‘That first domino began an endless chain of events that cannot be escaped …
not by the limitlessness of space,
nor even by the end of time itself …’
Unexplained radar contacts and aircraft sightings reported on the late afternoon/evening of the 3rd of July 1947.
Muroc Army Airfield
(later renamed Edwards Air Force Base)
Kern County, Southern California
1716 hours – July 3, 1947
‘Make your move, damnit!’ Colonel James “Raffy” Rafter’s heart skipped momentarily as a heavily laden B-29 Superfortress hesitated before conceding to flight; it’s wheels breaking free from the tarmac with nothing to spare. I love this shit.
The newly appointed Commanding Officer of the Air Force Flight Test Centre stood alone on the control tower outside viewing platform to witness the spectacular display of man defying nature. The potent sweet scent of high-octane fuel added to his sense of awe and rush of adrenalin as thunderous reverberations from aircraft taking off, landing, and racing across the skies disturbed the air. Wearing thick-framed black sunglasses and smoking his favorite “MacArthur” pipe, the decorated war-time hero sometimes imagined himself looking a bit like the famous general himself.
The B-29’s destination was a Nevada “no-fly” zone more than two hundred miles to the northeast that was set aside for highly classified aircraft and missile testing. Rafter commanded an operation intrinsic to the integration of captured Nazi-German aerial warfare technologies. Groom Lake airfield and its infrastructure situated at the isolated Nevada Testing Range, (later to be known as Area 51), were undergoing major upgrades in readiness to become the new home for the Air Force Flight Test Centre’s top-secret operations. The next major test exercise would be based there, solely under Rafter’s command, with testing in full view of the Groom Lake flight tower. Thinking about that approaching day brought him immense pride. In preparation for the move, he’d insisted on clear demarcations for authority to act in all matters of security. His command now conferred exceptional autonomy and personal authority to defend the Groom Lake project … power that was the envy of many of his superiors.
‘You’re needed inside, Colonel,’ said a voice, unexpectedly from behind. The junior staffer was holding the door open in wait. ‘Urgently, sir.’
Lost in thought, taking in the “awesomeness” of his command, he barely registered the urgency of the request.
‘What’s is it?’ Rafter asked, after the heavy soundproof door shut behind him. He was surprised to see his entire control-room staff grouped around a single workstation. They parted at the sound of his voice to allow him access without a single gaze shifting away from the action. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Warning to unidentified aircraft, you have entered United States airspace. Please identify … over,’ said the senior flight controller, Lieutenant Fielding, over her microphone. She clasped her headphones tightly over her ears listening for any hint of a response. Sensing her CO’s approach from behind, she half-turned to face him without letting her eyes leave the radar screen. ‘Sir, an unidentified aircraft is moving through our radar space at extremely high speed and it’s not responding to my broadcasts.’
Rafter moved in close to lean over the lieutenant’s right shoulder.
‘Jesus H. Christ. How fast is that thing moving?’ Rafter asked.
‘It’s steadied to a speed of just under Mach 1 … now, sir. The 637th have been tracking it from deep inside Mexican territory. They advised me that it crossed the border about four minutes ago at more than Mach 2.’
‘Could the 637th be mistaken?’
‘Possibly, sir. Their equipment is “state-of-the-art” … but also very new.’
Just seven weeks operational, the 637th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron in Long Beach, a hundred miles to the south, boasted the highest signal-processing radar detection technology operating anywhere in the world. Rumors that the Soviet Union had captured German aircraft technology far more advanced than anything the “allies” had in their possession meant that the facility was on permanent high alert securing the border.
‘Altitude?’ Rafter asked, deliberately calm.
‘Steadily descending, sir. It just dropped below 50,000 feet, but I’m told it crossed the border at 72,000.’
‘A surveillance aircraft,’ someone speculated from behind.
‘At least it’s heading away from densely populated regions … a nuclear demonstration maybe,’ said another.
‘You’re right. The isolated destination …’
‘Quiet,’ warned Rafter. Fielding needed to concentrate. She swiveled her chair to face him fully …
‘Sir, it’s heading directly towards the Nevada no-fly zone and today’s testing. Maintaining current speed, it’ll enter restricted airspace in about eleven minutes.’
