Unidentified flying object (commonly abbreviated as UFO or U.F.O.) is the popular term for any apparent aerial phenomenon whose cause cannot be easily or immediately identified by the observer. The United States Air Force, which coined the term in 1952, initially defined UFOs as those objects that remain unidentified after scrutiny by expert investigators, though today the term UFO is colloquially used to refer to any unidentifiable sighting regardless of whether it has been investigated. UFO reports increased precipitously after the first widely publicized U.S. sighting, reported by private pilot Kenneth Arnold in June 24 1947, that gave rise to the popular terms "flying saucer" and "flying disc." The term UFO is popularly taken as a synonym for alien spacecraft and generally most discussions of UFOs revolve around this presumption. UFO enthusiasts and devotees have created organizations, religious cults have adopted extraterrestrial themes, and in general the UFO concept has evolved into a prominent mythos in modern culture. Some investigators now prefer to use the broader term unidentified aerial phenomenon (or UAP), to avoid the confusion and speculative associations that have become attached to UFO.

Unexplained aerial observations have been reported throughout history. Some were undoubtedly astronomical in nature: comets, bright meteors, one or more of the five planets that can be seen with the naked eye, planetary conjunctions, or atmospheric optical phenomena such as parhelia and lenticular clouds.

The post World War II UFO phase in the United States began with a famous sighting by American businessman Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947 while flying his private plane near Mount Rainier, Washington. He reported seeing nine brilliantly bright objects flying across the face of Rainier.

Although there were other 1947 U.S. sightings of similar objects that preceded this, it was Arnold's sighting that first received significant media attention and captured the public's imagination. Arnold described what he saw as being "flat like a pie pan", "shaped like saucers and were so thin I could barely see them… ", "half-moon shaped, oval in front and convex in the rear. … they looked like a big flat disk" (see Arnold's drawing at right), and flew "like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water". (One of the objects, however, he would describe later as crescent-shaped, as shown in illustration at left.) Arnold’s descriptions were widely reported and within a few days gave rise to the terms flying saucer and flying disk. Arnold’s sighting was followed in the next few weeks by hundreds of other reported sightings, mostly in the U.S., but in other countries as well. After reports of the Arnold sighting hit the media, other cases began to be reported in increasing numbers. In one instance a United Airlines crew sighting of nine more disc-like objects over Idaho on the evening of July 4. At the time, this sighting was even more widely reported than Arnold’s and lent considerable credence to Arnold’s report.

American UFO researcher Ted Bloecher, in his comprehensive review of newspaper reports (including cases that preceded Arnold's), found a sudden surge upwards in sightings on July 4, peaking on July 6–8. Bloecher noted that for the next few days most American newspapers were filled with front-page stories of the new "flying saucers" or "flying discs". Reports began to rapidly tail off after July 8, when officials began issuing press statements on the Roswell UFO incident, in which they explained debris found on the ground by a rancher as being that of a weather balloon.

Over several years in the 1960s, Bloecher (aided by physicist James E. McDonald) discovered 853 flying disc sightings that year from 140 newspapers from Canada, Washington D.C, and every U.S. state except Montana

UFOs have been subject to investigations over the years that vary widely in scope and scientific rigor. Governments or independent academics in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Peru, France, Belgium, Sweden, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Spain, and the Soviet Union are known to have investigated UFO reports at various times.

Following the large U.S. surge in sightings in June and early July 1947, on July 9, 1947, Army Air Force (AAF) intelligence, in cooperation with the FBI, began a formal investigation into selected best sightings with characteristics that could not be immediately rationalized, which included Kenneth Arnold’s and that of the United Airlines crew. The AAF used "all of its top scientists" to determine whether or not "such a phenomenon could, in fact, occur". The research was "being conducted with the thought that the flying objects might be a celestial phenomenon," or that "they might be a foreign body mechanically devised and controlled." Three weeks later in a preliminary defense estimate, the air force investigation decided that, "This ‘flying saucer’ situation is not all imaginary or seeing too much in some natural phenomenon. Something is really flying around."

A further review by the intelligence and technical divisions of the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field reached the same conclusion, that "the phenomenon is something real and not visionary or fictitious," that there were objects in the shape of a disc, metallic in appearance, and as big as man-made aircraft. They were characterized by "extreme rates of climb [and] maneuverability," general lack of noise, absence of trail, occasional formation flying, and "evasive" behavior "when sighted or contacted by friendly aircraft and radar," suggesting a controlled craft. It was thus recommended in late September 1947 that an official Air Force investigation be set up to investigate the phenomenon. It was also recommended that other government agencies should assist in the investigation.

This led to the creation of the Air Force’s Project Sign at the end of 1947, one of the earliest government studies to come to a secret extraterrestrial conclusion. In August 1948, Sign investigators wrote a top-secret intelligence estimate to that effect. The Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg ordered it destroyed. The existence of this suppressed report was revealed by several insiders who had read it, such as astronomer and USAF consultant J. Allen Hynek and Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, the first head of the USAF's Project Blue Book.

Project Sign was dismantled and became Project Grudge at the end of 1948. Angered by the low quality of investigations by Grudge, the Air Force Director of Intelligence reorganized it as Project Blue Book in late 1951, placing Ruppelt in charge. Blue Book closed down in 1970, using the Condon Commission's negative conclusion as a rationale, ending the official Air Force UFO investigations. However, a 1969 USAF document, known as the Bolender memo, plus later government documents revealed that nonpublic U.S. government UFO investigations continued after 1970. The Bollender memo first stated that "reports of unidentified flying objects that could affect national security… are not part of the Blue Book system," indicating that more serious UFO incidents were already handled outside of the public Blue Book investigation. The memo then added, "reports of UFOs which could affect national security would continue to be handled through the standard Air Force procedures designed for this purpose." In addition, in the late 1960s, there was a chapter on UFOs at the U.S. Air Force Academy in their Space Sciences course, giving serious consideration to possible extraterrestrial origins. When word of the curriculum became public, the Air Force in 1970 put out a statement the book was outdated and that cadets were now being informed of Condon's negative conclusion instead.

