Image by Brittany Grabowski
In these strange times, an unidentified flying object is more likely to be some geek’s make-it-yourself drone than an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Up until not very long ago though, such simple explanations for sightings weren’t readily available. As newly revealed documents show, many past UFO incidents, including several in Massachusetts, were probably something other than meteors and weather balloons.
The aforementioned files relate to the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, and its investigation of more than 12,000 UFO sightings from 1947 through 1969. Predictably, most cases were easily explained—conventional aircraft, natural phenomena—but 701 remained officially “unidentified.” The Blue Book files were declassified years ago, but only available on microfilm until January, when they were posted on the Black Vault website of UFO enthusiast John Greenewald, who spent years obtaining them through Freedom of Information Act requests.
After fueling headlines for several days, the files were taken down last week due to usage rights complications. Luckily for those paranoid Bostonians who smell a cover-up, the Dig took a look before they disappeared.
We may be the only Massachusetts outlet to have taken significant interest. Greenewald’s database generated national stories, as well as local coverage about sightings elsewhere. With over 100,000 pages to peruse though, many of which were related to the commonwealth, only the Boston Globe seems to have paid any attention, and only for the length of an opinion piece on a single case.
Of course a lot of the Blue Book documents about spacecraft in Mass aren’t very exciting. For example, one report notes 11 Boston area sightings, nine of which “are attributable to an (aircraft) with an advertising banner” … or … “the characteristics of a searchlight or spotlight.” There’s also a 1964 report from the Town of Shirley in Middlesex County, in which the object is written off as a meteor, and a 1960 report from Wilmington, which has a box checked for “probably balloon.” Many others follow a similar pattern.
A few, however, are much sexier. One describes a 100-foot long “flying tube,” white in color, traveling through the air southwest of Boston at 100 miles per hour with “no sound, trail or exhaust.” The source of the report, an Air Force pilot, “chased [the] object but lost it in overcast.” The government’s conclusion? “Insufficient data.”
Another worthwhile report from Weymouth relates to an incident that inspired major headlines at the time. After waking up to a loud noise one night in 1963, a couple looked out their window and reportedly saw an object that, based on a crude drawing included in the documents, resembled a flying saucer. While this is somewhat unremarkable, a Quincy Patriot-Ledger reporter also allegedly photographed the object. Still, Air Force investigators found “insufficient data for evaluation,” arguing the photo was unreliable, while for some reason neglecting to include a copy in their files.
If you’re looking for pics though, one report included several from a 1952 sighting in Salem. They’re grainy photocopies of black and white images, with scattered spots across the skyline, but they’re better than nothing. Others, like a 1964 report from Needham, describe the stereotypical UFO (“a fair-sized silver disc-shaped object spinning hovering and manuvering (sic) over the Needham High School”) but nonetheless lack conclusive accompanying evidence.
At their most ominous, a couple Massachusetts UFO tales fell into the mysterious category of remaining “unidentified” after the investigations wrapped. One such report in the Black Vault archive was seen as credible due to the civilian witness’ prior experience as a pilot and satellite observer for NASA. One day in May 1964, said individual (whose name was redacted in the report) claimed to see a “strange elliptical object go across the sky” from a Sears parking lot in Cambridge.
“So we have another unidentified that falls in the general pattern of rapidly flying discs in straight trajectories,” the investigator noted. “Despite the shortness of the observation, consider weight must be given to the excellence of the observer who, in this case, was trained for specific tracking of objects in the sky.”
Probably the most interesting report is one from October 1952. While tracking two jets for research purposes, several members of MIT’s Weather Radar Research Group saw an object, described as a “Flying Saucer,” quickly approaching their planes, before it “suddenly went into a very tight (for the speed) turn to the right, headed back toward Boston and passed directly over our flight.”
The MIT researcher who reported the sighting heard later that day from an officer at Otis Air National Guard Base telling him to keep the information “confidential,” and the next day “had a visit from two men (from the Boston Office of Special Investigations, I believe).” He apparently suspected he might be getting dangerously close to state secrets.
“It seems highly probable that I may be poking into something that is none of my business, but on the other hand, it may be something that the Air Force would like to know about if it doesn’t already,” the researcher wrote.
The government definitely knew some things that the public didn’t know throughout the 1950s. In 2013, documents were finally released confirming the existence of Area 51 in Nevada, and its use in secret spy plane testing by the Air Force and CIA, which explains the base’s place in UFO conspiracy theory culture. (Or at least that’s what they’d like you to believe!) Furthermore, if the flying saucer seen around MIT was part of an earlier round of covert tests, the Air Force investigators didn’t reveal it in their report. They did note, however, that rumors of the sighting were spreading, implying a need to address the matter for public relations reasons. “It was apparent to the undersigned,” wrote the Air Force investigator, “that many people at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are familiar with this sighting and, as a result, an account of it may eventually appear in the newspapers.”
Looks like they didn’t have too much to worry about after all.