On November 9, 1965 the northeastern region of the United States and Canada was abruptly plunged into blackness. The worst blackout on record came to be known as the 'Big Blackout'.
The facts are well known. At 5:16 pm, at the height of the evening rush hour, electrical power to one-sixth of the continent's population was suddenly cut off, trapping millions of people on expressways, in elevators and in office buildings. Altogether, thirty million people in eight U.S. states and in the province of Ontario were affected by the disruption.
In Ontario the blackout was confined to the eastern portion of the province - from Timmins in the north, across to Cornwall in the east and south toward Sarnia. Windsor, Ottawa and Sudbury were the only eastern centres to escape the blackout. Yet within three hours power was restored to most parts of the province.
Mass media coverage naturally focussed on the human aspect of the blackout and to a lesser extent, on the delay in determining the cause of the breakdown.
There was, however, an even more dramatic story.
UFOs had been reported in the vicinity of strategic hydro installations at the time of the blackout. The impressive number of credible sightings led many researchers to consider the possible role these craft may have played in the power collapse.
The researchers included the late Dr. James E. MacDonald, a physicist at the University of Arizona; former NICAP director Major Donald E. Keyhoe; and astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the current director of the Centre for UFO Studies.
Immediately following the breakdown, the U.S. Federal Power Commission and the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission launched a full-scale investigation into the cause. At first, it was reported that the trouble originated with a mechanical breakdown in a high voltage line between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
According to the [Toronto] 'Globe and Mail':
The report turned out to be false. Then a sub-station near Syracuse was reported to be the cause of the failure, but repairmen found it in perfect condition.
Finally, six days after the blackout, Ontario Hydro engineers traced the trouble to the mammoth Sir Adam Beck No.2 Generating Station at Queenston, Ontario north of Niagra Falls.
It seems that just prior to the blackout, power was flowing from Sir Adam Beck No.2. into Ontario, then across the border via Cornwall into New York State. In graphic terms, power was flowing clockwise in a loop around Lake Ontario.
At 5:16pm, a backup relay on one of the six lines linking Sir Adam Beck to the rest of the province mysteriously tripped the line's circuit breaker, which acts much like a household fuse.
In quick succession the cut-off power jumped to the other five lines, causing an overload that tripped the circuit breakers on these lines as well.
A veritable tidal wave of electricity - 1.1 million kilowatts - flowed in the opposite direction into New York State. Inexplicably, the relays on the New York lines failed to isolate and contain the overload. Within seconds, the entire grid of thirty-one interconnected power utilities of CANUSE (Canada-United States Eastern Grid) had broken down.
Although experts could pinpoint the origin of the blackout, they were baffled by the cause of the relay malfunction and the failure of the protective systems to contain the overload.
In the words of Ontario Hydro's system supervising engineer, Jim Harris: "It's incredible! I would have said this was impossible if I hadn't seen the evidence."
The mystery deepened when it was discovered that the relay had not in fact malfunctioned, but had merely reacted to a sudden surge of power from an unknown source.
As stated in the final report of the U.S. Federal Power Commission: "The precise cause of the backup relay energization is now known." Where did the unexplained surge of power come from? To this day that question has remained unanswered.
Or has it?
Although inconclusive, one answer might lie in the findings of the late Dr. James McDonald who contended that the magnetic fields accompanying UFOs can create sudden power surges in transmission lines as the craft flies overhead. In theory, these power surges could produce blackouts of massive proportions.
Since the 'Big Blackout', McDonald's theory has gained considerable support in the light of strong evidence confirming widespread UFO activity on that fateful evening.
The Syracuse Herald-Journal was inundated with calls reporting more than one hundred sightings in the Syracuse area.
One of the first came from Syracuse Deputy Aviation Commissioner, Robert C. Walsh, who was flying over Syracuse at the time of the blackout. Despite the darkness, he managed to land safely at Hancock Airport.
Standing on the runway, with some airport officials he suddenly noticed an enormous circular ball of light, drifting overhead. "It appeared to be one hundred feet in the air and fifty feet in diameter. It rose for several seconds, then suddenly disappeared. Moments later, a bewildered Walsh and his companions watched an identical device ascending over the airfieldm before mysteriously 'blinking out', as did its predecessor. Unlike the known high-speed plunges of fireballs, these craft moved upward at moderate speed - clearly under some form of intelligent control.
At the same time, the mysterious craft were also being observed overhead. Veteran flight instructor Weldon Ross and his student, James Brooking, were approaching the darkened airport when they spotted a second fiery object below.
The Giant craft, estimated at well over one hundred feet in diameter, appeared to be positioned directly over the Clay sub-station, a strategic installation that channels power from Niagara Falls to New York City.
