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The Ellsworth AFB radar multiple visual case, 1953:

This multiple radar, multiple ground visual, air visual case is also known under the designations of Rapid City, Black Hawk, Black Hills, since it involves observers at these locations too.

In this section:

Click! The Ellsworth AFB 1953 case, discussion.
Click! The official report by US Air Force's Project Blue Book.
Click! The events by Capt. Ed Ruppelt, USAF ret., head of Project Blue Book.
Click! The article in TRUE Magazine by Capt. Ed Ruppelt, USAF ret., head of Project Blue Book.
Click! A word on the case by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, astronomer and consultant of Project Blue Book.
Click! The study of the case in the Condon Report, with comments.
Click! A sceptical article in Magonia magazine, 1994, with comments.
Click! Case summary by Robert Emeneger.
Click! References.

Discussion on the Elsworth AFB 1955 Case:

GOC member reports UFO from Blackhawk:

On August 5, 1953, at 08:05 PM shortly after dark, a woman, Mrs Kellian, voluntary member of the Ground Observer Corp, was on her post at Blackhawk, in the Black Hills, South Dakota, about 10 miles west of Ellsworth AFB. She was the first person to see a red glowing light in the sky.

The weather was clear with an excellent visibility, it was a dark moonless night, with stable conditions, a slight temperature inversions and radio surface ducts prevalent.

She saw that the light was low on the horizon to the north-east of her position. She reported by phone through the local Ground Observer Corps Rapid City Filter Center about her sighting, exactly in the way GOC members are supposed to. Her call was put through to the radar controller at Ellsworth AFB, and during the rest of her observation she was on the phone with the duty radar operator, to which she described the moves of phenomenon.

She reported that the object was a stationary "red glowing light", that soon began to move some 30 degrees to her right, then shot "straight up", then moved to the left and returned to its original position, and then started to move south toward Rapid City.

Later, the investigator for the Condon Report stated that a person that was observing the sky with her was said to have thought that it was "just the red tower light, the warning light of the FM radio transmitter tower normally just visible from their location." No indication is given in the Condon Report about the source of this, there is not mention of it in the Air Force report or Air Force's Ed Ruppelt memoir.

Also, Dr. J. Allen Hynek reminds us of an important point: "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."

Indeed, there is little sense in the idea in the Condon Report that a GOC observer would report as an anomalous event a red light on a radio transmitter tower, particularly there is even less sense in believing a GOC observer would describe the manoeuvers of a radio transmitter tower light as moving 30 degrees to her right, or as starting to "move towards Rapid City in the south," and returning to its original location later etc.

Ellsworth AFB airmen sighting:

When informed by phone of the sighting, the radar controller at Ellsworth AFB listen to the GOC woman, who told him that the object or light was headed toward Rapid City. He sent 3 airmen from the radar site to look for it visually. They reported a light moving from generally north to south at a high rate of speed.

Later, the investigator of the Condon Report stated that what they saw was "undoubtedly a meteor, judging from their description."

Ellsworth AFB radarmen report:

When the GOC lady observer reported to the Rapid City GOC center, the GOC center had called Ellsworth AFB's radar station. The radarman on duty there later told Captain Ruppelt, investigator of the US Air Force, that there was a target exactly where the lady reported the light to be. Ruppelt wrote in his memoirs:

"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 bright." 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."

Blue Book's report notes that "At this time the controller observed 2 blips going south on the scope. He could not get a distinct track because or ground clutter in the area." First, it was one blip on the radar scope, and a corroboration of that blip as a blip on the height finder, not two radar blips on the same scope. Second, the Condon Report's investigator and sceptics later interpreted that the track was not distinct because of ground clutter, which is nothing unusual per se, as an indication that there was no track at all, which is not what is meant in the Bluebook report.

The Condon Report investigator ignored the altitude measurement and the experience of the radarman with the usual weather condition effects on radar waves, and concluded that the echo was due to a temperature inversion layer. In the Condon Report, a quite usual low altitude inversion layer is reported for that time and location, however, the notion that it would result in a 16.000 feet target measurement with the height finder at the exact location where the radar located the phenomenon is plain pseudo-science. Also, temperature inversion layers do not create "well defined, solid and bright" targets, they merely generate more ground clutter and my create, rarely, blurry and intermittent and weak echoes on the radar scope.

