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Why are there so many UFO sightings in Montana?

A screen capture from a 1954 video reportedly taken near Great Falls showing two lights moving in sky above military buildings & water tower.
A screen capture from a 1954 video reportedly taken near Great Falls showing two lights moving in sky above military buildings & water tower.

Welcome to The Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio driven by your curiosity about Montana. I'm your host, Freddy Monares. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, large or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans. For Montana. This is The Big Why.

For this episode, we're trying to answer a question with potentially cosmic implications: Flying saucers. Lights in the sky. Montana is a hotspot for UFO sightings. Today, Montana Public Radio reporter Edward O'Brien is tackling the question: Why are reports of UFOs so common in Montana?

Freddy Monares Ed, how are you?

Edward O'Brien I am well, Freddy. Thanks so much for having me.

Freddy Monares So where does Montana's story with UFOs or unidentified flying objects start?

Edward O'Brien Well, people have been seeing strange things in the sky for millennia. I've learned that stories of star people are part of some Native American traditions. But I think it's fair to say Montana's contemporary UFO stories began back in the summer of 1950 in Great Falls.

Freddy Monares Tell me more.

Edward O'Brien This guy named Nick Mariana, the general manager of a Great Falls minor league baseball team, saw something strange in the sky, so he grabbed his movie camera, picked up the objects in the viewfinder.

"And pressed the trigger. The discs appeared to be spinning like a top and were about 50 feet across and about 50 yards apart. I could not see any exhaust, wings or any kind of fuselage."

Edward O'Brien Now that's an excerpt of Mariana himself in what I'll loosely call a documentary from 1956 called U.F.O. The incident is thought to be one of the first unidentified flying objects ever captured on film. Since then, 100 more UFO incidents over Great Falls have been reported, apparently making it one of the most active UFO locations in North America.

Freddy Monares So did anyone ever figure out what those UFOs were? Birds, planes? Maybe just a smudge on the camera lens mount?

Edward O'Brien Not really. It's a long, complicated tale. Conclusions vary depending on who you talk to. One thing, though not up for debate is that 72-year-old story's continuing impact on Great Falls' identity.

Freddy Monares What do you mean?

Edward O'Brien So, Great Falls has an independent baseball team of the Pioneer League, and they're called the Voyagers. The club's mascot's a funny looking little dude with giant eyes and a big green baseball head with antennae coming out of the top. A reference to ...

'Orbit,' the Great Falls Voyagers baseball team mascot.
Great Falls Voyagers
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https://www.facebook.com/page/165462024075
'Orbit,' the Great Falls Voyagers baseball team mascot.

Freddy Monares ... The Mariana incident?

Edward O'Brien The Mariana incident. You got it. That story sure captivated Helena-based author and researcher Joan Bird. In 2012, she wrote a book called Montana UFOs and Extraterrestrials.

"There's stuff going on," Bird says.

Edward O'Brien The first chapter is all about Nick Mariana's story.

Freddy Monares And what about since 1950? Have there been more sightings?

Edward O'Brien Oh, yeah, lots more. And Joan talks about many of them in her book. Bird says she wrote it in part because she believes Montanans deserve to hear these great stories.

"I think it should be in our history books, not just in Montana, I think it should be in global history books. I think it's a very significant event for the planet," she says.

Edward O'Brien So I attended a talk by Joan at The Butte Public Library. It drew about 30 people of all ages who nearly filled up one of the library's largest public meeting rooms. When Joan wrapped up, she asked the audience to share their own UFO stories. Check out this one from Butte's Kim Boyle.

"I was in Whitehall, Montana. We looked up and saw a big round ship with several smaller ships behind it in a 'V' formation."

Freddy Monares Whoa.

Edward O'Brien Yeah. Kim says she was about eight years old when she had this wild experience.

"The lights were all the way around the big one, like flashing circular, different colors. And then it slowly started moving across the sky and then just disappeared."

Edward O'Brien O'Brien: "What do you think it was? "

"I think it was a ship. A spaceship. ETs." Boyle said.

Edward O'Brien And Boyle's far from alone. It's obviously hard to get reliable data on UFO sightings, but there is an organization called the National UFO Reporting Center. It logs people's accounts, even tries to debunk some. Over the past 50 years it's processed over 150,000 reports, almost 1,000 of which are from Montana. Some quick back-of-the-envelope math shows that to be one of the highest rates of sightings per capita in the nation.

Freddy Monares Woah, that's a lot. Does it tell you about what people are saying?

