Monday, August 8, 2016

Kenneth Arnold and Pelicans

There have been various explanations suggested for Kenneth Arnold's very first sighting on June 24, 1947 of what came to be known as "flying saucers" (owing to a famous error, since Arnold described boomerang-shaped objects, not saucer-shaped ones).

The Harvard astronomer and skeptic Donald H. Menzel had several rather unconvincing explanations for what Arnold allegedly saw. According to Wikipedia:
  1. In 1953, Menzel suggested that Arnold had seen clouds of snow blown from the mountains south of Mt. Rainier. According to Maccabee, such snow clouds have hazy light, not the mirror-like brilliance reported by Arnold. Further, such clouds could not be in the rapid motion reported by Arnold, nor would they account for Arnold first seeing the bright objects north of Rainier.
  2. In 1963, Menzel proposed that Arnold had seen orographic clouds or wave clouds; Maccabee says that this conflicted with testimony from Arnold and others that the sky was clear, and again can't account for the objects' reported brightness and rapid motion over a very large angular region.
  3. In 1971, Menzel said that Arnold may have merely seen spots of water on his airplane's windows; Maccabee says that this contradicts Arnold's testimony that he had specifically ruled out water spots or reflections shortly after seeing the nine UFOs. For example, the early Bill Bequette article of June 26 in the East Oregonian has Arnold saying he at first thought that maybe he was seeing reflections off his window, but "he still saw the objects after rolling it down."
The late Philip J. Klass suggested that Kenneth Arnold probably saw Meteor Fireballs. 

The British researcher James Easton was the first to suggest that what Arnold actually saw was a flock of American White Pelicans, the largest birds in North America.  The object depicted above does look somewhat bird-like. But Jerome Clark and many other UFOlogists mocked that conclusion, calling it "Pelicanism." The British Fortean writer John Rimmer defiantly began using the pen name, "the Pelicanist."

The reason I am writing about pelicans now is that I just found out that, unlike many species, white pelicans habitually soar on thermals, like hang gliders, especially when they are traveling long distances in search of food (hat tip to Barbara Graham). And when pelicans are soaring, their wings do not move. Indeed, the author of this YouTube video writes how a "white pelican flock rides the wind over Bayou Corne for 10 minutes and never once flapped their wings."

Another aspect of Arnold's sighting was an unexpected "flash" of light that caught his attention. He said, "they seemed to flip and flash in the sun, just like a mirror.

A fact that few people seem to know is that a flock of pelicans, when soaring, appear to "flash" when their white bellies are turned toward the observer, then fade again as their dark wingtips are turned toward the observer once again. In the YouTube video above, we see the pelicans appear to "flash" at about 57 seconds, then again at about 1:20, 1:42, and 2:00.

Pelicans soaring above Lake Tahoe (

Compare the shape of these pelicans soaring over Lake Tahoe with the shape of the object Arnold drew. Remember that when pelicans are riding thermals, their wings do not move.

An amazingly long and detailed investigation, The Singular Adventure of Mr. Kenneth Arnold (147 pages), by the Scottish UFOlogist Martin Shough - tells everything you ever wanted to know about the Arnold sighting. He concludes that the objects Arnold described could not have been birds or other prosaic objects, but does not suggest what he thinks they were.

Compare with Kenneth Arnold's boomerang-shaped object
Starting from Shough's investigation, Martin Kottmeyer wrote Joining Shough's Singular Adventure (see page 28), suggesting that Arnold just might have seen Pelicans after all. (Kottmeyer's interpretation of the term "echelon" is acknowledged to be incorrect). Some of Arnold's statements made the objects sound very much like a flock of birds:
Arnold has been telling us all along that the objects reminded him of birds, but we didn't seem to be listening, with our minds fixated on something else.
 In these interviews with reporter Bob Pratt, Arnold gives us good reason to doubt his credibility. He talks about "mystery submarines," says that his phone line has been tapped, that UFOs may be alive, and they seem to be able to read his mind. He  says he has spotted UFOs "seven or eight times."


  1. Given the fact there is no way to judge the size of an object in the air, this seems like a perfectly resonance explanation.

