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A Rorschach Test Over Arizona
Note: A few months after the events recounted here occurred in 1997,
Reader’s Digest magazine, at that time the mostly widely read
publication in the world, financed my two-month fulltime
investigation of the mystery acting in my role as a Roving Editor.
The magazine’s support enabled me to travel around Arizona and
interview in person, or by phone, more than 50 witnesses to the
events. I concentrated on three categories of witnesses: airline
pilots who were flying that night and flew close to the formation of
lights; air traffic controllers on duty that night; and ground
observers who used binoculars to get close-up views of the lights.)
A crystal clear night sky over Arizona revealed the panorama of the Milky Way, its multitude of stars visible as a shimmering smudge brushed from one horizon to the other. Against this backdrop on March 13, 1997, the Hale-Bopp comet appeared at the peak of its brilliance, an arc glowing low in the northwestern sky. People not normally curious or prone to sky-watching ventured outside by the thousands, peering up at this awe-inspiring celestial display. The stage was now set for one of the more unusual and widely witnessed UFO events in human history.
To James and Fawn Clemens of Kingman, Az. the fuzzy but bright amber light hanging in the northwest, just to the right of Hale-Bopp, seemed odd and out of place, as if a second comet had materialized. It was 8 p.m. and the couple, both 42 years old, stood in the yard between their house and the taxidermy shop they operate, training their binoculars on the light.
It seemed to be over Nevada’s Lake Mead and heading southeast. Instead of one light, magnification from their binoculars enabled them to discern five intense orange orbs flying in a v-shaped formation. In all their years of stargazing they had never seen anything so mystifying before.
They were not alone. As the formation of lights passed near Chino Valley and then over Prescott Valley, sighting reports began streaming into local law enforcement agencies, media outlets, the National UFO Reporting Center phone line in Seattle, Wash., and hotlines throughout Arizona maintained by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).
At 8:13 p.m. Dennis Monroe and his wife stopped their car along a residential street in Paulden, Az. when the brightness of the approaching lights attracted their attention. They got out and watched the five peach or light orange-colored orbs fly overhead, traveling south in a kite-shaped formation. Monroe, 47, a former police officer, estimated the entire formation covered a part of the sky about the size of his fist if he held it at arm’s length.
“They were the speed of helicopters and soundless. The lights were large and soft, not focused or concentrated. I thought I saw stars between the lights. We had them in sight for five minutes. Over the southern horizon they went out a few at a time, like they weren’t 360 degree lights. As a police officer I learned to control my emotions, but this got me pretty excited.”
Along Highway 89 about 90 miles north of Phoenix, Mr. and Mrs. Ross Nickle and their three children were driving north as the formation came into view. “They looked like five stars coming toward us,” Nickle related. “They changed colors from white to red. There was no sound. I’m guessing they were 1,000 feet off the ground.”
Not far away in Chino Valley, John Widener observed five white lights in a triangular pattern slowly pass to the north and east of Prescott airport, in the direction of Phoenix. Over Prescott Valley the lights were scrutinized through binoculars by at least two separate groups of comet-watchers. Ann Baker peered directly up at them passing silently above her and could see stars between the lights. “I did not see any solid mass. There were five bright, white lights in a v-shape formation. Then it actually changed formation. It was now in a half-circle with five red, bright lights.”
Michael Rainwater and three friends noticed that once they focused their binoculars on the v-formation, “what looked like white lights were actually two lights, red and green, forming one. They appeared to be about 1,000 feet in the air.”
Once the formation of lights intersected Interstate 17 they followed the heavily trafficked roadway south, a procedure often used by pilots who fly unfamiliar territory at night and navigate using Interstate highways. By 8:28 p.m., when the only known video of the formation was taped, the lights had traveled 184 miles from Kingman to the northern suburbs of Phoenix and Scottsdale, which translates to a speed of about 400 miles per hour. A contract employee with the U.S. Department of Defense caught the formation on tape for 43 seconds from his backyard in north Scottsdale. Though poor in quality, the tape does clearly show five white lights in a v-formation, with one light gradually trailing behind the others.
Simultaneous with this video recording, three other clusters of witness reports helped to establish that this formation was composed of five or more independent aircraft. MUFON investigator Alan Morey, a 36-year-old machinist, sat on the patio of his Scottsdale home with Pan Am pilot Steve LaChance. As the formation passed overhead they watched through high-powered binoculars.
“At first the lights appeared pale orange in color, but through the binoculars we could see a little red light on the port side of each of the five larger orange lights,” Morey told me. “They were five independent objects because we could see stars between them. One light was behind the others in a delta wing configuration. But then the formation tightened. The lights covered an area twice the size of my fist if I extended my arm to the sky.”
