so-called Portage County UFO Chase was an unidentified flying object
encounter that began in Portage County, Ohio on the morning of April 17,
1966, when police officers Dale Spaur and
Wilbur Neff observed a metallic, disc shaped object flying in the
They pursued the object for about half an hour, ending up in
Pennsylvania before losing sight of the UFO. Several other police
officers became involved in the chase, and several civilians
reported witnessing the same object, or a similar object in about
the same area, during this time.
The UFO encounter earned significant mainstream publicity, and
probably inspired a scene in Steven
's Close Encounters of the Third
, where three Indiana police cruisers are depicted
chasing several UFOs into Ohio, eastbound across state lines.
After interviewing one of the police witnesses, Project Blue Book
(the official UFO
investigative arm of the U.S. Air Force) determined that the
witnesses had chased a communications satellite, then the planet
Venus. This conclusion was rejected by the officers involved as
ridiculously inadequate, and was furthermore subject to some wider
criticism, contributing to the opinions of some observers that Blue
Book was a failure as an investigative project. The UFO chase was
one of the cases that contributed to the creation of the Condon Committee
, ostensibly an independent
scientific investigation of UFOs.
Officers Spaur and Neff
after 5.00 a.m., Spaur and Neff had stopped their police cruiser to
investigate a car seemingly abandoned off the side of road near
Ohio. Earlier, there had been police radio chatter
about witnesses in and near Akron, Ohio who had telephoned police with claims of seeing a
large, bright disc flying through the skies.
While examining the abandoned car, Spaur noticed a bright light
seeming to approach from behind a nearby hill. Alerting Neff, they
both watched as the light came closer. They reported that the light
came from a large, oval shaped object that hovered at between 50
and 100 feet in altitude. The object then turned sharply and shone
an extremely bright light at the officers.
Neff and Spaur said they ran back to their police cruiser. While
the object hovered nearby, Spaur radioed the sheriff's office and
told them about the UFO. He was ordered to stay where he was until
others could arrive with a camera. (Officers were mistakenly sent
to the wrong location, and no photos were ever taken of the
The oval was about 35 to 45 feet in diameter, said Spaur and Neff,
and seemed to be about 18 to 24 feet thick. The bottom was rounded,
and they could not see much of the object's top due to their
position below the object. A bright conical
spotlight shone from the bottom of
the object. According to Spaur and Neff, whenever the object moved,
its edge would tip in the direction of its motion.
Spaur and Neff said that the object then rose in altitude to about
300 feet, and began to emit a loud humming sound, as its light grew
ever brighter. It began slowly drifting through the air, its
spotlight shining brightly on the ground as it moved, and Spaur and
Neff followed in the police cruiser.
However, the object would accelerate away from them whenever Spaur
and Neff approached. Deciding to follow the object, Spaur and Neff
radioed their intentions to the police dispatcher. Via the radio,
Deputy Robert D. Wilson suggested that Spaur should shoot the
object, but Spaur refused.
continued, mostly in a southeasterly direction, and soon Spaur and
Neff entered Mahoning County, Ohio.
They traveled along U.S. Route 224
at up to 100 miles per hour, in radio contact throughout. As the
sun rose, Spaur and Neff said they could better discern the
object's shape: it seemed to be metallic, resembling aluminum or
silver, and the top was a flattened dome. There was, Spaur and Neff
asserted, a slender projection at the rear-center of the object;
they called this the object's "antenna".
Curiously, Spaur and Neff said that if the police cruiser had to
slow for traffic or road conditions, the UFO too would slow, as if
it were waiting for them to catch up with it. They related this
observation to others via radio.
Enter Patrolman Huston
By now, police officers in three counties had overhead the radio
discussion of the UFO chase. Patrolman H. Wayne Huston (of
Ohio) realized that Spaur and Neff were traveling in his
Via radio, he told Spaur and Neff that he would
join the pursuit. The police officers asserted that the object was
usually one-half to three-quarters of a mile ahead of them.
Huston would later describe the object as initially appearing from
a distance to be somewhat conical in shape -- resembling a
flattened ice cream cone due to the beam of light shining from its
underside (the "ice cream cone" description was echoed in Close
officers crossed over into Pennsylvania, near Rochester.
Though he was trailing the others, Huston
was guiding the chase now, as he was more familiar with the area
than Spaur and Neff. Nonetheless, near Route 51, the two police
cars had to slow nearly to a stop due to traffic, and they lost
sight of the object. A few minutes later they insisted that they
spotted it again. Spaur, Neff and Huston resumed their
At about 5.30 a.m., Spaur and Neff received orders to abandon the
chase. They were far from their jurisdiction, and their car was
nearly out of gasoline.
