The Secret Cold War Project Behind the Roswell UFO Incident
On July 6, 1947, foreman William Brazel was patrolling the Foster cattle ranch, 50 kilometres outside the town of Roswell, New Mexico, when he noticed some strange debris strewn across the ground. The debris was composed of a strange, silvery metallic substance, parts of which were covered in strings of mysterious symbols resembling Egyptian hieroglyphs. The following day, Brazel contacted the nearby Roswell Army Air Field, who immediately dispatched a team to inspect and recover the debris. On July 8, Walter Haut, the airfield’s public information officer, issued a press release announcing that the Army Air Force had recovered a “flying disc” from a nearby ranch. This statement was quickly retracted and replaced with another explaining that the debris was merely the remains of a weather balloon. But it was too late. The first announcement was quickly picked up by multiple news outlets and spread like wildfire around the country, touching off a cultural obsession with flying saucers, alien visitations, and government coverups that persists to this day. But while UFO skeptics are quick to point out that the Roswell “flying saucer” was merely a weather balloon, the truth of the matter is actually far more interesting. For the debris that fell on Foster ranch that July day in 1947 was, in fact, part of a top-secret Air Force effort to spy on the Soviet Union using high-altitude balloons.
As we have covered in our previous video The Aerostatic Corps: the World’s First Military Air Force, balloons have a long and illustrious military history stretching back to the wars of the French Revolution, when they were used to direct the movement of soldiers and artillery on the battlefield. Balloons continued to be used for battlefield reconnaissance until the end of the First World War, when this role was taken over by more capable aircraft. However, balloons saw limited use during the Second World War as offensive weapons, particularly by Imperial Japan. Lacking long-range bomber aircraft with which to attack the mainland United States, the Japanese instead turned to unmanned high-altitude balloons. Known as Fu-Go, these weapons consisted of a 10-metre-diameter mulberry paper envelope filled with hydrogen, below which were suspended various high-explosive and incendiary bombs. Launched from Japan, the Fu-Go rose to an altitude of 9,100 metres and were carried 8,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean by the high-altitude Jet Stream. After three days, a timer ignited a flash bomb to destroy the envelope, dropping the payload onto the target. As the hydrogen in the envelope would expand during the day and contract at night, causing the balloon’s altitude to fluctuate, the weapons carried a simple but effective altitude control system that automatically released ballast if the balloon sank too low and vented hydrogen from the envelope if it rose too high. Though aiming at specific targets was impossible, the balloons were intended to spread terror and ignite forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, depleting strategically-vital stocks of timber. Over 9,000 Fu-Go were launched between November 1944 and April 1945, but due to unpredictable weather over the Pacific only around 10% made it to North America, causing negligible damage and killing six picnickers near Bly, Oregon on May 5, 1945. But while the Fu-Go offensive was a dismal strategic failure, the balloons’ ability to maintain their altitude over great distances was noted with great interest by U.S. Intelligence, and would prove very useful in the immediate post-war years.
In the late 1940s the United States and the western world faced an ever-escalating series of international crises. In 1946 and 1947 communist governments took over Hungary and Poland, in 1948 the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, and in 1949 Mao Zedong’s communists won the Chinese Civil War and the Soviets tested their own atomic bomb years ahead of western predictions. To counter this mounting communist threat, the U.S. Government needed reliable intelligence from behind the Iron Curtain. This was easier said than done. The Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were closed societies, making the infiltration of human spies almost impossible. And while U.S. Air Force aircraft regularly flew reconnaissance missions along the borders of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, none dared cross into Soviet territory for fear of being shot down and setting off an international crisis. Faced with a veritable black hole of information regarding Soviet military and nuclear capabilities, the U.S. Army Air Force, like the Japanese before them, turned to high-altitude balloons as a possible solution. Unmanned balloons could rise to altitudes of up to 30,500 metres – far beyond the range of Soviet interceptor aircraft and missiles – and if fitted with the same altitude-control systems as the Japanese Fu-Go, could theoretically ride the jet stream across the entire length of the Soviet Union, taking pictures as they went. Fortuitously, the technology that could make this possible had just recently been developed – by a rather unexpected organization.
Though best known as the manufacturer of breakfast cereals like Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs, and Lucky Charms, the General Mills Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota was at one point a major innovator in aerospace technology – especially high-altitude scientific balloons. The Aeronautical Research Division of General Mills was established in 1946 and placed under the direction of emigré German engineer Otto Winzen. The division soon began working closely with the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research or ONR, which was seeking a means of sending scientific payloads to extremely high altitudes to study high-altitude winds, cosmic rays, and other natural phenomena. At first the ONR used long chains of traditional latex weather balloons, but these proved prone to leaking and bursting at high altitudes. Seeking a superior alternative, Winzen and his team at General Mills soon hit upon polyethylene, the same plastic used in sandwich bags. Lightweight, strong, and resistant to ultraviolet light, polyethylene could be fashioned into balloons only 0.025 millimetres thick and up to 30 metres in diameter that would not leak or tear and could maintain a constant altitude for weeks on end. The first of these balloons, codenamed Skyhook, was launched on September 25, 1947 carrying a cosmic ray detector to an altitude of 30,000 metres. The Skyhook balloons proved extremely successful, and over the following decade more than 1,500 would be launched by the ONR from locations in the US and Canada and ships in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, carrying a wide range of scientific payloads including automatic cameras for photographing solar eclipses and sunspots, film-based and Cherenkov detectors for studying cosmic rays, and even balloon-launched sounding rockets called “rockoons”. In 1949 Winzen left General Mills to found his own company, Winzen Research Inc, which continued to produce a range of successful scientific balloons until Winzen’s death by suicide in 1979.
