The Case of Ohio’s Best Documented UFO
What happened in the skies near Charles Mill Lake on Oct. 18, 1973, stands as one of the most credible UFO experiences in United States history. It is known as the Coyne Incident.
On October 19, 1973, P.J. Vollmer, the chief of operations for the Federal Aviation Administration at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, received a visit from Lawrence Coyne, a police officer who was also an Army active-duty veteran, still in the reserves.
Following his enlistment in 1955 after graduating from James Ford Rhodes High School in Cleveland, Coyne had been commissioned as an officer. He had also been certified with Special Forces and was an experienced pilot of both helicopters and airplanes.
There was no reason for Vollmer not to take Coyne seriously — indeed, Vollmer later said, “I personally have an extremely high regard for his integrity and capability” — even with a story as fantastic as the one he was about to share. Coyne told him that he and three other reservists had been flying back from Columbus the night before and had not only seen an unidentified flying object but nearly crashed into it.
A cigar-shaped craft, flying with the speed of a jet fighter, caught up to the helicopter, seemingly dragging it higher into the air as a green light scanned the inside. And then, just as suddenly as the encounter happened, it was over.
“We felt a bounce and then the other craft took off to the northeast,” Coyne recalled later.
With added urgency, the helicopter returned to Cleveland, and Coyne looked for someone — anyone — he could officially tell his tale to.
“In a case of this kind, I don’t know anybody that I would believe any more,” Vollmer said of Coyne. “I trust his judgment without a question of a doubt. I don’t know what happened, but I do know — I could tell from the tremor of his voice, which wasn’t much — that he was shook.”
John Healey, who was on the helicopter the night of Oct. 18, 1973 as well, was also a police officer, a detective in Cleveland, and recounted the same story to a colleague the same day Coyne was telling Vollmer about it.
“It scared the living hell right out of me,” said Healey, who, like Coyne, had been a UFO skeptic right up until the night before.
Eventually, Coyne told the story to his cousin, a reporter for The Plain Dealer. He told it to “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling for a documentary. He told talk show host Dick Cavett. He even appeared before the United Nations.
The Coyne Incident, as it has become known in the UFO community, remains one of the most credible accounts of human encounters with a UFO. But it’s still as mysterious as it was a half-century ago.
Before the Wright brothers took to the sky in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, even before the Montgolfier brothers flew their first hot-air balloon in France in 1783, there had been stories of unidentified flying objects. In a 1974 documentary, “UFOs: Past, Present and Future” — in which he interviews Coyne and the crew — Rod Serling talks about phantom chariots above the sky in ancient Rome and tyrants of the air in the Holy Roman Empire.
But in the 20th century, technology — advanced in no small part due to a pair of world wars — enabled humankind to further explore the skies. During World War II, planes dropped bombs on strategic targets, fighter planes engaged in dogfights and rockets were developed that could be launched from one nation to hit a target in another. The war ended with the demonstration of the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen: the atomic bomb. As a new Cold War began between the United States and the Soviet Union, the possibility of nuclear war hung heavy.
In 1946, Scandinavia was beset by a series of reports of “ghost rockets.” The following year, a pilot in the state of Washington claimed to see a grouping of round flying objects near Mount Rainier on June 24. News coverage of the day called them “flying saucers.”
It was one of many sightings of unidentified flying objects in the western United States; the most famous of which occurred near Roswell, New Mexico. Conspiracy theories soon took shape that a flying saucer had crashed in the desert and was confiscated by the military, but the United States Air Force said decades later — after the fall of the Soviet Union — that it was remnants of a weather balloon monitoring the skies for Soviet radiation testing. (The USSR would not get its own atomic bomb until 1949.)
Clearly, these UFOs could be a national security risk, and the U.S. Air Force launched Project Sign to investigate. Project Sign was supplanted by Project Grudge, and that was supplanted by Project Blue Book, which was headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton and lasted until 1969. Its official final report released in 1985 stated that 12,618 unidentified flying objects were sighted. Of those, only 701 were unexplained. The Air Force also said that there was no evidence that the unexplained sightings posed a national security threat, nor was there evidence that the sightings were any kind of extraterrestrial vehicles.
