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Kent Biffle: Stephenville area's had its share of UFO sightings

11:20 AM CST on Monday, February 4, 2008

kbiffle@sbcglobal.net

STEPHENVILLE, Texas – "I have found it," boasted C. L. McIlhany to a newspaperman.

"Found what?" asked the reporter from Dallas, expecting a new bit of info to add to the heavenly hot topic of local conversationalists.

"Found the airship The Dallas Morning News has been talking about. It's no joke ..."

Mr. McIlhany, a prominent farmer, lived three miles down the Bosque River from this Erath County courthouse town. His words carried credible weight amid the dozens of giddy reports concerning mysterious things flying over the plains.

The farmer said, "I discovered the ship on the ground early this morning ..."

By now, a reader is perhaps recalling the published and televised accounts of odd objects that promenaded across wide Erath skies last month – some of them faster than Bugattis and bigger than Wal-Marts. But that's getting way ahead of this story.

See, Mr. McIlhany made his "discovery" more than 110 years ago, on April 17, 1897.

Dallas lawyer-historian Jeffrey Dunn sent me the 1897 clipping with the Stephenville dateline, saying: "You're not going to believe this." It all suggested that extraterrestrials are fond of Erath County. What's more, an examination of newspapers dated April 1897 showed a whole slew of reports about aerial strangers roving in the Midwest and Southwest.

The farmer said the ship, crewed by a pilot and an engineer, alit in need of a minor repair. He got an eyeful and hurried off to recruit witnesses.

"The airship is very much as reported by The News ... It consists of a cigar-shaped body about 60 feet in length ... The motive power is an immense wheel at each end, in appearance much like a metallic windmill. It is driven by an immense electric engine, which derives its power from storage batteries."

The crewmen – earthlings, as it sadly turned out – gave their names as S.E. Tilman and A.E. Dolbear. They explained that they were on a test cruise in compliance with a contract they held with certain New York capitalists.

"They are confident that they have achieved a great success and that within a short time navigation of the air will be an assured fact," said the farmer.

Mr. Dunn and I had researched incredible reports of a spaceship's crash into a windmill in Wise County and the burial in the Aurora cemetery of the space alien killed in the smash-up. Historians have concluded that it was a hoax thought up by a contributor who was trying to revive Aurora's flagging fortunes. It didn't work.

The events in Stephenville and the Aurora crash were covered in the same April 19, 1897, edition of The News. There were dozens of other extraordinary aerial incidents and accidents reported in that period.

Bob Callanan is a former Air Force officer assigned to Operation Blue Book, code name for the UFO investigation project. (The Air Force no longer investigates UFOs.)

Mr. Callanan spoke candidly, saying that he believes that UFOs are "possible."

"We were able to explain approximately 90 percent of what we investigated," he said. "The rest, we reported out as 'unexplainable' or needing additional information before a final report could be issued."

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