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The Pentagon’s recent admission that footage of a UFO taken by a Navy pilot is real might be unbelievable to some. To others, it’s just another incident among thousands of UFO sightings, and Arkansas has its fair share of these stories.
I grew up with a story of a family friend who was driving late one night across southern Arkansas. He came to a long, lonely stretch and realized there were bright lights all around him and over him, yet no one was on the road in either direction. He slowed down and the lights overhead slowed with him. Then he sped up and so did the lights. The gauges in the car started going haywire. He slowed again, frightened, and the lights over him disappeared. He stopped and got out of the car to see if an airplane was above him, but he couldn’t see anything in the sky. The gauges on his car returned to normal and he quickly drove off into the Arkansas night.
This story always made me shiver, but many Arkansans know someone with a similar story, or may even have one of their own.
Purported Image of a Flying Saucer in Passaic, New Jersey, 1952.
The first recorded UFO sighting in the United States begins with a surprising observer, John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1639 he wrote of a strange encounter several men had with a “great light in the night sky” (History.com). The light moved back and forth between the men for two to three hours as they rowed a boat up the Muddy River. Other people reported seeing the same phenomenon at the same time. The men also discovered when the light disappeared that they were much farther up the river than they realized and had no memory of arriving at that point. Though the Puritans didn’t have the term UFO, if they had, Governor Winthrop would surely have classified this as a UFO encounter.
The term UFO stands for unidentified flying object and came into use in the early 1950s. Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, who headed Project Blue Book, an Air Force investigation into UFOs, used the term in his reports. Project Blue Book began after an increase in UFO sightings occurred, beginning in 1947 when pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine objects flying at high speed over Mt. Rainier.
UFO history in Arkansas precedes the 20th century. In the latter part of the 1800s, mysterious airship sightings took place across the country. These started in 1876 in California. Twenty years later, in 1897, witnesses in the Midwest claimed dozens of sightings of an aerial machine shaped like a cigar. This included sightings in Arkansas. Some children first reported seeing the object on April 17, 1897. They told their father, J. F. Floyd, who could only describe the object as “a huge ball of fire traveling with fearful velocity” (arkansasstatearchives.com). The sightings continued. The next report came from Iron Mountain Railroad conductor Jim Hooten, who happened upon the airship while out hunting on April 20. He claimed to hear a noise that sounded like a locomotive air pump. He found the airship and several men in a field and asked them if this was the airship. One replied that it was. Hooten later made a sketch of the airship for the Arkansas Gazette.
Credit: Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Sketch by Jim Hooten submitted to the Arkansas Gazette, April 22, 1897.
On the evening of May 7, 1897, Constable John J. Sumpter and Deputy Sheriff John McLemore were riding horses outside of Hot Springs. They saw a bright light appear in the sky and decided to investigate. Then they followed the light and had to dismount, reporting that their horses refused to go any farther. They followed the light on foot through a rainy evening and found “a cigar-shaped vessel, 60 feet long” (encyclopediaofarkansas.net). Several men walked around the vessel and one was retrieving water from a nearby creek. One man approached the Arkansans and said they were traveling around the country in the airship. He even offered the two men a ride to get out of the rain. The constable and sheriff replied that they “preferred to get wet.”
The presence of an airship was never confirmed, though these sightings had the nation in a frenzy that year. Some believe it was a hoax egged on by numerous people telling a story and having a good time. Others believe that the amount of sightings lend credence that some form of unidentified flying object did appear around the nation that year.
The next famous UFO sighting in Arkansas came in 1965 when Viney Grove resident Bill Estep reported seeing a light in the sky and a cylindrical object hovering in the air. His report was never confirmed, but it wasn’t the only one that night. Other reports came in from Fayetteville of strange lights in the sky. Then, on Aug. 15 and 16th, 1966, it was Ft. Smith’s turn. Former Ft. Smith resident Randy Feemster recounted his experience seeing the UFOs that night to the Ft. Smith Southwest Times Record in 2017. Then 11 years old, Feemster remembers people gathered in several locations and watched the lights in the sky. He also remembers a V-shaped object very high in the sky, illuminated enough for him to clearly see the outline. Feemster later tried to track down the military flight records for August of 1966, but he couldn’t find any on file. He believes what Ft. Smith residents saw that night was likely a top-secret military training exercise.
The National UFO Reporting Center has recorded 781 sightings in Arkansas, with the first on June 30, 1955, and the latest on March 31, 2021. The UFO sightings vary in length, from thirty seconds to several hours. Some people reported saucer-shaped objects, others a large orange ball, and still others triangular ships or low flying lights.
The descriptions are eerie and enough to raise goosebumps on your arms if you choose to believe the encounters. A report from June 9, 2013, in Little Rock, cites a saucer-shaped craft that flew by with a whistling noise. In Conway, in 1999, two triangular craft quickly passed by a man and his daughter on a walk near their home. On Oct. 9, 2015, at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, multiple people observed a large, orange light that appeared to be on fire. The latest report from March of 2021 comes from Fayetteville and cites a stationary, slightly U-shaped object hovering in the air, then quickly turning and flying away. The reporter clearly states it was not a drone and the object was the size of a school bus.
Credit: MUFON This photo of a UFO was taken in Summers, AR in 2017.
With more objects in the sky than ever, UFO sightings have increased. Many of the sightings can be investigated and explained. Small satellite arrays now travel around the earth at high speeds and appear as quickly moving bright lights. As more small satellites are launched, these sightings will only increase. In fact, the National UFO Reporting Center “requested that people attempt to familiarize themselves with the project, which is being promoted by Dr. Elon Musk, so they are not deceived into believing that the clusters of up to approximately 60 bright satellites, often seen oriented in unwavering, straight-line formations are fleets of alien spacecraft.”
Drones, military jets, and even weather phenomena add to the confusion. However, not all UFO sightings have been solved. Many, like the childhood story I grew up with, remain unsolved. Whether these UFOs are from outer space is certainly up for more investigation and debate, but one thing is certain: Arkansas hasn’t seen its last UFO sighting.
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