By Jeffrey G. Liss

A terrified boy's report of a strange "light" that pursued his car for
almost an hour touched off one of the Midwest's biggest UFO flaps.

When a scared and trembling 18-year-old Ronnie Austin ran into his darkened southern Illinois farm home shortly after midnight last August 5, he was barely able to gasp, "Dad, something followed me home!" His father Orval grabbed for a shotgun, but Ronnie called out, "It won't do any good - it's a light!" 

It was a rather unusual light! According to Ronnie it had charged at him and chased his car over highway and gravel roads, around corners, and up and down hills for more than three-quarters of an hour and at speeds up to 120 m.p.h. His report was but the first of many that kept southern Illinois astir for days. 

Several other persons, including a deputy sheriff and a police radio operator, witnessed the strange light in the sky that night and the story appeared in newspapers across the Midwest.  The Chicago Tribune gave it 15 inches of space on page one. 

Five days later I traveled to Wayne County, about 275 miles southwest of Chicago, to investigate the incident for FATE. Fairfield, the county seat, straddles Illinois Route 15 for 15 blocks amidst lush farmland. It is a pleasant town of 6,400 persons, its residents friendly and soft-spoken. 

When I arrived in the area, I found that since Ronnie's sighting, strange lights in the sky had been seen nightly by dozens of responsible citizens. These lights were just about the only topic of conversation in Fairfield, which had become the focal point of the Midwest's biggest saucer flap in years. 

Deputy Sheriff Harry Lee, who handled his department's reports, had visited the Austin home within an hour after Ronnie first ran inside. I asked him if the incident could have been a hoax. He shook his head, "No, I'm sure he saw something.  He was in pretty bad shape when I saw him; he looked scared to death. The parents were real shook up, too. They had seen it up close and knew there was something to it." 

The Austins, he told me, had been so hounded by reporters, eccentrics, and curiosity seekers that they were in virtual seclusion. They refused to see most inquirers or answer letters or phone calls. When I drove out to the Austin farm near Keenes, Ill., about 20 miles west of Fairfield, I met Ronnie's grand parents and his brother Terry, 17. They were polite but wary and reluctant to discuss the incident. They suggested I come back later when the whole family might be home. 

Ronnie Austin, 18-year-old Fairfield, Ill., farm boy, was so
unnerved by his experience that a doctor prescribed a sedative.

When I returned, Ronnie, who before his experience with the light had been accustomed to go out every night, was about to leave on his first date in several days. He kindly delayed his departure and he and his father sat down with me and described the events of that wild night: 

Ronnie and his date, Phyllis Bruce, 18, had been driving home Sunday night after seeing The Great Escape at the Kerasota Drive-in Theater in Mount Vernon, 32 miles west of Fairfield. At about 11:30 PM. (DST' - l0:30 CST) as they drove east along Illinois Route 15 past the Mount Vernon airport, Ronnie leaned over to speak to Phyllis. 

* All times are Daylight Savings Time.

It was then that he noticed a round ball of bright white light just above treetop level, about 20-degrees above the horizon, to the southwest. The light had a fuzzy outline and appeared to be the size of a washtub. 

He asked Phyllis, "Look there at that thing! What is it? Is it an airplane?" 

Phyllis looked and answered slowly, "No, it's not an airplane; it doesn't have flashing red and green lights." 

Then they discovered the light seemed to be keeping pace with them. When they decreased speed, the light decreased its speed, always keeping in the same relative position. When they increased speed, the object still seemed to keep pace. At one time Ronnie's car, a 1956 Ford Victoria souped up for racing, was going 120 mph., but the light stayed right with them. 

Deputy Sheriff Harry Lee visited Austin
farm to investigate report of light. He
expressed belief Ronnie 'saw something.'

Suddenly, when they were about six miles west of the intersection with the Orchardville Road, the light darted straight toward the car until it seemed only a few hundred feet away. Then it swerved upward and ahead where it appeared to perch for a few seconds above an electronic relay tower (which is less than 500 feet high, because it does not appear on a map of aerial obstacles). 

Seconds later, however, the light darted across the road to the north side, about 200 yards ahead and to the left of the car. It maintained this position as they sped down the deserted highway. 

Ronnie then turned north on a gravel road leading to Phyllis' home, putting the light to the right and rear. It stayed there as he drove the mile and a half to her house, and when they arrived it hung stationary a little to the southeast. The couple watched it from Phyllis' house for about 15 minutes, then Ronnie left for home. 

