The second segment of the second episode of Discovery Canada's reality-challenged series Close Encounters served up the famous Arizona Flying Triangle, the first half of the famous Phoenix Lights episode of March 13, 1997. (Most accounts of these incidents conflate the two of them. One hearty cheer for Close Encounters for keeping them separate!)
|The triangle, as depicted in Close Encounters. Most observers reported five lights. I counted 33 here.|
The story as told depicts peoples' descriptions of the supposed "triangle," and their reactions to it. The Talking Heads in this segment were David Marler, former MUFON state director for Illinois, and Larry Lowe, described as a "journalist, pilot and witness." Neither is terribly well-known in UFOlogy, although Marler is a scheduled speaker for the forthcoming International UFO Congress near Scottsdale, Arizona, which I will be attending. Marler called this case "unique" because, he said, we have potentially thousands of eyewitnesses. But that means very little. Many people had gone outdoors to watch the bright comet Hale-Bopp, which was then near its greatest brightness. Clearly something flew over Arizona that evening between approximately 8:00 and 9:00, but the number of people who saw it adds nothing to its significance.
The episode tells of several witnesses' reactions to the strange, noiseless lights. The Johnson family thinks that the object "seems to be sending a transmission" to them, a "personal communication" from whatever "intelligence" is inside the object. Wow!
What did all of these people see? As investigative reporter Tony Ortega wrote in "The Great UFO Cover-up" in the Phoenix New Times on June 26, 1997, about three months after the incident, "Scottsdale resident Mitch Stanley knows what the March 13 "UFO" was. But will anyone listen?" Mitch Stanley, then 21, was outside observing with his ten-inch reflecting telescope. Because the Dobsonian mount of his telescope moves flexibly and freely, he was able to examine the lights under magnification. He clearly saw that they were airplanes: “What looked like individual lights to the naked eye actually split into two under the resolving power of the telescope. The lights were located on the undersides of squarish wings, Mitch says.” Stanley tried to give his account to reporters and local politicians who were making big deal out of the sightings, but nobody paid any attention to him, until he finally spoke to Ortega.
Later the retired Air Force Major and UFO skeptic James McGaha interviewed Stanley at length. Stanley was not familiar with the appearance of the A-10 aircraft, but the description he gave left McGaha with no doubt that he had seen a flight of A-10 Warthogs, a plane that McGaha worked with at Davis-Monthan AFB. These aircraft are used by Air National Guard units across the U.S. McGaha notes that the A-10 is the quietest jet that the Air Force has, so it is not surprising that many witnesses heard nothing.
|A-10 aircraft flying in formation|
UFO Skeptic Tim Printy found and interviewed yet another observer whose account has been ignored by UFO proponents. Rich Contry was driving west that evening on I-40 north of Prescott, and observed the objects in 10x50 binoculars:
I was on my way from Flagstaff to Laughlin Thursday when I saw the light formation reported on the radio the other night. I'm a pilot and was in the U.S. Air Force 4 years. Being in the mountains on highway 40, the night was clear and still. As the formation came towards me I stopped my car and got out with my binocs to check out what this was. As it came towards me, I saw 5 aircraft with their running lights (red and green) and the landing lights (white) on. They were also flying fairly slow and in the delta formation. As they went over me I could see stars going between the aircraft so it could not have been one large ship. The flying was like that of the Blue Angels or the thunderbirds demo team. Also as they went by their jets were not very loud because of the low throttle setting for flying slow but I did hear the jets as they went away towards the south.
Tim Printy has a great deal of information about this incident in his webzine SUNlite2_3.
In fact, there is even a video in existence of the "triangle," taken by Terry Proctor. In its 43-second length it clearly shows the motion of the objects with respect to each other. In other words, despite some observers’ impressions, what flew over was not a single solid object, but five unconnected lights flying in formation.
|four frames from the Proctor video, showing actual positions of the five objects (lines added). Ironically, this screen cap is from a Discovery Channel (U.S.) program, "UFOs Over Phoenix."|
But what aircraft were they? According to a May 1999 Reader’s Digest article by Randy Fitzgerald, "UFOs – A Second Look,"
At 8:30 p.m. the cockpit crew of an American West 757 airliner at 17,000 feet near Lake Pleasant, Ariz., noticed the lights off to their right and just above them.
"There's a UFO!" co-pilot John Middleton said kiddingly to pilot Larry Campbell. They queried the regional air-traffic-control center in Albuquerque, N.M. A controller radioed back that it was a formation of CT-144s flying at 19,000 feet.
Overhearing the exchange, someone claiming to be a pilot in the formation radioed Middleton. "We're Canadian Snowbirds flying Tutors," a man said... [Fitzgerald later added] “We’re headed to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.”
(I knew Fitzgerald when I was living in the Washington, DC area. I did a few articles for him for a new magazine called Second Look, that was supposed to be an objective look at the UFO phenomenon. He put out a few issues, but it was not successful.)
“Snowbirds” is the name of the Canadian Flying Demonstration team, similar to the Blue Angels. But that story does not check out – the Canadian Snowbirds were not in Arizona at that time. So what does that mean? Why would a pilot, apparently flying quite legally in a formation of five aircraft, misidentify his aircraft and his mission? Fitzgerald has gone so far as to suggest in a 2010 two-part Examiner article that the apparently deceptive reference to the Canadian Snowbirds may have been an exercise in “psychological warfare.” He notes that “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.” He suggests that this might have been some secret exercise involving technology developed at Area 51 near Las Vegas, possibly including “Holographic Deception Technology.”
