Flying saucers…UFOs…ETs…. Few topics are more likely to prompt raised eyebrows or outright derision. But it wasn’t always so. Back in the Sixties flying saucers were “serious business,” to borrow the title of a 1966 New York Times bestseller on the subject. UFOs were being reported all over the world and were even said to be “the most important problem facing the UN next to the war in Vietnam,” according to then- secretary general U Thant. It was a time when the entire nation seemed rife with saucer reports, from the fevered deserts of Indio, California to the glowing swamp gases of Ann Arbor, Michigan to the “fairy lights” above Wanaque Reservoir, New Jersey. And the Hamptons were no exception. A look into local newspaper archives provides some interesting tales.
The Flap of ’66
The East Hampton Star reported a series of local UFO sightings (or as fans of the phenomena call them, a “flap”) during the Spring of 1966. The Star’s April 7, 1966 edition featured a front-page story proclaiming “Saucer Is Reported At Napeague Beach.” The accompanying article described an East Hampton resident’s truck inexplicably stalling on the evening of Wednesday, March 30th near the 400-ft. tall Mackay radio tower. The motorist opened his hood to inspect his engine when “a brilliant white light in the shape of a 50- to 75-foot-long torpedo appeared overhead. It hovered for a while and then took off ‘faster than a jet’ toward Gardiner’s Island.” There was no noise. The truck reportedly restarted once the UFO vanished, with its driver speeding to police headquarters to report what he’d seen.
The same article also noted that a married couple on Abraham’s Path reported a similar light just after 9 p.m. that same night near Three Mile Road. This sighting was said to have caused static on their radio and barking by neighborhood dogs. It alternately appeared as a large blue “very funny light” that was “glowing brightly” but later varied in intensity before turning into a “black bulk in the sky” that hovered over a Hampton Cablevision tower and then “flashed light upwards and started to move.” It then “swept across the sky,” circled over Three Mile Harbor, and headed toward East Hampton, by which time it was “oval and had a yellowish, reddish tinge.”
The Star’s May 12, 1966 edition added another incident to the Hamptons UFO flap with an account of another nighttime sighting, this time by a young couple near Indian Wells beach in Amagansett. The story caught the attention of paperback writer Irving A. Greenfield, whose interest in UFOs was piqued after being told of a roaring red saucer seen by the children of a motel owner in Sag Harbor about a month earlier. The object also caused the family dog to whine and bark. Greenfield interviewed that family, and one of the Indian Wells eyewitnesses (a teenage girl) and included both in his book, The U.F.O. Report (Lancer, 1967), one of many published on the subject by various authors at the time.
The teenager described an “oval-shaped, grayish glowing object hovering over the top of the bathhouse” at Indian Wells. Her description included “two hatch-like windows in its bottom. Both windows were lighted. There were two white lights on each end of the oval and a red flashing light on its top.” She said her boyfriend then switched on his car’s headlights and the UFO “rose quickly and headed west.” Interestingly, Greenfield added that the girl said her boyfriend was later “questioned by two men” after their story appeared in the Star. She said she “didn’t know where the men were from,” and added that her boyfriend was “reluctant to talk about that meeting.” Whether these were the fabled “men in black” who allegedly discouraged UFO eyewitnesses from talking about their sightings (while inspiring a series of movies 30 years later) is unknown.
Added to the Star’s UFO sightings for the Spring of 1966 was a subsequent report of “two orange saucers clamped together with a black square in the middle” over the ocean south of Hither Hills in Montauk and another UFO over Main Beach in East Hampton two days later. A recap of Hamptons UFO sightings published by the Star nearly 30 years later on July 3, 1997 (timed to coincide with national media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the alleged Roswell, New Mexico saucer crash) quoted a NICAP (National Investigators Committee on Aerial Phenomena) representative as saying he’d heard about 12 different UFO reports on the East End over the course of six weeks during the Spring of 1966.
Dry Spell / Dry Wit
As with the rest of the country, UFO reports for the Hamptons dropped off significantly in the early 1970’s. The Star’s 1997 recap relates that local UFO reports ended until November of 1973, when the paper ran the headline “UFOs Back From Vacation” above a story about an East Hampton High School student seeing “a fast-moving red dot over Main Beach.” The few reports that followed included a 1989 story about fishermen off Shagwong Point in Montauk seeing “a strange bright light above the water” with no aircraft sound, and a Christmas 1994 report about an East Hampton woman seeing a UFO on three occasions during the early-morning hours. She used her camcorder to capture its image, which a Hofstra University expert later described as “something that is not normal.”
The Star wasn’t the only local newspaper to have published an occasional UFO report. The Montauk Pioneer’s September 18, 1998 edition described the sighting of a “lop-sided starfish…about six times the size of a large star” emitting “a soft candlelike glow” in the night sky above Ditch Plains Beach, in Montauk. After about ten minutes the object “suddenly started to move backwards…at a very fast pace until it disappeared.”
The Montauk Pioneer has, of course, been known to publish tall tales over the years, but if ever there was “serious” confirmation of the East End’s reputation as a UFO hotspot, it was provided by no less an expert than Woody Allen. “The UFO Menace,” which Allen wrote for The New Yorker’s June 13, 1977 edition, included a mention of “a man on Montauk Point, in Long Island” having his midnight snack (two pieces of chicken he felt entitled to) snatched away from him by “a large mechanical claw” extending from a “gigantic cigar-shaped aircraft” hovering outside his kitchen window. Dissatisfied by the official explanation of this close encounter (“a flock of birds”), Allen added that the Air Force promised to return the man’s snack but provided “only one piece” of chicken.
That laughter should be a natural response to UFO reports is understandable. Such stories are so far out of the realm of normal experience that ridicule is often a logical – and perhaps reassuring – reaction. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astronomy professor hired by the Air Force in 1948 to review eyewitness accounts, described such sightings as “high strangeness.” The late Dr. Hynek addressed the United Nations on the topic of UFOs on November 27, 1978, stating, “It is a phenomenon so strange and foreign to our daily terrestrial mode of thought that it is frequently met by ridicule and derision by persons and organizations unacquainted with the facts. The phenomenon persists…it has touched on the lives of an increasing number of people around the world.” Hynek also coined the “close encounter” terminology adapted by local resident Steven Spielberg for the title of his 1977 movie thriller.
Some UFO sightings were later found to have factual explanations. Many during the jittery Cold War were actually advanced military aircraft such as the SR-71 “Blackbird,” a spy plane kept secret for many years. On January 14, 1979 The New York Times disclosed that the CIA had long been involved in monitoring UFO reports, adding that part of the agency’s interest stemmed from its concern that such sightings might mask Russian air attacks or be used for psychological warfare.
Any discussion of UFOs over the Hamptons would be incomplete without mentioning something called “The Montauk Project.” Widely publicized on the web and in a series of books, it alleges secret government saucer experiments at the now-decommissioned Camp Hero Air Force Station near Montauk Point. Do a Google search and decide for yourself.
The wide-open skies of the South Fork of Long Island are great for stargazing, but whether they’re also a magnet for interplanetary visitors is yet to be determined. Whether UFO sightings indicate visitations from alien worlds is anyone’s guess. Some experts even suggest the actual explanation may be so exotic that we’re not capable of comprehending it. Or perhaps it’s just galactic chicken thieves. One thing is, however, certain: Like its rich cultural life, spectacular sunsets, great fishing, and beautiful beaches, UFO sightings are yet another extraordinary feature that makes the Hamptons a very special place.