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
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
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:
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 *_*.
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
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
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 Amazon.com and Barnes
and Noble). There is little not previously known in the new, official CIA
The CIA history is available on the web page of the Center for the
Study of Intelligence at www.odci.gov/csi (where odci = Office of the
Director of Central Intelligence.... shudder!)