Saturday morning, July 31, 1965, at 1:05 a.m., Officer Lewis Sikes of the Wynnewood Police Department reported sighting a bright object in the sky a few miles northeast of town. He described the object as having a blue-green center, with a rotating light circling the midsection. The object abruptly rose into the night sky, where it hovered for a few minutes before it began to lose altitude and then move off to the north. The sighting was also confirmed by the Murray County Sheriff’s Office. Tinker Air Force Base picked up an unidentified blip on their radarscope at the same time as the Wynnewood sighting. The object was tracked at an altitude of 8,000 feet until it disappeared from their screen approximately 15 miles southwest of Midwest City. It was later learned that Carswell Army Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, had also tracked an unidentified object on their radar screen earlier that evening. A UFO had been witnessed by many people, including members of law enforcement, and tracked on radar by military personnel at two different air force bases; this was only the first night.
At the time, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, was home to a small understaffed, underfunded office that was responsible for investigating reports of unidentified flying objects. Project Blue Book was established in 1952 in response to civilian reports of such phenomenon. It was highly criticized as a public-relations stunt to patronize taxpayers. Yet, America was in a cold war with the Soviet Union. A UFO sighting was more likely to be Russian than extraterrestrial, which was one reason such reports were taken seriously.
There were also civilian UFO organizations that conducted their own investigations within state or regional areas. In 1965, Hayden C. Hewes was the 20-year-old director of the Interplanetary Intelligence of UFOs. The purpose of the organization was the study and scientific research of unidentified flying objects. Members included scientists, astronomers, and others interested in the UFO phenomenon. Should police or media hear reports of UFO activity, Hewes was notified.
That Saturday, Hewes traveled to Wynnewood to interview Officer Sikes. It was a busy day for Interplanetary Intelligence of UFOs members, who received a wave of reported UFO sightings. On this same day, a man claimed that while fishing at Lake Hefner, he had witnessed a saucer-type craft emerge from the water, hover momentarily, and then fly away. The unnamed witness was reported to have been admitted to a local hospital in a state of shock.
By Sunday, August 1, UFOs were the talk of the town, having been sighted throughout the state. Oklahomans who wanted to glimpse one of these crafts were on alert, armed with binoculars and cameras. When dusk fell, saucer-watchers would not be disappointed. Around 9 p.m., Hewes received a phone call from television newsman Mike Buchanan informing him that the highway patrol had received more than 20 reports of UFOs en route towards Oklahoma City. Hewes drove to the highway patrol’s lookout tower that was formerly located along Broadway Extension, south of Edmond, near 122nd Street. He scanned the night sky for hours while reports of these strange flying objects came in over the police radio as they were happening. Tinker Air Force Base reported tracking four UFOs on radar at an altitude of 22,000 feet. The crafts appeared as they had the night before: very bright, multicolored, hovering, and then flying off at high rates of speed, sometimes making sharp, right-angle turns.
The earliest reported sighting near Edmond that Sunday night occurred east of town, about 10 p.m., when Wes Pitchford and his wife watched one of the objects as it passed near their home. They were startled to see the craft flying at such a low altitude of approximately a half mile or less. It was described as circular, about 30 feet in diameter, and with a dome on top. Mr. Pitchford said that the object first appeared on the eastern horizon, quickly approached his house, and then “whooshed on by, going west by southwest.”
Meanwhile, at the lookout tower, observers continued their watch without any luck. Until about 11:30 p.m., when a craft was reported north of El Reno and moving east, putting it about 20 miles west of the tower. Hewes, six highway patrolmen, and a reporter looked in amazement as a bright, multicolored UFO appeared over the western horizon, heading towards Edmond. Hewes stated, “It looked like a light source. Dominantly white and appeared to have a green glow around it. The UFO also seemed to be flashing red, white, and blue lights. It hovered over the area for about an hour.”
Officer Joel Cobb of the Edmond Police Department was on duty that Sunday night. It was before midnight when he heard over his police radio a general broadcast to watch for unusual flying objects. He soon witnessed “a brightly lighted object, which changed color frequently” over his house in the north-central area of town. “It appeared to hover briefly, then moved north where it hovered over Gracelawn Cemetery for several minutes.”
Officer Cobb and his wife watched the object until it suddenly “zipped away to the north.” Mrs. Cobb reported watching a similar object in the night sky south of town until about 3:00 a.m.
Edmond Police Officer Chuck Jones was also on duty that Sunday night and saw the strange lights in the presence of other witnesses. Their sighting was to the southwest of town and lasted for several minutes. Officer Jones explained, “It was brightly lighted—it was not a plane and it was not a star.”
The craft was witnessed by many Edmond residents before moving on to the northeast. This craft, or a similar one that traveled in the same direct, flew over Tulsa about an hour and a half later, where it was photographed before it continued on into Kansas.
