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Randy Etting is said to have captured this image of lights above Newtown in 1987.

In the late 1640s, a phantom ship was seen sailing in the skies off the shore of New Haven, and since 1947, when the term UFO entered the lexicon, Connecticut has had its fair share of flying saucers, strange lights and objects falling from the heavens. With UFO sightings increasing in general over the past year, we take a closer look at three of the state’s most spectacular UFO occurrences. 

The Westchester Boomerang

What people saw: In the early 1980s, particularly in 1983 and 1984, people reported hundreds of UFOs in the skies above Connecticut. The sightings primarily took place in Fairfield County and were most frequent in western Connecticut towns near the New York border, such as Danbury, New Fairfield and Ridgefield. Over the border in Westchester and the Hudson Valley, sightings were equally common. As The New York Times reported in August 1984, “Throughout northern Westchester County, Dutchess and Putnam Counties and western Connecticut this summer, thousands of residents have reported strange objects in the sky — each usually in a V-shape or a circle, about the size of a football field, absolutely noiseless and outlined in brilliant lights of white, red or green.”

What probably happened: As Jeff Lehman, spokesman for the Stewart International Airport in Orange County, told The Associated Press in October 1988, the majority of the “Westchester Boomerang” sightings were caused by a group of pranking pilots flying in a formation that made them look like one craft. Lehman said the sightings coincided with when the airport knew these pilots were active, adding that the practice wasn’t illegal but was annoying. “I don’t see scaring people with aircraft as a game,” he said. However, in Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings, the authors, who had set up a hotline to track the UFO sightings, claim the hoaxing pilot story couldn’t account for all the sightings. The second edition of Night Siege includes an account from Randy Etting, who says he saw a UFO in 1987 in Newtown while walking near his home. He saw a collection of strange lights in a semicircle and snapped a picture of them. Hundreds of others saw these lights, which were similar to what others had seen in the area a few years earlier. Had the Westchester Boomerang returned? 

FROM THE ARCHIVES: UFO witnesses recount their experiences with "Strangers In the Sky" (August 1979)

The Green Whale of Bantam Lake

What people saw: In the early-morning hours of April 10, 2012, an unidentified motorist called state police barracks to report a whale-size, glowing green object falling into Bantam Lake. The motorist, who has never been identified, likely would have been dismissed as a prankster or magic mushroom consumer had an on-duty state trooper about 10 miles away in Warren not also called the station to report seeing a large object fall from the sky over Bantam or Morris.

What probably happened: What, if anything, fell from the heavens has never been determined and no search of the lake has been conducted to date, but there are some plausible possibilities that, unfortunately, don’t involve green men or whales. Brian Koberlein, an astrophysicist and author, has written about how meteoroids and asteroids can glow green when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere as the iron-nickel in the object burns up. Given the background of this story, he says he thinks a meteor is the culprit. “Meteorites usually burn up or cool down before getting close to Earth’s surface, so a green glowing meteor would still be pretty high. But given your vantage point, it can seem as if it is close to the ground. It’s hard to judge position and scale in the night sky,” he says. “Case in point, when the moon is low on the horizon it looks huge, but it is the same size it always is. Same with meteors sometimes. They can look big, bright and low to the ground, when they are actually farther away and appear near the horizon. Given the little information available, the object was almost certainly a meteor. It happened during the Lyrid meteor shower, and green glowing meteors aren’t particularly rare.”

Dr. Stefan Nicolescu, collections manager for the Mineralogy and Meteoritics Division at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, doubts a meteorite fell into the lake. “Neither of the two witnesses reported hearing any sound, let alone loud bangs. Even small meteorites generate a sonic boom,” he says. The last documented meteorite fall in Connecticut occurred in 2013, and though the meteorite pieces recovered in Wolcott and Waterbury were only a few pounds, a boom was heard on the Connecticut shoreline.

Asked to speculate, Nicolescu offers space debris or the northern lights as possibilities but thinks both might be a stretch. “The sighting, if it ever happened, remains a mystery,” he says.

The Great Airship Sightings

What people saw: Above Willimantic in the early-morning hours of Jan. 7, 1910, John H. Gray, an opera house manager, and John Manley, a policeman, saw emerging out of the black, starless sky “something that resembled a chain of electric lights hitched together with a strand of fire.” Gray estimated the lights, which seemed to hover, were about 50 feet long. They could have been some type of comet, he said, or an airship stopped for repairs. From December 1909 to January 1910 people across Connecticut and other parts of New England reported seeing a mysterious airship with similar characteristics. They believed it was a revolutionary new aircraft created by a Massachusetts businessman.

What probably happened: In the late 1800s, U.S. observers began seeing phantom or mystery airships. The ships were often described in an eerily similar manner to later accounts of UFOs. 

They were thought to be the inventions of aeronautic pioneers who had yet to share their genius with the world. The 1909 wave of sightings began on Dec. 12 after Wallace Tillinghast, a Worcester businessman, told a Boston Herald reporter that he had invented the world’s first reliable, heavier-than-air flying machine. He said that during one of many recent flights, he had flown it from Worcester to New York, around the Statue of Liberty, and then over Boston, far exceeding what the aviators of the day, including The Wright brothers, could accomplish. Within a month, after reporters staked out Tillinghast’s home, it became clear that his airship didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop hundreds of people from seeing it. Many mistook the planet Venus, which was unusually bright, for the airship. Other sightings were caused by hoaxers who read Tillinghast’s boasts and released fire balloons to prank their neighbors. On New Year’s Day, Edwin Hitchcock, a prison warden in Winsted, and his friends released a balloon at the same time as they blanketed the area with handbills that read “Jan. 1, 1910, on my way to New York,” and were signed by Tillinghast. Many were fooled by this hoax on top of a hoax.

This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.