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Every year in the middle of October, regular as clockwork, the Earth passes through a field of space debris that fills the night sky with flashing meteors, so people go out and gaze up at the heavens to enjoy the cosmic show known as the Orionids shower.
Anyone who was out watching the skies in Richland County on Oct. 18, 1973 may well have caught a very special guest appearance as well—one of the best-documented UFO encounters in U.S. history.
In the many volumes of UFO literature written since 1973 the Mansfield Encounter is usually listed among the 20 most credible cases to occur in the US—often it is in the top 10. Within a year after the incident it won the prize for Best UFO Case of 1973 awarded by the National Enquirer, and in 1976 it was endorsed into official UFO lore by Rod Serling, as part of his documentary UFOs: It Has Begun.
One of the reasons this particular episode maintained its integrity among all the myriad wide-eyed UFO reports of the 70s, is because it involved a military helicopter flown by sober men of impeccable character, who filed their experience into the public press before anyone in official channels could keep it quiet.
The Captain of the helicopter told his tale to a Cleveland reporter almost immediately, and subsequently relayed it to a national television audience on the Dick Cavett Show. He ultimately made a report of his time in the sky over Charles Mill Lake to the United Nations. He told the Special Political Committee of the U.N., “As a result of my experience, I am convinced this object was real and that these types of incidents should require a thorough investigation.”
The Captain of the helicopter that night was Larry Coyne, and his name is often used as a reference to the event, which is known as the ‘Coyne Incident’ or the ‘Mansfield Encounter.’
It was around 11 PM when the US Army Reserve ‘huey’ passed over Richland County, flying from Columbus to Cleveland. There were four enlisted men aboard, and one of them casually mentioned to the Captain that he could see a red light in the distance that was oddly out of place.
Within moments it became obvious to them that the odd light was in motion, and that it was moving very quickly toward the helicopter on a collision course. The Captain took immediate evasive action, diving his aircraft out of the path of the unidentified object that was closing at a terrific speed.
Suddenly the object stopped still in mid-air, right in front and above them.
It cast a spotlight on them that was brilliant green in color, and paused for a moment to scan the Army boys, who were staring back wide-eyed and amazed.
And then it buzzed off over Mansfield.
When the men in uniform stopped freaking out they realized that their helicopter was 2000 feet higher in the sky than they ought to be, and that somehow during their encounter the craft had lifted far above their normal flight path, even in spite of the evasive dive that the helicopter had undertaken.
They needed fuel but rather than drop in at the Mansfield air base for a fill-up as they had intended, they pealed out for Cleveland and arrived there with the gas gauge on empty. The pilot stated that he ‘was so frightened that he wanted to leave the area immediately.’
One of the reasons why the Mansfield Encounter remains so intriguing is because the sighting was corroborated by witnesses on the ground.
Driving along Rt. 430 that night, a mom and her kids were so astonished by the lights in the sky that they pulled over to watch.
Commenting on the brilliant green illumination shining down around them, the mother said, “I don’t know if I can describe the color of the light. It was real, real bright and absolutely beautiful. It was wonderful to see, but yet it was also very frightening. I wanted the kids back in the car, to get home as fast as possible. It scared me.”
The Friendly Skies
If you were paying attention in 1973, the headlines in the papers and the evening news on television were full of UFO sightings all over the country the entire year. Even the Governor of Ohio went on record as having spotted one; and Walter Cronkite relayed the news of the Governor’s revelation on October 17—the evening before Mansfield skies hosted its own news-making moment.
Everyone started watching the night sky, and it was during these evenings of ripe opportunity that the Firemen of Mansfield Fire Department Number 1 got the inspiration to launch their own Flying Object.
There was a tank of helium in their garage on South Walnut Street that they had been using to fill Smokey-the-Bear balloons for kids, so they created and inflated their own makeshift weather-balloon-like apparatus with latex gloves.
The young men took parts from a Fire Department flashlight and mounted them on metallic pie pans, and when the lit apparatus was suspended from their lighter-than-air unidentifiable object it created ‘an eerie glow.’
It was a clear night and very still, and when the illuminated craft launched from the Municipal Building it lifted slowly over the north end of the city and wafted leisurely out to the airport.
After sightings of their UFO made headlines in the News Journal the next day with 911 calls, City cops, County Sheriffs and State Patrol involvement, the MFD guys knew that if they wanted to keep their jobs they needed to maintain absolute silence about their prank.
They are all retired now though, and in retrospect wish they had taken pictures…especially at the airport where they retrieved pieces of the UFO at the crash site. Holding the tin pie pans ‘it looked like the Army at Roswell…more or less.’
The Truth is Out There
Since the 1970s Richland County has never lacked for sightings of weird things in the night sky. I make note of them all.
My favorite is the old guy in the 1980s who used to go up on Mt. Jeez every week because it was easier for the UFOs to contact him there: to pass along to him insights and specifications for his inventions.
I have collected tales from Shiloh and Shelby to Palmyra and Pinhook, of unexplained things hovering in the air, dashing across the sky, flashing in the woods, or lounging in the parking lot.
I am a believer, and I am a skeptic. Mostly I’m just fascinated, and I love a good story. The UFO story I tell most often is the one from the night of October 18, 1973 because you don’t have to believe me or take my word for it—you can look it up yourself.
Watch for yourself this interview with Coyne and his crew excerpted from the 1979 documentary UFOs: It Has Begun.