The V- formation of lights and my analysis

By Tim Printy 1998

Last updated October 2008

I am going to do my best to analyze what happened with the V-shaped formation of lights that night. We already have a solution to the "lights in the hills" event. The other event was an actual V-shaped formation of lights that went from North to South between 8 and 9PM. Interesting to note is that this formation flew from north of the Prescott Valley area and then proceeded to follow the interstate (I-17/10). This gives one reason to pause and think about the whole situation. Are the ET's that lost that they require following the interstate? Maybe the objects were of a more terrestrial origin and were misidentified by excited witnesses. Carl Sagan wrote, "When we notice something strange in the sky, some of us become excitable and uncritical, bad witnesses" (Sagan 71). If you add a few individuals who are interested in exaggerating their claims or embellishing what they saw, you can produce a rather remarkable story, as did Bill Hamilton. This brings into play, Phil Klass's Ufological Principle #2,

Despite the intrinsic limitations of human perception when exposed to brief, unexpected and unusual events, some details recalled by the observer may be reasonably accurate. The problem facing the UFO investigator is to try to distinguish between those details that are accurate and those that are grossly inaccurate. This may be impossible until the true identity of the UFO can be determined, so that in some cases this poses an insoluble problem. (Klass 303)

Key witnesses ignored

To determine the possible identity of the objects, we need more witnesses who got a better understanding of what the lights may have been. I was able to find two witnesses that were not discussed by MUFON or NUFORC. MUFON and NUFORC tend to accept the most extraordinary tales to enhance the selling of their UFO story. However, they also adhere to a selection effect (something they accuse skeptics of) to hide any data that is contrary to what they want to portray.

The first witness was a man named Rich Contry who was driving west that evening on I-40 north of Prescott. His statement was in the March Postings of the Area 51 message boards and is completely ignored by the investigators. The date of his e-mail is 17 March and he states,

I was on my way from Flagstaff to Laughin 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 there 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 buy 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. (Contry)

Rich gets many things right in his observation which was posted a short time after his sighting (thus less prone to imagination and more prone to be factual and accurate). He properly identified the number of craft in the videos of this formation (5) and also gets the direction correct (flying south). It was obvious to him that the objects were aircraft but did anyone else see aircraft? When I contacted Rich, he confirmed to me that the aircraft came from a westerly direction (he could not recall specifics since I talked to him in January 1998) and appeared to head towards Prescott. Rich's memories of the events seem a bit faded by time since he had problems recalling if there was a moon that night. This is expected since I am asking him to recall specifics almost 9 months after an event. His initial posting was made just a few days after the event and can be considered factual for the night in question. He told me that he felt they were military aircraft and could see the landing lights. He also felt they were low altitude and had their engines at a low throttle setting. He could not identify the aircraft but felt they may have been F-22's (I could not get a positive identification and he was not sure) and saw one of the landing lights illuminate the front landing gear. He used 10X50 binoculars and felt they were several hundred feet apart in the formation. Most of the specifics are hard to get from Rich since he could not recall (once again emphasizing how important those initial reports are). However, I am satisfied that Rich could have seen a formation of aircraft that night that may have produced the lighted V formation of lights.

Mitch Stanley and his telescope (Ortega Great)

In May of 1997, I contacted one of the Phoenix area astronomy clubs and received a report that one of their members saw the formation in his telescope and noted they were distant, high-flying aircraft. I had no other data to go on until an article showed up in the Phoenix Newstimes. This identified Mitch Stanley, a young amateur astronomer, who saw the light formation through his telescope that night. In part the article, which was titled "The Great UFO Coverup", stated,

Mitch Stanley, 21, spends several nights a week in his backyard with a 10-inch telescope, exploring the night sky. He's owned the telescope for about a year, and has learned the sky well. With its 10-inch mirror, the telescope gathers 1,500 times as much light as the human eye. And with the eyepiece Stanley was using on the night of March 13, the telescope gave him 60 times the resolving power of his naked eye.

