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The 1953 Ellworth AFB UFO Incident

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FW:  Aug. 5, 2014

Shortly after dark on August 5, 1953, the Air Defense Command radar station at Ellsworth AFB, just east of Rapid City, had received a call from the local Ground Observer Corps filter center. A lady spotter at Black Hawk, about 10 miles west of Ellsworth, had reported an extremely bright light low on the horizon, off to the northeast.




Statement by Captain Edward J. Ruppelt - Former Director, Project Blue Book


I first heard about the sighting about two o'clock on the morning of August 11,1953, when Max Futch called me from ATIC. A few minutes before, a wire had come in carrying a priority just under that reserved for flashing the word the U.S. has been attacked. Max had been called over to ATIC by the OD to see the report, and he thought that I should see it. I was a little hesitant to get dressed and go out to the base, so I asked Max what he thought about the report. His classic answer will go down in UFO history, "Captain," Max said in his slow, pure Louisiana drawl, "you know that for a year I've read every flying saucer report that's come in and that I never really believed in the things." Then he hesitated and added, so fast that I could hardly understand hini, "But you should read this wire." The speed with which he uttered this last statement was in itself enough to convince me. When Max talked fast, something was important.


A half hour later I was at ATIC - just in time to get a call from the Pentagon. Someone else had gotten out of bed to read his copy of the wire.


I used the emergency orders that I always kept in my desk and caught the first airliner out of Dayton to Rapid City, South Dakota. I didn't call the 4602nd because I wanted to investigate this one personally. I talked to everyone involved in the incident and pieced together an amazing story.


Shortly after dark on the night of twelfth, the Air Defense Command radar station at Ellsworth AFB, just east of Rapid City, had received a call from the local Ground Observer Corps filter center. A lady spotter at Black Hawk, about 10 miles west of Ellsworth, had reported an extremely bright light low on the horizon, off to the northeast. The radar had been scanning an area to the west, working a jet fighter in some practice patrols, but when they got the report they moved the sector scan to the northeast quadrant There was a target exactly where the lady repored the light to be. The warrant officer who was the duty controller for the night, told me that he'd studied the target for several minutes. He knew how weather could affect radar but this target was well defined, solid, and bnght." It seemed to be moving, but very slowly. He called for an altitude reading, and the man on the height-finding radar checked his scope. He also had the target - it was at 16.000 feet.


The warrant officer picked up the phone and asked the filter center to connect him with the spotter. They did, and ihe two people compared notes on the UFO's position for several minutes. But right in the middle of a sentence the lady suddenly stopped and excitedly said, "It'sstarting to move - it's moving southwest toward Rapid."


The controller looked down at his scope and the target was begining to pick up speed and move southwest. He yelled at two of his men to run outside and take a look. In a second or two one of them shouted back that they could both see a large bluish-white light moving toward Rapid City. The controller looked down at his scope, the target was moving toward Rapid City. As all three parties watched the light and kept up a steady cross conversation of the description, the UFO swiftly made a wide sweep around Rapid City and returned to its original position in the sky.


A master sergeant who had seen and heard the happenings told me that in all his years of duty - combat radar operations in both Europe and Korea - he'd never been so completely awed by anything. When the warrant officer had yelled down at him and asked him what he thought they should do, he'd just stood there. "After all," he told me, "what in hell couldf we do - they're bigger than all of us."


But the warrant officer did do something. He called to the F-84 pilot he had on combat air patrol west of the base and told him to get ready for an intercept. He brought the pilot around south of the base and gave him a course correction thai would take him riglit into the light. which was still at 16.000 feet. By this time the pilot had it spotted. He made the turn, and when he closed to within about 3 miles of the target, it began to move. The controller saw it begin to move, the spotter saw it begin to move and the pilot saw it begin to move - all at the same time There was now no doubt that all of them were watching the same object.


Once it began to move, the UFO picked up speed fast and started to climb, heading north, but the F-84 was right on its tail. The pilot would notice that the light was getting brighter, and he'd call the controller to tell him about it. But the controller's answer would always be the same, "Roger, we can see it on the scope."


There was always a limit as to how near the jet could get, however. The controller told me that it was just as if the UFO had some kind of an automatic warning radar linked to its power supply. When something got too close to it, it would automatically pick up speed and pull away. The separation distance always remained about 3 miles.


The chase continued on north out of sight of the lights of Rapid Cty and the base - into some very black night.


