Close Encounters

The hotbed of UFO sightings that is Central New York.

By Caitlin Dewey

alien illustration

The appearance of a glowing fireball outside Eloise Boshers- Ross’ home interrupted her routine 44 years ago on an early November night. The 41-year-old housewife and mother of three had never professed a belief in aliens or seen a flying saucer. She had read about Roswell in the late ‘40s, then promptly forgot the whole affair.

But when the lights dimmed shortly after 5 p.m. and Boshers-Ross went to the window to see what happened, her eyes met an unearthly sight: a gigantic red fireball, lit from the inside and much larger than the sun, hung suspended in the sky with no obvious source.

It should have been terrifying, considering the circumstances. This was, after all, the height of the Cold War, when nuclear attacks and aerial onslaughts were not so much feared as expected. But Boshers-Ross, filled with a strange buoyancy she could only call excitement, gathered her children at the window. She joked to Dewey, 17, Suzette, 14, and Howard, 8, that she ought to put a pot of coffee on for their alien guests. The ball expanded. It rose. It appeared to grow closer.

Then, with a suddenness Boshers-Ross still struggles to describe, the object receded and disappeared. At that same moment the entire northeast, from Ontario to New York City, Buffalo to New Hampshire, plunged into total darkness.

Today, UFO stories seem like anachronisms — fascinating but distinctly yellowed postcards from a quaint world where UFOs fit into the realm of legitimate science. But in Central New York, professed alien encounters are far from uncommon. During the Great Blackout of ‘65, dozens of witnesses like Boshers-Ross reported seeing a ball of light right before 30 million people lost electrical power. A wave of sightings in early 1978 attracted the devout attention of ufologists nationwide. And as recently as Oct. 16, Onondaga County residents reported strange aerial lights to the Mutual UFO Network, a non-profit research group.

And although extraterrestrial tales continue to surface, the government hasn’t taken these accounts seriously since the 1960s.

Boshers-Ross has long since stopped caring what people think of her UFO report. Now living in California, she remains convinced that she witnessed an alien spacecraft and that aliens not only exist in the universe, but also possibly on Earth.

“You know what, at 85, I’ve learned something in life: it’s not to worry about what other people think,” she said. “I don’t care if they think I’m a little nuts, that’s okay… We’re all ignorant of something, and they’re just ignorant of what the truth probably is.”

When reciting the account of that night, Boshers-Ross is remarkably lucid. In between stories about her grandchildren and the senior citizens apartment complex where she lives, she drops casual references to “alien thought-waves” and life on other planets.

After all, she wasn’t the only one to see the 1965 fireball. In the aftermath of the blackout, the Syracuse Herald-Journal printed dozens of accounts from across the region, each reporting fireballs or flashes of light in the Hancock Airport area, including one from Syracuse Deputy Aviation Commissioner Robert Walsh. He spotted “sudden balls of fire to the south” as he sat on the runway at Hancock Airport, according to a Nov. 14 article in the now defunct newspaper. Pilot Weldon Ross, who later married Eloise Boshers, saw flashes of what appeared to be intense, sudden barn fires as he flew home from Fulton.

UFO research groups and government investigators pursued the accounts for some time, attempting to discover the cause of the blackout. Representatives from the National Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena, the largest national research group, told the Herald-Journal they were following the reports “very closely.” Three years later, the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects published an investigation called the Condon Report, a study undertaken by the Air Force and the University of Colorado. Like the Federal Power Commission before them, the Condon researchers concluded that the blackout and the sightings were not linked.

Witnesses, however, tell a different story. woman looking at ufo in rearview mirror illustration “It looked exactly like the sunset, but it got bigger and then it got smaller,” said Boshers-Ross’ son Dewey, a senior in high school at the time of the fireball sighting. “And as it got smaller, all the lights went out all along the east coast. It was almost like it was controlling them.”

Even if the blackout and the fireball were related, it wouldn’t explain the phenomenon Dewey and his mother witnessed. William Hartmann, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and one of the authors of the Condon Report, said natural occurrences – like the emission of methane gas from swamps or a rare electrical event called ball lightning – can explain “fireball” sightings. He listed 41 natural explanations for UFOs in his section of the Condon Report.

“There are certainly UFOs, but they aren’t necessarily the things that people think they are,” Hartmann said. “The fact that you can explain some cases doesn’t mean that there can’t be something else going on. However, I don’t think there’s much evidence that there is something else going on, in my experience.”