Enter Patrolman Panzanella
At about 5.20 a.m., another police officer would become involved in
the case. Patrolman Frank Panzanella of the Conway,
Pennsylvania police was on patrol, when saw an object shining in
Initially, he thought it was the reflection of
light from an airplane. However, the object seemed to be
Unsure of what he was seeing, Panzanella stopped his car at a
service station parking lot, and got out to study the object for
several minutes as it seemed to hover in the air. In a statement he
submitted to Blue Book, Panzanella wrote:
- I saw 2 other patrol cars pull up and the officers [Neff, Spaur
and Huston] got out of the car [sic] and asked me if I saw it. I
replyed [sic] SAW WHAT! Then pointed at the object and I told them
that I had been watching it for the last 10 minutes. The object was
the shape of a half of [a] football, was very bright, and was about
25 to 35 feet in diameter. The object then moved out towards
Harmony Township approximately 1,000 feet high, then it stopped
then went straight up real fast to about 3,500 feet. (Clark,
As the UFO ascended, the police officers saw the moon in the sky
above it, and saw what they would later describe as a bright "star"
very near the moon. That morning, the planet Venus was very near
the moon rising in the east, and the men had spotted the planet
without knowing it.
object still hovering at about 3,500 feet, Panzanella radioed
dispatcher John Beighey at Rochester, asking him to contact the
Pittsburgh Airport (GPA).
Panzanella says he saw an airliner
pass below the object as it hovered; he related this fact to
Beighey. Minutes later, Panzanella saw what he took to be fighter
jet vapor trails to the west or northwest of the object, and that a
voice on the police radio announced that jets had been scrambled to
intercept the object. Shortly thereafter, the UFO sped upwards at
high speed until it was lost to view. Druffel writes that the
air traffic control tower
at GPA "confirmed that the object was being observed on their radar
screen." (Druffel, 43)
Spaur, Neff and Huston then began their return trips to Ohio, while
Panzanella elected to stay where he was in hopes that the UFO might
reappear. Only a few minutes later, however, Beighy radioed
Panzanella to report that officials wanted to interview all who had
witnessed the UFO. Panzanella caught up with Neff and Spaur to
relate the request.
Spaur, Neff and Huston then went to police headquarters in
Rochester, Pennsylvania. The men all seemed shaken and distressed;
Druffel writes, "Spaur, who was normally well-poised, stuttered
when he spoke, and his hand trembled as he smoked a cigarette."
(Druffel, 44) Spaur spoke briefly on the telephone to a man he
later described as "some colonel," whose identity remains unknown.
454) Despite Spaur's protests, the colonel tried to persuade Spaur
that they had misidentified some normal object, then told the men
that he'd forward their accounts to personnel at Wright-Patterson Air Force
Base, headquarters on Project Blue Book.
The colonel did
not speak to either Neff or Huston.
Enter Officer Kwaianowski
Just before Panzanella caught up to Neff and Spaur, he spoke on the
radio to Patrolman Henry Kwaianowski of Economy Borough
. Kwaianowski insisted that,
for two or three minutes, he had observed a metallic, football
shaped object at the same altitude as two passenger jets.
Enter Officers Johnson and Esterly
Ohio police officers, (Lonny Johnson and Ray Esterly)
had overheard the radio traffic, and suspected that, given its
direction of travel, the UFO might pass over Salem.
After looking in the directions reported by the other officers on
the police radios, Johnson and Esterly say they spotted the object
shortly after 5:30 a.m. They said the object was at between one and
three miles away from them, and at about 10,000 feet, at the same
altitude as a passenger jet. They claim that they saw two smaller
jets approaching the UFO from about 10 miles away. They radioed
their observations as they occurred, then when the UFO and the
three jets disappeared from view, Johnson and Esterly returned to
Clark notes that the claims of Johnson and Easterly contradict, in
many particulars, the claims of the other police officers. He
quotes William Wietzel, a philosophy instructor and NICAP
investigator who speculates that there might
have been two similar UFOs in the area (in Close
, four UFOs are depicted in the chase). It's also
possible that the three officers who came from Ohio had a chance to
"unify" their perception of the UFO during the chase, and/or that
there might have simply been an honest disagreement about the
altitude and vector of the object.
