In June 1950 the US Air Force notified its major airframe contractors that it was interested in proposals for a new generation of supersonic, radar-equipped jet interceptors. The fighters would be needed to face the Soviet jet bomber fleet anticipated within five years, and were expected to incorporate the most advanced technology available in an effort to address the glaring faults of the Lashup/ F-94/ F-89 system.
The physics of air interception dictated that in order to close on a jet bomber cruising near the speed of sound at 60,000 feet, a fighter would have to possess phenomenal performance. If the interceptor made a head-on attack, the rate of closure would be well over a thousand miles per hour, challenging the capabilities of even an electronic fire control system, let alone human reflexes. But if the fighter attempted to tail-chase the bomber, it would need high supersonic speed to gain ground. For its F-89s and F-94s, ADC developed a technique called "lead collision-course intercept," by which the fighters would attack the bomber from the side, aiming their machine guns at the point where the fighter's radar system predicted the bomber would be when it intersected the bullet's trajectory. Since the fighter's guns were mounted in its nose, this tactic put the fighter itself on a direct collision course with its target, leading ADC to consider ordering its pilots to ram the bomber as a last resort if gunfire failed to stop it. A supersonic bomber would constitute an even more difficult target. In bad weather or at night, the interceptor pilot would face great difficulty in acquiring the target in the first place. Conventional gunnery was out of the question because the target would be in effective range of guns for a fraction of second. With successful engagement and destruction of a bomber hinging on split-second accuracy, sophisticated high-speed computers coupled with guided missiles would be necessary.
To help deal with these realities, the Air Force defined a complex system of three components which would constitute its future manned air defense system: a high-performance radar net and ground-based electronic control system capable of locating targets and directing fighters toward them; a compact, powerful airborne radar set and fire control computer that could process data transmitted from the ground net, guide the interceptor to the vicinity of the target, automatically launch powerful supersonic radar-guided missiles, and break off the engagement; and, to carry the airborne fire control system, an advanced manned airframe with the highest performance that could be attained in a realistic time period.
The fire control radar contract was won by two young scientists at Hughes Aircraft Company. In terms of airborne interceptor radars, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge had just about the only game in town in the late 1940s. (Frustrated by the eccentricities of Howard Hughes, Ramo and Wooldridge would later part with the millionaire to form their own high-tech company, eventually becoming the R and W in TRW). Hughes Aircraft was initially awarded a contract for several hundred E-1 fire control sets and AN/APG-33 radars for Lockheed's F-94 and Northrop's F-89. Later, its Falcon supersonic radar-guided air-to-air missile and associated computers were selected for the new interceptors. Because of the intended operational date of the system, the supersonic fighter project gained the nickname "1954 Interceptor." Its official designation was military experimental project 1554, or MX-1554. Lockheed, North American, Republic, Chance Vought, Douglas, and Convair submitted MX-1554 proposals in January 1951. In July, the first round of evaluations narrowed the field to Lockheed, Convair, and Republic.
Lockheed's submission was the L-205, a large, single-engine supersonic machine with small trapezoidal wings.The L-205 was not one of Kelly Johnson's winners, but its design would help lay the aerodynamic groundwork for one of Lockheed's most famous products, the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter.
Since late 1945, Convair had been running studies of supersonic fighters based on Alexander Lippisch's delta wing concepts. In September 1948, the Convair XP-92A became the world's first jet delta aircraft to fly. Building on the experienced gained in the Lippisch-inspired XP-92 project and its early work on what would become the supersonic B-58 bomber, Convair designed a bigger, far more sophisticated delta fighter for the MX-1554 competition. Equipped with an internal bay for six Hughes Falcon guided missiles and propelled by a powerful Wright J-67 afterburning turbojet (a licensed copy of the British Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire), the Convair jet was expected to reach almost twice the speed of sound in level flight.
The third proposal, Republic's Advanced Project 59, was the most impressive of all. Republic, based in Farmingdale, Long Island, not far from Continental Air Command's headquarters, had spent a good deal of time running studies on bomber interception problems for the air defense branch, and was deeply involved in what would today be called "systems integration" studies for the future computerized air defense network. The company also benefited from the talents of its head designer, the legendary Alexander Kartveli, who had created the famous P-47 Thunderbolt of World War II. Like Convair, Republic had produced an early post-war rocket-boosted interceptor, the XF-91 Thunderceptor, that was heavily influenced by the Me-163.