He drove back south. The light hung in the same place - on his left - but when he turned east onto another gravel road the light suddenly shot diagonally ahead of him above a barn just past the cross roads less than a mile away. The light, which had been a brilliant white, now became duller and took on an orange tinge. 

Red and black circles on diagram show relative positions of mystery light and Ronnie Austin's car at 12 different points during the approximately hour-long pursuit.

With his headlights picking out the road, Ronnie approached the crossroads at high speed. As he shot over a hill, the light suddenly flared bright orange and darted straight toward the car at terrific speed. In seconds it came within an estimated 100 feet. Then it swerved upward and directly over his car. At this point Ronnie judged it to be about the size of an automobile. 

At that instant his radio went wild with static. He also felt what he called a "cooling effect." Then the light made another pass over his car from the opposite direction -- this time his motor sputtered, missed, and almost died -- and went back to the barn over which it continued to hover, a dull orange. 

Frantically Ronnie turned north at the intersection, but the light followed for almost three miles to his right and rear, As he sped west down the lane to his farm, the light cut across the road to follow behind him and to the left. Finally, when he turned into his front yard and scrambled into the house, the light appeared to hang stationary above a farm house about 200-250 yards to the east. 

It was still there when Ronnie, his father, mother, brother, and sister Roxie, 15, began to observe it from their kitchen windows. By this time it was about 12:25 AM. Mr. Austin decided to call Jefferson County authorities to have them notify Scott Air Force Base 80 miles away. 

Jefferson County authorities instead called Deputy Lee, who arrived on the scene about 1:10 A.M. Before that, though, State Trooper Richard Gidcumb of McLeansboro and George Sexton, Village Marshal of Wayne City, had come by at about 12:45, having heard the call on their radios. The neighbors, Mr. and Mrs., Dwight Withrow, also were called and they too went out and. observed the light. 

When he had arrived home Ronnie was so shaken he could hardly say more than half a dozen words. His agitation was such that his parents phoned Dr. S. W. Conarski in Fairfield, who told them to give Ronnie a sedative which they had in the house. 

As the Austins watched the object, it slowly faded higher into the sky and toward the south, and by the time Deputy Lee arrived it appeared like an extremely bright star in the southeastern sky, where it remained until it faded out of sight at dawn. 

* * *

I questioned Ronnie about the "cooling effect" he had mentioned. Chicago newspapers had implied that this effect was caused by the light. 

Ronnie, however, was not so sure. He pointed out that he had been very frightened and that it would not have been too surprising if he had developed a sudden chill. 

Nor did he feel there was necessarily any connection between his wild ride and the burst of radio static although neighbors suggested a possible connection. My experience with my own car radio indicated that static bursts were hardly unique in the area. 

At no time did Ronnie note any detail or solidity to the light. And, although it never rose higher than about 30-degrees above the horizon (until it finally disappeared), the area is so flat and trees so distant that the light never passed in front of. or behind any object, so the youth never was able to make a sure estimate of distance. 

Although his sister thought she saw something small projecting from the light, Ronnie did not. 

The temperature was about 75 degrees, down from a high of 93 in the afternoon, There was no wind, and the clear and cloudless sky was filled with stars. The moon was full toward the south. Two persons with whom I spoke reported a few wisps of ground fog that night, but Ronnie and most other observers did not see any. The boy heard no unusual sounds and detected no odors while the light was visible. 

* * *

I was able to question Trooper Gidcumb and Marshal Sexton while they were patrolling the Wayne City area at 1:00 A.M. By this time they had decided that what they had seen was nothing more than a bright white star, due east about 45 degrees above the horizon, moving slowly higher in the sky to the south. 

Gidcumb did concede it looked brighter than stars usually look but he repeated his assertion, "I have no doubt he saw something - he wasn't putting it on - but what they showed us was the Eastern Star." 

Deputy Lee, who took twice as long to arrive as did Gidcumb, said that when he saw the light it appeared only as a large, unblinking white star imperceptibly gaining altitude and moving to the south. 

Fairfield Police radio operator Kenneth Talbert also reported seeing a bright light in the southeastern sky, moving slowly to the south. 

To him it looked like a small blurred cross. Like many of those connected with the Austin sighting, he declined to elaborate further. 

I also spoke with Mrs. Dwight Withrow, whose farm is just east of the Austins'. She too was weary from the publicity and declined to answer questions except to confirm that she and her husband both had observed the light. 

