The Phoenix Lights

Thomas E. Bullard: Paranthropology vol.5, n° 1, pp. 4-, janvier 2014

With an estimated ten thousand witnesses, events over Arizona on the evening of March 13, 1997, comprise perhaps the largest mass UFO sightings of all time. The first views of lights or objects in the sky began in the late afternoon, while a V-shaped arrangement of five to seven lights seen headed toward Arizona from the Las Vegas area after 7:00 p.m. set a pattern that would unfold from the northwestern to the southeastern corners of the state during the next two hours. Just before 8:00 p.m. came the first observations from the Prescott Valley of a low-flying V-shaped UFO, with reports from Kingman, Scottsdale, and Tempe over the next half-hour. Between 8:30 and 8:45 lights in a V-formation and an enormous dark boomerang-shaped object with lights attached reached Prescott, the Phoenix metro area, and the airport. At the same time a triangular object estimated to be two miles wide flew slowly over northern Phoenix, bearing dozens of lights and apparent windows. Between 8:30 and 9:00 reports of V-shaped objects arrived from Oracle, Tucson, and Chandler, while some witnesses continued to see UFOs over Phoenix. About 10:00 p.m., just when the excitement seemed about to subside, brilliant arc-shaped forma-tions of lights appeared southwest of the city. Several witnesses videotaped these lights and the footage aired on TV to become media icons of the Phoenix Lights events. Sightings continued as late as 2:00 a.m. 1"Phoenix Lights.” (Peter Davenport) National UFO Reporting Center News Release: UFO Over Arizona March 13, 1997.(Peter Davenport) “Summary of “Phoenix Lights” Event”. (Peter Davenport) NUFORC Special Report: Phoenix Lights: Two Years Later. (William F. Hamilton) “Phoenix Sightings Summary Report

The sheer quantity of reports leaves a deep impression, but no one better captures the awe and wonder of the experience than eyewitness Tim Ley in his personal account of the UFO that flew over his home north of Phoenix. His ten-year old son called his attention to a small arc of five white lights floating to the northwest at about 8:00 p.m. The family watched the pattern of lights change into a “V” shape as they drew nearer. Ley suspected military helicopters but changed his mind as the lights sustained a rigid pattern for over 15 minutes and he concluded that the object was one solid structure. When closer still, the object revealed a dark, sharp-edged shape like a carpenter’s square against the stars, with one light at the front and two in each of the arms. The lights gave off a soft white glow that did not illuminate the ground. No sound came from the object as it passed 100 feet overhead traveling no more than 30 miles per hour, but so enormous the witnesses had to turn their heads to take in the sight from one end to the other. The craft passed through a gap in the mountains and reflected the lights of Phoenix on its surface, then became lost among distant aircraft lights and atmospheric haze a few minutes later. Ley believed that extraterrestrials displayed their craft to send a message that they were here to help the world. He illustrated his account with a series of computer images, one of which appeared in USA Today 2Tim Ley. “Phoenix Lights UFO".

Peter Davenport’s National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) and the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) began receiving reports even as the sightings were underway. Witnesses have continued to submit reports over the years, including one from then-governor Fife Symington III, who stated on the tenth anniversary of the event that he saw a “massive, delta-shaped craft” between 8:00 and 8:30, and concluded that “as a pilot and a former Air Force officer, I can say with certainty that this craft did not resemble any man-made object I had ever seen" 3Kean, Leslie. UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record (New York: Harmony Books, 2010), 262.. A great many witnesses from all walks of life had their own stories to tell.

Two MUFON investigators were among the first to piece together a story of what happened that night. William Hamilton concluded that at least seven types of UFOs had appeared—some of them formations of lights, some of them triangular objects with lights, and some disk-shaped objects with lights around the circumference 4(William F. Hamilton) “Amazing ‘Phoenix Lights’ Event Sequence of 3-13-97".. Media treatments simplified the sightings to two events, one the V-shaped object or objects crossing the state and reaching Phoenix around 8:00 p.m., the other those arcs of brilliant lights southwest of the city about 10:00 p.m. Another MUFON investigator, Richard Motzer, found it peculiar that the 10:00 p.m. event that resulted in so many videos actually attracted few individual witnesses. He also noted that those witnesses all resided at higher altitudes and concluded that these lights were located at great distance from the city over a military test range, and visible only to people whose view was not blocked by an intervening mountain. He also questioned the earlier sightings on the grounds that several witnesses identified the UFO as lights of military aircraft flying in a V-formation at high altitude 5(Richard Motzer) “The Phoenix Lights, the Real Investigation”, MUFON UFO Journal no.351 (July 1997), 3-6..

