The Nash-Fortenberry UFO Sighting

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
June 9, 2019
Last Updated
October 24, 2021
Estimated Reading Time
16 min read
Posted in
UFOs, Sightings

A UFO sighting over Newport, Virginia in the summer of 1952 was not only witnessed by two experienced commercial airline pilots, but it came during an increased period of UFO sightings across the United States and, indeed, the rest of the world. Furthermore, each of those pilots was an experienced World War Two pilot, and certainly ofay with pressure situations at high altitude, while controlling a plane, no less.

It also occurred during a time when interest in UFOs and visitors from outer space was beginning to become entrenched in the collective psyche of many people on the planet. Of course, whether this is coincidental or consequential is perhaps open to debate.

Artist's impression of the Nash-Fortenberry sighting

Artist’s impression of the Nash-Fortenberry sighting

What is also interesting about the case is that it perhaps unintentionally proves the credibility of many other sightings made in daylight hours of “luminous dots” flying in triangular or V-formations. These sightings were almost always universally dismissed as ducks or geese flying in formation.

And while this very well be the case with some of those sightings, the fact that the Nash-Fortenberry encounter displays those same details, only in the dark and much more close-up, in the words of Loren E. Gross “casts some doubt on the liberal use of the bird explanation”.

Of even more interest are the comments of Major Dewey Fournet, who was involved with the Project Blue Book projects years later. He would claim the incident to be “one of the most detailed and reliable cases” of the times.

It is certainly one of the most examined and investigated UFO sightings on record. And still fascinates UFO researchers and enthusiasts well over half a century later. It will likely continue to do so pending some disclosure of information or revelation concerning this most fascinating case.

A Sudden “Red-Orange Brilliance” Heading Straight Up From The Ground!

It was a little after 8 pm on 14th July 1952 when Captain Koepke, First Officer William Nash, and Second Officer William Fortenberry, with their Pan American World Airways DC-4 commercial plane on autopilot heading for Miami having left New York. They were currently at 8,000 feet and were over Cheasapeak Bay near Norfolk, Virginia.

They were around six minutes from declaring a position report to the Virginia control tower. It was Nash’s intention, given that it was Fortenberry’s first flight on this particular run, to point out natural landmarks, buildings and city lights in order to use orientation aids on future flights. Although night was on the way, it was not yet entirely dark, although whatever light was left was limited.

Depiction of the strange string of lights

Depiction of the strange string of lights

It was just after Nash had highlighted the city lights of Newport News and Cumberland when a sudden “red-orange brilliance” of light appeared slightly east of the area. Both he and Fortenberry saw the lights. And perhaps of more concern, it appeared they were climbing and heading towards them. Nash would later state:

Almost immediately we perceived that it consisted of six bright objects streaking towards us at tremendous speed…They had the fiery aspect of hot coals, but of a much greater glow…Their shape was clearly outlined and evidently circular! [1]

He would go on to state that this uniform of color was the same on each craft, which themselves glowed around “twenty times” brighter than the city lights below them.

Within seconds – no more than five or six – the objects had traveled several thousand feet from the ground.

An Element Of “Intelligence Error!”

The closer the objects got to the airliner the clearer the two men could see they were in a purposeful “narrow echelon formation”. The leader, according to Nash, was the “lowest” in the formation, with “each following craft slightly higher”. Then, the leader appeared to attempt to slow suddenly. Nash would continue:

We received this impression because the second and third wavered slightly and seemed almost to overrun the leader, so that for a brief moment during the remainder of their approach the positions of these three varied. It looked very much as if an element of “human” or “intelligence” error had been introduced in so far as the following two did not react soon enough when the leader began to slow down and so almost overran him!

As the two men continued to observe the row of glowing circular objects, they suddenly and with lightning speed changed their direction.  They would “flip” on their edges [2] with the glowing surface facing the pilots’ right. As they did so, the bottoms of the craft were “not clearly visible”.

