“The Coyne incident stands out because of who the witnesses were. As cases go, you don't get much better than that.”
On an ink-stained night in October, 1973, sheriffs near Zanesville witnessed three pulsating globes over a local graveyard on the edge of town. UFOs hovering over graveyards sounds like a bad plot line to one of the countless number of abysmal horror films made in the last decade. But 40 years ago this month, and just days before thousands of kids flooded the streets for Halloween, the truth was way stranger than fiction as a UFO wave swept across the Midwest in October of 1973. Even the Ohio governor at the time, John J. Gilligan, had a close encounter with an “amber-colored vertical craft” for 30 minutes as he was driving with his wife. “I saw one the other night, so help me,” said the shaken Gilligan during a press conference that was cited by Walter Cronkite during the national news. “I'm absolutely serious. I saw this. It was not a plane. It was not a bird. It didn't wear a cape. And I really don't know what it was.” Gilligan, a liberal Democrat, was voted out of office the following year. Not for claiming he saw a UFO chasing his car in the dead of night – but for implementing Ohio’s income tax. This past August the former governor died at the age of 92. The UFO wave of 1973 spread fear and panic across the countryside much like a Halloween night radio broadcast of HG Wells’ War of the World’s did in 1938. While both events bumped notorious leaders from the front page – Hitler in ’38, and Tricky Dick in ’73 -- the wave of 1973 was real and tangible. What were these lights? And perhaps more importantly…What did they want? These questions about UFOs, going back hundreds if not thousands of years, have become an obsession for so many. The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens is one of its highest-rated shows and currently in it's 6th season. Also consider Steven Spielberg, who’s made billions portraying extraterrestrials who love children in ET, and those extraterrestrials who abduct children in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg has suggested Close Encounters (1977), which portrayed a single mother desperate to get her child back from extraterrestrials, was inspired by the UFO wave of 1973. Indeed, Ohio police and ufologists took reports from several hysterical mothers who believed the strange lights zigzagging over their house were out to take their children far, far, far away. Fear of the Unknown As Halloween loomed on the horizon in Ohio, 1973, fear of the unknown began to spread. Police from Columbus to Cincinnati fielded hundreds of calls as local newspapers put the story on the front page. “Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies were swarmed with UFO reports for the fourth straight night,” read The Columbus Citizen Journal on October 18th. “Deputies said they had between 30 to 40 reports of shiny objects zigzagging through the sky Wednesday night. Columbus police had about 15 reports last night, mainly from the West Side.” One far west-sider, 21-year-old Jesse Dunagan, an Air National Guard flight controller, told police he and his girlfriend were leaving a drive-in theater when they saw “a pulsating blue-ish-white object make the sky look dim.” The UFO was 500-feet above Hall Road when it “suddenly zigzagged across a soybean field, hovered a few minutes above some trees, and then dropped straight down.” Today, the alleged landing site is amidst a spread of car dealerships just west of the 270 Georgesville Rd. exit. Across the Ohio countryside police phones rang off the hook. The news wire United Press International reported that a “hysterical and screaming woman” from Highland County told authorities an oblong craft with blinking lights killed two cows as it landed on her farm. The city of Reading plunged into darkness as it experienced several power outages; the local utility quickly blamed shoddy equipment. In Trenton, some of the townsfolk swore a flying craft of some sort, not from around these parts, landed on Main Street in the middle of town. Near Cincinnati, Sgt. Hugh Over chased a white and yellow craft, saying later, “I never believed in UFOs until tonight.” UFOs in the night sky is one type of chill, but driving past extraterrestrials walking a dark and lonely road has to be worse. Three apparent ETs with silver skin and antennae were spotted on U.S. 35 near Dayton late on October 19th. Scared out of their wits, drivers called police, who raced to the scene, but discovered the so-called aliens were actually three teenagers pulling a Halloween prank by wrapping themselves in aluminum foil. Columbus resident and ufologist William E. Jones has spent a life-time interviewing UFO witnesses, and to this day, says a very credible witness gave him an eye-popping explanation behind the 1973 wave. Jones is the current assistant director to the Ohio chapter of Mutual UFO Network, better known as MUFON. Jones, a retired engineer from Battelle Memorial on King Avenue, refuses to comment whether or not he had first-hand knowledge of alleged UFO technology being shipped to Battelle from the alleged Roswell flying saucer crash of 1947. Nevertheless, Jones recalls the 1973 wave as “an amazing time for UFOs.” Several years later he met a West Point grad who knew something about 1973, and Jones swears the mental health of this Army veteran hadn’t vanished to another galaxy. “I met a former officer of the U.S. Army, and he proved this by showing me a valid card that said he was a former officer,” said Jones. “He told me he had an incredible story about 1973 to tell me. He was troubled that he knew this and needed to reveal it. He told me the U.S. Army earlier that year was in negotiations with some Greys (extraterrestrials). He was very matter-of-fact. He said the Greys were not getting anywhere with our Army and so they wanted to make a point.” Jones won’t say whether he believed the former officer, but as all ufologists repeat: at least consider the evidence. The Coyne Incident: a case for disclosure? At 10:30 pm October 18th, 1973, the Army Reserve “Super Huey” helicopter 68-15444 lifted off from a Port Columbus airport helipad and ascended into a calm and crystal-clear, moon-lit night sky. At the controls of the four-man crew was veteran pilot Capt. Lawrence J. Coyne, and their destination was Cleveland Hopkins Airport, 100-plus miles to the northeast. At 11 p.m., cruising at 2,500-feet above sea level and nearing Mansfield, one of the crew members noted a single red light on the south-eastern horizon (cue the creepy music). The crew member kept a position on the red light for a “minute to 90 