Little green men in the bluegrass

A history of UFO sightings in Kentucky

Oct 26, 2011 at 5:00 am
Little green men in the bluegrass

Back in May, after nine witness reports were fielded during the previous month, a “UFO ALERT 5” rating was issued in Kentucky, and the state was placed on a watch list. The organization issuing the alert was the national office of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), which employs scores of trained and paid investigators. And while such an alert doesn’t mean an extraterrestrial invasion is imminent, it is a reflection of Louisville and Kentucky’s intriguing — though often explainable — UFO history that goes back some 60 years.


“It’s been very, very busy here,” says Dave MacDonald, director of Kentucky MUFON, and third in line for national leadership. “Most of the activity has been centered in two parts of the state: Bowling Green, which is really close to Fort Campbell, and in the Big Sandy region, where there are a lot of coal mines, rivers, lakes and railroads — all of these things, for some reason, seem to attract UFOs.”

But the Louisville region has had its share of sightings as well.

Take, for example, “The Shootout”: In 1993, a glowing pear-shaped object the size of a basketball played cat-and-mouse with a Louisville police helicopter. Mike Pickard, the current investigator for Kentucky MUFON’s Louisville sector, says the chase started over General Electric’s Appliance Park, and he calls it the “The Shootout” because the UFO fired what appeared to be small and apparently harmless balls of fire at the pursuing helicopter. But skeptics believe the UFO was nothing more than a miniature, homemade hot air balloon and that the fireballs were simply birthday candles, ejected when the balloon came too close to the helicopter.

The incident has remained legendary among enthusiastic believers, but it just recently garnered more widespread national attention. Both pilots from that night — Kenny Graham and Kenny Downs — tell LEO they spent several days in Boston over the summer filming a segment about “The Shootout” for a production company that’s created shows for the Discovery Channel. The Sci-Fi Channel also aired an overtly “pro-UFO” piece on the chase last month.

Another local case spiked with mystery occurred on June 24, 2009, when what some have described as a spinning Coors Light can was spotted hovering over Louisville International Airport in the early afternoon. It’s a case MUFON continues to investigate, and MacDonald believes video footage exists as he says a cameraman for a local television news outlet — he’s not sure which station — was at the scene.

“It is MUFON’s hope that our investigations will deliver the truth, one way or the other, about UFOs,” says MacDonald, who’s been dubbed “The Captain” by his peers. A pilot since 1987, MacDonald owns Flamingo Air, a charter company that shuttles passengers to beach destinations, and also runs a flight school.

“Although we have found that 92 percent of the reported sightings are explainable, it is that remaining 8 percent which constitutes the most amazing enigma of our time,” he says. “At this time, the evidence in favor of that 8 percent being extraterrestrial is absolutely overwhelming.”

Little Green Men

“Kentucky has a history of UFO activity, no doubt about it,” MacDonald says. “The term ‘little green men’ was actually coined by a Kentucky case.”

MacDonald is referring to the “Hopkinsville Goblin Case,” which unfolded in the late summer of 1955. After “an unusual light settled way back in the woods,” two rural families from the small town of Hopkinsville claimed they were terrorized in the middle of the night by apparent humanoids, described as 3-feet-tall with thin limbs, over-sized heads and large pointy ears.

“They put the kids under the bed and then surrounded the bed with mattresses. Next thing they hear is scampering on the roof,” MacDonald says. The witnesses testified the creatures would float through the air and suddenly appear behind windows and in open doors. Two adult men turned their rifles on the creatures, blasting away hundreds of rounds, but the bullets ricocheted off with no harmful effect.

“They then raced into town to tell the sheriff, and the sheriff attested these people weren’t buzzed,” MacDonald says. “Yet these people were crucified.”

Besides the families, several law enforcement officers swore they saw strange lights tear through the sky that night. The story was so convincing that U.S. Air Force investigators from Fort Campbell visited Hopkinsville, questioning all witnesses and making sketches of the gremlins.

