The Canterbury UFO Encounter – A Little-Known Multi-Witness UFO Sighting Over New Hampshire

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
February 21, 2022
Estimated Reading Time
16 min read
Posted in
UFOs, Sightings

Although it is a UFO incident little-known, even in UFO circles, the UFO encounter in Canterbury, New Hampshire in May 1972 is an intriguing event that would prove to have multiple witnesses – each of whom were considered largely credible – from different locations of an anomalous object flying at extremely low altitude.

Official records showed that nothing should have been in the air over the region on the night in question, much less flying so low. However, the multiple witnesses suggested that something very real had made its way over the town for reasons unknown.

A depiction of a UFO over a field

Just what happened at the Lilley household in May 1972?

The encounter remains without explanation 50 years after it occurred. And given that all of the known witnesses gave detailed accounts of what they saw in the days following the encounter, barring any type of military official disclosure, it is likely that no further information will surface. Indeed, rather than being a cover-up on the part of officialdom, it would appear that the encounter over Canterbury in the summer of 1972 is a genuine mystery.

Although 1972 is perhaps not one of the busiest years in UFO history, many of the sightings that were reported shared many similar details to one another. And the following year in 1973 an absolute wave of UFO sightings and encounters exploded around the world. Might some of these lesser-known encounters of 1972 be connected to that wave? Perhaps as some kind of fact-finding or reconnaissance mission?

While such a connection would likely be impossible to prove beyond doubt, it is an intriguing notion and one that should perhaps be kept in mind. It just might prove to be the case that UFO encounters that might be forgotten or seen as not being of consequence just might have more to offer than we might think with regard to the overall big UFO picture.

The Canterbury UFO incident was investigated and documented most extensively by Raymond E Fowler. And it is from his reports that we will base our examination on.

A Strange “Buzzing Object” With A “Fiery Exhaust”

According to Fowler’s report, at around 9:30 pm on 13th May in Canterbury, New Hampshire, James Lilley was walking with his two sons, Jimmy and Scott, and two of their friends, Peter and Tommy, to a chicken coop on their land where they were planning on camping out for the evening. [1] The coop was unfinished and without a roof, so he was happy to let the boys use it for the night. He satisfied himself that they were safe before returning to the house. However, only 10 minutes later, the four boys came running through the door of the house claiming a strange “buzzing object” had hovered over the top of the chicken coop. They further said that the object had a “fiery exhaust” and that it had shone a light down into the chicken coop below.

A depiction of a UFO

The Canterbury UFO had multiple witnesses

James Lilley and his wife immediately set off outside to investigate the boys’ bizarre tale. As they ventured into the yard, a little way off in the distance they could see a strange object that was moving slowly away over the swamp. They would recall that it made a sound “similar but not exactly like a jet”. James told the boys the object was nothing more than a helicopter and told them to go back to their camping. The boys, though, were insistent – whatever they had seen, it was not a helicopter.

With the four boys refusing to return to their camping area James Lilley asked the two oldest boys to quickly sketch what they had witnessed, ensuring they were separated while they did this. Much to his surprise, not only were the depictions almost identical, they clearly showed an object that looked nothing like a helicopter or any other aircraft he had previously seen.

At this point, beginning to suspect that something truly strange had descended over the chicken coop, James made the decision to contact the Air Force Tracking Station.

“Not The Type To Create A Hoax!”

Fowler received notification of the incident the following evening, on 14th May when one of his contacts relayed a report he had received from his source at the Air Force-sponsored Satellite Tracking Station in nearby New Boston. He would immediately take an interest in the case and began investigating it further.

He would ultimately meet the witnesses several days after the encounter had occurred. And after enquiring with the local police if any other reports of UFOs had come in that evening (there were none), he obtained a glowing reference from them regarding James Lilley’s good character and overall credibility. He also confirmed that there appeared to be no records of any aircraft in the region of the sighting at the time of the incident.

Fowler received a further vouch for Lilley’s credibility when he happened to meet his boss, Arthur Stavros, when he stopped for food upon arriving in town, who would describe him as “honest and hard-working” and “not the type to create a hoax”. What’s more, Stavros claimed to have seen a strange light hovering over the powerlines a short time before the incident at the Lilley home (which was only a short distance from his house). He assumed it was a helicopter and went back inside. However, when he heard of the Lilley family’s encounter, he began to wonder if he had witnessed something a little more out of the ordinary.

