Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Drawing of the "object" flying over Frank Mannor's Dexter swamp. Courtesy of the Ann Arbor District Library.

Ann Arbor vs. the flying saucers

By Alan Glenn
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Flying saucers were landing in Washtenaw County.

At least that’s how it must have seemed in the early months of 1966, when a sudden wave of UFO sightings—many by extremely credible witnesses—turned local eyes skyward and brought the Ann Arbor area into the national media spotlight.

Although quickly dismissed by experts as known natural phenomena, the sightings were never satisfactorily explained. The nationwide controversy that grew up around the affair had far-reaching consequences for the future of UFO investigation. And the public’s faith in official  explanations of strange lights in the sky would be damaged beyond repair.

Special effects

The whole strange business started in the early morning hours of March 14, 1966, when Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputies saw weird lights in the sky over Lima Township, moving at fantastic speeds. The lights also were spotted by police officers in Sylvania, Ohio, 40 miles to the south, and by observers at Selfridge Air Force Base, 50 miles to the east.

A few days later the lights returned, again witnessed in the early morning hours by sheriff’s deputies at various locations around the county. One deputy reported seeing something floating in the sky that looked like a child’s top, red, green, and yellow in color.

“The white light turned to a blood red as we got close to it and Ron said, ‘Look at that horrible thing.’”
—Frank Mannor

“It was fantastic,” he said. “Like something out of science fiction. You couldn’t believe the thing unless you stood there and watched it.”

Then, on Sunday, March 20, the lid came off. Early that evening the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office received reports of an unidentified flying object landing in a wooded, swampy area in Dexter Township about 10 miles northwest of Ann Arbor. Deputies dispatched to the scene took a statement from Frank Mannor, a truck driver renting a nearby farmhouse who had gone into the swamp with his son, Ron, to investigate.

“We got to about 500 yards of the thing,” Mannor told interviewers. “It was sort of shaped like a pyramid, with a blue-green light on the right-hand side and on the left, a white light. I didn’t see no antenna or porthole. The body was like a yellowish coral rock and looked like it had holes in it—sort of like if you took a piece of cardboard box and split it open. You couldn’t see it too good because it was surrounded with heat waves, like you see on the desert. The white light turned to a blood red as we got close to it and Ron said, ‘Look at that horrible thing.’”

The Dex files

Life magazine image of staged UFO.

Life magazine staged this recreation of the eerie lights Frank Mannor saw in the swamp near his home in Dexter Township in March 1966.

More than 40 law officers from local and state agencies joined area residents in searching the swamp and its surroundings. Mysterious lights were reported by many observers, including a Dexter policeman who watched a large bluish object with red and white lights hover above his patrol car. After a few minutes it was joined by three other similar objects, which flew back and forth in formation and then disappeared.

But this was only the beginning. The next night more than 80 students at Hillsdale College 50 miles to the southwest said they saw floating lights in a nearby swamp. In the coming days flying objects were spotted in the skies over Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Dexter, and Saline. Reports started to come in from other parts of the state, as well.

At the request of Michigan congressman Weston Vivian the U.S. Air Force agreed to send an investigator from Project Blue Book, the agency tasked with studying unidentified flying objects. Dr. J. Allen Hynek was an astronomer from Northwestern University who had been involved with Blue Book since 1948 and had investigated hundreds of UFO sightings.

Meanwhile the Ann Arbor News printed several possible explanations for the UFOs offered by professors at the University of Michigan. One of these was swamp gas, a natural phenomenon seen in marshy areas in which clouds of gas produced by rotting vegetation undergo chemical reactions that result in flickering, dancing lights. This appears to be the first suggestion that the Michigan sightings might be due to swamp gas.

Rep. Vivian, himself a physicist and engineer, supposed the sightings could have been caused by clandestine military research vehicles. The Lansing State Journal reported that aircraft stationed at the University of Michigan’s Willow Run research complex strongly resembled the objects seen in the swamp outside Dexter. The University issued a quick denial that it had any involvement in the affair.

I, witness

Dr. Hynek arrived in Michigan on March 23 and made a whirlwind tour of the sighting areas. He found the situation to be one of “near hysteria,” a media circus attended by hindering crowds of sightseers, thrill-seekers, and the usual assortment of eccentrics. At the Mannor’s Dexter farm a man who identified himself as a university professor sat in his car blinking the headlights in Morse code, attempting to contact the supposed aliens. Another man brought a fiddle with which to serenade the UFOs.

Hynek was frustrated by the lack of consistency among observers.