This would lead the pilots to believe that the bottoms of the craft were, in fact, unlighted. The same appeared true for the edge of the objects. Nash would describe their overall appearance as being “much like coins”.

As they continued to watch the incident unfold, taking no more than mere seconds, the five trailing objects “slid over and past the leader”, lining up in the same formation as they were but now in reverse. They then flipped back to a “flat-altitude”, still in formation.

Following this, two more objects, which the pilots were unaware of previously, moved from underneath their plane at the same pace and in the same direction as the first six.

The newspaper clipping below shows this.

Illustration demonstrating the way the lights moved in the sky

Illustration demonstrating the way the lights moved in the sky

Like “A Ball Ricocheting Off A Wall!”

Nash and Fortenberry would liken the precise and abrupt directions of the strange formation to “a ball ricocheting off a wall”.

After a moment, the lights “blinked out” before coming back on again, clearly moving towards the Newport News area in a “graceful arc”. Then, the objects would “blink out one by one” seemingly randomly, and against their previous uniform nature, until all had vanished from sight.

This last detail is interesting. We have examined on multiple occasions the reports that strange objects “go out” as opposed to simply disappearing. Had this happened here?

Perhaps another interesting detail offered by the pilots is that there appeared to be a connection between “the lights and the speed” of the craft. Again, this is a notion that has come up in several other cases – sometimes even resulting in such lights changing color in sympathy with the object’s pace. Nash would state:

The original six had dimmed slightly before their angular turn and had brightened considerably after making it. Also, the two others were even brighter, as though applying power to catch up!

As the bland blackness took hold of the sky once more, the two pilots stared out of the window. Neither spoke for several seconds. Each was “expecting something else to appear”. However, it appeared, the incident was indeed over.

A depiction of how the sighting might have looked from the ground

A depiction of how the sighting might have looked from the ground

Although neither said the words to each other, in their report and subsequent writing on the incident, they would state:

There were flying saucers…and we had seen them!

They would continue that if either had been alone, so surreal was the incident, they would have doubted what they had seen. As each one back up the other, though, there was no doubt in their minds of the authenticity of the incident.

Twelve Seconds That Would Change The Outlook Of Two Lives!

From start to finish, as unbelievable as it might sound, the entire episode lasted, give or take a second on either side, only twelve seconds. The pair would ask themselves the next obvious question – had anyone else witnessed the magnificent display, or only them?

The captain had taken himself out of the room shortly after the plane went on to autopilot to finish paperwork. Now, Fortenberry entered the compartment where Koepke sat. It was obvious from how he was deeply concentrating on his work that he had seen nothing unusual. From there, Fortenberry could see some of the ten passengers on board, some of whom were actually sleeping.

Calmly, and in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, he would enquire if any of the passengers had witnessed anything unusual. No one had. He would return to the cockpit where Nash sat, his own mind going over and over the 12-second sequence, they had just witnessed.

Pilots Nash and Fortenberry

Pilots Nash and Fortenberry

It was at this point when they were due to radio their position to the control tower. They would do so, as was standard procedure. Then, however, they would begin a second radio transmission. And what’s more, they would request that this second transmission go straight to the military. It read:

Two pilots of this flight observed eight unidentified objects vicinity Langley Field. Estimate speed in excess of 1,000 miles per hour. Altitude 2,000 feet!

At this point, the captain, who had finished his paperwork, entered the cockpit. The pair debriefed him on what they had seen, as well informing him of the second message sent to the Norfolk control tower.

He would take charge of the plane, telling them to make their notes to report to the airline upon landing. Their findings were almost as dramatic as the event itself.

After Witnessing Such Speeds, Conventional Aircraft Appear “Standing Still!”

Using a Dalton Mark 7 computer they would attempt to calculate the angle of the objects’ approach to their aerial location, followed by the angle of their departure. The findings would suggest that the objects had made a staggering 150-degree course change in an instant. Attempts to calculate the G-force involved in such a maneuver were almost beyond their calculation due to the bizarre numbers involved.