Edward O'Brien It sure does. Some range from the easily explained to the enigmatic. For instance, the most recent and most common kind of report details sightings of a rapidly moving trail of lights. Rather than a fleet of flying saucers, though, that's SpaceX's so-called train of StarLink Internet satellites.

Other reports, they're a little more challenging. There's one from Kalispell, about a mid-afternoon sighting of a flying, Tic Tac shaped object that reportedly changed color like a squid.

Another out of Hamilton details the sighting of a hovering triangular craft with red lights.

Freddy Monares This sounds like an action scene out of Star Trek or X-Files. How legit is this stuff? I mean, is the government saying anything about it?

Starship Enterprise - no reuse
Paramount Pictures
Starship Enterprise

Edward O'Brien Yeah, well, actually, Congress held its first official UFO-related hearing in a half century earlier this year.

"One such incident allegedly occurred at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in which 10 of our nuclear ICBMs were rendered inoperable. At the same time, a glowing red orb was observed overhead."

Edward O'Brien That's Wisconsin Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, pressing Pentagon officials at the hearing about a reported 1967 incident at an Air Force base in Great Falls. The government's UFO database now includes over 400 reported incidents. So far, they say there's no evidence of anything, "non-terrestrial in origin," but there are still cases that cannot be explained using existing science. Now the Pentagon has created an office to track what's known in government parlance as UAP, or unexplained aerial phenomenon.

Freddy Monares Wow, that's so wild. So, it seems like there are a lot of sightings and people are taking them more and more seriously, even at the highest levels of government. Why is that?

Edward O'Brien Well, I asked Penn State history professor Greg Eghigian that exact question. He's fascinated by UFO stories.

"If I really had my druthers, I'd go back retro and talk about flying saucers."

Edward O'Brien Eghigian specializes in the history of science and medicine. He's particularly intrigued by supernatural and paranormal phenomenon. He's writing a book about the history of UFO sightings and claims of alien contact, Eghigian describes himself as an academic, a skeptic at heart who's never witnessed a flying saucer, but says he's open to the idea.

Freddy Monares So what's he found about where these UFO sightings happen and who's filing these reports?

Edward O'Brien Well, here's what Eghigian had to say.

"Most sightings probably come from urban areas, and maybe that's not a surprise since there's a lot more people in cities. All the evidence indicates that people who report UFOs and people who show an interest in studying UFOs are actually more highly educated than the averages in the population in general."

Edward O'Brien He says Cold War-era technological and weapon advances combined with mounting political tensions ultimately helped spur military interest in those early reports of flying saucers, back in the time of sightings like the Mariana incident in Great Falls. He says Air Force brass feared someone was developing or deploying secret weapons.

A screen capture from the 1956 movie 'Earth vs. the Flyinig Saucers' shows three saucers flying over Washington D.C.
'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers'
A screen capture from the 1956 movie 'Earth vs. the Flyinig Saucers' shows three saucers flying over Washington D.C.

"And then, of course, it drew the attention of buffs who were really caught up in all of this".

Freddy Monares All of this sounds really familiar.

Edward O'Brien Right? It sounds a lot like what's unfolding before our eyes today. It's also leading to a resurgence of civilian interest in these cases. Professor Eghigian says that fandom cratered by the '90s, partly due to the emergence of the internet.

"A lot of veteran ufologists feel like it made people more passive. People would just be like, 'Well, I'll just read this stuff online and that's enough for me,' and makes a few comments on a blog somewhere."

Edward O'Brien But he says that's changing in a big way. People are again interested in what he calls the nuts and bolts of these machines — what they are, where they come from, and who's flying them. The renewed interest in UFOs is partly fear-driven. Are these Chinese or Russian spy devices? Could hostile extraterrestrial life actually be probing our planet and defense infrastructure? But Professor Eghigian sees another, more optimistic motivation.

"That if these, in fact, are extraterrestrials at work, it shows the genius of intelligence and what people are capable of when they put their mind to it. A kind of technological futurism that a lot of people look at and see as a sign of potential salvation, a way to escape all of these problems."

Edward O'Brien Sheila Rieger counts herself among those who truly draw inspiration from the idea of alien visitors. She sat in on Joan Bird's recent UFO lecture at the Butte Public Library.

"I think we've been visited. Yeah. There's too many sightings, I think, for it not to be."

Edward O'Brien O'Brien: "Does that thought excite you, or does it make you a little nervous?".

"Excited, because there could be something better out there than what we have."

Freddy Monares Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. In our next episode, we'll hear our first listener-submitted question. Send us your questions at https://www.mtpr.org/bigwhy, and find us wherever you listen to podcasts.

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O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at edward.obrien@umt.edu.