During his investigation, Fowler also spoke with the boys’ teachers in order to get a fuller picture of their character. One of Jimmy and Tommy’s teachers told Fowler that the boys had told her of the sighting when they returned to school. She had asked them several persistent questions in relation to what they had seen, and had come away from the conversation convinced they were being truthful. She would further state that both were good students and both had actually scored very high on “observe and report” tests that she sometimes ran with her students. In short, they too were solid witnesses who could report accurately what they had seen and who were very unlikely to have made the whole thing up.

A similar report on the boys was given by the local pastor, who overheard them talking of their encounter after the Sunday Service less than 24 hours after it had occurred. He went over and spoke to them about what they had seen, and like their teacher, he believed they were being honest in saying what they had seen.

Passing Overhead At Low Altitude

Upon meeting the Lilley family, Fowler went to the location of the sighting with the four boys. They recalled that they had their sleeping bags spread on the floor of the chicken coop and were preparing themselves to bed down for the evening.

As they were Scott was watching the stars, in particular, what they had called “North Star” (which Fowler later determined to actually be the planet Venus) which was distinctly brighter than the rest. Suddenly he noticed something else in the sky. He called out to the others that “there are two North Stars out there and one’s on fire and coming this way”.

The other boys turned their attention skyward. They could clearly see a bright light that appeared to be heading toward the field in front of them. They would recall that it moved “like a falling, floating balloon”.

A depiction of a UFO

The object hovered at low altitude

By this point, all four of them were outside of the chicken coop and stood on the grass watching the approach of the bizarre object. It now appeared to be heading straight for them, making the boys think it was a helicopter. Jimmy, who had brought his father’s powerful flashlight with him, pointed it in the direction of the object and turned it on. As soon as he did so, and much to all the boys’ amazement, the object immediately slowed but continued its approach.

It would eventually pass directly over the top of the four boys, making a “grinding, buzzing” sound as it did so. As it passed over them at an approximate altitude of 150 feet, the lights from the underside setting the area beneath aglow, each of them could see that it was not a helicopter. In fact, it was unlike anything they had previously seen.

They would describe the object as being a decahedron shape and appeared to move with a forward tilt where a light lit up the ground below. They also recalled it had four “pipe-like legs” on its underside, with each leg having a “round pad” on its end. On the back of the object was the fiery exhaust where flames appeared to “pour down” from. They estimated that it was approximately the same size as two cars placed end-to-end and had multiple “silver cables” on and around it.

Almost at the same time, as the object continued past the chicken coop, the boys turned and ran as fast as they could back to the house.

Other Witnesses Step Forward

Fowler would also discover several further corroborating witnesses when he went door-to-door around the local neighborhood. For example, one such resident named only as Marilyn claimed she heard a loud noise that was “like a jet” at around 9 pm on the night in question. She immediately went to the bathroom window and opened it in order to see what the source of the noise was. Although she couldn’t see anything she did recall that the noise was somewhat bizarre and that it “suddenly died from a loud roar to nothing”, adding that “it didn’t gradually fade away as jet aircraft usually do”.

A depiction of a UFO

There were many other witnesses who came forward following the sighting

Peter and Tommy’s grandparents also heard strange sounds that evening at around the same time as the incident occurred. They would inform Fowler that they heard “a loud roar like a low-flying, throttled-back jet bomber”. The boys’ grandfather immediately ventured outside in order to see what was making such a racket and witnessed a glowing, bright object that was shining a light toward the ground. It is also worth noting that despite the multiple witness statements, including those of his own grandsons, he claimed that what was seen that night was likely a jet bomber that was flying particularly low to the ground, adding that an open bomb bay was likely responsible for the lights.

Two anonymous women also claimed to have seen a “strange horizontal set of little square white lights” on the night in question in the nearby town of Boscowen (although it is not certain if these are connected to the sighting over the Lilley property).

Another witness – named as Alfred in the report – claimed to have seen a strange, glowing object between the Lilley’s home and the powerlines. However, he wasn’t certain if he had seen this on the same night the Lilley’s had their encounter with the unidentified craft.

It is safe to say, whatever the object may or may not have been, something was definitely flying at a low altitude over Canterbury on 13th May 1972.