A few miles away Mitch Stanley, a 20-year-old amateur astronomer, aimed his 10-inch telescope at the v-formation and discerned that each light was actually two lights on aircraft with squared wings. “They were planes,” he would tell the Arizona Republic. “There’s no way I could have mistaken that.”
An Airline Crew of Witnesses
of Phoenix over Lake Pleasant, three pilots in the cockpit of
an America West 757 airliner, headed to Las Vegas at 17,000 feet, noticed the strange v-formation of five bright lights off to their right and slightly above them in this heavily trafficked airspace. “Hey, there’s a UFO!” co-pilot John Middleton kidded pilot Larry Campbell.
Puzzled by what they were seeing, Middleton queried the regional air traffic control center in Albuquerque, N.M. A controller radioed back that it was a flight of CT-144’s at 19,000 feet. Apparently overhearing this exchange, a pilot claiming to be part of the formation spoke up.
“We’re Canadian Snowbirds flying Tutors,” the mystery pilot radioed Middleton. “We’re headed to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.”
An air show performance team, the Snowbirds are pilots of the Canadian Air Force based at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, who fly CT-144’s, a two-seat training jet nicknamed the Tutor, which has a single landing light in its nose. Normally the Snowbirds perform at North American air shows from April through October each year.
Though this answer satisfied the America West crew, they still found the other pilot’s behavior to be unexplainable. Why are they flying in a show formation at night with their landing lights on and pointed downward? Middleton kept wondering. Why are they intentionally trying to draw attention to themselves? Based on the radio traffic Middleton subsequently overheard, these were questions on the minds of numerous commercial airline crews in the air that night.
The Lights Pass Over Phoenix
the formation of lights penetrated more deeply into the heavily
neighborhoods of Phoenix and Scottsdale, the descriptions given by witnesses underwent a profound transformation. No longer were the lights being seen as five independent objects in formation. Dozens of observers on the ground would swear, in interviews and sighting reports made in the weeks afterward, that they witnessed a single boomerang or delta shaped craft, bigger than any known plane, flying low, slow, and silent. But none of them making this claim examined the object through binoculars.
Southwest Airlines pilot Greg Aguirre and his wife were driving home from dinner in north Phoenix when she excitedly blurted, “What are those lights!?” Aguirre stopped the car and jumped out. Five lights in a v-formation passed over him at an altitude he estimated at between 3,000 and 6,000 feet. Two of his fists held at arm’s length would cover the formation. No navigation lights were visible and no matter how hard he tried to envision this as a flight of conventional aircraft, his mind recoiled from the awareness that the formation was flying much too slowly for planes, at a speed comparable to blimps. They made absolutely no noise.
“Then the next thing that struck me was why the landing lights would be pointed straight down,” Aguirre told me. With 29 years of flying experience, including a stint as an Air Force fighter pilot, Aguirre wasn’t used to “looking up in the sky and not being able to figure out what I’m seeing.”
The lights so scared Aguirre’s wife that she conjured up in her mind visions of the movie Independence Day featuring a giant alien spacecraft ominously hovering over the city. “It gave me such a creepy feeling that I immediately got back into the car and started hugging myself and getting cold chills,” she later confessed in an interview. Aguirre remained outside for about five minutes watching the lights disappear over mountains to the south. He has tried to keep an open mind about what he saw that night, yet this conclusion became inescapable: “I think what I saw was one object.”
far away, 34-year-old real estate consultant Max Saracen and
his wife, Shahla, were also driving home through an area with few street lights. They pulled to the side of the street and got out when they spotted the v-shaped formation of white lights overhead. “Oh my God, look at that!” they kept repeating to each other in stunned amazement. It seemed to be about 1,000 feet in altitude, flying silently at 20 or 30 miles per hour. Saracen says two of his fists held up to the sky would have obscured the object.
“It was a solid mass of metal, but we saw no structure. It blocked the stars out. My wife saw some humanoid shapes at some of its windows. The movie, Independence Day, went through my mind. It was very spooky, this gigantic ship blocking out the stars and silently creeping across the sky. Without a doubt, we believe it was extraterrestrial from another world.”
A dozen miles further south the lights passed over a Phoenix neighborhood which is situated at an elevation of about 1,800 feet. Laser printer technician Dana Valentine and his father, an aeronautics engineer, saw the formation over their house at a height they guessed to be no more than 500 feet. “We could see the outline of a mass behind the lights,” the younger Valentine claimed. “It was more like a gray and wavy distortion of the night sky. I know it’s not a technology the public has heard of before.”
