First UFO Mystery Solved
Friday, June 10, 2011
©2011 by Randy Johnson
Story concept fabricated by Randy Johnson and Shannon Fain
Photos by Randy Johnson

The mystery behind the first documented UFO sighting in modern times has been solved by Dr. Andrew Wiggins of the U.S. Air Force Academy. "This will help clear the air of some far-out tales and conspiracy theories run rampant since 1947," said Dr. Wiggins at a press conference yesterday at the Space Needle in Seattle. "UFOism has had a powerful influence on science fiction, on movies, and it even inspired architect John Graham's flying saucer concept for the Space Needle, which was built for the 1962 World's Fair," he said.

That first documented UFO sighting occurred on June 24, 1947. As a result, the term "flying saucer" was coined in newspaper stories that went viral both nationally and in Canada. The idea of a visitation by extraterrestrials traveling in out-of-this-world vehicles captured the public's imagination and is thought by many to have created a form of mass hysteria. The June 24 sighting was followed just two weeks later by the famous Roswell Incident at Roswell, New Mexico, and then by a continuous string of UFO sightings up to the present day.

Sixty-four years ago on a June afternoon seasoned pilot and businessman Kenneth A. Arnold was flying west at 9,200 feet in his Call-Air A-2 from Chehalis, Washington, to Yakima. His flight path was just south of Mt. Rainier. It was a completely clear afternoon with mild winds. Just before 3:00 p.m., while he was passing over the town of Mineral, his attention was captured by bright metallic glints like flashing mirrors on his left, just to the north of Mt. Rainier. There he saw a chain of nine unusual objects flying in a diagonally stepped-down echelon formation, weaving side-to-side like a "Chinese kite." At first he suspected that the objects were still-classified experimental U.S. military aircraft.

The term flying saucer came from Arnold's later statement to a reporter that the objects moved "like saucers skipping on water."

The extraordinary feature of the flying objects was that they seemed to Arnold to be moving at supersonic speed, at approximately 1,700 miles per hour. By his calculations, that was three times faster than any manned aircraft known in 1947. It was only later in the year, on October 14, that the sound barrier was broken by a manned vehicle when Chuck Yeager reached 807.2 mph in the orange, bullet-shaped Bell X-1 named Glamorous Glennis.

Dr. Wiggins said, "Kenneth Arnold impressed newspaper reporters and Air Force investigators alike as being a reliable and sound witness. But people see things. People imagine things. One person's account is not necessarily bulletproof. Corroborating evidence is the key in making a definitive judgment about an event. I was skeptical of the facts behind Arnold's story."

Many investigators, including Dr. Wiggins, proposed worldly explanations for Arnold's account of the flying objects over Mt. Rainier. What researchers sought were identifiable physical objects or natural phenomenon: possibilities included mirages, meteors, wave clouds, and even a flock of pelicans flying in formation.

Dr. Wiggins said, "I've had an intense interest in the phenomenon of UFOs since I was at Jefferson High in Alexandria, Virginia. The Arnold sighting came before all the others and I got fixated on it. Google has changed everything: it's the most powerful research tool the world has ever known, and I started to use it to learn about the geography and weather around Mt. Rainier. I also started monitoring the news of the Pacific Northwest. Last year I caught a break."

On October 13, 2010, Dr. Wiggins saw something that sparked his interest. It was a feature story in the Oregonian about a German family living in a heavily wooded region in Lewis County, Washington, adjacent to Mt. Rainier National Park. In the article was a picture of a weathered barn with over 50 metal disks tacked up to its side alongside an elk antler rack. "Those metal disks seemed out of place," he said, "and I booked a ticket to Portland to meet with the writer of the article."

Over lunch and a bottle of Red Tail Ale at McMenamins' White Eagle Saloon with writer Shiela Flanders, Dr. Wiggins learned the name and address of the German family living just south of Ashford, Washington. Flanders had also noted the incongruity of the shiny metal objects when she photographed the barn for her article, but at the time she was focused on her story about immigrants living in the United States.

On October 20th, when Dr. Wiggins arrived at the gate of an old homestead in the shadow of Mt. Rainier at the end of a winding dirt road, he was met by 65-year-old Kurt Kluge. Kluge was of course curious about why an esteemed professor at the Air Force Academy in Boulder would want to talk to him.

"I'd like to see your barn," said Dr. Wiggins. Approaching the rustic barn in a grove of tall Douglas firs, sun-sparked reflections shot from the disks tacked to its side. Pointing to the disks, Dr. Wiggins asked, "Where did they come from?"

