From UFOs to Starlink, Vermont Has a Long History of Strange Things in the Sky | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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From UFOs to Starlink, Vermont Has a Long History of Strange Things in the Sky 

Published October 5, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated October 25, 2022 at 7:49 p.m.

click to enlarge A.M. Foster Bridge in Cabot - MAXWELL HUGHES
  • Maxwell Hughes
  • A.M. Foster Bridge in Cabot

The first shout went up from a group of friends who were standing in a dark field and gesturing wildly upward. "Look! Do you see it? My God!" someone yelled. "No way that's a plane!"

I followed my friends' gazes up to the summer sky. With minimal light pollution this far north in the Champlain Islands, the stars wheeled above us like a road map to the cosmos, thick with constellations and pulsing with light.

Then I saw it.

A glowing line, like an iridescent caterpillar crawling across the sky, moved through the cloudless firmament, inexorable and brilliant. I blinked and rubbed my eyes like some rube in a black-and-white film seeing a flying saucer.

The lights weren't gone when I opened my eyes again; they shone even more brightly against the blackness of space. I found myself breathing deeply, my stomach knotting and my mouth dry as I watched the line of golden lights unspool farther and farther. After a life of fascination with UFOs, was I finally seeing something unexplainable in the skies?

My phone beeped with an incoming text, followed shortly by another.

"Are you seeing this up there?" read the first message, from a friend in the southern reaches of Vermont. "You're looking for UFOs, right? What are the odds?"

I looked up from my phone to find the light in the sky fading, disappearing back into the ether. People were still shouting nearby, some laughing in disbelief.

"C'mon, that has to be aliens!" someone exclaimed.

I wasn't so sure. But my friend was certainly not the first Vermonter to think they'd had a close encounter.

It might come as a shock to learn that Vermont is a hotbed of UFO activity, with a long history of the inexplicable and uncanny in its skies. The Green Mountain State placed second in a recent stacker.com list of the most sightings per capita in the country. Those rankings derive from the National UFO Reporting Center, or NUFORC.

Vermont ranks high on other, similar lists as well — though one survey slagged the state's UFO-hunting turf as the fourth worst in the country. While the methodology behind all such lists deserves scrutiny, for such a small and sparsely populated place, Vermont does seem to offer more than its share of strange sights in the sky.

Are Vermont's UFOs really visitors from other worlds, though? Or are there more earthly explanations for these airborne anomalies?

Mark Breen is the senior meteorologist and educator at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury and host of Vermont Public's "Eye on the Night Sky" radio segment. His life's work is to study the skies and know what he's seeing there — expertise that has helped him explain the vast majority of cosmic mysteries he's encountered.

"I've been looking up for a long, long time," Breen said in a phone interview. "And, in all that time, I haven't seen anything that I couldn't explain. Sometimes it just takes me a bit to do it."

The combination of dark rural skies and outdoorsy residents could help explain the high rate of UFO sightings in Vermont, Breen suggested. Bobby Farlice-Rubio, a monthly contributor to WCAX's "Star Struck" TV news segment, noted another factor: Vermonters tend to be independent minded.

"It doesn't actually surprise me to see Vermont ranked so high for sightings," he said. "There's a sort of intrinsic Vermont characteristic that transcends some of the stigma around talking about UFOs that has historically existed."

While Breen and Farlice-Rubio have debunked plenty of local sightings, they don't discount the possibility that UFOs exist.

"I'm still open to the idea that there's things out there I just can't explain," Breen said.

He's not alone. Documented UFO sightings in Vermont date back to the early 1900s. Reports of mysterious lights in the skies and objects moving at impossible speeds have continued through the years; there's even been one famous case of alien abduction. Just last week, Vermont social media feeds exploded with eyewitness accounts of weird, unnatural lights trailing over the Green Mountains — lights very similar to those my friends and I had seen in Grand Isle only a month before.