“It’s like reports from people who witness a fire,” he told the press. “You get as many different facts as you get people who saw the fire. So far, all I’ve been able to come up with is reports of a variety of lights.”

Hynek knew he was in trouble when he saw a reporter underlining the words “swamp gas” on his note pad and dashing for a telephone.

Hynek complained he had to compete with journalists for access to witnesses. The witnesses in turn complained Hynek’s interviews were perfunctory and he didn’t seem interested in what they had to say. (This could have been due to the fact that the researcher was suffering from a broken jaw that had been wired shut.)

Under pressure from the Air Force to produce quick results, Hynek held a press conference on March 25 in Detroit. More than 60 reporters from nearly every major news outlet in the country attended. The sober, bearded astronomer offered a number of prosaic explanations for the flurry of recent sightings in Michigan and elsewhere, such as mistaken observations of the moon and stars; and in the case of the sightings in the marshes of Dexter and Hillsdale, proposed they were due to swamp gas.

Hynek knew he was in trouble when he saw a reporter underlining the words “swamp gas” on his note pad and dashing for a telephone.

Swamp thing

The resulting uproar was almost instantaneous. “Air Force Insults Public with Swamp Gas Theory,” proclaimed the South Bend Tribune. Dozens of papers accused the government of suppressing evidence. Indignant witnesses told reporters they knew what swamp gas looked like, and this wasn’t it. On the “Tonight Show” Johnny Carson interviewed a Cal Tech scientist who said the swamp gas explanation did not fit the facts. Congressman and future U.S. President Gerald Ford, ’35, called for a congressional investigation to set the matter straight.


The news of UFOs near Ann Arbor even attracted the attention of CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite.

In the meantime UFO sightings were spreading throughout the country. Reports came in from California, Nevada, North Carolina, New Jersey, Indiana, and Wisconsin. In Ohio a highway patrolman spotted a strange light in the sky near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, home of Project Blue Book.

In southern Michigan UFO sightings continued unabated. Law officers raced all over Washtenaw County at reports of unidentified objects in the sky. Almost always when they arrived they found nothing.

Except when police were called to the University of Michigan’s North Campus to investigate the report of a weird, pulsating light perched on a hill behind the Baits housing unit.

Zeta Beta Alien?

Ascending the snow-covered slope at 3 a.m. officers found not an alien spacecraft but a large rock wrapped in tinfoil. Next to the rock were a desk lamp, an electric space heater, and a tape recorder, all powered by an extension cord that led to the kitchen of the nearby Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house (now owned by the University and renamed the Stearns Building).

Fraternity brother Rob Klivans remembers that evening well. He and a few others in the house had been following the feverish media coverage of the UFO sightings and felt the time was ripe for a good old-fashioned college prank. Or, as he puts it: “We decided to test the limits of human gullibility.”

Rick Pomp observed while his friends assembled the apparatus. “There was a space heater that had orange coils, and it was arranged up on the hill,” he recalls. “It would recycle off and on at a fairly rapid rate, so the coils would glow orange, then they would turn off and the orange would disappear. Then the heater would come on, and the orange coils would start to heat up again. Next to the heater was a large rock that was covered with tinfoil, and that reflected the orange light.”

“We decided to test the limits of human gullibility.”—Rob Klivans

The crowning touch was the tape recorder. “There was a recording made of some sort of nonsense sounds, and the tape recorder was played through speakers,” says Pomp. “The whole thing was camouflaged, so what you had was this eerie sound and a glowing orange light that went on and off, off and on.”

“I don’t know how we got so many electronic devices connected to one extension cord, but I guess we did,” says Klivans.

Rick Feferman laughs as he remembers what happened next. “Somehow there must’ve been a neighbor or something who spotted it and freaked out and called the police,” he says. “Which is of course exactly what we wanted, although we would’ve been happier with the Air Force flying cover overhead. But they never came.”

Stuart Schmitz and the others in the house could hardly believe the scene unfolding before their eyes. “The police went storming up the hill,” says Schmitz. “I sort of remember that they had their hands on their guns. I don’t remember if they actually had their guns out.”

Schmitz recalls that Dr. Hynek was leading the group. When the astronomer discovered the extension cord and saw that it led to the house, they could almost hear him shout, “Eureka!”

“Everybody who was looking out the window got a laugh out of that,” says Schmitz.

The police decided to take the fraternity president in for questioning, despite the fact that he knew nothing about the prank. Schmitz remembers watching as the president was put in the back seat of the police car. “We all waved to him as he left the parking lot.”