Winzen’s Skyhook balloons were exactly what the U.S. Army Air Force needed for its planned reconnaissance overflights, codenamed Project MOGUL. MOGUL was based on a curious scientific phenomenon discovered during the Second World War. In 1944, American geophysicist Maurice Ewing realized that at a certain depth below the ocean, the effects of pressure and temperature combine to create a zone of water in which the speed of sound is at a minimum. Any sound produced in this zone will thus bounce off the layers of water above and below, allowing it to propagate over long distances. Indeed, whales and other marine creatures are now known to use this zone – which Ewing dubbed the SOund Fixing And Ranging or SOFAR channel – to communicate across entire oceans. Ewing used this discovery to create a device called a SOFAR bomb to allow Navy pilots downed at sea to secretly communicate their position without alerting the enemy. Consisting of a small hollow metal sphere packed in a pilot’s survival kit, when dropped in the water the bomb would sink down to the SOFAR channel and implode, creating a signal that could be detected and triangulated by shore-based hydrophones. After the war, it was realized that a similar sound channel existed in the upper atmosphere, and that by flying balloons equipped with instruments into this channel the sounds of distant enemy nuclear tests and missile launches could be detected. To this end MOGUL balloons were fitted with ultra-sensitive microphones, telemetry systems for transmitting recorded data to ground stations, and automatic systems for maintaining the balloons’ altitude.
To disguise the true nature of the project, during testing the MOGUL equipment was fitted to unclassified weather balloons designed and launched by a research team from New York University. MOGUL flight No.4, launched on June 4, 1947, is almost certainly the object which fell onto Foster ranch outside Roswell one month later. To allow these balloons to be tracked, NYU researchers fitted them with a chain of kite-shaped radar reflectors consisting of lightweight balsa wood frames covered in metal foil. According to Charles B. Moore, a General Mills engineer attached to Project MOGUL, the foil was fixed to the frames using metallic tape purchased from a New York City toy factory. This tape was stamped with decorative patterns including hearts and flowers intended to appeal to children, and it was these figures which UFOlogists later mistook for alien hieroglyphics.
But MOGUL No.4 would not be the last weather balloon to be mistaken for an alien spacecraft. On January 7, 1948, Godman Army Airfield at Fort Knox, Kentucky received a report from a highway patrolman of an unusual object floating in the sky over the town of Madisonville. The object, described as round, bright white, and with a red border around its base, was soon spotted several kilometres west, travelling at an estimated altitude of 3,000 metres and a speed of 800 kilometres per hour. A flight of four F-51D Mustang fighters of the Kentucky National Guard were ordered to intercept. One pilot, already low on fuel, immediately returned to base, but the three others pursued the object to an altitude of 6,900 metres. Not having oxygen masks, two more pilots soon abandoned the chase, but the third, 25-year-old Captain Thomas F. Mantell, continued to climb after the object until, at an altitude of 7,600 feet, he blacked out from lack of oxygen. Mantell’s aircraft spiralled to the ground, killing him on impact. Ten months later on October 1st, 1948, Lieutenant George F. Gorman of the North Dakota National Guard reported intercepting a similar fast-moving glowing sphere while flying an F-51D over Fargo. In both cases, the objects were later revealed to be Skyhook research balloons. These encounters are considered to be among the first “classic” UFO sightings that cemented the idea of alien encounters in the American consciousness, though in both cases the mysterious objects were later revealed to be Skyhook balloons.
In the end, Project MOGUL was never operationally deployed, but it laid the groundwork for future, more sophisticated Air Force balloon projects. In July 1950, General Mills conducted a series of four Skyhook demonstration flights carrying aerial observation cameras, prompting the Air Force to launch an official balloon reconnaissance program under the codename GOPHER. As with MOGUL, GOPHER was conducted under the cover of an unclassified atmospheric research project – in this case, Project MOBY DICK. The GOPHER gondola carried a 225 kilogram payload consisting of a narrow-angle camera that took pictures every 6.5 minutes and a wide-angle panoramic camera to determine the general geographic location of the balloon. The balloons could remain at an altitude of 21,000 metres for up to 16 days, whereupon the gondola would detach and deploy a parachute. On test flights the payloads parachuted to the ground, but on operational flights they were snatched midair by specially-equipped Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar transport aircraft before they could fall into enemy hands.