However, they did manage to calculate a more accurate estimate of their speed by working out the amount of time the episode took compared to the distances covered. They would figure, as opposed to the previous estimate of 1,000 miles per hour and ranging from a conservative estimate to a more realistic one, that the objects were traveling anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 miles per hour.

Dalton Mark 7

Dalton Mark 7

As if to demonstrate just how bizarre and out of the ordinary the circumstances actually were, the two pilots would notice an approaching four-engined airliner during the remainder of the journey to south Florida. Nash would note:

If any normal happening could have increased the effect of our night’s experience on us, it was that commonplace event!

He would continue that in normal circumstances, and right up until that point in their aviation careers, such an approach of an airplane – traveling at around 500 miles per hour – would seem “pretty brisk”. Now, however, given the mind-blowing speeds they had just witnessed, the plane appeared as though “standing still”.

Combined Aerial Experience And Intense Military Training Yields Remarkable Data

Using the combined vast aerial experience, Nash and Fortenberry would work out educated guesses on several other aspects of the objects and those crucial 12 seconds. And because the incident occurred with the pilots looking down on the objects, using the ground’s appearance to estimate such details, it would give the pilots some further interesting data.

For example, using their experience of how the wingspread of a DC-3 appeared to them at that distance, they would estimate the objects had a width of 100 feet and were approximately 15 feet from top to bottom.

A depiction of bright light in a cloudy sky

A depiction of bright light in a cloudy sky

Nash would further reason that due to the “thousands of hours” spent flying at an altitude of around 8,000 feet, pilots began to develop an “instinct judgement” regarding the distance, size, speed, and height of objects below them. In short, they would stick by their workings out and estimates.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, both pilots were also experienced US Navy pilots, with both seeing active duty during the war. With this in mind, they were also more than experienced in adjusting to unexpected and unfamiliar aerial objects. In fact, part of their training with the US Navy was to recognize and identify aircraft during such high-pressure missions.

They felt their sighting and the data they had compiled for it from what little they witnessed was sound. However, when they would land several hours later, things would take a rather ominous and frustrating turn.

Cover-Up Attempts Or Discreet Corroboration?

It was shortly after midnight when the DC-4 passenger plane touched down at Miami International Airport. Bizarrely, upon entering the operations office, they would discover their message regarding their sightings waiting for them. There was, however, an addition to the copy. It read:

Advise crew five jets were in area at the time!

And with that, at least as far as the military were concerned – or certainly hoped – there was nothing more to say on the matter. However, given that they had witnessed eight objects, combined with their absolute conviction that they had not witnessed merely jets, when Air Force investigators made contact with them the following morning (15th July) at just after 7 am, they would stand their ground on the matter. So much so, that a meeting was immediately scheduled to take place in several hours.

Newspaper clipping from the Miami Herald

Newspaper clipping from the Miami Herald

As promised Major John Sharpe and four officers from the 7th District Office of Special Investigations arrived at Miami International Airport later that morning. The two pilots would be taken to separate rooms and were questioned for almost two hours. They would then face a further thirty minutes of questions together.

Each pilot could tell the questions had been well-prepared and thoroughly thought through. Perhaps even more so considering the incident was barely 12 hours old.

However, rather than an attempt to cover-up the incident, although off-the-record, investigators would inform Nash and Fortenberry they had received seven further reports from members of the public in the same area and time. One of these would come from a high-ranking military officer and his wife, who claimed to see a “formation of red discs traveling at high speed”.  Furthermore, these objects made breakneck “directional changes”.

Corroborating Sightings And Statements

Despite the information volunteered to the pilots by investigators, Nash and Fortenberry would struggle to find official reports of the other sightings. Some, though, survived courtesy of NICAP, who would record and document several of the reports [3] and newspaper articles on the evening of 14th July.