Because the Air Force report notes that the radarman was keen to insist that there was a radar track corroborating the visual sighting by the GOC woman, few sceptics and the Condon Report suggested that the radarman's report is due to his belief in flying saucers. Their point is both logic and silly at the same time, sounding like "if you spot a UFO, don't tell, because someone else may see it, which proves that someone else believes in flying saucers." In this particular case, following the sceptics's logic would require that the GOC woman should not have reported the red light, that the radarman should not have looked at his radarscope, and not have sent any people outside for a visual check etc. There is indeed a delicate balance between asking other people to confirm a sighting when they have a chance to, and creating conditions for people to believe that if they see something, it must be a confirmation of a strange event. However, in this case, the sceptic has to assume that everyone involved in the case - the GOC woman, the radarman and his colleague at the height finder radar, later the two F-84 pilots etc. - was a "flying saucer believer" enough to see things visually or on radar that were all "stars and a meteor and anomalous propagation of radar wave etc."

First jet interception attempt:

In a few minutes the GOC post in Blackhawk called in that the light was back in nearly its original position, which is definitely a strange behaviour for a star or an FM radio transmitter tower alerting light. The three airmen at Ellsworth also reported that the object circle around Rapid City and went back to its original position.

The radarman called the pilot of an F-84 jet fighter he had on combat patrol at the west of Ellsworth AFB, told him to get ready for intercept and vectored him towards the target, which was stationary at 16.000 feet of altitude at the south of the base, at about 15 miles northeast of Blackhawk.

The pilot saw the light where indicated by the radarman from its radarscope and close in within about 3 miles. At this point, the object begun to move. Ed Ruppelt told in his memoirs:

"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."

And the official Blue Book report indicates:

"An airborne F-84 was vectored into the area and after a search made visual contact. The F-84 was vectored into the blip. The controller said that he believed the F-84 pilot saw the target that was on the scope. Shortly after the visual sighting by the pilot, the target started to move on a heading of about 320 degrees magnetic. Four good blips were obtained; Photos of this track were taken but the camera malfunctionned and the photos were no good. The last blip occurred at 70 miles and at that point the aircraft was returned to the base. The GOC observer reported seeing the aircraft and the object, and both were moving. The object seemed to be out-distancing the F-84."

Unsurprisingly, the Condon Report who previously suggested the object is the red light of a radio transmitter tower, then explained the object as a meteor, does not mention any of this and explains it as if this were a different object, the star Capella!

Also, some source have wrongly interpreted the "four blips" mentionned in the Air Force reports. A blip is the luminous spot showing on the radarscope at every pass of the antenna; four blips means that the antenna made four passes at the object, and not that there were four echoes of four different targets.

The object moved up fast and headed North, followed by the F-84. Ruppelt told:

"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.""

Ruppelt, who interviewed the radar controller, also told:

"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 Condon Report investigator suggest that since the object's radar track and the F-84's radar track keeps a constant distance of three miles, then the object radar track must be an echo of the F-84's radar track caused by the anomalous propagation of radar waves due to a temperature inversion layer that night. However, the echo of the jet and of the object remained clear until the two objects went out of the radar range, 120 miles North of Ellsworth AFB.

Because indeed the chased continued up to North Dakota, at 120 miles from the starting point in the vicinity of Rapid City. This does not appear in the Condon Report's rendition of the incident, its reader is left with the impression that the chase was merely a few passes by the jet.

The Condon Report says about the first pursuit:

"The fighter in this instance was probably chasing another star, the image of which may have been somewhat distorted. The pilot's report that the visual UFO was "pacing" him appears to have strengthened the radar operator's belief that he was actually tracking the UFO, and not a ghost echo. The star in this instance may well have been Mirfak (mag. 1.9), which, at 2040 LST, was at azimuth 15 ° and about 5° to 7° elevation angle."

Their proposition is that the radarman watched a ghost echo while the pilot was chasing a star. Of course, there is a star in that general direction; but after all, in which direction wouldn't there be a star?

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, and the UFO was still seen on the radar scope when he reentered the radar range too, only this time it was 10 to 15 miles behind it, and not 3 miles anymore. Ruppelt states:

"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, he 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."