Republic XF-103 - 1951 2,500 mph interceptor concept
Going far beyond Convair's proposal, Kartveli's AP-59 was a Mach 3-plus juggernaut with a ceiling of 70,000 feet and a rate of climb of over 50,000 feet per minute. The powerplant for this awesome machine would be a radical "dual-mode" engine: takeoff and climbout would be performed under the power of a J-67 turbojet, as with the Convair fighter, but as the fighter accelerated to Mach 2, valves would close off the airflow to the turbojet and direct it into a huge Marquardt-designed XRJ-55 ramjet, which would blast the big fighter past 2,500 mph. The hybrid engine was designated MX-1787. The Thunderwarrior looked like an overgrown missile, with an eighty foot long, pencil-shaped fuselage, small razor-sharp delta wings, and a set of triangular cruciform tail fins.
To reduce drag, the cockpit windows were flush with the fuselage skin and forward vision was provided by a small periscope. The entire nose was occupied by a large radar dish. Six Falcon guided missiles (potentially nuclear-tipped) and a battery of unguided rockets were housed in bays behind the cramped ejectable cockpit capsule. Most of the fuselage was devoted to the monster engine and its 2,200 gallon fuel supply. To cope with the searing air friction encountered at velocities exceeding Mach 3, the plane's structure would be built from titanium alloy, at the time still a rare and very expensive commodity used only in small quantities for demanding applications. While the Republic aircraft was extremely impressive, there was no chance of such a complex machine being operational in the next three years. Kartveli was told to continue development of the design, which received the official designation XF-103. On September 11, 1951, Convair was awarded the contract for what would become the F-102A Delta Dagger.
The previous day, RAND researchers had published a Top Secret paper titled "Detectability-Vulnerability Study of Pre-Hostilities Air Recce Techniques." The balloon project was obviously a development of the highest sensitivity, but it faced an paradoxical problem: the secret devices would be some of the most conspicuous objects in the sky. While the payload package could be designed to give a small radar return, the shimmering transparent polyethylene envelope was impossible to disguise. As RAND's balloon experts well knew, the Skyhooks were some of the prime generators of flying saucer reports.
Under "Project Beacon Hill," an MIT study of reconnaissance technology launched in June 1951, a doctrine for the design of covert reconnaissance vehicles was established. The Beacon Hill members concluded that far as possible, reconnaissance craft should be hard to detect, difficult to intercept, and amenable to the use of cover stories: ideally, they should pass as civilian scientific devices. Above all, they should be crewless, to eliminate the diplomatic problems entailed by the capture of a pilot. About this time, in one of the earliest known investigations of "low-observables" design techniques for covert reconnaissance vehicles, the Cambridge Research Center had made a study of shapes which could scatter radar waves, as well as radar absorbing materials (RAM) which could attenuate the radar echo of an air vehicle. The center had come to an interesting conclusion:
The only real possibilities of avoiding detection ... require the development of vehicles which are either technically undetectable by radar, or of such unusual design that the radar signals they yield will be unrecognizable. The Cambridge Research Center has made a preliminary exploration of both of these possibilities for the Development Planning Office. They found that radar absorbing materials could not be used in aircraft or missiles without sacrificing their aerodynamic qualities, and they concluded that the only vehicle that might confuse a radar net would be one in the shape of a flying saucer or a flying sphere. (Balloons might meet the latter requirement, but the altitudes they can achieve are such that they would be visible during the hours near dawn and sunset.)Gopher's designers gradually began to consider whether the arresting appearance of the devices might not be a useful disguise:
A further advantage, or disadvantage, of plastic balloons is that from a distance they look remarkably like flying saucers. When floating at ceiling altitude, their configuration is somewhat saucer-shaped, and they can either hover for a week over much the same spot or cruise at 250 miles per hour in the jet stream. They can be seen with an unaided eye glistening at altitudes above 100,000 feet....In addition, metallic masses of more than a ton may be lifted by these vehicles, thus giving radar returns not usually associated with balloons.Recovery crews routinely used civilian saucer reports to police stations or newspaper offices to locate missing Skyhooks, and RAND's reconnaissance theoreticians were well aware of the balloon-generated saucer problem. Since the reconnaissance project mandated continuing secrecy concerning stratospheric balloon technology, there was little that the balloon organizations could do to explain what was really going on. While it had a humorous side, the balloon projects would continue to be a serious complicating factor in the flying saucer problem.
On September 10, the same day that RAND issued its balloon-signature study, a seemingly trivial incident would set in motion a chain of events that would lead to an an explosion of the UFO phenomenon and that would ultimately take the problem to the doorstep of the White House itself. Significantly, the incident began with a problem with radar.
That morning a group of military VIPs was touring the Army Signal Corps' radar training school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. A student operator was anxious to display the ability of his AN/MPG-1 radar set to monitor the busy airspace in the New York terminal area, and routinely began tracking a fast-moving target which seemed to be flying along the coast a few miles away. He switched the set to its full-aided azimuth tracking mode, which would normally automatically follow any target flying at conventional aircraft speeds. But for some reason, the automatic tracking mode was not capable of following the target. Flustered, the student turned to the officers and said, "It's going too fast for the set. That means its going faster than a jet!" The VIPs were understandably concerned.