One particular witness would claim that she and a friend were sitting in Stockley Gardens when they saw “flying saucers circling overhead and then going north”. Perhaps of even more interest is she would claim to have witnessed “seven or eight” of these crafts. Bearing in mind what Nash had said about a connection between the speed of the craft and the lights, it is also interesting that the witness would claim “the first three (saucers) were white and the others were yellow and red”.

A depiction of a UFO in a night sky

Many of the witness statements corroborated each other

As a result of reports such as the one above, not to mention the coverage on the pilots’ accounts themselves, an aerodynamicist from NASA-Langley facility, Paul Hill would drive the waterfront nearby on the evening of 16th July. From there, he would sit watching the night sky.

Not completely surprised, at a little before 8 pm, he would witness “two amber-colored objects” appear in the dark sky overhead. At first, the lights were “jumping forward of each other”. Then, though, they began to move through the skies in a most bizarre fashion.

They would begin revolving around an invisible center point before “switching to the vertical plane”. Within mere seconds, and much like the sighting of the two airline pilots, two more objects appeared out of nowhere and joined the already tight formation. All of them then disappeared into the distance.

Perhaps Hill’s write-up of the account lends it, and the incident witnessed by Nash and Fortenberry a little more credibility.

A Cosmic Conversion

Hill would admit in his report that he had gone to see the sightings as a “fascinated spectator” but essentially, expecting to see something to indicate a rational explanation. However, he would state:

Now, they had convinced me. At that moment, I realized that here were visitors from another world…It was within my line of business to know that no Earth craft could remotely approach those maneuvers!

He would go on to state that there is much truth in the saying “It’s different when it happens to you”.

Incidentally, the incident would spark an obsession with studying such reports with a view to explaining how these “visitors” arrived here from the far reaches of space. His study wouldn’t be published until after his death. In it, Hill suggests that “UFOs obey, not defy, the laws of physics”.

A depiction of a classic UFO

A depiction of a classic UFO

It is certainly an interesting notion.

As is the fact that Hill, like Nash and Fortenberry, within two days of each other, had their view of the world, life, and indeed the universe, completely flipped on their heads.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were not the only ones whose view of the world changed that evening. Two members of the Ground Observer Corps at Newport News would spot the same lights, at the same time. They didn’t, however, make a report of the incident until weeks later.

Twenty UFO Reports A Day On Average In July 1952

The Nash-Fortenberry Incident took place barely three months following the start of Project Blue Book. At that time, even before the world-wide UFO wave of 1954, staff working on the Blue Book project – of which there were only nine – were quickly “swamped” with UFO reports coming in from all over the United States and from a broad cross-section of the community.

What’s more, many of these reports were coming in from the members of the intelligence departments from air bases around the United States, themselves reporting incidents reported to them by members of the public in their respective nearby communities.

By July of 1952, these reports were numbering 20 a day on average. Furthermore, almost half of these reports did not have ready, rational explanations. By the time of the famous UFO incident over Washington DC would appear to put the nation on standby.

By the time of the Nash-Fortenberry incident, Project Blue Book was more than swamped, understaffed, and ill-equipped to seriously deal with the amount of UFO activity taking place. Despite Blue Book staff stating that the notion that the pilots had witnessed five military jets was simply not possible, they had no other explanation to offer. Crucially, they had no time or staff to follow up the sighting in a satisfactory manner.

Consequently, the case was labeled “Unknown” and then, at least officially, forgotten about. A decade later, however, a Harvard astrophysicist would reinvestigate the incident.

The video below looks at the 1952 wave.

The Irrational Attempts To Find A Rational Explanation

In 1962, Donald Menzel, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, would reexamine the case. During the process, he would correspond with Nash for several months in an attempt to provide a satisfactory explanation. At the time, Nash was working with NICAP as an advisor.

It was clear from the outset, however, that Menzel believed the sighting had a natural or “rational” explanation. Most predominantly, he believed what the two pilots had witnessed was simply a reflection in the cockpit windows. This, he would explain, would account for the apparent bizarre reversal of the objects.

