Project Sign was an official U.S. government study of unidentified flying objects. Project Sign undertaken by the United States Air Force in late 1947. Project Sign was dissolved in late 1948. Though Project Sign officially came to no conclusion about UFOs, some of the project's personnel came to favor the extraterrestrial hypothesis.
Background to Project Sign.
Sign was instigated following a recommendation from Lt. General Nathan F. Twining, then the head of Air Materiel Command. Just before this, Brig. Gen. George Schulgen, of the Army Air Forces air intelligence division, had completed a preliminary review of the many UFO reports--then called "flying discs" by military authorities--which had received considerable publicity following the Kenneth Arnold sighting of June 24, 1947. Schulgen's study, completed in late July 1947, concluded that the flying discs were real craft. Schulgen then asked Twining and his command, which included the intelligence and engineering divisions located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (then Wright Field), to carry out a more exhaustive review of the data.
In his formal letter to Schulgen on September 23, 1947, Twining wrote that (somewhat abbreviated):
He recommended that " ... Army Air Forces issue a directive assigning a priority, security classification and code name for detailed study of this matter." (Clark, 489) Though conducted by the Army Air Force, the study’s information and conclusions would be made available to all the armed services, and to scientific agencies with formal government ties.
Twining’s suggestion was approved on December 30, and on January 22, 1948, Project Sign formally began its work as a branch of Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, under the direction of Captain Robert R. Sneider.
Sign was seen as a very important undertaking: Ruppelt wrote that Sign "was given a 2A priority, 1A being the highest priority an Air Force project could have." Though it was classified "restricted", the study’s existence was eventually known to the general public, and was often called "Project Saucer". However, UFO historian Wendy Connors established, through an interview with a surviving Sign secretary, that "Project Saucer" was the project's original informal name and had started a year earlier in late 1946. If this was the case, then the Army Air Force had already begun investigation of UFOs well before the Kenneth Arnold sighting that launched the first flood of UFO reports of June-July 1947 in the United States. (See, e.g., WWII Foo fighter UFOs and the post-war ghost rockets)
Studies were undertaken by Air Intelligence at the Air Force base nearest to any particular UFO report, though some cases were studied directly by Air Materiel Command. Allen Hynek, then teaching astronomy at Ohio State University, was hired as a consultant to help weed out UFO reports which could be misidentified meteors, stars and the like. In 1985, Hynek reported that "I was quite negative in most of my evaluations. I stretched far to give something a natural explanation, sometimes when it may not have really had it."
Early in the modern UFO age, it was taken for granted by the U.S. Air Force that the flying saucers existed. As Ruppelt wrote,
Dr. Michael D. Swords writes that "The core personnel for the project were probably the most talented group to work on UFOs until the air force ended its investigation in 1969. Aiding chief officer, Capt. Robert R Sneider, were two outstanding aeronautical engineers, Alfred Loedding and Albert B. Deyarmond ... Completing the group was nuclear and missile expert Lawrence Truettner ... The quality of these people indicates the seriousness (and the comparative difference in later years) with which the air force considered the flying disk problem." (Swords, p. 91)
Sign’s first major undertaking was the study of a widely publicized UFO encounter known as the Mantell Incident. On 7 January 1948, Air Force pilot Thomas Mantell--in pursuit of an aerial artifact Mantell reportedly described as "a metallic object ... it is of tremendous size." (Clark, 352)--died when his aircraft crashed near Franklin, Kentucky. Project Sign investigators were officially inclonclusive about the Mantell case, but Hynek determined that Mantell had been chasing the planet Venus -- a conclusion that eventually met with widespread incredulity.
According to later Project Blue Book director Edward J. Ruppelt, Project Sign investigators were less skeptical about the Chiles-Whitted UFO Encounter over Montgomery, Alabama on 24 July 1948. In this case, two airline pilots reported that a rocket-shaped UFO, glowing blue and seeming to emit reddish flames, approached them on a near-collision course. Pilots Chiles and Whitted reported the object appeared to show a double row of ports or windows emitting an intense bluish-white light. (A similar object with a double row of windows was also seen over The Hague, Netherlands a few days earlier and independently reported to Project Sign.) Some Sign researchers were deeply impressed by the close UFO sighting from two highly credible pilot-witnesses. The reports of "windows" also suggested the objects were possibly occupied.
Project Sign: The Estimate of the Situation.
