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Does the Wilmington area have a history of UFO sightings?

Ben Steelman

Unidentified flying objects have been hovering over the Lower Cape Fear since at least 1897. That’s when the Wilmington Messenger headlined a story “Was It An Airship?” in its April 6 edition.

“Hundreds of people were out in the strets and wharves last night,” the unsigned report stated, “looking at a brilliant floating mass in the heavens to the west of the city.

“It was moving very rapidly and many persons saw net-work about the aerial wonder,” the story continued. “Some of our very best and most reliable citizens saw so much of the heavenly stranger that they had not the slightest doubt but that it was the air ship which has been reported in other cities.”

A rash of “airship” sightings were reported over American cities in 1896 and 1897, according to Daniel Cohen in his 1981 book “The Great Air Ship Mystery.” The Wilmington Messenger noted sightings reported March 31, 1897 in Omaha, Neb., and another on April 4 from Kansas City, Mo.

Witnesses said the ship appeared to come from the ocean, passed near the Market Street dock and turned in the direction of the Navassa guano works.  “It seemed to have something like a searchlight, facing earthwards,” the Messenger’s story added.

Instead of alien beings from other worlds, witnesses tended to describe airships with netting or rigging around the balloon (hence the reference to “net-work.”) H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” would not come out until 1898. Instead popular fiction was dominated by such books as Jules Verne’s “Robur the Conqueror, or The Clipper of the Clouds” (1886) about a Nemo-like figure who roams the world in a giant lighter-than-air craft.

(By the way, in the 1904 sequel “The Master of the World,” Verne had Robur set up his secret base on a mountain near Morganton, N.C.)

Unidentified flying objects have been buzzing local skies ever since. The National UFO Reporting Center, a private group based in Washington state, logged six UFO reports in the Wilmington-Wrightsville Beach area in 2009, along with five on the Brunswick beaches, one each in Topsail Beach, Surf City, Hampstead, Jacksonville, Shallotte, Lake Waccamaw (five unexplained, disk-shaped objects circling rapidly in the sky for a 4-minute period on Jan. 8, 2009) and White Lake (a bright green fireball that struck the ground  on March 29, 2009.)

So far in 2010, the center has logged one sighting in Wilmington (a stationary, oval-shaped object flashing in the sky for 2 hours on April 5) and one at Sunset Beach (Orange stationary orbs accompanied by small white objects, visible for 20 minutes on April 12). For details, see http://www.nuforc.org/webreports/ndxlNC.html.

Some UFO sightings seem linked to earthbound explanations. In May 1948, a number of downtown residents claimed to see an object “as big as your arm around” and perhaps 3 feet long, passing from Bluethenthal Field (the old name for Wilmington’s airport) over the Cape Fear River. This might be connected to “Operation Bumblebee,” the U.S. Navy’s ramjet rocket tests at Topsail Island, although active testing was supposed to have been concluded by May 1, 1948.

In 1989, four Onslow County sheriff’s deputies and two Castle Hayne residents reported a UFO which was later connected to a rocket launch from the Goddard Space Flight Center on Wallops Island, Va. The proximity of the Camp Lejeune Marine base, the Cherry Point Marine Air Station and other military facilities almost guarantees that some unreported operations will be spotted by civilians as UFOs.

Among other notable local UFO reports:

Aug. 31, 1960: Power company linemen reported seeing an “irregular shaped object,” about 3 feet long with fin-like projections, landing near a power line on Eagles Island outside Wilmington. Sheriff’s officers could not reach the alleged crash site due to heavy woods and swampy terrain.

April 3, 1975: Elizabethtown policeman John Butler describes a boomerang-shaped object hovering noiselessly overhead as he parked in a grocery store lot about 5:55 a.m. He described the object as having a row of red lights, a row of white lights and two large spotlights.  Officers in Robeson and Hoke counties and police officers in St. Pauls also report sightings, with estimated speeds of up to 200 mph.

March 8,  1980:  John Johnson of Wilmington reports that a large object swooped down, hovered over his car as he drove on Porters Neck Road around 9:30 a.m., shined a bright light on his vehicle for about 5-10 seconds, then flew off. Johnson said it sounded like an airplane, but air traffic controllers at the Wilmington airport reported no aircraft in the vicinity at that time.

Jan. 9, 1986: Alfred and Elizabeth Edwards of Hampstead, driving north along U.S. 17 at about 7:45 p.m. see bright lights about 400 feet in the air. They described a boomerang-shaped object about the size of two football fields, cruising slowly overhead. “I felt lik my body was vibrating, but I think it was from fright,” Elizabeth Edwards later told investigators for MUFON, the private UFO report-collecting network. Again, the Wilmington airport reported no aircraft or radar sightings in the vicinity at that time.

User-contributed question by:
Mike Bradley

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4 Responses to “ Does the Wilmington area have a history of UFO sightings?”

  1. On April 18, 2010 at 2:47 am Avinash Machado wrote:

    Many of these so called UFO’s are likely secret experimental craft.

  2. On July 4, 2013 at 3:24 pm unmetered vps wrote:

    I’d constantly want to be update on new content on this site, saved to my bookmarks ! .

  3. On April 1, 2014 at 8:53 am Bill Fowler wrote:

    I was living in Wilmington nc in 1952 or 1953. I saw a ufo, and I was interviewed by the Star News. I was a Western Union Messenger. If you can find the article I would like to see it again. Back then I was Billy Fowler. Also other people saw it too.

  4. On April 1, 2014 at 5:01 pm Si Cantwell wrote:

    You’d have to spend some time in the North Carolina Room of the New Hanover County Public Library going through the microfiche to find that article. Glad you weren’t abducted!

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