A Genuine Unexplained Encounter

So, what did the Lilley family and their friends witness over the unfinished chicken coop that evening in the spring of 1972? Fowler’s investigation would reveal that there were no records of any planned flights in the area at the precise time of the sighting. Nor did radar records shop anything out of the ordinary.

Fowler would ultimately conclude that whatever the object was, the boys and, in turn, James Lilley, were given honest and accurate accounts of events that evening, stating in his report that “something strange was indeed observed”.

Given that records show there was no conventional aircraft anywhere near the area at the time of the sighting, and that all of the boys were familiar with the sounds and shape of the National Guard helicopters that regularly made their way overhead, suggested they were not confused and did not misidentify a helicopter or other small aircraft.

A depiction of a UFO

The Canterbury UFO encounter remains unexplained

Fowler would write further that the “reported shape, sound, exhaust, padded legs, maneuvers, and very low altitude of the strange object would imply the grossest of misinterpretations.  I found such a possibility hard to accept under the overall circumstances”.

Fowler, like many of those who knew the witnesses, would conclude that it was highly unlikely that the incident was nothing more than a hoax. Not least due to the number of witnesses who offered details that corroborated the sighting of the Lilleys.

And it wasn’t just their witness testimony that solidified the case in Fowler’s eyes. Both the times, the route upon which they occurred, and the intricate descriptions of sound all lined up to create a timeline of events with the same mysterious unidentified craft. Just what that craft might have been, though, remain unknown.

Similar Encounters Throughout The Summer Of 1972

There are several other UFO sightings that occurred around the same time that are perhaps worthy of our attention here. [2] On the very next night, for example, in Germantown, Illinois, three sisters witnessed a bright, glowing object hovering near their home on a farm just outside the town. They would describe the object as being “half-moon shaped” and having a “dark gray metallic body” as it hovered over one of their family’s neighbor’s farm buildings at an approximate altitude of 200 feet. They also recalled it having two bright lights that reminded them of car headlights.

It remained hovering over the farm buildings for around 10 minutes before it began to move slowly away. As it did so, the two bright lights went out and red, green, blue, and white lights appeared around the edge of the craft. The lights were solid and didn’t flash and remained visible for several moments until the object had disappeared from view.

A depiction of a UFO

There were many other UFO sightings at the same time as the Canterbury sighting

Interestingly, the witnesses claimed the object was completely silent when it hovered but a sound similar to a small plane was clearly audible as soon as it began moving (remember the descriptions of the witnesses in Canterbury who reported similar details of how the object sounded a little like a plane).

In total the object remained in sight for around 15 minutes before it had disappeared, and while they didn’t know just what the object might have been, they were more than satisfied that it wasn’t a conventional aerial vehicle.

The following evening, at around 10 pm on May 15th in Schaumburg also in Illinois, a local woman was standing in the kitchen washing dishes when she happened to look out of the window. To her amazement, she witnessed an “oval-shaped object” flying directly over her house and seemingly about to land in the yard, making a strange, unnerving noise as it did so. Following its descent, three bizarre creatures emerged and began to look around on the ground around them. Shocked at the scenes playing out in front of her, the witness rang the local police to report what had happened. By the time a police officer arrived, however, the creatures had returned inside the object, and it had disappeared.

Other Sightings Of Interest And Possible Connections

There are also other sightings that might be of possible interest to us here and the UFO encounter in Canterbury. Several weeks later, for example, in Springfield, Virginia, a 7-year-old boy and two friends were crossing the street in their neighborhood he suddenly noticed something bizarre overhead – a silver, metallic orb-like object simply hovering above them. In fact, the orb was so close to the ground that the witness could see what appeared to be glowing letters or symbols that were moving around the middle of the sphere. The witness would later estimate that the object was in between the size of a large car and a small house.

Strangely, when he went to ask his friends what they thought of the bizarre craft he was amazed to discover they had continued to cross the road and had seemingly not even seen the aerial anomaly above. He remained quiet and returned his attention skywards once more. He watched the object for several more minutes before deciding he had better rejoin his friends, who by this time had gone inside one of the boy’s houses. When he later told them what he had seen they claimed to have seen nothing out of the ordinary.