When the UFO and the F-84 got about 120 miles to the north, the pilot checked his fuel; he had to come back. And when I talked to him, be said he was damn glad that he was running out of fuel because being out over some mighty desolate country alone with a UFO can cause some worry.


Both the UFO and the F-84 had gone off the scope, but in a few minutes the jet was back on, heading for home. Then 10 or 15 miles behind it was the UFO target also coming back.


While the UFO and the F-84 were returning to the base - the F-84 was planning to land - the controller received a call from the jet interceptor squadron on the base. The alert pilots at the squadron had heard the conversations on their radio and didn't believe it. "Who's nuts up there?" was the comment that passed over the wire from the pilots to the radar people. There was an F-84 on the line ready to scramble, the man on the phone said, and one of the pilots, a World War II and Korean veteran, wanted to go up and see a flying saucer. The controller said, "OK, go."


In a minute or two the F-84 was airborne and the controller was working him toward the light. The pilot saw it right away and closed in. Again the light began to climb out, this time more toward the northeast. The pilot also began to climb, and before long the light, which at first had been about 30 degrees above his horizontal line of sight, was now below him. He nosed the '84 down to pick up speed, but it was the same old story - as soon as he'd get within 3 miles of the UFO, it would put on a burst of speed and stay out ahead.


Even though the pilot could see the light and hear the ground controller telling him that he was above it, and alternately gaining on it or dropping back, he still couldn't believe it - there must be a simple explanation He turned off all of his lights - it wasn't a reflection from any of the airplane's lights because there it was. A reflection from a ground light, maybe. He rolled the airp!ane - the position of the light didn't change. A star - he picked out three bright stars near the light and watched carefully. The UFO moved in relation to the three stars. Well, he thought to himself, if it's a real object out there, my radar should pick it up too; so he flipped on his radar-ranging gunsight. In a few seconds the red light on his sight blinked on - something real and solid was in front of him. Then he was scared. When I talked to him, he readily admitted that he'd been scared. He'd met MD 109's, FW 190's and ME 262's over Germany and he'd met MIG-15's over Korea but the large, bright, bluish-white light had scared - he asked the controller if he could break off the intercept


This time the light didn't corne back.


What he UFO went off the scope it was headed toward Fargo, North Dakota, so the controller called the Fargo filter center. "Had they had any reports of unidentified lights?" he asked. They hadn't.


But in a few minutes a call came back. Spotter posts on a southwest- northeast line a few miles west of Fargo had reported a fast-moving, bright bluish-white light.


This was an unknown - the best.


The sighting was thorougly investigated, and I could devote pages of detail on how we looked into every facet of the incident; but it will suffice to say that in every facet we looked into we saw nothing. Nothing but a big question mark asking what was it. - Captain Edward J. Ruppelt - Former Director, Project Blue Book






J. Allen Hynek - Saturday Evening Post 1966


In 1953, the year of the Robertson report, there occurred one of the most puzzling cases that I have studied. It was reported first in Black Hawk, S. Dak., and then in Bismarck, N. Dak., during the night of August 5 and the early morning of August 6. A number of persons in Black Hawk reported seeing several strange objects in the sky. What made these reports particularly significant was the fact that these people were trained observers--they were part of the national network of civilians who were keeping watch for enemy bombers.


At approximately the same time, unidentified blips showed up on the radarscope at Ellsworth Air Force Base, which is near Black Hawk. An airborne F-84 fighter was vectored into the area and reported seeing the UFO's. The pilot radioed that one of the objects appeared to be over Piedmont S. Dak., and was moving twice as fast as his jet fighter. It was "brighter than the brightest star" he had ever seen. When the pilot gave chase, the light "just disappeared." Five civilians on the ground, who had watched the jet chase the light, confirmed the pilot's report.


Later a second F-84 was sent aloft and directed toward the UFO, which still showed on ground radar. After several minutes, the pilot reported seeing an object with a light of varying intensity that alternated from white to green. While the pilot was pursuing the UFO, he noted that his gunsight light had flashed on, indicating that his plane's radar was picking up a target. The object was directly ahead of his aircraft but at a slightly greater altitude. It then climbed very rapidly. When the pilot saw he was hopelessly losing ground, he broke off the chase. Radar operators on the ground tracked the fighter coming back from the chase, while the UFO continued on out of range of the scope.


