Arizona's Worst Governor on Arizona's Worst UFO
Disgraced former Arizona governor Fife Symington told CNN's Larry King about how he saw the "UFO” known as the Phoenix Lights in 1997. But, as it turns out, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the phenomenon—one that never gets reported correctly.
by Tony Ortega
Before people get too worked up about disgraced former Arizona governor Fife Symington’s “disclosure” that he saw the 1997 “UFO” known as the Phoenix Lights—the subject of a breathless segment on the Larry King Live show last week—a few words about that phenomenon from someone who actually investigated it.
In 1997, Symington was in the middle of the bank-fraud scandal that would bounce him from office, but that’s not my way of questioning what he saw in the sky—thousands of Arizonans did, in fact, witness the famous Phoenix Lights that March. But from the start, bad reporting of the facts, hyperventilating by UFO “experts,” and constant stupidity from television reporters in particular resulted in a false impression that has hardened into seeming fact a decade later—that the “vee” of lights seen flying over the entire length of the state was explained away by the Air Force as flares dropped from military planes.
That is not the case. But it’s not hard to see why people think as much. Because the bare facts of what happened that night almost never get told by a confused press, even ten years later.
Here’s the truth: there were two, distinct events that happened the night of March 13, 1997 in the skies over Arizona, which I reported in great detail in a story that appeared a year later in the Phoenix New Times. The first event was the famous “vee,” which appeared over northern Arizona and gradually traveled south over nearly the entire length of the state, eventually passing south of Tucson. This is the “wedge-shaped” object that Symington and hundreds or even thousands of others saw—including two of my colleagues at the New Times. Timings of the “vee” sighting started at about 8:15 over the Prescott area, and it was seen south of Tucson by about 8:45. That’s 200 miles in 30 minutes, suggesting an air speed of 400 miles per hour.
News of the sighting spread fast, drawing out many other people who began looking at the sky, some with camcorders. And it was this second wave of observers who caught the second event of the night at about 10 pm, a set of nine lights falling behind the Sierra Estrella, a mountain ridge to the southwest of Phoenix. Television reporters were the first to suggest that this was a series of flares dropped over the North Tac range behind the Estrella. But naturally, people who had seen only the 8:30 “vee” were incredulous—how could “flares” dropped from planes fly over the entire state in a vee formation?
Well, they couldn’t, of course. But to this day, reporters almost never distinguish between the two events and the explanations that were soon presented for each.
The flares over the Estrella were soon cleared up. The Air Force, after some maddening early denials, eventually owned up that the Maryland Air National Guard had dropped them over the North Tac range. So much for the 10 pm sighting.
But what rarely gets reported is that the famous vee was also solved quite early. First of all, contrary to what you usually hear, there was a videotape made of the vee. I saw it after questioning the person who shot it (he also shot the 10 pm flares over the Estrella), and the video quite clearly shows the lights moving in relation to each other, rather than as lights on a solid object.
The human eye, however, seeing point sources of light in a dark Arizona sky, will tend to fill in the space between the lights in a contrast effect—convincing the eyewitness that he’s seen a solid object. Again, however, videotape of the ‘vee’ clearly showed that this was not the case.
(My personal favorite of all the accounts that night is a sighting that was convincing proof that the “vee” was not solid. A man saw it pass directly over the face of the Moon, and instead of a solid object, he saw five contrails pass over the Moon, making the Moon look blurry. Now, instead of concluding that he’d seen five planes flying in formation with their exhaust plumes plainly showing against the Moon, he instead insisted that the “captain” flying the alien triangular craft had turned it transparent just at the right moment so that he could see the Moon through it!)
Also, reports that the vee was low overhead and moving slowly have to be discounted. The human eye is notoriously unable to judge the distance to overhead point sources of light in a dark sky. Simple physics dictates that in order to fly from Prescott to Tucson in 30 minutes the vee was moving very fast, and, logic dictates, at a high altitude.
But there’s an even better reason to believe that the vee was not what Symington and others believed. As I reported in June of 1997, there was a credible report of the vee’s nature that was received immediately by UFO “experts” but not followed up—at least until I checked it out. It turned out that an amateur astronomer, Mitch Stanley, had been outside that night using a Dobsonian telescope, and had captured the vee in his field of view, giving him a view 60 times the magnification of the human eye. (I’m a builder of telescopes, and I thoroughly checked out his telescope and quizzed him about his use of it. There was no reason to question this young man’s veracity.) That March evening, his mother was standing nearby and could see that he was looking at the vee through the scope (I questioned them both) and they both say this was his response when she asked him what it was: “Planes.”
What I reported a decade ago:
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. And the planes themselves seemed small, like light private planes. Stanley watched them for about a minute, and then turned away. It was the last thing the amateur astronomer wanted to look at. "They were just planes, I didn't want to look at them," Stanley says when he's asked why he didn't stare at them longer. He is certain about what he saw: "They were planes. There's no way I could have mistaken that."
The only real mystery of the Phoenix Lights is which group of planes this was. I suggested that Stanley’s description (squarish wings) sounded like A-10s, not private planes. But the Maryland National Guard denied that they had flown over that path before dropping flares later.
Ten years later, however, the Phoenix Lights still live because it’s claimed by UFO supporters that the only explanation for the flying vee was that the Air Force called it flares. You’ll hear that explanation ridiculed again tonight on Larry King Live, and the “UFO community” will no doubt consider it a huge victory. So much for common sense.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.