Flying saucer

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

An alleged flying saucer seen over Passaic, New Jersey in 1952
Nearly a year before the Flying Disc wave of 1947, pulp magazine Amazing Stories featured disc-shaped spacecraft.[1]

A flying saucer, also referred to as a flying disc, is a descriptive term for a type of flying craft having a disc or saucer-shaped body, commonly used generically to refer to an anomalous flying object. The term was coined in 1947[2] but has generally been supplanted since 1952 by the United States Air Force term unidentified flying objects, UFOs for short. Early reported sightings of unknown "flying saucers" usually described them as silver or metallic, sometimes reported as covered with navigation lights or surrounded with a glowing light, hovering or moving rapidly, either alone or in tight formations with other similar craft, and exhibiting high maneuverability.


Disc-shaped flying objects have been interpreted as being sporadically recorded since the Middle Ages (such as the 1561 celestial phenomenon over Nuremberg, which contained various other shapes as well).[citation needed]

On January 25, 1878, the Denison Daily News printed an article in which John Martin, a local farmer, had reported seeing a large, dark, circular object resembling a balloon flying "at wonderful speed". Martin, according to the newspaper account, said it appeared to be about the size of a saucer from his perspective, one of the first uses of the word "saucer" in association with a UFO.[3]

Another early recorded use of the term "flying saucer" for an unidentified flying object was to describe a probable meteor that fell over Texas and Oklahoma on June 17, 1930. "Some who saw the weird light described it as a huge comet, a flaming flying saucer, a great red glow, a ball of fire."[4] The term "flying saucer" had been in use since 1890 to describe a clay pigeon shooting target,[5] which resembles a classic UFO shape.

The highly publicized sighting by Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947, resulted in the popularization of the term "flying saucer" by U.S. newspapers. Although Arnold never specifically used the term "flying saucer", he was quoted at the time saying the shape of the objects he saw was like a "saucer", "disc", or "pie-plate", and several years later added he had also said "the objects moved like saucers skipping across the water." Both the terms flying saucer and flying disc were used commonly and interchangeably in the media until the early 1950s.

Arnold's sighting was followed by thousands of similar sightings across the world. Such sightings were once very common, to such an extent that "flying saucer" was a synonym for UFO through the 1960s before it began to fall out of favor. Many sightings of cigar or dirigible-shaped UFOs were reported following it.[6] More recently, the flying saucer has been largely supplanted by other alleged UFO-related vehicles, such as the black triangle.[citation needed] In fact, the term UFO was invented in 1952, to try to reflect the wider diversity of shapes being seen. However, unknown saucer-like objects are still reported, such as in the widely publicized 2006 sighting over Chicago-O'Hare airport.

Many of the alleged flying saucer photographs of the era are now believed to be hoaxes. The flying saucer is now considered largely an icon of the 1950s and of B movies in particular, and is a popular subject in comic science fiction.[7]

Beyond the common usage of the phrase, there have also been human-made saucer-like craft. The first flying disc craft was called the Discopter and was patented by Alexander Weygers in 1944. Other designs have followed, such as the American Vought V-173 / XF5U "Flying Flapjack", the British GFS Projects flying saucer, or the British "S.A.U.C.E.R." ("Saucer Aircraft Utilising Coanda Effect Reactions") flying saucer, by inventor Alf Beharie.


News notice printed in Nuremberg, describing 4 April 1561 Nuremberg mass sighting. Discs and spheres were said to emerge from large cylinders. From Wickiana collection in Zürich.

A manuscript illustration of the 10th-century Japanese narrative, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, depicts a round flying machine similar to a flying saucer.[8][9]

A supposedly medieval record of a silver disc flying over a village in Yorkshire in 1290 has been shown to be a hoax dating from the 1950s.[10] Disc-like flying objects were occasionally reported throughout the millennium. For example, in a mass sighting over Nuremberg in 1561, discs and spheres were reported emerging from large cylinders (see illustration). They are also claimed by ufologists to frequently show up in religious artwork.[11][12]

One of the McMinnville UFO photographs from 1950.
Magnification of second McMinnville UFO photograph from 1950.

Another well-documented specific comparison of the objects to saucers was the Kenneth Arnold sighting on June 24, 1947, while Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier.[13] He reported seeing 9 brightly reflecting vehicles, one shaped like a crescent but the others more disc- or saucer-shaped, flying in an echelon formation, weaving like the tail of a kite, flipping and flashing in the sun, and traveling with a speed of at least 1,200 miles per hour (1,900 km/h).[14] In addition to the saucer or disc shape (Arnold also used the terms "pie plate" and half-moon shaped), he also later said he described the motion of the craft as "like a saucer if you skip it across water", leading to the term "flying saucer" and also "flying disc" (which were synonymous for a number of years).