As the object sped off to the north, Ellsworth Air Force Base notified the spotter's control center in Bismarck, 220 miles to the north, where a sergeant then went out on the roof and saw a UFO. The Air Force had no planes in Bismarck that could be sent after the UFO, which finally disappeared later that night.


I investigated this reported sighting myself and was unable to find a satisfactory explanation. In my report, I noted that "the entire incident, in my opinion, has too much of an Alice in Wonderland flavor for comfort." - excerpt from J. Allen Hynek - 12/17/66 - Saturday Evening Post




Excerpt from 'UFO's Past Present & Future'


That same year, 1953, the military investigated another incident. This time it was in Bismarck, North Dakota. The event takes place on two nights. It is witnessed not only by some forty-five alarmed townspeople, but also the military Air Defense System personnel.


The ingredients of the story add yet another eerie dimension to our portrait of the UFO.


The object was first sighted by Miss Kellian at 8:05 p.m. It was seen as a red glowing light making long sweeping movements. The information was relayed to the Bismarck North Dakota air Defense Filter Center. Sergeant Harry, some time later, spots the object from the roof. Sighting it, he plots its irregular course as it dances between telephone lines. Others on duty watch the moving light that would be visible in the night sky for some three hours. Sergeant Harry described it this way: "It would remain stationary - then hop up several degrees very quickly - almost instantaneously."


Another witness added, "It would stop...move to the left and then swerve down in a sort of slanting motion, repeating these maneuvers several times."


At midnight, three more objects appeared in the Dakota night sky, as if to join the first object. "Everybody at the Filter Center had the feeling that somebody was watching us."


Before being sighted in Bismarck, two F-84s had been vectored into the area over Blackhawk, South Dakota. The objects and the jets were monitored on radar. One pilot had visual contact for twenty to thirty seconds. Over the intercom you could hear the description: "It's brighter than the brightest star I've ever seen." As the pilot gave chase, the light unexplainably disappeared. Now Lieutenant Needham, the second pilot, spotted one of the objects at 15,000 feet. It was below him to his right. The object moved spasmodically up and down, changing colors from white to green. In pursuit, Lieutenant Needham climbed to 26,000 feet and changed course to 360 degrees. After being steady on 360 degrees for a short time, Needham's radar lock-on-light on the A-4 gun-sight came on and remained on. The object was ahead of him. It increased its speed and moved rapidly ahead and up.


The chase was being carried on the radarscope back at the control room. Radar clearly showed that the UFO was staying five to ten miles ahead of Needham and his F-84. Finally, Lieutenant Needham had to give up the pursuit and return to his base. The object continued on and was picked up by the Filter Center in Bismarck.


At 1:09 a.m. an Air Force Globemaster C-124 flew over Bismarck. As the plane approached, the object closest to the plane appeared to send out a signal by blinking red and green. This signaling was then picked up by the other three objects. An observer put it this way: "It was as if a 'wave' passed from one to the other."


A signaling effect - a description that would cause Dr. Hynek, in his then-classified Air Force report, to conclude, "The entire incident, in my opinion, has too much of an Alice-in-Wonderland flavor for comfort." Hynek even today confirms it: "That's exactly how I felt at the time."


The Air Force offered many possibilities as to the cause of the sightings, but in the final analysis the objects would remain on the records as "unknowns." - UFO's Past Present & Future- Robert Emenegger




John Harney - Magonia Magazine #49, June 1994 - 'In Search of Real UFO's' - Rapid City, South Dakota, 12 August 1953


Shortly after dark, the Air Defense Command radar station at Ellsworth Air Force Base, just east of Rapid City, received a call from the local Ground Observer Corps Filter Center. A woman observer at Black Hawk, about 10 miles west of Ellsworth had reported an extremely bright light low on the horizon to the north-east. The radar scanner was turned to cover this part of the sky and a well-defined, bright target was seen in the direction in which the light had been reported. The height-finding radar was then turned on the object and it was found to be at 16,000 feet.


The controller arranged to be put through to the GOC observer and together they compared notes on the object. The observer noticed that it was starting to move towards Rapid City. This was confirmed by radar. The controller sent two men outside to look and they saw the object. It made a wide sweep around Rapid City and then returned to its original position.


The controller then called on the pilot of an F-84 to intercept it. The UFO began to move when the pilot got within about 3 miles of it. The pilot chased it about 120 miles north, then had to turn back because he did not have enough fuel. He had gone beyond the range of the radar, but his blip reappeared a few minutes later, followed at a distance of about 15 miles by the UFO. Another pilot was sent up to intercept it and the same thing happened; this time the UFO went north-east.


