Happening largely over North Central Texas in September 1957, an Air Force RB-47 surveillance airplane encountered a luminous flying disk. The 1957 case was brought to light in 1967 by the pilot and two crewmembers who experienced it. Included as case number five in Edward U. Condon’s 1969 book Final Report of the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects (commonly called The Condon Report), it is an amazing tale of a harrowing UFO encounter.
The episode was one of the Condon Report’s admittedly “unexplained phenomena” and caused the report’s authors to state that they “remained deeply impressed by the experience and were surprised that a report of it was not [originally] part of Blue Book files.” Investigators tracked down and interviewed three of the original six crewmembers of the B-47. The stories told by the pilot and two other officers, interviewed separately, seemed to agree almost perfectly. In 1969, the case was investigated to an even greater extent by University of Arizona professor Dr. James E. McDonald, who admitted to being fascinated by it.
On the 19th or 20th of September, 1957, a large, intensely bright fireball – alternating in color from white to red – chased an Air Force RB-47 for more than 600 miles over a period of more than an hour. During the chase, the mysterious object was seen visually by the plane’s crew, was detected by ground radar at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, and was also picked up by direction-finding radar installed on the RB-47. Dr. McDonald was impressed that “three independent sensing systems … were giving seemingly consistent indications: two pairs of human eyes, a ground radar, and a direction-finding radar receiver in the aircraft.”
McDonald also finds significance in two other facts about this case. First, because the plane involved was a B-47 with special equipment and modifications for use in missions involving electronic reconnaissance and electronic countermeasures (ECM), it was able to detect a strong radar signal emanating from the unidentified flying object at a frequency of 2,800 megacycles. Second, the UFO exhibited performance characteristics that ruled out the possibility it was any kind of conventional or secret military aircraft.
The incident began in the skies near Gulfport, Mississippi, when Frank B. McClure of Wichita, Kansas, operating ECM station number two at the rear of the aircraft, first detected the strong 2,800-megacycle radar signal from an airborne source at first seemed to be behind the aircraft but later seemed to be ahead of it. After examining the data later, Dr. McDonald reached the amazing conclusion that, during the encounter, the UFO “had flown a circle around the RB-47 at 30 to 35,000 feet altitude while the aircraft was doing about 500 knots [575 miles per hour].”
At first, McClure ignored the intense radar signal that he was receiving, as he had no idea what the source was and thought that he might be picking up something from a ground radar station. His readings became significant moments later, when pilot Lewis D. Chase of Spokane, Washington, suddenly spotted what he first thought were the landing lights of another jet approaching from his eleven o’clock position. Chase then realized the oncoming object was a single, very bright white light, closing fast. The Condon report stated, “Before any evasive action could be taken, the light crossed in front of the plane, moving to the right, at a velocity far higher than airplane speeds. The light was seen by pilot and co-pilot, and appeared to the pilot to be a glowing body as big as a barn.”
After rapidly moving to the two o’clock position, the intense white light then “winked” out. Remembering the 2,800-megacycle signature that the UFO had emitted earlier, McClure returned to his equipment and searched the same frequency range. He again picked up the UFO’s signal at the two o’clock position, keeping pace with their aircraft.
After over a hundred miles of this, the RB-47 came within the radar-coverage area of Carswell Air Force Base Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) station. Chase, the pilot, contacted Carswell to ask if they detected any other air traffic near their position. Carlswell immediately radioed back that there was another “aircraft” within ten miles of them at their two o’clock position. Whereas the RB-47 was identifiable on radar by its transponder signal, the other object had no such signal and appeared only as a radar blip.
As Carswell radar continued to track both aircraft, the UFO next moved to the twelve o’clock position dead ahead of the plane, holding a ten-mile range, and again became visible to the eye as a huge, steady, red glow. Chase described the object as “bigger than a house.” The pilot went to maximum speed. The target appeared to stop, and as the plane got close to it and flew over it, the target simply “winked out.” Not only did it disappear from view, but it also vanished from both the plane’s direction-finding radar and the ground based radar.
Moments later, as the plane flew over Mineral Wells, Texas, the object reappeared as a bright red light. “The pilot received permission from Ground Control to change altitude, and dove the plane at the target, which appeared stationary. As the plane approached to an estimated distance of five miles, the target vanished again from both visual observation and radar.”
Concerned over the plane’s dwindling fuel indicator, the pilot abandoned the chase and headed north into Oklahoma. As the plane turned and headed away, radar operator McClure once more picked up the 2,800-megacycle signal, which trailed the RB-47 at a distance of about ten miles until it finally disappeared somewhere over southern Oklahoma.
In a chilling footnote, the Condon report states, “According to the officer, upon return to the [Air Force base] electronic counter-measures, graphic data, and radar scope pictures which had been taken during the flight were removed from the plane by Intelligence personnel.” The plane was met immediately on the ground by an intelligence officer assigned to the base, who quickly took all filmed and wire-recorded data from the crew at the radar monitoring area on the back end of the plane.
In addition, both the RB-47 crew and the ground radar operators later received from Air Defense Command, a lengthy questionnaire that they had to complete, including sketches of what they had seen and narrative descriptions of the event. The pilot could not recall where or exactly when the completed questionnaire had been sent. According to Condon, the RB-47 pilot “recalled that an Intelligence questionnaire regarding the experience had later been completed by the B-47 crew; however, the ‘security lid’ shut off further information regarding the encounter. The crew learned nothing more regarding the incident, and the pilot occasionally had wondered about the identity of the phenomena encountered ever since his experience.”
Although Lewis Chase, the pilot, did not recall being interrogated following the event, the other two officers, McClure and co-pilot James H. McCoid, remembered intensive interrogation by intelligence personnel immediately after their return to the air base.
Regardless of whether this case is directly linked to Willingham’s story or not, it certainly provides insight into possible reasons why the incident involving Willingham was never revealed by the military, why he was pressured to not speak about it, and why none of the other aviators involved seem to have spoken out either. As revealed in the Condon B-47 case, a tight lid of secrecy was immediately slammed shut, evidence was made to “disappear,” and the airmen involved were carefully “debriefed” by intelligence operatives.
In a related development, the Central Intelligence Agency has recently declassified a memorandum about a UFO event that occurred on September 20, 1957. It is one of the first declassified CIA documents to mention UFOs and relates an event that may have a connection to the Condon RB-47 case and possibly even the Willingham case.
The CIA memo states, “As reported by components of the US Air Defense Command, an unidentified flying object (UFO) was tracked by US radars on a relatively straight course from the eastern tip of Long Island to the vicinity of Buffalo. The object was reportedly moving westward at an altitude of 50,000 feet and speed of 2,000 knots. ‘Jamming’ was reported by several radars in this vicinity and westward as far as Chicago. In a subsequent briefing for representatives of the IAC, the US Air Force reported that the original reports had been degraded somewhat by information that: (a) there was an 11 minute break in the tracks; (b) weather conditions in the area were of the type which have in the past produced false radar pips and electronic interference; (c) B-47s of SAC were in the area near Chicago on an ECM training flight.”
The memo, which mentions other RB-47s equipped with ECM equipment, makes clear that, far from ignoring UFOs (as the CIA has long claimed it does), the agency took an active interest in the topic, at least in the mid to late fifties. According to the memo, this UFO incident was so significant that a briefing was held “for representatives of the IAC [Intelligence Advisory Committee].”