The Kenneth Arnold Sighting

by Michael Lauck

On June 24, 1947 civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing a formation of strange craft over the Cascade Mountains. Not only did he see nine craft of a strange design unlike any conventional aircraft he was able to calculate an estimate of their incredible velocity by timing them as they flew between specific mountains. He reported the sighting, which was picked up by national news services and soon entire country was buzzing about “flying saucers,” a popular term that derived from a misquote of Arnold’s description of the craft. Today Arnold’s sighting, which slightly pre-dates the Roswell Incident, is used by many to mark the beginning of the modern UFO era. Arnold was also involved in the original investigation of the Maury Island Incident which also took place in June of 1947.

Kenneth Arnold: The Man


Born in Minnesota in 1915, Kenneth Arnold would grow up in North Dakota. He was an athletic young man and high school football led to a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. Unfortunately a serious knee injury ended Arnold’s football (and college) career. After working for a manufacturer of fire fighting equipment and as a salesman, Arnold eventually started his own business called Great Western Fire Control. Throughout several western states Arnold sold and installed fire safety equipment, traveling as necessary in his own plane. An avid aviator, he was a founding member of the Idaho Search and Rescue Pilots Association and acted as a deputized pilot for the local sheriff and US Marshals. In the years after his sighting, he became active in politics and even ran for office unsuccessfully. In addition to his business and public service interests, Kenneth Arnold was a family man who would eventually have four daughters.

Strange Objects Over Washington

Kenneth Arnold’s life would change forever on June 24, 1947. While making a routine business flight to Yakima, Washington Arnold took time to look for a Marine trasnport airplane that had been lost in the area the previous winter. Instead of finding the wreckage, he noticed a bright flash in the air. From his cockpit he saw a formation of nine objects brightly reflecting the sun as they moved across the face of Mount Ranier. According to a radio interview he gave United Press radio affiliate KWRC the next day, his plane was at 9200 feet and 25 to 28 miles from Mount Ranier during the sighting. During the radio interview he described the initial impression of the formation as “a chain, kind of like the tail of a Chinese kite.” He also likened the movement of the objects to that of a flight of geese.

It struck Arnold that the odd formation was moving very quickly. He decided to clock the nine flying objects as they moved between Mount Adams and the volcano Mount Saint Helens. Later, once he had landed and had the opportunity to do the math required, Arnold determined that the objects were moving at approximately 25 miles per minute (1500 miles per hour), or about twice the speed of sound (Mach 2). Even if his calculations were off by a factor of two this would mean the object he sighted were traveling at approximately Mach 1. It would be another four months before the sound barrier would be officially broken by Chuck Yeager in the famous Bell XS-1! Although experiments were underway to break the speed of sound with a jet, a formation of nine planes flying at such high speeds would have been basically impossible for any nation in 1947.

Like Saucers Skipping Across The Water

Although the term “flying saucer” is popularly attributed to the Kenneth Arnold sighting, he did not describe the unidentified flying objects as saucer shaped. The misquote actually comes from his description of how the UFOs flew, which he stated was similar to the movement of saucers that one skipped across water. Arnold actually stated that the objects he saw were something like a pie plate cut in half with a convex triangle removed from the rear. In the KWRC interview Arnold mentions that he first believed the UFOs to be some type of new military jet with the tails painted in such a way that they were blending in with the background, even though they were not moving like traditional aircraft or in a standard formation. It was when he determined the amazing speed at which they were traveling that he became convinced he had seen something truly unusual. The entire sighting, which would be picked up by various news agencies and spread throughout the world, only lasted between two and two and a half minutes.

The military investigated Arnold’s sighting. He made a written report and was interviewed in early July by Army officers. Even though they were able to find other witnesses who had seen some or all of the objects from the ground, they eventually ruled the incident the result of Kenneth Arnold seeing a mirage from his aircraft.

Maury Island and Beyond

Kenneth Arnold’s sighting made him an instant celebrity and permanently attached his name to the subject of unidentifed flying objects. Ray Palmer, magazine editor and publisher, contacted Arnold about investigating a sighting near Maury Island, located in Puget Sound, Washington. Harold Dahl had reported seeing several donut-shaped objects flying over his boat on June 21. One, apparently malfunctioning, was dropping debris as it passed overhead. He claimed that this not only damaged his boat but also injured his son and killed his dog. Arnold agreed to investigate and flew to Tacoma to speak with Dahl, his associate Fred Crisman and military officers investigating the sighting. Dahl claimed to have been contacted by a man in a black suit who made vague threats about the consequences of continuing to speak of the incident. Not only were two of the military officers involved in the investigation killed in a plane crash after leaving, Arnold also reported engine trouble on his return flight. Photographs Dahl had supposedly taken of the UFOs were not turned over and samples of the slag-like debris given to Palmer allegedly went missing. Dahl and his son also disappeared. Given these events, Arnold was not able to file a story with Palmer about the Maury Island sighting. He did, however, pen a cover story article about his own sighting for the inaugural issue of Fate Magazine. In later years Harold Dahl would state that his report was a hoax and then later retract this statement, explaining he felt threatened it making hoax claims.

In addition to the article for Fate, Arnold wrote a booklet about his sighting titled The Flying Saucer As I Saw It in 1950 and The Coming Of The Saucers (with Ray Palmer) in 1952. He continued to deal in fire protection equipment, became active in politics and even started a uranium mining venture. He founded a UFO investigation group, the (World) Society of the Flying Saucer in the 1950s and continued to lecture and give interviews about his experiences throughout his life. Kenneth Arnold passed away in 1984.

Further Reading

Kenneth Arnold’s daughter’s website

The Coming Of The Saucers by Kenneth Arnold and Ray Palmer

UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Cover-Up 1941-1973 by Richard M. Dolan