WYTHEVILLE, Va. (WFXR) — If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of extraterrestrial life, where would you go? Nevada? New Mexico? What about Wytheville, Virginia?
The suggestion may seem farfetched, but it isn’t out of the ordinary.
In fact, the small town has had thousands of UFO sightings — instances where residents looked up at the sky and saw flying saucers. Some objects were reported to have mysterious patterns of lights, while others were said to have glided by without a sound.
It all started almost 35 years ago in 1987.
“There’s always been little, what you say, town secrets and things that never really made sense,” said Danny Gordon, a resident of Wytheville.
Gordon has lived in Wytheville his entire life, from attending school to playing football. He graduated from Wytheville Community College with a degree in business management. However, his real passion was broadcast journalism.
In 1984, Gordon began his journey as the news and sports director for WYVE Radio, a local radio station.
Over the course of three years, he became a source of all things Wytheville. His knowledge was all thanks to his connections he made at the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office, and a certain early morning routine.
“Every day at the radio station, every morning, I would call the local Sheriff, who at that time was Wayne Pike,” said Gordon, “and I would ask him if anything was going on, kind of catching up on any police activity.”
But nothing could have prepared Gordon for the conversation he had with Sheriff Wayne Pike on Oct. 7, 1987.
“He told me that three police officers, including some of the sheriff’s office, were in Fort Chiswell and they saw a UFO, and I said what?” Gordon said.
A total of five police officers in Fort Chiswell caught the sight of a bright red and green light in the night sky. With previous military training, Pike says the officers couldn’t have been easily fooled.
Gordon was amazed by the tale, and eventually decided to take a leap of faith.
“He told me about what they saw, and I said well, I think I’ll use that,” said Gordon.
A 60-second story ran over the air that day. Gordon told WFXR News he was excited to share a different kind of news story, but he had no idea just how common a UFO sighting was in Wytheville.
The radio station was soon receiving hundreds of calls each day, from residents counting their own sightings and looking for some type of explanation.
“They kept constantly just, almost overwhelming,” Gordon said. “It got to where I’d be at the radio station until midnight trying to get my other work done because I would have been spending all day with the UFOs.”
Residents weren’t the only ones interested in the unnatural phenomena. Media outlets from across the country picked up the story and television crews started popping up around town — many with their own curiosity.
Gordon says the uproar went on for weeks, with various sightings reported. It was then, that he decided to take part in the action. Equipped with both a video and still camera, he and a friend began their search for UFOs.
According to Gordon, one night, after hours of no sightings, he and his friend decided to head back home on US Route 21… until something caught their eye.
“We were coming back in, and all of a sudden we saw something. So, [we] pull off the road and jump out, and neither of us grabs a camera,” said Gordon.
He went on to say he saw a mysterious, flying object hovering in an open field. It made no noise and it was barely moving.
“As it was going across these houses, here came a red ball, spherical-looking object that went into the, whatever it was, aircraft and disappeared,” Gordon said. “And it was almost like we were mesmerized.”
Gordon was so mesmerized that the following day, he held his own news conference detailing his experience.
A mixture of local and national networks attended, including the National Enquirer.
The passion for mystery was prominent in the Town of Wytheville, and the sensation only grew.
UFO searches soon became an adventure for Gordon, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter.
“Unlike most people who watch TV, we were going out, fill the car up with gas, and we would go out in the country sitting and watching the sky. I still was certain that I could prove what was going on,” said Gordon.
Paul Dellinger has lived in Wytheville since 1966. He was a bureau reporter for The Roanoke Times during the extraterrestrial frenzy. Dellinger even worked in the same building as WYVE Radio.
Like Gordon, Dellinger decided to run a short story on the Fort Chiswell sighting for the newspaper.
“I thought that would probably be the beginning and end of it. I didn’t realize people were going to start looking up and seeing lights in the sky for weeks afterwards,” Dellinger said.
Instead of hunting for UFOs, Dellinger stayed behind his pen and notepad, interviewing dozens of people on their unusual sightings of strange things in the sky. While he was never able to explain their stories, it didn’t take long for him to have his own narrative.
“Even I saw one, and I wasn’t even looking that night,” said Dellinger, “so there was definitely something in the air.”
Dellinger told WFXR News he was coming home late one night in 1988, when he saw a bright light at the end of his driveway. At first, he thought the unidentified object was a street light until it started moving. A sight, unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“It very slowly passed over and I could see what looked like a rear window of some kind. Three little things, sort of like teardrops,” Dellinger said.
While the darkness proved too difficult to distinguish the object’s overall shape, Dellinger says the entity did make a humming noise. After slowly gliding on his street, it eventually disappeared. The event was the only sighting Dellinger ever had.
With odd glimpses experienced by both Dellinger and Gordon, they decided to write a book in 1988 titled, “Don’t Look Up! The Real Story Behind the Virginia UFO Sightings.”
“Funny part was, I was the science-fiction nut. I always grew up reading the stuff,” said Dellinger. “Danny’s the down-to-earth, pragmatic part, yet he was the one who took on the exotic origins of what these things could be.”
