Robert Friend, a decorated fighter pilot who flew 142 combat missions with the fabled Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, then became an expert on missile systems and directed Project Blue Book, the classified Air Force investigation into unidentified flying objects, died June 21 at a hospital in Long Beach, Calif. He was 99.
The cause was sepsis, said his daughter Karen Crumlich.
The unit’s success was widely credited with paving the way for the integration of the military after World War II, and in 2007 Col. Friend and his comrades were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, recognized for their “unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces.”
In a 28-year military career, he went on to serve as an operations officer in the Korean and Vietnam wars; worked on the Titan, Atlas and Delta rocket programs; and from 1958 to 1963 oversaw Project Blue Book, which collected and analyzed more than 12,000 reports of flying saucers and other mysterious airborne objects.
Col. Friend later said that he believed “the probability of there being life elsewhere in this big cosmos is just absolutely out of this world,” telling HuffPost in 2012, “I think the probability is there.” During his tenure, he said, he twice recommended that a federal agency outside of the military take on the study of UFOs.
Clouds, birds, jet planes and “swamp gas” were credited with spurring many of the unusual sightings, although 701 incidents remain unexplained.
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