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Phoenix Lights

A screenshot from a news programme, showing a still of the Phoenix Lights of 1997. It shows 6 lights in an arc

On March 13, 1997, there were multiple sightings of a series or formation of lights, or unidentified flying objects, over Arizona and Nevada. Dubbed the "Phoenix Lights", or the "Lights Over Phoenix", this event is best known for the multiple pieces of footage of a series of lights seemingly hovering over the cities of Phoenix and Tuscon, but some sightings were also of a flying V-shape of lights that passed over the state. There are some obvious similarities here to the 1951 Lubbock Lights.

The very first recorded sighting of the Phoenix Lights was on March 13, 1997. The Hale-Bopp comet was expected to be passing overhead at the time, and so there were many people watching the skies in hopes of catching a glimpse of it that evening. A witness in Henderson, Nevada, caught more than that, however, when he reported seeing a "large, V-shaped object" traveling southeast at around 7:55 pm MST. Approximately 20 minutes later, at 8:15 pm, a former police officer reported seeing a cluster of reddish-orange lights moving across the sky and disappearing over the southern horizon. Next, lights were seen over Prescott Valley, Arizona, by multiple witnesses, including Tim Ley and several members of his family.

The Ley's sighting began as a tiny arc of five white lights, low and slow in the southeast. Tim Ley thought they were military helicopters at first, but the lights didn't change formation for 15 minutes, which led him to believe that the lights were in fact part of one rigid structure. As it got closer, the Leys were able to see it outlined against the stars in the evening sky - "a dark, sharp-edged shape like a carpenter's square with an angle of 60 degrees" The five lights appeared to be six or seven feet in diameter and were described as having "a soft whiteness that did not illuminate the ground." Ley estimated that one arm of the craft was 700 feet long, and the entire craft was said to be so large that the family had to turn their heads to see all of it as it passed overhead. Its speed was estimated as being around 30 MPH - slow enough that the younger Leys wanted to chase it in their car.

The Ley family's sighting was later depicted in CGI pictures created by combining digital photos of the landscape where the lays saw the lights, and computer drawings based on their recollections of what they believed they had seen. Tim Ley claimed that the lights flew directly over them in complete silence. He also described the lights as actually being part of a massive V-shaped craft, several blocks wide. His wife Bobbi also confirmed this, saying that the size of the craft, in combination with its absolute silence as it passed overhead, was "overwhelming". The Leys were, of course, just a few of the many witnesses to the Phoenix Lights that night, but they are considered to be "very important" because of how close they apparently were to the craft. Other witnesses in the Prescott area also reported seeing a V or chevron-shaped object, described as "huge" and comprised of between four and seven lights.

An image of a picture from a newspaper showing an artist's impression of what Tim Ley, his family, and several others saw on March 13, 1997. It shows a black v-shaped object with five lights, evenly spaced, against the evening sky.

The next sighting took place between 8:30 - 8:45 pm when witnesses in Glendale, Arizona (southwest of Phoenix) saw a light formation pass overhead. The lights were high enough that they were obscured by thin clouds as they moved through the sky.

Finally, at around 10 pm a very large number of people across the Phoenix area saw what was described as "a row of brilliant lights hovering in the sly, or slowly falling." Photographs and video footage were captured by numerous people, from several different areas. The footage would show six to nine lights in an arc pattern in the sky. The lights hung in mid-air for some time before winking out one by one, and the sightings continued throughout the evening until past midnight. The total number of people who claimed to have witnessed the Phoenix Lights could have been as many as 10,000.

One of the witnesses of the 10 pm lights was William F Hamilton, a field investigator for MUFON (Mutual UFO Network), and he interviewed several witnesses and wrote the first article on the Phoenix Lights to be published in ufology literature (published in the May 1997 edition of the MUFON UFO Journal).

Some of the other witnesses' reports on the night included:

  • two comet-watchers at Kingsman saw a "fuzzy light" in the sky, which binoculars revealed to be five intense lights in a v formation.

  • Six people in the Prescott Valley area saw a soundless v-shaped object with five lights fly overhead.

  • A driver near Phoenix saw a "v formation of independent lights" flying low and slow, akin to birds flying.

  • A Scottsdale man saw five bright lights in a row pass over his house; he thought the lights were part of a solid object until one of the lights moved out of position.

  • A witness traveling from Phoenix to Prescott saw a light that became three, then five; at its closest, he saw a chevron bearing five clusters of three lights each.

  • An airline pilot saw five lights - each consisting of two lights - over Sky Harbour Airport. They did not see anything solid connecting the lights.

  • Two witnesses in Phoenix saw what they at first thought was a line of aircraft approaching the airport; looking closer, it turned out to be an object half a mile long, v-shaped, and with multiple lights, moving at 15-20 MPH.

  • Another two witnesses saw a "triangular black craft the length of three-five airliners."

  • Two Phoenix residents saw seven bright lights on a boomerang-shaped craft, "ten fists in size".

  • A driver between Phoenix and Tuscon saw three bright lights project from a black chevron; it also seemed to be carrying several smaller lights behind it

  • Another driver heading towards Tuscon saw a black triangle with five-seven lights pass overhead: "Opening a newspaper to the sly would not be large enough to cover it."

  • The actor Kurt Russell was flying a plane over the area when he sighted "six lights over the airport in absolute uniform in a V shape."