Use of UFO instead of the popular flying saucer was first suggested in 1952 by Ruppelt, who felt that flying saucer did not reflect the diversity of the sightings. Ruppelt suggested that UFO should be pronounced as a word — you-foe. However it is generally pronounced by forming each letter: U.F.O. His term was quickly adopted by the Air Force, which also briefly used "UFOB" circa 1954, for Unidentified Flying Object. Ruppelt recounted his experiences with Project Blue Book in his memoir, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956), also the first book to use the term.

Air Force Regulation 200-2, issued in 1953 and 1954, defined an Unidentified Flying Object ("UFOB") as "any airborne object which by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type, or which cannot be positively identified as a familiar object." The regulation also said UFOBs were to be investigated as a "possible threat to the security of the United States" and "to determine technical aspects involved." As to what the public was to be told, "it is permissible to inform news media representatives on UFOB's when the object is positively identified as a familiar object," but "For those objects which are not explainable, only the fact that ATIC [Air Technical Intelligence Center] will analyze the data is worthy of release, due to many unknowns involved."

Well known American investigations include:

Famous American cases

The Battle of Los Angeles in 1942, where an unidentified flying object sequently was thought to be part of a Japanese airstrike.

The Roswell Incident involved New Mexico residents, local law enforcement officers, and the US military, the latter of whom allegedly collected physical evidence from the UFO crash site.

In the Kecksburg Incident, Pennsylvania residents reported seeing a bell shaped object crash in the area. Police officers, and possibly military personnel, were sent to investigate.

The Betty and Barney Hill abduction was the first reported abduction incident.

1975 Travis Walton abduction case: The movie Fire in the Sky was based on this event, but embellished greatly the original account.

The "Phoenix Lights" March 13, 1997

Famous British cases

Both US and British military personnel allegedly witnessed UFOs in the forests near Rendlesham Rendlesham Forest incident and Bentwaters. This case was reported in December 1980 and took place over several nights at both the US and RAF military bases.

Uruguayan investigation

The Uruguayan Air Force has had an ongoing UFO investigations since 1989 and analyzed 2100 cases, of which they consider only 40 (about 2%) definitely lacking any conventional explanation. All files have recently been declassified. The unexplained cases include military jet interceptions, abductions, cattle mutilations, and physical landing trace evidence. Colonel Ariel Sanchez, who currently heads the investigation, summarized their findings as follows: "The commission managed to determine modifications to the chemical composition of the soil where landings are reported. The phenomenon exists. It could be a phenomenon that occurs in the lower sectors of the atmosphere, the landing of aircraft from a foreign air force, up to the extraterrestrial hypothesis. It could be a monitoring probe from outer space, much in the same way that we send probes to explore distant worlds. The UFO phenomenon exists in the country. I must stress that the Air Force does not dismiss an extraterrestrial hypothesis based on our scientific analysis."

Astronomer reports

The Air Force's Project Blue Book files indicate that approximately 1 % of all unknown reports came from amateur and professional astronomers or other users of telescopes (such as missile trackers or surveyors). In 1952, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, then a consultant to Blue Book, conducted a small survey of 45 fellow professional astronomers. Five reported UFO sightings (about 11%). In the 1970s, astrophysicist Peter A. Sturrock conducted two large surveys of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and American Astronomical Society. About 5 % of the members polled indicated that they had had UFO sightings.

Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who admitted to six UFO sightings, including three green fireballs, supported the Extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) for UFOs and stated he thought scientists who dismissed it without study were being "unscientific." Another astronomer was Lincoln LaPaz, who had headed the Air Force's investigation into the green fireballs and other UFO phenomena in New Mexico. LaPaz reported two personal sightings, one of a green fireball, the other of an anomalous disc-like object. (Both Tombaugh and LaPaz were part of Hynek's 1952 survey.) Hynek himself took two photos through the window of a commercial airliner of a disc-like object that seemed to pace his aircraft. Even later UFO debunker Donald Menzel filed a UFO report in 1949.

In 1980, a survey of 1800 members of various amateur astronomer associations by Gert Helb and Hynek for the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) found that 24 % responded "yes" to the question "Have you ever observed an object which resisted your most exhaustive efforts at identification?"

British records on UFOs

In August 2009 The Black Vault internet archive announced the release by the British government of more than 4,000 pages of declassified records. The records include information on the Rendlesham Forest incident, crop circles, a UFO attack on a cemetery and even reports of alien abduction claims

On 1 December 2009, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) quietly closed down its UFO investigations unit. The unit's hotline and email address were suspended by the Ministry of Defense on that date. The MoD said there was no value in continuing to receive and investigate sightings in a release, stating

"... in over fifty years, no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom. The MoD has no specific capability for identifying the nature of such sightings. There is no Defence benefit in such investigation and it would be an inappropriate use of defence resources. Furthermore, responding to reported UFO sightings diverts MoD resources from tasks that are relevant to Defence."

The Guardian reported that the MoD claimed the closure would save the Ministry around £50,000 a year. The MoD said that it would continue to release UFO files to the public through the National Archives



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