UFOs recently made national headlines, as well. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense released three videos taken by Navy pilots in 2004 and 2015 that appear to show evidence of the activity of UFOs — or, as the government now officially labels them, UAPs: unidentified aerial phenomena.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon created the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, whose stated mission is "to detect, identify and attribute objects of interest" in the sky and "mitigate any associated threats to safety of operations and national security." Those objects of interest include "anomalous, unidentified space, airborne, submerged and transmedium objects."

In May, the U.S. House Intelligence subcommittee held its first public hearing on UFOs in more than half a century. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) was among the lawmakers interviewing top Pentagon officials. For sitting U.S. legislators and high-ranking military officials to converse openly and candidly on a subject historically derided as akin to the search for Bigfoot suggests that the field of UFO study is no longer solely the province of tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists. While there's no shortage of those, of course, UFOs have become an area of legitimate scientific and governmental interest.

"No one knows whether there's extraterrestrial life," Welch told Ronald Moultrie, the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security. "It's a big universe ... People think there must be extraterrestrial life, and it's not at all beyond the pale that there would be a visit here."




First Contact

click to enlarge Joe Citro by the Stonehenge-like stone circle in South Woodstock in 2020 - FILE: TOM MCNEILL
  • File: Tom Mcneill
  • Joe Citro by the Stonehenge-like stone circle in South Woodstock in 2020

Welch is not the first Vermont politician to think so. Early in the evening of July 2, 1907, former Vermont governor Urban Woodbury, Roman Catholic bishop John S. Michaud, and lumber and shipping magnate A.A. Buell stepped outside after a dinner in downtown Burlington. What the three men claimed to see, and later reported to the Burlington Free Press, could have sprung from the pages of a Jules Verne novel.

Standing on the corner of Church and College streets, the men were startled by a "terrific explosion" and looked up. Floating some 300 feet above them was what Michaud described as a torpedo-shaped craft, hovering over the city's buildings.

"In size it was about 6 feet long by 8 inches in diameter," Michaud said of the UFO. "The shell, or covering, having a dark appearance, with here and there tongues of fire issuing from spots on the surface, resembling red-hot, burnished copper."

Michaud said the craft eventually moved away, disappearing over the old Dolan Brothers' store, which once sat near the corner of College Street. Other eyewitnesses claimed the ship careened into a horse and stunned the beast before flying away.

"That incident really started what I call the era of aerial mystery in the state," Joe Citro said in a video call from his home in Windsor.

An author and folklorist, Citro has written more than a dozen fiction and nonfiction books on the paranormal. Dubbed the "Bard of the Bizarre" by the Boston Globe, he has spent most of his adult life documenting Vermont's wealth of strange tales and lore. While UFOs don't captivate him as much as hauntings and cryptozoology do — "I'm just never going to get the answers I want with UFOs," he said — he acknowledges the long history of aerial phenomena above Vermont.

Citro believes there are three eras of Vermont UFO sightings. The first began with the Burlington encounter in 1907. The second turning point — not just for Vermont, but nationally — was the summer of 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a businessman from Boise, Idaho, observed the first-known occurrence of a "flying saucer" while flying his private plane near Washington's Cascade Mountains.

The sighting sparked a nationwide craze. Within weeks, Americans reported more than 800 similar sightings, as the postatomic world grappled with a new paradigm: Perhaps we're not alone after all. At a juncture some historians later called "the birth of a modern myth," America was suddenly obsessed with UFOs.

That obsession reached Vermont just 13 days after Arnold saw a formation of UFOs over Mount Rainier. At 2:05 a.m. on July 7, 1947, Mrs. Albert Steele of Rutland, as she was identified by the Rutland Daily Herald, reportedly witnessed the state's first flying saucer. Steele observed the object hovering over the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation building from her bedroom window during a rainstorm. She described it to the Herald as an oval with jagged, multicolored edges.

Other sightings occurred over the following few decades, including one in 1965 that involved 25 people witnessing a UFO over Burlington's South End. But, Citro said, the encounter that really captured the attention (and imagination) of Vermonters happened on Route 12 between Bethel and Randolph and featured some pretty credible witnesses.

