The Phoenix Lights Phenomenon: An Unsolved UFO Mystery

On the evening of March 13, 1997, an extraordinary event unfolded in the skies over Arizona that would become one of the most documented and hotly debated UFO sightings in history. The Phoenix Lights remains a compelling mystery, but is the truth out there? Read on to find out.

14 May 2024

In March 1997 over the city of Phoenix, Arizona, lights appeared in the sky, covering a distance of around 350 miles from the Nevada state line in the northwest down to southern city of Tucson. Over several hours, thousands of residents reported witnessing a series of strange, luminous objects and formations in the sky. Descriptions varied from a V-shaped light formation, to orbs that glowed intensely and seemed to move with purpose across the night sky.

Some are convinced the lights over Phoenix in 1997 were UFOs, or UAPs – unidentified aerial phenomenon. The official line is that they were military planes being tested in the desert and flares from aircraft on night manoeuvres.

What exactly did the residents of Phoenix see that night? Did they come within touching distance – literally, according to some – of beings from another world, or is the explanation for the bizarre lights in Phoenix, Arizona, rather more benign?

The strange case of the Phoenix Lights has left the world befuddled for over a quarter of a century. Let’s take a trip to the sixth-largest of the United States in an attempt to shed light on this baffling luminous enigma.

Close Encounters of the First Kind

V-shaped lights of a UFO (Credit: Devrimb via Getty Images)

Like the bizarre Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion a decade earlier, the Phoenix Lights, also known as the Lights Over Phoenix, came in two distinct waves.

The first occurrence – between approximately 7.30pm and 8.45pm on March 13, 1997 – was observed as a massive, V-shaped object with five or six reddish-orange lights that silently moved north to south in the sky, spanning at least a mile in width according to eyewitness reports.

One of the first witnesses was in Henderson, Nevada, just a few miles south of Las Vegas and a short distance from the Arizona state line. About fifteen minutes later, what are believed to be the same lights were spotted by a former policeman in the town of Paulden, Arizona, about 200 miles southeast of Henderson. Next, about 25 miles south of Paulden, there were further sightings of the lights of Phoenix over Prescott Valley. It seemed they – whatever ‘they’ happened to be – were moving south towards Tucson.

These witnesses, and many others, said that the lights lingered before disappearing and reappearing in the same formation, captivating onlookers for several minutes at a time.

The Strange Tale of Kurt Russell & His Son

Single prop plane taking off (Credit: Ascent Xmedia via Getty Images)

In a bizarre twist to an already incredulous mystery, one of the first people to report the sighting of what has become known as the Phoenix Lights, was none other than Hollywood actor Kurt Russell.

In an interview with the BBC’s The One Show, Russell, a private pilot, explained that he was flying his son Oliver from Los Angeles to Phoenix to see his [Oliver’s] girlfriend, when on their final approach, they noticed a series of strange lights in the sky.

Oliver asked if his father knew what the lights were, to which he responded that he didn’t. He called it in to air traffic control who said that their radar screens showed nothing at all. Russell declared that it was a UFO in the literal sense, in that it appeared to be a flying object that was unidentified, and proceeded to land perfectly safely.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix, Arizona lights were moving closer to the state capital. Witnesses in Glendale, Scottsdale, and downtown Phoenix saw the lights but by around 9pm they were gone.

Close Encounters of the Second Kind

Alleged Roswell crash site (Credit: David Zaitz via Getty Images)

About an hour later, the lights over Phoenix were back. Around 10pm, a series of intensely bright lights appeared over the Phoenix area, distinct from the V-shaped formation observed earlier in the evening. These peculiar lights in Phoenix, Arizona, were described as stationary, hovering orbs that remained visible for a considerable period before they started to dim and then vanished, only to reappear and maintain the same formation.

Witnesses reported these lights did not seem to be attached to any solid object, or if they were, the object was not visible against the night sky. This aspect of the phenomenon led to widespread speculation and debate, as the lights behaved unlike conventional aircraft or known atmospheric phenomena.

UFO sceptic Robert Sheaffer described this second occurrence as ‘perhaps the most widely witnessed UFO event in history.’