Around the same time as the above incident, at around 10 pm one summer’s evening in Newton Falls, Ohio, Terry Ozanich was making his way to a bridge in town where he had arranged to meet some friends. After a short while, two of his friends were seemingly approaching and he turned his attention to the direction they were coming from. As he did, he could see a bizarre, glowing object approximately 30 feet in the air above them. The object appeared to be traveling the other way and shot sparks into the air as it moved.

Ozanich continued to watch the object, amazed by what he was seeing. He also had the feeling that the object was aware of his stare, and in return was scanning him. Then, without warning, the glowing ball-like object suddenly stopped moving and began an immediate descent. Before it reached the ground, though, it had disappeared.

Strange Lights And Objects Across The United States

One evening in North Shore, Salem in Massachusetts, according to a MUFON report, a man was driving with his friend when an extremely bright object suddenly became visible in the evening sky. It appeared to be moving slowly just above the treetops that lines the roadside. The witness brought the car to a stop and both men exited the vehicle.

They could see that the object was clearly cigar-shaped and had what appeared to be square windows. In between the windows were round spotlights. They would estimate the craft was approximately 100 feet wide and move extremely slowly – perhaps slower than we might expect a craft of that size to move. Most eye-opening of all, though, was the clear shape of figure the witnesses could see moving behind one of the square windows.

After the two men watched the object for several minutes, the witness urged his friend back inside the car so he could find a better viewing point to observe the bizarre craft. They eventually found a higher point near the road but unfortunately were unable to locate the object again. In a further twist to the incident, a police patrol car arrived a short time later and enquired what they were doing there. When they told him their account, rather than laugh or ridicule them, the officers informed them that they too had arrived here attempting to view the object after having tracked it from outside of the town.

A depiction of a UFO

Many parts of the United States also witnessed strange objects overhead

Another similar, if a rather bizarre incident comes from the files of J. Allen Hynek and occurred in Kansas, once more around the same time as the above incidents. On this occasion, the witness was driving along a quiet road in an unknown rural location in the state when he noticed a bright light in one of the fields at the roadside. His first thought was that the light would belong to a farmer’s tractor and so he turned toward it, eventually bringing his car to a stop and then continuing on foot.

The closer he got, however, he realized the scene he was looking at was something far different from a farmer and his tractor. There in front of him was a strange humanoid figure wearing a black overall suit and tight-fitting cap. He would estimate this figure was around four feet tall and had four arms. Its face had similar features to a human but with particularly large, round eyes.

According to the witness, the humanoid spoke in English to him telling him that his craft was nearby but he couldn’t see it because of the glare of light. Even more bizarre, the witness claimed to have gone on board the craft but went into a trance-like state shortly after doing so leaving his memory hazy of events that followed. He did claim, though, to have gone into space with the strange creature and was returned to Earth around two weeks later.

The Millerton Close Encounter

It is perhaps also worth our time briefly examining a case from the files of the National UFO Research Center that occurred at around midnight on 10th June in Millerton, New York. The witness was driving with her mother after just finishing her night shift at the hospital. It was as she was driving along the quiet backroads that she noticed a strange object high in the sky in front of them. She recalled that it glowed brightly and appeared to have multicolored lights that flashed blue, red, green, and white. She alerted her mother and she too saw the object in the night sky.

Just as they were beginning to contemplate if it was nothing more than an airplane it made a sudden descend shooting toward the ground in seconds. It then stopped instantly and hovered just above the trees approximately 100 feet ahead. The witness brought the car to a stop.

She would later describe how the multicolored lights appeared to “implode” back into the craft, leaving one bright white flashing glow. She would further recall that the object was large and definitely saucer-shaped. She could also make out what appeared to be a dome on the top which had windows or portals going all around it.

As they were looking at the windows, they were shocked to see strange figures peering out looking directly at them. And whatever they were, both the witness and her mother knew immediately that they were not human. They recalled they had huge “bug-like heads” and distinctly oval-shaped eyes. Their necks were particularly thin, as were their arms. Their skin appeared to be grey.

The pair continued to watch the object, remaining almost motionless in the car for around five minutes. Then, with no warning whatsoever, a sudden flash of white light came from the craft and lit up the inside of the car. In fact, the light was so bright that each had to shield their eyes from it. They estimated this light shined on them for around two minutes before disappearing instantly.

Rather than being relieved, however, both women were now focused on the object itself, which was now slowly moving toward them, not making a sound as it did so. It stopped just above their car. The witness, now more than eager to get away from the situation, put the go in motion as calmly as she could and set off back down the highway. The object continued to follow them right the way to the witness’s home. At that point, it simply carried on its way, leaving the two women to contemplate just what they had seen.