While GOPHER was intended to become operational by the end of 1951, the project suffered a number of delays due to issues with the camera payload and the midair recovery system. These problems lead to many test balloons drifting wildly off course and being lost in remote, unpopulated areas. Once such balloon launched in 1955 from Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado came down in a forest in New Brunswick, Canada, where it was discovered by a woodsman in 1962. The highly-classified payload was quickly snapped up by the Canadian military, leaving an enduring local mystery that was not solved until the U.S. Air Force files were declassified in 2016.
As a result of extensive delays, Project GOPHER went through a series of upgrades and re-designations, being renamed Project GRANDSON, Project GRAYBACK, and finally Project GENETRIX. Finally, in late 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for the Air Force to begin overflights of the Soviet Union in January of the following year – provided the balloons were limited to altitudes below 16,800 metres. This was because Lockheed’s U-2 spy plane was then currently in development, and Eisenhower did not wish to give the Soviets any excuse to develop fighter aircraft and missiles capable of intercepting this higher-flying aircraft.
To provide a cover story for the GENETRIX launches, the Air Force created an unclassified atmospheric research project called Operation White Cloud. Between January 10 and February 6, 1956, 338 GENETRIX balloons were launched from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany, and Turkey, while 30 White Cloud balloons were launched from Hawaii, Okinawa, and Alaska. Of these, more than 300 came down prematurely over Soviet territory due to equipment malfunctions or were shot down by Soviet pilots, who quickly learned to intercept the balloons in the early morning when, due to lower night temperatures, they descended to lower altitudes. Many balloons successfully reached their recovery zones, but could not be retrieved due to bad weather and other factors. In the end, only 44 payloads were successfully recovered, their photos covering only around 8% of the Soviet and Chinese landmass. Furthermore, as the balloons could not be steered towards targets of interest, the vast majority of these photos were of limited strategic value. Worse still, GENTRIX proved a public relations disaster, with the Soviet Union and its client states angrily protesting the flagrant violation of their airspace. The Air Force therefore swiftly cancelled GENETRIX in favour of the CIA’s new, more capable U-2 spy plane.
However, GENETRIX was not a complete failure. The cameras developed for the project would form the basis for later, more sophisticated photo reconnaissance systems, while the midair recovery system would later be used to great success to retrieve film capsules from CORONA spy satellites. The balloon flights also generated data on high-altitude winds that proved useful to the U-2 overflight program. A more unexpected benefit of the program was that the steel bar that secured the gondola ballasting system happened to measure 91 centimetres – exactly the wavelength of a Soviet radar system codenamed TOKEN. This caused the bar to resonate when hit by TOKEN radar pulses, allowing the CIA to locate previously unknown radar installations and divert U2 flights around them. But perhaps the strangest legacy of GENETRIX stemmed from the fact that so many of the balloons and their payloads were captured by the Soviets. Soviet scientists quickly realized that the temperature and radiation-resistant film developed for the balloon cameras was ideal for use in outer space, and on October 7, 1959, captured GENETRIX film aboard the Soviet Luna 3 probe was used to take the first-ever pictures of the far side of the moon.
In addition to GENETRIX, the Air Force also ran Project ASHCAN, which used Skyhook balloons to sample the air above the Soviet Union for fallout from nuclear weapons tests and nuclear reactors, the latter of which allowed U.S. Intelligence to estimate how much plutonium the Soviets were producing. The Air Force even developed the balloon-based WS-124A Flying Cloud platform as a means of delivering nuclear and biological weapons to targets within the Soviet Union. However, by the 1960s all such projects had been cancelled as manned aircraft, missiles, and satellites proved far more effective than balloons in nearly every military role.
The heyday of projects like MOGUL and GENETRIX was a unique period in military history, when surveillance technology had not yet caught up to the complex strategic realities of the Cold War. It was also a time of extreme secrecy and paranoia, which furnished a fertile breeding ground for wild speculation and conspiracy theories that endure to this day. While the early UFO sightings of the 1940s and 1950s were almost certainly the product of top-secret Air Force spy balloons, the jury remains out on whether we are, in fact, alone in the Universe. But as a wise man once said: the truth is out there.
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Winzen, Otto C. (1917-1979), Stratopedia, https://stratocat.com.ar/stratopedia/1.htm
Teitel, Amy, How Otto Winzen Took Men Into the Stratosphere, Popular Science, December 12, 2015, https://www.popsci.com/how-otto-winzen-took-men-into-stratosphere/
Ridge, Francis, The Mantell Incident: Anatomy of a Re-Investigation, 2010, http://www.nicap.org/books/Mantell_Incident/The_Mantell_Incident.pdf
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Blank, Steve, Balloon Wars, January 28, 2010, https://steveblank.com/2010/01/28/balloon-wars/
Pedlow, Gregory & Welzenbach, Donald, The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance, https://web.archive.org/web/20130817020101/http://www.gwu.edu/sites/www.gwu.edu/files/downloads/U2%20%20history%20complete.pdf
Frazier, Kendrick, The Roswell Incident at 70: Facts, Not Myths, Skeptical Inquirer, December 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20180720182643/https://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_roswell_incident_at_70_facts_not_myths
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