The CIA Cheekily Blames Itself For 1950s UFO Sightings

A single aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s accounted for half of all UFO sightings collected by the Air Force at the time, according to a newly highlighted CIA report. The agency made a coy reference to the report on its Twitter account Monday (Dec. 29): “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ’50s? It was us,” the tweet read.

The aircraft was known as the U-2, and was deemed an essential piece of security hardware in an era that had very few satellites. Recall it wasn’t until 1957 that the first satellite was launched — Sputnik, a Soviet one — and it wasn’t until 1958 that the first American one (Explorer 1) followed.

According to the Air Force, the U-2 was a top-secret project completed by Lockheed Skunk Works and Kelly Johnson, and which flew in August 1955. It was used for flying over the Soviet Union (a former republic that now includes Russia and several surrounding countries) starting in the late 1950s. In 1962, the aircraft played a pivotal role in the Cuban Missile Crisis after a U-2 pilot captured photographs of nuclear missiles in that country.

A photograph of a launch pad at the Tyaratam Missile Testing Range in the Soviet Union taken by a U-2 flight. It is now a part of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Central Intelligence Agency
A photograph of a launch pad at the Tyaratam Missile Testing Range in the Soviet Union taken by a U-2 flight. It is now a part of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Central Intelligence Agency

U-2’s UFO confusion is explained in the report, called “The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974.” (At least some of the information covered was also in a 2013 release about the U-2 program, which Universe Today covered at the time.)

High-altitude testing of the U-2 soon led to an unexpected side effect — a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) … Such reports were most prevalent in the early evening hours from pilots of airliners from east to west. When the Sun dropped below the horizon of an airliner flying at 20,000 feet, the plane was in darkness. But, if a U-2 was airborne in the vicinity of the airliner at the same time, its horizon from an altitude of 60,000 feet was considerably more distant, and being so high in the sky, its silver wings would catch and reflect the rays of the Sun.

According to the CIA, the pilots talked about their sightings with the local air traffic controllers and even wrote into the Air Force. This led to the famous Project Blue Book investigation that dealt with UFO sightings. “This enabled the investigators to eliminate the majority of the UFO reports, although they could not reveal to the letter writers the true cause of the UFO sightings,” the CIA report adds.

For more information about Project Blue Book, you can consult this CIA webpage or this mini-library of information at the National Archives. A version of the U-2 still flew as of at least 2005, which you can read more about at this Air Force website.

Weekly Space Hangout – Aug. 16, 2013

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