Similar Incidents Across The Atlantic Ocean

A very similar sighting to that in New Hampshire was also reported in the summer of 1972 on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Balham, London, England. At around midnight on the night in question, David Jones happened to be looking out their first-floor window of a flat he shared with a friend when their attention was drawn to a strange low-hanging light hovering just above the rooftops of the terraced houses a short distance away.

To their amazement, the strange light then split into two lights. Then, a third light appeared. The lights were heading in their direction, and the closer they got they realized they were part of a “wedge-shaped craft”. Even more remarkable, the object was so low that each of them could see a humanoid figure in what looked to be a “cabin” area dressed in a high-collared dark-colored uniform.

The object passed right over the top of their apartment building, a “whooshing” sound clearly audible as it did so. A few moments later, after presumably having turned around, the object came back over the top of their building, heading back in the direction it had come from. Interestingly, much like the sighting in Canterbury, the witnesses claimed to have seen a “dull red flame” coming from the underside of the object.

A depiction of a UFO

Sightings also occured throughout England

According to an account in UFO Magazine (Volume 22, No. 1) another intriguing account from the summer of 1972 occurred in the Sussex region of England. The witness, Howard Johnson, was staying in a chalet in the town of Crowborough with his wife when he noticed a strange object around 1500 feet away while looking out of the window just before noon. The more he looked at the object, the more it appeared very much like a “flying saucer” and what’s more, it was steadily moving toward the chalet.

It came to a stop around 200 feet away and hovered in place. Howard could tell it had a clear dome on the top of it, as well as several flashing lights on the underside. From what he could tell, the object was completely silent.

He continued to watch, his attention now on the dome section at the top, through which he could see three humanoid figures, one of which was clearly taller than the others. The taller figure appeared almost human, while the remaining two figures were described by Howard as looking like a “typical grey alien”.

After several moments, the craft began to move away from the building. Howard called out to his wife who arrived at the window just in time for her to see the strange object disappearing into the distance.

Another bizarre incident had occurred several months prior to this, at around 2 am on the 24th of April in Manchester, England. According to the account of Roy Dutton, Joan Nesltrop, and Peter Rogerson, the witness – an elderly lady named Mrs. Taylor – suffered from insomnia and was often up and out of bed in the middle of the night. On this particular night in question, she was looking out of her window when she saw a ball-shaped object that was glowing a bright white-yellow color hovering just above one of the factory chimneys nearby.

Even more astonishing, from inside of this spherical object, a humanoid figure merged wearing a uniform and what appeared to be large boots. After around two hours, the figure returned inside the rounded object with eventually began to “disappear within itself”.

An Encounter That Remains Unexplained!

Did the Lilley family witness an extraterrestrial craft flying over their property in May 1972? If so, where was this craft going, and for what purpose? Was there a reason this strange craft was over this particular area of the United States that evening or was it pure chance? After all, if the four boys had not been camping outside that night the craft very well might have gone undetected and not reported.

It is perhaps also worth our time considering – especially when we factor in some of the other sightings of the summer of 1972 – that incidents such as this could very much have been a precursor to the wave of sightings across the United States and around the world the following year in 1973. What’s more, many of these reports contained claims of humanoid occupants, just as some of the reports from the summer of 1972. Might such encounters like those over Canterbury have been part of some kind of reconnaissance mission?

Or might the object have not been alien at all, and instead, a top-secret military aircraft? If that is the case, though, why would they fly at such a low altitude over an area that potentially (and did) have multiple witnesses? And if they had ventured out that way, what would the reasons be for keeping such a flyover secret? It would appear, on this occasion, that a secret military aircraft can be placed very much on the backburner of possibilities.

What is certain is that the encounter remains unexplained today, and likely will do for the foreseeable future. It remains, however, of extreme interest to UFO researchers and enthusiasts today half a century later. Just where in the big puzzle that is the UFO and Alien Question do such cases belong? What, if any, are the connections to other cases, both at the same time and before and after?

The short video below looks at some of the most intriguing UFO encounters on record.


1 Canterbury, New Hampshire, May 13, 1972, Raymond E Fowler, NICAP
2 1972 UFO Chronology, NICAP

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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