Alienated

Mischief abounded throughout the area. Pranksters set off flares in the swamp near Hillsdale College, and six Whitmore Lake teenagers were taken to the Washtenaw County Jail for questioning after building a wood-and-tinfoil saucer in shop class and placing it on a neighbor’s front lawn.

There was no laughter at the Mannor home in Dexter Township, however. After the sightings were reported in the press the family experienced excessive ridicule and harassment that included crank phone calls in the middle of the night and vandals prowling their property after dark.

Said Mrs. Leona Mannor: “We ain’t Martians—they act like you’re not human or something because you seen it. I’m about to get a gun and shoot some of these smart alecks if they don’t stay to hell away.”

The swamp gas incident marked the beginning of the end for Project Blue Book. Following the brief congressional investigation instigated by Ford, the Air Force submitted its UFO data to the University of Colorado for independent analysis. The 1,500-page document that emerged nearly three years later, known as “The Condon Report,” concluded that the government’s 21-year study of UFOs had contributed nothing to the body of scientific knowledge and urged no further research in the matter.

After the report’s release the Air Force shut down Project Blue Book and ceased investigating UFOs—at least publicly.

Hollywood ending

Close Encounters reissue package, 2007.

Columbia Pictures released Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. This graphic comes from a 30th-anniversary reissue on DVD and Blu-Ray High Def.

Dr. Hynek fared somewhat better. After a brief period as the butt of swamp gas jokes he became a prominent and influential proponent of the scientific investigation of UFO sightings. He founded the Center for UFO Studies and devised a system for classifying “close encounters” (within 200 yards) between humans and unidentified flying objects.

  • Close Encounters of the First Kind: A UFO is observed but does not interact with observers or the environment.
  • Close Encounters of the Second Kind: The UFO interacts with observers or the environment. Examples of interactions include leaving burn marks on the ground or interfering with radio reception.
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The UFO is seen to have animated occupants. These could be humanoid or other life forms, or robots. Usually there is no communication or direct contact between observers and occupants.

Most readers will recognize that the name Hynek gave to this last type of encounter was used as the title of the blockbuster 1977 film directed by Steven Spielberg. Hynek served as a consultant to Spielberg and even had a bit role in the film.

At halftime of the 1978 Rose Bowl the Michigan Marching Band played selections from the movie’s soundtrack while forming the shape of a flying saucer on the field.

Grounded

By early April of 1966 the flurry of UFO sightings in southern Michigan came to an end, almost as suddenly as it had begun. Popular interest in the affair soon waned. But the term “swamp gas” has since become a permanent part of the UFO lexicon, and enthusiasts continue to study the events of that fateful March.

More than 30 years later new evidence came to light in an interview given by Douglas Harvey, Washtenaw County sheriff at the time of the original sightings. Harvey told The Ann Arbor News he and Dr. Hynek were talking in the sheriff’s office and the scientist admitted he didn’t know what the witnesses had seen, but felt it was worthy of further investigation. Then Hynek left the room to make a call to Washington. When he came back he announced the sightings were due to swamp gas.

“He tells me one minute he has no idea what it is,” said Harvey. “Then he makes one phone call to Washington and comes out and gives a statement that it’s swamp gas. Very strange.”

Will the mystery of the Michigan sightings of 1966 ever be solved?

Maybe. After all, the truth is out there.

 

Top image: This police artist’s rendering of the object Frank Mannor said he saw in the swamp near his home in Dexter Township was printed in dozens of newspapers around the country. (Ann Arbor News, courtesy of the Ann Arbor District Library archive.)

Alan Glenn

Alan Glenn

ALAN GLENN is a writer/historian based in Ann Arbor. He is president of the Michigan History Project whose latest publication is WOLVERINE: A Photographic History of Michigan Football. Alan is working on a documentary film about Ann Arbor in the '60s. For more information visit the film's website.

COMMENTS

  • Booth Muller - 1969

    I transferred to Michigan from another college in fall, 1967. My new roommate (Dave Dombroski) was an engineering major, and he assured me that at least some of the UFO sightings actually had been translucent plastic bags taped onto a cardboard base with a small candle sitting on the cardboard. If a student carefully lit the candle while another held the bag open, the bag would serve as a hot air balloon and the contraption would float mysteriously. The plastic bags were actually supplied by the University as liners for dormitory waste paper baskets. At that time, such bags were not as ubiquitous as they are now, and their appearance had apparently stimulated the imagination of some engineering students.