Six blocks away in the same residential neighborhood, Tim Ley, his wife Bobbi, and their son and grandson watched in astonished awe from their front yard as the five lights seemed to float straight toward them. “By the time it got about a mile away we decided it was definitely one huge structure, because the lights were so rigidly maintaining their relative positions to each other,” Ley, a 54-year-old electronics repair shop manager, later reported. “We also noted that we still had not heard any kind of sounds. Where we live, up in this small mountain valley, we can hear the slightest engine noises from miles away. At this point, especially because of its apparent immense size and slow speed, it began to dawn upon us that this was a real UFO.”
Ley described the v-shaped structure as slightly darker than the night sky and so huge that it covered several entire neighborhood blocks, with “the length of the arm passing over us probably about 700 feet long.” He estimated that it floated at 30 miles per hour, skimming silently about 100 feet above the roof of their home.
“The kids started jumping up and down talking about how there was no sound and mentioning the movie Independence Day and exhibiting symptoms of hysteria. The kids were out in the street looking up inside in the space between the arms and pointed out to my wife and I how strangely the stars looked, almost as if looking through a very thick glass with the slight distortion of the light as it passed through. Finally, after about 13 to 15 seconds, the last light on the tip of the right arm passed slowly overhead. The diameter of the light was at least 6 or 7 feet across. As the craft moved away from us towards the southeast the kids started running down the street after the object. The light I was focused on seemed to split into two lights, one above the other. Both lights remained white but took on a slight reddish/amber caste and it seemed that I was seeing the light through a kind of transparent waviness like a mirage. We watched the object reach the gap through the mountain peaks, passing west of Squaw Peak, which is two miles southeast of our house. It went through the pass (between North Mountain and Squaw Peak) and headed out over the city. At the moment when the craft had just passed over us, I summed up all my immediate perceptions and feelings and thoughts into one conclusion: this craft was not from this world.”
To the southeast of Squaw Peak, in a residential area one mile south of Camelback Mountain, the 21-year-old daughter of Sue Watson, a boy’s school administrator, noticed the lights seemingly coming straight over the 2,704-foot tall Camelback. From the front yard she screamed to her mother, “Come quick. You won’t believe this!”
Watson dashed outside along with three of her other children. They saw seven bright, whitish lights approaching their home. “We could see the outline of the craft. We couldn’t see stars through it. It was boomerang shaped, and going slowly and soundlessly.” Watson estimated the craft to be 10 of her fists in size, its underside lit up in an amberish color. Giddiness from this sudden excitement prompted the entire Watson family to reflexively wave at the object as it went overhead, “disappearing really fast to the south.”
A few miles east of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, from his workplace in northwest Tempe, Bree Crownover and four friends noticed red/orange lights in the northern horizon on a flight path intersecting airliners traveling east to west for landing at Sky Harbor. According to Crownover, “the red/orange lights seemed to be lower in altitude and oblivious to the fact they were flying directly toward commercial aircraft traffic. They were in a v-formation, three red/orange lights in front, two red/orange lights behind and to each side. There seemed to be no ‘body’ to this aircraft, only lights. When directly overhead, it was so large it wouldn’t fit into direct vision. I had to shift my eyes to see the entire object. At this time, we realized that this was not one object, it was five or more, with one light in back trailing slightly. The lights moved slowly to the south.”
While closing a window in his bedroom, three bright, white lights attracted Mike Fortson’s attention. Thinking a plane was about to crash at Sky Harbor Airport, located 23 miles to the northwest of his Chandler home, Fortson grabbed his glasses and yelled to Nannette, his wife, “Get outside, right now!”
From the patio they viewed a boomerang-shaped object--about the size of eight of his fists held up to the sky--moving silently and slowly south. Three bright white beams of light projected from the front, trailed by five solid, non-blinking red/amber lights on the side and rear. All the lights appeared to be angled down at the ground. The craft seemed to pass under a 737 airliner in its landing approach path. Observed Fortson: “There was a bright bottom quarter moon setting in the west, and as the front of the v-shaped craft entered the light of the moon, this black chevron object became translucent. We could still see the bottom quarter moon through the object, but the moon turned a dingy yellow. As the craft exited the bright moon, it became a solid black object again, and disappeared to our south."
The impact of this sighting on Mike, 44, and Nannette, 43, proved life-altering: “This was so profoundly my most significant visual experience ever,” Mike marveled in his interview with me, “like the hand of God coming down.”
Heading South of Phoenix
Once beyond the southern suburbs of Phoenix, the formation of lights followed Interstate 10 toward Tucson. Driving north just past Casa Grande, Dr. Bradley Evans had just commented to his wife, Kris, that in 22 years as a psychiatrist and private pilot he had never seen a UFO. Without missing a beat she replied, “Well, then what is that?!” In the sky ahead of them seven bright reddish-orange glowing orbs could be seen.
