a few facts from a report on UFOs that was released in 2021. The report, released by the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, or UAPTF, focused on 144 eyewitness reports of UAPs—unidentified aerial phenomena—reported by government employees, which occurred between 2004 and 2021.

Of those 144 cases, the report identified just one—one!—with confidence: It was believed to be a very big balloon that was deflating. The rest remain unidentified. That said, there were themes that emerged in the eyewitness accounts, including things like size, shape, and propulsion.

There was also the fact that sightings often occurred around U. S. military testing grounds, but the report notes that that might be because of large numbers of high-quality sensors in those locations and because aviators there are both more focused and encouraged to report anomalies. In some of the incidents, witnesses reported UAPs that moved in unusual ways.

According to the report, Does this mean aliens? Of course not, according to the task force. In fact, they think many of them will fall into a few explainable categories: 1. airborne clutter: think things like that aforementioned balloon, for example, birds, or drones. 2.

Natural Atmospheric Phenomena: things like moisture and ice crystals. 3. USG or Industry Developmental Programs: classified aircraft, baby!! 4. Foreign Adversary Systems: craft deployed by the likes of Russia or China.

All the rest end up in the “other” category. Comforting! And even then, as one official said, These objects might have appeared to move strangely because of observer misperception or things like sensor errors.

So we don’t have an explanation for these sightings yet, and unfortunately, it might stay that way, thanks to things like insufficient data and limited reporting. That said, because these UAPs could pose a risk to military aircraft and national security, these reports will continue to be collected and studied. So the truth ... might still be out there.

If you’ve had an experience with UFOs, let us know about it in the comments. Thanks for watching!