Apparently, the pilot was thinking he chased something more impressive than a star. This shows in the Air Force report:

"The pilot who was on the first CAP was interviewed next. He stated that he had been making passes at a B-36 north of Rapid City when GCI called and said they had a target west of Rapid City. He searched for about 20 minutes west and south of Rapid City but saw nothing. He returned to base and was about to land when he observed a light northwest of the base. He started out on a heading of 350 degrees magnetic, the object was high (30 deg - 45 deg) at 11 o'clock from him. He checked the possibility of a reflection and determined that this was not the cause. He continued his course keeping the object at 11 o'clock for a better view. After about 30 seconds, it disappeared then reappeared for another 30 seconds at the end of which it abruptly faded and was not seen again. The object was silver in color and varied in intensity. It appeared to "pull away" because it got smaller. The comment as to size was that it was "brighter than the brightest star I've ever seen."

The second F-84 interception attempt:

As the first F-84 was planning to land, the controller received a call from the jet interceptor squadron on the base. Ruppelt states:

"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, "O.K., go.""

The Condon Report summary states:

"The second pilot, upon being interviewed by Dr. Hynek, stated that he felt he had been chasing a star, although there were some aspects of the appearance of the object that disturbed him."

But the original USAF report provides a slightly different information:

"He [the second pilot] stated that he took off and started to climb when GCI told him that GOC had a light. He was north of Ellsworth AFB on a heading of 360 degrees magnetic when he saw a light 30-40 degrees to his right and level. He thought it was a star or planet but as he looked away it appeared to "jump" 15-30 degrees in elevation. (Note: Due to the speed of the aircraft and the fact that the pilot had intent on identifying the object, he was not exactly sure of his positions. All positions are subject to some error.) The light seemed to be paralleling his course. The first thing the pilot did was to check for reflections in the cockpit (i.e., canopy, gunsight head, etc.). He was sure the light was no reflection in the aircraft. The light, which the pilot estimated to be considerably brighter than a star, changed intensity and changed in color from white to green. When the object was first sighted, the aircraft was at 15,000 feet. The pilot started to climb and the light appeared to climb faster. This was because the angle of elevation increased. He climbed to 26,000 feet. All this time both the radar blip of both the object and the aircraft were being carried and the pilot was talking to the controller on UHF."

The pilot explicitly said that the light was "considerably brighter than a star" and the Condon Report tells nothing else on the second interception than: "he felt he had been chased a star."

Ruppelt wrote in TRUE Magazine:

"He [the pilot of the second F-84] was talked into position and spotted the thing visually above him. He went up to 20,000 feet, reported that he was level with the light, and again the object took off the to the north with the jet in pursuit. Again the chase was observed on ground radar, with both the UFO and the jet showing plainly on the scope."

"In the second pursuit, the pilot made a number of tests to rule out some of the common phenomena that have been mistaken for "flying saucers." He turned off all his instrument lights and kicked the plane around to make certain that he was not chasing a canopy reflection. He was not. He observed the object carefully in relation to the stars, and swore that it moved across them, thus eliminating the possibility that he was chasing a planet or a star. Finally, when he thought he was closing in on the object, he switched on his radar gun sights. This type of jet has a light on the instrument panel that goes on to indicate a "lock on" with the target by the radar sights. The light went on."

The pilot explicitly stated that he observed the the light moved against the background of the stars, which also excludes that the light could be a star. This is not mentionned in the Condon Report, and because it is apparent the the Condon report investigators has read the Air Force report on the case (lines of it are copied in the Condon Report as if they were authored by the Condon investigator), it seems obvious that the Condon Report investigation on this case had no desire for an objective evaluation but filtered the original information so that only those characteristics leading to their explanation that the pilot chased a star would appear in their report. It seems obvious that there was an intentional desire to fool the reader by concealing important information.

The Air Force report clearly states:

"After the chase, on the way home, the light blinked on and off several times indicating a possible malfunction. The sight was not checked by maintenance on return and had not been checked since."

The Condon Report investigator did not miss this important fact, and indicates:

"He also stated that the radar gunlock, which he had reported by radio during the chase, was due to equipment malfunction, and that the radar gunsight continued to malfunction on his way back to the base. This equipment was never subsequently checked for malfunctioning (i.e., not before or during the official AF investigation of the incident)."