As the couple, their teenage daughter, and their daughter’s friend watched, the lights changed to a yellowish-white color and moved into a diamond-shaped formation traveling south along I-10. “I had no sense at all that this was a solid object,” Dr. Evans later related. “I could see background stars between the lights. In an instant the lights were directly overhead (the car’s moon roof was open.) While our car was traveling at about 63 miles per hour, and the lights apparently moving south and east, they seemed to hold directly overhead for about five to 10 minutes, still holding formation. We could hear no aircraft engine noise whatsoever. I thought this was odd since the lights seemed to be at about 1800 feet. I could see stars immediately around the lights and within the formation itself. Not one vehicle ever pulled to the side of the highway to watch, including ourselves! And I had no desire at all to take any pictures. Psychologically this is really very strange.”
Still further along I-10, about 10 miles south of Casa Grande, Stacey Roads, her mother and daughter, and two family friends, all of Tucson, observed three orange-yellow lights heading straight for their car. “What in the hell is that?” exclaimed the car’s driver. Both girls stuck their heads out the backseat windows and began screaming, “It’s a UFO!”
Stacey Roads looked at the car clock and noted the time--8:42 p.m. Here she picks up the narrative. “The object was huge, an immense black shape. It came over the freeway, using I-10 as a map of some sort. We were under its shadow for over two minutes and we were traveling 80 miles per hour in the opposite direction. It was a huge triangular metal mass, with three lights far apart, and seams of metal on the underside. It was only a few thousand feet off the ground and this thing blotted out the stars. This thing was so big you could land planes on it. I could have held open a newspaper to the sky and not been able to block out the object. Like in the movie Independence Day, that’s how big the thing was. I couldn’t focus my camera to fit it all in, so I didn’t get a shot of it. It was headed for Tucson. All five of us are in agreement the thing was not from this planet.”
One of the last and southernmost eyewitness reports that evening came from a concrete truck driver, Gary Morris, driving north on I-10 about 80 miles outside Phoenix. “It looked to me like a flock of geese with flashlights in their mouths,” he commented dryly.
that same night, around 10 p.m., a second unusual aerial event
occurred--by coincidence or design--which would complicate attempts
to sort out the evening’s chronology. Six A-10’s from the
Maryland Air National Guard, on an annual training mission known as
Operation Snowbird, dropped high-intensity illumination flares at
15,000 feet over an Air Force gunnery range 40 miles southwest of
Phoenix. Each 1.8 million-candle-power flare was suspended from a
parachute, burned for up to 10 minutes, and could be seen clearly for
a radius of over 100 miles, creating the impression among
Phoenix-area witnesses of nine giant white objects in a chorus line
over the mountains. Numerous video camera operators recorded this
display and the tapes played repeatedly on Arizona television
stations fueling a belief in the minds of many that the v-shaped
formation seen earlier in the evening had returned.
Enigmas Inside of a Mystery
Divergent Witness Reports: Both Arizona Governor Fife Symington and Mutual UFO Network field investigator Alan Morey witnessed the lights formation around Phoenix at about the same time, yet they had fundamentally different accounts of what they saw, reflecting the division of opinion that occurred among hundreds of other witnesses.
Here is how Gov. Symington, a former Air Force pilot, described his sighting on the Larry King Live show a decade after the event happened: “I saw a craft…this large sort of delta-shaped, wedge-shaped craft moved silently over the valley, over Squaw Peak, dramatically large, very distinctive leading edge with some enormous lights. And it just went on down to the Southeast Valley…It was definitely not an airplane…I think it was from another world…It was enormous…the lights over Phoenix was a very compelling, dramatic event seen by so many people that you can’t just blow that off and say everybody in Phoenix was hallucinating.”
By contrast, Morey and his friend Steve, a Pan Am 727 airliner pilot, provided this account: “We were on my patio facing due North at 8:30 pm. We had binoculars and had been watching planes land. We saw a cluster of lights coming from the direction of the comet and moving independently. Extremely bright lights pale orange in color. Through the binoculars we could see five independent objects. We knew they were separate because we could see stars between them. They were in a delta wing configuration headed south. The whole array went over my home. We could hear nothing as they disappeared over South Mountain. My personal view is that it was a military stealth exercise from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada or Holloman Air Force Base in California.”
The Symington and Morey reports best reflect the sharp polarization which emerged among the hundreds of witness accounts from that night. People either thought they saw a gigantic vehicle visiting from another world, or else a formation of planes that was behaving oddly. A few speculated that if the lights were attached to a single huge craft, it might be an experimental military vehicle. Some UFO enthusiasts have even suggested that multiple UFO and other events were happening that night to account for the variety of craft descriptions.
Were there observers in the ‘extraterrestrial craft’ category of witnesses who trained binoculars on the lights that night? If so, I never found them. Everyone I know of who studied the lights through binoculars came away insisting that the lights were five separate objects that appeared to be planes.
