Friday, December 25, 2009

The 1952 UFO wave and Washington D.C.: A case study in parasociology (Part 1)

This post is the second major parasociological case study proposed on this blog (the first being the Barney and Betty Hill story). It looks at the 1952 UFO wave in the United States, emphasizing the events around Washington D.C. in July of the same year. One of the main objectives of parasociology is to explore the possibility that social events might have paranormal or “psi” implications. UFO waves were selected as a prime research object because they are, in themselves, social events which are unexplainable through traditional scientific means. The central question, therefore, is whether strange events in the air are linked to and dependent on events on the ground?

To answer this question it is necessary to analyze the data in a meaningful way, and as much as possible by avoiding a reinvention of the wheel. As discussed in several previous posts, UFO waves seem to have a lot in common with poltergeist events, better known as Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) in parapsychology. The study of RSPK has progressed in the last 30 years, and one of the most potent models to study them is the one developed by the German parapsychologist Walter von Lucadou.

His model is called the Model of Pragmatic Information (MPI), and it is inspired by system theory, quantum physics and many years of empirical research on RSPK. Von Lucadou has a Ph.D. in physics, and a Ph.D. in psychology. He is the head of a research institute on the paranormal in Freiburg, Germany, which is funded by the German government. Unfortunately, even if he published many peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journal in English, his work is not that well-known in the English-speaking world. Hence, as part of this case study, a relatively extensive presentation of his model will be required, but it will be integrated in the case analysis.

The 1952 UFO wave: the basics

It is difficult to establish what constitutes a UFO wave because it has many undefined dimensions. For instance, how many sightings are necessary to have a wave? Over how long a period do we need to have a wave? Are waves only possible if there are newspapers to report them, and hence is it a mass media phenomenon? What percentage of sightings should be “unexplained” to be a “real” wave? Etc. As one can see, defining what constitutes a wave includes a large degree of interpretation. Yet, there are many pitfalls related to developing water-tight definitions for events that are essentially based on perception. To avoid such conundrum, it is proposed to look at the notion of UFO wave from both a relative and sociological standpoint. A wave would therefore be a significant increase in UFO observations compared to other time periods, and such significant increase in UFO observations gets the attention of a relatively large portion of a society. Given this definition, each society would have it own “list” of UFO waves. In the case of the United States, according to this perspective on UFO wave there would have been only 3 major waves: 1897-98, 1952, and 1973.

Statistically, the 1952 UFO wave was the largest one in the United States between 1947 and 1973. The famous ufologist Allan Hynek did a detailed review of all cases submitted to the Project Blue Book (from 1947 to 1969). His analysis was based on the 600 or so cases (out of 13,000) that were considered as "Unidentified."[1] Of those 600 cases, 242 occurred in 1952 (out of about 400 sightings over all reported to Blue Book for 1952), making it the peak year for the period covered by the Project Blue Book. 1954 came as a distant second with 46 “Unidentified” cases.[2]

If one pushes the analysis further within the year 1952, the peak month was July with 55 “unidentified” cases, followed by June with 40 cases, August with 28 cases and September with 27 cases.[3] Hynek did not extend his analysis to cases within the month of July 1952. However, if one uses the NICAP compilation of reports (which does not distinguish between “identified” and “unidentified”), there was three peaks in July: a small peak of sightings on July 12, a second peak between 21 and 23 July, and the biggest peak between 27 and 29 July.[4]

The 1952 sightings occurred across the United States, from the West coast to the East coast, as well as where there were U.S. military installations (Korea, Okinawa, Greenland, Newfoundland, Germany). This military nature of sightings was simply a reporting effect, as many cases reported to the Project Blue Book came as a requirement for military personnel to report such observations. The events that grabbed the most attention, however, were two series of sightings that occurred around Washington D.C., interestingly a day before each of the main peaks for July, namely on the night of July 19-20, and the night of July 26-27.

(Notoriously fake picture done with automobiles light reflecting on a glass)

The MPI model for RSPK: The 4 phases

To test the hypothesis that UFO waves would be “grand scale poltergeists,” it is essential to evaluated whether UFO waves share the same fundamental characteristics that of RSPK events. On the surface, these two types of phenomena appear completely distinct. RSPKs occur usually in a house or a work place, they tend to involve the inexplicable movement, destruction or disappearance of mundane objects such as glasses, cutlery, bookshelves, windows, mirrors, etc. RSPKs are often linked to a particular individual in a family or work context.