Vermont's chief medical examiner and University of Vermont faculty member Dr. Richard Woodruff was driving back to Burlington on the night of January 4, 1965, accompanied by a high-ranking state trooper. As they sped down the road, an object glowing red-orange emerged from behind the tree line and flew across their view at an incredible speed.

"My God, did you see that?" the trooper asked Woodruff, according to the Burlington Free Press.

Before the doctor could respond, two more objects appeared, joined in formation with the first and then zipped away into the night. The whole encounter lasted maybe 30 seconds, but it left Woodruff flabbergasted. He reported the incident not only to the Free Press but to Edward Knapp, who was then head of the state's Civil Aeronautics Board.

"I am not ... overly imaginative and neither is the trooper," Woodruff told the Free Press.

Nonetheless, according to Citro's research, the Pentagon seemed thoroughly uninterested. Its public information officer waved off Dr. Woodruff and the officer's sighting as "meteors."

"I am amazed that the major could not come up with a better solution," Woodruff was quoted as saying in response to what he deemed government gaslighting. "If I had thought there was a possibility that the three objects we saw were meteors, I never would have mentioned the matter ... while I make no speculation as to what the objects might be, I do feel most definitely that they were not meteors."




Close Encounters

click to enlarge A.M. Foster Bridge in Cabot - © TANG MAN | DREAMSTIME
  • © Tang Man | Dreamstime
  • A.M. Foster Bridge in Cabot

Vermont's third era of UFO history began two years later, according to Citro, not with a reported sighting but with an alien abduction.

In 1967, Michael Lapp, a 16-year-old maintenance worker at the Buff Ledge summer camp for girls, and Janet Cornell, a 19-year-old water-skiing instructor, were sunbathing on a boat deck in Colchester. They later claimed that they saw three craft descend toward Lake Champlain, with one ship splitting off to hover above the two teenagers.

Their tale of what happened next would attract the attention of astronomer Walter N. Webb, who spent 32 years as a senior lecturer and operations manager of the Charles Hayden Planetarium in Boston. He studied both Lapp and Cornell more than a decade after the Buff Ledge occurrence and used their under-hypnosis recollections to pen the 1993 book Encounter at Buff Ledge: A UFO Case History.

According to that book, Lapp described the sound of the ship in motion as "like a thousand tuning forks." As it drew nearer, Lapp said, he could make out a glass dome atop the craft, from which several beings stared out at him and Cornell. In an account that is now familiar enough to be a cliché, Lapp and Cornell described being doused in a narcotizing light before waking up aboard an unknown craft.

The Buff Ledge incident was reported six years after the first publicized story of an alien abduction in the U.S. — that of Barney and Betty Hill in Portsmouth, N.H., which Webb also investigated. Years later and under hypnosis, according to Webb's book, Lapp recalled seeing creatures similar to the aliens that the Hills described in their abduction: small bodies, big eyes, no ears — the prototype for the "gray aliens" popularized in pop culture and science fiction.

"You can sort of see the morphing of the movement, the progression," Citro said. "It goes from sighting to saucer to abduction. Which I find misleading, because there's nothing neat about studying the UFO thing."

Despite his interest in strange Vermont phenomena of all kinds, Citro said he's "honestly always dismissed the UFO and alien stuff. Not because I didn't believe it, but it just felt like a giant mess. But it seems like things are sort of changing on that end," he added, "and the study is becoming more legitimized."




The Outer Limits

click to enlarge Nicole Nelson - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Nicole Nelson

According to NUFORC research, which goes back to 1958, Vermont has been known to log more than 600 UFO sightings just in June and July, typically the state's busiest months for UFO activity. Those figures suggest Vermonters are just as likely to see things in the sky today as they were during the heyday of the flying saucer craze, if not even likelier.

Winooski resident Derek Barrows claims he encountered a UFO in 2016 while on a hunting trip with his father in Duxbury. It was the end of the hunting day, Barrows recalled by phone, and there was fresh snow on the ground. Looking east to the White Mountains from a friend's cabin, father and son saw another hunter emerge from the woods, wildly gesticulating at the skies.