As Swords notes, "The project members reasoned that they had several dozen aerial observations that they could not explain, many of them by military pilots and scientists. The objects seemed to act like real technology, but their sources said they were not ours. The flying fuselage encounter (Chiles-Whitted) intrigued them. The Prandtl theory of lift indicated that such an odd shape can fly, but it would need some form of power plant advanced well beyond what we could build (e.g., nuclear)." (Swords, p.93) Sign personnel generally accepted that the more reliable witnesses were describing accurately what they'd seen. Given that there was no evidence that either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. had anything remotely like the UFOs reported, Sign personnel gradually began considering extraterrestrial origins for the objects. The result was the legendary Estimate of the Situation.
Swords argues that this consideration of non-earthly origin was "not as incredible in intelligence circles as one might think." Because many in the military were "pilots, engineers and technical people" they had a "'can do' attitude" and tended to regard unavailable technologies not as impossibilities, but as challenges to be overcome. Rather than dismissing UFO reports out of hand, they considered how such objects might function. This perspective, argues Swords, "contrasted markedly with many scientists characterizations of such concepts as impossible, unthinkable or absurd." (Swords, p93)
At about the same time the Estimate was working its way up the ranks, another group was arguing against any extraterrestrial origins for the saucers. Informally led by Major Aaron J. Boggs, this group was profoundly skeptical of the saucers' reality; Dr. Michael D. Swords noted that his peers described Boggs as "the Pentagon's 'saucer killer'" (Swords, 94)
Under Bogg's guidance, a competing document prepared by the anti-extraterrestrial group in the Directorate of Intelligence was also making the rounds in military intelligence. With input from the Office of Naval Intelligence this study (titled "AIR 100-203-79") argued that the flying saucers were probably real, though it suspected that they were craft made by the Soviet Union. There was concern in U.S. military intelligence circles that the Soviets could make aeronautical advances on the work of Nazi scientists, especially the Horten Brothers, who Swords describes as "a pair of brilliant aeronautical engineers far in advance of their U.S. counterparts." (Swords, 87-88) If the saucers were of Soviet origin, then they were operated so openly in U.S airspace by the Soviets probably as a method of psychological warfare "to negate U.S. confidence in atom bomb as the most advanced and decisive weapon." (Swords, 100) However, Sign researchers could find no hard evidence supporting this hypothesis. With the emergence of cases like the Chiles-Whitted sighting, a rift developed within Sign’s staff between those who thought UFOs might be extraterrestrial (see the extraterrestrial hypothesis or ETH) and those who rejected this idea in favor of a more prosaic explanation.
With Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg's rejection of The Estimate, Ruppelt said it was clear to the Sign personnel who supported ETH that there was no support at the top. As Swords writes, "Despite Vandenberg's negative reception of the estimate, Project Sign personnel did not back off." (Swords, 96) Sign continued their investigations of UFO reports, and continued favoring the ETH. Swords speculates that this refusal to change their approach was due to strong minority support for the ETH within the Pentagon and/or a rather mild rejection of the Estimate. In one case, seeking evidence of an advanced propulsion system, Sign personnel tested the radiation levels of a National Guard aircraft which was said to have had a "dog fight" with a flying saucer over Fargo, North Dakota.
General Charles P. Cabell asked Sign for a second, non-extraterrestrial opinion of the flying saucers. Sign submitted a report which did not explicitly mention extraterrestrial ideas, but strongly hinted at them, even citing the works of Charles Fort to argue that unusual objects had been flying in the earth's skies for decades before the Arnold encounter. This continued persuit of the ETH led to a debate at the National Bureau of Standards in November, 1948 where the competing hypotheses were represented by Sneider and Boggs. As Swords writes, "When the smoke cleared, Boggs and AIR-100 were the victors." (Swords, 96)
By late 1948, Project Sign was discontinued in name and replaced by a much more negatively oriented Project Grudge. Ruppelt reported that the choice of the word "Grudge" to describe the new project was deliberate.
Ruppelt referred to the Project Grudge era as the "Dark Ages" of official Air Force UFO investigations. Still, by late 1949, some 20 percent of UFO sightings remained classified as "unknown" by Grudge. By late 1951, according to Ruppelt, some highly influential Pentagon generals had become so disenchanted with Grudge's debunking that Grudge itself was dismantled and replaced by Project Blue Book, with Ruppelt in charge.
Historian David Michael Jacobs argues that, overall, Project Sign’s personnel did an admirable job. However, "Its main problem was that the staff was too inexperienced to discriminate between which sightings to investigate thoroughly. Because of unfamiliarity with the phenomenon, the staff spent inordinate amounts of time on sightings that were obviously aircraft, meteors or hoaxes." (Jacobs, 47)
Sources for Project Sign.
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