The only known publicly released video recording of the lights in a v-formation, taken by a Phoenix-area contract employee with the U.S. Department of Defense, is 43 seconds in duration. I have a copy of it and have viewed it many times. It shows five bright white lights. One in the formation falls gradually behind the others, much as planes flying in formation often do.
Were Canadian Pilots Pulling a Hoax? In the radio exchange between the America West airline crew and a pilot claiming to be a part of the lights formation, which I detailed in Part One, the mystery pilot said “we’re Canadian Snowbirds flying Tutors.”
From their Canadian Forces Base in Saskatchewan, the Snowbirds, officially known as the 431st Air Demonstration Squadron, tour the North American continent from April through October performing at air shows. They fly the CT114 Tutor, a two-seat trainer. It has a single whitish-colored landing light in its nose that can be pointed downward.
To get more information, I had numerous contacts with Major Jeff Young, Chief Flying Instructor for the Snowbirds. He told me the following: “we could find no record of our jets going cross country in that time frame. We can’t find anybody in our operation who could have been responsible for the lights that people saw.” Major Young did concede that Tutor planes could have been in Arizona that night flown by pilots other than the Snowbirds performance team.
That view was echoed by Captain Mike Perry, squadron logistics officer for the Snowbirds, who mentioned that out of 100 Tutor planes at their base, it was possible that “some may have been flown to Arizona by pilots from our training school, but it was not our performance team. We don’t travel in a v-shaped formation. We travel in threes and we never fly with our landing lights on.”
Major Young also gave me these characteristics of the Tutor aircraft. Its maximum cross country speed is 420 miles per hour, but it can travel as slow as 100 mph before the engine stalls. The fuel tank range is 450 miles, with another 100 miles available by using an extra tank.
Is it a coincidence that the lights over Arizona traveled the state from northwest to southeast at an average speed of about 400 miles per hour, within the Tutor cruising speed range? Is it a coincidence that the maximum fuel tank range for the Tutor is 550 miles and that distance covers a non-stop flight from the Area 51 military facility in Nevada to the Fort Huachcua military airfield in southern Arizona, south of Tucson? I’ll delve more into that angle in a moment.
One other thing worth noting: Snowbird isn’t just the name of the Canadian air team.
Operation Snowbird was the name given a military flare drop exercise conducted later that night, after the main sighting event, over the Barry Goldwater Gunnery Range southwest of Phoenix.
Could the mysterious formation of planes have been communicating to the America West crew that they were from Canada and were participating in the Operation Snowbird exercise, if not on that night, then on subsequent nights? Rather than Tutors, might the Canadian military pilots have been flying A-10s, which was the primary aircraft being used in the Operation Snowbird exercise? Did the mystery pilots have their landing lights on and pointed down as a joke, a hoax, just to see what the American reaction would be? Or did they have another motive?
No Radar Identification? Despite having traversed the entire state of Arizona over a nearly one hour period, no civilian radar sightings of the formation were recorded, or at least released to the public.
Southwest Airlines pilot Greg Aguirre, one of the witnesses who I interviewed, pointed how planes flying above 10,000 feet would be under the jurisdiction of Albuquerque regional controllers, but if they were below 3,000 feet “they wouldn’t have to identify themselves to anybody.” The formation seemed to spend most of its flight time over Arizona at between 10,000 and 17,000 feet, according to other pilots in the air.
over Phoenix, witnesses reported the lights to be flying much lower,
at one point crossing directly over the flight path of planes landing
and taking off from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.
A controller on tower duty that night at Phoenix Sky Harbor, Bill Grava, told me that the lights didn’t show up on tower radar, nor did controllers visually see the lights, despite the fact that he and other controllers were getting numerous radio requests from other pilots in the air to identify the formation.
Furthermore, as Martin Hardy, manager of Sky Harbor Air Traffic Control, explained to me, “We’re really not sure what happened that night. Unless it was some sort of military exercise, I don’t know what it could be. They didn’t show up on our radar. But our tower radar only goes up to 3,000 feet.”
Other air traffic control towers in Prescott and elsewhere in the state, whose personnel I queried, claimed not to have observed the lights or registered anything unusual on their radar screens. If the planes had transponders, they apparently were turned off that night because no airport registered them.
My attempt to get answers about flight plans filed for what was in the air that night from officials in Albuquerque, the FAA regional center, proved frustrating. They claimed to have no records of anything unusual. An FAA official in Seattle told me that if the pilots were Canadian, they should have filed a flight plan by computer or radio at their first point of entry into the U.S., which would have been Great Falls, Montana. But there was no such documentation.
Was the formation of lights invisible to radar, much as a formation of stealth fighters might have been? Or was something else even stranger going on that could have involved intentional radar jamming?