Half a century later, the case’s legacy has staying power. It’s been reported that Steven Spielberg was heavily influenced by what happened in Hopkinsville that night.

Kentucky also was the setting for another classic UFO case in January 1948, when four P-51 Mustangs from the Kentucky Air National Guard already in the air were ordered to intercept a strange object spotted from the control tower at Fort Knox.

The pilots were soon radioing commanding officers, telling them this thing was enormous and silver.

Four of the five pilots would disengage the UFO because they were low on oxygen and fuel. But not 25-year-old Thomas Mantell, who had battled Nazis over Normandy just a few years before. Mantell continued the chase as this “thing” streaked past at 12,000 feet. Yet Mantell kept pursuing, well past 20,000 feet, according to the Air Force.

What happened next is considered one of the most significant UFO mysteries ever. Mantell’s P-51 Mustang fell out of the sky and exploded near the Tennessee-Kentucky line south of Bowling Green.

The pilot blacked out because of a lack of oxygen — that was the military’s official explanation. But MacDonald has his doubts. Even at that altitude, MacDonald says, “Lack of oxygen is not an issue. He had ample oxygen and ample fuel.” Yet in the aftermath, the Air Force insisted there had been no hostile move against him.

Despite a few frightening stories like the ones out of Hopkinsville and Fort Knox, for the most part, Kentucky UFOs seem downright benign, if not playful. Take, for example, a more recent statewide case that occurred in 2009 near Lexington.

A trucker and his rig were heading east on Route 60 in the middle of a warm summer night as bright lights approached fast from behind. In his rear-view mirror, he noticed the lights suddenly rise off the highway. Whatever it was, it was directly above him. Both vehicles hurtled down the highway for a short distance before the tractor-trailer died — the engine, the controls, his radio, all silenced.

Corroborating the trucker’s story were witnesses driving the opposite direction on the highway that night. They, too, told Kentucky MUFON they saw a triangular craft racing down Route 60. And these witnesses also claim there was a power outage — the highway lights went dark as the craft passed, they reported.

Intrigued, Kentucky MUFON investigators decided to act, contacting Old Dominion Power to see if they had documented any power outages that night. “A representative from Old Dominion Power confided there had been rolling blackouts that night that corresponded with the path of the UFO,” MacDonald says.

“Absolutely Not”

As far as UFO witnesses go, Kenny Downs, now in his mid-50s, is as legitimate as it gets. Four times he’s unsuccessfully run for sheriff of Nelson County. In 1988, he became a police officer for the Louisville Police Department. During his law enforcement stint, he reached the rank of detective and corporal, supervising up to 20 officers. He was once voted officer of the year by supervisors and received the Exceptional Merit Award for saving the life of a child.

Downs was also a member of the police helicopter unit. It was in this position, seated next to pilot Kenny Graham on a February night in 1993, when he saw an apparent UFO — an encounter later dubbed “The Shootout.”

According to the two officers, as reported by The Courier-Journal, they were flying to investigate a break-in near the General Electric plant when they noticed what appeared to be a floating ball of fire. Momentarily confused, Downs turned the copter’s spotlight on the object and watched as it rose to their elevation of roughly 500 feet. “Then it took off at a speed I’ve never seen before,” Graham told The Courier-Journal just days after the run-in.

The UFO made two huge counter-clockwise loops, and in an instant it was behind the helicopter. Graham accelerated to 100 miles per hour to get away, but the craft zipped past and climbed hundreds of feet above them. Graham closed in once again, and that’s when three baseball-sized fireballs came out of the pear-shaped UFO.

But like many UFO cases, a rational explanation soon followed. Three days later, the C-J ran a story about a local couple, Scott and Concepcion Heacock, who had a homemade hot air balloon hobby and were out that night near the GM plant for a leisurely winter flight in the falling snow. Made of balsa wood and plastic dry cleaner bags, their balloon became airborne after they inserted several candles.

