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30 Famous UFO Incidents Throughout History

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Sky High

The “modern era” of unidentified flying objects — or unidentified aerial phenomenon, if you prefer the current official term — stretches back nearly 80 years. It’s a period punctuated with hoaxes and explainable incidents, but also many, many sightings that continue to perplex believers and skeptics alike. After decades of denial, the U.S. military now acknowledges there are things in the skies it can’t always explain. It won’t go so far as to suggest we’re being visited by beings from another world and it also won’t rule out the idea that UFOs are terrestrial technology from a foreign power.


With more than 7,200 sightings nationwide in 2020, according to data compiled by the National UFO Reporting Center, and military pilots appearing on “60 Minutes” to talk about their close encounters, the topic still may not be mainstream but it certainly isn’t in the realm of conspiracy theory any longer.


Related: 25 Strangest American Conspiracy Theories


John Winthrop
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Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1639

What’s thought to be the first documented UFO sighting comes by way of Massachusetts Bay Colony co-founder and governor John Winthrop. His diary includes a secondhand description of something in the sky over Boston, according to New England Today. Winthrop wrote that James Everall and others on a boat in the Muddy River saw a “great light” that “ran as swift as an arrow” between them and nearby Charleston for two or three hours. It was the first of several similar entries in Winthrop’s diary, notes History.com.

Aurora, Texas
Aurora, Texas by Leonard^Bloom (CC BY)

Aurora, Texas, 1897

In the “Year of the Great Airships,” so called due to sightings from Illinois to Texas, Dallas Morning News contributor S.E. Haydon filed a report about a UFO that crashed in this small Texas town. The ship was said to have hit a windmill “and went into pieces with a terrific explosion, scattering debris over several acres of ground.” The pilot’s remains were “badly disfigured,” but it was clear “he was not an inhabitant of this world,” Haydon wrote. The body was believed to have been buried in the local cemetery. Or was it? The paper called the report “fake news” in 2018, saying Haydon was just trying to draw attention to the failing town.


Related: 19 Spooky Ghost Towns Across America

The Battle of Los Angeles, 1942
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The Battle of Los Angeles, 1942

The West Coast was on high alert following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and on Feb. 24, 1942, defenses lit up the night sky when an aircraft was picked up on radar 120 miles west of Los Angeles. The bogey disappeared but not before creating chaos in the city and causing five deaths from heart attacks and car crashes.


The West Coast was on high alert following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and on Feb. 24, 1942, defenses lit up the night sky when an aircraft was picked up on radar 120 miles west of Los Angeles. The bogey disappeared but not before creating chaos in the city and causing five deaths from heart attacks and car crashes.


(You can read more about The Battle of Los Angeles and more mysterious incidents and places in "Secret Los Angeles: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure," by Danny Jensen, Cheapism's managing editor.)


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Foo-Fighter, 1944
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Foo-Fighter, 1944

A story in the Jan. 15, 1945, edition of Time magazine chronicled the strange tale of close encounters between U.S. fighter pilots in France and “balls of fire” that followed their planes in the night skies over Germany. “No one seemed to know what, if anything, the fireballs were supposed to accomplish. Pilots, guessing that it was a new psychological weapon, named it the ‘foo-fighter,’ ” the story says. One pilot reported that “a foo-fighter, appearing as red balls off his wing tips, stuck with him until he dove at 360 miles an hour; then the balls zoomed up into the sky.”


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Kenneth Arnold, 1947
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Kenneth Arnold, 1947

Kenneth Arnold says he saw nine glowing blue objects in the skies around Washington’s Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947. They were in a “V” formation, which made the Idaho pilot think they were military aircraft, but they moved at an estimated speed of 1,700 mph. He described the motion of the objects as being like “a saucer if you skip it across the water,” giving rise to the term “flying saucer.” The military denied any of its aircraft were in the area at the time and later attempted to discredit Arnold’s claims. “I saw what I saw,” Arnold told the Seattle Times in 1977.

