Investigations show that famous nighttime “alien light” sightings were all due to objects in the sky, but not the extraterrestrial spacecraft UFO enthusiasts imagined.
At around 8:30 on the night of March 13, 1997, residents of the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area, who were outside enjoying the pleasant weather and perhaps hoping to see the comet Hale-Bopp, witnessed something unexpected: a chevron (V-shaped) formation of lights that were “Like nothing they had ever seen before” (Kean 2010, 247). Adding to the mystery was a second set of brilliant lights, in the sky south of Phoenix around 10 on the same night (Davenport 2001; Kean 2010, 25).
Fortunately, there were countless eyewitnesses—and unfortunately, there were countless eyewitnesses! UFOlogist Peter B. Davenport (2001), who heads the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) in Seattle, Washington, sums up the matter, while himself confusing the two different events:
Witnesses were reporting such markedly different objects and events that night that it was difficult for investigators to understand what was taking place. Some witnesses reported five lights, others seven, or even more. Some reported that the lights were distinctly orange or red, whereas others reported distinctly white or yellow lights. Many reported the lights were moving across the sky at seemingly high speed, whereas others reported they moved at a slow (angular) velocity, or they even hovered for several minutes.
However, although admitting the widely differing descriptions, writer Leslie Kean insists (regarding the first event) that “one overriding characteristic prevailed: the craft was massive; it was a solid object, not merely lights; and it often appeared to be very low in the sky, blocking out the stars behind it.” Indeed, many said “it was the size of multiple football fields and up to a mile long” (Kean 2010, 247, 248)—an exceedingly large size, perhaps especially for an extraterrestrial craft.
Here, we investigate these two occurrences that have become known collectively as the “Phoenix lights.”
Phoenix Lightshow I
UFO buffs were thrilled by the case, with its numerous eyewitnesses and video evidence (although there were many more witnesses and videos for the second event). Davenport was quoted in a big USA Today story (Price 1997) that propelled the case nationally: “The incident over Arizona was the most dramatic I’ve seen. . . . What we have here is the real thing. They are here.”
If that seemed premature, not every skeptic knew immediately what to make of the case. Joe Nickell was queried by a morning radio show in Arizona, whose host asked him what the lights were. He replied that he expected they would soon be identified but thought it unlikely to have been extraterrestrials. Why, he asked, would aliens come to Earth, on an apparently secret mission, displaying all those bright lights? Early on, however, James McGaha regarded the Phoenix phenomena as familiar indeed. As we shall see, having been a U.S. Air Force special operations pilot, he knew a lot about aerial chevron formations and about dazzlingly brilliant lights!
As it happens, analysis of the apparently sole amateur video of the formation is instructive. Even with enhancement, nothing can be seen to join the lights. Indeed, their pattern changes over even a few seconds’ time: “The lights clearly move in relation to each other, proving that the lights represent five separate objects, rather than a solid body” (Ortega 1998). In other words, eyewitnesses who interpreted the lights as representing a single massive craft were simply connecting the dots. Reports of stars being blocked out by the perceived craft were probably due to the closer bright lights that outlined a triangular area and made it difficult to see less-bright objects within—an optical principle used for stage magic effects known as “black art” (Hopkins 1898, 64–68).
That evidence is supported by amateur astronomer Mitch Stanley, who observed the lights with his large Dobsonian telescope. Its ten-inch mirror gathers some 1,500 times the amount of light as that of the human eye, and its eyepiece magnifies an image sixty times—putting him, in effect, that many times closer to the lights than viewers on the ground. Stanley could see that the lights were, in a word, “planes.” He saw that each light was actually a pair, one each on each plane’s squarish wings (Ortega 1998).
Given the chevron formation, the planes seemed most likely to be military, and the squarish wing shape—in contrast to the swept, triangular type—suggested either A-10s or possibly T-37 fighter-trainers. But if that were so, why did the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson assert that it had no airplanes flying at that time? And why did the Phoenix airport fail to pick up the aircraft on radar?
The first answer is that when Davis-Monthan later rechecked, they discovered that a squadron from the Maryland Air National Guard had flown in for winter training exercises. According to Lt. Keith Shepherd (1997), the public information officer at Davis-Monthan, a squadron of A-10 fighter-bombers had arrived from the Baltimore-based 175th Fighter Wing.1 As to being invisible to radar, in this type of flight only the lead airplane would be expected to have an active transponder (whose signals are what the air controllers’ radar reads), and it may well have been turned off along with certain other navigation lights. The formation of five aircraft was seen flying along a standard flight route from Nellis AFB (Las Vegas) to Davis–Monthan (Tucson) and crossing over Phoenix about 8:30 p.m. In any event the flight leader would not be expected to communicate with air traffic control under visual flight rules, and a formation of planes would not have been regarded as noteworthy in any case (Ortega 1997; 1998).
