James McGaha and Joe Nickell –
It has been considered “one of the best-documented UFO accounts on record” (APRO Bulletin 1965) and “one of the most spectacular and best-corroborated UFO close encounters of all time” (Davenport and Geremia 2001). What journalist John G. Fuller would subsequently relate in his book Incident at Exeter (1966) began in the early hours of a September morning in 1965 near a small town in southeastern New Hampshire. It has never been satisfactorily explained—until now.
The story begins at 12:30 AM on September 3, 1965, at Exeter, New Hampshire. A policeman cruising on Route 101 came upon a woman parked beside the road. She told him excitedly that a flying object with red flashing lights had chased her for some distance. She pointed to a bright light on the horizon. The policeman, Eugene Bertrand, watched it for a short time and, unimpressed, left after reassuring the woman there was nothing to worry about.
Then at 2:24 AM, eighteen-year-old Norman Muscarello burst into the Exeter police station, “white, and shaking.” He had been hitchhiking along Route 150 toward his home in Exeter when he saw what he called “the Thing,” as big as or bigger than a house (Fuller 1966, 11). As Muscarello (1965) later described it in a signed statement:
A group of five bright lights appeared over a house about a hundred feet from where I was standing. The lights were in a line at about a sixty-degree angle. They were so bright, they lighted up the area. The lights then moved out over a large field and acted at times like a floating leaf. They would go down behind the trees, behind a house and then reappear.
Muscarello then described what would prove to be a powerful clue to the UFO’s identity:
[The lights] always moved in the same sixty-degree angle. Only one light would be on at a time. They were pulsating: one, two, three, four, five, four, three, two, one. They were so bright I could not distinguish a form to the object. I watched these lights for about fifteen minutes and they finally disappeared behind some trees and seemed to go into a field. At one time while I was watching them, they seemed to come so close I jumped into a ditch to keep from being hit.
Bertrand drove with Muscarello to the site just before 3 AM. The two walked into the field, and Bertrand himself witnessed the lights Muscarello had described. He stated, “At one time they came so close I fell to the ground and started to draw my gun.” The officer stated that there were “five bright red lights”; indeed they were “extremely bright and flashed on one at a time.” He added that “The lights were so bright, I was unable to make out any form” (Bertrand 1965). The pair ran to the police car. Bertrand radioed Patrolman David Hunt, who arrived and also witnessed the lights, which finally moved away, eastward, toward the ocean (Fuller 1966, 14).
Over the next several weeks, some sixty reports of UFOs followed in the area around Exeter. The case resulted in an article in Look magazine (February 8, 1966), the book by Fuller (expansively subtitled The Story of Unidentified Objects over America Today), and a host of articles, entries in UFO encyclopedias (e.g., Clark 1998, 364–67), and discussions in books (e.g., Hynek 1977, 154–66), as well as lectures, radio shows, and television documentaries.
J. Allen Hynek—the astronomer who began as an admitted “outright ‘debunker’” but became, by the late 1960s, a true believer in the reality of “the UFO phenomenon”—considered the case “a fine example of a Close Encounter of the First Kind” (1977, 1, 154), terminology he created. Hynek observed that the Pentagon was unable to explain the September 3, 1965, Exeter phenomenon and that “the scientific establishment” (a phrase dear to true believers) “in failing to deal with the evidence” was, like the Pentagon, “actually admitting that it has no explanation” (Hynek 1977, 165–66). In short, the object was still an unidentified flying object, implying that the mystery indicated something momentous. Skeptics were, of course, skeptical. …
For forty-five years the incident at Exeter remained unsolved. Then, while we were working together on some ongoing UFO research, one of us (Joe Nickell), an investigator and science writer, recalled the cold case to the other (James McGaha), an astronomer and former military pilot. We brainstormed the case, shared sources, and discussed details—soon agreeing that one particular element held the key to the solution. We might call it (with homage to Hardy Boys’ mysteries) “The Clue of the Sequencing Lights.”
As it happens, the military pilot of our team has actually docked with a craft like the UFO at Exeter, and he recognized the sequencing lights for what they surely were: those on a U.S. Air Force KC-97 refueling plane. To check his memory and obtain photos (figures 1–3), he visited an aerospace museum. Like seeing an old friend, he gazed on a mothballed KC-97 tanker (figure 1) whose fuselage is arrayed with a row of five red sequencing lights (figure 2). These would reflect onto the refueling boom (figure 3), which (according to the flight manual) when lowered is inclined at sixty-four degrees.
Just this type of craft operated out of Strategic Air Command bomber bases like that of Pease AFB and, indeed, would surely have been involved in a SAC/NORAD training exercise like that dubbed “Big Blast” of September 2–3, 1965. But what about the “fact” that this exercise—which was ongoing in the skies over Exeter at the time of the first sightings—had supposedly ended about an hour before Muscarello and officer Bertrand had their “close encounter”?1 It seems quite apparent that, although the particular exercise was reportedly over, there were still planes in the sky. Bertrand and Hunt, in fact, witnessed a B-47 jet at about the time the UFO disappeared (Fuller 1966, 67). Perhaps it had just refueled.
The airborne refueling process of the KC-97 is both interesting and relevant. Briefly, it involved the KC-97 making long circuits of the rendezvous area. As the jet to be refueled began to approach, the boom was lowered and the receiver (sequencing) lights were turned on. However, when the jet was in very close proximity, the receiver lights were turned low; otherwise their extreme brightness would temporarily blind the approaching pilot. (The sequencing stopped as the aircraft hooked up.) There would be some jockeying as the two planes connected, and all of this could look exceedingly strange to an observer on the ground.
Thus, on one of its long passes the slow-moving KC-97 could have seemed to be “chasing” the first eyewitness on Route 101. It was subsequently seen by young Muscarello and, later still, Bertrand, with its boom down at its characteristic angle. This boom, which bore its own small wings (again, see figure 3), would actually flutter in the air currents (except when specifically being controlled by the boom operator), which no doubt explains eyewitness Muscarello’s statement that the UFO “acted at times like a floating leaf.” Most notable were the tanker’s five red lights, which were flashing—in the sequence accurately described by the two witnesses—one, two, three, four, five, four, three, two, one. The extreme brightness of the lights, rendering other features of the object indistinguishable from the ground, is further corroborative evidence of the UFO’s identification as a KC-97 refueling plane. …
Ha! Sorry, I don’t buy this “solution” for a few reasons, not the least of which is the reported lack of sound. The KC-97 did not have a silent mode, as far as I know.
They were extremely bright and flashed on one at a time. The lights started to move around over the field. At one time, they came so close I fell to the ground and started to draw my gun. The lights were so bright, I was unable to make out any form. There was no sound or vibration but the farm animals were upset in the area and were making a lot of noise. When the lights started coming near us again, Mr. Muscarello and I ran to the car. I radioed Patrolman David Hunt who arrived in a few minutes. He also observed the lights which were still over the field but not as close as before. The lights moved out across the field at an estimated altitude of one hundred feet, and finally disappeared in the distance at the same altitude.
Unless the person was crazy, I can’t see someone falling to the ground and pointing a gun at a silent object that seemed very close when it was really a KC-97. Look at the following video: