Note: In researching this, I used the statements made in the newspapers immediately after the event happened. To help clarify some of the conflicting information, I used some interviews with Dale Spaur, recorded by Marc Candusso from the Flying Saucer Investigations Committee of Akron, OH on April 19, 1966.
1966 was an interesting year when it came to UFO sightings. UFO reports flooded American newspapers and would continue to do so until early 1967. Sadly, the majority of those who reported their sighting would be ridiculed by the public and the men involved in the Great UFO Chase were not only mocked by the public, but also their peers.
That is not the purpose of this article. Using the earliest reports – before the newspapers decided to mock the police officers because of what they saw, we’re going to attempt to piece together what happened in the skies over Ohio and Pennsylvania on the morning of April 17, 1966.
Although I had watched the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind numerous times, I had only recently discovered that one of the scenes in the sci-fi movie was influenced by a real event. In the movie, there is a scene where police chase UFOs across the countryside, which ended in a car crash. The chase was influenced by real events that happened in 1966, when police followed a strange object for eighty miles across Ohio and Southwestern Pennsylvania. However, the real chase did not end with the crash of the police cruiser – it ended with four police officers unsure of what they had seen in the sky that morning.
The Great UFO Chase of 1966 had its beginnings in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 17. The cold, clear night had been uneventful for Portage County (Ohio) Deputies Dale Spaur and Wilbur L. “Barney” Neff. A couple times throughout the night, the radio came to life with reports of a mysterious light in the sky over Akron, but neither of the two men paid attention to the reports.
Around five that morning, Spaur and Neff were headed west on US Route 224 toward Randolph, Ohio. East of Randolph, the deputies spotted a vehicle parked on the southside of the road and Spaur made a U-turn to investigate. Neff stood at their cruiser as Spaur cautiously approached the truck.
The truck was empty. Spaur searched the area, looking for any signs of the driver, but his search turned up nothing. He was still searching for the driver, when he noticed something approaching in the sky. At this point, the object was on the southern side of US Route 224, travelling in an eastward direction toward them. No higher than one hundred feet off the ground, the object was barely clearing the trees as it approached. The only noise coming from the object was a low hum.
As if the object realized it has been spotted by the officers, it paused for a moment before crossing the highway directly over the two cars and police deputies. In the April 18, 1966 edition of The Akron Beacon (Akron, OH), the object was described as “looking like the head of a flash light” and was “between thirty-five and fifty feet wide and fifteen to twenty-five feet high.” A beam of light that appeared conical was coming from the bottom of the object; the blue-white light was so bright the deputies could not look directly at it.
The two officers rushed to their car for safety. Once inside, they watched the object as it paused on the northern edge of the road before returning back over the police deputies to the southern side of Route 224.
Spaur radioed the station and reported the object emitting the bright light was directly above them. Sergeant Hank Shoenfelt asked them if they had a camera. When Spaur replied they did not have a camera, Shoenfelt told the two deputies they should try to keep the object in sight as long as they could in an attempt to identify it.
At this point, the object started moving eastward, picking up speed as it flew through the early morning air. Spaur and Neff took off in pursuit headed eastward on Route 224 – at one point, Spaur was driving at speeds of 80-plus miles per hour to keep pace with the object.
Spaur turned southward where Route 224 joined Ohio Route 183. At this point, they could still see the object, though it was now north of them. When the two routes separated, they turned eastward, remaining on Route 224. About a mile after they made the turn, the object moved southward, crossing Route 224 as it passed over the Berlin Reservoir; at this point the object was approximately five hundred feet above the deputies.
Note: Here’s where the first bit of confusion enters what happened that morning. Newspapers recorded the deputies took Route 14 from Deerfield, which is located at the Berlin Reservoir. The map published in the April 18, 1966 edition of the The Akron Beacon (a copy of it is at the top of this article), shows this. In Spaur’s interview, he stated they stayed on Route 224 to Canfield. What is not clear in his interview is how they got onto Route 14. The most logical solution is they took Route 46 southward, but that piece of the puzzle is not clear.
The pursuit was listened to by policemen across eastern Ohio. One of those men was Patrolman H. Wayne Huston, who was a member of the East Palestine Police Department. Curious to what was happening, he parked his patrol car near the intersection of Routes 14 and 170 and soon saw the object approaching from the west. Note: In his interview, Spaur stated they followed the object toward Canfield and then into Unity. Somewhere in the witness accounts, I’m confused, because Huston stated it came from the west. The route Spaur and Neff took that morning – according to Spaur’s interview – would have had them entering Unity from the north. I’m wondering if Huston meant the object came from a westerly direction, rather than from the west.
When Huston first spotted the object, it was roughly five miles away and within four minutes, the object flew past his position. At this point, Huston estimated the object was between eight and nine hundred feet off the ground, was traveling between 80 and 85 mph, and he noted the object was making no sound he could hear. Huston described the object as looking like a “melted ice cream cone.” The top was rounded with one portion being flatter than the rest of the top and the cone portion resembled a beam of a light.
As Huston was watching the object, Spaur and Neff passed him. Huston pulled out and followed the deputies. The police cars were running at their maximum speed of 103 mph with their lights flashing and sirens blaring as they passed through intersections and populated areas.
The group crossed the Ohio-Pennsylvania line and entered Beaver County, where Ohio Route 14 became Pennsylvania Route 51. Spaur, who was completely unfamiliar with Pennsylvania’s roads, listened to Huston’s voice over the radio as he gave directions on how to navigate the roads. At the same time, Spaur was also being advised to find a Pennsylvania officer and allow him to take over the pursuit.
By the time the group arrived in Rochester, they lost sight of the object due to the hilly terrain and the switching of roads. At this point the officers were guessing where the object was at and hoped it was still on the same course it had been taking.
Cresting a hill in Rochester, they spotted the object hovering ahead of them over the highway, as if it was waiting for them to catch up. The group passed through Freedom and into Conway, now following Route 65. Spaur was running low on fuel and spotted Conway Patrolman Frank Panzanella standing next to his cruiser in a gas station parking lot.
Panzanella had been watching the object for approximately thirty minutes from the lot of the Atlantic gas station. A Korean War veteran, Panzanella was familiar with military aircraft and the object in the sky was definitely not military. He described the object as looking like half of a football, between 25 and 30 feet across and by this time it was roughly 1000 feet above the ground.
Due to a difference in frequencies, Panzanella was unaware of the pursuit until the two patrol cars stopped in the lot of the gas station. The four men watched as the object again moved to the northeast. It paused before moving rapidly in a vertical direction. It momentarily paused again before it rose out of sight.
Note: There are two things to note in the interviews with Spaur after the event. First, in some articles it is mentioned that a jet taking off from Pittsburgh International Airport flew over the strange object. This is not what Spaur stated in his interview. Spaur merely said that from their perspective, it appeared the object was at a lower altitude than the jet as the jet climbed into the sky.
The second thing to note is, despite modern articles about the event the object did not “shoot straight up out of sight.” According to Spaur, it took more than ten minutes for the rising object to disappear out of sight.
Panzanella had the department contact Pittsburgh Airport to ask if they had seen anything. The response from the airport was they had not spotted anything and nothing had appeared on their radar.
It is close to 6:15a.m. when the chase came to an end. The three Ohio patrolmen headed homeward, unable to determine what they had been chasing.
Note: Continued in Part Two.