Oklahoma was not the only state to experience UFO activity on that hot summer night. By midnight, the UPI wire service reported thousands of UFO reports from Dallas, Texas. Similar sightings were reported in Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming.
By Monday’s morning light, August 2, tens of thousands of people from seven different states had witnessed UFO activity. At least two U.S. Air Force bases had tracked the strange lights on radar at the same time they were observed by members of the military and law enforcement. Had American air space been invaded by a foreign presence? Questions went up the Air Force chain of command until they reached the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The flippant responses previously given by government officials to dismiss such sightings would not work in this case. But, they tried anyway.
By afternoon that same Monday, the Air Force had solved the UFO mystery of the previous two nights. An official response from the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Information stated: “The initial study of the majority of reports received thus far would indicate that observations were astrological in nature. The objects most likely observed were the planet or stars Jupiter, Capella, Belegeux, or Aldeberon, which are clearly visible in the eastern sky.
“The time of the reported sightings and azimuth and elevation of reported sightings supports this conclusion. There were no aircraft scrambled in an attempt to intercept the reported objects.”
The lights seen blinking and changing color were explained as a natural atmospheric phenomenon called scintillation, the same effect that causes stars to appear to twinkle.
The Air Force response concluded, “The investigation is continuing.”
Robert Risser, who was then the director of the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation planetarium, emphatically disagreed. He told the Oklahoma Journal, “That is as far from the truth as you can get. Somebody had made a mistake. These stars and planets are on the opposite side of the earth from Oklahoma City at this time of year.”
Risser suggested that someone may have read the star chart wrong, or had it upside down. He did concede that meteors and a touch of mass hysteria could have accounted for some reports, then added, “But that still leaves a number of observations still unexplained.”
By Tuesday, local papers had begun their coverage of the previous nights’ events in what became a series of articles on the Sooner saucer sightings. The August 3 edition of the Edmond Sun reported the events of the previous Sunday night in a front-page article under the headline “Edmond Claims Share of Saucer Sighting.”
This same evening, the Interplanetary Intelligence of UFOs hosted a watch party on the grounds of WKY Radio, which was located on Britton Road, south of the Broadway Extension.
On the following evening of August 4, Edmond residents were still seeing UFOs. The Edmond Police Department received a report of four red objects flying towards town from the northeast at about 8:30 p.m. The sighting was witnessed by a family of five, who watched the lights dim and then reappear just as bright.
As late Sunday evening of August 1 faded into early Monday morning, the objects continued to travel northeast from the Oklahoma City area. Just after midnight, Tulsa residents watched as the lights approach from the west. At around 12:30 a.m., four members of the Full Gospel Chapel were leaving for the evening when they witnessed the phenomenon. They watch for about an hour, as the lights traveled overhead, continuing in their northeast direction until they disappeared over Sand Springs. The Reverend Buster Stotlemyre said, “We counted 17 or better that were distinct. It’s odd. They would go a distance, then stop, change color, then go on. The colors changed slowly from white to green to red. They were together, but were not in formation. One seemed to zigzag or sway in and out.”
At approximately 1:45 a.m., a 14-year-old Tulsa paperboy was poised to make UFO history. Alan Smith and his father had observed the strange lights the night before. This night, father and son stood at the ready in their backyard, armed with a Boy Scout camera. Also present were Alan’s 18-year-old sister, Sherly, her husband, Ron Holt, and the Smiths’ next-door neighbor, Daryl Swimmer.
The object came into view from the western sky as it continued its north-by-northeast direction. It appeared to the group as a blob of rotating, multicolored lights and was reported to emit a whining sound. As the object increased its speed, the lights became brighter and the whining pitch intensified. The group noticed that the neighborhood dogs began to howl, apparently in response to the object’s proximity.
Witnesses estimated the object was between 40 to 60 feet in diameter. Alan waited until the lights were overhead, then pointed his camera and clicked the shutter.
Despite the following few days of UFO hysteria in the news, the Smiths waited a week before taking the roll of film to the Exel Camera Store, at 914 South Detroit in Tulsa, for developing. When the photos were ready, the family was disappointed to find no image of the strange lights. Examination of the negatives revealed there were two photos that had not been developed. One appeared to be a multicolored blob near the corner of the frame. The Smiths returned the following day to have the photo in question developed. When it was ready, the family was amazed to see an image of what they had watched fly overhead that early Monday morning. What had appeared as a blob of light to observers was captured on film as a saucer-shaped object displaying different color sections, separated by solid black lines.
The Smith family realized that they were in possession of a good quality UFO photo, but were not sure what to do with it. A neighbor of the Smiths’ telephoned Hayden Hewes and asked him if he would be interested in seeing an “unusual photograph” taken a couple of weeks earlier, the same night that Hewes had sighted a similar object.
