What we know to be true about UFOs and Norden Bombsights
In January 2021, the CIA released a trove of previously “secret” documents on unidentified flying objects. And then, as CIA representatives pushed their chairs back from the table, they claimed to have disclosed everything they have. But after looking at the videos about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, most of us would say, “nothing to see here” and hope for more information soon.
Perhaps one day, eBay will offer pieces of the wreckage of UFOs just as they do World War II vintage Norden bombsights. Yes, for a couple of thousand dollars you can have your very own Norden M-9 bombsight, once a top secret piece of military equipment. Top secret and the “stuff of legend.” Just for starters, the sight’s crosshairs have been reported to be made of silk from black widow spiders or of fine blonde hairs from Scandinavian immigrants to the United States. The research trail to discover the truth behind these stories took me to a few not-so-secret places.
In 1943, Life Magazine ran an article about the use of black widow spider silk for the crosshairs. Ms. Armada Ruffner, pictured in the article, was a civilian who worked for the Army Quartermaster Corps’ Columbus, Ohio, General Depot. And according to the article, she tended a cluster of black widow spiders, milking the deadly creatures to collect their silk, “an amazingly elastic thread finer than a human hair and stronger than a strand of steel the same size.”
And in 2018, The Gwinnett Daily Post featured an article on the other story—the one about strands of long blonde hair. Apparently, when spider silk failed in extreme conditions, namely high altitude and freezing temperatures, the military pursued an alternative, naturally blonde hair. They sent out a call (with no other explanation than by donating twenty-two plus inches of strands of their hair, fair-haired American women could contribute to the war effort). Mary Bobnik Brown answered the call and sent Washington a bundle of her locks. Whether the US Air Forces ever deployed bombsights with crosshairs made from blonde hair crosshairs not known. But President Ronald Reagan, convinced of the truth of the story, sent a thank you to the elderly Ms. Brown in 1987.
The Real Story
The truth is more likely that the crosshairs were etched on glass. But for years, even the existence of the bombsight was a closely guarded secret. Although some say it was a secret only to the American people.
Credit for developing the vastly improved bombsight goes to Carl Norden, a Dutch scientist who came to the United States in 1904. After numerous trials and adjustments, in 1942 the military was finally satisfied with the increased accuracy the sights promised and deployed the Norden bombsight in its B-17 bombers. Now, a bombardier could feed data on altitude, airspeed and crosswinds into the sight’s analog computer. The computer would then calculate the trajectory and release the bomb, reducing reliance on manual calculations and slower human reaction times. The greater accuracy also allowed the bombers to carry out their missions at higher altitudes, thus avoiding some pockets of enemy anti-aircraft artillery.
Because of the bombsight’s potential strategic advantages, the US forces surrounded every step of development and deployment with high level security. Even the airmen who used the sights had to swear to defend them with their lives. Still, the secret escaped. In 1938, Howard Lang who worked in Norden’s lab stole and then sold plans for the bombsights to the Germans (an act for which he would spend nearly twenty years in prison). And then, by 1943, although protected by explosives that downed crewmen could detonate after crash landing in enemy territory, Germans had captured enough intact instruments to understand how they worked.
So, just as grainy videos and other tidbits of information about UFOs have found their way to the public over the years, the existence of the Norden Bombsight did as well. By late 1943, the US military relaxed security levels and articles like those about Armada Ruffner, the spider woman, and blonde-haired Mary Bobnik Brown were published.
- Ruffner Family Organization website.
- A Veterans Story: Bombardiers Prefer Blondes, by Pete Mecca, Gwinnett Daily Post, December 2018
- Norden M-9 Bombsight, National Museum of the United States Air Force, May 2015
- Not So Secret Weapon, the Norden Bombsight, by C. G. Sweeting, History Net, originally published in Aviation History, March 2014.