That’s it then, thought Rafter. The rumors are true. The Soviets are well ahead of us.
The attempt to spy on his testing program would not go unanswered. Time was short, too short to launch an intercept from Muroc. Two propeller-driven aircraft were in the area to monitor the tests, but they were slow and unarmed. The B-29 that had just taken off for the Nevada testing range presented his best and only option. Inside the massive B-29’s specially re-engineered bowel ready for launch was a missile-equipped Bell X-1 jet. By chance, this aircraft was carrying new top-secret experimental Aim-4 Falcon air-to-air heat-seeking missiles. Rafter didn’t hesitate; the X-1 would make a stand.
The drop-launched version of the Bell Aircraft Corporation X-1 was conceived to facilitate the breaking of the sound barrier … something they were tantalizingly close to finally achieving. It wasn’t designed to carry weapons. However, this highly modified X-1 had been specially prepared for transonic testing in simulated battle conditions to understand the altered aerodynamics of carrying underwing-mounted missiles. Never previously fired from any aircraft, the prototype missiles were deemed to be functional, if not proven.
Rafter pondered the incredible audacity of the attempt to infiltrate his top-secret testing … some sort of demonstration of Soviet superiority. It was a dangerous, hostile, and unprovoked intrusion, and the exceptional level of technology on display was concerning … his worst fears of the enemy’s capabilities. We can’t afford to show weakness. His determination … bring the bogey down before it entered the restricted zone.
Fielding set about the complex task of determining an intercept solution that factored in the combined capacities of two very different aircraft … a coctail of educated guess and practiced calculation. The behavior of this mysterious intruder wasn’t what might be expected from a hostile enemy. The aircraft descended steadily and predictably as if unconcerned about anything the US military might throw up against it. The B-29 would need to steer a course towards the Nevada Testing Range until gaining an altitude of 10,000 feet at which point it would drop-launch the X-1. Projected intercept would take place in approximately eight minutes, forty miles northwest of Las Vegas.
‘Thirty seconds, Captain.’ The B-29 Flight Commander’s voice in his helmet grabbed Captain Hillier back from the past; a dogfight with an unfortunate “Jap” over the Coral Sea. ‘Are you prepped and ready?’
Sitting in almost total darkness, alone with his misgivings, he didn’t answer immediately as he considered asking for his new orders to be confirmed. Who is this enemy?
‘Captain, are we green to go?’
Hillier lit up his instrument panel and adjusted his eyes to the glare. To his right were two red buttons covered by two red flip up safety catches. He reached over and touched them lightly … to know their presence.
‘Checks complete. Green to go.’
The giant Superfortress leveled off, and steadied to the predetermined speed of 250 mph.
‘… three, two, one, release,’ came through his headset.
The sleek silver X-1 drop-launched from the specially modified bomb bay and slipped weightlessly into a silent void. Looking up through the glass canopy, Hillier judged the moment he was sufficiently clear of his host and turned on all four cylinders in rapid sequence, powering the 6,000-pound thrust single liquid propellant rocket engine into life. G-force pinned his head back hard against the headrest as the nose began to rise.
Exceeding 15,000 feet and climbing, the rocket engine easily propelled the aircraft through the 500-mph mark. The control stick shuddered violently as the altered aerodynamics, caused by the addition of working weapons, disrupted the aircraft’s normally smoother handling. This weapons-upgraded version of the X-1 had never previously flown faster than 440 mph he realized as he cut through the final high-level cloud and a vast uninterrupted panorama opened before him.
Employing the expert solution prescribed by the 637th, Hillier flicked up the toggle switches to shut down two of the rocket’s four cylinders to slow the tremendous rate of acceleration, assist controlled flight, and extend his remaining fuel burn time to five minutes. He barely noticed the poor aerodynamics as he tried to imagine his enemy from the incredible statistics of the incursion. Assessing the X-1’s performance to be “within expectations”, he continued to push his aircraft beyond the limits of its known capabilities.