seconds,” according to an exhaustive report by Jennie Zeidman, a notable UFO investigator. At the time, Zeidman was a former Ohio State astronomy grad student with a stint in the Air Force’s “Project Blue Book,” the 18-year-long UFO investigation that based its civilian research team at OSU. Keeping a close eye on the distant red light, the crew member suddenly realized it was coming directly towards the Super Huey. He shouted to Coyne who, sensing impact just seconds away, maneuvered the helicopter into an evasive descent. He radioed a nearby control tower: “Do you have any high performance aircraft in this area at 2,500 feet?” he demanded. There was no response. All radio frequencies were dead. Desperate to avoid a mid-air collision, Coyne increased his rate of descent to 2,000-feet per minute by pushing the airspeed to 100 knots. Coyne said that’s when the helicopter became paralyzed in mid-air, 1,700-feet above ground. “Just as collision appeared imminent, the unknown light halted, and assumed a hovering relationship above and in front of the helicopter,” wrote Zeidman in her report. The crew later agreed that what they saw hovering in front of the Super Huey was a featureless cigar-shaped craft with no windows and a red light positioned on the ship’s front nose. “We looked up and saw it stopped right over us,” said Coyne a few days after the incident to local media. “It had a big, gray, metallic-looking hull about 60 feet long. It was shaped like an airfoil or a streamlined fat cigar. There was a red light on the front, (and) there was a center dome. And a green light at the rear reflected on the hull. Suddenly the sickly green light from the back of the UFO morphed into a cone-shaped searchlight that slowly swiveled towards the front of the Super Huey. The cockpit was immediately overpowered by the light and all were bathed in an eerie glow. Seconds later, “Coyne noticed that the Super Huey’s magnetic compass disk was rotating approximately four times per minute and that the altimeter read approximately 3,500 feet; a 1,000 foot-per-minute climb was in progress,” wrote Zeidman. Yet Coyne insisted he still had the throttle stick pressed forward in descent mode. The UFO disengaged with the helicopter and in a split-second it vanished toward Lake Erie. Coyne would later tell military investigators, “I had made no attempt to pull up. All controls were set for a 20-degree dive. Yet we had climbed from 1,700 to 3,500 feet with no power in a couple of seconds with no G-forces or other noticeable strains.” “Skeptics claimed Coyne must have unknowingly moved the helicopter,” said Jones of MUFON, who added Coyne was later promoted to Major. “Coyne said it felt like the object had control. They (the U.S. military) didn't hold it against him. A lot of military people would say to Coyne, ‘You’ve got to be nuts’, but they didn't. Promoting him says a lot.” The UFO wave of 1973, along with the Coyne Incident, offers a lot of cannon fodder to those who believe Carl Sagan's little blue dot is being visited by a super-advanced species. Hopefully they are simply taking a quick tour of our backwater as they continue on a very long road trip. But whether or not any part of our government knows extraterrestrials exist -- or if the helicopter was taken over by a super-secret military aircraft -- the Coyne incident is the UFO case that could bring about what ufologists like to call “full disclosure.” “The Coyne incident stands out because of who the witnesses were,” says Jones, who investigated the incident. “As cases go, you don't get much better than that.” Buzz Kill When October 31st finally arrived in 1973, UFO fever in Ohio began to cool. Police phones weren’t ringing off the hook. Stories of glowing disks skimming the tree-tops had dried up. The buzz was tapering off. The public’s sudden rush of a mind-boggling reality was tempered with heavy doses of explanation. Perhaps the most sobering answer to the UFO wave of October 1973 is offered by Dayton’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The Air Force Base is a hallowed location in UFO history as ufologists believe the (apparent) space ship that crashed at Roswell in 1947 was stored at “Wright-Patt” in Hanger 18. On October 6, 1973, the Yom Kippur War erupted when Eygpt and Syria, along with 10 other Arab nations, invaded Israel. Desperate for survival, Israel threatened to launch nuclear warheads against the Arab world. Seeing the apocalypse on the horizon, the White House made the decision to heavily aid Israel, ordering the U.S. Air Force to execute “Operation Nickel Grass” beginning October 13th. Within hours of the order, Wright-Patt was buzzing as an armada of military cargo planes stuffed with war gear lifted off for the Mediterranean, around the clock for 30 days straight. Much of the fleet headed east, on the same path where UFO sightings had reached a boil. Yet most of the planes involved were C-141 StarLifters, resembling a pregnant passenger jet. Another heavily used plane was the C-5 Galaxy, nothing more than an over-sized cargo jet. Could it be that all those witnesses from Ohio were seeing ships and crafts from this world? Did Coyne and his crew actually have a close encounter a super secret Air Force craft that’s still being tested at Area 51? Ohio’s greatest ufologist The UFO invasion of southwest and central Ohio may have been swept into the dustbin of historical obscurity if not for one of Ohio’s most prolific ufologists – Kenny Young of Cincinnati. Young spent his adulthood chasing lights and UFO witnesses across Ohio and beyond, and meticulously documented the 1973 wave. Young was in the first grade when the UFO wave hit, and recalled how a neighbor, a 40-year-old mother, frantically told his family a “blue diamond” craft was trying to abduct her baby daughter. Young died of leukemia at the young age of 38 after battling the blood disease as a teenager. Young is only one of dozens of ufologists who died early in life and under strange circumstances. Nonetheless, Young’s passion lives on. Boxes of his life’s work comprising papers and research documenting nearly every UFO sighting in the last century in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana – were donated to OSU postmortem. “The unusual aerial events happening during the October 1973 time-period remains one of the most fascinating of all UFO happenings, an intense and disturbing siege that no dismissive hypothesis or explanatory venture will easily rob of its strangeness,” he once wrote. John Lasker is a journalist from Columbus. He’s written for Wired magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Agence France Press and many others.