A Google Map with several points marked on it, marking a number of the sightings of the Phoenix Lights from March 13, 1997, as well as plotting their estimated course across the area.
Map plotting several of the sightings of the Phoenix Lights on March 13, 1997

There were many other reports of lights and objects in the sky over Arizona that night, but most of them fell outside of the timeframe or area where the primary sightings of the Lights were seen or were over-excited sightings of something else entirely. As it was, Hamilton managed to sort the various sightings into seven types. Of these seven, the most widely-reported type was the v formation of five-seven lights that moved from Las Vegas, to Prescott Valley, to Phoenix, and then to Oracle and Tuscon. The second was the arc of lights seen over the city from 10 pm onwards. Further investigation helped to consolidate many of the sightings, as it became clear that many people had in fact sighted the same object or lights, but from different positions.

As the media became aware of the events, footage of the lights was shown over and over on TV and the story started to get bigger and bigger. Arizona Governor Fife Symington III held a press conference to announce that they "found who was responsible". He then brought out an aide dressed in a "Grey" alien costume. In 2007, Symington admitted that he had actually witnessed an "enormous delta-shaped object with lights" on the night of the Phoenix Lights sightings. "I don't know why people would ridicule it," he said.

As the investigation into the Phoenix Lights began, attention logically turned to the nearby Luke Air Force Base. It was probably expected that they would deny all knowledge of the event, but they ended up going a bit Private Baldrick and denying everything, including claiming that no one had even contacted them to enquire about the lights. After this backfired quite spectacularly on them, they finally admitted that a flight of A-10 Warthogs had dropped flares at 10 pm, at proving grounds about 75 miles from Phoenix. Later that year, the Maryland National Guard confirmed that they had jettisoned unused flares at approximately 15,000 feet that night. For reference, the LUU2B/B illumination flares that were used at the time are rated as having 1.8 x 10(6) candlepower, or 1,800,000 candlepower. The average car headlight is capped at 75,000 candlepower. On the other end of the scale, the searchlight on top of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas is estimated to be about 9,129,000,000 candlepower.

Another MUFON investigator, Richard F Motzer, looked at all the video footage of the 10 pm lights and plotted their relative directions. He found that they all converged on a point beyond the Estrella Mountains. If flares had been dropped in this area as a result of a training exercise, their disappearance or "winking out" could be explained by them slowly falling behind the mountain peaks.

Bruce Maccabee, a noted optical physicist and ufologist, also looked at the 10 pm sightings, triangulating the distance of the lights. He also found that they corresponded to the military test area where the flares were reportedly dropped on March 13.

A still from a press conference held by Governor Fife Symington III regarding the Phoenix Lights. Standing to the right of the podium is an individual dressed in an alien costume, with a comically oversized head and hands, pretending to be embarrassed at the situation.

The other group of sightings, the so-called "8 pm sightings" were somewhat more difficult to analyze and explain; they had taken place over a longer period of time, over a distance of as much as 400 miles, and had many different witness descriptions - from lights in the sky to massive, mile-wide craft that blotted out the stars as it moved through the sky. The Air Force's initial denials that there had been anything in the skies at all that night didn't help matters either. The prevailing theory was still that it had been a formation of military aircraft that had been responsible for these sightings, but there were still a sizable number of people who, to paraphrase Fox Mulder, "wanted to believe".

One piece of evidence to support the "military aircraft" theory came from Mitch Stanley, an amateur astronomer who not only had experience in observing passing aircraft, but a quite sizable telescope as well. He too had observed the 8 pm formation from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona through his telescope, and had seen each light to actually be a pair of lights attached to the wings of aircraft. Furthermore, video footage taken by another witness showed that the rear-most light on one side of the formation was lagging somewhat, and the arms of the "V" were bowing outwards slightly - things that would not have been possible if the lights were being held together by a rigid frame. Finally, the crew of an American West airliner also saw the lights and were told by Air Traffic Control that they belonged to a flight of CT-144s.

Kanizsa's triangle, an example of the "contour effect"
Kanizsa's triangle

But what could have caused so many people to see several aircraft flying in formation as one massive object? One explanation is something called the contrast effect. This is an effect where an area around an object can seem brighter or darker depending on the brightness of the object itself: in this case, the bright lights of the formation made the night sky around them seem darker than it actually was. (Incidentally, it's not limited to vision - if you've ever taken a drink of something cold right after eating ice cream and wondered why it doesn't seem as cold as you'd expected, that's the contrast effect at work.) There is also something called a "contour illusion", which is a visual illusion where a shape or edge is perceived by an observer because the mind sees aligned but separate objects or lights, and feels a need to connect them. So the lights from five aircraft flying at night can become one huge v-shaped craft.

The lights seemed to make a return in 2007 and 2008, but were determined to be (in 2007) flares dropped during training (again) and (in 2008) flares attached to helium balloons released from a resident's backyard.

The Phoenix Lights have been described as "perhaps the most widely witnessed UFO incident in history," and it quite clearly was an important, maybe even life-changing event for many of its witnesses as well. The initial response on the part of the authorities to deny anything had occurred, then mock witnesses with a joke press conference did absolutely nothing to help matters and, most likely, make those who believed in an otherworldly explanation for the Lights only grow more stubborn and unwilling to believe the (sadly) down to earth explanations given. Who knows - perhaps it really was an alien craft and not a combination of flares, terrestrial aircraft, and optical illusions that were seen that night. But until more compelling evidence of that comes out, the explanation with the most evidence is the explanation we should accept.


Phoenix Lights (Wikipedia)

Clark, Jerome, The UFO Encyclopedia: The Phenomena From the Beginning (Third Edition), Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2018.

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