The bogey maintained a steady speed just under Mach 1, at around 730 mph. Leveling off at an altitude of 28,000 feet, it proceeded directly towards the heart of the Nevada Test Range, continuing to ignore communication attempts now being broadcast under direct supervision of Colonel Rafter from Muroc. Hillier hoped the bogey would realize it had been detected and change course. It would need to alter course soon.
The X-1’s violent protestations expressed through the control grip forced Hillier to feather back the throttle until he judged a more “reasonable” balance of control against risk. Now well above clouds, he scanned the horizon as the X-1 smashed through 24,000 feet at over 640 mph. Despite setting a new personal best speed, his thinking was consumed with his next action … to question his orders. He’d served with Colonel Rafter in wartime; knew his CO would demolish the career of any pilot that showed indecision “in the face of the enemy”. But we’re not at war, are we?
‘… requesting confirmation of my orders of engagement.’
An involuntary chill ran down his spine the instant he recognized Colonel Rafter’s voice … its delivery slow and deliberate.
‘Captain Hillier, listen closely. You will force the intruder to change course. You will bring it down if you can. Do not allow it to enter the no-fly zone.’
It would become an order of immense consequence.
Reaching 28,000 feet and a speed of nearly 680 mph, he leveled off and shut down a third cylinder but continued to accelerate. Despite pushing his aircraft way beyond safety considerations, he wasn’t going to make the original intercept projection. The added weight of weapons, and the disrupted aerodynamic efficiency they caused, were impeding the X-1’s performance. The 637th corrected his course to a new intercept just inside the no-fly zone. Moments later, a long thin vapor trail came into view.
‘I see it. Something coming from starboard. It looks like … contrails!’
As if privy to the observation, the unidentified aircraft gained velocity at an unmatchable pace. Realizing this was his only opportunity, Hillier reached over and unlatched the first red firing safety mechanism. The Aim-4 Falcon missile’s propulsion massively disrupted the aircraft’s clear air, shaking him from his thoughts. He couldn’t be certain he’d fired the weapon … the actual instant of aggression seemed surreal.
Steering to port to get away from the missile’s wake, he watched in hopeful anticipation as it streaked ominously towards its target. Nearly out of fuel, he flicked the kill switch for the engine’s final cylinder, ready for the powerless glide to the Groom Lake runways. So, this is how wars begin, he wondered, as the enemy banked to starboard attempting to put distance between itself and the threat. The missile deftly adjusted course in pursuit leaving a crooked trail of vapor behind it. Moments before he could witness the outcome, an enormous flash emanating from the fleeing enemy blinded him. Chatter coming through his headset seemed incoherent.
‘… never in the face of the enemy, sir,’ was barely discerned by those listening to his broadcasts.
Without power and gliding aimlessly, the X-1 was more than thirty miles from its nearest landing opportunity.
Betty sensed the agitated movements of her commanding officer behind her as they watched the radar screen and listened to events unfold on the radio. Despite repeated attempts, nobody could raise Captain Hillier, whose aircraft glided with declining velocity and altitude in a northwesterly direction … the wrong direction. The X-1 should have jettisoned any excess fuel and commenced a glide path towards the Groom Lake landing runways to the northeast.
The question on her mind she dared not speak … is he alive?
‘Don’t lose him, Lieutenant. I want another shot,’ ordered the CO, banging his fist down hard on her desk.
‘The contact has accelerated to more than Mach 2, sir.’
Within minutes, it had left Nevada, and was racing across Arizona and the Grand Canyon. No one said anything, but they were all relieved to see it turn away from the heavily populated west coast. Approaching 90,000 feet, the contact seemed to falter losing both speed and altitude. Radar gradually became blinded by the curve of the Earth when it dipped below 50,000 feet.
‘Sir, what about the 509th?’ Betty offered, thinking back to the morning briefing. She pulled out a map of northern New Mexico and opened it for her CO’s benefit. ‘The Fourth of July flyovers. The 509th is sending six B-29s to Muroc any moment now. If we could get them to initially steer north, then turn west and spread out at Santé Fe, we might get lucky.’
The lieutenant’s complete and immediate grasp of a much wider aircraft logistics picture was impressive.