A few minutes later, the pilot of an Air Force Lockheed T-33 jet trainer flying near Fort Monmouth sighted a small glittering object about 5,000 feet over Sandy Hook, turned to chase it, but lost sight of it as it disappeared out to sea. About four hours after the first radar incident, Ft. Monmouth Signal Corps technicians got an urgent message from another post to track a high-altitude object and picked up yet another strange radar target - this time at an incredible 93,000 feet. Rushing outside, some of the observers could see a tiny speck in the direction of the blip. The next day, an SCR-584 radar at Ft. Monmouth picked up another blip maneuvering with unusual speed. The Ft. Monmouth sightings jolted Project Grudge from its moribund state.
On September 12, Major General Cabell personally called Colonel Frank Dunn at ATIC and ordered an immediate, on-site investigation followed by a personal report. Lt Jerry Cummings, Grudge's project officer, and Lt Col N. R. Rosengarten, chief of ATIC's Aircraft and Missiles Branch, were soon on a plane to the east coast, where they conducted an around-the-clock interrogation of the Signal Corps technicians. On October 2, the ATIC officers flew to Washington, where they were ushered into a Pentagon conference room where Cabell and his staff were waiting.
For two hours the group debated the subject of unidentified aerial phenomena. It became clear that the rift between believers and skeptics at ATIC extended all the way to Cabell's level. The opinions of senior Air Force Intelligence officers on the subject of flying saucers were far less conservative than the service's public pronouncements indicated. When the ATIC representatives admitted the relatively inactive state of Project Grudge, the Generals were livid. Cabell had repeatedly requested more emphasis on reducing the incidence of unknowns; he now demanded an immediate reorganization of the project. "Who in hell has been giving me these reports that every decent flying saucer sighting is being investigated?, " Cabell reportedly fumed. "I've been lied to! I've been lied to!"
Present at the meeting at Cabell's request was a civilian described as "a special representative from the Republic Aircraft Corporation ... who supposedly represented a group of top U.S. industrialists and scientists who thought that there should be a lot more sensible answer coming from the Air Force regarding the UFOs." According to researcher Loren Gross, this Republic official was Robert Johnson, a famous WWII P-47 ace. In a real sense, the newly-minted XF-103 Thunderwarrior super-interceptor lurked in the room when Project Grudge was reborn, the only airplane on US drawing boards in 1951 that might offer even a prayer of approaching the alleged performance of the flying saucers.
Like many saucer panics, the Fort Monmouth sightings suposedly fell apart under dispassionate analysis of Project Blue Book long after the incident was over and the Air Force's attention had moved on. (In fact, the case was highly anomalous and the Blue Book explanation appears very inadequate). The initial radar incident was said to have resulted from the young Signal Corps radar operator's inexperience: the target was in fact just a standard airplane, and he had erred in his lock-on procedure. The object at 93,000 feet was an ordinary weather balloon. The reason for the urgent call from the other post was that someone who had watched the balloon being launched wanted to win a bet on how high it had gone. The odd targets the next day were the result of run-of-the-mill radar problems. Each in itself a minor incident, the reports, when taken together, seemed to indicate a pattern or sequence of activity that had menacing overtones. But Cabell and senior Air Force officials were in no mood for Blue Book's mundane explanations. With the potential onset of nuclear war hinging on the prompt detection and identification of unexplained radar and visual targets, the Air Force could not afford to permit the existence of unidentified aerial objects. It would continue to be ATIC's job to evaluate unexplained sightings for indications of advanced foreign vehicles. The ultimate purpose of the revitalization of Project Grudge would ostensibly be to develop a means for reducing the growing incidence of unidentifiable radar targets, in order to reduce confusion in the air defense system.
Edward Ruppelt In January, 1951, a twenty-seven year old Air Force reserve Lieutenant named Edward J. Ruppelt was recalled to active duty and assigned to the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright- Patterson Air Force Base. A tall, boyish Iowan with the look of a varsity football player, Ruppelt had been a B-29 radar operator and bombardier in World War II, when he had been part of the original Superfortress deployment in 1944, via the infamous India-Burma-China "Hump," and had earned five battle stars, three air medals, and two Distinguished Flying Crosses for his efforts. After the war, the young officer enrolled at Iowa State to study aeronautical engineering and continued to fly in the reserves as a transport navigator.
At ATIC, Lt. Ruppelt was attached to the technical analysis effort on a superior new Soviet jet fighter, the MiG-15, which had appeared in Korea soon after the outbreak of the war. American pilots quickly learned to respect the fast, maneuverable, and heavily-armed MiG, and ATIC was anxious for a chance to get its hands on one for study. The first example reportedly fell behind UN lines in damaged condition in 1951 when its pilot ejected and the fighter crashed in shallow water in an area accessible to US forces. The wrecked MiG was recovered, dismantled, and shipped to Wright Field for study, where officers like Ruppelt attempted to reconstruct its performance characteristics and, by studying its engine, alloys, and fabrication techniques, uncover clues about the state of Soviet technology.