That night Mitch and his mother, Linda, were in the backyard and noticed the lights coming from the north. Since the lights seemed to be moving so slowly, Mitch attempted to capture them in the scope. He succeeded, and the leading three lights fit in his field of vision. Linda asked what they were. "Planes," Mitch said.

It was plain to see, he says. 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." (Ortega Great)

I personally communicated with Mitch via email and he had several interesting things to point out that were omitted in the article. He states that in addition to the lights on the wings, he also saw one underneath the fuselage, "3 lights! I saw 3. One on each wing and one on the fuselage"(Stanley). This confirms Rich's description to me that one of the lights was illuminating the front landing gear. Peter Davenport also confirms that the lights were possibly composed of two or more lights as Mitch states, "Mitch is correct that each of the larger lights was, by at least two good observers, reported to consist of two or three individual lights" (Davenport Update).

My drawing of what Mitch described in his email

Tim Ley also confirms the observations that each of the lights were not just one light but at least two, "We noticed that one of the lights on the far side arm seemed to flicker into two lights." (Ley). Tim added, "The light I was focused on seemed to split into two lights, one above the other, and slightly separated from each other" (Ley). Another report from Prescott also pointed out that there were two lights, "When viewing them through binoculars their shape could not be determined, however, each object seemed to display two reddish-orange steady lights"(Page). Additionally, there was a report in the NUFORC database reporting each light being composed of two lights. Lastly, we read the following from an airline pilot, who was on his way to work that night, "When the lights were directly overhead, they appeared to be comprised of two lights per object, the bright light in the direction of motion and a much fainter light immediately behind it" (Davenport Database).

Another observation by Tim Ley seems to confirm the lights were made up of more than a single light by stating, "The diameter of the light was at least 6 or 7 feet across...." (Ley). His ability to estimate sizes is limited and using feet to describe the angular size in the sky is poor at best. However, he is describing an extended object and not a point source as Motzer stated. Ley had the advantage of being directly beneath the lights and given a minimum distance view of the lights. Thus his extended objects when viewed from far away would appear as a point source. The extended object possibly indicates that the light was made up of more than one light just as he describes later.

A common complaint I have heard about Mitch's report is that he could not track the aircraft in his scope and that the images would be inverted. This shows a poor understanding of the scope he was using. He appears in the article with a 10-inch Dobsonian (F5.5 according to Mitch). Amateur astronomers often call these "Light Buckets". The field of view is probably about a degree (He stated to me that he used a TELEVUE 32mm Plossl, which produces 43X not the 60X described in the article) and the alti-azimuth mount is very easy to work by a trained operator. I have seen people track satellites with these type instruments. The Teflon coatings make the scopes motion very smooth. This is not your standard cheap telescope you pick up at a department store. Tracking the objects or reorienting the scope so the field intercepts the planes would not be too hard especially for a skilled observer, which Mitch appears to be. Mitch told me, "I also follow airplanes around in the sky when I get bored at things to look at, so I did already have some experience in following objects that were not stationary" (Stanley).

Mitch saw the objects low on the horizon as they were approaching and based on my calculations below, it is possible the objects could have remained in his field of view for 5-10 seconds, making identification an easy matter. As for the inversion, trained observers normally will mentally flip the image without a thought. These are bogus claims made by uneducated people who really do not know anything about astronomical equipment and are not experienced amateur astronomers. They belittle this report because it takes out the mystery and can possibly explain the events that night.

Additionally, we discover there were more witnesses to aircraft in formation that night:

...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...

But Capt. Michael Perry, squadron logistics officer for the Snowbirds, denied that any planes were in Arizona that month. "We don't travel ina V-shaped formation, and we don't cruise with landing lights on," he told Readers Digest. (Fitzgerald)

The "snowbird" reference may have been an error and the pilots in the aircraft may have stated they were flying Tutors like the Snowbird demonstration team or Middleton/Campbell just placed the snowbird term to the Tutors because they are the ones that commonly fly the craft. It is not commonly known that the Tutor aircraft was flown by units of the Canadian Air Force in 1997 (They were replaced in 2000).  The formation may or may not have actually been Tutors but, if they were, they did not have to be the Snowbird demonstration team.

