On July 8, 1947, the front page of the Roswell Daily Record bore the following headline: “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region”.
To some, the event is indisputable proof of alien contact with Earth – even more than the mythos of Area 51 – while others say it’s an entirely terrestrial incident fanned by the flames of conspiracism. For decades there have been accusations of a cover-up by the government and the military, despite the fact it was they that first gave the story life.
Now a new Sky History documentary, Roswell: The First Witness, has breathed life into the incident once again – so just what did happen on that day in the New Mexico desert…
As with most good sources of intrigue, it’s hard to conclusively banish the question marks around the mysterious events at Roswell, but there are a number of things we know for sure. In the summer of 1947, local rancher WW “Mac” Brazel found debris on his Lincoln County property, made of rubber strips, tinfoil, paper and sticks, while doing his morning rounds.
Flying saucers were making waves in the news at the time, so Brazel brought the wreckage to a local sheriff, who passed the pieces on to a Colonel at the local airfield. That could have been the end of it, but the army then released an extraordinary statement to the local press, apparently confirming a close encounter of the third kind.
“The many rumours regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday,” read the statement, in remarkably casual terms, “when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County.”
Within a day the story had been revised – the first of several adjustments the official narrative would undergo – asserting the wreckage was not in fact from the endless void, but instead from a weather balloon, quashing all talk of a ‘flying saucer’. Brazel said he did not think it was from a weather balloon, but if he’d known how much trouble his report would cause, he probably wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.
The Daily Record’s article resurfaced as UFO interest ramped up in the 1990s – often presented without the subsequent clarification. Rumours swirled of government cover-ups and humanoid corpses, though few stood up to scrutiny. In 1995 British-Italian producer Ray Santilli released footage purporting to show an “alien autopsy” in the aftermath of the crash, which received international airtime. It’s since been admitted the video was staged.
Unusually, the government admitted the weather balloon story had been bogus. The wreckage, new reports said, had been from a classified spy programme named Project Mogul – a string of balloons with microphones designed to furtively float over the USSR. In 1997, a follow-up report told that the “alien bodies” taken from the site were air crash dummies.
Tweaking the narrative further was never likely to end speculation, but it did at least explain the initial decision to blame the crash on another world. If you believe them, these two reports answer most outstanding questions.
There are plenty of people that don’t. For Roswell, the upheaval represented a commercial opportunity, and the town now has a planetarium, an annual UFO festival, an International UFO Museum, and an alien-themed McDonald’s.
Roswell: The First Witness airs on Sky History on Tuesdays at 9pm.