    Reply

  • Robert Steinert - 1967

    It was one guy, not a group. A frat brother called the police because he was scared. There were no speakers, just a tape recorder. Klivans had nothing to do with it. Pomp was at the UGLI studying when the “device” was assembled, as were most the the brothers. The device was not plugged in until most everyone had returned to the house after midnight. The president, Nelson Lande, was questioned by police in the back seat of their squad car, but they didn’t take him away. The sound from the tape recorder was the sound a phone makes when it is left off the hook too long. I hope the statute of limitations has passed.

    Reply

    • David Lappa - 1978

      “Foul deeds will rise,
      Though all the word o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes.”

      – Willie

      Reply

  • Patricia Prescott - 1966

    I remember the time well. My then boyfriend and I argued considerably over what the sightings could be about. I believe in other beings able to travel interstellar. Ann Arbor would have been a likely place to investigate with it’s scientific and intellectual community. seems important to note that the simpler souls actually seem to be gifted with being present at a sighting. Wish I could say I was a simpler soul. Pat prescott (Marcoux,’66)

    Reply

  • Ted ReynoldsI - 1971

    Several students that I knew confessed to me later that they had played their part in this epic. They glued candles to paper plates, fastened them to balloons, and released them upwind of Ann Arbor. They desisted when the chase got too hot for them.

    Reply

  • pat cardiff - 1990

    This actually happened to me:
    One morning walking to work I gazed up to witness, not more than 75 yards in the dawn sky, a large hovering, sharply-outlined oval black object. It was otherwise inconspicuous, but for a small circular ring at the bottom which appeared to blink a very bright light. The sun glinted off it’s sides. As if sentient, recognizing my investigation, the object quickly wafted across my view, the street, and away.

    I later found a large mylar balloon stuck in a tree down the street.

    Reply

  • Don Hammond - 1978, 1982

    If there any other comments here at all, I would guess that most will be the usual derisive lampooning of the study of UFOs as the exclusive province of cranks, loons, frauds, charlatans, drunks, and the mentally unstable.

    These descriptions cannot be applied to the primary witness of a UFO off the coast of southern California on December 16, 1953. U-M grad Kelly Johnson achieved legendary status as one of the world’s premier aviation designers at the Lockheed “Skunk Works”, directing the design of such notable U.S. aircraft as the U-2, the F-104, and the SR-71.

    An excellent summation of the incident is here: http://www.nicap.org/reports/lockufoinc.htm

    Johnson made this statement: “I am now more convinced than ever, that such devices exist, and I have some highly technical converts in this belief.”

    Reply

  • Margaret Jewett - 1965/66

    Without any knowledge of UFO sightings about to be published, my husband and I observed a large, round, white light in the sky which slowly dropped straight down and suddenly went out. It was quite mysterious – particularly when years later my sister, also a UM student, admitted that she had witnessed a strange lighted craft in the median on I94 when returning to Ann Arbor late one night during the same time period. None of us had been drinking . . .

    Reply

    • Booth Muller - 1969

      Sounds like you saw one of Ted Reynolds’friends’ balloons or one of Dave Dombroski’s plastic bags.

      Reply

  • Donna Smith - 1976, 1981

    I saw my own UFO in the night sky of Lake Orion, Michigan while walking with a friend in early August 1972. It was a rapidly flashing brilliant white light that moved very rapidly across the sky. We knew it was not a meteor when it travelled back across the sky in a different direction. Other sightings were reported in the local paper the next day. I am an experienced star gazer and this event was unlike anything I have seen before ir since.

    Reply

  • Charles Sleicher - 1955 I(PhD)

    Students of UFO phenomena should be aware of the many carefully researched articles on the subject in magazine, “The Skeptical Inquirer” over a period of decades. For example, the current issue contains two relevant articles, one on Mt. Rainier as a UFO Magnet” and the other on “UFOs and Cognitive Science.” The November 2013 issue has “The Valentich Disappearance: Another UFO Cold Case Solved” as well as an article about UFO apps. And the Jan/Feb issue of 2013 contains an article about the life of astronomer and UFO advocate J.Allen Hynek.

    Reply

  • Michael OConnor - 1969

    I lived in West Quad that year. Some quad residents rigged a flying saucer to hang in the quad and took pictures while WCBN, the closed circuit campus radio broadcasting network, played Flying Purple People Eater.

