Vassar Yesterday

Visitors Over Vassar

By Peter Bronski

One night in the spring of 1989, freshman Andy Schmidt ’92 was walking across campus to a rehearsal in Main Building. Looking up he saw an object—a group of nine lights in “V” formation—flying northwest over Main, several hundred feet in the air. It made almost no sound, except for a low humming noise.

Schmidt remembers other students pausing to observe the night sky anomaly. “I ticked off the various possibilities,” Schmidt says today. “Planes, helicopters, birds.” Ultimately, he was left scratching his head.

“I’d never seen a UFO [unidentified flying object] before, and never expected to see one,” he says. Schmidt kept quiet about the surprising encounter. “There’s been a taboo surrounding the issue,” he explains. “People get ridiculed or ignored or marginalized … even among close friends and relatives.”

Only recently has he decided to publicly share what he saw. In August 2010, Schmidt watched a television interview with Leslie Kean, author of UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. When Schmidt later checked the book out of the library (after Vassar, he earned a master’s in library science and now works as a reference librarian at a southern Michigan community college), he was shocked to discover an entire chapter devoted to what he had seen. “Only then did I learn that what I’d seen was part of a larger group of sightings in that area from that period,” Schmidt recalls. “Diagrams from eyewitnesses looked very similar to what I saw over Vassar.”

His sighting was part of the Hudson Valley Wave, a rash of UFO sightings over the lower and middle Hudson Valley and western Connecticut throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Thousands of people, including “credible” witnesses such as law enforcement officers, saw UFOs. Most described bright lights flying in a “V,” chevron, or delta formation, either silent or accompanied by a low humming sound.

Consider this sampling of sightings from the era, from the databases of the National UFO Reporting Center and the Mutual UFO Network: In October 1988, a witness reported nine bright lights in the shape of a “flying V” over Whaley Lake and Pawling, 15 miles from Vassar’s campus. The same month, another witness reported a large formation of bright lights over Fishkill. In June 1989, more witnesses reported a giant, silent, chevron-shaped object with bright lights over Rhinebeck and Red Hook.

Skeptics dismissed the sightings, saying they had all been a hoax perpetrated by ultralight pilots from Dutchess County Airport, south of Vassar. Schmidt and many others remain unconvinced, as noted in a 2008 article in Westchester County’s Journal News, titled “Lower Hudson Residents Stand by UFO Sightings of 1980s.”

Even if the sightings were UFOs, that’s not to say they were extraterrestrial. During her college years, astronomy professor Debra Elmegreen worked with fellow astronomers Frank Drake and Carl Sagan on SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. As the current president of the American Astronomical Society, she’s also familiar with NASA’s Kepler Mission, searching for Earth-like planets beyond our own solar system. Hundreds, even thousands, of planets have been identified, and as 2011 ended, researchers found the first Earth-like one. “There are bound to be some that will have sustaining life,” she says. “But intelligent life that’s visited us?” That’s when the doubts creep in.

The UFO hypothesis does leave a lingering unanswered question, however. What did Schmidt and others see in the night sky more than 20 years ago?

Schmidt knows that the public is quick to dismiss stories like his. Even “if multiple people see a UFO, there’s no story at all, or one that ridicules the event and the subject,” he says. “I encourage people to at least take the subject seriously. This was something that happened a long time ago, but it has stayed with me after all these years.”