Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Great Central NY UFO Wave of 1978 - Part 2

Central New York's UFO sighting "flap" occurred primarily from March through May, 1978, but the reports began surfacing again in the fall. However, whatever was going on in New York seemed ominously overshadowed in October when young (20) Australian pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared during a solo flight originating from Melbourne. Early that evening, he radioed from his Cessna 182 to air traffic controllers that a large object with green lights was in pursuit of his craft. His final words before contact was lost for all time were, "It is not an aircraft," and then some profoundly curious metallic scratching sounds were heard before radio contact immediately ceased. No trace of Valentich or his Cessna was ever located, despite an intensive search. Yes, 1978 was one heck of a year for the books, both "here" and "there."

And returning to "here" takes us back to those early months in 1978, as Central NY UFO reports stubbornly continued without an end in sight. At some point (I'm a little fuzzy on dates right now and currently cannot locate specific notes) I received a phone call from a National Enquirer reporter. While I had spoken by phone with an editor or two in the past, calling from their Lantana, Florida offices, this call originated in Syracuse and this reporter was in town, looking to meet with me.

She and I did meet (I'll call her L here), and after a conversation about local UFO activity visited with some teens who had photographed a possible UFO at night. The pictures ultimately weren't that impressive because, particularly, no landmarks were visible in the night skies.

I directed L to other potential sources of reliable information regarding the local UFO situation and she spent a few days trying to piece a story together. Whatever one thinks of The National Enquirer, I must say that they apparently hire some no-nonsense reporters. This woman was kind but firm and knew how to get a story. In fact, one of the first stories she related when we initially met involved her intensive pursuit of a famous young female singer/entertainer, a member of an equally famous family of recording artists. The National Enquirer, cashing in on the person's fame at that time, insisted that the reporter pursue a story, whatever it took, and ultimately poor L did so many stakeouts that she developed a severe pneumonia. It wasn't easy being a reporter for The NE.

Nevertheless, while in Syracuse L ran into one obstacle after another, especially when confronting local law enforcement agencies for records of their people's UFO sightings or reports. Further, her Enquirer editor, a lady in Florida, was impatient and looking for a good story soon so L could fly out of here and go on to something else.

It turned out that L had a friend whom she stayed with here, the wife of a family well known in local social circles, and one night L and her friend invited me over for dinner and a discussion about the UFO wave. We compared notes and broached relating subjects, such as a tip-off from news personnel at a local TV station about a well-dressed, official-appearing young gentleman who showed up, asking about the UFO situation, but hesitant about identifying himself. Some personnel at the TV station were certain the man had "U.S. government" written all over him. We will never know.

So we talked, we chomped on pre-dinner snacks, we unwound from days of discussions with sighting witnesses that frazzled everybody's nerves. And there was a phone call just before dinner hit the table. I didn't understand exactly what was going on, but it appeared there would be another dinner guest. Indeed, there was, just minutes later -- fresh from landing at Hancock Airport from parts unknown, a man with a heavy Australian, or was that a British accent, dressed neatly with a jacket and tie. L introduced him to her friend and to me, inviting him to sit with us and have dinner, and as he sat he presented me with a business card indicating his position as a senior reporter at The Enquirer. Yes, Lantana was sending in The Big Guns to help L get the UFO story on its way so she could leave this part of the country.

Still, even with two reporters instead of one teaming up to tackle the stubborn things in life they didn't get far. That is, the sightings witnesses proved talkative and giving, but the Syracuse Police Dept. and Onondaga Country Sheriff's Office were another story, a very, very unhelpful story. The very thought of offering assistance and records to The National Enquirer turned a few stomachs and L and her fellow writer finally left Syracuse with far less than they wished. Ultimately, an article about the Central NY UFO wave did appear in the Enquirer, but it was brief and to the point. It could have been so much more, had official cooperation been evidenced.

But at least L and the folks in Lantana did get a story. Things didn't go nearly as well for Dr. Hynek's Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), which found law enforcement authorities in CNY carrying (in their own words) an "embarrassing burden." According to Allen Hendry in the CUFOS International UFO Reporter (Vol. 3, No. 6, June, 1978, page 8):

(A member of) "the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department became the focus for UFO reporting in that area, thanks to local press coverage. He promised me directly (and twice via the press) that the Center for UFO Studies would be the recipient of a considerable package of witness descriptions, sketches, and photos. Then, according to local sources, the heads of the area's law enforcement agencies opted to 'stone wall' the entire situation inexplicably. Repeated appeals by myself, various reporters, and investigator Robert Barrow failed to shift the 'embarrassing' (?) burden onto our shoulders. In the unlikely event that these records should become available in the future, IUR will inform its readers of the results."
CUFOS never received the promised records, and the rest of us are left to ponder why. Or maybe we know why already. The Temple of Nevermind never closes.

The same sheriff's representative publicly dismissed nocturnal sightings as being caused by the planet Venus, which wasn't even visible at those hours. Then he tried to blame the entire UFO wave on balloons, only to be told off on TV news shows by angry local balloonists who denied their involvement in any way.

The Syracuse Police department wasn't much more helpful. In fact, it became something of a joke locally when its late chief, Thomas Sardino, discovered to his anger and outrage one of his own cops with an artist's depiction of the chief flying his own UFO over the city as subordinate police officers watch from the street. The scene was priceless, particularly when the cartoon ended up on T-shirts sold successfully all over town! The cartoon's inception appeared to stem from a warning issued to Syracuse police officers by the chief, instructing them not to publicize their own recent UFO sightings.

Faced with my own problems with local police agencies, I wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of The Syracuse Post-Standard which appeared in the edition of May 18, 1978. I related the promise I had received from Chief Sardino in writing, promising to consult with me on UFO reports (it never happened). The Sheriff's office never bothered to respond to a similar request. When I offered my assistance and tried to leave a phone number, I was told not to bother. When I offered my assistance to one officer (for his own benefit) who had already embarrassed himself in front of the media he snapped at me and accused me of trying to tell him how to do his job.

In the letter, I also referenced the Baldwinsville case, where a UFO also emitted a noticeable humming sound. Then there remained the radar controversy, where sheriffs confirmed radar contact with a UFO in their log, only to be told by the FAA that there was no unidentified blip -- a situation that angered many in the sheriff's office, and all the more when "geese" were said to have resulted in a blip return.

I highlighted other local reports. A couple watched a strange object pace their car at 55 m.p.h. at low altitude until it sped off. There was a possible vehicle electromagnetic interference case. In Auburn, NY something was reportedly witnessed by hundreds and perhaps photographed. In Oswego, a bright object was seen hovering over Lake Ontario, near the Nine Mile Nuclear Plant -- reportedly the topic of many CB radio enthusiasts as both police and Coast Guard personnel watched.

Former Syracuse area resident Mark Bundy wrote a superbly insightful article encompassing 1978's NY UFO madness for the Winter, 1979 issue of Pursuit, journal of the (defunct) Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained. Entitled "The Central New York UFO Wave," Mark's piece included illustrations he accomplished himself to demonstrate the strangeness in the skies over New York. Reflecting the absence of official cooperation from local law enforcement agencies, he lamented that "The Central New York UFO wave became a part of history, a history that is sadly incomplete and lacking in its overall coverage.

"It's a wonder," he concludes, "that the UFOs put up with such shoddy treatment."

Next blog entry: One more report from 1978 of interest, from a Vietnam veteran who knows aircraft and saw something in Central NY that wasn't like anything he saw in Vietnam. To say the least.