Although UFO sightings are down from their peak years, voyagers from space are still among us, and there's video over Champaign to prove it.
The skies here have had decades of brightly lit flying objects, to go by News-Gazette clippings.
That flying saucer parked just south of Champaign? Sorry, that's the State Farm Center. But the Foo Fighters, who took their name from what Air Force pilots in World War II called UFOs, did play there in 2000 and 2005.
The big boom for UFO spottings started in 1947, said Mark Rodeghier, the director of the Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. There were many reports during the 1950s and 1960s, with some going back in Illinois to 1897.
Rodeghier, who said he's skeptical of many reports, has advanced degrees from the University of Illinois-Chicago. He started studying UFO events in college in the 1970s.
The sightings have changed in many ways, he said.
"Years ago, we had reports of objects looking like disks. That's much less common now. Reports have tended to come in on triangle-shaped objects since the 1980s," Rodeghier said.
"I can't tell you why there is this change to a triangle spottings. You don't hear of many flying squares, since they're not aerodynamic."
Also, abduction cases have declined somewhat, he said.
"People report lots of weird things that have happened to them: sleep paralysis, hidden trauma, dissociation," Rodeghier said.
"Just because things are unexplained does not mean they are caused by aliens."
Some of these feelings were so vague because "for many years people had experiences, but nothing to organize their thoughts around."
Then came books and movies about alien abductions.
"When abduction reports became prominent, people said, 'I literally didn't know what happened until I read this book.' It gave them an idea," Rodeghier said.
The News-Gazette hasn't reported on alien abductions, but the files are rich with stories of flying objects — sometimes with credible witnesses, as when Champaign police officers Richard Van Etta and John Hall both reported seeing lights hovering, in 1967.
They took a sceptical approach, guessing it was the moon — only to spot the moon in another part of the sky. Their reports were independently added to those from throughout Champaign that night.
Staerkel Planetarium Director David Leake said the night skies are full of lights.
"I talked several times with a lady who said a light was following her, but it was always right after sunset," he said.
"We assumed it was Venus, which is the third-brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon. When Venus passed between the sun and the Earth and ventured into the morning sky, the reports stopped."
He also viewed a "throbbing light" that someone captured on video.
"To me, it was pretty obvious that the point of light they were shooting was bright, but given it was dark around it, the camera's auto-focus was going back and forth trying to get a proper focus, hence the 'throbbing' light," Leake said.
If you search the words Champaign and UFOs, what comes up the most is a 1997 video, which can be seen at sites including youtube.com/watch?v=FmHZSSOwxO8.
The low-tech video, which has audio of viewers shouting in amazement, purports to be a series of inexplicable lights moving north from the Town Center apartments near Market Place toward Rantoul.
An archive called ufosonearth.com posted a description of the video as "A fleet of mystery UFO lights." The site often debunks reports, but did not offer commentary on the 1997 incident.
Sam Maranto, the state director for the Illinois chapter of the Mutual UFO Network, has looked at the video but doesn't have a conclusion.
"It is interesting, but I can't find anything more about it," he said.
Some video commenters argued that they were probably planes headed to Chanute Air Force Base, while others noted that even before the base closed in 1993, the runways had long been shut down.
Maranto and Rodeghier stress the level of research in their work; both organizations build databases from the sightings.
"We're not a bunch of crazies," Maranto said. "This is a scientific study."
He said he didn't go out looking to be in the unusual field.
"This interest found me. I had my first sighting in 1959, in the Fox Lake area, and it scared the bejeebers out of me," he said of the childhood sighting.
Robert Idleman saw something in 1969 — and lived to tell about it
1969 saw a Close Encounter of The Weird Kind.
A witness, Robert Idleman of Champaign, remembers the 1969 event as summer shocker, weeks before the first moon landing on July 20.
Many people saw the UFO, including a deputy sheriff on graduation night 1969, Idleman said:
Near Mahomet, "there were four of us. It was very dark. We noticed a blip in the sky, pulsating. We had the nervous Nelly of our group who freaked out saying it was a UFO. We laughed, but in watching it, it actually came closer," Idleman said.
"In one instance, it was blipping far away. Next it was blipping closer. We got out of there fast."
No beer was involved in this incident, he hastened to add.
Near some Mahomet gravel pits, the UFO returned, Idleman says.
"Again it was almost instantaneous. The thing was again right over us. We went about 90 (mph) to Champaign, hearts pounding. As we approached a farm (near First Street), we saw the thing again moving to the south. As soon as it left, the electricity came on at the farmstead."
Idleman said the UFO spotting was near the end of an era of multiple sightings:
"This was a good area for the UFO during the '50s. But by 1969, it had calmed. Anybody that would admit it was nuts. Especially long-haired ne'er do wells" like himself at the time.