Yet, if one looks beyond the surface and compare the structural components of UFO waves and RSPKs, one can find striking similarities. According to von Lucadou, RSPKs go through four phases, where the phenomenon tends to increase in intensity at the beginning, peak and then rapidly disappear. The four phases are: (1) surprise, (2) displacement, (3) decline, and (4) suppression. Let’s compare these phases with the 1952 UFO wave.

Phase one: the surprise

Von Lucadou describes the first phase in those terms: “Generally, their onset is completely unexpected and they develop dramatically. As long as those involved believe that the events are due to external factors, like someone who is fooling them, impulses in electrical circuitry, leaking pipes, etc., the phenomena become stronger and grow into a real demonstration. Those involved feel ever more insecure and try to find external assistance, for example from the police, firemen or from institutions who can provide technical assistance. In this way the phenomena attract wide attention. In many cases there are a number of respectable, reliable and independent witnesses, who feel completely desperate about the causes of the phenomena. We call this the ‘surprise phase.’” [5]

The 1952 events in Washington are very similar in their structure to the surprise phase. Around 11:40 pm on 19 July 1952, the air controller Edward Nugent at the National Airport noticed on the radar a strange blip showing a high rate of acceleration. He called the senior controller, Harry Barnes, to confirm the radar returns. They then verified that their equipment was functioning properly, which was the case. They asked and got confirmation from a second radar station at the National Airport. Another controller, Howard Cocklin, saw orange lights in the night sky in the direction where the radar returns were coming. They asked confirmation from the radar crew at Andrews Air Force Base (AFB), and there was no return, but two military persons in different locations, William Brady and Bill Goodman, saw orange lights in the sky. [6] It is interesting to note that Nugent and Barnes did not know what to think of all this, but they never thought that these returns were “ flying saucers” or Russians aircrafts, and that if they did not appeared to be manufactured objects, they seemed to be under intelligent control.[7]

Later on during the night, 3 different radar stations had the same strange returns. F-94 jet fighters were scrambles during the night but to no avail, the objects disappeared.

Phase two: Displacement

The second phase is described as thus: “It is followed by the first hunches that something supernatural might be going on. Indeed, the media, such as newspapers, radio and television show up. Depending upon the socio-cultural background, the phenomena may be attributed to phantoms, spirits, the deceased, witches, poltergeists and parapsychological powers. Only at this point do parapsychologists have the opportunity to get involved. Quite often the previous phase of hunches has already attributed the phenomena to one or more persons, and has coupled general desperation and anxieties with curiosity: the "displacement phase". During this phase, the interpretation of the phenomena shifts from external to internal sources. The same displacement takes place in the phenomena themselves. New types of events manifest, replacing those that had become familiar.” [8]

On the 21 July 1952, newspapers were reporting that “flying saucers” were seen in the sky of Washington D.C., but the coverage was relatively limited. Yet, the story was now out. During the second set of sightings, on 26-27 July, there were several journalists in the National Airport radar room. [9]The story repeats itself in many ways, but with some differences. The first sightings occurred during the day, in the afternoon of 26 July that are noticed visually and on radar at Langley AFB. Then, the crew of an airliner of National Airlines saw glowing lights around 8:30 pm. It is only around 10:30 that the National Airport radars returned something unusual, and the controllers started the process of getting confirmation.

During the night, several F-94 jets fighters were scrambled and in some occasion were able to see strange lights and even had briefly their combat radar locked on those lights. But then, too, the object just vanished to come back later during the night. Although no one had any confirmation that the objects were solid as there was only radar returns and the visual sightings of lights, the press on the next morning did not hesitate to talk about D.C. being swarmed by “flying saucers”.

Phase three: Decline

The third phase is von Lucadou’s model is the one of decline. “As bad as matters are, worse is still to come. Journalists hungry for sensation, self-appointed "parapsychologists" or "exorcists" will plague those involved. To the external curiosity is added an ever-stronger pressure to reproduce the phenomena, which are still strongly confirmed by the initial eyewitnesses. The stronger this pressure grows, sometimes even enhanced by the parapsychologists who rush to the scene, the less the phenomena occur: the "decline phase" has begun. Many of those who expected sensational effects are now disappointed and leave. Often enough, the person who evoked the events is found to make use of manipulations or fraud during this phase.” [11]

