A Look Back At … When Tompkins County caught UFO fever

By Charley Githler

Tompkins Weekly

This is the time of year when the paranormal seems a little more normal, when the unlikely seems more possible, and when it doesn’t seem at all unusual to have Spongebob Squarepants at your front door demanding candy.

Fifty years ago this month, Tompkins County was swept up in a frenzy of UFO sightings that ultimately drew the attention of the United States Air Force and extended visits by a number of self-styled “paranormal investigators.” It was both a product of a simpler time and a fascinating case study in mass psychology.

That it all started in Newfield might not come as a surprise. Over the years, the township has been the site of innumerable reports of witches, sasquatches, ghosts, aliens and other sundry supernatural phenomena. In particular, the Connecticut Hill area, dubbed by the paranormal community as the “Alpine Portal,” is believed to be a hotspot for Bigfoot and UFO activity.

The year 1967 was also a time when anything relating to space was of great interest. NASA’s Apollo program was in full swing as the country was racing the Soviet Union to the moon. The TV show Lost in Space was in its third season and the original Star Trek was in its second season. And, there was what came to be called the “Great UFO Wave of 1967” – thousands of reported sightings of alien visitations across the country. UFO reports were much more common, and got a lot more press, in the 1950s and 1960s, but an all-time peak of interest in UFOs was reached in 1967 when major institutions like the U.S. Congress, the news media, and the scientific community were engaged in open debate about UFO sightings.

Back then, people paid heed to the pronouncements of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, a non-profit civilian UFO research entity, and probably the most high-profile of the groups claiming expertise in paranormal activity. At that time, NICAP had some mainstream respectability. In 1967, NICAP received 3,340 raw reports of UFO sightings, 273 of which they deemed as “substantial” cases. For the same period, the U.S. Air Force received 937 raw reports, 19 of which were categorized as “unidentified.”

In any event, on October 24, 1967, at about 9:30 p.m., a 12-year-old boy named Donald Chiszar claimed to have witnessed a “craft” hovering about 130-feet above the ground near Main Street in Newfield. According to Chiszar, there were markings on the craft that he could not recognize and a large window. The object was of a dull silver color, about 30-feet in diameter and 6- to 8-feet high. It hovered in the same spot for about two minutes, tilted upward in the rear; then the rim lights became very bright, it assumed a horizontal altitude, and disappeared at great speed, “like a puff of wind.” Two humanoid figures could be seen in the saucer-shaped craft, Chizsar reported. The visitors were “rough-colored and brownish” beings with “big, wide hips.” The following night, Chiszar later told investigators, he saw two more of the same type of flying objects.

It was something of a sensation. Overnight, people in Newfield and then other parts of Tompkins County began to see UFOs everywhere. By October 30th, more than 100 sightings were claimed by local residents, and so started the “Great Ithaca Flap,” as it would be later known.

Paranormal investigators William Donovan and Bruce Newbrook came to Ithaca representing the independent Aerial Investigations and Research Corporation. They set up camp in donated vacant office space for several weeks, interviewing witnesses and examining locations associated with area sightings.

Air Force Lt. Gerald White of the 35th Air Division from Hancock Air Force Base came to Newfield on November 9 to conduct an investigation. That night, some 45 citizens and investigators met with him at a private home in Newfield and for four hours shared stories of local sightings of the previous two years. The meeting was also attended by a representative of the University of Colorado UFO Project (also known as the ‘Condon Commission’), and Northwest University professor Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the chief consultant for the Air Force Blue Book UFO Investigations Project. Two nights later, 65 people paid $1 each to attend a meeting at the Women’s Community Building on Seneca Street in Ithaca to share sighting stories and consult with the experts from AIR. Fifteen people at that meeting volunteered to accompany Mr. Donovan and comb the slopes of Connecticut Hill in Newfield for evidence.

Sightings and the investigation continued through November. Some residents claimed the ‘truth’ was being hidden from them, and local newspapers picked up the stories. People began to show up at secluded pull-offs and star-lit fields, hoping for a glimpse of something extraordinary.

Sighting reports included erratic flying patterns high in the sky, as well as low hovering lights over nearby hills. Stationary red lights, flashing green and white lights, lights in a triangular arrangement, and lights in a rim surrounding a circular craft seemed to be recurring themes. Single and group sightings, as well as fast “passes” and prolonged hovering were reported. Reports that animals were distressed during some of the sightings were held to be significant by Professor Hynek, who explained, “animals don’t hallucinate as humans do.”

There were those who had fun with the news: Cornell students launched laundry bags filled with burning fuel and, in one case, a local pilot fitted a strobe light to his plane to instigate the UFO-watchers below.

By December 1, Investigator Donovan, who would later be charged with fraud in an unrelated matter, declared that his investigation determined that the sightings would “still have to be classified as unidentified.” He suggested that Cornell’s synchrotron, recently commissioned on October 11, was “the only one of its kind in the world that has almost reached the speed of light,” and might tend to attract outer-space aircraft to the Ithaca area. (Cornell professor Hans Bethe, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on October 31, dismissed the notion out of hand.) Lt. White decided that the phenomena were likely airplanes. Eventually, the sightings tapered off as interest waned.

Tompkins County’s UFO craze soon faded from memory. Political events would eclipse the interest in UFOs in 1968. It was part of a nationwide phenomenon, yet also uniquely local – there are those who still look for the supernatural on Newfield’s Connecticut Hill. It may not be a coincidence that it all happened around Halloween…