‘Excellent suggestion, Lieutenant.’ The colonel’s anger noticeably waned. ‘Put out a general alert, then bring the 509th up to speed and ask them to keep their eyes peeled. And patch their CO through to my desk so I can advise him of Colonel Rafter’s authorization to bring the intruder down.’
1854 hours (New Mexico time)
The mighty four-engine, propeller-driven B-29 Superfortress stirred American pride like no other aircraft. When the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” onto Hiroshima, it wasn’t just the beginning of the end of the war with Japan; Americans felt safer knowing that such formidable weaponry was theirs to serve and protect them in these troubled times. For this reason, a flyover display of B-29s had been scheduled for the American western seaboard capitals as part of Fourth of July celebrations … the perfect antidote to help quell public concern over the rising tide of communism and Soviet aggression.
The 509th Bombardment Group Very Heavy operated from Roswell Army Air Field, New Mexico. Upon receiving advice from the 637th, Commanding Officer Colonel Sam Curtis ordered the six B-29 Superfortresses scheduled for departure to be given maximum fuel loads, and to be armed and combat ready. He stood inside the control tower watching the aircraft scramble into order for takeoff.
Are we at war again already? Curtis reached up with his middle-left finger to stroke the long scar that ran diagonally from cheekbone to lower back jaw on the right side of his face. Surgeons had considered him “lucky” … damned radar. The German Messerschmitt had come out of the sun, peppering his aircraft with machinegun fire, and killing three of his crew. Onboard radar never saw it coming. The B-29s’ fearsome weaponry could bring anything down … but only if they could find it. With no idea at all about what they might be facing or even looking for, he said a quick prayer for the crews before nodding his consent to proceed to the flight controller.
The six enormous aircraft maneuvered into single file, locked in tight behind each other, and paused at the start of the runway. The fury of their engines as they revved ready for takeoff was substantially shielded by double-glazed windows, but still, disturbance of epic proportions could be felt through the walls, floor, and ceiling throughout the entire flight tower. A ground controller waved the first aircraft for takeoff; a ten second count between each wave that followed. Good luck, boys … you’re gonna need it.
The bogey had originally been on a course that would take it across northern Arizona and towards Santé Fe, New Mexico. The B-29s were instructed to fan out in an arc 150 miles across with a general heading towards Santé Fe and then to pivot their course westward.
Flight control towers, surveillance stations, and patrolling military aircraft with on-board radar were all on full alert across central and western United States. The minimal radar profile offered by the bogey meant that it would be a difficult task for older, less powerful radars to detect though. Colonel Curtis didn’t hold out much hope.
After the B-29s had been in the air for about twenty minutes, the radar station at White Sands Proving Ground in central New Mexico reported a contact moving over the Gila National Forest. At an altitude of around 24,000 feet, it had a velocity of about 240 mph with an erratic north eastly course heading. It appeared to be having difficulty with deteriorating weather conditions.
Lieutenant Gatsby at Roswell Army Air Field listened intently as the White Sands radar operator described the difficulty he had maintaining contact, and of the strange erratic movements of the aircraft. Despite being well within proximity, Gatsby couldn’t confirm the contact. Instead, his radar screen showed an enormous storm front forming north of the Gila National Forest.
‘He’s using the storm to mask his movements,’ yelled Colonel Curtis, furiously stroking his scar. ‘Redirect the B-29s towards Gila.’
Gatsby wasn’t convinced.
‘Sir, White Sands have been reporting bogeys for several days now,’ said Gatsby. ‘The Eighth Air Force’s radar countermeasure trials have been causing chaos over there.’
‘Can we get in touch with the Eighth and find out what they’re up to?’ asked Curtis, unfamiliar with the problems reported by White Sands.
‘Their operation is top-secret, sir. It’ll be difficult to get what we need quickly. I could assume that the contact will stay behind the storm front and plot a solution, sir?’
Curtis was in two minds. Flight tower personnel waited silently as he weighed up the options.
‘Split ‘em. We’ll make an each-way bet.’
Visibility was patchy at best. The weather front centered about ninety miles southwest of Albuquerque seemed to grow with unnatural haste. Flying conditions across New Mexico deteriorated rapidly, with gusty winds and steady rain. Even the mighty B-29s were tossed about like toys … no match for this fearsome display from nature.