Further confirmation for military flares as the solution for the 10:00 p.m. events came from ufologist Bruce Maccabee, who triangulated the location of the videotaped lights and found that their distance corresponded to proving grounds some 75 miles from the city 6(Bruce Maccabee) “Report on the Phoenix Lights Arrays". The Air Force also confirmed that the Maryland National Guard dropped flares there at the time of these sightings. Some diehards continue to defend the 10:00 p.m. lights as UFO events but skeptics and most ufologists alike now accept the flare explanation as the final word, so that the 8:00 p.m. sightings remain the “real” Phoenix Lights.

In contrast to the critical attention paid to the later event, ufologists largely ignored the possibility that aircraft were responsible for the earlier events. A young amateur astronomer with a ten-inch telescope and experience in viewing aircraft had looked at the formation of five lights as it flew over Phoenix and recognized that the lights were attached to the wings of aircraft 7(Tony Ortega) “The Great UFO Coverup". Skeptics Tony Ortega and Tim Printy found several other qualified witnesses who recognized the lights as military aircraft, and argued that the time it took these lights to pass from Nevada to southeastern Arizona allowed a jet-like speed of be-tween 300 and 400 m.p.h. Further evidence from the one video taken of this flight showed independent motion among the lights, meaning they were not at-tached to a rigid object. Objections that the Phoenix airport should have picked up these aircraft on radar failed because only the lead aircraft would typically carry an active transponder for this type of flight 8(Tony Ortega) “The Hack and the Quack,” (Tim Printy) “The V-formation of lights and my analysis"..

The story that skeptics construct for the Phoenix Lights states that many people were out looking for the Hale-Bopp comet during the early evening of March 13th. A flight of military aircraft caught the attention of many watchers and the word spread until large numbers of people saw something in the sky. A common illusion lent the lights an appearance that they were part of some dark solid craft. Reports of the lights on the local news drew more people out of doors, some to see normal air traffic and some, at higher altitude, to catch sight of distant flares over the Estrella Mountains. In the wake of widespread publicity over the following months and years, more and more witnesses recalled their own experiences and added them to the file of Phoenix Lights sightings, often under the influence of the accounts, videos, and illustrations that had gone before.

The ufological story of that eventful night is quite different. It runs that Arizona underwent a veritable UFO invasion on the evening of March 13, with a great many objects of varying size and shape passing over the state. The most impressive were the mile-sized “V” or chevron-shaped craft bearing lights and often flying at low level over the countryside. A few witnesses even stated that they saw jet fighters pursuing the UFOs, and the conspiracy-minded suggested that the Air Force dropped flares in a deliberate attempt to confuse the public.

Much of the public preferred the ufologists’ more exciting version. The undeniable sincerity of Tim Ley and other witnesses who related their personal experiences as moving, even life-changing events carried deep emotional resonance. Many witnesses resented the supposed assertion that they viewed flares, since they knew what flares looked like or at least knew that what they saw could not have been flares. The status of the Phoenix Lights as a mysterious UFO event has become an article of faith among ufologists, witnesses, and the lay public alike. But the hard facts remain that aircraft and flares could provide the stimulus for most of the observations and the lights for all of the videos. Some ufologists object that too many UFOs were visible that night for one flight of aircraft to explain. Yet most witnesses saw an object passing generally northwest to southeast, as a formation of aircraft might fly, but as multiple UFOs are not obligated to do. The objects flying in varied directions typically depend on the reports of individuals or small groups observing together, witnesses who might have observed something other than the aircraft flight. Though ufologists have plotted the courses of various objects with painstaking care, they have relied on accounts of times and directions that are subjective, prone to human error, and liable to be the same object different only in details cited by one witness or another. Faith in the Phoenix Lights UFO has little basis in fact.