The big question is, "Could a formation of five aircraft cross airspace, not be recorded on radar, and produce the effects shown?" In my opinion, the answer is YES! I can provide circumstantial evidence from the meager data given in the NUFORC and MUFON reports on the event. I do not need to concoct weird scenarios like Bill Hamilton has done. I will dismiss some of the less precise and exotic reports by individuals. The fact that some individual described seeing a shape in the lights indicates the witnesses were not very critical. The videos clearly show a formation of lights only with no solid object inside the lights. The formation shifted occasionally and several observers noted this. To state that there was more than one formation/object is not correct either. No witness has come forth and stated that they observed more than one formation. It is all the same formation with different interpretations by the observers. Some allowed their imaginations to take flight and since they were not interviewed until days or weeks later, the details had slipped from many of their minds.

How fast were the lights moving?

To begin with let us examine the basic observations reported by the witnesses to determine the speed. Many indicate the formation was flying in a southerly direction at "blimp speed" (15-25 mph) and at an altitude of only 2000 feet or so (this is a rough average). However, a formation of aircraft flying at 150-250 mph at 20,000 feet would move at the same rate. If you raise the altitude of the aircraft even higher, you will find that the apparent motion would be extremely slow. Also, this apparent motion will change as the object approaches from the north. One who sees the object coming from the north will see the lights almost stationary and then slowly speed up as they approach. Looking at the distance covered in the time stated, one can say that the formation flew approximately 200 miles in 40 minutes. This equates to 300 mph, which is pretty fast and indicates Jets or Turboprop type aircraft. Bill Hamilton added that one sighting in Las Vegas occurred 20 minutes before the Paulden sightings. The distance involved is about 150 miles and indicates a speed of 450 mph. Considering this is one observation and that there are inaccuracies involved with the times of some of the sightings, the 300-mph value is a good round number to use. Peter Davenport incorrectly calculated this speed. He states, "They apparently traveled from Henderson, NV, to Paulden, AZ, in approximately 21 minutes - - translating to supersonic speed, probably" (Davenport Update). Probably? Didn't Peter check the distances (Henderson is SE of Las Vegas) to see what speed this was? 300-450 MPH are speeds easily reached by most jet aircraft and some turboprop airplanes.

What was the true altitude of the lights?

The altitude is difficult to estimate but there are key observations that indicate the true altitude of the lights. Although, we do not have exact locations, we do have rough ones, which involve witness Michael Fortson and an unidentified witness at Ray Road and 42nd street. There is no such intersection to the best of my knowledge but there is a close pass between Ray Road and a 42nd avenue/street/circle. This is close to the interstate. As best I can tell, the object(s) flew directly over the interstate and followed it. Bruce Gerboth was in Ahwatukee and also saw it pass overhead confirming this report. Fortson reported seeing the object pass between him and the moon in his initial report to Hamilton (this is before he started stating height's, distances and sizes). The moon that night was first quarter and was approximately 40 degrees above the western horizon at 8:30PM. Fortson told me he observed the event from near McQueen Rd/ Frye Rd. The objects traveled pretty much in a north-south path following the interstate. Therefore, any differences in latitude between the two observers would be negated. The separation between Fortson and the interstate is roughly 8-9 miles. A bit of trigonometry is all that is required and one can compute a rough height of 35,000-40,000 feet.

Tim Ley states that he saw the objects pass overhead, while Mitch Stanley states it was about 60 degrees above the western horizon (This is months after the event and is a rough estimate at best). The distance between the two is hard to determine. Ley gives no location but Stanley states he lives near the intersection of 64th ST and Shea . Based on Ley's description of his location, this is 4-5 miles to the west of Stanley. This information indicates that the computations using Fortson's observations are fairly accurate and that Ley's 100-150 foot altitude is impossible.