Did Fighter Jets Intercept The Lights? There had been reports that fighter jets were scrambled that night to intercept the formation of lights. When I posed this question to officers at Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, they informed me that F-16s from the base had been sent up that evening “for night training,” which they claimed to do routinely almost every night.
Public Affairs spokesman, Senior Airman Petosky, issued this statement in response to my many persistent queries: “I can tell you flat out there was no intercept that night of any lights formation.”
But was that completely accurate? On a website called The UFO Chronicles, dated January 26, 2009, an anonymous writer nicknamed Topol-M, claiming to be a former Luke Air Force Base airman, gave a different account of Luke’s role in the sightings incident. Since this claimant is coming forward anonymously, we must treat his or her information with some caution. But elements of the story ring true for me. Here is the provocative claim.
On that March night, Luke scrambled two F-16C’s from the 56th Fighter Wing and vectored them towards Tucson. Less than 10 minutes later a second set of F-16Cs were also scrambled. Pilots from the first flight reported by radio that “something odd” was happening, but they didn’t given any specifics over the radio.
A radar sighting of the lights formation allegedly occurred north of Casa Grande, Arizona, somewhere below 10,000 feet, but the pair of jets making this contact picked up “radar clutter common to stand-off jamming.” Radar at both Luke and Davis-Monthan “were picking up low level ‘noise’ on several frequencies…this ‘noise’ was consistent with active wide-spectrum jamming.”
One pair of the jets flew all the way to the Mexican border as the lights ”passed over the outskirts of Tucson and over Fort Huachuca.” This first intercept flight of jets lost contact with the lights “approximately 7 miles south of Tucson.”
As I will explain in a moment, if this is true-- and I suspect that it is-- it’s an important and revealing piece of the puzzle because Fort Huachuca may hold the key to this entire night of mystery.
flares that were dropped around 10 pm on the Goldwater training
range, this anonymous source related, “was a deception measure”
to keep people focused on the sky because “flares were never
used that far north of the Goldwater training range…if they
were, there would be weekly Phoenix Lights incidents.”
Coincidences, or by Design?
The Light’s Flight Origin: When the first UFO sighting reports began coming in that night, the formation of lights were seen coming from the direction of Las Vegas along a commercially trafficked air corridor. Nellis Air Force Base is outside of Las Vegas. When I sent queries to base commanders about whether any planes fitting the light’s description had originated there, I was contacted by a Sgt. Covington of the public affairs office who informed me that “all our base had in the air that night were F-18s, F-15s and F-16s over Nevada on training missions. We had nothing over Arizona. But transient aircraft passing through aren’t tracked by us.”
There is, however, one other military facility in the direction from which the lights were seen coming from---the notorious Area 51 in the Nevada desert, an aircraft development and testing facility so top secret at the time that the U.S. military wouldn’t even acknowledge the air base existed to me or anyone else in the media.
The Light’s Flight Direction: Was it by coincidence or by design that the formation of lights came from the same general direction as the Hale-Bopp comet that hung brilliantly in the northwestern sky and which had already attracted the attention of thousands of skygazers that night? Numerous witnesses made the statement to me that, “it was as if the lights wanted to be seen by as many people as possible.”
The Light’s Flight Path: After following Interstate 17 south to Phoenix, the formation of lights then flew along Interstate 10 to Tucson. Does it make sense that an extraterrestrial vehicle would travel here from billions of miles away, or even from another dimension, only to land on Earth and then rely on Interstate highways for navigation?
Or does it make more sense that a group of pilots unfamiliar with the terrain and flying at night would use the line of car headlights along the easily identifiable Interstate system as a navigation tool? Or better yet, follow the Interstate system because the pilots wanted to be seen by as many people as possible?
The Light’s Destination: When the radio exchange occurred between the America West airline crew and a pilot claiming to be part of the mysterious formation of planes (lights), the mystery pilot said they were headed to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. But when I interviewed a spokesman for the base, Sgt. Deborah Van Nierop in the public affairs office, I was told: “We have no records of them landing here.”
The only other major military facility in the direction near where the lights were last reported that night is the Army’s Fort Huachuca, at the Mexican border.
Here is what we know about Fort Huachuca, based on public information that is widely available. It is located outside Sierra Vista, southeast of Tucson and south of Interstate 10, which the lights had been following. It has an airport, Libby Airfield, with three runways for military aviation.
Fort Huachuca is home to the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, which trains military intelligence personnel for all four branches of the U.S. military. The Thunderbirds performance air team trains here. It has an Electronic Proving Ground and a training center that specializes in imagery, deception, counterintelligence and electronic intelligence.
Psychological warfare tactical training occurs at Fort Huachuca.
