aka: Airship Sightings
Arkansas has had a number of sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Most sightings have been isolated events, but there have been a few events in Arkansas’s recorded history in which several people have reported seeing a UFO—most notably in 1896–97 and 1965. Some have argued that the “UFOs” in the late 1800s were in fact airships or balloons that inventors were experimenting with flying. Others maintain that the sightings were a hoax perpetrated by citizens or newspaper reporters.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1896 and 1897, people across the country, beginning in California, reported seeing what they termed airships. By the spring, the phenomenon moved into Arkansas. According to newspaper reports, on April 20, 1897, Captain Jim Hooton, a railroad conductor for the Iron Mountain Railroad, was visiting Texarkana (Miller County) to pick up a train engine to bring it back to Little Rock (Pulaski County). While waiting for the train to be ready, he decided to go hunting near Texarkana. As he was making his way through some shrubbery, he heard what he described as the familiar sound of a locomotive air pump. Curious, Hooton made his way toward the sound. Hooton told the Arkansas Gazette that he saw the airship that was making news across the country landed in a field a few acres from his vantage point. Aboard the ship was a man wearing smoke-colored glasses. He asked the man, “Is this the air ship?” The man replied, “Yes, sir.” As the pilot was responding, three or four men came out of the ship. He asked the men, “I beg your pardon, sir. The noise sounds a good deal like a Westinghouse air brake.” “Perhaps it does,” the pilot answered. “We are using compressed air and aeroplanes, but you will know more later on.”
Perhaps the most prominent of the 1897 sightings in Arkansas occurred in Hot Springs (Garland County). On the rainy evening of May 7, Constable John J. Sumpter and Deputy Sheriff John McLemore were riding horseback outside the city limits. As they were riding, they saw a bright light in the sky that quickly disappeared. Puzzled, but not too alarmed, the two kept on their journey. Suddenly, they saw the light again, this time much closer to the ground. The two lawmen rode on to investigate. According to the account they gave to the Hot Springs Sentinel, they rode until their horses refused to go any farther. They dismounted and drew their weapons. They described seeing a cigar-shaped vessel, sixty feet long. Walking around the ship were several men, all shining lights while another filled a sack with water. Sumpter and McLemore asked the men what they were doing. A bearded man, holding a lantern, came near the policemen and told them that they were traveling through the country on an airship. The presumed pilot of the airship asked if the two lawmen would like to ride in the ship, “saying that he could take us where it was not raining. We told him we believed we preferred to get wet.” The pilot said their eventual destination was Nashville, Tennessee. The lawmen let the airship go on its way.
The airship sightings even caught the attention of the Arkansas General Assembly, which was debating issues regarding the Arkansas Railroad Commission; these reported airships seemed to be moving around the state without paying taxes, and the Arkansas Senate passed a resolution declaring that the airships should be paying taxes on the freight they carried.
In 1965, there was another rash of UFO sightings nationwide. On August 4, 1965, in Viney Grove (Washington County), Bill Estep reported seeing a flashing light in the sky. When he went to investigate, he saw a “long, narrow, silver object with lighted windows and a revolving light on top hovering in the air just above the trees.” Although police were unable to confirm Estep’s report, Rubin Strong of the Prairie Grove Police Department, who investigated the claim, told the press that he believed that Estep had seen something. That same night, people throughout Fayetteville (Washington County) reported lights in the sky. A few days later, two women reported seeing a strange aircraft land in a field near Blytheville (Mississippi County).
That same August, residents of Fort Smith (Sebastian County) reported seeing strange aircraft in the sky. The sightings drew the attention of Project Blue Book, a project developed by the United States Air Force to investigate the UFO phenomenon. The Blue Book report on the incident noted that as many as 1,500 people witnessed Fort Smith’s UFO.
Although not to the extent they reportedly saw UFOs in 1897 or 1965, Arkansans continue to report seeing strange objects in the sky. As a result, a number of organizations have formed to investigate local Arkansas sightings. The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) and other groups such as the National Investigative Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) have continued to investigate sightings. Such groups have established conferences such as the Ozark Mountain UFO Conference, which is held every April in Eureka Springs (Carroll County).
For additional information:
Busby, Michael. Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2004.
“Fort Smith Radiomen Report UFOs, Begin Watch with Cameras.” Arkansas Gazette, August 4, 1965, p. 8A.
Hurd, Debra Gage. “Uncommon Occurrences in Carroll County: An Outbreak of UFOs.” Carroll County Historical Quarterly 65 (Fall 2020): 108–113.
“Saw the Airship.” Arkansas Gazette, April 22, 1897, p. 3.
“Swear They Saw It.” Arkadelphia Southern Standard, May 14, 1897, p. 2.
“Swore They Saw It.” Arkansas Gazette, May 9, 1897, p. 1.
“UFOs Are Reported in North Arkansas; Cameras Catch None.” Arkansas Gazette, August 5, 1965, p. 13A.
“UFO Sighted Here.” Lincoln Leader, August 12, 1965, p. 1.
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