The day after Valentine’s Day this year, Debra Carter of Pikesville woke up and realized she didn’t have any coffee, so she drove to a Royal Farms store on Reisterstown Road around 6 a.m. to satisfy her caffeine craving. On her way home, she realized she wasn’t alone.
“I noticed there was a ball of light in the sky that was traveling the same distance as I was, and it caught my eye,” she says. “I thought, ‘That’s weird. There’s no noise, no flashing red lights for a police helicopter.’ My first thought was maybe this was a drone, but it was too high in the air.”
As she turned onto McDonough Road and then Iron Horse Lane, the mysterious object continued to follow her. When she came to a stop, it hovered above her car, and she took photos. “I’d never seen anything like it before,” she says. “I became afraid.”
Carter, 68, a national director for a senior employment program in Washington, D.C., quickly parked and went into her apartment. Inside, she checked the photos on her phone and realized that the craft had changed shapes. In one image, it was cylindrical. In another, it was oval with an aura around it.
“You don’t want to share this stuff with people because of the stigma that’s attached,” she says. “People think you’re making it up or you’ve done something to the camera. I’m not that electronically savvy. I don’t know how to Photoshop pictures.”
Through online research, Carter discovered the Washington state-based National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), an organization founded in 1974 and dedicated to collecting data about UFOs. She posted her story with photos on its website.
“If you look at those pictures, you know it’s something that’s not of this world,” Carter says. “I thought nothing like this would come to Maryland. I was under the impression that if you happen to see something like this, it’s in a deserted area or someplace like Arizona.”
Carter is not the only Marylander who’s seen something unusual in the skies. From January through April 20 this year, nine residents, including Carter, reported aerial sightings on the NUFORC site, from Baltimore to Berlin.
Since NUFORC’s website was created in 1995, 149,000 written reports have been received from around the country, 1,686 of those from Maryland. And while Maryland falls on the low side of U.S. reported sightings—California has the most—Peter Davenport, NUFORC’s director since 1994, believes many more people witness these events than disclose them.
“I estimate that out of between 10,000 and 20,000 sightings of what the witnesses sincerely believe is a UFO, only one of those people will report it to an organization like mine,” says the Stanford University graduate. “That’s the reason we know so little about UFOs. Most sightings go unreported.”
Davenport, who spends seven days a week monitoring the NUFORC website to weed out hoaxes, feels humanity is facing the eternal existential question: “Are we alone in this universe or are we not?”
Believers around the world would like to know too, and celebrate the unexplained sightings each year on July 2, World UFO Day, when they encourage others to look upward to raise awareness of unidentified flying objects.
The term UFO is credited to Kenneth Arnold, an amateur pilot who was flying near Mount Rainier in Washington in 1947 when he saw a series of airborne discs. He later described the event to a newspaper using the words “unidentified” and “flying objects,” according to a 2014 article in The Atlantic magazine.
Local publications often reported on encounters before groups like NUFORC were tracking them. Perhaps one of the most widely publicized Maryland sightings occurred at Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore County in the 1950s, when even the military got involved.
The surreal scenario started at 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, 1958, when Phillip Small, 27, a collection manager for a finance company, was driving with his friend, Alvin Cohen, 24, a supervisor at Sears, Roebuck and Co., near the Loch Raven dam. As they approached a now-demolished bridge, they saw an egg-shaped object floating above it. Then Small’s car went dead. The electrical system had failed.
The two men got out of the vehicle and took shelter behind it. They reported seeing a brilliant flash of light and feeling heat on their faces before they heard a loud noise—like a tremendous thunderclap, Small said—and watched the object rise vertically and disappear. “We were very frightened,” Cohen later told investigators.
“WE STOPPED TALKING ABOUT IT. PEOPLE LOOKED AT US LIKE WE WERE WACKO.”
The car restarted, and, in an age without cell phones, the men headed to a phone booth at the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road to report what they saw. They first called the Ground Observer Corps—a U.S. military outfit of mostly volunteers during the Cold War that watched for threatening aircraft. Their call was met with disbelief when the man who answered the phone said, “‘Aww, come on now’. . . and hung up on us,” Small said.
Next, the men called the Towson police department, which sent two patrolmen to the phone booth. After giving their report, Cohen and Small headed to St. Joseph Hospital, then located on East Caroline Street in Baltimore, because they were worried about radioactive burns from the object. They were examined but not treated before returning to their individual homes in Northwest Baltimore.
When questioned, Cohen said, “I am not saying that it was a flying saucer. I don’t know. I do know there are at least such things now as UFOs.”
After investigating the incident, a U.S. Air Force second lieutenant who interviewed several witnesses about the Loch Raven sighting for Project Blue Book—an Air Force endeavor that investigated UFOs from 1947 to 1969—concluded, “As far as this investigation has gone, this UFO remains unidentified.”
Tom Graf, a volunteer at the Historical Society of Baltimore County, became interested in the Loch Raven story while researching the reservoir’s history. He decided to weave the tale into his talk, which was a fundraiser for the Society.
