Pennsylvania’s “Roswell”: The Kecksburg Flying Saucer


In 1965, just a few weeks before Christmas, people in the little town of Kecksburg PA, not far from Pittsburgh, reported seeing something crash to earth from outer space. According to the stories, the US military then appeared and spirited the object away. Some whispered that it was a crashed Soviet intelligence satellite, or an American test of a secret Nazi project. Others declared it was an extraterrestrial spaceship. But what was it really….?

Photo from Wiki Commons

Here is the story of the Kecksburg Flying Saucer, as usually given (with some variations) in UFO websites and books:

On December 9, 1965, witnesses all over the eastern US reported seeing a glowing object in the sky which, some of them noted, “appeared to be under intelligent control”. The glowing object passed over Detroit, dropped pieces of hot metal that started grass fires in Ohio, and caused a sonic boom in Pittsburgh. At about 4:45pm, Kecksburg resident Frances Kalp called a local radio station and talked to reporter John Murphy, and told him that she had seen a glowing four-pointed object impact into a patch of woods by her house. Murphy in turn, thinking it may have been an airplane crash, called the Pennsylvania State Police.

Several local residents, meanwhile, had gathered at the crash site. They saw a bronze-colored metallic object, several feet in diameter and about ten feet high, shaped something like an acorn with a rounded top and a band around the bottom that bore an inscription written in “hieroglyphics”. It was half-buried in the ground from the force of the crash. A couple of residents took photos.

When the State Police arrived, they cordoned off the area, then called in the US military. The Air Force and Army arrived. The first thing they did was confiscate all the cameras from people taking photos of the object, and threaten everyone to keep quiet about what they had seen. Then they gathered up all the wreckage and took it away on a flatbed truck, taking it to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton OH. The official announcement was made that, after a thorough search of the woods, nothing had been found or recovered.

Since then, there have been three different versions of “what was really found at Kecksburg”. One group of enthusiasts has concluded, based on the reported shape and size of the object, that it was a secret American test of advanced Nazi technology known as “Die Glocke” (“The Bell”). According to this story, The Bell was a secret German military project undertaken by the SS in a desperate attempt to win the Second World War by developing a superweapon. In some versions of the story, The Bell released huge amounts of radiation that killed anyone within range. In other tales, The Bell was a device to make wormholes for space travel, or a time machine. According to this story, the Americans were testing their own version of Die Glocke in the woods near Kecksburg, when something went wrong, the secret test was discovered by local residents, and the military covered it up. There is of course no evidence that any such thing was ever made or conceived by anyone, much less by the Nazis, but it remains a popular tale among conspiracy-theory fans.

Another popular version of “the truth about Kecksburg” was that the object was a secret Soviet space launch that had crashed. In 1965, the manned Soyuz spacecraft, which was shaped like a bell, was in development. According to the UFOlogists, the Kecksburg incident resulted when a secret Russian test-flight of the Soyuz failed during launch and crash-landed in Pennsylvania, where the US eagerly snapped it up to study its technological secrets. In some versions, this launch was actually manned by a Russian cosmonaut test pilot who died in the crash–some accounts adding the detail that the spaceship’s power was provided by a small nuclear generator with poor shielding, allowing radiation to kill the cosmonaut. This story, oddly enough, has a tiny kernel of truth to it: the Soviets had indeed launched a space vehicle over two weeks before. Cosmos 96 was an unmanned probe that was being sent to study Venus. It failed to reach a proper orbit when the booster rocket malfunctioned, and after 16 days in a low orbit the probe burned up upon re-entering the atmosphere on December 9. However, NASA and the US Air Force were both tracking the spacecraft by radar, and the data shows that Cosmos 96 entered atmosphere at  3:18am over Canada. It never got anywhere near Pennsylvania, and it had already burned up and disappeared by the time the Pennsylvania crash was reported at 5pm, 14 hours later. The “Russian spacecraft” theory got a boost in 2005, when somebody at NASA announced that the agency had studied metal fragments from Kecksburg and concluded they were from a Soviet satellite, but nobody has been able to produce either the fragments or any reports about them, and it’s likely there never were any such thing.

But by far the most popular “explanation” for Kecksburg is that it was an extraterrestrial spacecraft which had suffered some malfunction, flew over the US, and crashed in Pennsylvania. The military gathered up the wreckage, took it to Wright-Patterson’s “Hangar 18” (where it presumably joined the Roswell flying saucer), and covered up the entire thing.

The Kecksburg Incident is a great story, and it still gets passed around at flying saucer and conspiracy-theory conventions, but alas, the reality was already known at the time, and is a bit less exciting….

It was known as the “Great Lakes Fireball”. At 4:45pm on December 9, 1965, a brilliant meteor (known as a “bolide”) was seen crossing the Great Lakes area by thousands of people in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The event was studied by several astrophysicists, who published a scientific paper about it in the 1967 Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Using photographs taken of the meteor by witnesses, they were able to calculate its trajectory, which showed that the bolide had descended in a sharp downward angle while traveling from the southwest to the northeast, ending in Canada on the northern shore of Lake Erie. Since no pieces of meteorite were ever found, it was presumed that the space rock had burned up in the atmosphere before reaching the ground.

People who see bright objects in the sky almost universally tend to overestimate how close it is to them. So when the people in the Kecksburg area had seen the Great Lakes Fireball, they assumed that it was flying right over their town, despite the fact that it was actually over a hundred miles away (and several miles high in the sky). When the meteor disappeared behind some trees or a hill, it was easy for them to assume it had just crashed nearby. (They were not the only ones–others reported that the meteor had landed near them in Michigan or Ohio). In reality, there was no object over Kecksburg, nothing crashed there, and the State Police search teams found nothing because there was nothing there to find. So there is no mystery to the “Kecksburg Incident”–it was simply a large meteor that was already known and studied at the time by the scientific community.

As for the “witnesses” who reported seeing the metallic acorn object on the ground, none of their “reports” was made until thirty years later, when the TV show Unsolved Mysteries was producing an episode about the “Incident”. There were no contemporary accounts of anyone having seen any sort of crashed object. The flying saucer fans accept the thirty-year-delayed “eyewitness accounts” simply because it tells them what they already want to believe.

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