Ruppelt knew little about flying saucers other than what he had read in Life, and it came as a surprise to him that ATIC was the center of the Air Force's investigation of saucer reports. After settling in and getting to know some of the veterans of previous saucer battles, Ruppelt learned that there were mixed feelings about the whole subject within Air Intelligence. A few of the officers were thoroughly skeptical, but at least one old Project Sign man who had been in on the Mantell and Chiles-Whitted interrogations was still a convinced believer in the extraterrestrial theory. Ruppelt was intrigued by the dissent. One of the ATIC analysts guardedly warned him that the winds were now blowing from the skeptical direction at the Center: "the powers-that-be are anti-flying saucer, and to stay in favor it behooves one to follow suit." ATIC's previous head, Col.Watson, the no-nonsense hero of the Project Lusty collection effort, was strongly anti-saucer. The remnants of Project Grudge were still ticking over in near-caretaker status, and little was actually being done to investigate the sightings that continued to trickle in.
Ruppelt began to steal time from his MiG project to read some of the current military saucer reports. If people were accurately describing what they saw, he thought, there must be something going on out there. Like many Air Force officers, Ruppelt assumed that when a fellow flier made a report of an unidentified object, it carried more weight than an average civilian's report. "I was convinced that if a pilot, or any crew member of an airplane, said that he'd seen something that he couldn't identify he meant it -- it wasn't a hallucination." This understandable bond of trust in the perceptual accuracy of fellow airmen, forged in combat, would be a contributing factor in the troubles to come. Ruppelt's budding interest in flying saucers was noted by his superiors at ATIC. His desk happened to be adjacent to that of Lieutenant Cummings, who would often share his problems with Ruppelt. When headquarters requested a review and evaluation of previous Air Force flying saucer studies in mid-1951, Ruppelt was given the job, and few days after the Cabell meeting, he was ordered to take over Project Grudge. Cummings, who was leaving the Air Force, laughed at him. It's all mass hysteria, he told Ruppelt. Wait till a saucer story hits the papers. Then you'll get reports.
While it is undeniable that the Air Force was concerned with unidentified aerial phenomena to the point of authorizing an expanded organization to deal with them, the relative importance of flying saucers in the scheme of Air Force priorities in the autumn of 1951 seems to be underscored by the assignment of a lowly Lieutenant to head the project. And by keeping the Project within the Air Technical Intelligence apparatus at Wright Field, the Air Force demonstrated that it continued to consider flying saucers to be a technological mystery of the same order as determining the performance of a new Russian fighter.
Why did Cabell and the Air Staff pick this particular juncture to reemphasize saucer investigation? The evidence indicates a simple answer. As Ruppelt put it, "with technological progress what it is today, you can't afford to have anything in the air that you can't identify, be it balloons, meteors, planets or flying saucers." The fierce air war in Korea was giving the United States an unwelcome taste of Soviet air technology. The MiG was hard evidence that the Soviets could build modern, effective warplanes. The Lashup radar network, the ADC radar-equipped jet interceptor force, the Ground Observer Corps were all coming on line. The MX-1554 supersonic interceptors and the futuristic computerized radar defense network were being defined. But flying saucers remained an unwelcome and potentially dangerous irritant. By Ruppelt's estimate, in a typical month in 1951 Project Grudge received about ten UFO reports, any of which might represent an incursion by a hostile air vehicle. Clearly, if Fort Monmouth, one of the centers of US radar training, was unable to quickly identify weather balloons and radar anomalies, there was trouble ahead for a national-scale defense system. If experienced and qualified sky observers were continually seeing and reporting flying objects that they couldn't identify, steps would need to be taken to understand why. Once the phenomenon was better documented, training programs could be instituted to provide air defense forces with reliable guides for quickly distinguishing bombers from balloons, planes from birds, and meteors from missiles.
And apart from all these defense considerations, it is evident that a small but influential contingent of senior Air Force officers, possibly including Cabell, continued to suspect that still-unsolved saucer cases might have been caused by genuine extraterrestrial vehicles. Several reliable observers close to Project Grudge, including Ruppelt, Hynek and Harvard astronomer and defense consultant Donald Menzel - a staunch UFO skeptic - later intimated that this was the case. As will be seen, these officers and their successors would have a powerful and lasting influence on the conduct of the official investigation of UFOs and indirectly on the growth of public belief in UFOs as extraterrestrial spacecraft.
Ironically, although there is no apparent direct connection between the two projects, Ruppelt's revived UFO investigation unit at ATIC would be given the same name as the 1950 air defense study - Blue Book.