Hudson Valley: How the media really reacted to a 1980s UFO flap

The Hudson River Valley, comprising Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam, New York, and Fairfield and New Haven, Connecticut, experienced a wave of UFO sightings throughout the 1980s. Thousands of witnesses described, with little variation, an enormous, boomerang-shaped cluster of lights, quietly gliding over highways and neighborhoods. Some 5,000 people witnessed these events. 

Today, bloggers and UFO enthusiasts describe these events as The Hudson Valley flap, again with little variation. The oft-quoted prelude of the wave is said to have taken place just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1982: a retired police officer and a warehouse foreman independently witnessed an array of lights in a V-shaped formation passing over them.

The Hudson Valley UFO flap is described with little variation across multiple sources

It would only be a couple months before more witnesses would light up the Putnam County Police dispatch phone lines. As reported on April 16th, 1982 in the White Plains Reporter Dispatch, the Beacon NY News, the Newburgh NY News and the Peekskill NY Star, beginning at 8:51PM the previous Thursday night, multiple witnesses called the county dispatch reporting flying, multi-colored lights in a triangular pattern. All four news articles mentioned that Putnam County deputies believed the sightings were caused by a group of small airplanes flying out of Stormville Airport “whose pilots sometimes fly at night in close formation.”

Over a month later, on June 25th, the NY Newburgh Evening News and the Beacon NY News reported another slew of sightings, specifically noting, “strangely enough, all of the incidents came on Thursday nights between 8:30 and 9:30PM.” State police were quick to tell panicked callers that they had already tracked the objects to Stormville Airport after the last sighting (on April 29), telling them “… a group of professional pilots who were using small planes to practice close formation flying at night. [The authorities] said that the pilots usually [to] practice [at] night and were seen by a trooper landing at Stormville Airport shortly after state police received numerous calls wondering about the lights.”

The next wave began much like the first, in the early months of 1983. On March 4th, the Poughkeepsie Journal ran a headline reading “UFO flipped… and flashed…but it was only a stunt.” The article, written by Helene Maichle, quotes State Trooper Frank Dunning, “I got so many calls I put my investigative skills to work,” explaining that he “found [that] a team of stunt pilots from the Stormville Airport take to the skies every Thursday night to perform their maneuvers.” 

This was followed by one of few articles ever mentioned when discussing the case, the Port Chester Daily Item’s March 26th scoop, “HUNDREDS CLAIM TO HAVE SEEN UFO” by E.B. Waizer. Notable not only for NOT mentioning the Stormville pilots, but also as the beginning of the investigation by amateur UFO investigator Philip J. Imbrogno, who is currently more well-known for his fabrication of credentials than for his work on Hudson Valley case.

A more succinct piece was printed March 3rd, 1983, in the Mt. Kisco Patent Trader that makes an even more compelling case for the pilot theory, describing how the pilots create the illusion: 

  • Stopping mid-air can be achieved by a sudden climb of the formation performed directly over the views, who might not notice the lights are moving higher. 
  • The size, described as being as big as a 747 jet, results from several planes flying in precise formation, their lights and silhouettes against the moon, appearing as of one mass
  • Soundlessness results from temporarily cutting engines, reducing them to very low RPMs, wind currents; extreme distances, or distracting noise from other sources 
  • Airspeeds as slow as 50 MPH are possible by single-engine planes 

Waizer followed up his own piece with an article on March 31st in the White Plains Reporter Dispatch titled “Theories abound for lights in sky.” Waizer writes, “it has been speculated that the lights – invariably described as being in a V-shape – were from planes flying slowly and close together or from a dirigible, or that they were caused by atmospheric disturbances. But so far, none of the theories has been confirmed… One explanation, which has quickly gained a following, is that the lights were from the wingtip, tail, and landing lights of a flight of Cessna 150 single-engine propeller planes from Stormville and Sky Acres Airports in Dutchess County.”

Demonstration of small aircraft nighttime illumination
(1984). “The Great Hudson Valley UFO Mystery.” Discover Magazine.

This was followed by a quote from pilot Saul Wolff who witnessed the lights: “It was definitely five airplanes. I could very definitely see them and hear the engines and the propellers, but depending on the angle, they could seem to be hovering.”

By this point, Imbrogno had enlisted J. Allen Hynek’s help along with that of several other members of the Center for UFO Studies. They had set up 2 hotlines for witnesses to call and report their sightings. These accounts were shared with local papers along with Imbrogno’s position on the sightings, downplaying the Stormville pilot explanation, referring to the planes as “ultralights,” an ambiguous term that journalists tend to use to describe anything from hang-gliders to single engine aircraft. 

The April 3rd edition of the Yonkers Herald Statesman, written by Waizer, quoted Imbrogno: “I’ve interviewed 17 people and they basically all report the same thing. The majority of the sightings indicated that the object was 500 to 1,000 feet up and most people say that it was so slow they could catch up to it. A number reported seeing a structure, some kind of gray shape,” though Waizer adds “although several witnesses said they could make out the forms of five separate airplanes and hear the sound of propellers, other witnesses adamantly claim they saw one wedge-shaped object and that it hovered and darted in a manner unlike any airplane.” 

Waizer returned on May 22nd in the Herald Statesman, quoting Hynek: “I think we do have an interesting case here. From past experience, where a UFO is seen by a great number of people, it frequently turns out to have a natural explanation, but no one has been able to provide a viable, natural explanation.” Hynek, disappointingly, could not see the forest for the trees. 

