It all began the afternoon of 24 June 1947. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot, was flying his plane near Mount Rainier in the northwestern part of the United States, when he saw what appeared to be nine bat-shaped objects flying in a pattern at an amazing speed.
Upon landing, he told reporters what he saw. They ‘flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across water,’ he replied when asked about how they moved. Knowing a good headline when he saw it, one keen reporter dubbed them ‘flying saucers’.
Within six weeks, nine out of 10 Americans said they had heard of the term ‘flying saucer.’ A meme was born… and an obsession.
Over the next few years, as people throughout the US, UK, and Europe reported also seeing strange flying objects in the skies, early speculation about the origins of the flying saucers ran rampant. While many admitted to being at a loss for an explanation, most considered witnesses to be either mistaken or believed the objects to be secret American or Soviet weapons. Few seriously entertained the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors.
This quickly changed, especially in the US, after a number of prominent books hit the market claiming that the U.S. Air Force was convinced the disks were alien in origin, but were reluctant to say so for fear of starting a mass panic.
A 1957 survey found that 25 per cent of the public believed it was possible that flying saucers were the work of aliens. Within 10 years, five million Americans were claiming to have actually seen a UFO. And by 1986, polling showed that 43 per cent of the U.S. population believed it likely that at least some UFOs were from outer space.
The fascination with UFOs enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s. Reports of sightings came in from all over the world. UFO organisations and periodicals sprouted up and thrived not just in Europe and North America, but in South America, Africa, Australia, China, and India.
Books about flying saucers, ancient astronauts, and alien abductions became bestsellers. And films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and television shows like In Search Of and The X-Files drew big, dedicated audiences.
Explaining the widespread interest in UFOs has proven more challenging than tracking it. The most common explanation offered has focused on the Cold War: worries over possible alien invaders has been seen as an expression of anxiety about the threat of global nuclear destruction on the part of the scientifically uneducated.
Academic research, however, has revealed that enthusiasts and their curiosity are more difficult to pin down than that. Studies conducted in the early-2000s showed that those reporting UFOs were generally lower income white males of moderate to high education. And a survey in the 1980s of British UFO researchers indicated that a majority did not believe the objects came from outer space.
Overall, those who take a deep interest in UFOs have ranged widely in their motivations and beliefs. There are those who take up UFO study as a hobby akin to trainspotting or birding. There are sceptics who delight in treating each case as a challenging puzzle to crack.
Some believe they are among thousands or even millions of others who have been kidnapped by aliens as part of a sinister human-alien hybridisation experiment. And still others consider the encounter with UFOs to be a mystical experience, part of a spiritual journey toward personal growth. Ultimately the common thread is a passion for getting to the bottom of a great mystery.
There seems to be some evidence that in more recent times, however, interest in UFOs and alien encounters have been on the decline.
The UK Ministry of Defence shut down its UFO desk in 2009. UFO periodicals worldwide, once numbering around 3000, dipped below 50 by 2010. Many veteran ufologists admit that membership in UFO groups has seriously declined since the mid-1990s. And the largest international UFO organisation, MUFON, recently reported a more than 50 per cent drop in sightings worldwide since 2014.
And yet there remain signs that UFOs are here to stay. A 2012 survey found that 20 per cent of UK residents still believed unidentified flying objects have landed on Earth, while 10 per cent admitted to having seen one.