Thirty-five years ago this week, an unidentified flying object allegedly landed in Western New York. The incident, which received sparse coverage from Buffalo-area news media, was investigated extensively by a civilian UFO research organization, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP).
NICAP's account of what reportedly happened is summarized below, followed by the U.S. Air Force's evaluation and results of my recent research into the matter.
On Aug. 19, 1965, 16-year-old Harold Butcher was milking cows in the main barn of a hilltop dairy farm on Aldrich Hill Road a few miles north of Cherry Creek, a small Chautauqua County town. A radio in the barn was tuned to WKBW-AM 1520 (now WWKB). At about 8:20 p.m., a bull tethered outside the building began to bellow.
Looking out a window to see what had disturbed the animal, Harold told NICAP investigators he saw a silver-colored, football-shaped object with sharply defined edges hovering just above tree-top level, about 500 feet east of the barn. Two parallel, vertical rows of large dots and "seams" were visible on its 50-foot-long by 20-foot-high surface.
Heavy static punctuated the usually clear reception from the 50,000-watt radio station. A tractor engine used to operate the milking equipment also stalled.
The object made a "beeping" sound and emitted a "red vapor" as it descended slowly behind a large maple tree, its lower edge disappearing from view behind a slight rise between the barn and the tree. Seconds later, it ascended rapidly, made a loud booming noise, and disappeared in the clouds, turning them green.
The object was seen maneuvering briefly twice more over the next 40 minutes by Harold, his brothers Robert and William Jr., and a friend, Kathleen Brougham.
Troopers E.J. Haas and P.M. Neilson of the New York State Police arrived at the farm around 9:15 p.m. in response to a call placed by Mrs. William Butcher. They questioned the teenage witnesses -- who appeared stunned by the sightings -- and searched the ground with flashlights without finding anything unusual. The State Police later contacted the Air Force base in Niagara Falls.
The next afternoon, a five-man team from the 4621st Air Force Group interviewed the witnesses and neighbors, inspected the site and left with a sod sample from the presumed landing area. Parts of it were coated with a purple-colored, oily substance.
Capt. James A. Dorsey, who headed the local Air Force probe, stated in the Aug. 25, 1965, Dunkirk-Fredonia Evening Observer: "We questioned him (Harold Butcher) repeatedly, and he was consistent in his story. So were the others. I don't think they're making this up, because they're not the type. The neighbors feel the same way about it."
Project Blue Book, the Air Force's UFO-investigation group based in Dayton, Ohio, analyzed Dorsey's report and concluded that the sightings were "unidentified" -- that is, they defied conventional explanation. Only 640 of 13,134 UFO reports (less than 5 percent) examined by that agency between 1948 and 1969 were so categorized.
Over the years, several UFO-related publications had summarized the Cherry Creek Incident with seemingly varying degrees of completeness and accuracy. In an effort to set the record straight, I decided to investigate this intriguing case. I began with a critical review of the original NICAP case documentation and the Project Blue Book report.
Several visits to the farm site followed, along with many conversations with longtime area residents and the former NICAP principal investigator. I also located Harold Butcher in Georgia and interviewed him over the phone, and conducted a series of experiments designed to determine the composition of the oily substance.
My research revealed disturbing discrepancies and other problems with many of the alleged details and showed that the substance was merely a mixture of two common farm products. Moreover, by comparing Harold Butcher's testimony compiled in three separate NICAP reports over a three-day period, I thought it was apparent that he had embellished his original story. Had this been an isolated incident, I would have dismissed it as a clever hoax. It was not.
The NICAP case file documented many other sightings of strange lights around Cherry Creek immediately before and after Aug. 19, 1965. My own investigation also yielded additional observations. Most involved unusual lights seen near the ground or in the sky. Two examples:
NICAP detailed an experience reported by New York State troopers Richard Ward and Thomas Purcell early on Aug. 21, 1965. At 1:15 a.m., while patrolling in their cruiser on Plank Road, about a mile from the farm, they noticed a formation of unusual lights along the northern horizon. It quickly headed their way, revealing eight separate lights in a straight line, each maintaining a fixed position in the configuration.
The lead light was small and red, while the others were bright (comparable to the full moon), sharply outlined amber-orange circles. The lights reportedly emitted a soft purring sound "like a bagful of kittens" as they passed directly overhead at a low altitude. They disappeared above the southern horizon, two minutes after first being sighted.
Farmer Dick Nelson told me that one evening shortly after Aug. 19, a large, low-flying reddish-orange ball of fire followed a car traveling on Aldrich Hill Road. Badly frightened by the encounter, the occupants abandoned the vehicle at a roadside building where Nelson was working and ran inside to escape their pursuer.
One of the women who had been buzzed -- and razzed about the experience long afterward -- grudgingly confirmed the story for me. She insisted on remaining anonymous.
After researching the incident, I agree with military and police investigators who thought the teenagers really did see something extraordinary at the farm. Based on what other independent witnesses encountered, it was probably a featureless spherical or egg-shaped light form, nature and origin unknown. NICAP's more detailed "object" description resulted from its face-value acceptance of testimony colored by active youthful imaginations and creative story polishing.
The Blue Book report concludes: "Although the sequence of events is dubious, the sighting is carried as unidentified by the Air Force since there is no definite concrete explanation."
That statement is a direct contradiction to the Air Force's then-usual UFO-debunking mindset. When confronted by a baffling UFO sighting, they often resorted to specious argumentation in order to "explain" it in prosaic terms. Many Project Blue Book "solutions" to rock-solid, close-range UFO reports from multiple, highly qualified observers were transparent, ludicrous or insulting -- the stuff legends are made of.
So why wasn't the "dubious" Cherry Creek case similarly bashed? Did Air Force evaluators simply let down their guard? Or was their highly uncharacteristic admission of bewilderment a convenient ploy -- perhaps to mask a classified government project being conducted in the region? We'll probably never know.
ROBERT A. GALGANSKI is a Buffalo-area engineer who has studied the UFO phenomenon extensively. His Cherry Creek Incident research was featured on the Sci-Fi Channel TV program, Sightings.