On June 24, 1947, while flying near Mt. Rainer, in Washington, a businessman and private pilot named Kenneth Arnold claimed to have spotted nine unusual objects flying near the mountain at speeds of over 1,000 mph. In subsequent newspaper reports of the incident, Arnold was quoted describing the objects as “flat like a pie pan,” “shaped like a pie plate,” “something like a pie plate that was cut in half with a sort of a convex triangle in the rear,” and, in the Associated Press, as simply “saucer-like.” The last one stuck, giving birth to a term that would define an entire era of science fiction and conspiracy theory–and, it would seem, influence the course of the U.S. Air Force itself.
A set of recently declassified schematics from the 1950s, published by the National Archives, remind us that there is some truth to claims that the government has, at one time or another, hid UFOs from the public. Unfortunately for the conspiracy-minded, it was trying to build them from scratch, not reverse engineer them to harness their alien technologies.
The pair of images, both stamped “DECLASSIFIED,” show two saucer-like aircraft, complete with labeled fuel tanks, compressors, rotors, and turbines–basically they look like cutaways from the Star Wars Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels. But they are, in fact, the real article: The documents are designated as “USAF Project 1794” and bear the name of Avro Aircraft Limited, a Canadian aviation company that worked with the U.S. Air Force on a number of experimental projects in the ’50s.
A memo accompanying the sketches, dated June 1, 1956, lays out the (almost comically optimistic) expected performance of the aircraft:
It is concluded that the stabilization and control of the aircraft in the manner proposed–the propulsive jets are used to control the aircraft–is feasible and the aircraft can be designed to have satisfactory handling through the whole flight range from ground cushion takeoff to supersonic flight at very high altitude. Supersonic tests show that the calculated thrust potential with the present design will provide a much superior performance to that estimated at the start of contract negotiations, with a top potential speed between Mach 3 and Mach 4, a ceiling of over 100,000 ft. and a maximum range with allowance of about 1,000 nautical miles.
Continuing the program for 18 to 24 months, the memo concludes, would cost about $3,168,000, or about $26.6 million today.
If it seems like an unlikely project for the Air Force to pursue, remember that this was at the onset of the Cold War, when any military advantage over the Soviets was attractive. And there were tangible benefits of the round design: In addition to then-unprecedented speeds, the craft would also be able to achieve vertical takeoff, eliminating the need for runways.
Of course, these recently released cutaways aren’t the first time we’ve heard of such projects. In fact, the Air Force’s flying saucers made it far past the schematic stage; in 1959, Avro’s VZ-9 (or, the Avrocar), made its first flight–though it only got a few feet off the ground and achieved the decidedly sub-supersonic speed of about 35 miles per hour. Production was eventually discontinued in 1961 as we shifted our aeronautic focus to space, and flying saucers slipped back into the realm of little green men with big heads. Oh, well. At least we never went with “flying pie plates.”