Immediately following the report, hundreds of sightings of usually saucer-like objects were reported across the United States and also in some other countries. The most widely publicized of these was the sighting by a United Airlines crew on July 4 of nine more disc-like objects pacing their plane over Idaho, not far from Arnold's initial sighting. On July 8, the Army Air Force base at Roswell, New Mexico issued a press release saying that they had recovered a "flying disc" from a nearby ranch, the so-called Roswell UFO incident, which was front-page news until the military issued a retraction saying that it was a weather balloon.

Initial Flying Saucer article in July 9, 1947 Irish Times

On July 9, the Army Air Force Directorate of Intelligence, assisted by the FBI, began a secret study of the best of the flying saucer reports, including Arnold's and the United Airlines' crew. Three weeks later they issued an intelligence estimate describing the typical characteristics reported (including that they were often reported as disc-like and metallic) and concluded that something was really flying around. A follow-up investigation by the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, Ohio arrived at the same conclusion. A widespread official government study of the saucers was urged by General Nathan Twining. This led to the formation of Project Sign (also known as Project Saucer) at the end of 1947, the first public Air Force UFO study. This evolved into Project Grudge (1949–1951) and then Project Blue Book (1952–1970).

The term "flying saucer" quickly became deeply ingrained in the English vernacular. A Gallup poll from August 1947 found that 90% had heard about the mysterious flying saucers or flying discs, and a 1950 Gallup poll found that 94% of those polled had heard the term, easily beating all other mentioned commonly used terms in the news such as "Cold War", "universal military training", and "bookie".


A lenticular cloud

In addition to the extraterrestrial hypothesis, a variety of possible explanations for flying saucers have been put forward. One of the most common states that most photos of saucers were hoaxes; cylindrical metal objects such as pie tins, hubcaps and dustbin lids were easy to obtain, and the poor focus seen in UFO images makes the true scale of the object difficult to ascertain.[citation needed]

Another theory states that most are natural phenomena such as lenticular clouds and balloons, which appear disc-like in some lighting conditions.[15]

A third theory puts all saucer sightings down to a form of mass hysteria. Arnold described the craft he saw as saucer-like but not perfectly round (he described them as thin, flat, rounded in front but chopped in back and coming to a point), but the image of the circular saucer was fixed in the public consciousness. The theory posits that as the use of the term flying saucer in popular culture decreased, so too did sightings.[16]

One of the first depictions of a "flying saucer", by illustrator Frank R. Paul on the October 1929 issue of Hugo Gernsback's pulp science fiction magazine Science Wonder Stories. Although the term wasn't used before 1947, fantasy artwork in pulp magazines prepared the American mind to be receptive to the idea of "flying saucers".

Long before the Kenneth Arnold sighting of 1947 and the adoption of the term "flying saucer" by the public, depictions of streamlined saucer-shaped aircraft or spacecraft had appeared in the popular press, dating back to at least 1911.[17] In particular, commentators like Milton Rothman have noted the appearance of the "flying saucers" concept in the fantasy artwork of the 1930s pulp science fiction magazines, by artists like Frank R. Paul.[18][19] Frank Wu, a notable contemporary science fiction illustrator, has written:[18]

The point is that the idea of space vehicles shaped like flying saucers was imprinted in the national psyche for many years prior to 1947, when the Roswell incident took place. It didn't take much stretching for the first observers of UFOs to assume that the unknown objects hovering in the sky had the same disk shape as the science fictional vehicles.

A scientific and statistical analysis of 3200 Air Force UFO cases by the Battelle Memorial Institute from 1952 to 1954 found that most were indeed due to natural phenomena, about 2% were due to hoaxes or psychological effects and only 0.4% were thought due to clouds. Other very minor contributors were birds, light phenomena such as mirages or searchlights, and various miscellany such as flares or kites. The vast majority of identified objects (about 84%) were explained as balloons, aircraft, or astronomical objects. However, about 22% of all sightings still defied any plausible explanation by the team of scientists, and percentage of unidentifieds rose to 33% for the best witnesses and cases. Thus when carefully studied, a substantial fraction of reports (given the available data) is currently not understood.

Fata Morgana (mirages) and flying saucers[edit]

Fata Morgana of distant islands distorted images beyond recognition

Fata Morgana, a type of mirage, may be responsible for some flying saucers sightings, by displaying objects located below the astronomical horizon hovering in the sky, and magnifying and distorting them.

Similarly some unidentifieds seen on radar might also be due to Fata Morgana-type atmospheric phenomena, though more technically known as "anomalous propagation" and more commonly as "radar ghosts". Official UFO investigations in France suggest:

As is well known, atmospheric ducting is the explanation for certain optical mirages, and in particular the arctic illusion called "fata morgana" where distant ocean or surface ice, which is essentially flat, appears to the viewer in the form of vertical columns and spires, or "castles in the air."
People often assume that mirages occur only rarely. This may be true of optical mirages, but conditions for radar mirages are more common, due to the role played by water vapor which strongly affects the atmospheric refractivity in relation to radio waves. Since clouds are closely associated with high levels of water vapor, optical mirages due to water vapor are often rendered undetectable by the accompanying opaque cloud. On the other hand, radar propagation is essentially unaffected by the water droplets of the cloud so that changes in water vapor content with altitude are very effective in producing atmospheric ducting and radar mirages.

