A picture of the UFO sighted in Hillsdale in 1966.
Several girls living in MacIntyre Residence of Hillsdale College looked out their back windows and noticed flashing lights hovering over the Arb on March 21 around 10:30p.m. Gidget Kohn ‘69 detailed the event in a Collegian article written three days later.
“I ran to my window and there it was, radiating intense silver-white light and heading directly for the dorm,” she said. “A brief flash of lightning illuminated it for just a second and in that second I saw what appeared to be a squashed football or basketball.”
When more of her dorm mates reported seeing the object, Kohn called the Civil Defense Director, Bud Van Horn. Nineteen girls in the dorm witnessed the incident. They watched the flashing object whirl and dive up and down until about 5:10a.m. when it disappeared for good.
“It is not necessary to describe all the movement,” Kohn said. “Let it suffice to say that it moved like nothing earthly and Mr. Van Horn was seeing it too.”
In the days following, a number people reported seeing a similar lights and flying objects in Vicksburg, Frankfort, and Battle Creek. The rash of sightings made national news, and the Air Force sent J. Allen Hynek, a professor at Northwestern University, to Hillsdale to investigate on behalf of Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s UFO research program.
In his report, Hynek dismissed the event as a phenomenon caused by “swamp gas” and said it was also possible the girls had been fooled by “pranks with flares.”
Hynek’s reported caused an outrage among many who had reported UFOs. In defense of the girls who had seen the Hillsdale UFO, Van Horn published a 15 point rebuttal seeking to discredit Hynek’s opinion as uninformed and lazy.
“It was my considered opinion that Dr. Hynek had his mind made up as to what his findings would be before he ever reached the City of Hillsdale,” he said. “I also observed that his main line of questioning was relative only to that which would fit the Marsh Gas Theory.”
Van Horn also organized lab tests on the soil in the Slayton Arboretum which revealed unusually high levels of boron and radiation present in the soil. The report also showed that all microscopic life in close proximity to the spot where the lights had been seen was dead.
The flimsiness of Hynek’s report combined with the massive volume of Michigan UFO sightings in 1966 has given the Hillsdale incident the distinction as one of the most notable UFO events ever reported.
“It would not be overstating it to say that the sightings in Dexter and Hillsdale two nights in a row each with a large number of witnesses are amongst the top two or three most publicized UFO events of all time,” said Will Matthews, a historian from Kalamazoo. “It resulted in Gerald Ford, who was a senator in Michigan in 1966, to call for congressional hearings.
The hearings in turn prompted the University of Colorado project, which was when the Air Force allowed the University to conduct its own UFO research. They came up with fairly negative results, making it possible for the Air Force to close down Project Blue Book. All this happened because of the sightings in Michigan.”
Matthews explained the outpouring of UFO reports in Michigan as a combination of both genuine sightings and mass hysteria caused by the news coverage surrounding the Hillsdale sightings.
“Once a couple of reports get a lot of publicity, then the dam breaks.” he said. “After Hillsdale in 1966, reports came in from all over the country.”
Jack Butler ’15, a UFO enthusiast, said although the 1966 events are fascinating, they are ultimately inexplicable.
“By most conventional explanations, there is no reason why Hillsdale, or even Southern Michigan would play host in such prominent UFO sightings,” he said. “Even fifty years we’re still wondering what exactly happened.”
Hynek himself acknowledged this fact, years after he made his “swamp gas” assessment.
Professor of Religion and Humanities Tom Burke reported that when he took a class with Hynek at Northwestern University, the professor once shared his thoughts on the incident during a lecture.
“Hynek said he had no explanation at all, but the Air Force kept bugging him to come up with an one, so just to get them off his back, he said what he considered the most ridiculous explanation he could think of, one they would clearly recognize as silly and so just leave him alone until he came up with a realistic explanation,” Burke said. “So he said the sightings were caused by swamp gas, knowing this was not only not the case, but on its face a silly, absurd, impossible explanation.”
Neither Hynek nor anyone else has been able to scientifically explain exactly what happened in Hillsdale, but Butler has his own interpretation:
“Maybe the aliens were just attracted by all the freedom.”