It was the same sub-station where hydro investigating teams had initially pinpointed the origin of the blackout.
In a relentless pursuit of a possible UFO-blackout relationship, Herald-Journal reporters succeeded in uncovering even more explosive evidence. In a front page story seven days after the blackout, the paper carried photographs of the mysterious red craft taken by Mr. William Stillwell, a sexton at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. He described what he had observed through a 117-power telescope:
The centre was rotating, around and around and around. It came from the direction of DeWitt and shot off at an angle and then went back the way it came.
He had watched the glowing object for as long as two hours before it streaked away.
While investigating teams continued to dig for the mysterious cause of the power failure, press coverage of a possible UFO connection gained momentum.
In a strongly worded editorial, the Indianapolis Star urged:
The answer is fairly obvious - unidentified flying objects! It is one angle the multi-pronged investigation should not overlook.
Support for the UFO possibility intensified as news of other sightings became known. In New York City, twenty minutes into the blackout, witnesses in the Time-Life Building spotted a peculiar glow in the sky over darkened Manhattan. According to Major Donald Keyhoe:
It appeared to come from a round object hovering over the city. This was tewenty minutes after the lights began to go out. Several photographs were taken by a Time Magazine photographer, one of which appeared in the November 19th issue.
Although clearly visible in the photograph reproduced here, Time editors failed to make any reference in their photo-caption to the spindle-shaped craft. Journalistic oversight or deliberate omission? The only hit of any unusual aerial activity came in a facetious reference to a Soviet satellite:
Some New Yorkers, claiming that they had seen a satellite pass over at the moment the lights failed, argued that the Russians had done it again.
But UFO investigator and author, the late Frank Edwards disagrees with both the UFO and the Soviet satellite explanations:
The spindle-shaped thing could have been a UFO--but it certainly wasn't. It was nothing more than an optical ghost, the result of reflections between the elements of an air-spaced lens.
While disputing the validityof the Time photo, Edwards strongly supported the contention the UFOs were somehow involved in activating the blackout. In fact, while conducting his own investigation into the cause of the blackout he discovered that U.S. military authorities had been well aware of the UFO presence, at least forty-five minutes prior to the power failure.
This startling disclosure came from two commercial pilots, Jerry Whitaker and George Croninger, who were flying over Tidioute, Pennsylvania, when they spotted two disc-shaped 'shiny objects' overhead.
Even more surprising was the sight of two military jets chasing the mysterious craft.
Moments later, one of the discs put on a 'burst of speed' and quickly outdistanced its pursuers. While watching the fast-disappearing UFO, the dazed pilots lost sight of the other object, which had presumably departed in the same manner.
The most spectacular UFO revelation, however, came one day prior to the releae of the 'official' explanation when, speaking before a nationwide televison audience, NBC commentator Frank McGee announced that a private pilot had spotted a "round, glowing object near the Niagra Falls power plant".
Associated Press picked up the story and numerous newspapers subsequently carried it. The following morning, a well-documented article appeared in the New York Journal American blaming UFOs for the disastrous power-grid breakdown.
Any further media focus on the UFO connection was brought to an abrupt halt, however, with the release of the 'broken relay' explanation.
Despite mounting evidence, the Federal Power Commission had predictably chosen to side-step the possible UFO connection. This ommission was eventually confirmed by Dr. James E. McDonald who, as a respected scientist, was allowed to interview certain FPC officials.
They admitted they had the Syracuse and Niagara Falls reports, also most of the others on that night. But they wouldn't discuss the UFO possibility....No matter what they believed, I think they were convinced the facts shouldn't be given tothe public, and that's why they agreed to the 'broken relay' story. At any rate, it was obvious they were covering up.
Under the circumstances there seems to be a strong possibility that Canadian authorities were also involved in the cover-up. Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission investigators, having become aware of the UFO reports, collaborated with the FPC by exchanging information that eventually led to the 'broken relay' explanation.
Furthermore, this explanation had apparently been pre-arranged and was released simultaneously in both countries.
The Ontario Hydro press statement similarly neglected to include UFOs as the possible cause for the blackout.
One reputable American ufologist went so far as to point an accusing finger at the late Lester B. Pearson, then prime minister. Major Donald Keyhoe contends that:
To shift attention from the UFO explanation, the 'broken relay' story was invented. Since this could be construed as blaming Canada, the Prime Minister must have been convinced it was best for both countries not to disclose the true situation.
It that was the case, then it represents one of the most shocking deceptions ever perpetrated - leaving the heads of thirty-one utility companies and thirty million people to grope around in the dark in more ways than one!