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The Hudson Valley Lights

Let’s face it: most people are a bunch of jerks. They drink the last of your beer, they make out with your underage sister, and I think we can all agree that they deserve to have their drivers’ licenses revoked. However, a small group of people reaches such a level of jerk-ness, performing an act of such incomprehensible assholery, that they deserve to have a colossal monument built to them. I’m speaking of, and I commend from the bottom of my heart, the Stormville Flyers.

These incredible aviators were the cause of one of the biggest UFO hoaxes in history, spawning a story that has grown beyond their control, itself gestating spin-offs, copycats, and a brood of paranormal children.

Hudson Valley, New York is just a stone’s throw from New York City, Philadelphia’s  smarter, richer, more stylish, and stronger older brother. In 1983 and 1984, Hudson Valley’s residents became deep-fried in an oil made of mystery when gigantic spaceships began taking to their skies.

Like all UFO reports, each eyewitness seems to have seen something different. Generally, the craft were described as being enormous (“3 football fields in length!”), boomerang-shaped, covered in lights, and moving slowly, with little sound. Sometimes the UFO was described as semi-circular, triangular, V-shaped, or boomerang shaped. The lights were most often reported to be red, white, or green, and they sometimes changed color in unison or disappeared simultaneously. Witnesses sometimes said that the lights were acting independently, that the lights were all attached to one enormous, solid craft, or that they could see stars between the lights, indicating several smaller craft. Sometimes witness reported that the craft moved in absolute silence, and some reported a dull buzzing sound.

Some of you reading this are, I’m sure, terrified, but worry not: gigantic alien spaceships are not roaming the skies of New England. Go back to using your tinfoil for luncheon meats, not helmets. The ‘UFO sightings’ were the results of that group of glorious airmen, The Stormville Flyers. They owned ultralight aircraft that they had modified with some fancy lights, and their boredom and willingness to dupe the locals is the sole cause of this case. Flying in formation, using controls inside the cockpit to change the colors of the lights or to switch them all off (making it look as though the craft had mysteriously disappeared), and using the public’s gullibility and the inevitable UFO hysteria that follows any sighting, they were able to convince the public that people from outer space had decided to cruise the area.

Few tools other than common sense are needed to come to this conclusion. The majority of eyewitness reports claim that the object moved quite slowly and produced a buzzing sound, which is consistent with slow-moving light aircraft and the noise of their engines. Many eyewitness reports state that they could see stars or clouds in between the lights, clearly indicating multiple objects.

Yet the UFO enthusiast would have you believe that this perfectly reasonable, perfectly rational, and perfectly possible explanation is not true. They try to downplay the obvious cause by stating that the Stormville Flyers could only have accounted for a tiny percentage of sightings. Some even make an effort to discredit witnesses whose statements lend proof to the ‘airplanes theory’, choosing instead to only include accounts that make the object appear to be from space.

Unlike this portion of the UFO enthusiast community, I will admit that there are some witness accounts that don’t support the aircraft explanation. All of these accounts, however, have explanations.

First, eyewitness accounts of a huge object. Some witnesses saw the lights in the sky and concluded that they were part of a massive spaceship. This is not, as the UFO enthusiast so often claims, the magic bullet that shoots down the Stormville Flyers. (Perhaps I should say the magic anti-aircraft shell? That’s beside the point.)

Imagine that you live out in suburbia, and that every newspaper in town has been going crazy with reports of gigantic UFOs. Then, one night, you see something weird in the sky. If you’re an average person, chances are that the first words out of your mouth are going to be “I saw that gigantic UFO!” There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make the witnesses bad people; everyone does it. I’m sure psychologists can back me up that when, for instance, if a movie gets rave reviews from every entertainment section in town, people who’ve been exposed to these reviews are going to be more likely to tell their friends the movie was good, and vice versa. This aspect of the incident is much more easily explained by human tendencies than by space people deciding to take a tour of the Connecticut border.

The UFO enthusiast makes the claim that sightings occurred in weather that would have grounded small planes, or on days when no aircraft took off from the Stormville airport. This was verified, apparently, by crack UFO enthusiast reconnaissance teams that camped out near the airport. These observations can be explained by remembering two things. First, more airports than just the Stormville airport exist in the world. Perhaps the pilots flew from somewhere else. Perhaps they took off from several airports, met together in the sky, formed up, and after scaring the hell out of some people, dispersed. This would also explain why the local airports did not report six or seven modified aircraft taking off or landing simultaneously.

The reports of sightings in bad weather follow what I call the “crop circle effect.” With crop circles, once a few are reported, every single abnormal thing that occurs in a field is reported is a genuine crop circle, regardless of whether it is just a hole in the field, some dead crops, or weird sounds. The same is true with UFOs: once even one is reported, every single thing in the sky that looks out of place is reported as a UFO. The majority of these things would go unnoticed in normal times, but when your area is in the grip of a media-fueled UFO hysteria, things take on a new, sinister meaning. Even a bright star that you wouldn’t take two looks at during a regular night seems to be an alien spacecraft, ready to abduct people and chop up their cattle.

The rest of the accounts that cause concern can be easily explained. Some witnesses report that the craft moved absolutely silently: this could be a slight exaggeration on the part of the witnesses; it could be that the planes were flying at a higher altitude; it could be that the air was more humid and hampered the travel of sound waves. Any number of things can explain these accounts.

All of this is said assuming that there are no copycats or other hoaxers in the area. There are literally hundreds of cases of bored youths constructing “UFOs”, the simplest of which involves a flashlight, a kite, and some tape. It’s much more likely that others living in the Valley decided to capitalize on the UFO hysteria by making their own pranks than it is that space people are visiting us.

The argument of the UFO enthusiast goes something like this: UFOs were sighted in the area, and the details of each account vary wildly. It’s absolutely certain that pranksters in airplanes were responsible for a portion of the sightings, but that doesn’t explain them all. Only alien spacecraft (a slim minority says “experimental government aircraft”) can offer a real explanation.

But what they’re really saying is this: a group of pilots decided to fly around looking like UFOs, and aliens were kind enough to then send a genuine enormous, boomerang shaped vessel to help confuse the issue. Either that, or they sent a number of smaller craft flying in formation to spook us. They also assume that the vast majority of witnesses are not exaggerating at all, were not duped by copycat hoaxers, and are not themselves mistaking natural phenomena. Which sounds more likely? Alien spaceships came to visit, or a hoax fueled by hysteria led to one of the largest jokes ever?

I admit my research on the issue is somewhat lacking. Due to, I suspect, limited productions, a number of books written about this incident are hard to track down. All of this information comes from books about UFOs in general that mention this case, or information written by UFO enthusiasts on the internet. If you know where I can secure a copy of any of the books, or if you saw these objects yourself, please email me. (I am eager to speak with anyone who’s sighted a UFO or had an abduction experience.) I’m not unwilling to admit I’m wrong, but with the evidence I have before me, I’m unwilling to admit that such a thing is likely to happen.

Be seeing you.

First published in The Triangle on 19 August 2005.