But the sightings continued. As the United States began space exploration in the 1960s, astronauts and ground control reported seeing unidentified craft flying in the highest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. Even the Apollo 11 crew reported seeing an unidentified craft in space as it rocketed toward the moon.
In the fall of 1973, central and southwest Ohio were abuzz with a series of sightings of unexplained aircraft. It was a fraught time in world history. Richard Nixon was trying to hang on to the presidency as the investigation deepened into the Watergate break-in. Meanwhile, Syria and Egypt attacked the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights on Oct. 6, which was the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. It was a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, which were closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was a hub of activity that fall as the United States airlifted supplies to its Israeli allies. Could some of the sightings be waved away as misidentification of U.S. aircraft arriving and departing? Were Soviet spy aircraft watching? Or was it beings from another world, keeping an eye on ours to make sure we didn’t immolate ourselves?
There were hundreds of reported UFO sightings in Ohio alone during the end of 1973. Tremors reminiscent of those created by sonic booms were recorded by earthquake detectors in Pennsylvania that October. Also that month, two men in Pascagoula, Mississippi, claimed they were abducted by aliens, and Ohio Gov. John Gilligan claimed to have seen a UFO in the sky over Michigan while driving with his wife through Ann Arbor. But nothing was as remarkable as the Coyne Incident, standing out, Serling said the following year, “because of the credibility of the witnesses.”
At 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, 1973, Coyne, Arrigo Jezzi, Robert Yanacsek and Healey took off from Port Columbus International Airport on a Bell UH-1H Super Huey helicopter on the way to Cleveland. They had flown to Columbus for their regularly scheduled flight physical, which had finished around 10 p.m. and went directly to the airport. Healey noted later that they were all cold sober and in perfect health for the flight, making their account even more believable.
It was a clear, cloudless night, with a little wind and visibility for 15 miles or more. The helicopter was about 2,500 feet off the ground, flying 90 knots (a little more than 103 mph). Shortly after 11 p.m., they were flying north over Charles Mill Lake near Mansfield in north-central Ohio when Yanacsek spotted a red light in the east that seemed at first to be flying parallel to the helicopter, then flying right at it. Coyne initially thought it was a jet and radioed Mansfield to see if there were any aircraft in the air at the time, getting no answer beyond an acknowledgement of their communication.
Coyne took evasive action, diving the helicopter, but the other aircraft followed. Coyne braced for impact, closing his eyes, stiffening up and awaiting his fate. There was no crash. Coyne then heard Healey say, “Look at that.”
Directly in front of them was a 60-foot-long, silver cigar-shaped craft. The red light they’d seen was on the front. On the back was a white light, and a green light underneath it illuminated the entire interior of the helicopter as it shone in, almost like it was examining the craft and its crew. The radio wasn’t working, the compass was spinning out of control and Coyne realized the helicopter was actually rising more than 3,500 feet above the ground.
And then, as if it was satisfied with what it had seen, the cigar-shaped craft turned away slowly, then sped up and disappeared out of sight. The helicopter continued to Cleveland none the worse for wear with one noticeable exception: The compass was broken and couldn’t be fixed. The unit had to be replaced.
The men in the helicopter went on to have active and varied careers, and their credibility remained beyond reproach after the incident. In fact, the National Enquirer awarded them $5,000 for having the most credible and valuable report of a UFO encounter.
In 1978, Coyne testified before the United Nations, attesting to what he saw, saying, “I am convinced this object was real and that these types of incident require a thorough investigation,” and advocating an international effort to maintain order for flyers who might have similar encounters.”
Also testifying that day was astrophysicist Jacques Vallee, who went a step further, saying that the exploration of UFOs could be a gateway to a new and better world.
“It is our choice to treat it as a threat or as an opportunity for human knowledge.”
Experience History, Nature and More in Chillicothe
Learn about the history of Ohio and its Indigenous people, explore the outdoors at Ross County’s parks and visit downtown shops and restaurants. READ MORE >>
Floodwall Murals, Portsmouth
This southern Ohio city’s dozens of downtown murals depict scenes from local history reaching back centuries. READ MORE >>
Follow Dayton’s Aviation Trail
This collection of historic sites and destinations celebrate Ohio’s ties to flight and the people who got us off the ground. READ MORE >>