Roswell, New Mexico, 1947
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Roswell, New Mexico, 1947

When a sheep rancher found debris in one of his fields, he reported it to officials at nearby Roswell Air Force Base, setting off a bizarre chain of events. Officials dispatched to investigate found “a smattering of tinfoil, balsa sticks, bits of fabric, and plastic,” according to an intelligence officer who was at the site. “Believe me, that’s all it was,” retired Lt. Col. Sheridan Cavitt told The Oregonian in 1997. Inexplicably, the base commander issued a press release that said wreckage from a flying disc had been discovered. After thousands of calls poured in from around the world, military officials pivoted and said the debris came from a downed weather balloon. History.com says this was backed up in 1997 when the Air Force issued a 231-page report, explaining the balloon was part of a secret program to detect Soviet nuclear tests. But by that point the desert town was already the stuff of legend.


Related
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Fort Knox, Kentucky, 1948
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Fort Knox, Kentucky, 1948

Four Kentucky Air National Guard P-51 Mustangs were sent up to investigate when a bright cone-shaped object was seen by control tower personnel at Godman Army Airfield. The Mustang pilots spotted the object, but three turned back due to the high altitude. Capt. Thomas Mantell Jr., flying the fourth plane, wanted to get a better look and continued to pursue the object. He died when his plane crashed. The Gold Standard website says the incident seemed mysterious at the time but information later suggested the object may have been a secret “Skyhook” high-altitude balloon.


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Los Alamos, 1949
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Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1949

The government took notice when “flying green lights” began being spotted in the skies around the Los Alamos and Sandia atomic-weapons laboratories in February 1949. “Other highly sensitive military installations” were nearby, writes History.com. “That meant the sightings were reported by typically cool-headed pilots, weather observers, scientists, intelligence officers and other defense personnel.” Similar sightings have been reported around the world since.

McMinnville Photos, 1950
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McMinnville Photos, Oregon, 1950

Paul Trent captured two images of “a slow-moving metal disk” that approached the farm where he and his wife Evelyn lived in McMinnville, Oregon, in May 1950. The craft was silver and bronze and made no noise as it approached or flew away from the farm. But it did generate a lot of wind coming and going, the couple confirmed to The Oregoanian years later. The Trents kept the photos under wraps for a while, but word got out, followed by visits from the Air Force and FBI. Life magazine published the images followed by dozens of newspapers.


Related: 21 Eerie Shipwrecks Around the World


Lubbock Lights, 1951
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Lubbock Lights, Texas, 1951

Three science professors from Texas Tech reported seeing a semicircle of lights moving at high speed above them on the night of Aug. 25, 1951. Dozens of other people reported the same thing and a Texas Tech student snapped photos of the formation, which were published widely. An Air Force investigation suggested they were birds, reflecting the light of Lubbock’s new street lamps.


Washington, D.C., 1952
National Archives

Washington, D.C., 1952

Seven unknown objects were picked up by radar at Andrews and Bolling Air Force bases on July 19, 1952, appearing to move at abnormal speeds. Eyewitnesses — including military personnel and airline flight crews — later reported seeing flashes of light zooming across the sky. When a pair of F-94 fighter jets were scrambled to investigate, the “blips” sped away. A similar story unfolded a week later, but the Air Force chalked the whole thing up to stars, meteors, and other natural phenomena.


Related: 50 Spooky Graveyards Across the Country

Levelland, 1957
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Levelland, Texas, 1957

Dozens of people in Levelland, Texas — including police officers — reported seeing an egg-shaped object or strange lights in the sky at the same time the engines on their vehicles died or lights went out. The government blamed an electrical storm or ball lightning, though there were no storms in the area that night. The incident is the basis for a scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”


LOWELL VERMONT
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East Mountain Radar Base, Vermont, 1961

Personnel at a radar base on Vermont’s East Mountain reported “a strange object” in the skies above the mountain that “remained visible for about 18 minutes,” New England Today reports. Some reports link the story to the alleged alien abduction of a New Hampshire couple a few hours later.