By July 1983, Waizer was regularly churning out articles featuring Hynek, Imbrogno, and other investigators from CUFOS. In the White Plains Reporter Dispatch, Imbrogno admits to staking out Stormville Airport and witnessing the planes for himself, saying “this clears up 75 percent of my paperwork, but if I told some of the people who saw a huge, silent, hovering object that they were seeing airplanes, they’d be very upset.” The article implies two things: first, that Imbrogno had suspected this all along and that there were, in fact, two objects sighted over the past months. Second, that this was somehow proof of this theory, though this is the first we’ve heard about this incredible coincidence. 

As the summer of 1983 came to an end, so did the sightings. Several other small articles were published in local papers, all quite similar, citing reports of a large boomerang-shaped cluster of lights drifting up and down the Hudson River Valley and gliding silently. It’s notable that according to Imbrogno’s own research, roughly a quarter of the witnesses of the March 24th sighting described hearing a humming or droning sound. CUFOS’ investigators were eager to share their takes on the sightings, opting now for ‘the two objects theory:’ that is, while the Stormville pilots were flying over the river valley in boomerang formation, there was another, otherworldly, boomerang-shaped object flying in the same vicinity. 

The sightings resumed in the summer of 1984, suspiciously repeating the wave of the previous summer. While Imbrogo was still making rounds in the local newspaper circuit, explaining that what people saw couldn’t be “ultralights,” several members of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO) decided to take a look for themselves. 

Investigator Dick Ruhl describes his encounter in volume 32, issue 6 of the APRO Journal: “We watched in utter amazement as the two objects glided extremely slowly and maneuvered about themselves, constantly changing from white as they approached us, to red as they turned away and then from the side, the red, green-blue and white lights appeared. They finally formed up into a huge boomerang-shape and it was then that I saw some light reflected on the bodies of the six aircraft. We knew we had the evidence on the ‘Stormville pilots’,” Ruhl and his associate Ricchie Petracca then staked out the airport and watched the planes land. Ruhl took a photo of one of the plane’s tail IDs – N-76106 – which at the time was registered to an Ivan P, Hersh.

Rendition of the “Martians” flying in formation
(1984). “The Great Hudson Valley UFO Mystery.” Discover Magazine.

In November 1984, Discover Magazine ran a special report on the sightings, detailing what local papers and police had been saying all along: “several years ago, it seems, a few of the Stormville pilots began practicing formation flying, first in the daylight, then, as their skills improved, at night. Before long, other pilots joined them, and what began as loose groupings of planes became tight formations of aircraft with as little as six inches between wingtips.” With the sightings getting so much press, the article explains, more pilots joined the group and they began calling themselves “the Martians.” 

In fact, the airport cafeteria added a “UFO Burger” to the menu, playing along with the pilots’ inside joke – because that’s what this UFO wave was. A case open-and-shut in the local newspapers, open for the public to discover. Despite this, Imbrogno maintained his stance on the sightings for several more years. The flap lasted, by some accounts, until 1987, repeating every summer. Imbrogno and his associates continued making media appearances, where they could make claims about how the nights of the larger sightings reportedly experienced 35 mph winds, making it impossible for “the Martians” to be formation flying. 

UFO Burger cafeteria sign at Stormville Airport
(1984). “The Great Hudson Valley UFO Mystery.” Discover Magazine.

Much like with his fictitious claims of expertise and education, Imbrogno had no qualms making demonstrably false claims about the Hudson Valley sightings. Incredibly, this case is still talked about today in poorly-researched, cookie-cutter blog posts and by mystery mongers with a narrative to push, the latter adopting Imbrogno’s tactic of referring to the airplanes equivocally as “ultralights” or claiming that what they were doing would be illegal and simply shrugging off the explanation, knowing their audience will likely never look into it themselves.


Nick Coffin-Callis is a dubious layman. Find him on Twitter @invnightschool


Citations

Newspapers
(1982, April 16). Callers report UFO. White Plains Reporter Dispatch.
(1982, April 16). UFO flight or fancy?. Beacon News.
(1982, April 16). UFO sighting still goes unexplained Newburgh News UFO sightings in Carmel. Peekskill Star.
(1982, June 25). UFO’s again? Cops say no. Newburgh Evening News.
(1983, March 4). UFO flipped…and flashed…but it was only a stunt. Poughkeepsie Journal.
(1983, March 26). Hundreds claim to have seen UFO. The Daily Item (Port Chester, New York).
(1983, March 30). Is UFO a hoax by top pilots?. Mt. Kisco Patent Trader.
(1983. March 31). Theories abound for lights in sky. The Reported Dispatch (White Plains, New York).
(1983, April 3). UFO sightings nothing new. The Herald Statesman (Yonkers, New York).
(1983, May 22). Those weren’t just any UFOs. The Herald Statesman (Yonkers, New York).
(1983, July 15). Planes behind part of UFO sightings. The Reported Dispatch (White Plains, New York).

Websites

Shaw, Jazz. (2022, July). The Hudson Valley UFOs: How the Media Reacted to a 1980s UFO Flap. The Debrief. https://thedebrief.org/the-hudson-valley-ufos-how-the-media-reacted-to-a-1980s-ufo-flap/
(Header image, content).
Moody, Lance. (2011, July 15). Saucers, Lies, and Audio Tape. Not a Ghost. https://www.notaghost.com/2011/07/saucers-lies-and-audio-tape.html

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