However, the altitude in the Fitzgerald article states they were at an altitude of 19,000 feet (which agrees with the pilot as something slightly above his altitude of 17,000 feet). Therefore, there may be an error in my calculations. The most likely source of this error is probably the interpretation of what witnesses described as being "overhead". Something that is 70 degrees in elevation would appear "overhead" to the casual observer. Looking at a potential direct flight path over Phoenix towards Tuscon indicates the flight would have been east of the Interstate by possibly a few miles for the Fortson calculation, where his moon observation has to be considered accurate. The Ley-Stanley computation is based on imprecise estimates at best. The whole calculation problem could have been resolved by a real effort to gather data from all these eyewitnesses as addressing in the previous section about the "investigators" efforts. The main point is that an altitude range of 19,000-40,000 feet is very high and can explain a lot:

When I pointed this out to Fortson, he stated that he did wonder why nobody investigated the sighting using this data (the 40 deg elevation). His response to me via Email was:

Something, I forgot to mention, on March 13 at 8:30 pm the bright, white bottom-quarter moon was in the western sky. It was not straight up for us. It was more beginning to set in the west. I'm sure that someone at ASU astronomy could pinpoint this. NO ONE HAS YET TO BOTHER (My emphasis). I suggested this to Jim Schnebelt of FOX channel 10. (Fortson)

Nobody has yet to bother? OVER NINE MONTHS SINCE THE INCIDENT and not a single "INVESTIGATOR" is interested in reducing one of the most valuable observations of that night! One other point is the statement Fortson made that the aircraft passed above the "UFO" (However, in an email conversation with me he said it passed below the object- an example of faded memories and loss of details). This is a matter of perspective. People want to assume that an object higher in the sky is at a higher altitude. This is an optical illusion for the observer. Although the object has a higher angle of elevation, a more distant object at a low angle would in reality be higher than the nearby object. The fact the aircraft did not move to avoid it is indicative that the object was something much higher than the aircraft. Altitudes of 35,000-40,000 feet would be standard cruising altitude for many jet aircraft.

Why were the lights so slow if they were moving over 300 mph?

With the height and speed we can compute some basic angular speeds of this formation. If the object were flying overhead, it would displace roughly 0.7-1.3 degrees per second (depending on the alittudes used). Even more amazing is what happens to these angular speeds as one looks at the object coming directly towards the observer from the north. Below is a table showing the angle of elevation in the sky, the apparent motion, and the rough distance of the object from the observer. I confess that these calculations are not 100% accurate since they do not take into account refraction factors and curvature of the earth. It is my belief that these factors are not too much of a concern until one is looking at the 5 or 10-degree values.

Angle of elevation Angular speed Distance from observer
5 degrees .01 deg/sec ~41-75 miles
10 degrees .02-.06 deg/sec ~20-39 miles
15 degrees .05-0.1 deg/sec ~13-25 miles
20 degrees 0.1-0.2 deg/sec ~10-18 miles
25 degrees 0.2-0.3 deg/sec ~8-14 miles

Note: I recalculated these values based on using the range of 19,000 - 35,000 foot altitude.

Compare these values for the space shuttle, which, depending on the height of its orbit, moves roughly at one degree per second. Looking straight up, an observer seeing the 300 mph formation of aircraft at 35,000 feet would appear to move at the same speed as 17 mph formation at 2000 feet (for 19,000 feet it equates to roughly 32 mph at 2000 feet). Surely, these speed estimates are fair demonstrate how the lights would appear to move at "blimp speed". Using the basic values above and assuming an observer saw the objects when they were 15 degrees above the horizon, we find out that they would observe them for about 2-5 minutes from time of sighting to when the objects passed overhead. This could seem like a long time as you view it. Pete Fournier and Tim Ley seem to have seen the objects even lower in the sky and his event could have lasted 5-10 minutes before the objects passed overhead. Tim estimates 15 minutes for the entire event. Mitch Stanley estimates 3-5 minutes and he seems to have started seeing them about 20 degrees above the horizon when he stated that they were "...first seen at about 10 degrees over my house to the northwest" (Stanley). It seems that the numbers vary depending on where the observer was in the flight path. Overall, the times seem to indicate that the calculations above are fairly accurate.