"I thought he must have seen a bird or something," Barrows said. "My dad and I follow where he's pointing, and we see a red light moving towards us."

Thinking the light might be fireworks or flares coming from nearby Sugarbush Resort, Barrows and his father brushed off the experience and went inside the cabin for dinner.

After their meal, however, the men went outside and found that the light had returned and was almost directly above them, high in the sky. It didn't blink or pulse but moved inexorably closer.

Barrows and his father watched, perplexed, as two more lights swooped over the ridge and formed a triangle pattern with the first. The lights darted away in formation, moving swiftly against the backdrop of stars.

"As I process it now, they were relatively low and moving at a decent pace," Barrows recounted. "But there was no sound." Given the silence, he thinks "they would have had to have been really, really high in the atmosphere and moving in a huge formation."

After doing some research, Barrows found that what he saw was consistent with many other reports, from the steady red light to the triangle patterns the crafts formed.

"I'm a pretty pragmatic guy," he said. But he's "never seen anything like what I saw that night, before or since."

Nicole Nelson has had more than a few such moments. One half of the popular blues and soul duo Dwight + Nicole, the musician spent much of her youth staring up at the stars.

"My dad is an amateur astronomer," she explained, who worked for Kodak building lenses, including one for his own telescope. "So, naturally, I spent a lot of my childhood looking up. We lived in upstate New York near West Point, and there were always weird lights moving outside that place in the sky."

But it wasn't until Nelson moved to Burlington in 2016 that she saw "some crazy, crazy stuff," in her words.

Nelson and her partner, Dwight Ritcher, moved into an apartment on the waterfront, just across from the train yard. One night, she and some friends, including a cousin visiting from out of town, took a late-night jaunt into the lake to watch a lunar eclipse.

"It hadn't rained in a while, so the lake was really shallow, and you can wade out forever," Nelson recalled.

The evening was overcast, so they stared up at the thick, dark clouds, hoping for a breakthrough glimpse of the moon. What emerged wasn't what they expected — though, to this day, Nelson has no clue what it actually was.

"This thing came out of the sky like a cross between an old train and a giant insect," she recounted. "It was hard to make out the details, because it was so dark. But we all saw it — my friends and I and my cousin, all of us. It came down towards us, then veered away. I'm not too easily scared, but I was like, 'Hey, screw this. We're leaving.'"

Curiosity beat out the fear, though, and the group lingered in the lake, wondering what they had just witnessed.

"No matter how science-minded you are, when you experience a thing like that, it reinforces the concept that we are really only seeing the tiniest tip of the iceberg," Nelson said.

"Think about how little light in the spectrum our eyes actually pick up," she continued. "Or all the frequencies our ears can't hear — our senses are limited. You have to think there's so much happening outside of our range."




Eyes in the Skies

click to enlarge Mark Breen - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Mark Breen

A few years ago, Breen, the Fairbanks Museum meteorologist, saw something that shook him to his core. Which is no mean feat, considering his experience.

None of Breen's 30-plus years of stargazing prepared him for the pulsing, multicolored light that trailed him home from the planetarium one night. He observed flashing colors that seemed to follow him as he drove. Seized by anxiety and curiosity, he pulled his car over.

"I'm just too much of a scientist to let the whole thing go," Breen said. "I had to know. So I stopped the car and got out, looking directly at the light."

The sky darkened as evening fell, and he realized he was simply seeing a star.

"There are almost always logical explanations for what we see," Breen said. "Certain stars flash different colors during dusk, when the light is perfect."

He cited Capella, which always rises in the northeast and stays low. When its light passes through Earth's atmosphere, it wavers "as if it were entering a prism."

"Once I realized it was just a star, I thought to myself, Of course!" Breen said of his nonencounter. He added that identifying anything through a screen or window is a gamble. "There's a lot of optical distortion that happens when you see light through glass," he said. "Screens, as well — that fine mesh will bend the light."