‘I never seen nothing like this before,’ said the trainee copilot, taking in the unfolding chaos ahead of them. ‘I never even flown in the rain before.’
Senior pilot Waters closed his eyes in frustration. This was meant to be a training flight. Are they crazy? Only in times of war or aggression were such risks considered because no aircraft was immune to the dangers presented by a weather event of such magnitude. It was testimony to the perceived level of threat from the USSR that such a high-risk decision was made by Colonel Curtis. They would confront the storm’s full wrath in search of their prey.
Having passed directly over Albuquerque, three B-29s faced the superstorm head on, spread five miles apart at 24,000 feet. The storm’s front stood like an impassable wave rolling menacingly towards them at fifty-five mph, making the combined speed of approach over 250 mph. Spectacular displays of electrical discharge previewed the sinister conflict ahead. Radar operators searched the skies, but they were completely blind to the supercell storm’s dark heart.
Waters decided that there was no point lamenting about their circumstances. You get the job done with the tools that you have. He flashed a devilish smile at his nervous copilot as they slowed their approach velocity to the imposing fifty-mile front of the storm. The smile wasn’t returned.
‘Everyone brace,’ he said over the intercom to the crew of himself plus ten positioned at every viewing opportunity around the aircraft. ‘This is gonna get rough.’
It felt like an auto wreck.
‘Turnabout! Get us out of here,’ yelled the Flight Commander, from his station behind the pilots. There was no argument.
‘Turn to port,’ said Waters, his voice quivering from the turbulence. It would take both pilots to manage the turn. ‘Slow and steady.’
The instruments failed. Radio and the internal communication went down also, Waters realized, likely from a lightning strike. He kept that to himself though as his green copilot had enough to worry about. Bursts of thunder and lightning erupted in every direction with icy blasts flexing the wings; it was difficult to know which way was up. Entering the superstorm had been a huge mistake.
‘There … at my two o’clock!’ Waters screamed to be heard.
A sleek dark craft moved stealthily through the storm’s camouflage somehow at ease with the chaos, almost as if it were flowing amid the icy torrents and the spectacular movement of electrical energy. About a quarter mile off to starboard and at an identical 24,000 feet altitude, it projected diagonally across their path from the southwest. The storm almost immediately obscured his line of sight, but it was enough time to make an educated guess.
‘Bank harder to port,’ instructed Waters to his copilot. Then turning back to address his Flight Commander. ‘Off to starboard about a quarter mile.’
The Flight Commander relayed the sighting to the starboard-side gunner who sat with his left hand holding his seat and his right pushing down from above to keep him in place. Not seeing anything at first, he fired two short bursts randomly into the storm’s ferocity. Then, without warning he saw it, silhouetted against the lightning flashes no more than a hundred yards away. He deftly adjusted the firing direction of his fully remote-controlled, computer-aided twin .50 Browning M2 machine guns.
‘I’ve got you!’ The gunner screamed over the roar of the storm’s fury and the devastating firepower of his weaponry. He sensed a kill; he’d forgotten to breathe as adrenalin pulsed through his veins.
Waters watched the shadowy aircraft veer sharply to port, ducking under and barely missing the tail of their B-29, riding the crest of the stormfront as if well practiced in the art of avoiding detection in such circumstances. It was an extremely risky, but highly effective ploy, he considered. The enemy dissolved into the stormy night.
All six B-29s patrolled the New Mexico skies until it became necessary to return to Base for refueling. The storm raged on for another hour, finally petering out northwest of Roswell. There would be no Fourth of July flyovers.
The next day
‘… not at this ungodly hour, General. I need facts … not wild speculation.’
The wife of Secretary of the Army, Gordon Graham, stood in her nightdress and listened without making her presence known. It was completely dark in the long, wide corridor except for a small fracture of light made possible by the study door being slightly ajar.
‘I won’t wake the president for this. And I don’t want hysteria disrupting the holiday weekend. Bed it down … for now.’
The luxury Washington DC residence was one of the perks of her husband’s position. More than a residence … it was a home now. She’d done that. Sometimes though, she wondered if the “perks” were worth it. This wasn’t the first occasion that she’d woken up in the early hours of the morning to find the bed beside her ominously empty and untouched.
