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Although people have been spotting strange objects in the sky since biblical times, you are unlikely to find one single ufologist who disputes that the Era of UFOs began on June 24, 1947. Had it not been for the events of that day, we would not live in a world which speaks of things like "flying saucers" and "little green men". Science fiction and ufology (admittedly the lines between the two are often blurred) owe much to that day, and to Kenneth Arnold, the private pilot whose celebrated sightings gave birth to millions of ideas, dreams, and fears, as well as to an industry and a culture.

Arnold took off from Chehalis, Washington on the afternoon of the 24th, his goal to fly over the Cascade Mountains to Yakima. While he was returning from a business trip, Arnold also wanted to spend an hour or so looking for a C-46 transport which had recently crashed near Mount Rainier. The Marines had been unable to find any sign of the lost C-46 or the 32 men aboard it, and were offering a $5000 reward to any pilots that could assist them.

Arnold's flight was going as planned until, as part of the search, he attempted to make a 180° turn 25 miles southwest of Rainier's peak. There, at 2:59 P.M., 9200ft above the town of Mineral, a giant flash of light engulfed his aircraft. Arnold:

I spent the next twenty to thirty seconds urgently searching the sky all around -- to the sides and above and below me -- in an attempt to determine where the flash of light had come from. The only actual plane I saw was a DC-4 far to my left and rear, apparently on its San Francisco to Seattle run. My momentary explanation to myself was that some lieutenant in a P-51 had given me a buzz job across my nose and that it was sun reflecting off his wings as he passed that had caused the flash. Before I had time to collect my thoughts or to find a close aircraft, the flash happened again. This time I caught the direction from which it had come. I observed, far to my left and to the north, a formation of very bright objects coming from the vinicity of Mt. Baker, flying very close to the mountain tops and traveling at tremendous speed.

In his book Coming of the Saucers, Arnold further describes the objects he saw:

They didn't fly like any aircraft I had ever seen before. In the first place their echelon formation was backward from that practiced by our Air Force. The elevation of the first craft was greater than that of the last. They flew in a definite formation but erratically. As I described them at the time their flight was like speed boats on rough water or similar to the tail of a Chinese kite that I once saw blowing in the wind. Or maybe it would be best to describe their flight characteristics as very similar to a formation of geese, in a rather diagonal chain-like line, as if they were linked together.... They fluttered and sailed, tipping their wings alternately and emitting those very bright blue-white flashes from their surfaces.

Arnold decided to calculate the velocity of these nine strange craft, using his instrument panel and Mounts Rainier and Adams as markers. His quick estimate placed the speed of the craft at 1700 mph (later, checking his math, he would give a lower bound of 1350 mph). At the time, no jet had even broken the sound barrier, yet these nine objects were flying in formation at more than twice that speed. Arnold figured that these objects had to be some kind of secret missile, flown remotely by military personnel.

In time the craft left Arnold's field of vision, and he flew on to Yakima, arriving at around 4:00 P.M.. Upon arrival, he discussed his sightings with an airline manager and fellow pilots, wondering aloud whether he had stumbled across military testing of a "new principle of flight." From there, he took off for Pendleton, Oregon, on the way back to his Idaho home. When he landed, he found himself a minor celebrity. Famously, while speaking to journalist Bill Becquette of the East Oregonian, Arnold described the flight of the objects, saying they were flying "like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water."

The Associated Press broke the story nationwide. By the Fourth of July, citizens in 48 states had reported seeing "flying saucers" skipping across their skies. And so the modern UFO was born.

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