“I knew it would be interesting to people,” Graf says. “I thought people would come up afterward and say, ‘I really loved what you did,’ but instead, people came up and said, ‘Yeah, I saw a UFO once, too.’”
In another sighting in 1971, Charles Kenyon, a heavy equipment operator who lived in Frederick County, told The Baltimore Sun that he, his wife, Eleanor, and four of their six children were on Route 31 headed toward New Windsor when they saw an oblong shape with lights that Charles Kenyon described as looking like “an old-time wash basin.” The family reported it to the state police in Westminster, but, by that time, the object was gone. “We stopped talking about it,” Eleanor Kenyon said. “People looked at us like we were wacko.”
Douglas Otto, 30, of Rosedale wasn’t expecting to see anything out of the ordinary when he pulled into the driveway of a property that’s been in his family for four generations on April 20 this year. As he looked up, he saw a bright light that started flashing and then started glowing purple. “It seemed kind of jerky, like it was vibrating,” he says. Otto went inside his house to get his girlfriend. In their backyard, he noticed that the light was so bright that it lit up a tree before it cruised away. “It was a first for me,” says Otto, an HVAC installer who has seen numerous planes fly over his house. “It was not like anything I’ve seen before.” He filed a report on NUFORC.
Davenport believes the reports on his website serve the public. “We post them to let people know what’s really going on as opposed to what the government says is going on,” he says.
But just last year, the Pentagon announced that a new group would investigate claims of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), an updated name for UFOs, after an earlier study failed to provide explanations for 144 incidents observed by military pilots and others over the past two decades.
Just recently, a Southwest Airline captain reported to NUFORC that he and his first officer spotted two lighted objects at an extremely high altitude that moved in circular patterns as the flight crew traveled from Atlanta to Baltimore. When they made their descent, they lost sight of the unidentified aircraft. The captain noted that they didn’t think they were conventional aircraft.
While the attempt at government transparency seems promising, Dan Spell, Maryland state director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON)—a nonprofit, U.S.-based group that investigates UFO sightings around the world—notes that the 2021 governmental report was discouraging to some ufologists, or those who study UFOs.
“A lot of people were disappointed because it didn’t come out and say with a big headline that UFOs, UAPs are real,” he says. “But if you read the report carefully and read between the lines, what it doesn’t say is important. It basically confirms it, but it does so in a subtle way. It was written very carefully.”
Spell, 64, who retired from the U.S. Department of Defense two years ago after 32 years, oversees eight trained field investigators. They review Maryland sightings that have been reported on MUFON’s website. Once Spell, who is also an investigator, receives a UFO case, he reaches out to a witness by email or phone and often visits the location of the sighting. “Our number one goal is not to prove that something is not a UFO,” he says. “Our job is to prove that it may be one.”
The rule of thumb is that only about three percent of the reports are probable UFOs, Spell says. Many sightings have earthly explanations, such as weather balloons, contrails from jet aircraft, bright meteors, the planet Venus, and orbiting satellites. But he points out that less than 10 percent of the people who experience an unexplained object report what they’ve seen.
“They just don’t want to, or they think their mind played a trick on them,” he says. “We’re only getting a small percentage of what people are really seeing.”
According to MUFON’s numbers, Maryland averages about seven sightings a month. By early May of this year, there were about 17 reports. On any given year, the state may have 70 to 80 incidents, Spell says.
A recent case took him to Howard County, where a retired law-enforcement officer reported a sighting. The man, who didn’t want to be named, saw a glowing ball about 14 feet in diameter passing over his property. It then stopped, made a zig-zag motion, then vertically ascended at a high rate of speed—roughly 400 mph—and disappeared. “He was very credible,” Spell said. “He wasn’t one to make things up or embellish.”
Greg Eghigian, a history professor at Penn State University, is writing a book about UFOs, tentatively called After the Flying Saucers Arrived, with a prospective publishing date of 2023. “Once I started to dive into it, I found out that only one academic historian [David M. Jacobs] has written about the subject,” he says. “And that was back in 1975.”
The more Eghigian researched the topic, the more he became intrigued. “It’s all these stories and cast of characters I was very familiar with when I was younger,” he says. “Now, I’m looking at them through the eyes of someone who is not only older but as a historian.”
He’s interviewed people or examined documents of those who have seen unidentified objects or encountered aliens as well as the media, military, skeptics, ufologists, and debunkers. Eghigian doesn’t expect a resolution. He thinks that even if credible evidence becomes known, the academic and scientific communities will always continue to ask for more documentation.
“I think we have to expect that things will always be a riddle,” Eghigian says. “It would be a terrible place not to have the mystery anymore and have this solved. In some sense, it’s good that maybe we won’t ever get anything truly definitive.”
But Debra Carter doesn’t need anything definitive.
“I know what I saw,” she says. “I know what happened to me. There’s too many of us who have seen them.”