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.
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.
“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
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.)