- It is being called a close encounter of the first kind.
- But don't expect E.T. to be phoning home just yet.
- That's because all that sci-fi-like jargon does not necessarily
mean the enormous triangular object spotted drifting silently through the
crisp night air over southwestern Illinois two weeks ago is from outer
- "To prove something is an alien spacecraft requires
a piece of it, requires the aliens to land and say `Here we are,' "
said Mark Rodeghier, scientific director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for
UFO Studies, based on the Northwest Side.
- "You can't prove something like this is an alien
spacecraft without some extraordinary piece of evidence."
- But so far, it definitely fits the "unidentified
flying object" label--because no one seems to know what it was.
- Experts are baffled by the object seen cruising over
six towns in the Belleville area about 4:30 a.m. Jan. 5.
- UFO sightings are not uncommon in Illinois, although
all but a handful wind up being easily explained by earthly means. What
is unusual about the Downstate object is that as many as four police officers
and one civilian in four different towns reported seeing it.
- "The witnesses are excellent to unimpeachable,"
said Peter Davenport, director of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting
Center. "They don't seem to have any motive for misleading us.
- "In my conversations with them, generally they just
seem to be level-headed, no-nonsense types of individuals who were just
doing a job and happened to stumble into something that morning."
- And all described pretty much the same thing: A craft
shaped like an arrowhead, about 100 feet long, two stories tall, with bright
lights on its tail and underside.
- "While I was sitting there I observed a very large
flying object coming from a southward direction," Millstadt Police
Officer Craig A. Stevens reported on the police department's Web site.
"The object was flying very low from 500 to 1,000 feet, and was flying
- "The object was making no noise. I could only hear
a very low-decibel buzzing sound. Then the object began banking to the
northeast direction, and continued to cruise away from me toward the area
of [the nearby town of] Dupo."
- Stevens took a photograph of the object but believes
his Polaroid malfunctioned because of the cold. The photograph posted on
the Web site, millstadt police.homepage.com, just shows a few lights in
a dark background.
- Also on the site is a sketch Stevens drew, showing a
triangular object with a series of lights on its concave back.
- Davenport said he interviewed both Stevens and an officer
from Lebanon, a town about 30 miles east of St. Louis. Three other police
officers reportedly saw the craft, but Davenport has not spoken with them.
- He said the officer from Lebanon told him the craft had
bright red lights that "radiated so much light in the sky it was similar
to the Japanese rising sun symbol."
- Davenport said the officer told him the craft passed
over his stopped squad car before streaking off "at warp speed"--about
8 miles in 3 seconds.
- Davenport declined to say if he believes the craft is
from another planet but said "the object that has been reported appears
to be grossly incompatible with any kind of terrestrial aircraft that I
am aware of."
- The speculation Downstate has included more earthly explanations,
ranging from a government test of a top-secret stealth blimp to some new
aircraft flying out of nearby Scott Air Force Base.
- Even big-time UFO buffs have to admit that it's possible
the mystery craft was a top-secret, man-made experiment. The Stealth bomber,
for instance, was test-flown in the Midwest for eight years before the
Pentagon unveiled it.
- During that time, local UFO societies got dozens of reports
of black delta-shaped ships zooming overhead, said Forest Crawford, an
Illinois UFO researcher.
- Not that the government is about to admit it, if in fact
it was involved.
- A spokesman for Scott Air Force Base says personnel there
know nothing about the UFO. Then again, if it was a classified military
project, "I can't imagine that we would know," Lt. Col. Allan
Dahncke said. "If we did, it wouldn't be so secret."
- Rodeghier said he has no doubt the federal government
has stealth blimps for military uses or drug interdiction cases, but he
is not convinced that that is what was hovering over southeastern Illinois.
- "The question is what would the federal government
be doing flying this over East St. Louis on Jan. 5 at 4:30 in the morning?"
Rodeghier said. "On the other hand, if you are looking for something
saying this is an alien spacecraft, there isn't much evidence for that
- "It didn't move very quickly, it didn't do anything
unusual in terms of its motion, nobody saw little creatures in the windows
on it--all it did was fly over the town and just keep flying away."
- Still, the sightings are close encounters of the first
kind, a designation created by Hynek, the late Northwestern University
astronomer who founded the center and wrote The UFO Experience in 1972.
- A close encounter of the first kind is a sighting where
an unidentified object comes close enough for witnesses to see some details.
In a close encounter of the second kind, the object leaves some physical
evidence, such as a burn mark on the ground or a clear image in a photograph.
The third kind involves the sighting of an alien being on or near the object.
- Investigation of such phenomena depends on which class
the sighting falls into, but Rodeghier said the first step is to rule out
conventional explanations--such as stars, planets, streetlights, hoaxes
and the like, which account for 90 percent of the 200 UFOs reported in
Illinois each year.
- The next step is to look for more unusual--but still
earthly--explanations, such as blimps, stealth fighters and other unusual
- Rodeghier said the Downstate object is likely to remain
a UFO, rather than an IFO (identified flying object).
- "If it is a government stealth blimp, we are unlikely
to find out," he said. "They are not likely to tell us."
- Rodeghier, who earns his living teaching statistics and
survey research workshops, won't say whether he believes in aliens. Davenport,
a former Russian translator and college business instructor, said he does--although
he admits experts in "Ufology" have failed to come up with scientific
- "But the significant thing about this is that human
beings are clearly witnessing things that by any human measure should not
be there," he said. "And that is happening over and over."