Mount Rainier: ‘Saucer Magnet’
James McGaha and Joe Nickell
Mount Rainier isn’t just where seminal UFO figure Kenneth Arnold saw “flying saucers” in 1947; the majestic mountain actually plays a more direct role in saucerology.
Majestic Mount Rainier in Washington’s Cascade Mountains seems to attract—even help produce—flying saucers. During a few days in October 2013, one of us (Nickell) was able to twice fly over and even walk upon and explore the rarified slopes (at over 5,500 feet) of the still active volcano. Here we put our heads together to look at Mount Rainier’s continuing role in the history of UFOlogy.
As students of saucerology know, private pilot Kenneth Arnold famously saw nine “flying saucers” in an echelon pattern over the Cascade Mountains in the vicinity of Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947.
Arnold’s UFOs have been variously interpreted: airplanes flying in formation, a flock of American white pelicans, balloons, even droplets of water on his airplane’s windshield. However, one of us (McGaha, in Nickell 2007, 15–16) has hypothesized that it is more likely the several culprits were optical phenomena called “mountain-top mirages.”1
This phenomenon, as shown in photographs (e.g., Menzel 1953, 212), gives the appearance of hovering, saucer-shaped craft. Due to the conditions that produce a mirage, it is the mountain tops themselves that appear in artificial suspension above the landscape.
Given the clear skies and smooth air in which Arnold saw the flying saucers, together with the angle of the sun (50.4 degrees above the horizon), all that was needed was a temperature inversion to complete the formula. Normally, air becomes colder with the increase in altitude. Sometimes, however, the situation gets reversed. For example, the ground cooling rapidly at night can cool the air directly over it, and since the layer above that is naturally warmer, the result is a temperature inversion. This causes light rays that pass through the air to bend, with images thus becoming distorted and, in the case of mountain-top mirages, also appearing displaced (Sachs 1980, 321).
Arnold’s own statements about his sighting help to bolster the case for just such mirages being responsible. He said the objects appeared to reflect sunlight and that they even seemed like “reflections” (as from his plane window, which he checked and ruled out). Indeed, “the flashing they made in the sun reminded me of the reflection of a great mirror,” he said, and they “looked like they were rocking” (Bequette 1947). The entire effect would have been enhanced by the position of the sun, its light reflecting off the upper surface of the mirages. He stated that, in addition the “saucer-like” objects were “flying very close to the mountain tops,” seemingly “swerved in and out of the high mountain peaks,” and, he came to conclude, were a formation “in the neighborhood of five miles long”—a large squadron indeed! He saw them—he calculated from “two definite points,” Mount Adams and Mount Rainier—as being 100 miles away, and he got as close to them as twenty-three miles (quoted in Bequette 1947; Clark 1998, I: 139–43).
Mount Rainier was not directly part of the mirage, which was caused by other mountains in the Washington Cascade range, but Arnold did describe the “saucers” as flying approximately south from Mount Baker in the direction of Mount Rainier (Clark 1998, I: 139). Therefore, we characterize the latter as, metaphorically, a “magnet” for UFOs.
On the anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, states one UFO writer, “ufologists make the trek to Rainier to commemorate the birth of saucerology.” He might have replaced “trek” with “pilgrimage,” since he seems to elevate the mountain to the status of an Olympus or a Sinai. He lists Rainier as one of several UFO “hotspots,” that is, “Areas of concentrated UFO activity that can be treated by UFOlogists as ‘UFO laboratories’” (Glenday 1999, 120, 123).
Yet apart from the Arnold sighting, he lists for the Rainier area only “the infamous ‘Maury Island’ incident, in which a dog was killed and a boy injured by debris discharged by one of six UFOs” (Glenday 1999, 123). Arnold was involved in that 1947 case as well, but as a supposed investigator. He was out of his depth, and it fell to Air Force investigators to expose the case as a hoax, confirmed by confessions of the perpetrators (Clark 1998, 2: 612–14).
Now, Mount Rainier actually plays a more direct role in saucerology, helping indeed to generate what Hendry (1979, 65) calls “saucer-like apparitions”—a striking phenomenon whose secrets we take up next.
Rainier as a Saucer Creator
Mountains like Mount Rainier actually help to form clouds into the shapes of flying saucers! Called lenticular (“lens-shaped”) clouds, these smooth, symmetrical formations may take the simple form of a double-convex lens, or they may be much more elaborate, piled into a stack of two or more, as if with a spaceship’s undercarriage below. Such clouds may appear singly, or in groups resembling a squadron of flying saucers (Sachs 1980, 66).
