Local History Spotlight

Volume 5: UFO Mania

Each year, Tompkins County residents brave the influx of tourists from all over the world; people who come to see our beautiful gorges, exciting cultural venues, and fabulous library. In the 1960’s however, locals welcomed a different kind of tourist, one who seemingly came from  very far away for reasons that remain unexplained.

spaceshipSince the first UFO sighting was documented in 1947, sightings have been reported nationwide, resulting in some areas of the country being labeled “hot spots” of paranormal activity. Tompkins County is believed to be one such hot spot, having reported over a thousand sightings in a five month period between 1967 and 1968. Referred to as the “Great Ithaca Flap”, the sightings of the 60’s came on the heels of a series of investigative projects by governmental agencies to determine the danger UFO's posed. Paranormal investigator William Donovan came to Ithaca representing the independent Aerial Investigations and Research Corporation. He set up camp over the Main Street bookstore for several months while interviewing witnesses and examining locations associated with area sightings. While Donovan’s investigations were inconclusive, Ithaca’s “Great Flap” landed it a place in several official research publications such as the Condon Report, The Colorado Project, and Project Blue Book.

In a 1969 article, Fate Magazine reporter T.M. Wright describes the testimonies of Ithacans who experienced “close encounters”. Some of the sightings are described in great detail, mimicking the space invader-style movies we now associate with the 60’s era. In an attempt to offer a plausible explanation for the sightings, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a Cornell astrophysicist and investigator on the government’s Blue Book Project suggested that aliens were drawn to the area by signals coming from Cornell’s nuclear particle accelerator and a radio communications link which connected the University to Puerto Rico through a large radio telescope.

The government concluded its paranormal research in 1969, determining that the alleged alien activity did not present a national threat. While this announcement led to a decrease in reported sightings nationally, the sightings continue to occur in Ithaca. In 1991, a New York State Trooper witnessed a UFO while driving through Danby, where 30 years ago UFOs reportedly left huge, circular clearings in farm fields and forests. Last year, the National UFO Reporting Center received numerous reports from the Finger Lakes area on the 4th of July, and in the past four months, two independent yet identical sightings were reported in Ithaca.

It’s quiet in Ithaca this month, but soon visitors will be returning to enjoy our community from other cities, countries, and perhaps, other planets.


Barron, James. “Mysterious Fireball Across Skies Leaves a Trail of Questions” New York Times, 7 March 1991.

Wright, T.M. “UFOs Over Ithaca, N.Y.” Fate  February 1969: 227- 2. Print.

Page last modified May 3, 2012