Exactly what was it that chased Ronnie Austin? So far several theories have been advanced: 

(1) The planet Jupiter. At that time of year, according to the Adler planetarium in Chicago, Jupiter is the brightest object in the sky, rising almost due east at about 11:00 P.M. and ascending to about 50'- 60' above the horizon in the south before it sets in the west at about 5:00 AM. At midnight it is about 30' above the horizon a little south of east. 

A distant object will appear to move parallel with a moving vehicle. Yet, if the light was Jupiter, how was it able to appear in so many different directions and pass in front of and over Ronnie's car? Moreover, Jupiter sets in the west; this light disappeared in the south-east. 

(2) Reflection or temperature inversion. Both celestial (such as the moon and stars) and man-made lights often are bent, magnified and reflected by the atmosphere, and their images easily can be mistaken for Unidentified Flying Objects. Often the light sources are not even visible to the observer. These inversions occur when layers of warm air overlay cooler air, creating a mirage effect. 

The objections to the first theory are valid here, too. Moreover, there were no clouds, no fog, and the surface temperatures at least, had remained approximately the same for hours. There appeared to be no frontal conditions to disturb the normal temperature gradients. 

(3) Ball lightning. This is a rare electrical phenomenon usually described as a luminous ball, with a diameter ranging from several inches to several feet; the color may vary from red to orange or blue to white. These balls can hang motionless or drift, either near the ground or high in the sky. They can last up to several minutes. 

Yet, astronomer Donald Menzel writes in his new book, The World of Flying Saucers, "these lightning balls appear most frequently toward the end of an electrical storm when the air is highly ionized, often just after a lightning flash." The weather that day was hot and dry, without a trace of precipitation. The sky was clear. 

(4) Some sort of electrical field akin to ball lightning. 

(5) A combination of some of the above 

(6) Something else. 

* * *

Whatever it was, it set off one of the biggest flurries of UFO reports in years. After Ronnie's experience had been described in three columns on page one of the Wayne County Press Monday edition, all sorts of lights in the sky were reported. almost every night for days. 

Trooper Gidcumb started it off by reporting a bright streaking object in the southwest early Monday morning. Monday night, lawyer Dick Cochran saw what he thought was an earth satellite, but he reported it anyway. 

The biggest sighting of the flap occurred shortly before 9:00 P.M. Wednesday, when a brightly lit object passed almost directly over Fairfield moving from southeast to northwest. More than two dozen persons reported sighting it, but no two descriptions were exactly the same. 

Raymond L. Owen described it as a great "fireball" about the size of a small-automobile 1,000-2,000 feet above the ground. He said it was smooth, never changed color, and did not appear to have depth. It. reminded him of a larger version of an Echo satellite. 

Mrs. Perry Padgett saw a bright red-orange grapefruit-sized sphere with short, tapering, fringe-like spears extending from all sides. The solid-looking object made a clockwise loop around a star which was about 45 degrees above the eastern horizon. Then as she and her family were driving south toward Fairfield, it came tumbling toward them, passing overhead five minutes later. (Because of the furor, Mrs. Padgett also described to me a UFO she had seen but not reported 18 months earlier:) 

To Circuit Clerk James Wilson, the object was "a cross in the sky with an illuminated tail." Mrs. Wilson described it as a bright yellow light one-fourth the size of the full moon. When it passed nearly overhead it appeared to have a red light in back. There were no sounds during the 10 minutes it was in view. At 10:30 Mrs. Wilson went outside to look for the object again and she saw it again hanging stationary in the same place, the same size. 

Mrs. Bill Short said it was bright yellow and slightly smaller than a full moon and had four glittering, tapered projections, each longer than the diameter. As it passed overhead her husband saw a red light in its center and they heard a jet. They thought at first it was an airplane but then concluded it was something they never had seen before. 

 Butch Musgrave said it was four to five times the size of a star. 

Chauncey Uphoff and Mike Hill came up with a variation. They said the light looked like a skewed diamond with a kite frame connecting the points. It approached from the south - they viewed it from Uphoff's farm four miles east of Fairfield - and hung stationary in the southeast for five minutes. Uphoff claimed it, was pale orange at first, then flared bright orange, then blue-white, moved to the east, vanished for 15 minutes, reappeared pale orange in the same place, made a sweeping turn to the east and toward them, and then sped back south, They also reported what appeared to be a satellite pass over head from southeast to northwest during the 15 minutes the light had disappeared. 