Phoenix Lightshow II
As an exercise—and this is what constituted the second phase of the Phoenix lights mystery (the two often being confused, as we have seen)—the Maryland Squadron performed a practice release of LUU-2A/B ground-illumination flares dangling from parachutes. These burn at 1.8 million candlepower, and at a distance of 150 miles still appear brighter than Venus at its brightest. They last about four minutes.2 The drop took place over a gunnery range southwest of the city. After the event became a media UFO mystery, James McGaha spoke with Capt. Edward Jones, the flight leader, and confirmed details of the flare-drop scenario. As Jones explained, before the planes left the nine remaining flares were released—not at the usual low altitude but at about 15,000 feet, making them visible to people in Phoenix.
Although videotapes of the event show the lights behaving just like flares, UFO buff Jim Dilettoso says otherwise. Dilettoso claims his spectral analysis demonstrates they are unlike any known light produced by humans. However, in doing so he claims to do what cannot be done: A camcorder’s representation of a point source of light (focused onto an electronic chip and ultimately converted into an analog signal recorded on videotape) is unsuitable for spectral analysis. “Trying to do spectral analysis on the image produced by a camcorder,” observes one critic, “would be like testing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln for his DNA” (Ortega 1998).
The Discovery Channel, which had aired Dilettoso’s pseudoscientific claims, later commissioned another scientific test of the flare hypothesis by Leonid Rudin of Cognitech, an image-processing firm in Pasadena. Rudin matched a witness’s videotape with a daytime shot from the same location, showing the distant Sierra Estrella mountain range. As a result, the lights were shown to have been above the range and then to go out—after they drifted behind the mountaintops—just like distant flares. His work was confirmed by another independent analyst (Ortega 1998).
Some UFO proponents have conceded that these later lights have been explained. Kean (2010, 250), for example, accepts that one evidential video “has been subjected to detailed analysis by at least two qualified professionals, and both determined that the brilliant lights shown hanging in a row over the mountain range and then dropping out of sight, were, in fact flares”—drifting at the same place and time the video was made. However, Kean still clings to the earlier Phoenix event—the Chevron formation—as representing a genuine UFO mystery.
Another lifelong UFO enthusiast, folklorist Thomas E. Bullard (2014, 8), has begun to wonder if UFOlogists are “on a fool’s errand,” stating unequivocally that “Faith in the Phoenix Lights UFO has little basis in fact.”
In retrospect, Fife Symington—governor of Arizona, 1991–1997—says that the state had been “on the brink of hysteria” following the 1997 events, which he once lampooned3 (Kean 2010, 256). He now calls for “the United States government to cease perpetuating the myth that all UFOs can be explained away in down-to-earth, conventional terms.” Utterly confusing the causes of Phoenix Lights events I and II, Symington (2010) huffs that “flares do not fly in formation.”
Almost exactly three years after the original Phoenix Lights flap, during March 2000 military officials decided to avoid a replay of that near-hysteria when they planned another series of nighttime flare-drop training exercises. Called Operation Snowbird, it involved Air Guard craft (jets and helicopters) from New York, Michigan, and California. These exercises were preceded by a tactical media alert, prompting The Arizona Republic to announce jokingly, “Look to the sky, conspiracy buffs: See the spheres of light floating eerily in the night sky. It’s the return of the fabled ‘Phoenix Lights’” (Walker 2000).
As the tenth anniversary of the Phoenix Lights approached, one news source announced “case solved” after “more strange lights appeared in the sky over Phoenix” during the preceding night (February 6, 2007). Accompanied by a photo, the CBN News article stated: “They were definitely flares dropped by a plane. It looks as though the case of the strange lights may finally be solved” (“Arizona” 2007).
Nevertheless, in 2008 came another “Lights over Phoenix” case, but this was only a pale imitation of the original. As reported by USA Today (“Lights” 2008), four bright-red lights hovered over the city on the evening of Monday, April 21. Numerous residents, as well as a Phoenix police-helicopter pilot and air traffic controllers, saw the lights—some describing them as red, while others reported them as white. Most agreed they flickered. They were visible for almost fifteen minutes, changing configurations during that time.