Fata Morgana was named as a hypothesis for the mysterious Australian phenomenon Min Min light.[20]

Human-made flying saucer aircraft[edit]

The Avrocar, a one-person flying saucer-style aircraft

The first documented patent for a lenticular flying machine was submitted by Romanian inventor Henri Coanda.[citation needed] He made a functional small scale model which was flown in 1932 and a patent was granted in 1935.[21] In 1967, Coanda told a symposium organized by the Romanian Academy:

These airplanes we have today are no more than a perfection of a toy made of paper children use to play with. My opinion is we should search for a completely different flying machine, based on other flying principles. I consider the aircraft of the future, that which will take off vertically, fly as usual and land vertically. This flying machine should have no parts in movement. The idea came from the huge power of the cyclons[22]

An example, the CC1 was a saucer-shaped hovercraft prototype made by Cushioncraft powered by a Coventry Climax engine that drove 2x propellors (from a Hiller helicopter) and rotated fan blades around the periphery of the fuselage that lifted the craft 15 inches off the ground.[23][24][25][26][27]

Other attempts have been made, with limited success, to produce crewed vehicles based on the flying saucer design. While some, such as the Avrocar and M200G Volantor have been produced in limited numbers, most fail to leave the drawing board. The Avrocar, with vertical takeoff and landing, was originally intended to replace both the Jeep and the helicopter in combat situations, but proved to be inadequate for both. In spite of a powerful turbojet, it could not rise more than four or five feet off the ground, i.e., out of ground effect.[28] Thus, the Avrocar could be seen as a prototype for the early generations of hovercraft, lacking only a 'skirt' to make it a truly effective example of the type. Uncrewed saucers have had more success; the Sikorsky Cypher is a saucer-like UAV which uses the disc-shaped shroud to protect rotor blades.

Some more advanced flying saucers capable of spaceflight have been proposed, often as black projects by aeronautics companies. The Lenticular Reentry Vehicle was a secret project run by Convair for a saucer device which could carry both astronauts and nuclear weapons into orbit; the nuclear-powered system was planned in depth, but is not believed to have ever flown. More exotically, British Rail worked on plans for the British Rail "Space Vehicle" a proposed, saucer-shaped craft based on advanced technologies utilizing nuclear fusion and superconductivity, which was supposed to have been able to transport multiple passenger between planets, but never went beyond the patent stage.[29]

There is at least one design that received a US patent in 2005: U.S. patent 6,960,975. It claims to be "propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state".

Additionally, Professor Subrata Roy at the University of Florida has begun work on a Wingless Electromagnetic Air Vehicle (WEAV) for NASA which has received public interest because of its coincidental resemblance to a flying saucer.[30][31][32]

In popular culture[edit]

A small flying saucer leaves its larger mothership in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957).

After 1947, the flying saucer quickly became a stereotypical symbol of both extraterrestrials and science fiction, and features in many films of mid-20th century science fiction, including The Atomic Submarine (1959), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), as well as the television series The Invaders. As the flying saucer was surpassed by other designs and concepts, it fell out of favor with straight science-fiction moviemakers, but continued to be used ironically in comedy movies, especially in reference to the low-budget B movies which often featured saucer-shaped alien craft.

However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gave its high production value film Forbidden Planet (1956) a flying saucer called the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, presenting a plausible human exploration, faster-than-light starship of the 23rd century. The 1964 Italian movie Il disco volante featured a flying saucer, while the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball featured Ernst Stavro Blofeld's yacht Disco Volante. In the television series Lost in Space (1965-1968), the Robinson family had a disc-shaped spaceship. Saucers appeared in the television series Babylon 5 (1994-1998) as the standard ship design used by a race called the Vree. Doctor Who has featured many different designs of flying saucer in its history, most notably the saucers used by the Daleks. Aliens in the film Independence Day (1996) attacked humanity in giant city-sized saucer-shaped spaceships.

October 1957 issue of Amazing Stories magazine devoted to flying saucers. The sightings starting in 1947 ignited an obsession with flying saucers that lasted a decade.

The sleek, silver flying saucer in particular is seen as a symbol of 1950s culture; the motif is common in Googie architecture and in Atomic Age décor.[33] The image is often invoked retrofuturistically to produce a nostalgic feel in period works, especially in comic science fiction; both Mars Attacks! (1996)[34] and Destroy All Humans![35] draw on the flying saucer as part of the larger satire of 1950s B movie tropes.