Several civilians claimed to have seen the same or a similar object
on the day of the UFO chase. Most of these claims were reported in
local newspapers. NICAP members interviewed some of them, but none
of the witnesses were known to have been interviewed by U.S. Air
Harbor in extreme southwestern Michigan, in the early morning hours of April 17, three
garbage men making their daily rounds reported seeing an unusual
object hovering over a hotel and emitting a light so bright that
they insisted they "couldn't look straight at it." (Clark,
457) They notified police, who arrived in time to see the object
shortly before it flew away.
- Sometime between 5.00 and 5.30 a.m., two
couples together in a car driving near New Castle,
Pennsylvania reported seeing a bright light moving in the
sky. Initially thinking that it was a reflection from an
airplane, they stopped the car to get a better look. The object
stopped when their car stopped. They quickly became convinced that
it was no normal aircraft, due to its shape, which one witness
described as resembling an "ice cream cone" (though another witness
thought it looked more like a "hamburger" (Clark, 457). The object
began to move again, and the witnesses followed it in their car for
a few minutes before the object accelerated out of view. This
account received very sketchy reportage, with the witnesses unsure
of the precise time they saw the object. Clark noted that some
interpreted this encounter as a second UFO in the same area, though
he also notes that, without a firmly established timeline, this
interpretation is speculative.
- Thelma James of Newton
Falls, Ohio claimed to have seen an unusual aerial
object. She had woken at about 3:50 a.m., and unable to
sleep, looked out her bedroom window. She saw a bright light slowly
ascending in the sky. Clark notes that this was almost certainly
the planet Venus, which, from James's perspective, would have risen
above the horizon at 3:35 a.m. However, at about 5:15 a.m., Jones
noted that a second light, much brighter than the first, had also
appeared in the sky, but closer to the horizon, and to the
southeast of Venus. This second light seemed to be crescent shaped,
and was a very bright yellow color. It continued moving through the
sky and was lost to Jones's view at about 5:30 a.m. James's
observations match some of the observations made by the police
officers in the UFO chase. Clark writes, "...it is unfortunate that
none of the investigators interviewed this witness, who saw
both Venus and the UFO--in defiance of those who would
soon insist that the two were one." (Clark, 458; emphasis his) On
the other hand, the rise of Venus and a crescent moon that morning,
and the subsequent glare of sunrise, neatly account for these
Publicity and Investigations
Within hours, the UFO chase had earned attention in the press
(several reporters are presumed to have overheard the police radio
conversations on scanners), and the chase would later earn
widespread mass media
William Weitzel of NICAP
investigation after hearing an early morning radio report the day
of the chase. He began making telephone calls that morning, hoping
to track down witnesses. Within a few weeks, he or his NICAP
associates had interviewed all the police officers named above, as
well as several other police officers who had figured in the UFO
chase, either as dispatchers or as those who had overheard the
radio communications. NICAP members also interviewed some civilians
who had claimed to have seen a UFO at the same time of the chase
and/or had monitored police scanners.
Though Neff, Spaur, Huston and Panzanella asserted that they'd
heard radio confirmation that the UFO was tracked by radar at the
GPA, officials at the airport would deny that such an event had
ever occurred, and that such a statement had been made via
William T. Powers of Northwestern University (a peer of J.
, the scientific
consultant for Blue Book) telephoned Spaur on the evening of April
17. After their 20-minute conversation, Powers did some research,
and thought that Spaur might have misidentified the planet Venus.
Though he related this conclusion to Major Quintanilla of Blue
Book, Powers would subsequently dismiss this explanation as
inadequate; see below.
U.S. Air Force investigators began their work on April 18.
Initially they telephoned local news outlets, seeking information.
However, local newspapers and radio had only vague outlines of the
case. Air Force investigators also interviewed meteorologists and
weather agency personnel, hoping to learn that a weather balloon
had been launched in the
area during the UFO chase. They learned that there had been no
weather balloons launched that morning, and also that the wind had
been so mild that the police would have had no difficulty catching
up with any wind-borne object.