So will the windshields and camera lenses of Navy fighter jets flying at 1,500 miles per hour.

"I hate to be the guy who ruins it for people, but that was my job for a long time," Farlice-Rubio said. Besides contributing to "Star Struck," he's a former science educator at the Fairbanks Museum and current assistant park manager at Stillwater State Park in Groton.

"With so, so many of the sightings, they really are explainable," Farlice-Rubio said. "It's just that not a lot of people have experience studying the skies, so very regular occurrences, like satellites being visible and meteors, will convince them they've seen something out of this world."

When he appeared on WCAX after the House subcommittee hearing on UFOs in May, Farlice-Rubio felt like he needed to "throw some cold water around," particularly about the Navy's UFO videos.

"I wanted to come out and counterbalance the mania before folks started to freak out," he said. To that end, Farlice-Rubio explained to viewers how the speed of the Navy jets that captured the footage could make the object the pilots observed seem to move incredibly fast, as well.

He reconsidered his skepticism later. "When the full report came through, and the Navy acknowledged that they didn't just have video but they had radar and all sorts of other data sources that could corroborate what was happening in the video," Farlice-Rubio said, "then I thought to myself, OK, hold up, this is way more interesting now."

As Farlice-Rubio noted, the grainy, black-and-white Navy videos don't make for especially impressive initial viewing. The UFOs resemble little more than spinning tops.

However, later testimony by some of the pilots, including former Navy officers Alex Dietrich and David Fravor, indicated that the UFOs accelerated at one point to a speed near 3,600 miles per hour. No known terrestrial-made aircraft can achieve that speed; the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, currently the fastest jet on the planet, has a maximum speed of 2,200 miles per hour.

Farlice-Rubio wonders why we "just assume the strange things we see above us automatically come from space." He's quick to point out that Navy pilots shot all of the videos and that all of the incidents happened at sea.

"Obviously, this is all hypothetical," he said, a mischievous note in his voice, "but it would be way more feasible for me to believe that there could be intelligent life in the ocean.

"Life on Earth began in the ocean billions of years before it eventually colonized land," he continued. "I try to remind my students of this all the time, that the sharks have been around longer than trees on the planet."

Wherever these alleged visitors come from, Farlice-Rubio believes he's seen at least one of them. It didn't happen during his time at the planetarium, but when he was a teenager living with his family near Miami, Fla.

He was at a New Year's Eve party at a family friend's house, and the adults were all downstairs drinking to the first hours of 1992. Farlice-Rubio and his friend were standing on a deck when they saw an object emerge from low cloud cover. From below, it appeared to be a circle of purest obsidian. Yet the clouds around the ship reflected what looked to a young Farlice-Rubio like bonfire light. After hovering for a moment, the object moved off, slipping between the clouds.

"I've learned so much about science and about rockets in general since then," Farlice-Rubio said. "But even to this day, I've never seen anything that matches what I saw that night."




The Truth Is Out There ... Right?

click to enlarge Bobby Farlice-Rubio - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Bobby Farlice-Rubio

Back in Grand Isle, we prepared to leave the islands and drive back to Burlington, where the "big city" lights obscure so much of the cosmos above. I wondered how I would report my UFO sighting. My research for this story had taught me about organizations such as NUFORC and the Mutual UFO Network, both of which keep tabs on sightings. (MUFON has chapters in every state; Vermont's is in Middlebury and declined interview requests for this story.)

I began crafting my UFO description, adding flourishes as I went: A sentient-seeming beam of light that emerged from the blackness of space and unspooled like the body of a great dragon. Yeah, not bad.

"You guys see it?" a seemingly disembodied voice asked.

It was so dark that I could barely make out the outline of the friend who owned the house in Grand Isle, even when he stepped closer.

"Goddamn Elon Musk, right?" he said with a laugh.

"Come again?" I asked, sure I must have missed a segue at some point.