Since there is now no recording of that cockpit conversation, we cannot be sure of the exact words used. But suppose that Middleton, repeating the conversation to Fitzgerald, misremembered the exact words? Perhaps it went something like this: “We’re Snowbirds, we’re headed to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base,” and Middleton then reflected, “Snowbirds, they’re the Canadian Flying Demonstration team.” Because in that case, he would have made a very understandable mistake: he confused two different flying groups that use the same name!
Since the 1970s, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson has operated a program called Operation Snowbird, which brings in Air National Guard pilots from snowy northern states for winter flying practice. It is operated by the Air National Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing. This video explains the training functions of Operation Snowbird. Another Snowbird-related video shows A-10s zooming about and even dropping flares.
Fitzgerald notes in his Examiner article that “Once beyond the southern suburbs of Phoenix, the formation of lights followed Interstate 10 toward Tucson.” This is strange behavior for an extraterrestrial craft. One man told Fitzgerald, “This was so profoundly my most significant visual experience ever, like the hand of God coming down.”
There were several more observers along Interstate 10 as the objects came down lower and approached Tucson, who described them as five separate objects, and not one huge one. The time was noted as 8:42 PM. These were the last sightings of the V-shaped lights.
March 13, 1997 was the last night of Operation Snowbird for the year, so obviously any aircraft that had flown off to other destinations, such as Las Vegas, had to return to Tucson. James McGaha reconstructs the story of the V-shaped formation as follows: Five A-10 jets from Operation Snowbird had flown from Tucson to Nellis Air force Base near Las Vegas several days earlier, and were now returning. The A-10 jets were flying VFR (visual flight rules), so there was no need for them to check in with airports along the route. They were following the main air corridor for air traffic traveling that route, the “highway in the sky.” (Why a UFO would follow U.S. air traffic corridors is a mystery.) Because they were flying in formation mode they did not have on their familiar blinking collision lights, but instead their formation lights. In any case, FAA rules concerning aircraft lights and flight altitudes, etc. do not apply to military aircraft. The A-10s flew over the Phoenix area, flew on to Tucson, and landed at Davis-Monthan.
|Flare drop near Phoenix, March 13, 1997|
Starting around 10:00 PM that same evening, hundreds if not thousands of people in the Phoenix area witnessed a row of brilliant lights hovering in the sky, or slowly falling. Many photographs and videos were taken, making this perhaps the most widely-witnessed UFO event in history. As explained in the Wikipedia article on the Phoenix Lights,
The U.S. Air Force explained the second event as slow-falling, long-burning LUU-2B/B illumination flares dropped by a flight of four A-10 Warthog aircraft on a training exercise at the Barry Goldwater Range at Luke Air Force Base. According to this explanation, the flares would have been visible in Phoenix and appeared to hover due to rising heat from the burning flares creating a "balloon" effect on their parachutes, which slowed the descent. The lights then appeared to wink out as they fell behind the Sierra Estrella, a mountain range to the southwest of Phoenix.
A Maryland Air National Guard pilot, Lt. Col. Ed Jones, responding to a March 2007 media query, confirmed that he had flown one of the aircraft in the formation that dropped flares on the night in question. The squadron to which he belonged was in fact at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona on a training exercise at the time and flew training sorties to the Barry Goldwater Range on the night in question, according to the Maryland Air National Guard. A history of the Maryland Air National Guard published in 2000 asserted that the squadron, the 104th Fighter Squadron, was responsible for the incident. The first reports that members of the Maryland Air National Guard were responsible for the incident were published in The Arizona Republic newspaper in July 1997.
Even many UFO proponents accept that that the video of the second incident - bright lights in a row - was in fact a flare drop, while maintaining that the first incident is still unexplained. But there are still plenty of people arguing that the sightings after 10 PM are unexplained. Dr. Lynne D. Kitei, M.D. isn’t having any of this “flare drop” business. Her website ThePhoenixLights.net says it promotes “Evolution to a New Consciousness.” She claims she was watching the Phoenix Lights two years before everyone else, and that her research proves “we are not alone.” By some complicated analysis she claims to have proven that the objects could not have been flares, although I haven’t run across anyone who understands it. I heard her speak at the 2012 International UFO Congress, and some of her photos of UFOs appeared to me to be lights on the ground. Giving up her practice of medicine to become a full-time UFO promoter, “Dr. Lynne” (as she is sometimes called) has made a documentary film The Phoenix Lights, and has appeared on Coast to Coast AM, the well-known late-night paranormal and conspiracy-fest hosted by George Noory, to tell her tales.
|Dr. Lynne with yours truly at the 2013 International UFO Congress|
When the U.S. Air Force was queried about both incidents, their (correct) initial response was that they knew nothing about them. Both UFO incidents that night involved aircraft of Operation Snowbird, and the Air National Guard has a completely separate command structure from the Air Force. Neither one knows much about the day-to-day activities of the other. Unfortunately, by the time that all of this was pieced together, all records of routine flight operations had been destroyed. But there is very little room for doubt that the famous “V-shaped formation” of lights was five Air National Guard A-10 aircraft flying into Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, and no doubt at all that the second incident was a flare drop. Perhaps because March 13 was the final day of Operation Snowbird, the Air National Guard pilots rushed to finish up all of their flying and flare-dropping before it ended!