Later that same day Major Hector Quintanilla (then the head of Blue
Book) telephoned Spaur. According to Spaur, after a few preliminary
introductions, Quintanilla's first question was "Tell me about this
you saw." (Clark, 458) Spaur insisted
he had seen no mirage, but a clearly defined metallic object
maneuvering at very low altitudes. When Quintanilla asked if they
had seen the object for more than a few minutes, Spaur asserted
that he and Neff had chased it for over half an hour, and that
Huston had seen the object for much of that period, and that
Panzanella too had witnessed the object. Quintanilla then, as Spaur
said, "kind of lost interest ... That's all he asked me. Hell, I
talked longer with that colonel Sunday morning, and he
didn't ask much." (Clark, 458; emphasis as in original) A day or
two later, Quintanilla telephoned Spaur again. He asked if Spaur
was sure that he had seen the object for more than a few minutes;
again, Spaur insisted that he had. That was the extent of their
second conversation. Quintanilla interviewed only Spaur; he did not
interview any other police officers that claimed to have seen the
object, and Quintanilla did not interview any of the civilian
On Friday, April 22, Quintanilla announced Blue Book's formal
conclusion in a press release. In Blue Book's opinion, The police officers
had first chased an Echo communications satellite, then, after it
had disappeared in the southeastern sky (at the time the officers
briefly lost trail of the UFO near Rochester,
Pennsylvania), the police had then chased the planet Venus,
believing mistakenly that it was the same object as the
What the officers thought was the object's
maneuvers was in fact an optical
, according to Quintanilla, caused by their excitement
and high speed of travel.
That same day, Quintanilla related this conclusion via telephone to
Portage County Sheriff Ross Dustman (Neff and Spaur's superior
officer). Dustman said he "laughed out loud" after Quintanilla had
finished his statement. (Clark, 459) Dustman was later quoted in a
story, stating that he rejected the Air
Force assessment: "I go along with my men. It was not a satellite
and it was not Venus. I've seen Venus many times, but I never saw
Venus 50 feet above a road and moving from side to side..." (Clark,
459) The police officers involved in the chase also rejected the
Air Force's conclusion as absurd. Spaur said to Weitzman, "I don't
know how much investigation [the air force] made, but evidently it
wasn't a lengthy one, or it didn't involve me. First of all, I
don't think that we have a satellite that can go this low ... I'm
definitely sure I wasn't chasing Venus or observing Venus running
wildly over the countryside. I'm not quite that bad off." (Clark,
Controversy over the Air Force Explanation
Weitzel thought that Quintanilla's explanation was preposterous and
illogical. When he learned that Ohio Congressman William Stanton
had expressed an interest in
the UFO chase; Weitzel wrote him a detailed letter, outlining what
he saw as the inconsistencies and shortcomings of Quintanilla's
hypothesis. Portage County Judge Robert E. Cook (an acquaintance of
Spaur and Neff) also wrote Stanton, defending the police officers'
judgment, and characterizing the Air Force investigation as
"grossly unfair" to Spaur and Neff. (quoted in Clark, 459) Stanton
would eventually write to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara
to complain about Blue Book's
handling of the case.
Stanton passed copies of Weitzel's and Judge Cook's letters to the
Air Force Commanding
, asking for further investigation of the UFO chase.
passed with no reply, and a frustrated Stanton then went to
Pentagon himself to
speak with Air Force Lt.
Col. John Spaulding (who was Chief
of the Community Relations Division). Spaulding agreed that Blue
Book should have sent an investigator to the scene, and promised
that an investigator would arrive there shortly.
On May 9, Quintanilla telephoned Spaur to schedule a meeting for
the next day. Spaur agreed, but then telephoned Weitzel, asking him
to come to the meeting with a tape
: suspicious of Quintanilla, Spaur wanted an accurate
record of the conversation so that he could not be misquoted. They
tried to get Panzanella and Huston to attend the meeting, but
neither was able to do so. However, two Beaver County
reporters and NICAP member Dave Webb were in Ravenna on
May 10 for the interview.
Quintanilla would later describe the meeting as "unpleasant."
(quoted in Clark, 460) Quintanilla quickly asked Weitzel and Webb
to leave, and the reporters left without being asked. The tape
recorder remained, however, and recorded a heated conversation
where both men essentially repeated their conclusions: Quintanilla
argued that the men had misidentified an Echo communications
satellite which had followed roughly the same direction as their
purported UFO, then they'd mistaken the planet Venus for the same
object; Spaur insisted that this explanation was absurd, especially
given his assertions that he and the other police had seen a large,
clearly defined metallic object which was sometimes only 50 to 100
feet above the ground.
