Fifty years after the famous Kecksburg UFO streaked across the December sky and landed in a wooded hollow, two Westmoreland County researchers have put forth a theory that they say explains it.
The unidentified flying object that came down Dec. 9, 1965, they say, was a General Electric Mark 2 Re-entry Vehicle that had been launched by the Air Force as a spy satellite, but fell out of orbit.
Authorities at the time, however, said it was a meteorite. That official claim has been challenged but never changed.
Researchers consider the Kecksburg UFO one of the great unsolved mysteries, and people in the tiny town of Kecksburg still talk about it. Witnesses who saw it — before members of the military swooped in and took it away — say it was not a meteor but a craft of some kind.
The years have muddled a few recollections, but accounts at the time agree on several points.
It was 4:47 p.m. when it came out of the sky from the northwest, a flaming object from over Canada, Ohio and into Western Pennsylvania. It appeared to be guided, changing its path and making a level descent away from residential areas and into the woods of Kecksburg.
The first people on the scene said it was partly buried in the ground. It was made of metal, between 10 and 12 feet long, and generally shaped like an acorn. There were strange markings on a band near the bottom that resembled hieroglyphics.
The military was on the remote scene within an hour and by 8 p.m., it was gone, hauled away on the back of an Army flatbed truck.
John Ventre, state director of the Mutual UFO Network, did not begin earnestly looking into the Kecksburg mystery until this year, he said, because so many others already were on the case. But Shafton native Owen Eichler, who had spent decades investigating it, came to him in February with a theory and some evidence that seemed to add up, and the two joined forces.
Their research — put forth in a report with the title “Has a Top 5 UFO Case Been Solved?” — suggests the vehicle was launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific two days earlier as part of America’s top-secret program for spying on the Soviet Union from space.
“Of course, no one ever wanted to admit we were spying on Russia,” Mr. Ventre said, offering an explanation as to why the object was taken away and never explained.
The night it landed
Mr. Eichler was a 13-year-old boy in December 1965, playing baseball in a field, when he saw “the predominately green glowing object with wisps of yellow, purple and orange colors” shoot across the sky.
Hundreds of others saw the object and, thinking that it might be a plane on fire or not knowing what to think, many called authorities.
Greensburg resident Stan Gordon, who would grow up to be a noted UFO researcher, was 16 and listening to a program on KDKA radio when the host began taking calls from witnesses.
John Hays was 10 and playing football when the object landed. Despite the fact that his family lived nearby, he did not see it.
“But when I went in the house, my dad had the radio on and they said something crashed in Acme,” he said. “Then Mom was looking out the window and said, ’It’s not in Acme. It’s right out there. Look at all the cars out across the hill.’ There was activity all over the place.”
The first people on the scene were the curious neighbors. Then came the volunteer firefighters and the police. They were followed by reporters.
“Then there were reports of military personnel coming in,” Mr. Gordon said.
What struck the residents of Kecksburg — and investigators to this day — was how quickly armed military men, more than two dozen of them, arrived at the scene, taking charge and chasing people away.
“The U.S. [government] claimed they were never tracking it, which makes no sense,” Mr. Ventre said. “They had to be tracking it. The Canadian radar was tracking it.”
Mr. Hays saw the military men up close because they set up their command center in his family’s two-story house overlooking the woods. The site offered them a view of the area as well as a working telephone.
“The first thing they did was tell my parents to send us kids to bed,” Mr. Hays said. “Well, naturally I was excited by all the goings-on, and our bathroom was downstairs. I made quite a few trips to the bathroom that night.
“There were a lot of men in uniforms and there were some men in suits, and it was clear that the men in suits were in charge of everything, they were over top of the military, and they had a lot of clout.”
Mr. Hays’ upstairs bedroom offered a good view of the authorities coming and going.
“I couldn’t see down into the hollow where they were at, but I did see six guys in radiation suits take a box down there,” he said. “I didn’t see them bring it back out.”
He said a later inspection of the family’s phone bill showed no evidence of the calls that were made.
Some witnesses said the authorities warned them away from the area because of a risk of radiation from the object. Others were just ordered to leave — at gunpoint — and did so.
Former Post-Gazette reporter Ernie Hoffman, 76, of Hempfield, was working the night shift in Greensburg when he and a photographer were sent to the scene. Mr. Hoffman arrived in time to see military men taking an object away on the back of a flatbed truck. But his account differs from some of the other witness recollections.
“It was not a 10- to 12-foot object,” he recalled. “It was small, the size of two suitcases.”
But Jerry Betters, a Pittsburgh jazz vocalist who died in 2007, told investigators it was larger than that, and the military truck carrying it had a white star on the door. He drew a picture of it and had it notarized.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t in Kecksburg very long. And where it went, nobody who is talking knows for sure.