Unsurprisingly, the "possible malfunction" indicated in the Air Force report has become an established malfunction in the Condon report. Again we see the the Condon Report investigator has a desire to alter the original report to fit his theories. That said, it must be noted that the suspicion and clues of a malfunction of the gunsight radar of the second F-84 is also unmentionned in most popularized subsequent version of the incident in the UFO literature.

I understand from the above that:

Philip Klass, a popular sceptic aviation magazine writer, often enjoyed to rewrite an UFO report in a ridiculizing "first degree" angle, and I will now apply the same technique to the Condon Report's explanation:

A lady who is obviously hysterical because she sees things in the sky and gets excited by it sees a red light at the top of a radio transmitter tower. She gets so excited that she picks up the phone and alert the military about it, believing it is something abnormal and believing it is moving around in the sky. The military gets all excited too and are also hysterical. Because of all the hysteria and in particular because she is contaminated by the military hysteria, she starts to imagine that the red light of the transmitter tower starts to to travel in the direction of Rapid City, 15 miles from her spot.

Because he is more excited when hearing this, the radarman starts to look at his radarscope and by chance he sees blips where the confused lady believes a UFO is. These blips of course are caused by temperature inversions. The radarman is so excited that he sends 3 airmen of his Air Base on the roof to "watch the UFO."

Because the are asked to find a UFO, the 3 airmen believe they spotted it; but it was really a meteor that flew by. They are unable to interpret it correctly. The radarman asks his colleague to detect the height of the UFO which is really a temperature inversion and the height finder radar is fooled by the temperature inversion is such a way that the height of it can be measured. The radarmen asks for a jet to intercept it.

The pilot of a first jet starts to look for the UFO and because he is asked to find one his critical sense is overwhelmed with excitement and he spots a star and starts to chase it, believing it is not a star. He chases it on a 120 miles distance and he is so hysterical that he believes the star is moving. This is because there are many stars in all directions in the sky so wherever he want to "find the UFO" he can spot a star and mistake it for a UFO.

The radarmen calls ground observers 120 miles up north where the star was still followed by the pilot, and people there report a light going north, but they were merely reporting an uncorrelated phenomena due to hysteria and excitement communicated by the radarman.

During the chase, the radarman sees a second blip in front of the jet on his radarscope, which must be cause by a temperature inversion. When the jet pilot returns south to the Air Base, the temperature inversion also reverses its course.

When the jet pilot he needs to refuel, a second jet is sent and its pilot also spots a star, he is so excited that he believes that the star is considerably too bright to be a star and that it is moving. The alleged moving of the star against the background of three other stars is an interpretation due to the pilot's hysteria: it can be explained if the three background stars are 3 meteors that happened to pass by at this time.

Because his gunsight radar is by chance faulty at that time, he gets a radar lock which is by accident in the direction of the mistaken star. When the pilot reports the light at different location, it is not because it moved, but because every time he really saw a different star.


Major Lawrence Tacker:

Major Lawrence Tacker, USAF, Public Information Division, not only confirmed this case, but he wrote one NICAP member and told him the Air Force had gun-camera photos of the object and radarscope photos. (FSTS, 243)

Francis Ridge:

NICAP's Francis Ridge indicated:

"The Condon Report account is deceitful because in falsely attributing the Rapid City sightings to STARS it intentionally leaves out the fact the 2nd F-84 fighter pilot reported that he watched the UFO MOVE AGAINST THE STAR BACKGROUND, in particular 3 specific stars he focused his attention on."

(Francis Ridge, NICAP Website)


NICAP wrote:

"The warrant officer on duty at the radar station got a direct wire to the spotter, and they compared notes for about two minutes. In the middle of a sentence, the woman suddenly said that the object was starting to move towards Rapid City. The radar scope confirmed this, and the warrant officer sent two men outside for a visual check. They reported a large bluish-white light moving toward Rapid City. The three groups - the radar people, the outside men, and the woman spotter - watched the UFO make a swift sweep around Rapid City and then return to its original position. The warrant officer then called a jet fighter on patrol and put him on an intercept course. The light was still at l6,OOO feet. The pilot spotted the light visually, and had moved to within three miles of it, when the light took off north towards the Badlands. The pilot followed it 120 miles, with the light staying a couple miles ahead; and then, with fuel running low, the jet returned - with the UFO trailing him!"

