A flying saucer (also referred to as “a flying disc”) is a descriptive term for a supposed type of flying craft having a disc or saucer-shaped body, commonly used generically to refer to an anomalous flying object. The term was coined in 1930 but has generally been supplanted since 1952 by the United States Air Force term unidentified flying objects or UFOs. Early reported sightings of unknown “flying saucers” usually described them as silver or metallic, sometimes reported as covered with navigation lights or surrounded with a glowing light, hovering or moving rapidly, either alone or in tight formations with other similar craft, and exhibiting high maneuverability.
While disc-shaped flying objects have been interpreted as being sporadically recorded since the Middle Ages, the first recorded use of the term “flying saucer” for an unidentified flying object was to describe a probable meteor that fell over Texas and Oklahoma on June 17, 1930. “Some who saw the weird light described it as a huge comet, a flaming flying saucer, a great red glow, a ball of fire.” The term “flying saucer” had been in use since 1890 to describe a clay pigeon shooting target, which resembles a classic UFO shape.
The highly publicized sighting by Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947, resulted in the popularity of the term “flying saucer” by U.S. newspapers. Although Arnold never specifically used the term “flying saucer”, he was quoted at the time saying the shape of the objects he saw was like a “saucer”, “disc”, or “pie-plate”, and several years later added he had also said “the objects moved like saucers skipping across the water.” Both the terms flying saucer and flying disc were used commonly and interchangeably in the media until the early 1950s.
Arnold’s sighting was followed by thousands of similar sightings across the world. Such sightings were once very common, to such an extent that “flying saucer” was a synonym for UFO through the 1960s before it began to fall out of favor. A lot of sightings of the cigar-shaped UFO were reported following it. More recently, the flying saucer has been largely supplanted by other alleged UFO-related vehicles, such as the black triangle. In fact, the term UFO was invented in 1952, to try to reflect the wider diversity of shapes being seen. However, unknown saucer-like objects are still reported, such as in the widely publicized 2006 sighting over Chicago-O’Hare airport.
Many of the alleged flying saucer photographs of the era are now believed to be hoaxes. The flying saucer is now considered largely an icon of the 1950s and of B movies in particular, and is a popular subject in comic science fiction.
Beyond the common usage of the phrase, there have also been man-made saucer-like craft. The first flying disc craft was called the Discopter and was patented by Alexander Weygers in 1944. Other designs have followed, such as the American Vought V-173 / XF5U “Flying Flapjack”, the British GFS Projects flying saucer, or the British “S.A.U.C.E.R.” (“Saucer Aircraft Utilising Coanda Effect Reactions”) flying saucer, by inventor Alf Beharie.
A manuscript illustration of the 10th-century Japanese narrative, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, depicts a round flying machine similar to a flying saucer.
A record of a saucer-shaped object is from 1290 of a silver disc flying over a village in Yorkshire. Disc-like flying objects were occasionally reported throughout the millennium. For example, in a mass sighting over Nuremberg in 1561, discs and spheres were reported emerging from large cylinders (see woodcut at left). They are also claimed by ufologists to frequently show up in religious artwork.
Another well-documented specific comparison of the objects to saucers was the Kenneth Arnold sighting on June 24, 1947, while Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier. He reported seeing 9 brightly reflecting vehicles, one shaped like a crescent but the others more disc- or saucer-shaped, flying in an echelon formation, weaving like the tail of a kite, flipping and flashing in the sun, and traveling with a speed of at least 1,200 miles per hour (1,900 km/h). In addition to the saucer or disc shape (Arnold also used the terms “pie plate” and half-moon shaped), he also later said he described the motion of the craft as “like a saucer if you skip it across water”, leading to the term “flying saucer” and also “flying disc” (which were synonymous for a number of years).
Immediately following the report, hundreds of sightings of usually saucer-like objects were reported across the United States and also in some other countries. The most widely publicized of these was the sighting by a United Airlines crew on July 4 of nine more disc-like objects pacing their plane over Idaho, not far from Arnold’s initial sighting. On July 8, the Army Air Force base at Roswell, New Mexico issued a press release saying that they had recovered a “flying disc” from a nearby ranch, the so-called Roswell UFO incident, which was front-page news until the military issued a retraction saying that it was a weather balloon.
On July 9, the Army Air Force Directorate of Intelligence, assisted by the FBI, began a secret study of the best of the flying saucer reports, including Arnold’s and the United Airlines’ crew. Three weeks later they issued an intelligence estimate describing the typical characteristics reported (including that they were often reported as disc-like and metallic) and concluded that something was really flying around. A follow-up investigation by the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, Ohio arrived at the same conclusion. A widespread official government study of the saucers was urged by General Nathan Twining. This led to the formation of Project Sign (also known as Project Saucer) at the end of 1947, the first public Air Force UFO study. This evolved into Project Grudge (1949–1951) and then Project Blue Book (1952–1970).