CUFOS

Mark Rodeghier, scientific director of Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), poses for a portrait in the basement of his house in Norwood, Ill., with part of the UFO collections of CUFOS in 2013.

CHICAGO — If the database held by the National UFO Reporting Center in Washington State (est. 1974) is any measure, the first official sightings in Illinois began in the mid-1920s, when a farm boy near Moline spotted an otherworldly “disc.” The Illinois chapter of the Mutual UFO Network (est. 1969 on the western border with Missouri) knows of stories of “airships” in the Midwest dating to 1896. But the majority of sightings are more recent.

You might even say, it’s a boom time for UFOs in Illinois.

During the past year alone, someone in Spring Grove reported a large flying Tic Tac-like craft traveling rapidly toward Wisconsin. In early June, a flashing, red-and-white flying something was reported high above Winnetka, at roughly the altitude of a plane, but then “started to descend before going below the tree line and out of sight.” In March, a “solid ball of white light” was seen moving fast over Dixon. In May, a diamond-shaped object was spotted above Chicago, stopping, changing course, vanishing. Around Easter, “two blue glowing triangles” were observed loitering over a Meijer in St. Charles.

And those are just four picked randomly out of dozens of reports from Illinois.

Though to judge by the data collected by the Mutual UFO Network and the National UFO Reporting Center, Illinois UFOs haven’t changed much since we first saw them. We see them while reclining in our backyards and farms, admiring the stars on a summer night. We see them while driving to work in the morning. We see them while walking the dog. We see them while strolling by the lake. We see them in snowstorms, and from the window seat of planes over O’Hare. When U.S. intelligence officials released an eye-popping study recently about the government’s ongoing attempts to identify “unidentified aerial phenomena,” the only certainty we could take away was this: We all see the same stuff. Orbs. Discs. Strands of lights. Triangles. Dancing triangles.

Even mysterious Tic Tacs are fairly common.

What was new about that study was the government’s posture toward UFO sightings, the remarkable concession that it can’t explain everything being seen. The report was seen as inconclusive, so inconclusive that intelligence officials are expected to update it by Thanksgiving. It considered known U.S. technology, the technology other nations have, weather balloons, swamp gas. Of the 144 cases examined for the report, 18 objects appeared to move using a technology that neither the government nor its adversaries were known to possess. No evidence of otherworldly beings was offered (and only one deflating balloon was identified from the 144 cases). But those 18 red-flagged flying objects required “additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze and characterize.”

Meaning, we don’t know what they are because, technologically, they’re beyond us.

Gulp.

As former CIA Director R. James Woolsey put it recently, he’s no longer as skeptical as he was a few years ago. Other former government officials said that if the public were shown the entirety of U.S. classified knowledge, many would turn to religion for comfort.

This change in tone comes partly because every one of those 144 cases in the report (all sourced within the past couple of years) came from a combination of government-approved sources, professional pilots and military personnel. See, you and me and the farmer’s weird kid, we see something weird and we say something — but it’s dismissible.

Because, frankly, we’ve been seeing things for a long time.

Historically, Illinois has been a relative UFO lightweight — at least compared with the Area 51 wastelands of the Southwest or the misty forests of the Pacific Northwest. But even we have greatest hits: The Tinley Park Lights of 2004, the mysterious football-field-sized triangle of Southern Illinois in 2000; in 2006, a dozen United Airline workers at O’Hare reported a disc above the airport that abruptly climbed, punching a perfect hole in the clouds. Sam Maranto, director of the Illinois chapter of MUFON, said there are UFO reports near the North Shore Naval Station that stretch back years. From 1999 to 2001, the Rockford area became a hotbed of sightings. There are even enough UFO reports from the wider Chicago metro area to generalize: We see triangular formations.

Then again, we see a lot of things.

There are databases maintained by MUFON and the National UFO Reporting Center that are scrappy, homegrown descendants of the defunct bureaucracies once tasked with UFO investigations. Such as Project Sign (initially “Project SAUCER”), Project Grudge, and most famously, Project Blue Book, which was shut down in 1969. “Blue Book was really all about appeasing the public,” said Maranto. “Its whole mission was to gather and quell.”

One of the leading forces behind Project Blue Book (which was headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton) was J. Allen Hynek, who started as a staunch debunker of alien craft but eventually came to sympathize with the citizens he investigated. He went on to become chairman of the astronomy department at Northwestern University and founder of the Center for UFO Studies in 1973. It was based in Hynek’s home in Evanston, though continues today on the Far North Side, under the direction of Mark Rodeghier, a statistician and former volunteer for Hynek (who died in 1986). “For a long time, though Hynek was an investigator for the Air Force, he never really investigated much in Illinois, partly because the quality of reports weren’t great. We joked about a Hynek Effect, that relatively, there weren’t enough UFOs reported in Illinois because they knew Hynek was at home, ready to investigate.”

The new government report — by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and titled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” — takes pains, in its first lines, to caution: “The limited amount of high-quality reporting on (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions ...” Which makes sense to Rodeghier: “In general, and since the beginning of UFO sightings, the US has led the way in UFO organizations and reports but not necessarily in research on UFOs or the quality of reports themselves.”