"The jet squadron at the air field then stated that they were scrambling another F-84, with sceptical combat veteran of World War II and Korea at the controls. Once he was airborne, radar worked him toward the UFO. The pilot quickly reported visual contact, and maneuvered to get above the light. The light headed northeast, with the F-84 behind but several thousand feet above it. The pilot, even though getting radar reports and seeing the light, was still sceptical. Once away from the Rapid City area, he turned off all his lights to see if it was a reflection on his canopy. The light was still there. Next he rolled his plane, to see if some unnoticed ground light was causing it. The light's position didn't change. Next he checked its motion against three bright stars - it moved with relation to them. He then figured, if it is real, my gunsight radar should pick it up. He activated his gun cameras, turned on his radar and got a solid blip. At this point he got scared - and remember, this was a man who'd fought Hitler's best airplanes and tangled with Mig 15's over Korea. But that large, bright, bluish-white light was more than he cared to chase any longer. He requested and received permission to abandon the chase. The UFO headed off toward Fargo, North Dakota, and a check minutes later showed that spotter posts between Rapid City and Fargo had seen and reported a fast-moving, bluish-white light. So there you are - two serial visuals, an aerial radar lock-on, two ground radar sightings, numerous ground visuals from several locations, and gun camera film which, when developed, showed a blurry object. No details - just a light source."

(NICAP website)

Professor James McDonald:

"It has to be stressed that there are many ways in which false returns can be seen on radarscopes, resulting not only from ducting of ground returns but also from interference from other nearby radars, from internal electronic signals within the radar set, from angels and insects (weak returns), etc. Hence each case has to be examined independently. After studying a number of official evaluations of radar UFO cases, I get the impression that there would probably be more radar Unknowns if there were less tendency to quickly explain them away by qualitative arguments that overlook pertinent quantitative matters. Even at that, there are too many conceded unknowns in official files to be ignored. A famous case in UFO annals involved a B-29 over the Gulf of Mexico, where several unknowns were tracked on the airborne scopes and were seen simultaneously by crew men, moving under the aircraft as they passed by (Refs. 4, 10, 25). This one is still carried as Unidentified in official files. Still another famous combined radar-visual case, which Hynek has termed "one of the most puzzling cases I have studied," occurred between Rapid City and Bismarck on August 5, 1953. It involved both ground and airborne radar and ground and airborne visual sightings, but is far too long and complex to recapitulate here.

"Perhaps the above suffices to indicate that UFOs are at times seen on radar and have been seen for many years. The question of why we don't hear a great deal about such sightings, especially with newer and more elaborate surveillance radars, is a reasonable question. Some of the answers to that one are posed by the statement of Dr. Robert M. L. Baker, Jr., in these proceedings. Other parts of the answer must be omitted here."

(Statement by James E. McDonald, Senior Physicist, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and professor, Department of Meteorology, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics at July 29, 1968, Symposium on Unidentified Flying Objects, Rayburn Bldg., Washington, D.C.)

Michael David Hall:

"It was in 1953 that occurred one of the most mysterious cases I was given to study. On the night of August 5, several people from Black Hawk in South Dakota, signaled that they saw several strange objects in the sky. Unidentified echoes appeared on the radar screen of a nearby air base. An F-84 jet fighter, guided by radio, flew in their direction. Soon, the pilot reported that he saw one of them, brighter than the brightest stars, and going twice as fast as his plane. When he started the chase, the glow disappeared altogether. On the ground, five civilians had witnessed the chase. They confirmed the words of the pilot. A little later, they sent a second F-84 to the object, that continued to appear on the ground radar. This time, the pilot saw a form emitting a variable brightness. When he sped toward it, his viewfinder light brightened. The airborne radar had spotted the target, but soon, the thing took altitude and fled to the north. The air base warned the Bismarck observation center in North Dakota, 350 km away. A sergeant went up on the roof, saw the object that soon disappeared. I handled this case myself without finding any explanation."

(Michael David Hall in "Ufo's: a Century of Sightings", Galde Press Inc. 1999, p 210).


This is a multiple visual, multiple radar observation of a flying object whose behaviour is incompatible with our airplanes of that time, whose behaviour has characteristics of intelligent control. The multiple explanation by the Condon report (hysteria, radio tower light, temperature inversion capable of creating visual effects, radar malfunction, multiple stars and at least one meteor) stretches the imagination very far and would have been considered silly, were the case to solve anything else than a UFO sighting.


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