Hewes arrived at the Smiths’ house with Cliff King, a photographer for the Oklahoma Journal. Besides interviewing witnesses and examining the unusual photo, King attempted to duplicate the image under the same circumstances. He stood in the back yard at approximately the same time of night to eliminate the possibility the boy’s camera lens was flawed or that the image was merely a reflection of an earth-bound object.
John Gumm, chief photographer for the Oklahoma Journal, examined the roll of film shot by King, in addition to the photo and negative of Smith’s UFO. The object was estimated to be approximately 50 feet in diameter and less than a mile away in distance.
The Journal knew they had an important story, but wanted to be cautious before reporting something as incredible as a UFO photo. Witnesses present when the photo was taken were interviewed by the Journal’s aviation editor, Jim Krouse, who first learned of the incident from a Tulsa reporter. Additional interviews were conducted by associate editor Bill Boykin and publisher W.P. “Bill” Atkinson. By early October, the newsmen were satisfied.
On Tuesday, October 5, 1965, the Oklahoma Journal presented photographic evidence of the UFOs seen over Oklahoma in a front-page article. The paper had purchased the photo and negative from Smith for $15. Hewes was also in possession of copies of the photo and negatives. With permission, he supplied fellow UFO researchers and the media with copies of the now famous image when requested.
Hewes sent copies of the photo to Eastman Kodak and the office of Project Blue Book at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Both offices responded with the same conclusion that photo analysis was useless without the original negative.
In the meantime, Smith’s photo, now property of the Oklahoma Journal, was receiving much attention. It appeared in publications worldwide and continues to be reprinted in books and articles today. It reached its height of popularity when it appeared in the April 1, 1966, issue of Life magazine. This was when Project Blue Book decided that they wanted another look at the mysterious photo, and this time they insisted on seeing the original and the negative. The Journal complied, and on June 9, 1966, the Air Force’s Photo Processing and Photo Analysis Division completed their official report. It read in part, “Using the 2.5 image size and the camera/range data quoted in the (Journal) article, the object become approximately 30 feet in diameter—or 40 percent smaller than quoted in the article (50 feet)—at a range of less than one mile.”
The report concluded with, “Photo-processing personnel noted that the image bears a resemblance, although doesn’t appear identical, to the effect they have observed obtained by photographing a multi-colored revolving filter flood light of the type used to illuminate and color aluminum trees during the Christmas season.”
Despite any reservations Air Force investigators may have had about what the object in the photograph was, their conclusions regarding size and distance matched that of Journal’s analyses and eyewitnesses. Attempts were later made by civilian photographers to re-create the photo using a “multi-colored revolving filter flood light,” but the results were not a match.
In 1977, a civilian UFO research group from Phoenix, Arizona, known as Ground Saucer Watch analyzed the photo using new computer scanning techniques. Their results also estimated the object photographed to be less than one mile away and about 30 to 40 feet in diameter. It was also determined that the density of the lines separating the colors on the object were greater than the surrounding night sky. Their conclusion was that the photograph captured the image of a single, solid, three-dimensional object approximately the shape of a saucer.
So, whatever became of the original photo and negative? That is what Hewes would like to know. A copy negative had remained in his possession for decades, until he generously lent it to the producers of the television show Unsolved Mysteries. Perhaps someday they will solve the mystery of what they did with it.
After a summer of UFO sightings without satisfactory explanation, the American people were not sure what to think. They appealed to their elected representatives, who soon understood that these so-called UFO “kooks” were the same hardworking, taxpaying citizens who voted them into office. On April 5, 1966, Congress held its first open hearing on the subject of UFOs. Representative L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina had the dubious honor of heading the meeting, which seemed to be an attempt to patronize voters for another term. Nothing was resolved and Project Blue Book was now under more pressure than ever to come up with answers.
By this point, the Air Force had had enough of the UFO business. Attempts to solve the mysterious phenomenon were unsuccessful, as were their responses to dismiss sightings. In 1966, as a means to an end, the previous two decades of reports collected by Project Blue Book were analyzed by a team of scientists at Colorado University under the direction of Dr. Edward Uhler Condon. The Condon Committee, as it became known, was controversial from the start. Dr. Condon was criticized for having already made up his mind in regard to the non-existence of UFOs. It seemed as if the American voters and taxpayers were again being patronized.
By December of 1968, the committee’s predictable conclusions were published in the Condon Report. It stated that UFOs were not of significance for scientific study and recommended that Project Blue Book be canceled. The following year, the Air Force was officially relieved of its responsibility to investigate UFOs and presently does not collect reports of such sightings. Ironically, the greatest numbers of official government documents involving UFOs belong to the U.S. Navy.
Published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 2, January 15, 2015. Portions of this article originally appeared in Oklahoma Outlaws, Spooky Stories, and All Around Folklore.