Thursday, December 17, 2020

Montana's Dubious UFO Landing of 1964

Late April 1964: The USA was abuzz with the news of a dramatic sighting in Socorro, New Mexico, that has since gone down in history as one of the most famous and credible UFO events of all time, the close encounter of police officer Lonnie ZamoraBefore the month was over, possible corroboration came, a multi-witness report from Montana of a similar object landing and also leaving traces on the ground. 
The professionals responding to the scene, police officers, journalists and Air Force investigators, were impressed, but unfavorably. They thought the trace evidence pointed to a copycat hoax, not a UFO. Nevertheless, the five children who were the sole witnesses to the saucer landing stood by their story.

The Canyon Ferry Five

The events of April 29, 1964, as reconstructed below from witness testimony, media accounts and Project Blue Book documents. 

The place: Canyon Ferry Village, about 20 miles east of Helena, Montana.

The witnesses: Linda Davis, 11, Tom Davis, 15, Pete Rust, 13, Diane Flittner, 15, Linda Flittner, 16. Bill Bahny, 17, was not a witness, but became involved after the sighting.

The Canyon Ferry Five

The date: April 29, 1964, Wednesday evening around 9:30 P.M.

G.D. “Bert” Davis was the supervisor of the Bureau of Reclamation’s project at Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Davis and his wife Louise were out for the evening, and Linda and Tom, their two children were home, but not alone. With them were friends Diane and Linda Flittner and Pete Rust. The kids said they were playing hide and seek when the UFO appeared. 

Linda Davis, was inside the house and first spotted a glow through the curtains from her bedroom window. She rushed outside to tell her brother Tom and the other kids, ran to the fence where they saw a car-sized glowing oval-shaped object descending from a height of about 20 feet. It was about 150 feet away from them and it landed for less than a minute, then rose back into the air and whooshed off like a rocket. They found a patch of scorched grass and a singed cactus surrounded by an imperfect square formed by four holes in the ground, as if left by the UFO’s landing gear.

Project Blue Book evidence photo.

The kids recruited an older friend, Bill Bahny, 17, to call the sheriff’s office about the sighting, but he was told an adult should be involved in making the report. After this, apparently Bahny or the others called local radio stations about the sighting. About an hour later, Mr. and Mrs. Davis got home. The kids showed them the site, and Mrs. Davis said, “There was a funny smell around the holes, not like grass burning, sort of like diesel fuel.” An adult (probably one of Davis parents) called the sheriff, and two deputies were sent out to investigate. To preserve the scene, Bert Davis staked off the area with string and used white wooden frameworks from their rose garden to protect each of the four holes. 

Witness Linda Davis poses at the landing site. The Montana Standard Butte, May 1, 1964 

April 30, Thursday

The next day was a flurry of activity. Area newspapers printed the first articles on the story, and curious neighbors, newsmen, police and Air Force investigators swarmed over the scene. Sheriff Dave Middlemas said that they were initially doubtful of the report because it was so close to Vigilante Day, a popular time for kids to play pranks, but nevertheless, he had notified the Air Force. 

When newsmen asked the kids if they’d heard about the Socorro, New Mexico, UFO reported by police officer Lonnie Zamora, one replied, “Oh, yes. We heard all about it last night on the radio.”

Mrs. Cyril Taylor and her evidence kit.

Neighbor Peg Taylor was a saucer buff, and she tried to help the investigation. "She showed Linda Davis a picture from the book Flying Saucer from Mars, and asked, “Did it look like this?” Linda said, “Yes, it did.” Taylor replied, “Well, you probably saw a flying saucer.”

The Great Falls Tribune, May 1, 1964

The Billings Gazette reported Thursday that some skeptics believed the UFO story was a prank to set up a saucer-themed float in the Vigilante Day parade that Friday in Helena. The next day they reported that “Sheriff’s officers are skeptical. …the holes… could have been dug with a shovel. Loose dirt had been dumped in several spots within 50 feet of the holes.”

The Billings Gazette, May 1, 1964

On Thursday, five Air Force investigators arrived from Malmstrom AFB. They examined the “landing site” and interviewed the kids for three hours. Some news stories reported that some other people in the area had seen a bright light in the sky that night, and UPI story of May 1 reported that “Residents in the area reported there was a black out or snowy reception on their television at the time and reported sighting.”

The Billings Gazette, May 3, 1964

The Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, MT), May 1, 1964

May 1, Friday 

The press continued, but the newspapers were not the only ones to cash in on  the saucer fever.

 The Independent Record, May 1, 1964

The Missoulian, May 1, 1964

The Canyon Ferry saucer was often mentioned in the press on the Socorro sighting, and chiefly interesting because of the landing site similarities.