It was soon revealed as a hoax. Calling it “just a nocturnal prank,” a USA Today reporter spoke with the culprit who asked not to be identified. The man explained that he simply obtained four helium-filled balloons, from which he dangled road flares using fishing line. He then lit the first flare and let it ascend, followed—at one-minute intervals—by each of the others. That the lights seemed to move around, the man thought, was because a passing jet had created air turbulence (“Lights” 2008); however, ordinary winds would account for the movement.
Of course, such a confession could be false, but in this instance the man’s neighbor, Lino Mailo, actually saw him launch the devices. Mailo said, “I could’ve put this whole thing to rest.” The affair was short-lived, anyway, although residents who saw the mystery lights did recall the original “Phoenix Lights” case of 1997 (“Lights” 2008).
Of course not all such cases were limited to the Phoenix area. One 2007 display of lights “not of this world” (as an eyewitness described the phenomenon) came from Arkansas, where A-10 jets from Fort Chaffee had released the special battleground-illumination flares (Kovacs 2007). Another, much more prominent case, occurred in central Texas.
Stephenville, Texas, is a town about a hundred miles southwest of Dallas. There, on January 8, 2008, between 6:15 and 7:30 in the evening, some forty eyewitnesses reported strange, extremely bright lights—at first moving slowly, then more quickly, some estimating a speed of 3,000 miles per hour (of course without information about distance or plane size, such estimates are worthless). The UFOs were pursued by what seemed to be military aircraft. Recalling the Phoenix Lights of yesteryear, some witnesses described the Stephenville lights as forming a single, mysterious object a mile long. When a public affairs officer for Carswell Field stated that that Naval Air station had no jets operating in the vicinity, flying-saucer theorists were off and running (Frazier 2009).
On July 4, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) issued a seventy-six-page report on the Stephenville incident, consisting largely of an analysis of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “raw” radar returns, supplemented by eight eyewitness statements. The MUFON report contended that the FAA radar had tracked a giant object 524 feet or more long, traveling near the “Western White House” (the ranch of then-president George W. Bush), fifty miles southeast of Stephenville.
Meanwhile, James McGaha had begun to investigate the Stephenville case. He recognized that the airspace where the lights were observed was identical to Brownwood Military Operating Areas (MOAs) that begin just ten miles southwest of the Texas town. Encompassing 3,200 square miles, these MOAs are areas of restricted airspace where military aviation training is carried out.
As he told the Skeptical Inquirer, McGaha (2009) contacted the FAA, and was informed that, on January 8, four F-16 jets from the 457th Fighter Squadron had in fact entered the MOA at 6:15 and another four at 6:26—the groups departing at 6:54 and 6:58 respectively. McGaha then contacted the public affairs office of the 301st Fighter Wing to ask if they had erred in denying that their aircraft were in the MOA on the evening in question. They subsequently called him back to admit their mistake, and on January 23 issued a public press release that F-16s were actually flying in the Brownwood MOA on the evening of January 8.
McGaha explains that the F-16s had been engaged in training maneuvers, dropping counter-measure flares, used to confuse heat-seeking missiles—a fact confirmed by much additional independent evidence. For example, the pilot of a military helicopter who was flying that night had seen the lights. Himself a retired U.S. Army pilot, he stated, “I saw multiple military aircraft, with some dropping flares, in the area of the Brownwood 1 MOA.” In fact, some of the MUFON witnesses had described “very bright lights similar to the intensity of burning magnesium,” even stating that they actually saw flares being dropped from aircraft! Moreover, while conducting air-to-air combat exercises, in order to get quick acceleration pilots inject fuel into the engine exhaust (a procedure called “going to afterburner”). This results in a great burst of flame, visible from a distance.
As to the MUFON radar analysis, McGaha (2009) found it to represent “cherry picking” of data. The UFOlogists had selected just 187 points on which their claims were based “out of 2.5 million points of noise and scatter to make a [radar] track moving forty-nine mph for over one hour,” adding, “This analysis is absurd!” He concluded:
The untrained witnesses/observers were seeing nothing more than F-16s and flares. Stephenville is nothing more than connecting “lights in the sky” to form a very large mysterious object, an object that many that night thought was from another world. But nothing otherworldly happened around Stephenville on January 8, 2008.
And that also sums up the many similar cases we have looked at here as well.
1. There were several planes, but not all were flying in one formation, nor did all participate in the second event, described in the next section.
2. These should not be confused with a very different type of flare that is released to thwart heat-seeking missiles, although Shepherd (1997) did confuse the two.
3. Gov. Symington staged a press conference with a costumed “alien,” but James McGaha predicted (Erickson 1997) that the “joke” would backfire, that it would spark claims of a government cover-up, which it did.
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