‘Cancel whatever leaves you need to, but I’m not conceding to raising our alert status without more information.’
The room was stale and thick with smoke. Her husband looked tired and frustrated as he sat with his elbows resting heavily on the desk. She knew that look well … too well.
‘Rafter? Yes, yes, I know him … Colonel James Rafter, Air Force Flight Test Center. He’s been in the spotlight a lot lately. It’s not quite official, but I can quietly reveal that he’s been chosen to command the new Groom Lake facility. I agree, General … an excellent choice.’
She decided to reveal herself and slowly opened the door with a tired, but caring smile. Gordon looked up, put his hand over the mouthpiece, and whispered …
‘Sorry, did I wake you?’
‘Coffee?’ she whispered back.
‘I want Rafter to go to the Roswell base and get a firsthand account of what transpired from Colonel Curtis,’ he said, then covering the phone’s mouthpiece he smiled back warmly. ‘Go back to bed. I’m wrapping this up now.’
She pulled the door shut behind her but continued listening.
‘We could soon be at war with an enemy with vastly superior technology, General. I want an interim report on my desk Tuesday morning, and a full report Friday. Give Rafter and Curtis anything they need to get the job done. And General, tell Rafter to make his investigations quietly. We don’t want to start a panic.’
Chaves County Sheriff’s Office, Roswell
“HOLIDAY STAMPEDE SWEEPS THE NATION”
– Roswell Daily Record
Friday, July 4, 1947
The old leather and timber chair protested as Sheriff Wilson leaned well back to put his huge black boots up on his desk. The desk was cluttered with paperwork; files stacked precariously high in places. Finding a space where his feet could rest safely, he lit up a cigarette, sat the newspaper on his lap, and scanned the front page.
Roswell was well prepared for the evening’s Fourth of July celebrations; clean cells awaited anybody foolish enough to cause trouble on the family holiday weekend. With his entire staff of law enforcement officers either on the job, or arriving for duty later in the evening, there was nothing to do but wait for the calm to turn to chaos. It would be a big night.
‘Line four, Sheriff.’
Red-faced and needing to breathe out completely, he barely managed to defeat his belly and lean sufficiently forward to reach the phone’s cord. Yanking it within reach, he pushed button “four” … his good friend, Con Sanchos.
‘Con, Con, Con, listen … calm down.’
Just that morning, the Sheriff had been asked by Military Intelligence personnel based at the Roswell Army Air Field to keep a lookout for anything “unusual”. Yesterday, he’d been informed, an unidentified aircraft “carelessly drifted” into restricted airspace near the military’s secret Nevada testing location. The intruder departed quickly though when aircraft were scrambled into action. It might have been detected in New Mexico.
‘Wreckage you say, Con?’
The American people were generally in a state of paranoia over growing tensions with the USSR. Fears of an all-out nuclear war gripped the nation. Were Soviet spy planes capable of such enormous range? Were they also capable of evading America’s newest radar detection and aircraft technologies? Many believed so, including the Sheriff.
Con’s ranch was about forty miles northwest of Roswell. He described the debris as “strewn over a vast area”. A trench “a hundred feet long” had been gouged deep into the earth with pieces of strange material lying around.
‘There’s something else,’ Con offered, tentatively. ‘I’m not sure how to describe it, but the dogs are spooked, and I’ve an uneasy feeling about this. I sure would appreciate it if someone could come and check it out.’
Sheriff Wilson got off the phone and put a call through to the Intel office.
‘Okay, Sheriff, thanks for calling. I’ll pass this to my superiors as a high priority,’ offered the female duty officer on the other end of the line. Her manner turned from friendly to serious. ‘Please keep the area secure until we’ve had time to send someone out. And Sheriff, this is a matter of national security. You are not to speak to anyone about this unless absolutely necessary.’
‘Okay, onto it.’
He hung up and got back to Con Sanchos, advising him to not touch anything and to call him immediately if anyone was snooping around.
‘The military will be taking full control …’
You won’t believe what happens next … or maybe you will.
Currently in the “developmental editing” process.
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