In the summer of 1949, special military investigators and Maryland state troopers descended on an old tobacco farm in Glen Burnie and discovered something bizarre in a rundown barn: "prototypes" of a flying saucer.
The rudimentary flying machines were determined to have human origins — the work of an eccentric designer who had disappeared — but their discovery nonetheless was outlined in classified Air Force documents as part of a secret program to track sightings of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, across the country.
An unidentified Air Force officer at the time told The Baltimore Sun that he suspected improved models of the dilapidated aircraft found in the barn could be the source of some of the reports.
"I personally think the inventor went to some other part of the country and that he — or someone else — developed new planes along these lines and is sending them up," the officer was quoted as saying, though the Air Force later denied such a connection.
From 1947 to 1969, the Air Force investigated a spate of UFO sightings all across the United States under a program known as Project Blue Book, finding reasonable explanations for many of them and leading the service to conclude there was no evidence of extraterrestrial visits.
Today, many of the program's once-secret case files — such as those about the flying saucer in Glen Burnie — are receiving a second life online, after being posted to UFO enthusiast John Greenewald's website, theblackvault.com.
Greenewald, 33, of Los Angeles has used Freedom of Information Act requests since he was 15 years old to compile thousands of pages of previously classified documents on UFO sightings. Last week, he posted Project Blue Book's full record — 12,618 case files totaling nearly 130,000 pages — to his website, most of them indexed to allow visitors to search for keywords and find nearby investigations.
"That was essentially the idea," Greenewald said in an interview. "There's this kind of aura around the UFO topic, that it's something that's just hokey or science fiction or pulp culture, but when you look at the documents, you realize there's a lot more to this."
In addition to Project Blue Book materials, the trove also includes documents from its predecessor programs, Project Sign and Project Grudge, which also focused on UFO sightings.
The documents have been of interest to private UFO investigators and enthusiasts for decades, according to Mark Rodeghier, the scientific director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies in Chicago — which is named for its late founder, a former scientific adviser to Project Blue Book.
While other lesser-known databases of the files have existed online for years, Greenewald's collection is the first to receive widespread attention, Rodeghier said.
"The more people that know about it, the better," he said. "I don't expect the public to do any amount of true research, but they might learn more about the subject."
The Air Force did not respond to a request for comment but has made the documents available at the National Archives.
A recent search of Greenewald's collection for the word "Maryland" generated 75 results, including personal accounts from state residents of run-ins with what they believed were UFOs.
"I saw them only once, but they were the brightest objects I've ever seen in the sky," wrote one Severna Park woman in a note to investigators in the summer of 1957. "I'm a 35 yr. old housewife who formerly thought such things as flying saucers might be imaginary."
A friend of the woman's who was a local minister — their names were redacted from the files, like those of other witnesses — said he saw the same objects and told a similar tale of how he had decided the bright lights were from UFOs.
The Air Force investigators determined that the objects in that case were regular aircraft reflecting the "sun's slant rays."
Reports of other sightings in Maryland range from College Park to Bel Air, from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore, and involve a variety of descriptions — from the visually stunning to the more mundane.
In July 1955, for instance, a Baltimore resident reported seeing a 4-foot-wide silver sphere floating toward him, landing on a fence and then dissolving without a trace.
The Air Force, which collected a "specimen" of the material from where the sphere landed, wrote a simple explanation in the case file: "Soap bubbles."
In late August 1957, a number of UFO reports came in from Bel Air, where people reported seeing white, red and yellow balls in the sky, or what appeared to be a "burning balloon, moving very fast in all directions," according to investigation documents.
The Air Force's conclusion pointed to aurora borealis, or the natural light phenomenon in the atmosphere known as the northern lights, usually found farther north.
"A number of UFO reports were received during this period similar to this one," the Air Force report reads, "which were found to be the aurora borealis now seen further south than in many years."
In December 1964, radar operators at the U.S. Naval Air Test Center near the mouth of the Patuxent River reported high-speed objects appearing on their radar screens before vanishing. The incident received widespread media attention at the time, including in The Sun.
The Air Force's conclusion, according to the file on their investigation, was that the signals "were due to some other electronical device within the Station or an intermittent abnormality within the circuitry of the Radar set itself."
In a 1985 "Fact Sheet" on Project Blue Book, the Air Force said it declassified the documents after studies of the project determined three things: "(1) no UFO reported, investigated, and evaluated by the Air Force has ever given any indication of threat to our national security; (2) there has been no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as 'unidentified' represent technological developments or principles beyond the range of present-day scientific knowledge; and (3) there has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as 'unidentified' are extraterrestrial vehicles."
Greenewald doesn't buy that explanation, noting that 701 sightings investigated by the project remain "unidentified." The Air Force released the Blue Book documents, he said, to show — disingenuously — that there is nothing left to hide.
"I believe Project Blue Book was not the investigation that the government or military claimed it was, but really was more of an explanation," he said.
Given the attention UFO sightings attracted during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the government created Project Blue Book to place investigators on the ground, take statements and allay concerns by offering decidedly terrestrial explanations for what people saw, Greenewald said.
The Center for UFO Studies' Rodeghier said he discussed the project's history in depth with Hynek, an astronomy professor who served as an adviser to the Air Force in investigations in which UFO sightings might be explained by astronomical phenomenon.
"As time went on, the Air Force became less and less enamored with their job of investigating UFOs for the public, so they were able to find their way out of it," Rodeghier said.
Hynek, who began work on the project as a UFO skeptic, eventually came to believe in the need to study the sightings in earnest, so he established the center.
Since posting the documents, Greenewald said, he has been contacted by three people who witnessed incidents reported in them.
"Actual witnesses are finding their reports and writing me about it, saying, 'There is absolutely no way this is what I saw,' " Greenewald said. "That, to me, made the whole thing worthwhile, and it was definitely unexpected."
As for the flying saucer "prototypes" found in the Glen Burnie barn, that case is more settled.
The objects were the subject of tinkering by the inventor Jonathan E. Caldwell, who'd lived on the Anne Arundel farm about 11 miles south of Baltimore for about two years before suddenly disappearing, according to media reports from the time.
After the discovery of his inventions in the barn and their possible link to other "flying saucer" sightings elsewhere in the country was publicized, Caldwell was located in California. He denied any connection to such sightings.
He said he had moved on to designing newer aircraft resembling helicopters.
"Shucks," he told The Washington Post in September 1949, of the saucer-like aircraft found the month prior. "I gave that thing up in 1939."
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.