How Could Such A Rorschach Test Work?
What I am about to provide is mere speculation on my part. No inside source or active participant has yet stepped forward, at least to me, and revealed details of how and why such a psychological warfare experiment, if that’s what it was, would be conducted on thousands of unknowing U.S. citizens.
Nor has anyone come forward to explain why, if this was just a hoax, pilots would jeopardize their careers by violating Federal Aviation Administration rules against flying at night cross-country in a show formation with their landing lights on.
Let’s start our analysis with an observation. Something stands out about what many witnesses to the incident noticed and remarked on to me. These are people who believed they had viewed a single gigantic object in the sky, but who didn’t confirm that perception through binoculars. These people are sincere. They are relating what they actually believe they saw. I have no reason to doubt them. But there is a consistent thread of a clue in their accounts that has been overlooked.
The comments made to me not long after the event happened went like this: “the mass behind the lights was more like a gray and wavy distortion of the night sky,” said witnesses Dana Valentine and his father.
“In the space between the arms, I pointed out to my wife how strangely the stars looked, almost as if looking through a very thick glass with the slight distortion of the light as it passed through,” remarked witness Tim Ley.
“It seemed that I was seeing the light through a kind of transparent waviness, like a mirage,” Ley further observed.
“There was a bright bottom quarter moon setting in the west, and as the front of the v-shaped craft entered the light of the moon, this black chevron object became translucent,” said witness Mike Fortson. “We could still see the bottom quarter moon through the object, but the moon turned a dingy yellow.”
An obvious question arises. Was this single object image a projection?
Let’s examine the most prosaic explanation first.
To get a sense of our natural perceptual limitations as human beings, I interviewed an expert in this area, Dr. Barry Byerstein, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. (He has since died.) He made these observations about how normal people react when they see something new to their experience which they can’t identify or rationally explain:
“The brain is always trying to create a model of reality. We all have the tendency to fill in details. Even highly trained and experienced people can make bad guesses and errors about size and distance. The limbic system of the brain screens information and matches it with experience, so we seek validation for our worldview and cosmology. Groups of people often come to a consensus about what was seen based on adopting the perspective of one influential member of the group.”
Continued Dr. Byerstein: “Our perceptual experience is a construction. It’s not like a video camera. The process of perception is a creative act affected by our prior experience and hopes and cultural conditioning. Human memory doesn’t store a literal videotape of events. It stores summary statements and a few important details. Memory is more like the village storyteller than a tape recorder.”
Factoring these observations into the sensory experience people had that night, we have two important details to work with:
1) The lights or object was absolutely silent. On this point, all witnesses were in agreement. There was no engine noise. There wasn’t even a swooshing sound. This could have happened if the lights were much higher in altitude than the witnesses thought.
2) Once over the Phoenix area, the movement of the object or lights appeared very slow, more like that of a blimp than planes whose engines could have stalled at low speeds. Some witnesses had the lights in view for up to ten minutes. Again, this could have happened if the object or lights flew much higher in altitude than people perceived.
What could have distorted witness perceptions? Maybe it was atmospheric conditions. Though the skies were said to be crystal clear over most of Arizona, there was a haze from pollution reported over and around Phoenix. Could that have produced enough of an atmospheric filter to warp people’s perceptions of sight and sound?
The pattern of evidence points us in another direction.
Holographic Deception Technology Breakthrough
During my interviews in and around Phoenix, I met with Mutual UFO Network field investigator Richard Motzer who was the first to offer this speculation: “the event might have been a military exercise creating holographic images, which would explain why the description varies so much on the object seen that night.”
But was such a deception even technologically feasible?
We know that military breakthroughs in technology usually occur a decade or more before civilian applications begin to appear. That’s one of the advantages the military has with generous taxpayer funding of its secret ‘black ops’ projects.
During the first decade of the 21st century, we began to see some of these advances in holographic research receive attention in science journals. An edition of Science Daily (June 15, 2005) carried an article summarizing science papers that had appeared in Optics Express and other specialized journals showing how a laser-based holographic system works in practice. One example given in the article of how this technology can be applied was the holographic image of circling fighter jets projected to a point in space
Artist Hiro Yamagata creates large-scale holographic works in the sky with lasers. Photo credit: Flickr.com
Two military projects to create holographic projectors for psychological warfare purposes have been brought to my attention that add weight to the idea that the March 13, 1997 sightings of a large aerial vehicle over Arizona may have been part of a psychological warfare experiment.
One project was underway and the other in discussion stages during 1996, a full year before the UFO sightings over Arizona occurred. (Please refer to my previous two columns on this site making the case that the Arizona Lights phenomenon might have been holographic in nature, conducted out of a psychological warfare testing range based at an Army intelligence center in southeastern Arizona.)