In fact, he would even point to the fact that neither the crew or the Air Force investigators had failed to even consider this possibility. Then, taking it a stage further he would appear to suggest that the two pilots – Nash and Fortenberry – were simply not credible witnesses. To this Nash would respond.

Pilot Nash in the cockpit

Pilot Nash

He would state, perhaps understandably bluntly, that his “reflection theory” simply didn’t hold water. Nash would point out that, aside from the objects being in between them and the west, he would state that the objects would need to be “persistent, consistent, and impossible reflections to have manifested in three cockpit windows in exactly the same way”.

He would then explain how he and Fortenberry had first witnessed the objects approaching out of the front window before moving across the cockpit and seeing them in the curved portion of the window. By the end of the incident, the pair watched objects disappear from the right-side window.

He would then finish the letter rebutting the assertion that the pair had been “too excited” to consider the evidence by stating that:

…pilots do not excite earlier, or they would not be airline pilots!

It is a rebuttal that’s hard to argue with.

No Evidence For Conditions For Temperature Inversion

Despite this, though, Menzel would persist with the reflection theory. For example, he would question whether the reflection had, in fact, come from inside the cockpit. Or even more bizarre from a “hostess taking a drag of a cigarette”.

Regarding this last point, the third person between the two men, Professor Charles Maney from Defiance College would write in follow-up correspondence “quite a long drag, wouldn’t you say?”

A depiction of the strange lights

A depiction of the strange lights

However, even so, there were no hostesses on the flight in question. Furthermore, their cockpit door was closed during the sighting. On these last points, Menzel would concede that the object was unlikely to have come from inside the airplane. Despite this, though, Menzel remained steadfast that what Nash believes he saw was:

…completely consistent with the theory that the discs were immaterial images made of light!

With this point in mind, Menzel would suggest such a phenomenon as “temperature inversion” leading to “haze, ice crystals, smoke, or other particles”. He would further state that if a searchlight from the ground penetrated this temperature-inversion caused conditions it would “show up as a series of discs”. The movement of the searchlight would then, Menzel claimed, result in the appearance of the movement of the “saucers”.

While the theory would be sound enough, the fact that the conditions of the night in question were perfectly clear, and certainly not anywhere near to causing temperature-inversion related phenomenon.

Despite this, Menzel would persist in attempting to manufacture a situation where such an inversion could have taken place. One, under the conditions of the night in question.

A UFO Wave Within A UFO Wave

What is perhaps interesting is the many sightings that occurred in the days previously and following the incident witnessed by Nash and Fortenberry. Including the previously mentioned Washington DC incident.

For example, on 1st July near Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, at a little after 9:30 am, several objects were picked up on radar. What’s more, they were heading towards Washington and displayed a significant “burst of speed”. The sightings were also confirmed visually.

Even more bizarre, several hours later at around noon, a physics professor would see a “grayish UFO” moving back and forth overhead. The professor would describe the object as “dull, gray, smoky colored” which would move silently in arcs through the sky.

Although the sighting was much further west than those over the east coast, an incident the following evening on the 2nd July in the skies over Tremonton, Utah shares many of the same details. That evening, Delbert Newhouse and his wife would witness “12-14 shiny silver objects” moving around bizarrely in the night sky.

A depiction of a UFO over the Capitol Building

A depiction of a UFO over the Capitol Building

Furthermore, using his 16 mm camera, he managed to capture “extensive footage” of events as they unfolded. When they viewed these frames it was clear the objects were “shaped like one plate inverted atop another”.

Even more suspect, Newhouse would hand the film over to the military for analysis. When it was returned to him, the frames showing the anomalous object were missing.

On the 10th July – coincidentally or not just after 8 pm, near Quantico, Virginia, the pilot of National Airlines Flight 42 witnessed a “very bright amber glow” which began climbing until out of sight.

Two nights later in Annapolis, Maryland, William Washburn witnessed and reported “4 large elliptical-shaped objects” which moved with great speed before making a 90-degree turn and disappearing into the night sky.