The following night about 12:55 A.M. Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Mason were on their patio when they saw a silvery-orange light about three to four times bigger than the Echo satellite but moving at 10 times its speed from southeast to northwest. The solid-looking object resembled a skewed cross or tilted kite frame. As it passed overhead it brightened, became less blurry and turned red. At that time they heard a jet. The object never deviated from its path, passed behind two small clouds, and disappeared in about two minutes. 

* * *

The reports continued to flow in for days as responsible citizens tried to add their little bit to the sum total or knowledge of the strange lights. Some persons told their stories with seeming reluctance, some with candor and sincerity, some with obvious embellishments or deletions. Some thought that they had seen familiar objects but they reported them anyway. The Wayne County Press printed them all. 

I asked everyone I talked with if he or his friends were now watching the sky at night. Almost all answered an emphatic yes. As I walked down the street at night I noticed people periodically gazing upwards. When I stopped at a gas station late Friday night, the attendant asked if I was out looking for the lights. I said yes. Although it was completely overcast, I too had succumbed to the UFO fever. 

The attendant told me the car that had just pulled out had come from Olney, about 35 miles away, jammed with people who wanted to see the mysterious lights. 

As the motel proprietor and I scanned the sky outside the motel, we asked a young boy if anyone he knew was out looking for the lights. "Well, there's Danny and Bobby and..." 

State Trooper Gidcumb told me that the Sheriff of Harrisburg, Ill,, { about 50 miles to the south, was out hunting for a reported monster.  It was supposed to eight feet long, four feet high, and looked very much like an anteater. 

A sky diving parachute exhibition was scheduled for Saturday at the Fairfield airport. The day before, hundreds of handbills were passed out with this note at the bottom: "Come -- Spend The Day Watching For The Return 0f The Keenes Space Ship? Possible: Another Visit From Outer Space!" 

In nearby Carmi, Ill., Radio Station WROY offered a $50 cash reward for an "authenticated picture of the unexplained light in the Fairfield-Wayne City area." The offer was made "in the interest of sifting fact from fiction and to verify if true a phenomenon which could have international repercussions." 

In keeping with the almost carnival-like atmosphere, the Uptown Motel in Fairfield offered binoculars to its guests and the waitresses asked, "Have you seen your flying saucer yet?" 

When Fairfield Mayor Zack Smith was quoted by the Chicago Daily News as saying the town was "quite worked up," he was almost guilty of understatement. 

But the flurry of UFO reports was not restricted to the Fairfield area. Shortly after Ronnie Austin's experience was described in the Chicago newspapers, a Chicago man told how a very similar light had chased him that night in Canada, There also were reports from Chicago, from Dolton, Ill., and from Highland, Ind., as well as from elsewhere in southern Illinois. 

* * *

Rumors had circulated all week that military investigators were on their way to investigate the strange lights in Wayne County but it was not until Saturday morning that three Air Force officers from Wright-Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio, arrived iii town They identified themselves as Col. Robert Friend, Capt. Hector Quintanilla, and Sgt. Charles Sharp, but declined to say what investigatory office they were from. They began each official interview with the statement that 98 percent of all UFO sightings are nothing extraordinary. 

Leaving the investigation in their competent hands I drove out of Fairfield early Saturday afternoon. As I passed the city limits, however, a radio news report caught my ear. 

Strange lights had been seen the night before by nine persons north of Mount Vernon. One of these witnesses was former  Mount Vernon Mayor Harry Bishop, who reported that a bright red light the size of a washtub had hovered over a car moving south at about 10:30 P.M. When the driver turned off the road and stopped, the light hovered briefly and then moved off to the west. Bishop estimated the light to be 400-500 feet above the ground. 

A former Army pilot who observed the light said it appeared to be about 1,500 feet above the ground and about the same color and intensity as a radio tower warning light. Others said the light changed colors - from red to white to silver, Still others said the light looked like a piece of paper with holes in it. 

And so the reports continued to come in. I turned off my radio and headed north -- where the lights in the sky are mostly stars. 

* Several days after this article was written, Air Force investigators publicly announced their "solution" to the mystery of the lights. According to the Air Force: Ronnie Austin had seen the noon, partly hidden by fog; the light near the Austin home was the planet Jupiter; Trooper Gidcumb had seen a "fireball;" the sighting Wednesday night was a jet refueling operation. "The receiver passed on overhead and the tanker circled after break off. This follows the reported path of the object." (This object could not have been one of the artificial earth satellites which the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory stated, "never" travel east to west.) 

Comments: (1) Can the moon appear in as many directions as the light Ronnie saw? (2) The light disappeared in the southeast; Jupiter sets in the west. 

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