Most investigators believe it was taken to a hangar at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where one witness claims to have seen what appeared to be a small body on a gurney next to it. The witness told Mr. Gordon that there was an arm hanging down. “It had three digits and lizard-like skin,” Mr. Gordon said he was told.
Mr. Ventre is skeptical.
“Personally, I’m rooting for the UFO evidence since I’m with the Mutual UFO Network,” he said. “But I really have to say that we have an extremely good theory that this was a spy satellite.”
Legwork and guesswork
Some people believe the object was a Russian satellite called Cosmos 96, but Mr. Ventre and Mr. Gordon agree the likelihood of that was probably debunked by a 2003 investigation by journalist Leslie Kean for the Sci Fi Channel. Armed with a Freedom of Information challenge and an interview with an expert at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Ms. Kean determined that Cosmos 96 came down over Canada earlier the same day as the Kecksburg UFO.
But while Ms. Kean might have eliminated one possibility, she couldn’t nail down what it was.
A few have suggested, based on the size and shape of it, that it might have been “the Nazi Bell,” a World War II-era experiment related to gravity and time travel.
“There’s many theories out there, and I keep an open mind to all possibilities,” said Mr. Gordon, who in 2004 produced “Kecksburg: The Untold Story,” a popular DVD including witness accounts of the incident. “I’ve always said this thing was either a very secretive, very advanced man-made space vehicle or it was extraterrestrial. In the 50 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve looked at all sorts of American and Soviet objects and nothing ever seemed to fit the description of what we saw in Kecksburg.”
That was the same stumbling block Mr. Eichler said he kept encountering, until sometime after 1991 when he discovered newly released government documents about the GE Mark 2 re-entry vehicle.
“This vehicle was in the nosecone of the Thor, Atlas and Jupiter rockets in the early 1960s,” he said. “And it was upside down, which means that the cone section was embedded in the vehicle. Everybody was looking for a nosecone with a point, and that’s what threw us for many, many years. I researched so many vehicles of the time period — mostly Russian and American — and we couldn’t find any that matched what was seen in Kecksburg until we learned that the entry vehicle was inverted in the nosecone. That was the ‘Ah-ha!’ moment.”
The size and shape appear similar to the Kecksburg UFO. Other points made by Mr. Eichler and Mr. Ventre include:
1) The GE vehicle had four control jets, which would explain the controlled, turning descent that witnesses described.
2) One of the metals in its construction was copper, which would explain the green flames people saw.
3) Photos of the re-entry vehicle seem to show markings that might have seemed foreign to civilian observers.
“Another significant thing we believe is that this thing had a nuclear or atomic generator in it,” Mr. Ventre said, “and when that hit, they had to get it out of Kecksburg before they had a radiation leak. That’s why they were there so quickly, that’s why there were guys in radiation suits with a lead box going into the woods. They had to get that and make sure it was not leaking before they drove it out to the turnpike.”
But Mr. Ventre acknowledged that this is their best guess. They can’t prove it.
“We need confirmation from NASA or the Air Force. We’ve left messages. but we’re not getting any phone calls back,” he said. “All the characteristics in our report match up with the Kecksburg UFO. So we’re putting this out there and hoping it will get picked up and maybe some people who know something will finally, after all these years, step forward and give us some answers.”
Impact on Kecksburg
Each July, the Earthlings in Kecksburg host a UFO Festival, where they have a lot of fun and raise a little money for the volunteer fire department.
Ron Struble, 73, who remembers seeing the streak in the sky from his home in Greensburg, organizes the event and oversees the tiny UFO store in the VFD hall.
It was Mr. Struble who convinced the makers of “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1990 to let Kecksburg keep the styrofoam mockup of the UFO they used. It is on display outside the fire hall, where it still attracts visitors.
The weekend festival is like any other small town’s summer fair — with games, music, races, hot-dog eating contests and such — until Sunday, when they squeeze more than 300 people into the hall for the UFO conference. Witnesses, investigators and experts share their recollections and theories.
Mr. Struble said there are a few people in town who think that too much is made of the incident and they wish others would drop it. But most residents like their little town’s claim to fame.
Some wonder if finding out that it was simply an American spy satellite would take away the eerie luster and buzz of a UFO mystery. But Mr. Struble said he’d be glad to have the answer to what fell from the sky.
“People have a right to know. It’s been 50 years,” he said. “If it was today, you’d never get away with it. But back then, they just wouldn’t tell us. But we know something landed and we saw the military. They say nothing happened, and that’s just ridiculous.”
“I know I’ll probably never get a straight answer,” Mr. Hays said. “But I know they went down in with an empty truck and they came out with something on the back of it.”
“It’s a mystery and after so many years it would be great if we could find that conclusive information about what it was that fell from the sky that night in 1965,” Mr. Gordon said, “but it might be one of those things that we may never have the answer for.”