Project sign and the estimate of the situation

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Journal of UFO Studies, n.s. 7, 2000, 27–64

© 2000 J . Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies



Environmental Institute, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008, U.S.A.
ABSTRACT: Upon becoming aware of the explosion of reports of anomalous aerial phe-nomena over the United States in the summer of 1947, the U.S. Air Force became alarmed and instituted emergency studies of the “flying disks.” Quickly this task was delegated to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s intelligence division, and in January 1948 became a formal project, Sign. Sign investigated the phenomenon for seven months and decided that it was best explained by the extraterrestrial (spacecraft) hypothesis (ETH). An Esti-mate was produced for the Pentagon giving reasons for this. Elements of very high rank in the Pentagon would not accept this, and their refusal led to a major debate on the ETH, which resulted in the ultimate breakup of the Project Sign team and the destruction of all (with perhaps one exception) copies of the document. This early confrontation set the tone for USAF behavior toward UFOs for the next two years and, after a brief respite in the era of Capt. Edward Ruppelt, until the complete cessation of the formal USAF project on the phenomenon in 1969.
Project Sign was the first official, formal investigative body concerned with the mystery of unidentified flying objects. It was a United States Air Force (USAF) intelligence activity located at Wright-PattersonAir Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Its bureaucratic location was inAir Materiel Command’s (AMC) Intelligence Division, referred to on the base as T-2. It operated formally for about one year, the calendar year of 1948.
During that year Project Sign collected reports on a large number of cases, con-ducted some on-site investigations and many interviews, and attempted to analyze the UFO phenomenon in any way available. By the fall of 1948 the lead personnel of Sign decided that their investigations pointed to a conclusion. As was usually done for any intelligence analysis, they then composed what the military called an “Esti-mate of the Situation” which they sent to their superiors in the Pentagon. Their con-clusion: The flying-disk phenomenon was caused by extraterrestrial agencies.
This created a great stir in the Pentagon. Authorities there were unwilling to ac-cept it. The fallout of this consternation resulted in a quashing of the document, and a denial to the public that it had ever existed. This paper will attempt to detail the origins, nature, and functioning of Project Sign, as well as the reasons for the cre-ation, quashing, and denial of the now-famous Estimate.


The June 24, 1947, sighting of nine disks near Mt. Rainier, Washington, by Idaho businessman KennethArnold started a flurry of reports that began the modern era of UFO sightings. At first, the military did not take these reports too seriously, but they changed their minds considerably in about one week’s time. This change of attitude was due to the continued stream of disk reports, many by their own pilots and per-sonnel. In fact, the first week of July 1947 had created considerable excitement within the offices of the Pentagon, with the Air Force Directorate of Intelligence scrambling to make sense of these mysterious overflights and enlisting the aid of their bases, other services, and the FBI (Fitch, 1947).
Gen. George McDonald was director of intelligence for Chief of Staff Gen. Carl Spaatz. But he and Spaatz seemingly played no role in this story. The real energy at the top of the Air Force’s command seems to have been Spaatz’s junior executive and incoming replacement, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg. McDonald, too, seemed to be slipping toward retirement as well as his World War II mentor and friend, and much of the action at the Directorate was handled by his executive officer, Brig. Gen. George Schulgen. McDonald and Schulgen presided over the Directorate when it was adjusting to postwar changes and the newness of the Air Force itself (soon to achieve formal independence from the Army).
The Directorate had several divisions of which two played major roles regarding UFOs.1 The primary offices at the Pentagon involved those of the Directorate of Intelligence (AFOIN) and certain locations in the two other divisions, theAir Force Office of Intelligence Requirements (AFOIR) and the Air Force Office of Air Intel-ligence (AFOAI).
The former had more of a service function, and included the important Collec-tions branch (AFOIR-CO). In this office we find the executive officer, Col. Robert Taylor, and his right-hand man and chief collector of UFO information, Lt. Col. George D. Garrett. Acting Chief Garrett would stay in this position at least to the end of 1949. He would be a veteran source of continuity through this early UFO era, and a person in sympathy with the idea that the flying disks were real, technological objects. AFOIR seems to have been a source of individuals sympathetic to taking UFOs seriously, as it included not only Garrett and Taylor, but Col. Frank Dunn in the main office (who would become Captain Ruppelt’s open-minded superior at Wright-Patterson) and Col. (then Major) W. A . Adams of the Documents and Dis-
1 All offices had letter designators, the “alphabet soup” of military focal points, and these were in the process of changing. I’ll give the designators that applied through most of this early UFO period as examples of the relevant organizational structure. In the summer and fall of 1947, USAF used a set of designators beginning with “AFB” for the Pentagon and “TSD” for the T-2 intelligence office at Wright-Patterson. These designators all changed in about December 1947, were tweaked again by early 1950, and totally changed again by the time Project Blue Book Director Capt. Edward Ruppelt took over in late 1951. I give the structural designators for the late 1947–1950 period below. The real o rganiza-tional format seems to have remained essentially the same.


Organizational Chart, USAF Intelligence, ca. 1948
The Pentagon’s Directorate of Intelligence was undergoing a reorganization in 1947– 1952. Much change also occurred in the executive positions of AFOIN, AFOAI, and its branches. The chart below is representative of the type of structure and staff as it was in the 1948 Project Sign period.

Commanding General,

U.S. Air Force

Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg

Director of Intelligence,

Office of Intelligence


Gen. Charles Cabell

Executive Officer,

Executive Officer,

Office of Intelligence

Office of Air Intelligence

Requirements (AFOIR)


Lieut. Col. Wilton Earle

Brig. Gen. Ernest Moore

Executive Officer,

Executive Officer,

Executive Officer,

Collections Branch

Air Estimates

DefensiveAir Branch




Col. Robert Taylor

Col. L. S. Harris

Col. B. E. Allen

Collections Officer

Analysis Officer

(assigned to UFO reports)

(assigned to UFO reports)

Lieut. Col. George Garrett

Maj. Aaron J. Boggs

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