WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE -- A recently declassified CIA report on the development of the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes said the high-flying jets were mistaken for UFOs more than half the time in the late 1950s and 1960s during Project Blue Book, a Wright-Patterson Air Force Base operation that investigated reports of UFOs.
Not everyone is convinced, however, of the explanation.
"There's no question that a lot of the sightings that take place are in fact our own aircraft, secret military projects or whatever it happens to be," said David P. MacDonald, a Cincinnati area resident and executive director emeritus of the Mutual UFO Network. "Whether or not 50 percent can be attributed to one or two aircraft, I don't know if I could go along with that or not just because of the diversity of what people were seeing."
Blue Book investigated 12,618 UFO reports, and 701 of those remain unidentified, according to the Air Force.
Project Sign and Project Grudge preceded Blue Book in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
"The Air Force was concerned back in the 1940s that some of the UFO sightings might be related to the Soviet Union," said Robert Young, a National Air and Space Intelligence Center historian at Wright-Patterson. The concern was the Cold War adversary might have "something that we didn't have. That's really what drove a lot of it."
Area 51 and Wright-Patterson
The 1992 report, entitled "The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart programs, 1954-1974," was publicly released last week in more detail at the request of a George Washington University archivist.
The document was credited in media reports with CIA acknowledgement of Area 51, a secret testing site in the desert at Groom Lake, Nev., where popular lore claims the U.S. government has tested UFOs and hidden aliens, much the same claims made about Wright-Patterson.
The report also gives a nod to the Wright-Patterson managed Project Blue Book, which examined UFO incidents across the nation.
"After World War II people became increasingly concerned," said Jeffrey Underwood, a National Museum of the U.S. Air Force historian. "They saw things in the air and they didn't know what they were."
The U-2 was one of those strange craft, the report said.
The glider winged jet capable of flying above 70,000 feet was often spotted high above airliners in the 1950s before the secret spy aircraft was publicly disclosed.
"High altitude testing of the U-2 soon led to an unexpected side effect -- a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs)," the report said.
Commercial airliners then flew at 10,000 to 20,000 feet, and it wasn't believed an aircraft could fly as high as the U-2 did.
Airline pilots and ground observers wrote letters about the sightings to the Wright Air Development Command in Dayton, which led to the start-up of Blue Book, the report said. "Air Force investigators then attempted to explain such sightings by linking them to natural phenomena," the CIA document said.
The SR-71 Blackbird flew above 80,000 feet before the jet was retired more than two decades ago. Both spy planes stand on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Other UFO sightings turned out to be surveillance balloons high in the Earth's atmosphere, Underwood said.
In an age before reconnaissance satellites orbiting Earth, the U.S. launched giant surveillance balloons with listening devices to detect telltale signs of a nuclear explosion overseas to determine if the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb, he said. The Air Force program was called Project Mogul.
UFOs, aliens and Wright-Patterson
Books, TV shows and popular cultural lore for decades have linked aliens, UFOs and Wright-Patterson as one and the same. A History Channel documentary in 2006, for example, called "Hangar 18: The UFO Warehouse," reported UFOs and alien bodies were hauled to the base to a secret hangar and underground tunnels from crash sites throughout the country, including the infamous July 1947 crash of a reported UFO near Roswell, N.M.
"No matter where a UFO lands, it seems all roads lead back to Wright-Patterson and Hangar 18," a narrator declared.
MacDonald said there's "boxes and boxes" of eyewitness testimony and sworn affidavits to suggest something other than a balloon, as authorities claimed, crashed in the desert near Roswell, and was brought to Wright-Patterson for examination. NASIC and its predecessors had the responsibility to disassemble and examine foreign aerospace technology that landed in U.S. hands.
"At some point you have to scratch your head and say, 'Man, they're all not making this up,'" said MacDonald. "I think it's plausible this material did start at Wright-Patterson and where it went from there is anybody's guess."
While acknowledging the base doesn't have a Hangar 18, but a Building 18, MacDonald said the truth is out there, somewhere, about Wright-Patterson and UFOs.
"I do think there's elements of truth involved there," the veteran pilot said. "The problem is one side is trying to cover it up and the other is trying to ... discover what the facts are so because of that you get a lot of speculations, you start getting rumors involved, and that trips things up a lot."
The Air Force ended Project Blue Book in December 1969 after a University of Colorado report concluded extensive study of UFOs could not be justified because it was unlikely to advance science. Blue Book found no threats to national security or evidence of extraterrestrial vehicles, the Air Force said.
Nearly three decades ago, the Air Force issued an official denial that Wright-Patterson housed alien space technology and the bodies of beings from another planet.
"Periodically, it is erroneously stated that the remains of extraterrestrial visitors are or have been stored at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base," the January 1985 statement said. "There are not now nor have there ever been, any extraterrestrial visitors or equipment on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base."
The Air Force museum, NASIC and the base's chief public affairs office still receive questions about hidden aliens and their space ships, despite the official denial, officials said.
"I just tell people we have nothing," Underwood said. "If we ever do get something that would be great because this would probably be the first place it would be displayed, but I'm not counting on it."