The Twilight Zone episodes "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", "Third from the Sun", "Death Ship", "To Serve Man", "The Invaders" and "On Thursday We Leave for Home" all make use of the iconic saucer from Forbidden Planet.

Exhibition model of a flying saucer (2022)


  1. ^ Story, Ronald (March 2012). The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters. ISBN 9781780337036.
  2. ^ "This Is Why People Think UFOs Look Like 'Flying Saucers'". Time. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
  3. ^ "American Chronicle | Before the Wright Brothers...There Were UFOs". 19 August 2012. Archived from the original on 19 August 2012. Retrieved 4 July 2022.
  4. ^ Associated Press (19 June 1930). "Whicitan Among those Who Saw Meteor". Wichita Daily Times. p. 28.
  5. ^ "Shooting Notes". Dayton Herald. No. p. 4. 19 February 1890. Retrieved 8 May 2018.
  6. ^ Essay: A FRESH LOOK AT FLYING SAUCERS. TIME. Aug 4, 1967./ 1975-Loring Air Force Base UFO Sightings Archived 19 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine. about. com./ NASA Helioviewer: Giant Cigar-Shaped UFO Spotted Moving Close To The Speed Of Light?. INQUISITR. January 21, 2015./ 'Cigar-shaped' UFO spotted hovering over erupting Mexican volcano. the Daily and Sunday Express. May 5, 2015./ Retrieved all June 19, 2015.
  7. ^ "Sir Patrick Moore's Irish UFO film identified". BBC News. 16 August 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  8. ^ Richardson, Matthew (2001). The Halstead Treasury of Ancient Science Fiction. Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales: Halstead Press. ISBN 1-875684-64-6.
  9. ^ "Once Upon a Time". Emerald City (85). September 2002. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  10. ^ Rosenberg, Samuel (January 1969) [1968]. "UFOs in history". In Gillmor, Daniel S. (ed.). Final Report of the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects Conducted by the University of Colorado Under Contract to the United States Air Force. New York: Bantam. pp. 493–495. ISBN 0552047473. Retrieved 23 April 2022.
  11. ^ "Historical artwork and UFOs by Matthew Hurley" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 April 2013. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  12. ^ "ART and UFO – Intro". 12 November 2002. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  13. ^ "Invaders from Elsewhere". Strange Magazine. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  14. ^ Bloecher, Ted (2005) [1967]. Report on the UFO Wave of 1947 (PDF). National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
  15. ^ "Lenticular cloud UFOs". UFO Mistakes. Archived from the original on 4 March 2012. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  16. ^ Law, Stephen (2003). The Outer Limits: More Mysteries from the Philosophy Files. Orion Books. ISBN 1-84255-062-4.
  17. ^ "Early 20th Century magazine covers with "flying saucer"-like craft". Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  18. ^ a b Wu, Frank (1998). "Gallery of Frank R. Paul's Science Fiction Artwork". Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  19. ^ Darr, Jennifer (3 July 1997). "Coming To A Sky Near You". Philadelphia Citypaper. Archived from the original on 1 October 2015. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  20. ^ Pettigrew, JD. (2003). "The Min Min light and the Fata Morgana. An optical account of a mysterious Australian phenomenon". Clinical and Experimental Optometry. 86 (2): 109–20. doi:10.1111/j.1444-0938.2003.tb03069.x. PMID 12643807.
  21. ^ "OZN-ul lui Coandă, fascinanta creație care a înlemnit America!". 3 September 2010. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  22. ^ "Aeronautics – Henri Coanda". Archived from the original on 24 February 2013. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  23. ^ "Helicopter and VTO World" magazine July/August 1960
  24. ^ Jane's all the world's aircraft 1962-63
  25. ^ Aviation magazine 1960
  26. ^ Aviation magazine 1963
  27. ^
  28. ^ Winchester, Jim (2005). American Military Aircraft. Grange Books PLC. p. 68. ISBN 978-1-84013-753-8. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  29. ^ "British Rail flying saucer plan". BBC. 13 March 2006. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  30. ^ "New Flying Saucer Runs on Plasma". LiveScience. 12 June 2008. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  31. ^ "WEAV – Patent Application For A Plasma-Propelled Flying Saucer". 13 June 2008. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  32. ^ "The World's First Flying Saucer: Made Right Here on Earth: Scientific American". 7 July 2008. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  33. ^ "Astronomers and the Space Needle". Astroprof's. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  34. ^ "Alien Notions". Metroactive. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  35. ^ "Destroy All Humans! for PS2". GameSpot. Archived from the original on 11 April 2013. Retrieved 23 March 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adamsky, George (1953). Flying Saucers Have Landed. London: Spearman.
  • Adamsky, George (1955). Inside the Space Ships. New York: Abelard-Schuman.

External links[edit]