Exeter, New Hampshire, 1965
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Exeter, New Hampshire, 1965

Multiple witnesses told police they encountered a huge, glowing flying object in the early hours of Sept. 3, 1965. When a skeptical patrolman returned to one of the sighting scenes with a witness, he radioed back to headquarters that he’d spotted the object. A second patrolman also saw the object, which moved “erratically, darting back and forth, turning sharply, and decelerating quickly,” according to a report in New Hampshire magazine. The encounter was detailed in the book “Incident at Exeter.”


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Military helicopter UH-60 Black Hawk realistic 3d render
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Mansfield, Ohio, 1973

Crew members of an Army Reserve helicopter reported a near collision with a UFO, an incident confirmed by witnesses on the ground in two counties. The crew said that the UFO was a “60-foot-long, cigar-shaped object with a bright green light,” according to The Mansfield News Journal. They said it pulled the helicopter upward from 1,700 feet to 3,500 feet. 

Loring Air Force Base, Maine, 1975
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Loring Air Force Base, Maine, 1975

For two nights in October, military personnel said they saw a cigar-shaped UFO hovering over the base. Declassified CIA documents later said the sightings were “unidentified helicopter(s) flying out of Canada.”

F-4 Phantom Fighter Jet in flight
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Tehran, Iran, 1976

Iranian fighter jets were sent to investigate reports of a bright light in the sky but were forced to land when their instruments began to malfunction. One of the pilots later said he attempted to fire at the craft but was unable to cause any damage. Asked to help investigate, the U.S. military said the bright light might have been Jupiter and the F-4 jets involved were known to have a long history of electrical failure.

Rendlesham Forest, 1980
Rendlesham Forest, 1980 by Simon Leatherdale (CC BY-SA)

Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, England, 1980

Soldiers at two British air bases outside of London reported seeing colorful lights above Rendlesham Forest between Dec. 26 and 28, 1980. One claimed to have seen some kind of spacecraft when he went into the forest; damaged trees and higher-than-normal radiation were found the following day. An investigation by British military authorities didn’t find much and the case was dropped. But one of the witnesses later told the BBC that radar operators had observed something moving too quickly for known aircraft. The incident later came to be known as “Britain’s Roswell.”

JAL Flight 1628, Alaska, 1986
JAL Flight 1628, Alaska, 1986 by JMK (CC BY-SA)

JAL Flight 1628, Alaska, 1986

A Japan Air Lines cargo flight was followed by three UFOs with yellow, amber, and green lights for 50 minutes as it flew over Alaska on a route from Paris to Tokyo on Nov. 17, 1986, according to various reports. The last 30 minutes of the encounter were tracked by military and civilian radar, the Anchorage Press said. Capt. Kenju Terauchi, a former fighter pilot, said an enormous ship — “two times bigger than an aircraft carrier” — was spotted as well as two smaller craft. The Federal Administration confirmed the radar sightings and said its investigators found the flight’s crew to be “normal, professional, rational, [and had] no drug or alcohol involvement.”


The Belgium Wave, 1989-90
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The Belgium Wave, 1989-90

More than 13,500 people were estimated to have witnessed sightings involving large, triangular craft in November 1989 and March 1990. Fighter jets sent to investigate were able to lock onto targets with radar, though their pilots couldn’t see the objects. The Belgian Air Force acknowledged that something had happened but investigations were dropped because the objects seemed to lack any hostile or aggressive intent.

McMinnville, Tennessee, 1995
Paul Trent

McMinnville, Tennessee, 1995

Multiple people called 911 to report strange lights on the night of Jan. 7, 1995. Witnesses said the red, green, and blue lights “descended slowly and almost vertically to earth,” according to a summary by the National UFO Reporting Center of an eight-page fax from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Some witnesses said the objects were huge and all of them said once the lights got low on the horizon, they saw a blinding white flash as if there had been an explosion.


Related: The 25 Most Terrifying Places in America

Unidentified Flying Object Clipping Path
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Eastern Seaboard, 1995

Crews on two flights near Long Island, New York, reported seeing an object with a bright light on the front and a glowing green tail pass them in the opposite direction. When the pilot from Lufthansa Airlines contacted air traffic controllers to inquire about the unexpected traffic, he was told there was nothing in the area for 20 or 30 miles. The sighting was confirmed by a British Airways crew in the same vicinity. As many as 17 other witnesses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont and an Air Force base in North Carolina made similar reports, according to the National UFO Reporting Center.