Our friend pointed to the sky where the trail of light had been. "The first time I saw those things, I absolutely freaked the hell out," he said. "How was I supposed to know they were satellites?"

That was how I learned that the glowing "great dragon" about which I'd been ready to write poems was actually the SpaceX satellite internet constellation known as Starlink. I had gone from Fox Mulder to Geraldo Rivera in a matter of seconds, a living justification for the skepticism of observers such as Breen and Farlice-Rubio.

What made it worse was that Farlice-Rubio had told me just days earlier about a friend who had called him with a UFO sighting. That was Starlink, too.

"The Starlink chain can be tricky if you see it at the right angle," he explained to me. "If it lines up right, instead of looking like a straight line of dots to us, it can appear to be a continuous line of light."

Farlice-Rubio reckons that UFO sightings will rise exponentially with thousands of satellites in orbit these days — not to mention drones, which are increasingly prevalent.

"Even outside of Vermont, I think that stigma [on reporting sightings] is vanishing," said Farlice-Rubio, who is currently running for the Vermont House to represent the Caledonia-1 district. "People are more willing to report things they would have once kept to themselves."

But both he and Breen believe there's more to Vermont's UFO hotbed status than increased sky traffic.

Breen pointed out that Vermonters spend a lot of time outdoors, particularly in the summer. According to MUFON, June and July are the best times of year to see UFOs. Hungry to get as much out of a short summer as possible, Vermonters may be out and about more than the average American — hence the high number of sightings.

The state's rural character is also a factor. "You can't underestimate the effect of having clear, dark skies, which Vermont certainly has," Breen said. "Especially around twilight, where the quality of light is so different. That's when you'll see satellites and other strange stuff start to show up.

"All that being said," he went on, "I think maybe Vermonters are a little more accepting of the fact that, yeah, maybe something is up there."

Back home in Burlington, I took a late stroll into my backyard and stared up at the night. The light from nearby downtown and the glowing, yellow waning crescent moon gave the star field an ethereal look. One star, pulsing indigo to white and back, seemed to detach itself from a constellation and float away like a firefly across a meadow.

I didn't bother wondering what, if anything, I was seeing. With a grin, I just watched the rogue light. It blinked twice more, then was gone.

Have you seen something strange in the sky yourself? Declassify it and tell us! Send us your stories at ufos@sevendaysvt.com.

A truncated timeline of notable UFO sightings in Vermont

click to enlarge Mrs. Albert Steele - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Mrs. Albert Steele

  • 1907: Bishop John S. Michaud, former governor Urban Woodbury and A.A. Buell report seeing a strange object above the skies of Burlington.
  • 1947: Mrs. Albert Steele reports seeing a "flying saucer" in Rutland.
  • 1958: Farmer Lemond Bovat sees a light in the woods near his home in East Fairfield. The "Lost Nation" area near the Bakersfield line has seen multiple reports of unknown aerial activity.
  • 1965: Dr. Richard Woodruff and a Vermont state trooper report seeing an object in the sky on Route 12.
  • 1966: Robert Martin reports observing an object in the sky like "a big oil drum lit on fire" near the Bennington Battle Monument.
  • 1968: Two teenagers report being abducted by a UFO at the Buff Ledge summer camp in Colchester.
  • 1980: A UFO is witnessed at Burlington International Airport by air traffic controller Donald Kernan.
  • 1981: Linda Kingsbury and Lucy Slothower observe a "star that seemed to be moving" in Windsor.
  • 1993: Three Enosburg Falls High School students report seeing an "eggplant-shaped" object on Route 36.

For a detailed list of recent sightings, refer to NUFORC's database at nuforc.org.

The original print version of this article was headlined "UFOMG"

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About The Author

Chris Farnsworth

Chris Farnsworth

Bio:
Music editor Chris Farnsworth has written countless albums reviews and features on Vermont's best musicians, and has seen more shows than is medically advisable. He's played in multiple bands over decades in the local scene and is a recording artist in his own right. He can often be found searching for the perfect soft pretzel or listening to a podcast about the X-Men.

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