By Brian Thompson
I. The Setup
Arizona (state motto: “Yeah, but it’s a dry heat”) seems to be a black hole of nonsense brokers and woo-mongers. Sure, there may be a couple of exceptional Arizonans who possess critical thinking skills and, say, run female-friendly science fiction entertainment websites, but I’ve never been one to shy away from sweeping generalities. As such, all Arizonans are borderline insane, just as all Chinese people can fly.
In the Spring of 1997, when several mysterious lights appeared in the night sky over Phoenix, there was already a credulous UFO culture hiding in their desert spider holes itching to pounce. I’m not talking about your everyday believer here. These aren’t people like you or me who may accept the possibility of visitors from another planet. No, these are the ones who weave their own dream catchers, iron MUFON patches to their tote bags, and maintain regular contact with their imaginary friends. My point is this: If you’re already seeing auras, it’s not too big a leap to see giant spaceships hovering over your head.
No less a source than Dateline: NBC, home of the world’s top predator catchers, dubbed the Phoenix Lights “the #1 UFO event caught on tape.” This may be true, though I think a good case could also be made for that clip of Michael Jackson jetpacking away from an outdoor concert, as his exact nature baffles scientists to this day.
So what did people see glowing over Phoenix that fateful eve?
Planes and flares.
Am I sure?
Would I like to buy a spirit crystal?
II. The Findings
How could so many people think they saw a giant, black, triangular spacecraft hovering over their hotter than hell city and all be mistaken? Well, it’s important to realize that several people didn’t claim to see any such thing at all. The first reports from Phoenix after the evening of March 13, 2007 were only of lights seen either moving slowly near the ground or hovering high in the air in a “V” shape. Only later did these reports transform into elaborate science fiction stories about men who come to Earth from other planets. This is where Phoenix’s culture of insanity comes in. When your state is home to the world’s foremost psychic training facility, you have to expect some wild imaginations. It’s suspicious at best that as time went on, the supposed eyewitness accounts became more and more outlandish. Dr. Lynne Kitei (pictured here feeling just super, author of The Phoenix Lights, director of the documentary of the same name, and crazy person) claims that the lights later appeared at her house—hovering in front of her and imparting her with spirit messages. To explain the fact that various reports disagree on the number and even the color of the lights, at least one UFO researcher has even claimed that each individual sighting was of a different craft.
When we talk about the Phoenix Lights, we’re actually talking about two events. The first was a “V” shaped formation of lights observed to be flying from Prescott to Phoenix and then on to Tucson between 8:15pm and 8:45pm. The distance and timeframe tell us that these lights were traveling at about 400 miles per hour. To date, there is only one video of this event and no photographs. The video is useless, however, since there aren’t any points of reference (trees, horizon) by which to judge the height or speed of the lights. You also can’t tell from the video whether there was a black shape between the lights blocking out the stars, since the stars aren’t visible when videotaping the sky anyway.
While there are some witnesses who say these lights moved silently and close to the ground, it’s nearly impossible to accurately judge altitude with the naked eye. Again, there are no points of reference in the open air, and spots of light can appear to be at any number of heights. As for the silence, there are several other witnesses who reported hearing the sound of airplane engines as the lights passed. Mitch Stanley, an amateur astronomer, was interviewed for the Phoenix New Times and said that he spotted the planes with his 10-inch Dobsonian telescope. His mother backs up his story, but she could very well be working for the Illuminati-Freemasonic conspiracy. Or she just loves her sweet little boy.
Air National Guard pilot Lt. Col. Ed Jones (I can call him “Ed” because I don’t know him and am disrespectful) says that he was the pilot of one of the A-10 Warthogs flying in formation as part of a training mission at the time. His account is backed up by the Maryland Air National Guard, which identified the planes as belonging to the 104th Fighter Squadron. But, really, can anyone trust the military? I mean, these are the same people that “won” World War II. Please.
Eddie also confirmed what most actual journalists (i.e. non-ufologists) already determined about the second event in the Phoenix Lights duology. As they passed over Phoenix, the 104th released slow burning flares, which remained in the air in the original “V” formation until they burned out. It’s this second event of which there are so many videos and photographs, since the whole area was on alert after the passing of the original planes. Over time, these events have been merged in the delusion-addled minds of those who would profit on the incident’s non-mystery (*ahem*lynnekitei*ahem*). They claim that the first formation actually came to a stop over Phoenix and hovered there. This is simply wrong, as several people in Tucson reported seeing the formation after the hovering lights appeared near Phoenix.
If you look at the pictures and video of the second set of lights, you can see what appears to be a dark area between them. This isn’t evidence of a physical craft so much as it is a perfect example of a common optical illusion. When you look at a bright object—especially one in the night sky—your eye has to adjust for exposure, just like a camera aperture. As a result, the area around the bright object appears darker than it really is. You can see the same effect in photographs of the Earth from space. The brightness of the Earth blackens the space around it, so you can’t see any stars. That doesn’t mean the Earth is embedded in the middle of some giant black disc, just as dark space between the Phoenix lights doesn’t mean there’s a spaceship there.
But the best evidence that these lights are flares (besides the fact that Lt. Col. Eddie, you know, dropped flares in the same place at the same time) can be seen as they fall. They appear to wink out one by one, but by comparing video shot from the same angle during the day, you can see that they disappear exactly as you would expect if they were simply falling below the horizon of the Sierra Estrella mountain ridge southwest of Phoenix. Add to this the fact that people at higher elevations saw the lights for a longer time than those at lower elevations, and you have a pretty obvious case of false identification. Either that, or aliens decided to travel interstellar distances to hover over a city in the middle of the night and blink lights at us. Which, I suppose, is possible.
III. The Conclusion
In March of 2007, former Arizona governor Fife Symington III (kind of a disappointment after the best Fife Symington, Fife Symington II: The Wrath of Khan) said that he believed the lights were a UFO. This despite the fact that he ridiculed the idea immediately after they happened, even though he later claimed that he had seen the craft with his own eyes. You might wonder why the UFO nuts would embrace Symington’s testimony now when they rejected his testimony at the time. You have to understand that when they aren’t unfolding their card tables at conventions and dealing with their vanity presses, they spend most of their time grasping at straws. Symington also claims that all the military officials he asked about the lights were “perplexed”, though that seems to contradict the reality that the Air Force explained the lights as flares.
But when has a ufologist ever worried about contradicting reality?
About The Amateur Scientist: Brian Thompson is a professor of amateur science at a major imaginary university and a regular blogger at CHUD. He has been able to read and write for over seventeen years.
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