    Reply

  • John Scott - 1963 BSEE

    I had to chuckle when I saw that there had been a sighting of UFOs in North Carolina. A friend of mine who is probably 25 years younger than I told me about an event he had as a youngster. This “youngster” and a few of his friends used plastic film dry cleaner bags and a candle to make hot air balloons to fly at night. One evening out on a nearby golf course they had launched perhaps a half dozen such “UFOs”. A few neighbors surrounding the golf course spotted the UFOs and called the police. When helicopters approached the golf course, the kids were smart enough to “skedaddle”.

    In the next morning’s issue of “The Charlotte Observer” the police reported that as soon as they approached the “flying objects” they flew away so fast that they couldn’t be followed. With belief that what they sighted were indeed “Alien Spacecraft”, the observers couldn’t reason that a helicopter’s rotor wash would surely obliterate a thin plastic bag and extinguish a mere candle.

    The youngsters involved in this caper wrote an anonymous letter to the editor of the newspaper explaining the “phenomonon”, but it was dismissed as impossible. So, the myth lives on to this day that Charlotte was visited by aliens. If anyone wishes to meet one of the culprits and talk to him, let me know!

    Reply

  • Richard Price - 1969

    The UFO event in 1966 was a dream come true for me. I was in engineering classes and out of 900 total students in my classes only 8 were girls. As a high school senior I had the opportunity of taking an advanced placement Astronomy Course every Saturday at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium– the instructor was Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the very person at the head of the UFO investigation! Knowing Dr. Hynek made me somewhat of a celebrity in East Quad and as a consequence I gained enough confidence to ask a girl out on a date (previously as a freshman, every girl I approached said she was dating a law school or medical school student). The UFO experience allowed me to finally break out of my shell and ultimately have the 5 wonderful children I have today. Go blue and thanks Dr. Hynek!

    Reply

  • Tom Weinberg - 1966

    I have been a documentary TV producer for ~40 years and adjunct professor in TV and Documentary in Chicago (11 years).

    The first documentary I ever produced was in the summer of 1966 which began as as a final project for a TV class with Dr. Stasheff. It was audio–no portable video cameras existed then. I conducted extensive interviews with Frank Mannor, his family, the Washtenaw County deputy sheriffs, Dr. Hynek (in his home in Evanston, IL) , and several others. I edited it into a piece that was slightly less than an hour. I got an A, then pursued the research for several weeks independently, thinking I might write an article. (It was the start of a wonderful career in documentary.)

    My personal/professional conclusion is that Mannor and the deputies and a few others definitely witnessed something that wasn’t explained at the time, nor since, as far as I know. The reason Mannor and son went to investigate was because their dog(s) were barking in a way they never had before. He and his family were subject to painful ridicule and vandalism. Kids couldn’t go to school for quite a while.

    No doubt, there must be an explanation. It definitely was not swamp gas” (“methane,” as Hynek originally called it. Fascinating story.

    btw, I lived for a time on North Campus on Baits (originally Hubbard). The student pranks were just that–college pranks. What happened in Dexter and environs was an entirely different situation.

    Reply

  • David Hamm - 1967

    At the height of the UFO mania in March of 1966, a group of us from the Sigma Phi house decided to drive out to Peach Mountain northwest of Ann Arbor where we had been led to believe the University was beaming radio signals into outer space. We reasoned that this activity might have attracted alien phenomena to the area. It was a dark and spooky night, and suffice it to say, we did not see or hear anything. Around that same time my parents witnessed something strange in the sky while driving one night on I-96 near Portland, Michigan. Supposedly other motorists also saw this, but to my knowledge nothing ever came of it.

    Reply

  • John Haven

    In 1981 or 1982, a group of 3 Police Officers sat on Elm Road (Webberville area) at about 3am. on the overpass on I-96 where we watched 3 very large red glows in a triangle formation, at tree top level heading east along the roadway. I was one of those Officers and I pointed a spotlight on the large (covers the whole width of fence to fence of I-96 and maybe bigger) Triangle 3 red light object and it was black or nothing in between the lights. It continued on eastbound. Detroit News or Detroit Free Press reported that a number of Officers in Michigan reported seeing this and NASA reported them to be flares sent up to tell the whether for the shuttle take off. The red glows continued at the same speed, at tree top level eastbound. I was close because I was sitting on that overpass. These were no Flares. One partner could not remember it and the other (3 separate patrol cars from 3 different Departments) had forgot about it. I remember it had no noise and it was big. Strange I do not remember going down and chasing it or watching it after it went over the overpass. I do remember spot lighting it when it was directly over us. I remember one of the 2 officers hitting the spot light away from my hands and stating “what are you doing?” I stated, ” I want to see what it is”. I will never forget.

    Reply

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