When the object went off the radar scope it was heading towards Fargo, North Dakota, so the controller called the Fargo Filter Center. A short time later they called back to say they had reports of a fast-moving bright light.


The above account is a condensed version of the report given by Ruppelt (3). However, Menzel explained the radar contacts as false images caused by a temperature inversion, and the visual sightings as the star Capella. (4) He had little but Ruppelt's summary to go on, and his explanation was too simple, as we can see from the Condon report (5). Hynek thought that the stars Capella, Arcturus and Betelgeuse, the planet Jupiter, and at least one meteor were involved in the visual sightings. The investigators agreed with Menzel's theory about the radar echoes. The description of the sightings given in the Condon report gives a very different impression from that given in Ruppelt's account.




I have chosen these reports in an attempt to demonstrate that not all serious UFO reports obviously point to the ETH as an explanation, even when they remain unexplained, and that the only thing that most UFO reports have in common is a belief by the witnesses in the ETH or a desire, often subconscious, to believe in it.


A factor which might tend to weaken the first case is that the witnesses delayed for some time before making an official report. It thus seems likely that they would have compared notes in order to present mutually consistent accounts. It is also likely that the witnesses were all well known to one another, as they worked at the same place. It might be argued that they must have underestimated the wind speed and possibly failed to appreciate the local effects on wind speed and direction caused by nearby buildings.


The second case seems rather stronger. The height of the object was calculated by comparing the reports of the different groups of witnesses. The object seems to have contained far more energy and lasted much longer than the average lightning ball. It certainly seems worth adding to the list of possible or probable ball lightning reports. A number of good cases of ball lightning have no doubt been lost to science because they were reported as UFOs and published in the sort of book or journal which is unlikely to be available in most science libraries.


The Rapid City case is a good example of what can happen when people are predisposed to consider the ETH as a possible explanation for some UFO reports. A sighting of a bright star near the horizon by a Ground Observer Corps volunteer triggered off a series of visual and radar sightings of what appeared to those involved to be a single, puzzling UFO because of an unusual combination of circumstances on that particular night.


If the idea of extraterrestrial UFOs was not available to the witnesses to excite their imaginations it is most unlikely that two aircraft would have been sent chasing after stars.


Another lesson from this case is that accounts of UFO incidents, even in books by such authoritative writers as Ruppelt, can be very misleading and always need to be cross-checked with other sources.




The effects on witnesses of the ETH should always be considered when reading or investigating UFO reports. The ETH strongly distorts many reports of unusual phenomena, or normal objects seen in unusual conditions. Some good reports may be sightings of rare and poorly understood natural phenomena. Although it is desirable for there to be multiple independent witnesses, they are no guarantee that anything really strange or unusual has taken place.


In rejecting the ETH as a blanket explanation for all puzzling UFO reports it is important not to substitute another blanket explanation, such as mirages or ball lightning. In comparing new reports with cases described in the literature it should be realised that many of these are highly inaccurate summaries of the original reports, and some of them are totally false.


It is only by separating the ETH from the UFO that any progress is likely to be made in obtaining reliable information about the unusual natural phenomena which probably generate some of the more interesting UFO reports. - John Harney - Magonia Magazine #49, June 1994




1. Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report, London, Sphere Books, 1978, 149-151

2. Hendry Allan. The UFO Handbook, London, Sphere Books, 1980, 120-121

3. Ruppelt, Edward J. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, Ace Books, 1956, 304-308

4. Menzel, Donald H. and Boyd, Lyle G. The World of Flying Saucers, New York, Doubleday, 1963, 167-170

5. Thayer, Gordon D. Optical and radar analyses of field cases , in Gillmor, Daniel S. (ed.), Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, Bantam Books, 1969, 132-136







Ellsworth AFB


Air Defense Command activated the 740th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron at Rapid City AFB on 1 February 1953 under the ADC 31st Air Division. The site was located on the base, and was given designation "M-97". The site was established as part of the planned deployment by ADC of forty-four Mobile radar stations across the United States to support the permanent Radar network established during the Cold War for air defense of the United States. Prior to its operational use, the squadron was reassigned to the 29th Air Division on 16 February 1953, and Rapid City AFB was re-designated as Ellsworth AFB.