The Hudson Valley UFO Mystery
Hundreds of people watched this UFO over the Hudson River Valley many times between 1983 and 1984.
by Brian Dunning
November 21, 2017
Today we're going to travel up the Hudson River Valley in New York, and back in time to the summers of 1983 and 1984. On many occasions, on clear summer nights, something terrifying and unexpected appeared in the sky. It was a gigantic craft, black as the sky, rimmed with bright lights in white, red, or green. It would drift over towns with a steady hum, witnessed by many. Police phone lines lit up every time it appeared, and the newspapers were choked with reports. It's called the Hudson Valley UFO, and it's one of the mainstays of evidence for those who believe we are not alone.
My friend Joe Miale is the director of the sci-fi movie Revolt (2017), and as it happened, the Hudson Valley UFO played as a big a role in his growth as all of my books on Bigfoots and ghosts did in mine. I asked Joe to tell his story:
I am ten years old, standing in my pajamas on the front lawn, with both of my parents and my elder brother. The neighbors were outside too. It's a warm summer night in the suburbs of New York, and all of us are looking up at the sky where there is a triangular craft with colored lights moving slowly over our houses with a distinctive hum. The most remarkable thing for me at the time was actually the reaction of all these adults. They all seemed so alarmed and confused and they were swearing and shouting. My mother tried to take a picture, and when the flash went off, the lights on the craft went dark. Everyone reacted again. She called the police, and they said they were inundated with calls. In the coming days, the sighting was all over the local news. Traffic had pulled over on major roadways to watch the craft go by. The government called it a prank. I always thought it might be something military, but it certainly was an unusual aircraft. Something that would get such reactions from so many different people. As a kid, it was a true moment of wonder. I was already a fan of science fiction, and this sighting sealed the deal.
The case became legend, driven primarily by the 1987 book Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings by UFOlogists Philip J. Imbrogno and Bob Pratt, with credit also given to UFOlogy legend J. Allen Hynek who died before the book was finished. A number of other books were published about it too. Even a 1992 episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries dramatized the case and interviewed many of the people who were there, including a number of police officers who witnessed the object.
By all reports, hundreds of people saw the UFO on many occasions during the summers of 1983 and 1984, and some sources even list a few reports from other years. Always, the descriptions were the same.
It's the kind of case where I always wish someone would jump in their car and follow this UFO to see where it goes. And luckily, that's exactly what happened in this case. In August of 1984, just as the second summer of the Hudson Valley UFO was winding down, Jeffrey Schmalz of the New York Times ground the leads down as far as he could and reported this:
One officer, according to Sgt. Kenneth V Spire of Troop K of the State police, which is responsible for the area in which the sightings have been, followed the object. "He tracked it to Stormville Airport," the sergeant said. "It was a group of light planes. They fly in formation...."
Airplanes flying in formation! Well did he arrest them, I hope?
The trooper spoke to a couple of the pilots, and they're getting a big kick out of it. There's no violation of the law here.
Schmalz took that to the FAA to verify it.
Timothy L. Hartnett, the deputy director of the Eastern region of the F.A.A., said of the hoaxers that there were no regulations prohibiting planes from flying in formation. ''They can fly as close together as they feel safe,'' he said. And in areas of sparse population, planes could fly as low as 500 feet.
Of course none of this was any surprise to people who were in general aviation in the area. A year before, in the summer of 1983, Tony Capaldi was a local air traffic controller, and here's what he told Unsolved Mysteries:
There's anywhere from upwards of seven to ten aircraft that fly around in formation, and this is visible from our tower... The first time I observed the formation flying, it looked a little peculiar. From our vantage point in the tower they just appeared to be just one big light because they are flying in tight formation. To estimate the size, maybe two football fields wide.
And just to be clear, there's no evidence that these pilots ever intended a UFO hoax. As Discover magazine put it in a 1984 article:
The area abounds with amateur pilots who fly private planes out of a number of airports, including the strip at Stormville. Several years ago, it seems, a few of the Stormville pilots begin practicing formation flying, first in daylight, then, as their skills improved, at night. Before long, other pilots joined them, and what began as loose groupings of planes became tight formations of aircraft with as little as 6 inches between wingtips.
...By early 1983, when local newspapers began printing stories about strange sightings and experiences, and television stations ran tapes of the mysterious lights in the sky, the pilots were incredulous, then amused. The group began calling themselves the Martians.
What about reports of the UFO lights suddenly all going off at once? Discover continued:
Flying Cessna 152s and other single engine planes in tight formations, they might all douse their exterior lights at the same time... This will result in reports about UFOs that suddenly disappeared from the sky. They vary their formations, from crescents and circles to crosses that looked from the ground like diamonds or V's, giving rise to reports about different and sometimes startling UFO shapes.
