The Project Blue Book Research Center presents
Perspectives On The Environment In Which Blue Book Operated During 1952 series:
The Air Defense Command
By Michael Hall

June marked the real start of the 1952 wave or as Ruppelt put it, flap. Dozens of reports came in per day and while researchers often talk about ten to twenty good reports for a particular year, June alone had over 100. One such case developed on this Sunday morning in Los Angeles when Hughes Aircraft Company technicians were conducting a test of a new experimental radar. The set worked well all morning, tracking civilian and military aircraft in the Los Angeles area. Near the end of their testing the set picked up what they assumed to be a DC-3 coming across the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles at 11,000 feet. As the scientist monitored the blip they thought it might be the last good airliner target for the morning. It did prove to be one of the last radar targets they would have until the afternoon, but no other aircraft would perform the way this would-be DC-3 did. Soon their instruments tracked it in a 35,000 feet per minute climb traveling at 550 miles per hour! The object then dove until it leveled out at 55,000 feet, heading southeast near Riverside, California. After checking with Edwards AFB, the technicians confirmed that no high performance aircraft had been in the area. The radar set was checked and rechecked, yet Hughes engineers felt confident that the radar recorded the information accurately.

That same day UFO reports came in from Africa, Korea, Rapid City, Iowa; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Walla Walla, Washington. Not since 1947 had as many cases been recorded per day as would be in these summer months. But unlike the ’47 wave, this surge of sightings would last well into the fall.

Central to an understanding of the UFO wave of 1952 is a knowledge of the way in which the military then monitored the skies. UFOs, even by 1952, did not necessarily infer spacecraft from another world. UFOs were considered to be any object flying through the air space of the United States that could not be identified. Then, as now, the military is interested in any “unidentified” air traffic. This is of greatest relevance when realizing that from 1949 to 1989, the threat of a Soviet air attack was perceived to be quite real. Today we take it for granted with our vast technology that the skies are constantly being scanned with satellite and sophisticated radar networks of the United States Space Command  — formerly known only as NORAD. But in 1952 no satellite systems existed and very few modern ground radar units were in operation.

There were only three basic means available to the Air Force’s air defense system by 1952. The first consisted of a few large radar stations that had been put in place to scan for attacking Soviet bomber fleets. Although the famous DEW network of northern radar defense was still on the drawing board, installations were already in place, mainly in Alaska and Canada, to scan for a Soviet threat coming out of Siberia. In the lower continental U.S., radar stations dotted various states—designed to follow possible enemy aircraft and direct fighters from Air Defense Command bases. These were basically an outgrowth of about 75 radar stations already in place at the end of the Second World War—known as Ground Control Intercept sites or GCI. Most of these were near major Eastern cities and in the Western regions around nuclear facilities with a few stations in Canada and Mexico. The GCI sites consisted of one or two search radars, a height-finder radar, ground-to-air and air-to-ground communications. The operators at each station worked on shifts but not necessarily on a round-the-clock basis. Each operator filled his hours by watching a small round radar “scope” or screen. When an aircraft was detected it would appear as a “blip” of light on the screen. Each radar site was connected by telephone so a target could be tracked by multiple stations. Information from the radar sights was tied into control centers which had a large illuminated Plexiglas board with geographic features of the local countryside imposed on its surface. Men would stand on ladders behind these huge clear boards and mark the trajectory of significant targets as reports came in from the various radar stations.

Unfortunately, ever since 1950 the Air Force had been severely stretching its radar resources because of the war in Korea. As a result, experienced radar operators became greatly diluted among the total number of bases. Still more of the experienced personnel were reassigned to serve at the growing number of bomber bases built for the Strategic Air Command or SAC. These units operated their own powerful radar defense equipment. Yet even though most large civilian airports were installing radar, vast areas of the country and sea-side approaches still lay blind by 1952 to aerial intrusions. And even in areas of complete radar coverage, no technology then existed to track very low flying aircraft.

It is apparent from declassified documents that the Air Force was thus very concerned about air defense. One part of a top secret project had evolved from the work of top scientists at the wartime Radiation Laboratory at MIT. Actually a continuation of their work, “Project Charles” and then known as “Project Lincoln,” analyzed possible points of weakness—mainly in America, but also NATO defenses. Jointly sponsored by the Air Force, Army, and Navy, Lincoln (which evolved into the Lincoln labs in July of 1951) described these problems in terms of “chaos.” Uppermost in the minds of military officials was the development of a comprehensive system of early warning air defense.

This brings us to the third important type of defense network relied upon by 1952—known as the Ground Observer Corps. The GOC utilized thousands of civilian volunteers to man government stations to visually spot unknown aircraft. The GOC first began on an experimental basis in September of 1949—then called Operation Lookout. (Actually a very similar operation existed during the Second World War when the same need arose to guard against possible Axis air and submarine attacks.) The goal of the GOC was to eventually have a 24-hour surveillance of the sky by one million volunteers at 24,000 observation posts. The Air Force trained these volunteers and designed procedures for filing reports. Although GOC personnel were administered by civilian authorities under each state government’s civil defense structure, the reports of GOC observation posts came into “filter centers”—run both by the military and state civil defense. Each filter center had an Air Force officer in charge.

Most GOC posts were short staffed. Rarely were they operating on a 24-hour basis. As the Cold War reached a severe state of tension by the summer of 1952, the Air Force initiated a campaign to beef-up the GOC. Operation Skywatch became a direct result of this plan. President Truman even made a personal call for volunteers to man Skywatch. Yet despite agreat deal of publicity, most GOC posts remained severely undermanned during the nighttime hours when even the most dedicated volunteers had to sleep so they could go to their regular jobs. As a result, some researchers have suggested that the Air Force intentionally played-up UFO reports to interest people in the project. Even if this was true, it must be noted that something truly phenomenal was flying through the skies that summer because many Skywatch personnel reported UFOs.

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