Phoenix Lights, 1997
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Phoenix Lights, 1997

People from Arizona, Nevada, and northern Mexico witnessed a large V-shaped craft and a series of red and orange stationary lights in the skies over Phoenix for about three hours on March 13, 1997. “I’m a pilot and I know every machine that flies,” former Gov. Fife Symington told Arizona’s KTAR News years later. “It was bigger than anything that I’ve ever seen. It remains a great mystery.” One person said the craft was shaped like a boomerang and was a mile wide. The military said the red and orange lights were flares dropped during a training exercise at an Air Force bombing range southwest of Phoenix; there was no attempt to explain the large craft.

Omaha, Nebraska, 2004
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Omaha, Nebraska, 2004

An air traffic controller took a report from an airliner of four disc-shaped objects that flew ahead of the aircraft at 35,000 feet on March 25, 2005. “The UFOs stayed out in front of his aircraft for approximately 15 minutes until the pilot said that the UFOs were so far out in front of him that he could hardly see them anymore,” the controller wrote in a report. The objects did not appear on civilian or military radar.

USS Nimitz Tic-Tac Incident, 2004
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USS Nimitz Tic-Tac Incident, 2004

Declassified video from a U.S. Navy strike fighter squadron shows an oblong-shaped vessel shaped like a Tic-Tac moving at great speed about 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. The USS Princeton had been tracking similar objects for two weeks, The New York Times said. “The objects appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering,” the Times reported. When a jet approached the object — now hovering over the ocean and churning the water below — it sped off. “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Cmdr. David Fravor, one of the Navy pilots.


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Ohare Airport
Tim Boyle/Getty

Chicago, Illinois, 2006

The Federal Aviation Administration said a “weather phenomenon” was likely what United Airlines staff and pilots witnessed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Nov. 7, 2006. Witnesses say something was hovering over the airport’s terminal for several minutes before shooting straight up so fast that it punched a hole in thick clouds. The FAA said no air traffic controllers saw the object and it wasn’t picked up on radar, the Chicago Tribune reported. The paper said some witnesses were irritated that neither the government nor the airline planned to investigate further.

Aircraft after take off,
Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Stephenville, Texas, 2008

Witnesses reported strange objects or bright lights moving fast across the night sky. Initially, officials at the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base said their planes hadn’t been flying on the night in question. But a CNN report revealed otherwise: “In the interest of public awareness, Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs realized an error was made regarding the reported training activity of military aircraft,” a press release from the base said.

Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, 2013
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Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, 2013

A low-flying UFO seen near a runway at Rafael Hernandez Airport on April 25, 2013, was captured in a three-minute video from an infrared reconnaissance camera on a Department of Homeland Security aircraft, according to a report from the Scientific Coalition for UFOlogy. Radar information from the Federal Aviation Administration showed “unknown target(s)” over the ocean and near the airport about 3 to 5 feet in length traveling at speeds between 40 and 120 mph. The object, which appears to tumble through the air in the video, buzzed the airport and slid into the ocean at high speed.

Breckenridge, Colorado
skibreck/istockphoto

Breckenridge, Colorado, 2014

Witnesses including employees of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and Breckenridge Police Department saw “three tiny dots” in the skies above Breckenridge on Oct. 3, 2014. “They looked white or shiny only because the sun was in that area,” a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office told the Summit Daily News. “They were there for a while and then they were gone.” The National UFO Reporting Center’s website speculated that “the objects might be high-altitude, helium-filled balloons, launched for scientific purposes,” but it noted that witnesses also said they saw military aircraft approach the objects.

East Coast, 2015
Wikimedia Commons

East Coast, 2015

The Department of Defense released video of an unidentified object flying at high speeds and low altitude as captured by cameras aboard a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet. Officials wouldn’t say exactly where or when the video was taken as part of the conditions of its release, but pilots can be heard excitedly discussing what they’re seeing on video from their weapons system.