And the colored lights, white, red and green, are of course the color of aircraft navigation lights, changing depending on what angle you see them from. Although Unsolved Mysteries focused its interviews on police officers who didn't accept the airplane identification, this wasn't true for most of them. William Wolf Jr. was a police dispatcher when the police first starting seeing the Martians:
They look like airplanes to me, I said. I live near an airport, so I see these airplanes every day. So as they were coming over, he says you can't hear anything. I said listen, and we started to hear a drone. It wasn't one big solid unit. But if you looked at it for a couple of minutes, or even a fraction as it was coming over, I could see where some people would have gotten upset.
If the whole Hudson Valley UFO episode was so easily explained, as indeed it appears to be, then why would these authors write the 1987 book Night Siege and so passionately promote the idea that it's unsolved or that it must be an alien spacecraft? Much has to do with who they are. These were not journalists or objective reporters. They were all UFO authors who made their careers out of sensationalizing these little stories they found by keeping an eye on the newspapers. None had any serious academic credibility.
Here is where author Imbrogno lost me in this story. There is a clip of decent video of the UFO, shot by local resident Bob Pozzuoli (sometimes spelled Pasouli) in July of 1984. It shows probably six light clusters — it's a bit blurry and grainy to tell for sure — roughly in a circle. The ones on the left hold their position pretty well, but the ones on the right aren't even close, moving in and out and greatly disrupting the circle. Watching that video, Imbrogno says:
It has been looked at by a number of photographic experts who indicate that the movement of the object in the video seems to be one rigid object and not individual objects.
If by "photographic expert" he means a photographer, then he means one who can't tell a circle from a square from a rhombus with its top torn off, and who doesn't even think to do a simple frame comparison to see that the lights are not holding formation very well at all.
Believers in the Hudson Valley UFO, Imbrogno included, have acknowledged that the Martians were flying around, but have repeatedly argued that there was also a UFO, and that witnesses could tell which one they were looking at. This raises an important question. This alleged UFO only existed at a time and place where the Martians were doing their nighttime formation flying. The UFO looked the same, behaved the same, it flew in the same way and in the same place. Would that not be a staggering coincidence? Isn't it more likely that our human perceptual errors and confirmation bias and selective memory and all the other cognitive phenomena that shape our perceptions played some role here? Personally, I think it is.
Largely because I had an identical experience of my own. I was camped out in Death Valley one night with two friends, in the middle of nowhere. We were sitting outside looking for shooting stars and satellites, when we all noticed this massive object flying slowly overhead. It looked like it was at extremely high altitude and the size of a city, defined by lights around its perimeter, shaped like an arrowhead. It was perfectly silent and rock solid, and we marveled as we watched it drift all the way across the sky until it went out of view. Like Joe Miale's neighbors we used pretty colorful language wondering aloud what it could be. I clearly remember the rush I felt, I was Mr. Skeptoid, and here was something incredible that absolutely defied explanation. Half an hour later, it came overhead again. For some reason, this time we quickly figured it out. It was a group of F-18s out of nearby China Lake doing aerial refueling behind a KC-10 tanker, holding steady in formation. When I got home I researched and got the details.
If it hadn't flown overhead that second time, I might well today still believe that I saw something unexplained. One of our guys, however, was not convinced that's what it was, even after I showed him what I found out from talking to China Lake, and he still won't accept it.
Officer Andi Sadoff of the New Castle police department felt the same way:
There was no shaking or movement, or rocking back and forth, of any of the lights. It was perfectly still. I'm not trying to say what it was, I don't know what it was, I know it wasn't an airplane.
Our little group in Death Valley was a perfect microcosm of what happened in the Hudson River Valley. Planes flying in formation, looking more than anything like a giant spacecraft, some believing the explanation, and some rejecting it to their dying day. Most have their minds closed to any explanation except their preferred one — exactly like Bigfoot and Elvis eyewitnesses. Try as we might, we're unlikely to dislodge this tale from the shelves of urban legendry.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Hudson Valley UFO Mystery." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
21 Nov 2017. Web.
22 Apr 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4598>
References & Further Reading
Burgess, A. "Photographing the Tiny Upstate New York Town Obsessed with UFOs." Stories. Atlas Obscura, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2017. <https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/photographing-the-tiny-upstate-new-york-town-obsessed-with-ufos>
Garelik, G. "The Great Hudson Valley UFO Mystery." Discover Magazine. 1 Nov. 1984, November Issue: 18-23.
Imbrogno, P., Hynek, J., Pratt, B. Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987.
Mitchell, P. "Not Spacing Out: Pine Bush Locals Swear by Their UFOs." HVNN.com. Hudson Valley News Network, 21 May 2017. Web. 15 Nov. 2017. <http://hudsonvalleynewsnetwork.com/2017/05/21/not-spacing-pine-bush-locals-swear-ufos/>
Randle, K. "The Crash of Philip J. Imbrogno." A Different Perspective. Kevin Randle, 17 Jul. 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2017. <http://kevinrandle.blogspot.com/2011/07/crash-of-philip-j-imbrogno.html>
Schmalz, J. "Strange Sights Brighten the Night Skies Upstate." The New York Times. 25 Aug. 1984, Newspaper.
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