These cloud saucers are seen in and around mountainous areas. They are formed when stable moist air flows over hills or mountains, causing large standing waves to form on the prominence’s downwind side. Should the temperature at the crest of a wave drop to the dew point (the temperature at which vapor condenses) a lenticular cloud may be formed. (Rarely, lenticular clouds may form where no mountain exists, when a front causes shear winds.) Lenticular clouds typically remain stationary and have long durations (Hendry 1979, 65; “Lenticular Cloud” 2013).
A beautiful array of layered clouds was photographed for instance over Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a mountain range in the distance (Sachs 1980, 66). More relevant to the present discussion, another source points out that on some days Seattle, Washington, “is treated to an unusual sky show when lenticular clouds form near Mt. Rainier,” which looms less than one hundred kilometers to the southeast (“Astronomy” 2009).
Lenticular clouds can actually be reported as UFOs. Investigator Allan Hendry (1979, 65) cites a case involving confusion over these saucer lookalikes, “in which five to six lenticular clouds hung stationary over Peavine Mountain for half an hour in Reno, Nevada,” then “descended into a conventional cloud layer.” Moreover, like airplanes, weather balloons, planets, “shooting stars,” and other aerial phenomena, these cloud formations are subject to atmospheric distortion—caused, for example, by intervening fog, ice crystals, whirlpools of air, and the like. The resulting distorted image may appear especially saucerlike (Sachs 1980, 201). It is possible that among the UFO cases that remain unsolved a few could involve lenticular clouds, possibly viewed under unusual conditions.
One of us (Nickell) spotted a single lenticular cloud hovering right over the top of Mount Rainier. He was riding in a shuttle to the Seattle airport with physicist and CFI board member Leonard Tramiel (the day after the CFI Summit, a conference in Tacoma, October 24–27, 2013). Some fellow passengers at first thought it was just the mountain’s snowcap, but Leonard confirmed it was indeed a lenticular cloud. Mount Rainer was then obscured by trees and buildings for the next few minutes and, when it next came into view the cloud was gone. Or, as Leonard happily quipped, “It flew away!”
Airship Visit of 1896
We turn now to a mysterious UFO sighting at Mount Rainier that occurred half a century before Arnold’s saucers heralded the wave of modern UFOs. It was reported by a couple who described a strange light in the night sky near the summit of the famous mountain. Their account is related in books like Weird Washington (Davis and Eufrasio 2008, 73), but, as one might imagine, there is more to the story.
The original account appeared in the Tacoma Daily Ledger, November 27, 1896, p. 4, under the heading, “What was it? Wonderful apparition seen over Tacoma.” It informs that on the previous Tuesday (November 24) at about twelve o’clock at night, druggist George St. John and his wife were lying abed and saw from their Tacoma Avenue window a strange light “east of Mount Tacoma” (now Rainier). “Mr. St. John,” the newspaper reports, “describes it as having the appearance of a brilliant electric light and looked to be nearly the size of an arc electric light. It flashed often and each time sent forth various colored rays of light, shooting out from the center in every direction, like spokes from the hub of a wheel.” The couple watched the light as it moved slowly from one window to another. The account continued, “It seemed to have a wavering motion and swayed back and forth in its course through the heavens like a vessel at sea in a storm.”
It is important to note that this report came amidst the great wave of “airship fever” that occurred in the United States between November 17, 1896, and the middle of May 1897. Fueled by science fiction interest in the possibility of heavier-than-air flight, the rash of sightings began when something resembling an “electric arc lamp” passed over Sacramento, California, in the early evening of November 17, 1896. Significantly, this was during the annual Leonid meteor shower (its peak in 1896 was on November 14), suggesting it was a large, bright meteor known as a fireball. Newspapers hyped the story, prompting people to look to the skies, and soon almost anything seen in the heavens was thought to be another “airship” sighting (Nickell 1995, 190–192; Bartholomew and Howard 1998, 21–79).
