One of the most mysterious and well-documented UFO landings took place on a farm near Delphos, Kansas on November 2, 1971. Physical evidence was recorded and preserved for analysis by the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO). This case not only left the farm residents scratching their heads, but also left UFO researchers, police, and members of the media dumbfounded by the events.
According to APRO records and several reports written by head UFO physical-trace investigator Ted Phillips, the incident began around 7 p.m., while sixteen-year-old Ronnie Johnson was tending the sheep with his dog. Ronald’s mother remembers calling out to her son to come to dinner, to which Ronnie replied that he would be in soon. At about this time, Ronnie heard a rumbling noise and looked up to see an extremely bright object about seventy-five feet away. The light was so intense that he had trouble making out the texture of the object, but he could make out a short-stemmed mushroom shape. The entire object was illuminated appearing to be a mass of multicolored lights.
Ronnie estimated the object to be nine feet wide and ten feet high. It hovered a couple of feet above the ground, with the bottom of the object appearing to illuminate the brightest. Ronnie described the sound as similar to a washing machine.
Ronnie remembers his dog staying perfectly still and not making a sound, while the sheep were disturbed and bellowing. The animals had lasting effects. For weeks after the incident, the sheep would jump out of their pens. Ronnie’s dog was also afraid of being outside at night and would scratch at the door frantically for several days after the incident.
After watching the object for about five minutes, Ronnie says the light below the object intensified, and it began to lift up. The light was so bright that it began to hurt his eyes. Ronnie’s eyes were irritated for some time after the incident.
The object quickly flew over a nearby shed, avoiding a collision by only a few feet. The rumbling sound changed to a high-pitched jet noise as it flew off.
At this point, Ronnie completely lost his vision, but could still hear the object moving into the distance. After a couple minutes, his vision came back and he could see the light now high in the sky. He heard his mother call him again, and he ran into the house to get his parents. At first they did not believe his story, but eventually went out to take a look. Once outside, they saw a bright light in the sky that was about half the size of the moon and continued to get smaller as it moved away out of view.
APRO investigator Clancy Tull, a lawyer from Kansas City, Missouri, questioned the family and found an interesting disparity in time spans noted by the witnesses. Mrs. Johnson said that, after she had called Ronnie to come in for dinner the first time, her and her husband had leisurely finished their meal before calling Ronnie again—some thirty minutes later. Ronnie could not account for these thirty minutes; to him, it seemed to be only about five minutes.
After the object had left, Ronnie and his parents went to examine the area over which the object had been hovering. They found a glowing ring on the ground and glowing areas on the nearby trees. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson touched the glowing ground and felt numbness in their fingers. Mrs. Johnson tried to wipe the dirt off her fingers onto her leg, which then also felt numb. The numbness in her fingers lasted for several days.
Mrs. Johnson said that the ground felt cool, even while it glowed. She also described the ground as slick and crusty. After touching the ground, Mrs. Johnson ran inside to get her camera. She took a picture of the glowing ground. Mr. Johnson called the local paper, the Delphos Republican.
The next day, Mr. Johnson and Ronnie went to talk to Delphos Republican reporter Thaddia Smith. They told her their story and showed her the picture. Still skeptical, but with a piqued curiosity, she decided to visit the farm. Her husband and son-in-law were also curious, so they accompanied her.
The ring in the ground impressed Smith. She said, “Upon arriving at the scene, I knew instantly that something had left evidence that it had been there.” There had been recent rains, and she noted that the ring area was dry even though the ground in the middle and outside of the ring was muddy. She also observed branches that appeared to have been broken by the object and a tree that she believed was crushed from the take-off or landing of the object.
Back in the office, she called the local weather radar to find out if they had observed any unknown objects, but unfortunately the weather radar had not been on that night. Smith then called a local radio station to inform them of the incident. Finally, Smith called Ottawa County Sheriff Ralph Enlow, who began an investigation.
Researcher Ted Phillips obtained the Sheriff’s report on the incident along with the report that Smith had provided the Sheriff. The Sheriff’s report stated that officers went to the Johnson farm and took statements from the family. The officers observed the ring and noted the dryness of the ground that made up the ring as compared to the ground in the middle and surrounding the ring. They also noted the broken branches and a discoloration of some of the affected trees.
Representatives of the Sheriff’s office said that they checked radiation levels and determined that the ground was not radioactive. They also took soil samples. The soil was described as “almost white in color and very dry.” The Sheriff’s office’s report ended with a note about another sighting seen in the area at the same time as the sighting on the Johnsons’ farm.
Phillips’ investigation into the Delphos landing and the statements issued from the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office and Thaddia Smith were printed in the September 1985 journal of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). Phillips reported that, thirty-two days after the event, he went out to conduct his investigation. He called Sheriff Enlow to make him aware of his plans; the Sheriff was waiting for Phillips when he arrived in town. Sheriff Enlow gave Phillips the soil sample and accompanied him out to the Johnsons’ farm.
Upon meeting the Johnsons, Phillips found them to be “very pleasant and calm, not really excited about their unusual experience, but quite curious as what the UFO may have been and what could have produced a ground marking such as the one found at the alleged landing site.” The Johnsons recounted their story and then took Phillips to the landing area.