  2. Does this look like a pelican to anyone?

    1. "I hadn't flown more than two or three minutes on my course when a bright flash reflected on my airplane. It startled me as I thought I was too close to some other aircraft. I looked every place in the sky and couldn't find where the reflection had come from...."

      "I observed a chain of nine peculiar looking aircraft...."

      "I discovered that this was where the reflection had come from, as two or three of them every few seconds would dip or change their course slightly, just enough for the sun to strike them at an angle that reflected brightly on my plane."

      It's one thing to see bright points of light at a distance, quite another for a plane to be bathed by flashes of reflected sunlight from large objects miles distant--as if by nearby lightning.

      "Of course, when the sun reflected from one or two or three of these units, they appeared to be completely round; but, I am making a drawing to the best of my ability, which I am including, as to the shape I observed these objects to be as they passed the snow covered ridges as well as Mt. Rainier."

      "When these objects were flying approximately straight and level, they were just a black thin line and when they flipped was the only time I could get a judgment as to their size."

      "They seemed longer than wide" [and] "Mirror Bright"

      If these objects really existed and Arnold's reporting is reasonably accurate, then pelicans don't seem a match.

  3. The way Arnold described their motion as "skipping" never made any sense aerodynamically. I thought that was weird when I was ten and first read about the incident. If the objects were traveling anywhere near the speed Arnold estimated such maneuvers would be impossible.

  4. Bit of credit where it's due, Roberto. It was Marty Kottmeyer who first suggested that Arnold was right-first-time with his comment about geese. James Easton (RIP) picked up on that and refined it down to pelicans.

    —Peter Pelicanist Picking Pepper

    1. >> From the British Columbian just 2.5 weeks after Arnold's sighting:


      Spokane, Washington, July 12 (BUP)

      A veteran Northwest Airlines pilot who has flown over the Pacific northwest's 'flying saucer' country for 15 years today took all the glamor out of the mystery of the flying discs. All that people have been seeing, he said, are pelicans. Or maybe geese or swans.

      Capt. Gordon Moore disclosed that he & his co-pilot, Vern Kessler were saucer hunting last Wednesday on a regular flight between here & Portland, Ore. Kessler was sure he had seen some flying saucers on July 2, and the pilots were armed with movie cameras and binoculars for another encounter.

      "Suddenly we spotted nine big round discs weaving northward 2000 feet below us," Moore relates.

      "We investigated and found they were real alright--real pelicans." <<

    2. 1) Please cite this source, did you find it on the web, news archive, etc?

      2) They investigated and found they were real pelicans. HOW did they come to this conclusion?

      3) They possessed a movie camera, but did they film this formation? If so, why was it never reported to Project Sign (to my knowledge)? Or, why hasn't it shown up in the decades since.


  6. Now to confuse things more, here are brown Pelicans in flight. Note their 'tail of a kite' motion.

    1. the 'flash' when the white pelicans perform their maneuver does match up well with his description. Did then his active imagination (nobody can deny that aspect) take over? What I find amusing after all these years: the other pilots going "saucer hunting" as if it was comparable to fishing or duck hunting - sure, you just go to a place and look for flying saucers. And to call this just a sighting - sounded more like an *invasion* to me - 9 craft? I don't recall many sightings like this in the history of UFO lore.

  7. You do realize, don't you, that the True Believers could very easily argue that if you're still desperately trying to convince everybody that Kenneth Arnold saw pelicans, 69 years after the event and 32 years after the death of the only person who could have added anything new to the discussion, the skeptical cause ran out of steam long ago and it's just same-old same-old that isn't any more convincing than it was over half a century ago?

    Which, however convincing you may or may not find this particular argument to be, is undeniably true.

    Incidentally, I'm amused to see that the dear old Iron Skeptic, who for a long time now has been forced by the dwindling number of commenters to reply to himself, is now arguing with himself too! At least, I take this to be so, since he seems to be both for and against the pelican hypothesis.

    May I ask that resolutely metallic fellow for clarification? Is he perhaps saying that Kenneth Arnold couldn't have seen pelicans, therefore flying saucers are real?

