By Jan GallettaFriday's launch of the third annual UFO Festival is a nod to the curious aerial masses that numerous residents of the DeKalb County town said they saw in March of 1989, according to Mayor Larry Lingerfelt. But this time around, he said, UFO is an acronym for a two-day "unforgettable family outing."
Mayor Lingerfelt said he didn't witness the red lights and banana-shaped ships that supposedly coursed across the night sky above the Sand Mountain community -- oddities that caused thousands of inquisitive gawkers to descend soon after on Fyffe, a town of about 1,000 population.
"But they were seen more than once," he said. "They were seen by a lot of people, including our police department and some other ones (area police departments), too."
"We had (media) broadcasts from here to all over the country. It kind of put us on the map."
Some 42 years before the Fyffe phenomena, the desert hamlet of Roswell, N.M., marked an incident that many credit with spawning the modern UFO-tracking era, according to news accounts.
Records show the event stemmed from the Roswell-based 509 Bomb Group's news item issued in July 1947, noting that crews had recovered a crashed saucer-shaped spacecraft on a remote ranch. Military brass swiftly issued a retraction, explaining that the disk was actually a burst weather balloon.
But in 1978, a former high-ranking officer at the base gave an interview, asserting an alien ship had indeed been found at Roswell. His claim gave the legend new legs, and last month, some 50,000 UFO buffs made the desert pilgrimage to observe the incident's 60th anniversary, news reports show.
The Chattanooga area has had many UFO sightings, said David Kammer of Brainerd. He said that in the 1960s, he interviewed UFO observers for the National Investigative Committee of Aerial Phenomena.
"We went out and investigated when people reported seeing aerial phenomena," said Mr. Kammer, a retired engineer. "We went throughout the Southeast to such cities as Johnson City, Tenn."
Mr. Kammer said no Chattanooga encounter he investigated featured photographed phenomena.
"I was interested in the subject at the time but haven't been into it for a long time now," he said. "But there were quite a few (reported sightings) back then. I suspect there are today, too."
During one week in October of 1973, at least three accounts of supposed UFO sightings appeared in Chattanooga newspapers, records show. One quoted two Ooltewah women as having seen red and yellow objects flying overhead. It left burned spots in a vacant lot near their homes, the story said.
Two days after that, reporters wrote about the "luminous oblong object" that several interviewees claimed to have ogled in Alton Park, around the Charles A. Bell school. Among the witnesses weighing in with personal testaments were two police officers, Capt. Oscar Eaves and Sgt. Lester Schell.
Three days later came a published account of a "long narrow light that changed shapes," by the description of Mrs. Paul Heiner, of Berkeley Circle.
Mayor Lingerfelt said he knows of no repeat sightings in Fyffe since the 1989 incidents.
"But it got to where people (who'd claimed to see a UFO) had been ridiculed," he said. "They might not have spoken up, if they'd seen anything else."
He said that instead of hiding that heritage, Fyffe now capitalizes on it as a visitor draw, seeded by a $10,000 tourism grant from the legislature that also proclaimed it the state's UFO hotbed.
"Ider, Ala., has its Mule Day," he said. "UFOs are what we're famous for."
The UFO festival features hot-air balloon rides, continuous live entertainment, and arts-and-crafts vendors, among other highlights of the daylight-to-dusk celebration.
And while Mayor Lingerfelt said it's possible the glowing airships may spark new reports of curious flying objects, "We hope they won't be flat balloons, like they said they were in Roswell."