It had recently snowed in Delphos, Kansas, so the ground was wet and muddy, with areas of standing water. Phillips was amazed to see that the ring was still visible. The snow on the ring had not melted, although the ground in the middle of the ring and surrounding it was wet and muddy. When the snow was moved aside, the ground was dry and light brown. Phillips tried pouring water on the ring, but it would not permit the water to pass through the surface.
Phillips then took samples of the soil, finding a large amount of a white substance that was not in the surrounding soil. He also found that the ground in the ring was dry to a depth of about twelve inches.
Phillips then took a look at the trees in the surrounding area. He found the dead tree that had fallen over and observed that it could have been knocked over during the departure or arrival of an object. He discussed with Sheriff Enlow the possibility that the tree could have been pulled over by vandals, but they both agreed that they would have found evidence of this, such as chain marks on the tree. He also noted the broken branches, which were consistent with Ronnie’s report. If there was an object at the location reported by Ronnie, the object could not have taken-off straight up, because there were branches over the area that were not broken. There were trees to the north and east of the site, which further confirmed that the entrance and departure could only have been the way Ronnie described.
During his second visit to Delphos, Phillips discussed the case further with Sheriff Enlow. The Sheriff said that he didn’t believe the event was a hoax. He went so far as to write Phillips a written statement that in part said, “In reference to the UFO sighting at the Johnson residence near Delphos, Kansas on November 2, 1971. The Johnsons are lifetime residents of Ottawa County and the Delphos community. They are well-known and well-respected by officers from this department. It is the opinion of this Officer that the information given by them would be accurate to the best of their knowledge.”
Sheriff Enlow also commented on the separate sighting report he had received: “In reference to the UFO sighting on November 2, 1971 by Lester Ernsbarger of Minneapolis, Kansas. Mr. Ernsbarger is an employee of the Minneapolis Street Department and a reserve Police Officer with the Minneapolis Police Department. I feel that his information would be accurate to the best of his knowledge.”
Phillips then went to visit Thaddia Smith again. She said that her visit to the Johnsons’ farm took place on the evening of November 3. She said that her and her husband could distinctly see the glowing of the ring. She included in her statement that, “in the area around and inside the circle there was nothing but darkness giving a person an eerie feeling.” She continued, “The Johnson family, having lived in the Delphos Community their entire life, are respected, truthful, conscientious, trustworthy, and a well-thought-of typical hardworking Kansas farm family.”
While the soil analysis failed to reveal any abnormal findings, the white substance had not been identified. UFO researcher and author Jacques Vallee tackled this issue in his book, Dimensions: A Casebook of Alien Contact. There, he noted that white substances had been found in anomalous rings before. He was able to obtain a sample of the soil from the Delphos ring, which he sent to a biological laboratory in France. The substance was determined to be an organic organism related to Actinomycetales, which Vallee describes as “an intermediate organism between bacteria and fungus.” Actinomycetales is often found with a fungus called Basidiomycetes, which can fluoresce under certain circumstances.
Some speculate that the object that landed in Delphos somehow affected the ground so as to accelerate the growth of the Actinomycetales. Others believe that this is evidence of a much more prosaic answer—a natural phenomenon called a “fairy ring,” in which a grove of mushrooms grow in a ring pattern. While skeptics believe that the glowing ring seen on the ground at the Johnsons’ farm was a fairy ring that was present before Ronnie’s sighting. The only problem with this theory is that fairy rings are connected to a fungus called Mycelium, not to Actinomycetales, the organism found in the ground at Delphos.
Professional skeptic Phillip Klass suspected that the Delphos case was a hoax. He believed that the ring in the ground was a result of a water trough used by the sheep that was at the location of the circle for many years. He alleged that years of sheep urinating around the trough was the most likely cause of the circle, and that once the trough was moved, the circle remained.
Because of Ted Phillips’ careful preservation of the soil samples from Delphos, another analysis was performed in 1999 by Phyllis Budinger, a chemist and retired research scientist for BP/Amoco. She found an unusually high concentration of Oxalic acid. Budinger’s report included a possible explanation of the existence of Oxalic acid offered by her colleague, Dr. J. Robert Mooney: “Exhaust from a low temperature ionization or combustion engine (whose fuel source was elemental carbon) could leave a high concentration of the acid along with other lower molecular weight acids.”
I attended the 2010 MUFON Symposium in Denver and, while there, caught up with Dr. Frank Salisbury, who holds a Ph.D in both plant physiology and geochemistry. He was part of a board of scientists, made up largely of APRO consultants, put together by the National Inquirer to determine the most believable UFO cases from a scientific perspective. In 1973, as a result of the scientists’ designation of the Delphos incident as the best UFO case, the National Inquirer awarded the Johnsons five-thousand dollars. Nonetheless, Dr. Salisbury told me that he still believes that it is possible that the Delphos story was a hoax perpetrated solely for the purpose of obtaining the National Inquirer award.
Thirty-nine years later, the Delphos landing is still controversial. It says a lot that the local press and police believed that the incident at the Johnsons’ farm was not a hoax. Delphos remains one of the most interesting alleged UFO landing cases.
This article first appeared in the 4th issue of Open Minds Magazine (no longer in print).