‘Phoenix Lights’: Don’t Believe the Hype


Here we go again. A new round of ‘Phoenix Lights’ has Arizona’s media going nutty, and Matt Drudge’s interest will only whip up the fervor.

As a new formation of lights in the sky becomes the source of fascination in the Grand Canyon State, folks less given to jumping to alien conclusions would do well to keep a few things in mind as they watch breathless accounts from TV reporters and pure silliness from newspapers like the Arizona Republic:

1. UFOs are big business. The high ratings that come with UFO stories is so reliable, even networks that are started with more serious purposes, such as the History Channel, continually fall back on dishonest shows about lights in the sky that deliberately leave out information to hype the ‘mystery.’ If television is primarily guilty, the Republic is also a big offender. It almost never brings up the fact that one its own reporters, Richard Ruelas, uncovered some of the same facts in the 1997 case that I did at the Phoenix New Times: that the 8:30 pm event was a formation of planes, as seen through a powerful telescope by a young man named Mitch Stanley, and that the 10 pm event was a flare dump over the nearby North Tac bombing range. Instead, the Republic continually refers to the 1997 events as unsolved. (That sells more papers.)

2. Don’t believe eyewitnesses about the altitude of lights at night. The human eye simply can make no judgment about the distance of what are called “point sources” – lights far enough away in a night sky that they have no dimension. Some witnesses in 1997 swore that the “vee,” for example was only 20 feet over their heads. Others said it looked thousands of feet away. With the vee covering 200 miles of the state in a half hour (in other words, 400 mph), and Stanley’s telescopic identification, we can safely assume that this group of planes was, indeed, thousands of feet above the earth. People who said they felt they could practically touch the vee, however, weren’t actually wrong, it’s just the tools they were using to make that estimate (their own eyes) were simply inadequate for the task.

3. With all of the ‘UFO investigators’ running around Phoenix in 1997 claiming that the vee was invisible to radar, not a single one made a request to the FAA in Albuquerque – where Phoenix skies are actually monitored – for tapes of that night. After eleven days, the FAA told me, those tapes are erased. If anyone requests tapes of this new event, those tapes will be preserved for everyone to see. Instead, reporters at the time kept going back to air traffic controllers at Sky Harbor Airport who monitor commercial traffic coming in for landings, not military formations traveling high over the state.

Fortunately, this time, it looks like there was only one phenomenon on Monday night, which should mean less confusion than in 1997, when the fact that there were two separate and very different events confused reporters to no end (and still, to this day, is almost never part of an explanation of what happened then).