Glowing, Circular Objects All Over The United States

As well as the already examined Paul Hill incident two days following the Nash-Fortenberry incident, several other UFO sightings would unfold. In the early hours of 17th July, for example, William Stevenson and William Havens would both witness a “circular object with an orange and green glow” around 5,000 feet high and 10 miles to the north of Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio.

Around 12 hours later in White Plains, New York, Florence Daley witnessed two round objects flying in formation over the skies in the middle of the day at around 3 pm.

A depiction of a typical UFO

A depiction of a typical UFO

The following evening, back over Lockbourne Air Force Base, an “amber-colored elliptical object” was witnessed overhead. It was noted that it would increase and decrease in brightness while it was visible.

On the same day, two sightings took place in south Florida near Miami. Both of an “opaque silvery bubble” flying at a bizarre right angle against the wind. At just before 10 pm later that evening, came another sighting near Patrick Air Force Base. An employee witnessed “a series of hovering and maneuvering red-orange lights moving in a variety of directions”.

The following day on the 19th July, the day of the famous Washington DC incident, “an intensely glowing, non-blinking orange ball of light” was witnessed moving at considerable speed over River Edge, New Jersey.

In short, in the weeks leading up to and before the Nash-Fortenberry incident, there was sighting after sighting. All of round, circular, glowing objects. That they are not connected is surely unthinkable.

A Lot Of Lessons For Humanity To Learn

There were, of course, other possibilities. None of which, however, Nash and Fortenberry would really give serious consideration to.

For example, one suggestion was that what they had seen was a top-secret missiles test. As the pilots state, it simply is “not logical” that supposedly secret tests would take place over populated areas. Certainly in full view of the public. And in air space regularly used by commercial, private, and military pilots. They would also assert that, even in secret, such advanced weapons, or more specifically the mechanism that would allow for such lightning and otherworldly movements, would have “become public knowledge”.

Nash 2002

Nash 2002

As fair as that last point is, and perhaps correct, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that such technology could remain out of the public domain. With that said, though, the idea that such weapons tests would take place over such highly populated areas, as Nash says, is simply “not logical”.

With that in mind, then, is it possible that as opposed to being weapons, they were experimental crafts. After all, they did appear and make their way up from the ground. Might they have launched from a United States Air Force Base?  Or even from an unofficial base somewhere in the northeast region of America?

However, assuming that these crafts were most definitely under the control of an intelligence from elsewhere in the universe, as Nash and Fortenberry note:

…mankind has a lot of lessons to learn…from somebody!

It is certainly a summary that is hard to disagree with.

A Sudden And Sobering Realization!

Should we accept, then, that the objects, like Nash and Fortenberry believed, are not at all connected to the United States government. Even the Black Budget aspects of it, then the only real possibility can be to look at extraterrestrial visitors. Either from another world, another realm, or dimension, we have to ask, then, what is the purpose of these visits?

Incidentally, Bill Fortenberry would pass away in a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean in 1957. Nash, on the other hand, would eventually transfer to Germany where he would spend 15 years flying the “Berlin corridors”. He would then retire from Pan American. He wouldn’t, however, forget the impact the incident in July 1952 had on his and Fortenberry’s lives.

Nash would speak years later of the sudden and sobering realization that “our world is not alone in the universe”. He would continue:

We just knew that they were not from this planet. I know to this day, that it was nothing from this planet!

Unless, of course, the conspiracies of secret deals between the United States government – or at least a shadow version of it –  and the intelligence behind these sightings in the early 1950s, one that would see advanced technology in exchange for “permission” to abduct human subjects for experiments turn out to be true. That, though, is a subject for another time.

Check out the video below. It looks at this most fascinating incident in a little more detail.


1 We Flew Above Flying Saucers, William Nash and William Fortenberry, Project 1947
2 UFOs: A History 1952: June – July 20th, CUFOS
3 The 1952 Nash/Fortenberry Sighting, Tom Tulien, NICAP

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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