Rhodes's job is to read such documents, catalog them, and make them available to historians, journalists, and the curious. The paper was crisp, like new. Rhodes began to read.
He soon realized that the file box contained highly unusual material. "As I was processing the collection, I glimpsed this weird red flying-disc icon in the corners," Rhodes says. Inside the box was a trove of oddities: cutaway schematics of disc-shaped aircraft, graphs showing drag and thrust performance at more than Mach 3, black-and-white photos of Frisbee shapes in supersonic wind tunnels. The icon was a flying saucer on a red arrow?the insignia of a little-known and strange sideshow in aeronautical design. Rhodes was leafing through the lost records of a U.S. military flying saucer program.
A Canadian aviation firm began developing a disc-shaped aircraft for the U.S. military in the mid-1950s, and, though the details were secret, the project itself was not unknown. POPULAR MECHANICS mentioned the Air Force's "vertical-rising, high-speed" craft in 1956 and published a photo in 1960. In the decades since the program was canceled in 1961, aviation buffs and UFO researchers have unearthed technical papers written near the end of America's flying saucer experiment, but the document that originally convinced the government to invest in a military flying disc has languished in the NDC under the SECRET designation. This recently discovered report describes in previously unknown detail how aviation engineers tried to harness what were then cutting-edge aerodynamic concepts to make their improbable creation fly. Although Avro's saucer never completed a successful flight, some of the most sophisticated aircraft flying today adopted many of the same technologies.
In 2001, U.S. Air Force personnel cleared the document cache for public release, according to Neil Carmichael, director of the declassification review division at the NDC, which is run by the National Archives and Records Administration. But it took 11 years to crack open the boxes in College Park and glimpse the saucer secrets within?the staff is buried in a backlog of nearly 2 billion pages of declassified material, some of it dating to World War II. "These records probably have been classified since their creation," Carmichael says. "It's like somebody emptied out a filing cabinet, stuck it in a box, sealed it, and sent it off to the federal records center."
In pop culture, flying saucers are the ride of choice for extraterrestrials. What the newly released documents show is that they actually came from Ontario, Canada. That's where a visionary aeronautical engineer at the now-defunct Avro Canada convinced his bosses to support the unlikely project. "During the Cold War the Army, Air Force, and Navy were experimenting with all sorts of things," Carmichael says. As the NDC releases its declassified documents, "the records are going to tell the rest of those stories." The most sensational of the disclosures so far?Project 1794.