Shocked that the newspaper had turned his hot air balloon into a UFO story, Scott Heacock came forward to tell his version. “I thought they (pilots) knew what it was. I couldn’t believe all the fuss that was made. It wasn’t a UFO at all. It was just a homemade hot air balloon,” he told the C-J.

While the officers refused to acknowledge that what they saw was balsa wood and a laundry bag, scientific evidence supported the explanation. All aircraft moving through the atmosphere are surrounded by a horizontal corkscrew vortex. Thus, the balloon could have been sucked in and then tossed out the back of the vortex, behind the copter.

Oddly, the Heacocks moved away within a few days of the incident.

Years later, there was speculation that the Louisville Police Department ostracized both Downs and Graham in an effort to silence their UFO talk. Mike Pickard, the Louisville MUFON investigator, does not believe the hot air balloon theory, and he tells LEO, “They were moved out of the helicopter unit because of that night. Sent to different precincts, stuff like that.”

LEO spoke with Downs for this story, and the former police pilot insisted the department did not retaliate because of his close encounter, saying, “Absolutely not.” He also was quick to denounce Heacock’s story. While the homemade balloon was widely accepted as an ironclad explanation, Downs says Scott Heacock was an attention hound.

“It was not a balloon. One second it was a mile away, and the next it was right in front of us. Absolutely I believe it was not of this world,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the cases can be explained, but there’s 1 percent that cannot.”

Beer Cans in the Sky

While “The Shootout” has a plausible explanation, a more recent event over Louisville remains a mystery. In 2009, on a sunny June afternoon, something strange appeared over the Louisville International Airport and remained for several hours. MacDonald believes there were a host of witnesses, but because most are employees of the airport or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), no one is speaking out because doing so is considered taboo.

But there was one witness willing to talk — a parcel and package handler who was on the tarmac that day.

MacDonald says the package handler, who came forward to Kentucky MUFON and wishes to remain anonymous, overheard on an airport radio channel that morning, “‘Do you see the UFO?’”

Initially, the witness thought someone was playing a practical joke. But several hours later, he saw a reflection in the sky as if someone was trying to signal him with a mirror.

According to MacDonald, this is the story the witness relayed: “As this object came closer, I could make out that it was rotating and was a cylinder, then a diamond shape. As it spun horizontally and clockwise, the cylinder shape would catch the sun and reflect it … The speed of the rotation was about four times a minute. It continued in a straight line over the runway at a slow and steady speed, its height was just under the clouds; puffy white clouds that were scattered and sparse. Approximate altitude around 1,500 feet. It continued until it reached the very end of our ramp. It then sat in this position for 30 to 45 seconds, and then started to ascend above the clouds.”

After hearing the package handler’s story, MacDonald traveled to Louisville to investigate. But when he arrived at the airport, silence had already befallen the air tower. “They were trying to be low-key about it,” he said of airport brass. Kentucky MUFON quickly filed an open records request with the FAA. “To this day, it’s being stonewalled,” MacDonald says of the request. “They told us, ‘You didn’t put the period here in your statement’ and sent it back to us.”

Humongous Red Crab

On YouTube — a clearinghouse of sorts for the latest in strange things floating and pulsating in Earth’s atmosphere — there’s a bevy of videos from Kentucky.

Some are laugh-out-loud fakes meant to poke fun at UFO fantasies. For instance, the video “A UFO emerging from a lake in Cumberland Gap” shows an animated red crab the size of a boat tossing a flying saucer out of his watery home.

But other videos, such as “Black Triangle Kentucky” and “Louisville, July 4, 2010 UFO,” are intriguing, creepy, and replete with outbursts from stunned witnesses.

It’s these cases that keep MUFON going in the face of ridicule. They yearn for disclosure — meaning the Pentagon and other world powers admitting we’re being visited by extraterrestrials.

“Should disclosure come, and I am sure it will, either voluntarily or by a very public arrival, the work of MUFON will be far from over. As a matter of fact, given the unknown vastness of the universe, it will have only just begun,” MacDonald says. “Who knows, the day may come when MUFON is helping an extraterrestrial group solve the greatest mysteries of their time.”