Alien Invasion - 1966

Accounts of unexplained things in the sky have been reported for almost all of recorded human history. Might they be intelligent beings? Not likely. The vastness of the universe and the incredible distances between the stars make it nearly impossible for a technologically advanced civilization to find another habitable planet. The star system closest to ours is four light years or about 5.88 trillion miles away, and space travel would likely be possible only at a tiny fraction of a light year. A physical trip from one planet to another would be a multi-generational (or deep sleep) journey. Yet, even with the scientific improbability of aliens visiting Earth, many still are caught up with the idea.

A flurry of sightings of alien visitors was unleashed after a statement by Kenneth Arnold, a pilot flying near Mt. Rainier in Washington state on June 24, 1947. Arnold described nine shiny, saucer-like objects flying erratically at supersonic speed outside his airplane window. The “flying saucer” was born. 

Arnold’s report was closely followed by the discovery by a rancher near Roswell, New Mexico, on July 8, 1947, of strange material that he found on the ground. Although the military stated that it was merely a conventional weather balloon, many people were convinced that it was an alien vehicle that had crashed. Interest in this incident waned until the late 1970s, about the time Steven Spielberg’s movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released. UFOlogists revived the Roswell incident, claiming that one or more alien spacecrafts had crash-landed there and that the extraterrestrial occupants had been recovered by the military, who then engaged in a cover-up. To address the ongoing concerns, Congress directed the Secretary of the Air Force to conduct an internal investigation. In 1994 it concluded that the material recovered in 1947 was likely debris from Project Mogul, a military surveillance program employing high-altitude balloons. A second report, in 1997, concluded that reports of recovered alien bodies were likely a combination of innocently transformed memories of the recovery of anthropomorphic dummies after crashes in military programs mixed with not-so-innocent hoaxes perpetrated by various witnesses and UFO proponents. The increasingly elaborate accounts of alien crash landings and government cover-ups created an enduring myth. 

UFO proponents didn’t believe a word of the report and stuck to their unshakeable belief that other civilizations from outer space were visiting us.


Hillsdale has its own alien story. Between 9-10 p.m. on March 21, 1966, the girls in MacIntyre Residence at Hillsdale College saw flashing lights hovering over the Arboretum and called William “Bud” VanHorn, Hillsdale County civil defense director. Initially he advised them to continue to observe the object and to call again if it didn’t disappear. It didn’t, they called, and Bud summoned a city police car and two State Police units, then went to the dorm himself.

An examination of the area where the lights seemed to be discovered nothing, so the girls took Bud to the second floor window through which they’d seen the lights. There they were, rising to a point just below the airport beacon and then settling down to earth again. Word spread quickly—even without social media—and about 150 people observed the phenomenon. Saucer fever infected Hillsdale in the days that followed the newspaper report of the incident. Hundreds of people cruised the streets of Hillsdale hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious lights, and police were kept busy chasing down leads phoned in by the “saucer watchers.”

J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astrophysicist and scientific consultant for the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book (a government study of UFOs that was discontinued in 1969) visited Hillsdale to study the situation. When Hynek’s report was issued at the end of March, it was a disappointment. In it he referred to the Hillsdale sighting as well as to another in Dexter that took place the day before. Hynek stated that the majority of observers in both cities reported only red, yellow and green lights near the ground, with no sound and no object. The lights seemed to move, but never far. In both cases the fact that the sighting was over a swampy area and was very localized seemed the most significant point. Hynek noted, “A dismal swamp is a most unlikely place for a visit from outer space: It is not a place where a helicopter would hover for several hours, or where a soundless, secret device would likely be tested.” He went on to explain how the decomposition of “rotting vegetation produces marsh gas, which can be trapped by ice and winter conditions. When a spring thaw occurs, the gas may be released in some quantity.”

Hynek noted the “honest reporting by the young ladies at Hillsdale College,” but sternly referred to “certain young men (who) have played pranks with flares.” He dismissed pictures published in the Hillsdale newspaper purportedly to be of the lights over the Hillsdale College Arboretum. Instead, he said they were taken on March 17 near Milan, Michigan, and were without question a time exposure of the rising crescent moon and the planet Venus. 

Bud VanHorn was outraged when Dr. Hynek dismissed the lights over the Arboretum as swamp gas. He angrily refuted Hynek’s report with 15 points of disagreement and labeled the investigation as unscientific. VanHorn said that the investigators didn’t even get out of their car as they drove down Barber Drive and that they talked to only three people and ignored many statements of fact.

Ironically, J. Allen Hynek was probably the best possible person to discover if aliens were responsible for the incident at Hillsdale College. In 1948, when he was first hired by the government to look into the rash of alien sightings after the Roswell Incident, Hynek described the subject of alien visitation as “utterly ridiculous” and predicted that it would soon pass. However, in 1953 his thinking began to change. After investigating hundreds of UFO reports, he concluded we need to be more open to unexplained phenomena. In an article he wrote that year for the Journal of Optical Society of America, he noted that many reports of unexplained objects in the sky were greeted with ridicule. Ridicule, he asserted, is not part of the scientific method and that scientific obligation and responsibility require a serious investigation into unexplained phenomena. He was angry at the dismissive attitude of the Air Force, saying, “They wouldn’t give UFOs the chance of existing, even if they were flying up and down the street in broad daylight.” At his press conference at the end of March 1966, Hynek repeatedly and strenuously stated that while swamp gas was a plausible explanation for the Dexter and Hillsdale sightings, it was not an explanation for all UFO reports. 


It’s very likely that other technologically advanced civilizations exist in the universe. Whether they can get to us—or us to them—is questionable. But real science is always open to demonstrable empirical evidence. 


A last word ... 

One of our members, who will remain unnamed, immediately saw the possibility of a memorable prank after the sighting of “aliens” at the college. He and two high school friends armed themselves with a silver snow saucer, flares and a .22 and hoisted themselves into a large tree on the far side of Barber Lake, which runs behind the Hillsdale College Field House and football field. The reaction to the resulting visual and auditory display was most rewarding. Screaming from the residents of the homes on Lumbard Street, which backed to the other side of Barber Lake, certified a high score for their prank. Police cars converged on the area, and the three boys set a speed record removing themselves from the scene. With the passage of 50 years, there is the recognition that this escapade could have ended badly … which is why the identity of the mischief-makers shall remain forever unknown.

JoAnne P. Miller