The ‘Phoenix Lights’ Become an ‘Incident’

Robert Sheaffer

One of the best-known UFO sightings in recent years—the so-called “Phoenix Lights”—took place on the evening of March 13, 1997. They were very widely seen largely because that was one of the best nights to see the bright naked-eye Comet Hale-Bopp, and large numbers of people went outdoors to observe it. They were surprised to see something else in the sky. (There were later, unrelated Phoenix Lights events as well; see, for example, “The Mysterious Phoenix Lights,” SI, July/August 2008.)

The Phoenix Lights episode actually consists of two unrelated incidents, although both were the result of activities of the same organization: Operation Snowbird, a pilot training program operated in the winter by the Air National Guard out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In the first incident, something described as a large “flying triangle” was sighted during the eight o’clock hour. Five A-10 jets from Operation Snowbird had flown from Tucson to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas several days earlier, and because this was the final night of the operation, they were now returning. The A-10 jets were flying under VFR (visual flight rules), so there was no need for them to check in with airports along the route. They were following the main air corridor for air traffic traveling that route, the “highway in the sky.” (Why a UFO would follow U.S. air traffic corridors is a mystery.) Because they were flying in formation mode, they did not have on their familiar blinking collision lights but instead their formation lights, which look like landing lights (in any case, Federal Aviation Administration rules concerning private and commercial aircraft lights, flight altitudes, etc., do not apply to military aircraft). The A-10s flew over the Phoenix area and flew on to Tucson, landing at Davis-Monthan about 8:45 pm. Some witnesses claim that it was a single huge solid object, but the sole video existing of the objects shows them moving with respect to each other, and hence were separate objects.

In the second incident, starting around 10:00 pm that same evening, hundreds if not thousands of people in the Phoenix area witnessed a row of brilliant lights hovering in the sky, or slowly falling. Many photographs and videos were taken, making this perhaps the most widely witnessed UFO event in history. This was a flare drop practiced by different A-10 jets from the Maryland Air National Guard, also operating out of Davis-Monthan from Operation Snowbird. And since this was the last night of the operation, they seem to have had a lot of flares that needed dropping. On my Bad UFOs Blog, I have written a detailed analysis of each incident.

The “flare drop” explanation is less controversial than that for the “flying triangle,” but even the former is often challenged. Dr. Lynne D. Kitei, for one, isn’t having any of this “flare drop” business. On her website (which claims to promote “Evolution to a New Consciousness,” whatever that means), she claims she was watching the Phoenix Lights two years before everyone else, and that her research proves “we are not alone.” By some complicated analysis, she claims to have proven that the objects photographed could not have been flares, although I haven’t run across anyone who understands what she’s saying. I heard her speak at the 2012 International UFO Congress near Phoenix, and some of her photos of UFOs appeared to me to be lights on the ground. Giving up her medical practice to become a full-time promoter of the story, “Dr. Lynne” (as she is sometimes called) has made a documentary film, The Phoenix Lights, and has often appeared on Coast to Coast AM, the well-known late-night paranormal and conspiracy-fest hosted by George Noory, to tell her version of the story. Each year in March around the anniversary of the incident (“We’re coming up on the twentieth anniversary next year!” she excitedly told me at this year’s UFO Congress), she hosts an event in an auditorium in Phoenix in which videos are shown, and witnesses new and old relate their stories. Dr. Lynne is a sweet lady who is unfailingly cheerful and polite, even if you disagree with her (or don’t understand what she’s saying). She has accumulated additional sighting reports from additional witnesses, including accounts of a giant UFO a mile wide hovering over Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport.

But now the Phoenix Lights are growing to even more gigantic proportions, if that is possible. A new motion picture, The Phoenix Incident, was being promoted in a big way at this year’s UFO Congress, with a large desk in the vendors’ area proclaiming “The Truth is Coming” and handing out cheesy little boomerangs labeled with the film title. According to the movie’s promotional material:

The Phoenix Incident is a fictionalized heart-pounding thriller based on this real-life event. Written and directed by gaming talent director Keith Arem (Call of Duty, Titan­fall) and starring Troy Baker (famed gaming actor) this one-night event uses whistleblower testimony, recovered military footage and eyewitness accounts to create a sci-fi thriller that examines the US military’s alleged engagement of alien spacecrafts.

The movie received its premiere public showing at the UFO Congress at the close of the Friday session. It’s mostly shaky, dark “found footage,” supposedly left behind by four guys who were eaten by aliens. The plot: As Comet Hale-Bopp passes Earth, it is followed by a companion object, a UFO, which falls to Earth and lands in Arizona. Out pour scary aliens, looking somewhat like the creatures in Alien, who start to eat people. Somehow the military covers it all up. The irony is this: while everyone was inside watching the premiere of this silly movie, the Air National Guard was busy dropping flares again over the Barry Goldwater range. And we didn’t see them.

