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8.30.11: Not-so-Close Encounters

Space Needle History: Tuesday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

The Space Needle was purposely designed to look like a flying saucer, but could you spot one from up there?

In the mid-1960s, KIRO-AM radio host Jim French, a legend on the local broadcast scene, decided to find out.

French hosted his regular morning show from the Needle from 1966 to 1970. The UFO phenomenon, which had started with a sighting of "flying disks" or "flying saucers" near Mt. Rainier in 1947, was still going strong. What better place to track the skies than from the Needle?

So French organized "The Skywatchers," a group of citizen volunteers, ranging from UFO believers to skeptics, to spend evenings from 6 pm to midnight scanning the heavens. "As it began to get dark, people in the group would come up the Needle and bring their telescopes and field glasses. It was good for everybody, the people, the listeners. I was very serious about it," says French. French was serious was because he had seen UFOs himself.

Anyone who has listened to French knows he is a steady man whose voice exudes calm and reason. When he was in the U.S. Army as part of the occupation of Japan in 1947, French saw a group of "bright disks" rise out of the waters off Japan and shoot up into space at an incredible speed. He even reported the sighting to his superiors at the time, but as far as he knows, it was ignored.

French, a pilot, says that he organized The Skywatchers because "I knew the phenonmenon was real, not someone's imagination." In the evening, The Skywatchers dispersed around the outside of the observation deck with walkie-talkies and kept logs of what they'd seen, or hadn't seen. Says French, "I thought this would be a neat thing getting people looking up to the sky."

It was neat, but not successful. No UFOs were spotted from the Needle, and according to Seattle Times reporter Don Duncan, who described himself as the paper's "flying-saucer editor," The Skywatchers had stopped watching within their first year.

The most visible "flying" saucer in town turned out to be the Needle itself.

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