The first holographic project originated at the Army Research Lab at Adelphi, Maryland. Coincidence or not, it was the Maryland Air National Guard which dropped the flares around 10 p.m. on March 13, seen widely in the Phoenix area, that served to confuse the situation about whether the UFOs were planes, flares, or a single huge object.
Titled "A 3-D Holographic Display," this November 1996 progress report for the Army Research Lab discussed research and development of "an innovative technique for generating a three dimensional holographic display...the resultant image is a hologram that can be viewed in real time over a wide perspective or field of view." (Accession number: ADA338490.) As with most military intelligence studies that leak into the public domain, this one gives no significant clues about the extent to which this technology is really operational.
A second project, or proposal, from May 1996, titled "A Research Paper Presented to Air Force 2025," makes a case for the development of an airborne holographic projector to display a three-dimensional hologram for optical deception and psychological warfare. This report was authored by three military officers, including Lt. Col. Jack A. Jackson, PhD., AFIT. The extent to which this proposal was based on developments already underway, or just a flight of futuristic fantasy by the authors, is unknown.
Still a third report, this one civilian, on the potential of holographic technology was prepared by Dr. David Watt for the Nonlethal Technology Innovations Center at the University of New Hampshire in the early part of this century. It examined "Holograms As Nonlethal Weapons," and the costs and challenges of developing such technologies.
Over the years I had heard rumors from civilian and military types that the technology necessary to project three-dimensional images to a point in space had been tested at Fort Huachuca and elsewhere during the 1990s. But until the Arizona Lights event in 1997, there had been no clear evidence that these electrical optical and laser devices had been used to target a civilian population to test their reactions to unusual phenomena.
You can imagine how such technology might be useful to the military as a psychological warfare terror weapon. If you can fool an enemy into believing what they are seeing is an extraterrestrial spacecraft rather than U.S. military craft, you can manipulate their will and ability to effectively resist. Holographic deception in a battlefield situation can provide all sorts of tactical advantages.
Illusions in the sky can be silent and made to appear huge, slow moving, or even motionless. Such a holographic effect might appear to witnesses at times as a ‘wavy distortion’ in the sky, or a ‘mirage,’ or ‘translucent.’ You will recognize all of these descriptions as being among what many witnesses reported the night that five lights over Arizona appeared to be a single huge aerial craft.
Through The Looking Glass
Those mystery pilots responsible for the five lights morphing into the image of a single gigantic craft were using a convenient cover story.
When queried by other pilots or air controllers about their odd behavior, they claimed to be ‘Snowbirds,’ which was left open to interpretation. Their statement could have been interpreted to mean they were from the Canadian Snowbirds air show team, which, of course, they weren’t. Or their statement could have been interpreted to mean they were participating with the Snowbirds military exercise later that night dropping flares over a gunnery range outside of Phoenix. They didn’t do that either.
These pilots apparently engaged in radar jamming so that none of the civilian or even Air Force control towers could identify them.
It was a deviously clever move if the flare drop was intentionally timed to sow further confusion about what really happened that night. The ruse succeeded on that score because numerous videos of the flare drop were paraded around for months afterwards as a UFO event in their own right.
Once expert analysis exposed the videos as recording nothing but flares, that finding made it easier for cynics to pounce and dismiss everything happening that evening, including the mysterious five lights, as simple observer error and a product of hysteria and wishful thinking.
What happened over Arizona on the night of March 13, 1997 deserves to be enshrined in our collective memory. Though it wouldn’t be the first time that an intelligence agency of government used its citizenry as unsuspecting guinea pigs, it would be the opening chapter of a Brave New World in which our consensus reality is no longer in the eye of the beholder.
Tragic Aftermath of the Deception
Eleven days after the Arizona Lights event occurred, the 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult committed suicide by poisoning themselves at their spacious rented home outside San Diego, California. They believed that a spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet had made its appearance, as evidenced by what had happened over Arizona, and the extraterrestrial craft would rescue their souls for a glorious return to the stars.
Less than three weeks after the Arizona Lights phenomenon, Captain Craig Button, 32 years old, flying out of Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on a training mission over the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range, the base where the flare dropping A-10 planes had come from, flew his A-10 Thunderbolt fighter 800 miles off course and then intentionally crashed it into a Colorado mountain.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations later reported that Button had been visited in Tucson by his parents soon after the Arizona sightings and they had discussed the coming end of the world and then prayed together. "Capt. Button intended to die or be rescued by divine intervention of God at the last moment," the report concluded.
month after Captain Button's suicide, Captain Amy Svoboda,
29-years old, also flying an A-10 jet out of Davis-Monthan, crashed
her fighter into the desert of southwestern Arizona. Circumstances
surrounding her death remain a mystery.