El Paso Times, May 2, 1964

The Air Force "Leak"

On May 5,  it was reported that an Air Force spokesman said the case “was determined to be a hoax perpetrated on a younger sister and the show got out of control.”

The Billings Gazette, May 5, 1964

The hoax allegation didn't go over well with the children's parents.

The Independent Record, May 5, 1964

Apparently the “Air Force spokesman” had not been authorized to make the hoax statement, and they issued a denial.

The Billings Gazette, May 6, 1964

(NICAP’s) The UFO Investigator, July-Aug. 1964 carried a report on the Socorro case and briefly covered Canyon Ferry, stating: 

"The NICAP investigation has turned up conflicting information on the validity of the sighting, some of it backing up the Air Force conclusion of ‘a hoax..., a child's prank.’” The report concluded by saying, “A NICAP member spoke with two of the parents, getting a firm denial of any hoax from one, and a statement that he believed it was a hoax from the other. In an editorial on May 12, the Missoula, Mont., Sentinel sa1d that no one seemed to know where the Air Force got the idea the case was a hoax, and suggested the explanation - rather than the sighting - was a fabrication.”

What Project Blue Book Files Reveal

NICAP had suspected the Air Force conclusion of a hoax was itself a hoax, but the documents prove otherwise. The Project Blue Book 26-page file was labeled, “Canyon Ferry Reservoir, Montana, April 30, 1964,” and it includes documents, clippings and 11 photographs of the alleged landing site and burn marks.

View of the site and residences from the Canyon Ferry Reservoir shoreline.

Lt. Col. Harold L. Neufeld of Malmstrom AFB prepared the 5-page report summarizing their Canyon Ferry investigation, which had lasted four hours visiting the area, three of those hours interviewing witnesses. His team included a legal and information officer, as well as a photographer to document the evidence.

View towards the shore.

Neufeld noted that the holes supposedly caused by the UFO landing, “did not appear to have been caused by great weight. Rather the holes appeared to have been crudely dug or scooped out.” Describing the interviews of the children, “The witnesses were often vague and evasive and their respective stories contained such wide divergences to convince the interrogators that the entire event was a fanciful hoax.” 

There were six alleged witnesses, one of whom was not interviewed at his father’s request.” Of the five, “Four witness used the word ‘fluorescent’ to describe the lighting of the object.” Overall, their descriptions of the event were similar, “These consistencies indicated rehearsing by the witnesses.” They also found it suspicious that none of their parents had been told until more than an hour later, but, “The witnesses immediately notified the local radio stations of the alleged sighting.” The PBB record card for the case classifies it as a hoax, and the comments state: “Investigating officials consider case a Hoax with children recreating the marks of the Socorro sighting as carried in the local newspaper.”

The Canyon Ferry case always stood in the shadow of Lonnie Zamora’s Socorro, NM, sighting, but through the years, it is still included in many UFO histories and databases.

The Word of a Witness

The final local coverage of the Canyon ferry story was the editorial from The Missoulian on May 12, 1964, and it defended the witnesses against the allegations of the Air Force.

The Missoulian, May 12, 1964

The APRO Bulletin, July 1964, expressed a similar point of view in, “Kids Called Hoaxers By U.S.A.F,” stating: 

“We must, if we retain our reason and our ethics, believe the Davis and the Rust children and doubt the ‘findings’ of the experts, if indeed the reports of same were honest.  … We cannot believe that the truth and the details are being withheld by authorities to spare feelings - the kids have already felt the full impact of the ridicule as a result of the AF investigation and subsequent public announcement about the ‘prank.’ It is clear that the facts are being withheld at least in this instance and we can only wonder why.”

In 2012, ufologist Joan Bird was researching the Canyon Ferry case for her book, Montana UFOs and Extraterrestrials. She was able to locate two of the original players, Bill Bahny and Tom Davis. Bird wrote that, “When I interviewed Bahny in 2012, he told me he wouldn’t have called [the sheriff] if he’d thought it was a prank. 'They seemed genuinely scared.'” More significantly, she was able to reach one of the primary witnesses, Tom Davis. As an adult, Davis preferred the spelling of his name as Thom. 

Joan Bird spoke with Thom Davis by telephone on June 20, 2012. From chapter 4, "The Canyon Ferry Sighting - or Socorro Copycat?":

“...I was able to find Thom Davis, who still lives in the Helena area. According to Thom, it was a hoax. The 'witnesses' dug the holes, poured a little gas on the ground, and lit it. They colluded in the story of the glowing white object and its take-off over Canyon Ferry. Davis also reiterated what was said in the Blue Book report that the youths had been listening to KOMA radio out of Oklahoma City and heard about a UFO sighting in Socorro, New Mexico.”

So, it seems the Canyon Ferry case ended as it began, with a phone call. Over the decades, unsupervised kids have been responsible for very some interesting UFO reports. Kids of all ages.

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