By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News
On a quiet day in March, 1966, seven eyewitnesses reported an unidentified flying object maneuvering over Livingston and Washtenaw counties. Ordinarily, these reports might have been dismissed by officials as the work of cranks. But this time, the seven witnesses WERE officials — police officers and sheriff’s deputies from the two counties.
And their stories were backed up by more than 100 witnesses, including William Van Horn, a civil defense director, and dozens of students who watched the football-shaped object for four hours as it maneuvered near the University of Michigan campus, a nearby airport and a local swamp.
The March 14 sightings caused an uproar and the area went on a wild UFO chase.
Three days later on March 17 two Washtenaw County sheriff’s deputies, Sgt. Neil Schneider and Deputy David Fitzpatrick saw three or four red, white and green circular objects oscillating and glowing near Milan about 4 a.m. They called Willow Run Airport officials who could not confirm with radar.
Two more Washtenaw deputies, BuFord Bushroe and John Foster tried to follow the same type of objects in the northern part of the county on March 20. Livingston and Monroe county residents also reported seeing the objects.
The Detroit News carried the police chase story the next day along with a drawing of a quilted football shaped object with lights, dome and antennae. (It was not maize and blue with a big M on it.)
Dexter patrolman Robert Huniwell said he spotted an object in the sky at Quigley and Brand roads between 9:30 and 9:45 p.m.. He said the flying object with red and green flashing lights, came close to the ground, hovered above a scout car and was joined by a second vehicle on its ascent.
Washtenaw County Sheriff Douglas Harvey ordered all available deputies to the scene. Six patrol cars, two men in each, and three detectives surrounded the area. They later chased a flying object along Island Lake Road without catching it.
Frank Mannor and his family saw the lights from their McGuiness Road farm. “I got within 500 yards of that thing and it looked pyramid-shaped. It had a light here and a light there and what looked like a porthole.
“It wasn’t like the pictures of a flying saucer and it had a coral-like surface. I’ve trapped every hole in this county and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mannor said the vehicle, by its own lights, appeared to be the length of a car and had a hazy mist under it as it hung above the ground. Mannor’s son, a member of the Dexter High School track team, and Mannor’s wife also witnessed the object. It rose up to the tree tops and waited awhile and fell back to the ground. It became different colors, white on the ground, blue, then red in the trees, and then came down and changed colors again. It sounded like a ricochet of a bullet, and like a siren, a real high frequency, they said.
Police Chief Robert R. Taylor and Patrolman N.G. Lee came to the farm in response to Mrs. Mannor’s call and heard the noise.
“I thought it was an ambulance,” Lee said. The chief’s son, Robert, 16, also saw the red vehicle in the sky at about 10:30 p.m. “It was going on in the east pretty slow, and then it sped up and went west,” he said. “It was flashing red and white.”
Washtenaw County Deputy Sheriff BuFord Bushroe also observed it. “It looked like an arc. It was round. We turned around and started following it through Dexter for five miles. It was headed west and we stopped. We lost it in the trees. Either the lights went off or it took off with a tremendous burst of speed. It was about 1,500 feet above the ground. It moved along at about 100 mph. We were doing 70 before losing it near Wylie Road.”
Carloads of college students from nearby University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University converged on the area after hearing radio reports of the sightings.
Mannor was asked if it could have been a college prank. He vigorously denied the possibility. “They couldn’t rig rigging to it. There was not anything there, There was no way in the world to get out. There were two scout cars on the hill and more at the house.”
“I know every pothole in this county,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s nothing wrong with my eyes and my son has 20/20 vision. We both can’t be wrong.”
“My wife says we’ll move out of here,” he said. “She doesn’t like that. I never lock the doors. Nobody ever bothers us.”
An Adrian College professor offered the theory that northern lights may be the objects the deputies tried to chase.
On March 22 dozens of residents of Dexter and Hillsdale reported more flying objects emitting strange sounds and lights.
On March 23 a teen from Monroe said he took photos, which looked like a big black blob.
The Air Force sent in Blue Book astronomer and UFO expert Dr. J. Allen Hynek who, after a whirlwind probe that lasted two hours and 45 minutes, dismissed the sightings as “swamp gas.”
Hynek quoted a description of marsh gases by Dutch astronomer Minnaert: “The lights resemble tiny flames, sometimes seen right on the ground, sometimes merely floating above it. The flames go out in one place and suddenly appear in another, giving the illusion of motion. The colors are sometimes yellow, sometimes red and bluegreen.”
“Marsh gas,” Hynek said, “usually has no smell, but sounds like the small popping explosions similar to a gas burner igniting. The gas forms from decomposition of vegetation. It seems likely that as the present spring thaws came, the gases methane, hydrogen sulfide and phosphine, resulting from decomposition of organic materials, were released.”
He also said youths playing “pranks with flares” added to the excitement. He dismissed a photo taken March 17 as a time exposure of the moon and Venus.
Van Horn, a Hillsdale native who grew up on the edge of a swamp, was outraged by Hynek’s findings, asserting that he knew more about swamp gas than Hynek did. He said Hynek ignored his reports that the lights moved and that there was a convex surface between the lights.
Van Horn, a pilot with a commercial rating, objected to the treatment of what came to be known as “the Michigan affair” by the Air Force, charging that “a lot of good people are being ridiculed.”
Hynek replied that he still believed that marsh gas was the logical explanation for these sightings.
Sightings of UFOs in the area continued, but these apparent copycat incidents seemed obviously fake. A Grand Haven man who reported a UFO landing near his home was not believed.
On March 29 more sightings were reported over Michigan. Some from Macomb and Oakland counties, others from Bad Axe, Flint and Ann Arbor. Viewers included Richard Sober of Ann Arbor, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, and Police Chief Ford Wallace of Linden.
In Washington the government was urged to release all information on the sightings.
In April Frankfort and Marquette joined in with sightings. The Frankfort sighting was identified as a marine flare.
The next year brothers Grant and Dan Jaroslaw of Harrison Twp, took photos of objects they claimed were flying over Lake St. Clair. A lie detector test failed to back up their story.
Hynek returned to Hillsdale but stuck to his original swamp gas declaration.
There were a few more sightings in 1967 in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti and Grand Haven. In February four Ann Arbor residents reported objects flying in formation. And in Grand Haven police confirmed the sightings.
Not much came of all the commotion. However the popularity of reporting unusual stuff in the sky to officials kept Selfridge Air Force base busy. By 1968, they were receiving two or three reports of UFO sightings per week.