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The Phoenix Lights

With credible reports of the sightings by hundreds of witnesses, this UFO phenomenon has proven difficult to disprove.

The Phoenix Lights

Of all the places to catch a glimpse of a UFO, Arizona is one the most likely, at least according to local lore. Over the years, it has regularly ranked in the top 10 states for UFO sightings per capita, though such statistics should be eyed with some skepticism. 

Still, the reports are real, and on one exceptionally busy night, March 13, 1997, 25 years ago now, law enforcement agencies across the state fielded hundreds of calls from witnesses who reported seeing strange lights in the Arizona sky. 

What would, over time, come to be known as the Phoenix Lights were first reported near Henderson, Nevada, starting at around 8:15 p.m. local time. Observers there and in northern Arizona reported a large group of amber-colored lights moving together in a V-shaped formation. Later that evening, around 10 p.m. local time, scores of witnesses in the Phoenix area reported seeing a group of lights hovering silently overhead in a wide arc, moving slowly, and occasionally disappearing and reappearing. 

The mysterious Phoenix Lights seemed to defy explanation. Even self-proclaimed skeptics reported the phenomenon was so extraordinary that they became ardent believers that what they had seen was not of earthly origin. 

Speculation about UFOs, as well as allegations of conspiracy theories and hoaxes, grew around the event, spawning investigations, websites, books and documentaries. Even the governor, Fife Symington III, gave some credence to the stories, holding a press conference with a guest appearance of an alien (or at least a human in an alien costume) to reveal the true source of the lights—if only in jest. 

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The Phoenix Lights became part of local legend, with renewed interest and debate resurfacing on each anniversary of the sightings. Then, more than a decade after the first sightings, the lights returned. What were they? Where did they come from? Was it military activity? An elaborate hoax? Or could it be an extraterrestrial presence?

Possible Hoax?

After the April 12, 2008, reappearance of the lights, a Phoenix resident claimed his neighbor was responsible and that he had tied flares to helium balloons and launched them from his backyard. A police helicopter pilot who had witnessed this event acknowledged this could be a plausible explanation. The man responsible chose to remain anonymous. No additional explanation was provided, and there were no repeated attempts. 

Fleet of Aircraft?

The V-shaped arrangement of the lights in the initial 1997 reports would seem to indicate a group of aircraft flying in formation. Scottsdale, Arizona, resident Mitch Stanley, who was out exploring the skies with his telescope that night, reported seeing a group of aircraft with square-shaped wings. Another man out stargazing that night claimed that he saw a fleet of Cessnas flying in formation cross through the view in his telescope. As entertaining as it would be to discover that a flock of Skyhawks gathered to stage the event, it seems nearly impossible because they would have had to fly through Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s Class B airspace and navigate the complex labyrinth of military airspace to the west and south of Phoenix. Additionally, the familiar hum of a Lycoming engine would give away the secret that the supposed alien craft was merely a Cessna or fleet of them. 

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Top-Secret Military Aircraft? 

Could it be that the lights were some new, top-secret military aircraft? Perhaps a larger version of the B-2 bomber or even a huge, mile-long blimp? The military and its contractors have top-secret projects going at any given time. However, despite varied speculation about this potential source of the Phoenix Lights, the military has denied it. In the 20-plus years since the sightings, no evidence of new aircraft of a design or scale that would fit the descriptions provided by witnesses has come to light.

UFO?

The most popular and intriguing explanation to emerge is that the lights were emitted by extraterrestrial spacecraft. Some observers, especially those reporting earlier in the evening in the north, described the lights moving in unison in a distinctive V-shaped formation. Based on these accounts, many believe that an alien aircraft shaped like a carpenter’s square overflew the area that evening. 

Witnesses seeing the lights later in the evening and farther south reported more of an arc shape of the lights. Many also stated they felt the presence of a large, dark-colored object blocking out the sky as it moved silently overhead at a low altitude. They added that some of the lights would occasionally disappear as the craft maneuvered and changed direction. 

Warthogs?

When first contacted, representatives at Luke Air Force Base initially reported no unusual activity that night. However, they had apparently not considered all the activity in the area. Lieutenant Colonel Ed Jones of the Maryland National Guard later reported that his unit of A-10s had been active in the area that night and dropped several flares from a high altitude.

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The Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the Warthog, is a low-level attack aircraft. Its squared wings and H-tail empennage give it a boxy profile that matches the witness reports of a group of square-winged aircraft. If the A-10s were flying a wedge or echelon formation at higher altitudes, they would appear as lights moving in a V-shape, and the sound of their engines would be muted. 

After the aircraft had returned to their base, the flares they dropped would linger for some time afterward. The brilliant flares can be seen at great distances and move silently with the wind as they slowly drift downward. Historical weather data from that night indicates stations in Phoenix and surrounding areas reported winds out of the north and west, which coincides with direction of movement (to the south and east) of the large arc of lights. 

As for reports of lights disappearing and reappearing, while the flares slowly drifted with the winds, they likely drifted behind peaks of the Sierra Estrella Mountains to the southwest of Phoenix. In the darkness, viewers would not be able to discern the mountains. Depending on the vantage point, the flares passing behind the peaks would appear to disappear and reappear as they emerged on the far side. 

What some witnesses perceived as a massive object blanking out a large part of the sky could have been due to an optical illusion. Bright lights at night, with few other lights illuminating the area, create the illusion of being closer than the actual distance to the observer. Remember those night landing illusions from your private pilot training? This could account for the feeling of a large object overhead that many witnesses reported. 

Conclusion

Despite the logical earthly explanations for the phenomena, the mystery of the Phoenix Lights persists. Some witnesses will never be satisfied that it could be due to anything but extraterrestrial activity. Local media sparks renewed interest about the lights with follow-up stories on anniversaries of the event, and the debate continues. Whatever the explanation, the Phoenix Lights have become a part of the local culture. Roswell may have its aliens, but Phoenix knows how they got here.

Read more Mysteries of Flight articles with “Why Were KC-135 Tankers Exploding?” here.

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