    Or is he (and I suspect this is more likely) arguing that because Kenneth Arnold said he saw alien spaceships, he must have been a bad person, therefore it's not damning enough to suggest that he made an honest mistake, and nothing will do but to accuse him of telling deliberate lies out of sheer wickedness?

    1. Count Otto says, "the dear old Iron now arguing with himself too! At least, I take this to be so, since he seems to be both for and against the pelican hypothesis."

      Easily misinterpreted, I admit, my dear Otto, but there is a clear and greater goal here. By showing at once how this local and common but ambigious visual stimulus was easily identified as a pod of pelicans at the time by one experienced pilot, Gordon Moore, while being so utterly misinterpreted and grossly misrepresented by another, Kenneth Arnold, we can draw a very damning conclusion about the veracity of Arnold's report and quite possibly his secret motivation for making it and his public actions and wild pronouncements that followed.

      It was Arnold who was most responsible for the dissemination of his story, repeating his fantastic yarn to anyone who would listen: first at his home airport, then at an airshow, then to a newspaper office, then Army Air Force intelligence, then in a telegram to the FBI. And it was Arnold who publicly speculated to reporters in the first fews days about earthly advanced technology and then extraterrestrial visitors as possible identities for what were in reality most probably merely pelicans.

      Even under perfect circumstances for such a misperception and misinterpretation, how does a pod of pelicans become a squadron of metallic, flashing, fluttering, erratically flipping, but round and thin 100-foot supersonic flying "saucer-shaped, saucer-like" unknown aircraft as seen from tens of miles?

      A pod of pelicans doesn't, it could not. So what's the real story behind the origin of the flying saucers?

      Thank you, my Count.

    2. "how does a pod of pelicans become a squadron of metallic, flashing, fluttering, erratically flipping, but round and thin 100-foot supersonic flying "saucer-shaped, saucer-like" unknown aircraft as seen from tens of miles?"

      Perhaps in the telling of one who is prone to exaggeration and drama. See Arnold's obvious exaggerations and/or fabrications in the Bob Pratt interview:

    3. "...Arnold couldn't have seen pelicans, therefore flying saucers are real?"

      Yes, that's what he's saying. It's "saucer logic," also known as "Sherlock Holmes logic," the extended false dilemma.

      Even if unknown, there's always a better answer than the "implausible" and "least likely" extremely tenuous hypothesis.

  8. You guys are forgetting a competing theory. At the end of WWII, America got hold of the German Horten Flying Wing and began testing it. Arnold saw a secret test flight of a group of these. For a picture of this aircraft, go to Of course, this may all be fiction, but the picture at the top of Robert's article sure looks like a flying wing....

    1. That is only a competing theory for skeptics who apply as little reasoning to their ideas as believers do to theirs.

      -Aircraft are not tested in groups
      -They didn't have a group of Hortens, they had one powered prototype and an unpowered glider
      -The 229 was not kept 'secret' and had been seen by many civilians following the capture and transfer of it.

    2. I agree with B R-V. The idea that Arnold saw a secret test flight of high-performance aircraft is not tenable. In addition to the above problems, given that almost seventy years have passed since Arnold's sighting, these once-secret high performance aircraft would be well-known aviation history by now.

  9. It would have helped a lot if another witness, preferably independent, had seen these same nine 'saucers'. There was another witness Fred Johnson, a prospector in Idaho, who saw six of them, also on June 24, but who didn't report it until some days (maybe weeks) afterwards, and I believe his story was later shown to be probably invented.

    The one from Zoam dated July 2 is a good one for the 'pelicanists' but of course it was a different sighting as to time and place, but it was also nine objects. (Conceivably the same ones??). Curious, to say the least.

    I guess that we shall have to accept the obvious after 69 years: Arnold's objects will never be identified. The speed and distance, if accurate, seem to rule out any kind of birds or aircraft.

    Perhaps one thing can be clarified. When exactly did Arnold first either say or write that the objects were ET craft? It MAY have been Ray Palmer who first put the ET idea into his head in mid-July but this is discounted by the fact that Palmer was NOT an ET fan in his later years. When did Arnold get hooked on Fortean ideas? Was it before his sighting or after?

