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Monday, July 7, 2014

The Great Fireball of 1966

At around 7:15pm on Sunday, April 24, 1966 - forty-eight years ago tonight - I was 8 years old and just passing by the open front door to our house, which faced due west, at 55 Haddon Ave., Falmouth, Mass. I remember that the sky was still light and absolutely cloudless (about 30 minutes after sunset) when I noticed a ball of light about the size and brightness of the full moon approaching from just slightly to the left, or, south. I remember feeling frozen in place as I watched this thing – I thought it was maybe a burning aircraft – moving parallel with the rooftop of the Hall School which was about 200 ft. away, directly across the street from the house. My brother, Barry, and cousin, “Binky”, yelled over to us as they crossed the front yard later that night, that they had seen a “flying saucer” earlier, just above the Falmouth Public Library, which was just across the street to the south. Something was mentioned about the Lawrence High School just across Shiverick’s pond to the west, and the Falmouth Fire Department were mentioned also. Funny that I did not connect these two events! (This is the night I had run out the front door into the street and stubbed my big toe!)

Sky and Telescope Magazine Cover - June 1966
Sky and Telescope Magazine Cover - June 1966

The object was very bright and seemed to have what I thought of as “sparks” coming from the trailing end, which was teardrop-shaped. It had a long, even, a white train of smoke trailing behind it, much like a thick contrail, which crossed the entire length of the sky. At times, the object's trailing edge became greenish in color, the leading edge yellow-orange, while the main body remained white. It seemed to pulse slowly several times, brightening with each pulse and I wondered if something else was going to happen to it. During these moments of brightening, the “sparks” separated from the main body and trailed it by at least two or three diameters. I remember thinking how strange it was that these sparks, or fragments, were detaching from the object and that they became visible only after they were some distance behind it. The fragments themselves alternated green and orange and left short trails of their own. I distinctly remember thinking that I couldn’t account for what it was I was seeing and I was especially boggled by the fragments trailing behind the object, seems to ignite only after they were some distance away. I wished that I could predict what was going to happen to the object next but I had had no similar prior experience with anything like this. I felt quite at a loss for an explanation for what I saw. Later that night, I had heard my mother on the phone, tell someone that there had been an announcement about the object on TV, about halfway through The Andy Griffith Show. I don’t know what channel it was or what the station call letters were.

The object seemed to move perfectly parallel to the school rooftop, which was just a degree or two below the object, as it moved in a South to North direction. I was struck by the objects slow speed – about the speed of any plane I might have seen at the horizon at any other time. It seemed to take a long time to move across my entire field of view, which was clear all the way from the south to the north, except for the low school rooftop. The rooftop spanned almost the entire length of the western horizon but was itself only about five degrees in height and perfectly flat. I don’t remember hearing any sound at all. I remember thinking that the thing was going to explode at any time after it had swelled again and again. I remained quiet the whole time, not wanting to call out or call attention to the thing, but just watch and wait to see what was going to happen next. I don’t remember anyone else being around, anyway. Again, it seemed as if the event was endless and it struck me how the object seemed to go through many changes during its flight. I estimate the duration of the flight at about 30 seconds. Finally, it seemed to break apart completely and fade out just before disappearing below the tree line in the NNW.

A similar, nearly identical incident occurred in the summer of 1979 or 1980, during the late afternoon (I don't remember the date), which I also witnessed while at work at Quickset Harbor. A similarly sized object had entered the atmosphere - I estimated somewhere over Maine or Nova Scotia - at the NNE tree line and disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean, at roughly the SE tree line. I was able to time the duration of this object's flight - or as much of it as I had witnessed - at 45 seconds. The object's train, speed, and its color approximated that of the 1966 incident. My sister, Linda, claimed to have seen the object while in a friend's boat on Vineyard Sound, just outside of Falmouth Harbor.

I feel very lucky to have seen such rare and wonderful things.

Almost three months after the 1966 incident, on Friday, July 1st, Barry and Binky’s band, “The Beau Brines” opened for “The Animals” at the Cape Cod a-Go-Go, in Yarmouth, MA. On Christmas of that same year, I received my second telescope, a 3-inch Newtonian reflector. It had a white cardboard tube with a screw-clamp ball-and-socket tripod mount. I saw the moon for the first time with this instrument. I also had a black-tubed 3-inch alt-azimuth reflector a year or two earlier, but other than burning my retina with it trying to locate the sun, I only remember using it to try to locate the moon. I didn't find the moon but I did find the sun! This was also the year that I got to sit in the pilot’s seat of John Glenn's Mercury space capsule, “Friendship 7”.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer


  1. I saw the same thing in Concord NH

  2. I saw it in Bristol Connecticut. I was 13 years old and walking home in a field just as it was getting dark. Like has been described it had a parallel tragectory toward the north and was in the western sky. That moment was imprinted in my memory for a life time. I saw a fire ball that was orange yellow in color with darker areas swirling inside the sphere. It seemed in the western sky traveling south to north just as it was getting dark. The smoke trail it left behind was visible for a long time right until it got dark. It’s nice to see others mention their rememberance of this event.

    1. bob, I was 14 living in New Windsor, NY (7-8 mi. N. of USMA West Point, just S. of Newburgh, NY) when I just randomly walked out to the back yard. It was twilight and I hadn't got 15 ft. from the house when I saw this fireball going south to north at about 60 degrees above horizon. Since it was only visible for several seconds, and I was trying to understand what I was seeing, I had no time or ability to call for others to see. There was no sound and it "appeared" at first to be some kind of big skyrocket a hundred feet up. But I realized that was just an illusion and ran into the house once it had passed telling what I had seen. The phrase "you had to be there" really is true, I couldn't get anybody to seem interested. But it's an event I've always remembered. If I had walked outside 10 seconds later it would have been a non-issue. Cool memory.

  3. I was seven when I saw this fireball in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was twilight out and the fireball was bright with trailing sparks, slightly to the East and traveling toward the north/northwest. I have never personally witnessed any other fireball like that since!

  4. I was ten years-old and standing on the corner of the street where I lived in Philadelphia. It was twilight, but still light outside. I'd received a Polaroid camera for my birthday the month prior and carried it everywhere I went. When I witnessed the fireball, orange, green and white, with a glittering tail and its long trail of white smoke, I watched frozen for half a minute or so. As it disappeared over the rooftop of Sol S. Cohen elementary school, I realized that I was clutching tightly the camera I held in my hand. I stood awestruck from the astrological event, but also dumbfounded that I'd missed this once-in-a-lifetime photographic opportunity. I remember placing the camera on the desk in my bedroom that night, but soon lost interest in keeping it with me all the time.

  5. I was 14 and flying a kite in Syracuse NY when I saw this beauty. Since I was west of it I saw it in the eastern sky flying north and parallel to the horizon. I had no idea what I was looking at but noticed as it blazed along its path, it had broken up into many pieces. I remember it was green mostly, and really seemed to be on blazing. It even left a smoke trail for many minutes. The next day it appeared on the front page of the local paper in all its glory, except it wasn't in color. The person taking the picture was a reporter out photographing flocks of geese when she captured it with 3 pictures. The caption said she was using color film, but I can't located the original pictures unfortunately.