The 208-page book talked about Dellinger and Gordon, recounting reports of mysterious aircrafts not just in Wytheville, but throughout the Commonwealth. While the book has been sold thousands of times, an explanation for why the sightings happened is still unknown. However, to Dellinger, there’s no doubt in his mind that something was seen by many.
“I don’t know what people were seeing, but they weren’t making it up. They were seeing some kind of physical manifestations of something in the sky,” Dellinger said.
So how can we explain this? What were people witnessing in the night sky? Why were there thousands of accounts? WFXR News spoke with Susan Swiatek, Virginia Director for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).
“A UFO flap is a state of sightings that occur fast and furious, but in a relatively short period of time and a very small geographical area,” said Swiatek.
Swiatek says she got involved with the organization around the same time of the Wytheville UFO sightings — a period she remembers well.
“It was being reported locally and throughout Virginia,” Swiatek said, “and it just didn’t really reach that high-level of notice that it should have received.”
MUFON is run by volunteers throughout the country who study reports on various UFO sightings. The Town of Wytheville is just one of the areas in which the non-profit took particular interest.
“So you have so many witnesses that it just starts to snowball in that way, and then you have these detailed drawings that are obviously not conventional craft,” said Swiatek.
Only a handful of sightings from Wytheville were studied by MUFON. While the review scales have changed over the years, a common theme was evident: indeterminate.
“A good sighting is something that is not a split second, but it’s also not something that was 45 minutes long,” Swiatek said. “Usually that is not a sighting. Usually that is Venus, or you know, that’s something kind of permanent in the sky, at least for the time being.”
When it came to the detailed drawings from the town’s UFO sightings, Swiatek says volunteers were baffled.
“Another thing that was odd is the variety of objects that were seen, especially on many occasions, that T-shape. I think it’s on page 86, but I could be wrong, of the book. That was like a big deal because that’s a pretty unusual shape and people saw that, that big letter T-shape,” said Swiatek.
Whether it was the flying saucer’s shape, or it’s light display, the tales were unlike anything MUFON had ever heard of – even to this day.
“It’s just so many data points of individual sightings, and the overarching thing, is that it made a huge impact in a small community,” Swiatek said. “And it was covered pretty well by all the media within the state.”
Months soon turned to years, and the sightings became few and far between. However, the interest was still there, and the area was drawing people in from throughout the country.
In 1992, the sightings were featured on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” A show Sean Kotz, a Floyd County resident, grew up watching.
“Once you’ve had an experience like that, I think it sticks with you and when there’s no easy, logical explanations for it, you can spend the rest of your life trying to put it together,” said Kotz.
Although Kotz remembers the “Wytheville Flap” in 1987, he admits he didn’t pay too much attention to the uproar. By watching the television episode, his viewpoint started to really change. In 2011, he decided to make a film documentary.
“Nobody had really done a thorough job of it,” Kotz said, “and there was a lot more to tell than just what people saw on the 15-20 min segment of that television show. So that’s what got me going on it.”
Over the course of 10 years, Kotz has done it all: speaking to those with major roles in the flap, interviewing residents about their own sightings, and reaching out to local experts on what can and can’t be explained.
The main focus of his project is people, an element he says is often missed in stories.
“What everybody wants to do is talk about what’s in the sky. I can’t tell you what was in the sky 35 years ago. How can I tell you that? I could speculate. What I can tell you is how it affected people, what they saw, what they experienced,” said Kotz.
Like some filmmakers, Kotz says his life had gone through a lot of changes, and with other obligations like family and work, it was easier to be distracted on the real task at hand. But he says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’m glad now I’ve taken 10 years, because there are perspectives today that we wouldn’t have had before,” Kotz said. “With the recent release of U.S. Navy footage and the admission of places in high office that they actually don’t know or won’t say what’s going on and it is a real phenomenon, that makes a huge difference.”
Kotz says the 90-minute project is almost complete. He expects the documentary to be released sometime this summer, showcasing a critical part of the town’s history, mysteries, and everything in between.
“I think people want answers. I don’t know that I can provide them answers. I can record their experience. I can give them maybe perspective, but the answers, who knows if we’ll ever have any,” said Kotz.
Whether you believe in UFOs or not, you can’t deny reported sightings, and in Wytheville, there were thousands of them.
“It was much more memorable than people gave it credit, and it was just a different time in ‘87,” Swiatek said.
“Well, there’s no question that there were unidentified, flying objects. What they were, is another question,” said Dellinger.
For Gordon, it is the possibility of a parallel universe. Despite the attention he received, both good and bad, it’s an adventure we would do all over again for to reasons. First, the sake of a story.
“As the book said, I don’t look up. I don’t go looking,” Gordon said, “and see, at that time, I honestly believe that if I had kept it under wraps and not done the story, there would have never been a story.”
The second reason: for cherished memories.
“I was just either dumb enough or fortunate enough to do it. I’m not sure which, but it’s made life fun. My wife use to say that, you know, one thing about life with me, it was never a dull moment,” said Gordon.