Eventually, Weitzel, Webb and the reporters were readmitted to the
meeting. Weitzel and Quintanilla got in an argument when Weitzel
opined that the satellite/Venus explanation was inadequate, and
that it contradicted the accounts of several civilian ground
witnesses. Quintanilla admitted that he had never heard of any
civilian ground witnesses. Shortly thereafter, Quintanilla left the
While Quintanilla had made the determination about the Echo
satellite, Powers of Northwestern University had initially proposed
the Venus portion of the theory. Powers would later write a letter
to Spaur and Neff, retracting the Venus theory and apologizing for
contributing to the controversy. Powers wrote that based on further
- I cannot agree with the evaluation publicly released [by
Quintanilla] a few days after the sighting. What you reported to me
could not possibly lead to such a conclusion: a satellite satisfies
none of the characteristics of your reported object. As a matter of
fact, Dr. Hynek agrees with this. He was not consulted before this
news release was put forth ... I now understand that you and other
witnesses did notice Venus and the Moon, and saw the object in
motion relative to them, as well as being able to see a shape [to
the UFO]." (quoted Clark, 462)
In fact, not long after Powers wrote his letter, Hynek publicly
disagreed with the Blue Book conclusion, which was more evidence of
his growing frustration with Blue Book. Hynek was one of several
critics who suggested that Blue Book should reclassify the Portage
County UFO as an "unknown."
Another critic was Dr. James E.
of the University of
Arizona, an atmospheric physicist and UFO investigator. After
detailed research, he too rejected Quintanilla's explanation as
implausible. During a meeting with Quintanilla, McDonald would
record in his diary that he said he forwarded to the Air Force
"information that proves the huge UFO which Deputies Spaur and Neff
chased from Ohio to Pennsylvania couldn't have possibly been an
Echo satellite and Venus! What do you plan to do about that?"
According to McDonald, Quintanilla responded, "I'll change it to
'unidentified.'" (quoted in Druffel, 144)
However, Blue Book never changed their conclusion, and recorded the
Echo/Venus theory as the "official" explanation for the UFO
Jackelyne Neff later spoke out about the impact the UFO encounter
had on her husband:
quit his job and moved to Seattle, Washington, becoming a bus driver.
- I hope I never seen him like he was after the chase. He was
real white, almost in a state of shock. It was awful. And people
made fun of him afterwards. He never talks about it any more. Once
he told me, "If that thing landed in my back yard, I wouldn't tell
a soul". He's been through a wringer. (Clark, 1998)
He later said:
- Sure, I quit because of that thing. People laughed at me. And
there was pressure. You couldn't put your finger on it, but the
pressure was there. The city officials didn't like police officers
chasing flying saucers. (Clark, 1998)
However, Spaur absorbed the brunt of the publicity in the case, and
had the most tragic outcome. Quintanilla's final report on the UFO
chase report mentioned only Spaur, and Quintanilla's ambiguous
wording led some to conclude that only Spaur, and not more than
half a dozen others, had claimed to have seen a UFO. Spaur would
suffer from nearly relentless ridicule, and from persistent
nightmares about the UFO chase. Still, he refused to speculate as
to the origins of the UFO, and did his best to avoid the publicity.
After an uncharacteristic fit of rage one day when he violently
shook his wife, Spaur quit his job and disappeared from public
view. His wife Daneise was later quoted as saying:
- Something happened to Dale, but I don't know what it was. He
came home that day, and I never saw him more frightened before. He
acted strange, listless. He just sat around. He was very pale ...
He'd just disappear for days and days ... Our marriage fell apart.
All sorts of people came to the house. Investigators, reporters ...
They hounded him right into the ground. And he changed. (Clark,
Six months after the UFO chase, Spaur had separated from his wife,
and was located by John de Groot of the Associated Press
. Living in a $60 a
week motel in Solon,
Ohio, Spaur was nearly destitute, earning $80 a week as
a house painter, and sending $20 a week to his wife, and was
subsisting on a bowl of cereal and a sandwich per day.
According to a Free Times
article published October 25, 2006, Dale Spaur moved to West
Virginia in the early '70's. While working for a mine, he stumbled
into an open shaft and broke his back. A nurse that examined him at
a local hospital claimed that Spaur was possessed by an alien and
would not stay in his room. When he recovered, Spaur retired to
Lakewood, Ohio. He purchased a bar there called the Avenue. He died
In his 1972 book, Hynek discussed the Portage County UFO case at
length, arguing that it was not only unexplained, but also a
glaring example of Blue Book's lackluster debunking
. Hynek was a consultant for Spielberg's
of the Third Kind
movie and the Portage County UFO chase
almost certainly influenced a UFO chase scene in that movie.
- Jerome Clark, The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the
Extraterrestrial, Visible Ink, 1998
- Ann Druffel, Firestorm: James E. McDonald's Fight for UFO
Science, Wildflower Press, 2005