How accurate were the witnesses

By Tim Printy 1998

Last updated October 2008

Writing about his experience in talking to witnesses of astronomical events,, Dr Francis Drake made the following astute observation: "…even honest normal people make errors, because the human mind does not always have perfect sensors; it is an imperfect computer in dealing with the stimuli it receives" (Sagan 257). Even prior to the advent of UFO reports, people realized that eyewitnesses to events often misrepresented what happened. It has been a problem for the courts over the years. How many eyewitnesses does it take to convict a criminal? If one witness out of a group tells a different story than the other witnesses, does it make his testimony unreliable? If all the eyewitnesses describe the same event differently, how can you tell which person is the most reliable? This makes it extremely difficult to piece together events from eyewitness testimony. In the case of the Arizona UFOs, it is not a question if the witnesses saw lights fly overhead, but how accurate were the witnesses in reporting what they saw?

Examining some of the estimates made by some of the people involved can reveal how accurate eyewitness testimony is. Tim Ley and Mike Fortson both made estimations of the objects size, speed and altitude. However, what they estimate, when scrutinized, demonstrates they were not accurate at all. They made too many assumptions.

Mike Fortson made some fairly good observations of the objects as they passed by. However, he let his imagination get the best of him. Fortson is convinced it is an alien spacecraft a mile wide. A drawing that was on Tom King's site represents his observation of the object passing in front of the moon. The object shown is not that big! It is not even 3 degrees across (using moon as scale). The moon is also wrong. It is drawn as a full moon. The moon was first quarter that night demonstrating that whoever created it (it states it is a representation of the event) was not being very accurate at all. I discussed this with Fortson via Email and he stated that this did not accurately represent the event, noting the problem with moon phase. He also stated the drawing was not his doing. However, when I asked him for angular size, he could not or would not give this to me. In his writings, Fortson gives some exact numbers. According to him, the object was 2 miles distant, a mile wide, and 1500-2000 feet in altitude. If this were true, the object should have been 20-30 degrees across based on these numbers not the three shown in the drawing. Even more interesting is that the moon was 40 degrees above the horizon that night at 8:30 PM. With his estimates, we find out the object would have been 11 degrees above the horizon at closest approach! Either his estimates are way off or his observation of the object passing in front of the moon did not happen.

Tim Ley's provided an account on CNN and in the USA Today articles. However, on the Internet, a letter giving his description of the events was posted. The description is extremely long and Ley prides himself on his ability to estimate speeds (However, he bases this on the motion of cars on the road - not of objects in the sky) and altitude (he bases this on his ability to judge the heights of buildings in NY City from the number of stories - not of aircraft or other objects in the night sky). He later states the object passed near a peak and barely fit inside a pass in the mountains. Once again, one must wonder if his "passing through the peaks" observation was just a matter of perspective and the lights were actually farther but just gave the impression that they barely "fit". His ability to estimate height/speed is limited and reminds me of descriptions from the Zond 4 episode in 1968 (A reentering booster/satellite was estimated to be at tree top level and showed "windows"). His description of the lights is very interesting and he concludes it was moving 30 mph at an altitude of 100-150 feet. However, Ley also states the lights moved very slowly overhead, "It really was going ridiculously slow. It almost seemed to hover." (Ley) If one computes the angular speed of 30 mph from 150 feet, we find the object would cover 15-20 degrees per second! This is totally inaccurate and disagrees with the story he is telling us. His estimate of the altitude and speed is significantly off. Even more interesting is the report on the NUFORC page that has Tim Ley's sighting (Although his name is not used, the descriptions of his wife/children/grandchildren match his internet postings exactly). Only a few days after the event, he was stating that the object was 1000 feet overhead and not 100-150 feet

Another example of Ley's inaccurate observations is that he claims that one leg of the "V" was 700 feet in length (However, in his NUFORC sighting report, he states it was only 300 feet). This computes to an angular size of 78 degrees for one leg. His drawing of the object appears to be smaller than this. He never mentions the object passing near the moon (which was about 40 degrees high at this point) although he states the light on the furthest right of the V passed overhead. Had the object been extremely large and low as he states, the left most side of the V would have blocked out the moon. This would be something remembered like Fortson's observation. Instead, Ley refers to the stars as the object passed overhead.

He also notes that the lights, although very bright and only 150 feet away, cast no illumination on the ground. He noted, "We remained in the darkness below it without being illuminated at all or any part of the neighborhood as it passed over" (Ley). He then concludes that the light must have been "trapped inside" (Ley). Based on his inability to estimate the speed/altitude accurately, it is more likely that the object was much higher than 150 feet and this resulted in the lack of illumination on the ground.

The failure of the investigators to recognize these inaccuracies makes their work flawed. Dr. J. Allen Hynek (The "Father" of modern UFOlogy) in his summary of AF Project Grudge (April 30, 1949) wrote:

First of all, it is obvious that it would usually be impossible for observers to make reliable estimates of the speed, distance, or size of such stimulus objects. It is not possible to estimate accurately the distance of small bright objects viewed against a clear sky, UNLESS THE OBJECT IS IDENTIFIED FIRST… It must be concluded, therefore, that most of the statements of speed, distance, altitude and size ARE EXTREMELY UNRELIABLE AND SHOULD BE DISREGARDED (My emphasis). THIS IS DOUBLY TRUE OF OBSERVATIONS MADE AT NIGHT (My emphasis). (Steiger 228)

Allan Hendry also noted these problems, which is why he asked for angular sizes and elevations instead of distances/altitudes. However, despite this the witnesses always wanted to volunteer such information, "I made it a rule NEVER to ask my witnesses to guess the altitude or distance, but in many cases, the witnesses made this estimate without urging on my part" (Hendry 98). Hendry had good reason to question the ability of such estimates. In 49 UFO reports that turned out to be stars (out of 380 total), eyewitnesses managed to estimate the distances to such objects between 100 feet and 125 miles! In 42 ad plane cases, 34 underestimated the distance and 6 overestimated the distance. Only 3 were able to get the approximate altitude of the ad planes! Skeptic Philip Klass summarizes this with his UFOlogical principle #5, "No human observer, including experienced flight crews, can accurately estimate either the distance/altitude or the size of an unfamiliar object in the sky, unless it is in very close proximity to a familiar object, whose size or altitude is known" (Klass 303).

Neither of these individuals had a good reference point to estimate the altitude. Ley tried to do this with the mountain peaks the object may have flown near. However, as I pointed out, this estimate may be off since he did not see it pass in front of the peaks just between them. Perception seemed to play a role in this observation.

While these witnesses seemed to be confused about what they think they saw, nothing caused more controversy than the "Lights in the Hills" episode.

Works Cited

Klass, Philip. UFOS: The Public Decieved. Amherst: Prometheus, 1997

Hendry, Allan. The UFO Investigators Handbook. London: Sphere Books Limited, 1980.

Ley, Tim. FLYOVER EVENT CALLED "PHOENIX LIGHTS" Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.qtm.net/~geibdan/a1999/aug/b7.htm

Sagan, Carl, and Thornton Page, eds. UFO's: A Scientific Debate. New York: Barnes & Nobles, 1972.

Steiger, Brad ed. Project Bluebook. New York: Ballantine, 1976.

 

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