  10. An interesting discussion about the case.
    What I took from it, considering the shape mistake, from boomerang to saucer and the immediate mass, the damn flood of 'saucer' sightings reported, went a long way to create Ufology as we know it today is just a very clear image of the exited growth of the myth, which is now a huge industry.
    What followed from Arnold's report says a lot more than the report itself and and displays the creation of a grand, popular myth.

    thanks for reading,

  11. We've all seen Arnold's drawing I'm sure, but in this version even if cropped we can see one bat-like object distinguished from the other eight more circular objects.

    Joel Carpenter writes: >> Kenneth Arnold sketch of his objects - sent to AMAZING STORIES editor Ray Palmer on July 29, 1947. On right edge, cut off in this FBI copy, is the tail edge of "object number eight," the second-last object of the formation, which was bat-winged and "a little smaller" than the main "saucers," according to Arnold <<

    Make of it what you will; I'm not arguing for or against the most likely pod of pelicans as the ambiguous visual stimulus for Arnold's report--only that his report is so totally unreliable that we might as well consider it made up out of nothing but Arnold's desperate desire for attention and money.

    As mentioned, Arnold was a fantasy-prone paranoid, a multi-time "UFO" repeater. He speculated that they were secret high-technology, ET spacecraft, even upper atmospheric or space animals. And he spoke of "mysterious submarines" or "USO." This is the stuff of pulp-fiction of the time.

    And as if it's not obvious that Arnold was steeped in AMAZING STORIES Shaverania, he also claimed that the "saucers" were reading his mind and the FBI was tapping his phone!

    Most probably they learned of Arnold's many other purported paranormal experiences, ghost sightings and such. Or maybe the FBI heard Arnold and Ray Palmer laughing it up about how much money they were making off of this nonsense since the FBI accused them--publisher Palmer and Ken Arnold--of concocting flying saucer hysteria.

  12. We don't have pelicans around here but I've seen gulls 'transform' into shiny silvery discs when the sun hits them right. Used to watch it often while waiting for the bus back when I was in high school.

  13. Robert,

    What about the one object that Arnold admitted to differing from the others. The one which corresponded highly to the object in the Rhodes photo. That object is clearly an aircraft and if so would seem to further damage the hypothesis that Arnold witnessed Pelicans. Granted, he did not admit to this until after that photographed had been published, But, I do give credence to his reason for not reporting it at the time.


  14. Hey Robert—

    I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to locate any information on the “boomerang” drawing, which Arnold is featured holding above, and which first appeared in Arnold & Palmer’s 1952 book The Coming of the Saucers (odd title considering he didn’t see a saucer— but saucers were def hotter tickets than boomerangs in 1952.)

    I cant find anything on who may have drawn the image not the extent of Arnold’s involvement in its creation. As Arnold & Palmer self-published their 1952 book, perhaps it was drawn by one of Palmer’s magazine illustrators, but I’d appreciate any possible help. Thanks.

    1. I haven't any idea who drew it. I asked Jim Oberg, because he met Palmer and used to contribute to his publications. He had no idea, either.

  15. The similarity to the drawing and the description by Kenneth is really very great.Likewise the flight behavior and the flashing in the sunlight. Is it known if the pelicans are common in this region and up to what altitude they can fly? It would also go well with the fact that if Arnold's guess as to the distance and speed of the objects were correct, the objects must have been huge if he could make out details.It is more likely that the objects flew closer to him and therefore slower. Some questions I've always asked myself: Arnold must have had a radio on the plane. Or am i wrong? I have never been able to read anywhere that he used this to report the unusual objects to a nearby tower or to the nearby DC4. And, Would it have been possible at that time to detect the objects on radar? And what's about the nearby DC4 behind Arnold.Is it known if the pilots were able to report anything about the sighting of Arnold?

  16. I've just read the Arnold interview, and the guy surely had some cognitive problems

  17. James Easton, the original Pelican Man, has a new, very detailed, discussion of the Arnold sighting. Spoiler: it's pelicans.

  18. I have explained this report. See


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