This phase occurred also in the 1952 wave. The word was out, and even President Truman wanted to be informed about what was going on. The journalists were on the alert for more, but no more major sighting occurred in the Washington D.C. area, and in fact the 1952 wave started to decline in August, as discussed above. The most significant event of this phase is the 29 July military press conference at the Pentagon, where senior military officials and head of technical services of the Air Force concluded that it was a big misunderstanding and that the radar returns were most likely caused by temperature inversion while the lights in the sky were simply stars having the appearance of wobbling because of humidity in the atmosphere. In other words, all the witnesses were wrong even if they were experienced technicians and military personnel.[12]

Phase four: suppression

The last phase of the MPI model is called suppression, and should be quite familiar to those who know the ufological literature. “Decline is followed by the final phase of poltergeist cases: ’suppression.’ Fraud is more or less openly discussed, the people and witnesses involved are often ridiculed and discriminated in the mass media, witnesses may even deny (in court) their previous statements and debunking articles are published. The process of social suppression starts: a ‘conspiracy to cover it up,’ as Fanny Moser (1977, p. 30) termed it.”[13] Such conspiracy, however, is not caused because people have secrets to hide, but rather because they not want to be seen as being ignorant or powerless. As von Lucadou wrote, “neither society nor governmental institutions are fond of the anarchy of poltergeist cases. Their objective is to command (or govern) reliable systems.”[14]

In the case of the 1952 UFO wave, the suppression was done mostly through the efforts of the so-called Robertson panel[15], that also concluded that 90% of UFO sightings are mistakes or hoaxes, and the 10% remaining could be accounted for by temperature inversion phenomena and other more exotic natural phenomena. The panel also recommended that a mass public education programme about UFOs should be put in place so that the U.S. Air Force would not get swamped by reports from civilians. Although the report was classified, several parts of it became public in 1956 when Edward Ruppelt, who was head of the Project Blue Book up to the end of 1953, published his book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.

Phases and pragmatic information

These four phases are not simply descriptive characteristics of a RSPK, they actually represent a process of transferring pragmatic information necessary for psi effects to occur. Such information flow will be the topic of part 2 of this case study.

References for Part 1

[1] Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report. New York: Dell, 1977, p. 264.
[2] Idem.
[3] Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report. New York: Dell, 1977, p. 263.
[4]NICAP. “The 1952 Sighting Wave” on the Internet at: , consulted 27 June 2009.
[5] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 100.
[6] From Randle, Kevin D. (2001). Invasion Washington: UFOs over the Capitol. New York: Harper Collins, pp. 32-34.
[7] Ibid., p. 39.
[8] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 100.
[9] Randle, Kevin D. (2001). Invasion Washington: UFOs over the Capitol. New York: Harper Collins, p. 70.
[10] Ibid., pp. 68-74.
[11] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 100.
[12] For the full transcript please see the NICAP website on Internet at
[13] Ibid., p. 101.
[14] Ibid., p. 105.
[15] For more on the Robertson Panel, please see the Durant report on the CUFON website on Internet at

Eric Ouellet © 2009


Ken Pfeifer said...

Great investigation and reporting are evident in this article. This case is far more important than roswell and it should be made public to everyone. As Ufologist we assume everyone knows about this event. Not the case in a long run. You would be astonished as to how ignorant the public is about past and present ufo cases. The only people that follow these events are the people that truly believe in UFO's. Everyone else could care less, mostly because they are afraid to know the truth. We have to educate the public and the younger generations about these major events in human history. Ken Pfeifer Mufon NJ

Rick Phillips said...

Thanks for this article and effort. It's an interesting analysis but I also think that events can be made to fit such `outlines'.

BTW, `video' exists of lights very similar to the ones you label a hoax in your article.

Eric Ouellet said...


I am not sure if you found the part 2 and 3 as interesting, but thanks for your comments.

Best Regards,


Eric Ouellet said...


The existence of lights that were filmed does not invalidate the thesis I defend here. As discussed in part 3, earthlights are physical objects that can be seen, and can be detected by radar (although not always). What is problematic is not the objects in the sky, which can be explained by earthlights, but their apparant "behavior". The explanation of their behavior informed by research on RSPK is based on existing knowledge about a recognized (even if poorly understood) phenomenon. Scientifically speaking, to imply that it would a spaceship from another world is much more speculative than invoking RSPKs. But strangely enough, people tend to think the oppositite.



epsychic said...

Parapsychology has lots of skeptics. No matter how you try to reason out, their opinions will always be as tough as steel.

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