Until now, the Phoenix Lights were simply that: they were just lights in the sky, skeptics and proponents could agree. But this movie, by mixing actual photos and video of the lights and actual witnesses’ accounts with dramatic fictional elements, has succeeded in muddying the waters. In the movie, four men disappear in the desert, becoming lunch for sinister-looking aliens, while the footage they supposedly left behind becomes the basis for this mockumentary. The military somehow knows all about these aliens and apparently drives them off. Operation Snowbird appears in the film—not as the pilot-training program it is but instead as a sinister coverup agency that is sent out to disseminate confusion and falsehood whenever aliens pop up. Relaxing outdoors at the UFO Congress the evening after the showing of this film, I heard a certain know-it-all discussing it and telling the people who had gathered around him, “Our planes engaged the Triangle!” In other words, he claimed that U.S. Air Force jets fought off a gigantic alien triangular craft nineteen years ago.

The claims of a “companion object” following Comet Hale-Bopp were made by an amateur astronomer who claimed to have a photo of it. The claim was promoted on the Coast to Coast AM all-night, all-high-weirdness radio show, then hosted by Art Bell, and set off a sensation lasting two months. The photo shows nothing more than a misidentified star, but this was enough to trigger thirty-nine members of the Heavens Gate UFO cult, led by Marshall Applewhite, to take their own lives on March 26, 1997, so they could “rise up” and join the object supposedly following the comet.

Jacques Vallee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who sits on the board of a half-dozen such firms, wants you to send him money. Vallee, a leading UFO author for over fifty years, is crowdsourcing funds for 500 copies of the new (and hopefully revised) “collector’s limited edition” of the 2009 book he coauthored with Chris Aubeck, Wonders in the Sky. The book deals with unexplained reports of things reportedly seen in the sky before the modern UFO era, going all the way back to ancient Rome and Greece. Vallee says that he will present the book, with its “facsimile commemorative coin” and “artistic beauty and scientific merit,” “to science” to show that UFO sightings have been around for a long time and should be taken seriously. I don’t think “science” will ever get to see this purportedly marvelous book, with only 500 copies of it ever to be printed, and all of them presumably in the hands of people who have contributed $220 to the effort. This fundraising scarcely seems necessary since the $110,000 this effort is hoped to bring in ought to be small change to someone like Vallee.

And that part about the “scientific merit” is also pretty dubious. Blogger Jason Colavito, who has been studying the claims in Wonders in the Sky, calls it a “demonstrably false and generally quite unreliable anthology of badly translated and frequently fictitious documents recording premodern UFO sightings. . . . [Vallee] wasn’t able to sell more than 150 of the 500 future copies of Wonders in the Sky he put up for sale late last year”.

Since that was written, Vallee and Aubeck have sold two more; there are now only 348 copies remaining for subscription. For the specifics of Cola­vito’s criticisms, see Researcher Martin Kottmeyer noted that alleged sightings of “Neith,” a supposed moon of Venus, were cited nine times in the book as unknowns. However:

Neith had been debunked in Nature magazine back in 1887. The Nature author looked into 33 observations/claims that Venus had a satellite. All but one had a good solution along the lines of either the positions of known stars or suspicions of optical ghosts and artifacts of the telescope lenses in use. The final one was guessed to be a minor asteroid passing near Earth.

As for Vallee’s coauthor Chris Aubeck, he recently posted this to a Facebook discussion of apparent errors in the book:

Over the last eight years my interest in UFOs has changed so that I approach the subject as an observer/folklorist/historian/archivist of the evolution of ufology itself, not to defend individual cases. I am deeply involved in plotting the historical roots and development of UFO mythology, so whether anomalous phenomena have acted as stimuli or not isn’t as relevant to me as it was in 2009.

This statement sounds like Aubeck backtracking and washing his hands of Vallee’s claim that this material represents a Challenge to Science (an inside joke; that’s the title of one of Vallee’s early books). Kottmeyer has also shown that the “primary source” consulted for Vallee and Aubeck’s description of a sighting of anomalous objects by the famous French astronomer Charles Messier (entry # 358) was not any contemporary eighteenth-century source but Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned. The description of the incident in Vallee and Aubeck differs from that in actual primary sources but matches Fort’s fanciful description of it. So much for a book boldly heralded by its authors as “a breakthrough in UFO research”!

In other news, UFOlogist Richard Dolan recently declared his belief in chemtrail conspiracies. On March 30, he wrote on his Facebook page:

All day long, I have been watching the aircraft stream across Rochester’s skies. Most of them have been leaving behind trails that do not go away, simply spreading across the sky. For those who do not pay attention, these look like ordinary clouds that have come in. But most of this is not natural. . . . I believe that geo-engineering is real. When I grew up in the 1970s, this type of nonsense did not occur. And I lived just outside New York City, watching major airline traffic every day go over my house. Such artificial clouds never existed back then. This phenomenon is real.

UFO buffs sometimes describe Dolan as “cautious” and “thoughtful,” even though he has long been promoting loopy stuff such as the “secret space program.” Last year, he took a big hit from his participation in promoting the “Roswell slides” (see this column, September/October, 2015). I don’t think we’ll be hearing that kind of talk about Dolan any longer.

Robert Sheaffer

Robert Sheaffer’s “Psychic Vibrations” column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for the past thirty years. He is also author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus 1998). He blogs at