CIA's UFO Explanation Is Preposterous

In 1997 the CIA published an article that describes its involvement in the history of UFO phenomena. (The article is published in the unclassified version of "Studies in Intelligence," a twice-yearly CIA journal. It is available at the CIA website.) According to historian and author Jerry Haines, the CIA believed that when the U-2 high altitude spy plane began flying in early August, 1955, "commercial pilots and air traffic controllers began reporting a large increase in UFO sightings."

The U-2 is the high altitude spy plane made famous by the 1960 shootdown of Gary Powers as he flew over the Soviet Union and by photos of Russian missile sites in Cuba during the "Cuban Missile Crisis." Mr. Haines has written,

"According to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U-2 project and the OXCART (SR-71 or Blackbird) project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950's through the 1960's were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States. This led the Air Force to make misleading and deceptive statements to the public in order to allay public fears and to protect an extraordinarily sensitive neational security project. While perhaps justified, this deception added fuel to the later conspiracy theories and the coverup controversy of the 1970's. The percentage of what the Air force considered unexplained UFO sightings fell to 5.9 percent in 1955 and to 4 percent in 1956."

This explanation for many ("over half of all") UFO reports is new in the sense that it has never before been publicized. It was not contained within documents released by the CIA in December, 1978 after a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIPA) by Ground Saucer Watch, a civilian UFO organization which closed in the early 1980's. According to Mr. Haines the U-2 was reported as a UFO because "the early U-2's were silver (they were later painted black) and reflected the rays of the sun, especially at sunrise and sunset. They often appeared as fiery objects to observers below. Air Force BLUE BOOK investigators, aware of the secret U-2 flights, tried to explain away such sightings by linking them to natural phenomena such as ice crystals and temperature inversions. By checking with the Agency's U-2 Project Staff in Washington, BLUE BOOK investigators were able to attribute many UFO sightings to U-2 flights. They were careful, however, not to reveal the true cause of the sighting to the public."

Project BLUE BOOK was the publicly known Air Force effort to collect UFO sightings and explain, or at least categorize, them as explainable or unexplainable. Project Blue Book ran from early 1951 through 1969. When it closed Blue Book and its predecessors (Project Sign, 1948, and Project Grudge, 1949-1951) had collected about 13,000 sightings, of which about 700 were left unexplained.

The claim that the U-2 caused "over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950's through the 1960's" is, to put it gently, preposterous. The U-2, with its 80 ft long by 6 ft wide (front to back) wingspan flew at 60-70,000 feet and at that altitude was essentially invisible during the day.

It created no contrail because of the lack of moisture at that altitude. It was, after all, intended to be invisible! During the hour before sunrise and the hour following sunset it would be possible for an unpainted aircraft to reflect the sun enough to be visible, perhaps with a reddish glow resulting from the reddening of sunlight (caused by passage of the sunlight through the atmosphere, which acts like a filter that removes blue and green relative to red). High altitude balloons (e.g., Project Skyhook) did cause some UFO reports during these times of day and were so identified by the Air Force and civilian investigators. However, only a small fraction of sightings occur during these times. The largest fraction of sightings is at night when the U-2 can't be seen and the next largest fraction is during the daytime.

A check of the Project Blue Book sighting statistics, which includes sightings by pilots and air traffic controllers as well as by military personnel and civilians, shows the following: for July, 1955 there were 89 reports and for August there were 67. These numbers are the sum of explained and unexplained sightings and so, presumably, include U-2 sightings, if any. These numbers show that the sighting rate **diminished** just as the U-2 started flying. The Blue Book record shows about 316 sightings in the 6 months before the U-2 and about 326 in the six months afterward. Not much change over this longer time period. Mr. Haines has pointed out that the percent unexplained fell from 5.9% in 1955 to 4% in 1956, with the implication that this decrease was a result of more explained U-2 sightings. If we assume that the increase in sightings from 316 to 326, mentioned above, was caused by the U-2, then the U-2 could acount for about 100 x (10/320) = 3% of the sightings in the 6 months following. Hence these statistics do not bear out the claim that there was a large increase in sightings by any segment of the population, pilots and air traffic controllers included, once the U-2 aircraft started flying.

Statistics based on a different set of data are contained within the "U Database" of over 14,000 sightings by Larry Hatch (Larry Hatch Software, 142 Jeter St., Redwood City, CA 94025-1957). This excellent PC based software provides statistics that are based on unexplained sightings recorded by Project BLUE BOOK and by other organizations (civilian UFO groups). If Project BLUE BOOK investigators explained some sightings as the U-2, these sightings would not appear in the list of unexplained Blue Book sightings and hence would not be included in this database. On the other hand, the far larger collection of non-Blue Book sightings in this database could include U-2 sightings, if the CIA is correct, that were not identified by civilian investigators who were unaware of the U-2's existence and hence a comparison of the sighting statistics before and after U-2 flights started could provide evidence that the U-2 was being reported as a UFO. In this database I find the following:

1955 11894121130291213126157
1956 1011751320334396123174
1957 36736512791011011189
1958 504835284126158

As one can see from the above table, there is scant evidence of a jump in sighting rate following the first flight of the U-2 on Aug. 4, 1955. The surprising jump in November, 1957 is coincident with the "Sputnik flap" which occurred just after Sputnik 2 was launched. (This flap is noted for the large number of close-range car-stopping events. Most of the sightings were not sightings of Sputnik itself.)

An even more telling set of statistics uses the sightings which occurred near sunrise or sunset when, according to Mr. Haines, the U-2 would have appeared as a shiny or fiery bright spot in the sky. TIME 0400 to 0700 (which encompasses the time before sunrise) (With a time window this wide we get an overestimate of the number of sightings just before sunrise since the time of sunrise varies during the year.) August 1955 is noted by *_*.

1955 1000001*2*11107
1956 01011262101015
1957 110010101013119
1958 0001000000001

TIME 1700 to 2100 (which encompasses the time after sunset) (With a time window this wide we get an overestimate of the number of sightings just after sunset since local sunset time varies during the year.)

1955 53305010*7*245246
1956 512222612203037
1957 020001031226338
1958 10121011201010

Clearly there is no statistical support for a sudden increase in the number of sightings at sunrise or sunset when the U-2 started flying. In fact, the number of sightings in August 1955 was lower than during the previous month.

In the early 1960's many of the U-2s were painted black or other camouflage colors thus reducing the number of U-2's that could potentially be seen by glint reflection from the sun. Aside from the statistics it should be pointed out that many unexplained sightings involved relatively nearby, structured objects, not nearly invisible distant points of reflected light. These objects were reported to move rapidly at speeds that would far exceed in apparent speed that of the U-2, flying at about 500 mph at 70,000 ft (the U-2 would seem to move slowly, if seen at all).

The documented history of the agency involvement has been known to ufologists since late 1978 when the CIA released documents (900 pages) after an FOIPA lawsuit. The history has been published in "Clear Intent" by Larry Fawcett and Barry Greenwood, in "Above Top Secret" by Timothy Good and most recently in "The FBI-UFO Connection/the REAL X-files" by Bruce Maccabee published by Llewelyn Pub. Co. (available at and Barnes and Noble). There is little not previously known in the new, official CIA history.

The CIA history is available on the web page of the Center for the Study of Intelligence at (where odci = Office of the Director of Central Intelligence.... shudder!)

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© copyright B. Maccabee, 2000. All rights reserved.