What caused the Rainier light display? We considered a number of possibilities, from the remote to the plausible. We were doubtful of its having been a copycat hoax (the witnesses were aware of the Sacramento event but were considered reputable) (“Seen at Tacoma” 1896). For a variety of reasons, we doubted the possibility of a shared hypnagogic (“waking dream”) experience, although such hallucinations between wakefulness and sleep often involve bright lights and visions (Mavromatis 1987, 14–52). We thought of ball lightning, other unusual forms of lightning, and electrical discharges such as St. Elmo’s Fire (Corliss 1995, 17–55), but they are rare and seem inconsistent with the apparent weather conditions in Tacoma at the time. A scintillating (“twinkling”) star could have produced some of the effects (a planet can scintillate too), but it would have taken a very long time to have moved from one window to another (see Nickell 2012; Hendry 1979, 26).
Because the St. Johns’ experience occurred during the Alpha Monocerotids meteor shower (which peaked on November 21), we considered that the “flashes” the couple reported were possibly meteors, the arc light effect a very large meteor called a fireball, and the radiating colors possibly caused by a bolide, “a bright shooting meteor (fireball), especially one which explodes when it is near the end of its path in the atmosphere” (Mandel 1969, 61). However, this scenario, too, seemed an ill fit with portions of the witnesses’ description. Again, what was the “airship”?
The San Francisco Call of November 28 had more information. The couple “watched the heavenly stranger over half an hour.” Reported the newspaper: “Mr. St. John says that the varicolored lights were shot forth in all directions. They were emitted from each end and both sides” of the supposed airship. “Some of the lights were white, others red, blue and green. . . . When all the lights were shining the aerial monster seemed encased in a brilliant glow. . . .”
Significantly, the newspaper noted, “The moonlight was not strong enough to permit a distinct view of Mount Tacoma [Rainier], but the airship was seen to approach the neighborhood of the mountain at what seemed to be its exact height, and dart hither and thither as if an exploration was in progress.” At length, the couple tired of watching the scene—suggesting it may have been less dramatic than we might otherwise have imagined—“and went to sleep” (“Seen at Tacoma” 1896).
The radiating colored lights scarcely seem consistent with an imagined airship, or even, for that matter, an extraterrestrial craft. Rather, it seems like something that had an oblong shape (with ends and sides) was hovering, glowing with a bright white light while occasionally rocking in place and causing diffraction of the light, thus producing iridescent colors.
We think this something near the summit of Mount Rainier was most likely a lenticular cloud—forming and reforming itself in place (as such clouds do) and consisting largely of ice crystals. These crystals served to diffuse the light from the moon (which at that date and time would have been above and behind the cloud,2 at an angular distance of 35 degrees), causing it to glow. As it shimmered in place, it sometimes flashed and sometimes emitted colored rays. It is also quite possible that there were multiple lenticular clouds. (We should mention that the St. Johns’ nineteenth-century windows would have consisted of a wavy glass that, covered lightly in frost, could itself have produced some of the effects.) (For a discussion of all these light phenomena, see Minnaert 1974, 232–45.)
According to an authoritative source (Dunlop 2003, 94–95, 108–109), iridescence is among the most common yet most overlooked of optical phenomena. That produced by moonlight, while often more visible, is largely ignored. Iridescence appears “as bands of color around the edges of thin clouds,” including altocumulus, altostratus, and cirrocumulus lenticularis. It is often strongest when the light source is an angular distance of 30–35 degrees. Significantly, the moon on the date and time of the St. Johns’ experience was at 35 degrees and was 78 percent illuminated.
As we trust this discussion illustrates, mysteries dart about Mount Rainier and the other mountains of the Cascade range. But mysteries are meant to be solved, and the scientific approach—which seeks to explain rather than hype or dismiss—is the best means to that end.
We are grateful to CFI librarian Lisa Nolan for much helpful research, and SI typesetter Paul Loynes for patience during many revisions.
1. Menzel (1953, 205–24) provides detailed explanations of the physics and optics of mirages. See also his appendix, “Theory of Mirages,” 300–10.
2. From the St. Johns’ viewpoint, the summit of Mount Rainier was at less than 4 degrees from the horizontal, while the moon on the date given was at 35 degrees. It was 78 percent illuminated.
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Seen at Tacoma. 1896. San Francisco Call 80: 181 (November 28); text from California Digital Newspaper Collection.
What was it? Wonderful apparition seen over Tacoma. 1896. The Tacoma Daily Ledger, November 27. Online at http://search.tacomapubliclibrary.org/unsettling/unsettled.asp?load=Tacoma+UFOs&f=ghosts.etc%5Cufos.tac; accessed October 30.