The U.S. government evidently came to the same conclusion. While UFO sightings were considered (and dismissed) in the Condon report, there is no mention of the Syracuse blackout sightings in Project Blue Book, the declassified 18-year Air Force study that collected more than 12,500 accounts of UFOs. Similarly, calls to the Air Force, the Air Force Historical Studies Office, the Department of Defense, the Syracuse Police Department, and the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office turned up no official records of the incidents.

Still, documentation of the sightings could exist elsewhere. Boshers-Ross recalls being interviewed by someone who came to her home, but she doesn’t remember if that person was from the government. She’s been forced to draw her own conclusions.”It was something more than just a fireball, believe me,” she said. “That was kind of proven in a way, but of course they still poo-pooed it.”

Her son Dewey remains skeptical. “I don’t know to this day what it was,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of evidence to suggest it was a UFO. My mother’s convinced. It could have been a UFO, but it could have been something else.”

For every skeptic in CNY there’s a believer. Hundreds of people have reported spotting UFOs in the area since the early 1950s, according to Project Blue Book reports. One of the earliest known sightings, dated Nov. 21, 1950, was reported by officers at the Griffiss Air Force Base, who said they saw a “blue-white flash” with “no probable cause” just north of Rome, N.Y.

Three years later, on April 29, four women reported seeing a “silver disc-shaped object” hovering 10,000 feet above Syracuse, leaving a puff of exhaust behind it. A declassified letter from the McMillan Observatory to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base called it a case “of considerable interest” before asking for further documentation. Air Force investigators never determined what the women saw.

Even stranger and more intriguing are the witnesses who claim UFOs have followed them, stopped them, or touched down in their yards. Two years after the 1965 blackout, an alleged UFO witness caused a stir at the Ithaca Police Station when he claimed to have seen a series of more than 100 UFOs over the course of a month – including one that landed in a nearby field and killed two of his neighbor’s cattle.

“I don’t know who they are or where they came from, Lieutenant, but they are here in Newfield,” the man told Lieutenant J.J. Carroll, of the New York State Police.

Diane LeBeau, a Clay, N.Y. resident and lifetime believer in aliens, ghosts, and other metaphysical phenomena, echoes the same sentiment. She was driving in heavy nighttime traffic on Route 31 near Lakeport in late 1974 when her engine died and the car stopped, forcing her to pull onto the shoulder. She, her boyfriend, and her 12-year-old daughter noticed a “humongous” flying saucer spinning in the air above the car, its lights blinking erratically.

“The thing that amazed me was it stopped my car,” LeBeau said. She was going 55 mph.

aliens staring

LeBeau, who said she has seen several dozen UFOs in her lifetime, wasn’t scared as the saucer hovered above them and her car’s emergency blinkers flashed. Five minutes later, after the saucer shot into the air and disappeared, LeBeau realized the only access point to the blinkers was through her locked glove compartment.

Engine failure and other mechanical reactions have traditionally proven the most difficult UFO phenomena for scientists to explain. The Condon Report theorized UFOs might generate magnetic fields or radiation changes that interfere with a vehicle’s normal function, but no evidence to support that claim has been found.

Maybe that’s because there is no scientific reason for UFOs, LeBeau said.

“They’ve got these debunking people, and it really makes you angry when you’ve experienced something and you’re not an idiot,” she said. “It’s the people that go out there and debunk things – they’re stupid or ignorant or something.”

Hartmann wasn’t one of those “debunking people.” As an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in 1968, he joined the Condon committee for a “really exciting chance” to find evidence for alien spaceships or other aerial phenomena. He left more interested in the psychological factors behind UFO sightings.

“Some people are very objective and say, ‘I saw a string of bright lights in the sky and I deduced it was a broken satellite coming in,’ but five other people may say, ‘I saw a dark cigar-shaped object with a row of windows on it,’” Hartmann said. “They’re being honest – they think that’s what they saw and they’re trying to convey that the best they can with words. But what they’re conveying is actually much different from what they saw.”

Even today, when UFOs are largely the stuff of Internet zealots and B-grade movies, sightings in CNY remain common. Only now, witnesses must report what they see to Web sites like the Mutual UFO Network instead of the Air Force. A call made to the Pentagon was greeted with skepticism by an Air Force operator, who covered the phone to tell her colleague that someone was asking about UFOs. “Yeah, we get a couple crackpots now and then,” she said.

Still, Hartmann is quick to caution that the vast majority of UFO witnesses aren’t “crackpots” – they’re just honest people, like Boshers-Ross and LeBeau, who saw something strange and want to understand it. LeBeau, for one, is already convinced that she understands.

“They don’t want the public to panic. That’s the only sense it makes to me, anyway,” she said. “I swear to God, I’m not lying to you. I’m not making this stuff up.”