"My father, Angar Kluge, told me the story of the hard rain when I was a little boy," he said, "In the middle of a June afternoon in 1947, he was with the farrier shoeing his horse when brilliant flashes appeared in the sky. Suddenly these hard chrome disks bulleted into the roof and side of the barn with tremendously loud shots; like 12-gauge shotgun blasts in rapid succession. He was struck in the right leg by one of the disks after it ricocheted off the siding; he walked with a limp for the rest of his life." Later, Kurt's father told him that he thought the disks were beautiful, so he hung them up on the side of the barn and they have been there ever since, sort of a family heirloom. "Our heritage is German, so my father didn't do a lot of mingling with the locals in Ashford during or after the war, and our family way was to keep to ourselves. Very few outsiders have ever seen the barn," Kurt said. Since Dr. Wiggins was so intrigued with the flying-saucer-shaped disks, Kurt was happy to give one to him. To the excited Dr. Wiggins, it seemed to almost vibrate in his hands.

Dr. Wiggins said, "I've always loved old Fords. The summer after high school I built a hot rod '33 Ford Coupe. I knew that the Mt. Rainier disk was actually a chromed steel variant of a 1949-50 Ford hubcap. The '49 is a piece of art, beautifully simple and elegant, with what appears to be a pointed canopy at its center. But how did over fifty '49 hubcaps end up falling from the skies below Mt. Rainier two years before they were even released by Ford? I had a mystery inside of a mystery."

Back in Boulder, Dr. Wiggins fired up Google and found a complete selection of early Ford V-8 parts on the Bob Drake Reproductions Web site. On page 418 of the auto parts manufacturer's new Catalog 26 he found a hot rod '49 "Baby Moon" hubcap without the stock issue black-painted FORD embossed stamping on its side. Although made of stainless steel instead of Ford's original chrome-plated steel cap, it looked exactly like his specimen from Mt. Rainier.

Wiggins' next focus was on parts that were shipped out of Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan during the summer of 1947. His research led him to Bob Gregorie, the designer hired by Edsel Ford in 1931 who was responsible for the design of the '36 Lincoln Zephyr, the '39 Lincoln Continental, the 1935-42 Fords, and the famous '49 Mercury.

Through Ford's archives, Dr. Wiggins found that it was Gregorie's apprentice, Randolph Johnson, who had worked on the initial wheel and body designs for the "shoebox" Fords starting in 1949. Since the design teams worked two to three years ahead of the model release dates, Johnson had worked up several prototypes of the'49 hubcap in the spring of 1947. Good quality prototypes were usually thrown into production runs, but Johnson's prototype hubcaps were flawed: they lacked the FORD typography that was later added to the tooling dies. That left over 200 perfectly finished, but unusable hubcaps at the Ford factory.

Narrowing his search to find the disposition of those 200 prototypes, Dr. Wiggins went to Ford's records of individual parts sales and found an invoice and shipping manifest for them. They were sold to a government surplus dealer in Seattle to outfit surplus WWII vehicles that had come back from the Pacific theater, which for combat use had of course been deployed without any chrome trim or hubcaps. (Later, the dealer was unhappy with the shipment when he discovered that the hubcaps didn't fit WWII vintage Ford wheels.) The hubcaps were trucked to Chicago, where two open bins of 100 apiece were loaded onto a Douglas DC-4-1037 operated by Northern Hemisphere Shipping. The transport plane departed for Seattle on June 22, with one scheduled stop for pickup and delivery in Boise, Idaho.

According to Northern Hemisphere's flight log for the DC-4, veteran pilot Ron Jones experienced an invisible, but extreme event of downward wind shear on the west side of Mt. Rainier around 3:00 p.m. on June 24, 1947, on his approach to Seattle. "The fuselage almost buckled, as if it were hit by a giant fist just behind the wings. I thought we were goners," wrote Jones, "In fact, we suffered only cracks in the wings near the fuselage, a damaged antenna, and we lost one bin of auto parts when the cargo doors were flung open."

Dr. Wiggins concluded his press conference yesterday by giving a layman's version of a famous scientific principle, Occam's Razor, which states that "the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one." He said that his explanation for the first UFO sighting by Arnold is sound. "It follows a real-world string of documented facts and is supported by hard physical evidence. It's not founded on hearsay and requires no leap of faith in alien visitations, futuristic technologies, or interstellar travel by advanced civilizations."

Dr. Wiggins said, "This mystery is solved. The UFOs that Kenneth Arnold saw in 1947 weren't spaceships. They were Ford hubcaps."

THE FINE PRINT: First UFO Mystery Solved is ©2011 by Randy Johnson. The story is historical fiction. Its concept was fabricated by Randy Johnson and Shannon Fain. Although most of the background information in the story is documented fact, the story line about the hubcaps (and its characters, including Andrew Wiggins, Shiela Flanders, Randolph Johnson, Ron Jones, and the Kluges) is complete fiction. The truth is that the 1949 Ford hubcap is a true work of art, worthy of hanging on your wall if you don't have a '49 Ford Custom Coupe, and it's a dead ringer for the classic 1950s depictions of flying saucers. Click here for the full line of early Ford and hot rod parts at Bob Drake Reproductions Inc. To see more work by artist/writer/marketer Randy Johnson, Click here.

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