I’ve never seen a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) in Arkansas, or anywhere else for that matter. Part of me says surely other intelligent beings exist across the vast, incomprehensible reaches of the universe, and a visit to Earth from an outside civilization could be remotely conceivable — especially with news from astronomers that our galaxy contains an estimated 11 billion planets that could possibly support life as we know it. The other part says hogwash, that our small blue planet is hurtling through space on a solo journey.
In any event, reports of UFO sightings in Arkansas can be traced back well over a century. In late 1896 and early 1897, the country experienced a rash of “airship” sightings, to include one a few miles northeast of Texarkana, another outside Hot Springs and a third by a group of men leaving the White Elephant Saloon in Malvern. Noting that these alleged airships were flying across the state without paying taxes, the Arkansas Senate passed a resolution requesting the Committee on Railroads “… to consider the propriety of including airships in the bill now being considered by them, proposing to regulate the passenger, freight and express traffic of this state.”
In mid-October 1975, more than 350 participants from across the globe arrived in downtown Fort Smith for the world’s first “serious” international UFO conference. Billed as a “United For Objectivity” gathering by local host Bill Pitts, the three-day meeting drew respected scientists, UFO enthusiasts and a handful of skeptics. Also in the crowd were official representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Air Defense Command and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Professor J. Allen Hynek, a highly regarded astronomer from Northwestern University, was the keynote speaker, accusing the U.S. Air Force of “pigeonholing every UFO sighting as either conventional aircraft, balloons or natural phenomena in order to produce statistics showing a low number of unexplained cases.” Pressing his case that too much time had been spent trying to convert UFO nonbelievers, he said, “We need to stop arguing about the existence of the eggs and get down to cooking the omelet.” The meeting got a prominent mention in TIME magazine and an eight-page story in Science Digest.
Sporadic accounts of UFO encounters in Arkansas have continued to surface. Among the most publicized was the experience of Joanne Wilson on Oct. 20, 1989. She and her business partner left the Harrison area around 5 a.m. that Friday and headed to the annual War Eagle Craft Show where they had a booth. Outside the passenger window of their pickup, they saw a large red-orange glow, maybe 100 feet away, moving at the same speed as their truck. At one point, this object produced bright white columns within the red light. When Wilson stopped so her partner could take photos, the surreal object also paused and seemed to dissolve, apparently not wanting its picture made. Shaken by this occurrence, the women missed their turn onto Arkansas 303 and drove an extra 15 miles into Springdale, all the time accompanied by this strange thing. Reversing their course, they again stopped and stared, unable to comprehend what they were seeing. After a few minutes, Wilson started driving, remembered to turn at the 303 junction, and their inexplicable companion followed them almost to the grounds of the craft fair before vanishing. Her encounter provides the foundation for UFO: End-Time Delusion, a book by David Allen Lewis and Robert Shreckhise.
My only connection to this phenomenon is through a trusted aunt who allegedly spotted a UFO in the northwest corner of the state many years ago and convinced most of us in the family that she definitely observed something bordering on the supernatural. Even so, there’s sort of an unwritten rule that we don’t bring it up anymore.
My aunt is certainly not alone in her claim to have seen an alien spaceship. A 2012 survey commissioned by the National Geographic Channel revealed that 10 percent of the American population said they’ve personally witnessed extraterrestrial objects. When asked if they believed alien beings have landed on Earth, only 17 percent were naysayers. Nearly half (48 percent) weren’t sure, but fully 36 percent of the respondents answered affirmatively. In short, 80 million Americans believe in UFOs.
For more than a quarter of a century now, the open-minded folks in Eureka Springs have hosted the Ozark UFO Conference, an annual assemblage in mid-April, which typically attracts about 600 delegates from dozens of states, making it one of the largest such conventions in the country. It’s a well-organized affair, bringing in recognized experts — often from other countries — to share their experiences and findings via a series of panels and presentations.
The typical three-day, two-night conference begins at noon on Friday and wraps up at noon on the following Sunday. In recent years, lectures have addressed such topics as: “Research & Investigations of U.S. Crop Circles”; “Videographic Evidence of UFO Sightings in Mexico”; “Evidence of UFO Cover-Up by Government Agencies”; and “UFO Physical Evidence Recovered and Now Proven Extraterrestrial.” The convention also features door prizes, photo contests and the opportunity to purchase UFO books, T-shirts, DVDs, artwork and metaphysical merchandise from three dozen vendors.
The first Ozark UFO Conference, organized by the same Bill Pitts of Fort Smith noted earlier, was held in Eureka Springs in 1988. From 1989 through 2009, it was directed by the late Lou Farish of Morrilton. Farish, the valedictorian of his high school senior class in Plumerville, spent much of the free time in his adult life on UFO research and education, and for many years edited the monthly UFO Newsclipping Service. A longtime employee of the U.S. Postal Service and an Arkansas National Guard veteran, Farish died in early 2012 and left his estate to be used to promote UFO-related research and teaching.
I’m fascinated by the effort put into the Ozark UFO Conference and hope to soon attend the event. It’s always good to be exposed to new ideas, right?
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.