Flying Saucers, Popular Mechanics, and the National Archives

The reports were among the thousands of pieces of paper waiting to be processed in a group of 100 boxes. But a few pieces of paper—with schematics that looked like they were right out of a 1950s sci-fi flick—were destined for a featured article in Popular Mechanics.

But first the documents were spotted by Michael Rhodes.

The cover of USAF Project 1794.
The cover of USAF Project 1794.

Rhodes is an archives technician. His hands are the last pair—in a long chain of National Archives staff—to touch formerly classified documents before they are released to the public. Rhodes was working on part of the final push to clear a backlog of 366 million pages.

His assignment: finish processing over 100 boxes of Air Force records. He got to work.

As he checked each record to be sure that it was in good condition and ready to be released to the public, he noticed something unusual. The box of records didn’t seem to be in any order, just reports and more reports, but Rhodes, who is interested in aviation and aerospace history, noticed an odd detail.

“What caught my eye was the icon of the saucer-looking shape,” he explains. The icon—a blue saucer over a red arrow—was in the corner of test flight reports and contracts with a Canadian company. And the strangest record of all? A drawing that Rhodes says “looked just like the flying saucer in the popular science fiction films made during those years.”

According to the report, the aircraft was designed to be a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) plane. It was meant to reach a top speed of Mach 4, with a ceiling of over 100,000 feet and a range of over 1,000 nautical miles.

This drawing shows a cutaway of aircraft structure, found in recently declassified records from the Aeronautical Systems Division, USAF (Record Group 342, Records of United States Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations).

Rhodes showed the documents to a coworker, and then to his supervisor, Indexing and Declassification Review Director Neil Carmichael, who posted some of the images to the NDC blog on the National Archives website. It’s not the first time a UFO-related record has appeared on our blogs—but it was the first time actual schematics of what looked just like a UFO were posted. The story “How To Build A Flying Saucer” was quickly passed around on Twitter.

The viral success of the blog post, and the Popular Mechanics article that followed it, surprised Rhodes. “It was a lesson in how powerful social media can be when it comes to archives,” he said. “It’s been an adventure.”

It’s all part of the excitement and mystery that can come when you work in an archives. “We really don’t know what we’ve got until you open the box,” said Carmichael.

Researchers can now look through the entire series in person or read the Project 1794 Final Development Summary Report of 1956 online.

Read the full story over on Popular Mechanics.

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