The Morning Call (Sunday)
For UFO mavens, Pa. is weird
Lehigh Valley no stranger to reports of mysterious sightings
All the talk lately is of UFOs, so it’s heartening to learn that Pennsylvania is one of the hot spots of that unnerving phenomenon. Butch Witkowski, a UFO investigator in Berks County, goes so far as to call his home state “just weird,” which in context is far more complimentary than it sounds.
“I’ve been at this over 30 years, and Pennsylvania has demonstrated some of the weirdest things I’ve ever encountered,” Witkowski said, speaking not only of unidentified flying objects but strange, forest-dwelling earthbound creatures — cryptids, in the parlance of his profession — that haunt the imagination.
The Lehigh Valley can boast plenty of sightings over the years, including an encounter between a pilot and a UFO in 1952 (more on that later) and lots of mystery lights that
defy assumptions about aerodynamics. And while 2021 has been quiet here so far, sighting databases offer some tantalizing descriptions of incidents not far afield.
“I was on my way home and saw this big oval weird spaceship with two bright LED lights moving oddly really close to earth like 100 feet,” says one such report from Reading in January.
A forthcoming federal intelligence agency report on UFOs — a phenomenon that dates to the post-World War II era in its modern incarnation, but really stretches back to antiquity — is expected to say the unidentifiable objects spied by pilots and caught on radar and witnessed by regular folks over the years are of unknown origin. They could be human technology, but they could be non-human technology, too, which is the more unlikely but far more thrilling conclusion.
Most sightings, of course, are explainable as natural phenomena — meteors, aircraft, weather balloons, oddball cloud formations. Witkowski, who lives in Centre Township outside Reading and is founder and director of the UFO Research Center of Pennsylvania, has looked into plenty of those.
Many sightings, though, are far harder to pin on Mother Nature or Delta Air Lines. Witkowski’s files include an incident in Macungie six or seven years ago, when a man reached out to the center to report a bizarre light show that began with a bright white ball moving erratically in the sky over his housing development.
“The thing climbs up in the sky and disappears,” Witkowski said. “A few minutes later it starts to descend. It turns bright, cherry red and goes behind the tree line. After a few minutes a red ball comes up, splits into five pieces that go up, zig-zag and disappear.”
What made it an especially good sighting is that the resident wasn’t the only one to see it. Witkowski collected identical reports from seven neighbors in the development.
In all, more than 3,500 Pennsylvania sightings have been logged in various databases since 1947, Witkowski said. Orange orbs, black triangles, glowing rectangles, solo lights that bob and weave and vast light formations that cross the horizon — all have been reported at one time or another.
The most famous Pennsylvania sighting is the 1965 Kecksburg incident. People across six states and Canada saw a fireball streak across the sky before crashing into woods in Mount Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County. The area was sealed off for investigation by state and federal agents, giving rise to speculation that the fireball was a crashed alien craft. More likely it was a meteor or satellite, but legends die hard.
From UFO to UAP
The Pentagon has a different name for UFOs. They are called UAPs, for unidentified aerial phenomenon. And it’s increasingly clear the government has taken them more and more seriously over the years. Assuming they aren’t of alien origin, UAPs could represent extraordinary technological leaps by a foreign adversary. Either way, they pose a national security concern.
In 1992, The Morning Call used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a sample of local sightings from the last major government UFO investigation, Project Blue Book, which the Air Force conducted between 1952 and 1969.
The best sighting in the Valley — not only because of the level of detail but the solid credentials of the witness — is recounted in surprisingly vivid government prose:
7:40 p.m. Sept. 13, 1952, Allentown: Witness, a civilian pilot who was an inactive Air Force Reserve captain, sighted a flaming orange-red, football-shaped object traveling on a collision course with his light aircraft. The object pulled up and shot over his windshield moving in opposite direction from course of plane. It was traveling at about 700 mph. Witness was flying alone at 10,000 feet in a Beechcraft Bonanza and was approximately 15-20 miles northeast of Allentown when suddenly the object, three feet in diameter, flaming orange-red in color, appeared at a distance of 150 to 200 yards ahead of him at 11 o’clock high.
He pulled up into a steep climb to avoid hitting it, but the object, instead of continuing on its course, very suddenly pulled up into about a 65-degree climb and went directly over his windshield. He commented on the object’s movement: “If what I saw was a physical object, the rapidity with which it altered its course was astonishing.” Duration of sighting — two seconds.
The pace of sightings is picking up. More than 1,400 have been reported in Pennsylvania in the past five years. Witkowski isn’t the only investigator to surmise that extraterrestrials, if they are the source of the phenomena, are preparing to introduce themselves more formally.
Witkowski and his nine investigators go after these reports like storm chasers pursue tornadoes.
“I can be anywhere in Pennsylvania in five hours or less,” said Witkowski, who had his first sighting in Tucson in 1989 and has had 18 others since — all in the presence of other witnesses, including law enforcement officers.
The late John Royer, who was probably the busiest UFO investigator the Valley has ever had, experienced two unnerving sightings of his own, which he recounted to The Morning Call
in a 2011 story.
The first object he spied was a big, dark triangle with lights at each corner that passed over his Bethlehem house one night in 1977. He had a similar sighting after moving to Emmaus in 2003. The incidents prompted him to become a volunteer investigator for the Mutual UFO Network, a nonprofit group known as MUFON.
Royer was no wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. He was a level-headed engineer who balanced scientific skepticism with a sense of the universe’s mystery and grandeur and didn’t discount anything out of hand.
He surmised UFOs could be the craft of aliens conducting a long-term study of humanity. Sightings date back thousands of years. Some speculate that odd stone figures carved by Incas and other ancient civilizations don’t represent deities but alien astronauts.
“I think some of it is manmade technology,” Royer told the newspaper. “I also believe there is something flying around out there that we don’t know anything about.”
Witkowski, retired from law enforcement, brings a cop’s demand for evidence to the cases he pursues. The videos that have been making the rounds of late — flying objects caught on U.S. Navy fighter jet cameras, with no apparent means of propulsion and behaving in ways no known technology is capable of — are the best kind of evidence. Even without photographic evidence, multiple accounts of sightings from independent witnesses should also be taken seriously, but the bar of credibility has to be set high.
“I always try to remember that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof,” Witkowski said.
The UFO maven is thoroughly skeptical of one thing: that the government report will draw any firm conclusions. He suspects it will be something of a sop to believers, provoking a wave of excitement that will soon fade.
“It keeps everybody happy for a little bit,” he said.