The Immediate Aftermath

The instant reaction to the Phoenix Lights was a mixture of awe, confusion, and concern. Witnesses flooded police lines and local news stations with reports, seeking explanations for what they had seen.

The story quickly garnered national attention, sparking a frenzy of speculation, investigation, and debate. Sceptics proposed conventional explanations such as flares or military aircraft, while believers in extraterrestrial activity felt validated in their convictions.

The event left a lasting impression on the public consciousness, becoming a pivotal moment for the UFO community and a perennial topic of interest for both sceptics and believers alike.

But what actually happened that night? Was it military aircraft that instigated the illuminations, or were the lights over Phoenix 1997’s answer to Roswell?

The Official Explanation

A10 Thunderbolt II jets on a training mission (Credit: Stocktrek Images via Getty Images)

According to the US military, both incidents were as a result of a pilot training programme called Operation Snowbird from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson.

The first incident – the V-shaped object – was explained as nothing more than five A-10 Thunderbolt II jets flying under visual flight rules, so instead of displaying flashing collision lights, they were allowed to display steady formation lights. The planes landed at Davis-Monthan AFB at around 8.45pm.

Later that night, the stationary, hovering orbs were slow-burning, long-falling LUU-2B/B illumination flares dropped from the A10s while on a training exercise from the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. A later study of their luminosity suggested they could indeed be seen over the distances described on the night of March 13, 1997.

A decade on from thousands of people seeing the lights in Phoenix, Arizona, Maryland Air National Guard pilot Lt. Col. Ed Jones admitted to being one of the airmen who dropped the flares.

While plenty accept the official explanation of events that night, others aren’t so sure.

Is the Truth Out There?

Atmospheric Northern Lights over a city (Credit: edb3_16 via Getty Images)

Beyond the official Air Force explanation attributing the Phoenix Lights phenomenon to flares and military aircraft, several prevailing theories have been proposed by researchers, UFO enthusiasts, and sceptics alike to explain the events of March 13, 1997. These theories range from the plausible to the speculative, reflecting the enduring mystery and intrigue of the incident.

Military or Experimental Aircraft

Some theories suggest that the V-shaped formation responsible for the Phoenix, Arizona lights could have been an experimental or military aircraft, possibly a stealth plane or other advanced, secretive aviation technology. Proponents of this theory point to the size and silent operation of the object as indicative of experimental military projects unknown to the public at the time.

Atmospheric Conditions

Another explanation posits that certain atmospheric conditions on that night might have caused or contributed to the visibility of distant or conventional lights in unusual ways. This could involve temperature inversions or reflections from man-made or natural sources, leading to illusions, misidentified celestial objects, or misinterpretations of natural phenomena as something more mysterious.

Extraterrestrial Craft

The most popular and controversial theory is that the lights of Phoenix were from one or more alien spacecraft. This theory revolves around the size, formation, and flight characteristics of the lights. The lack of sound, combined with the apparent coordinated movement of the lights, fuels speculation about technology beyond human capabilities, outside of our current understanding of the laws of physics.

Psychological or Social Phenomenon

Some researchers propose that the Phoenix Lights can be partly explained by psychological phenomena, such as mass hysteria or the power of suggestion. This falls squarely in the ‘they saw what they wanted to see’ category. According to this theory, the initial reports of lights could have influenced subsequent observers to perceive mundane phenomena as extraordinary, especially in the context of a highly publicised event.

An Elaborate Hoax

A more sceptical approach suggests that the entire event could have been an elaborate hoax or a series of optical illusions. This could involve the strategic use of flares, balloons, or other devices to create the illusion of a UFO, although the coordinated execution over such a wide area would have been challenging.

Each of these theories attempts to explain the lights over Phoenix phenomenon, but none have definitively ended the speculation. The Phoenix Lights remain a topic of fascination and debate within the UFO community and among the general public.

Unsolved in the Sky: The Enigma of the Phoenix Lights

What were the Phoenix Lights? (Credit: David Wallvia Getty Images)

The mysterious lights in Phoenix, Arizona remain one of the most captivating and enduring mysteries in the annals of UFO sightings. Despite the official explanation, the nature of the lights that danced over Arizona’s night sky in March 1997 continues to spark speculation and – for some – fuels the imagination about what might be possible in the vast, unexplored reaches of the universe.


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