 

What about the reports of the lights being attached to a massive "V" or triangle?

The statement that it could be individual objects is repeated numerous times in eyewitness reports. Witnesses who felt that the object was a massive triangle felt that the object was transparent. Just a few comments from a June 18, 1997 USA today article below demonstrate this.

"We could see the outline of a mass behind the lights, but you couldn't exactly see the mass" Dana Valentine said, "It was more like a gray distortion of the night sky, wavy. I don't know what it was, but I know it's not a technology the public has heard of before."

Tim Ley says "It was astonishing and a little frightening. It was so big and so strange. You couldn't actually see the object. All you could see was the outline, as though something were blocking out the stars The lights looked like gas. There was a distortion on the surface. Also the light did not spill out or shine. I've never seen a light like that." (Price)

Tim Ley expanded on his observation of the distortion field effect behind the lights, "The kids were out in the street looking up inside the space between the arms and pointed out to my wife and I how strangely the stars looked, almost as if looking through a very thick glass with the slight distortion of the light as it passed through, caused by the thickness itself and a wavering effect caused by the motion of the craft" (Ley). It is possible Ley may have imagined these effects but it is also possible that the exhaust of the possible aircraft created this effect. Mike Fortson's statements about the moon changing color amplify this. He stated in his NUFORC report, "..we could see horizontal 'waves' as it passed. These waves were similar to gasoline fumes if one to take the lid off a gas can, and look at the reflection of the fumes" (Davenport Database). Ley adds that before the object was even overhead, he concluded it was a spaceship. Once again, he has used his imagination and states the shape of the object was a "V" and the lights were on a fixed structure. He describes it as black and mentions "Visual Stealth" characteristics. Other descriptions of the shape he used were, "The structure itself was very dark, just slightly darker than the sky. At a distance it seemed to blend into the sky so well that you could only see its shape because of the stars behind it showing its outline... It was very dark so we could just barely see its edges..." (Ley)

Even more amazing is that Tim Ley's sketch on April 6, 1997 to Bill Hamilton shows each leg being around 300 feet in length and not the 700 foot estimate he gives in later interviews. He also reported the 300 foot value in his NUFORC report. Maybe Tim was suffering from "triangle envy" because his estimates were smaller than others who felt it was up to a mile across. Anyway, one of the notes Ley jots on the side of the drawing is, "got impression of shape although only could...the l..." (Hamilton). Hamilton cropped off the edge of the note and we can not read his full statement although I think what he probably wrote was that he could only see the lights! The later tales told in June (his letter implies such since he mentions TV Shows and newspapers which he appeared quite prominently in June) seem to be amplified versions of his original tale. He did fill in the space between the lights to form his "V" and he doubled the size of the object! He does note that he could not see stars between the lights but considering he was viewing from the city and that the lights were pretty bright, any stars passed near would disappear momentarily especially if they were near the lights.

Tim Ley admits believing it to be a spaceship prior to observing these details behind the formation of lights. He attributes the existence of the structure because of the perfect formation of the lights (although many witnesses saw the lights not hold formation!). It does not take much more than wishful thinking to add the details that he describes. He states he focused on memorizing details but I doubt that he has a perfect memory. One has to remember how vivid the details of the Zond 4 debris were to witnesses. I do not think Tim Ley is lying, I just believe that his memories of the event are a combination of his imagination and how he wishes to remember the event. His changing the size and putting more structure to his object shows this.

It does not sound like that anything was there at all and people's imaginations produced the ghost shape behind the lights. It was a matter of just playing "Connect the dots!" The apparent "distortion field" could easily have been the combined exhaust of the aircraft or just imagination. It is hard to determine. Many of these observers felt the object was a mile or two across. Amazing that a 1-2 mile wide object passed over the city at extremely low altitude during a first quarter moon and was not illuminated by the city lights or the moon. A fact Mitch pointed out to me when describing his observation of the aircraft. "I could also see the silhouette of the planes. Ya know, sky glow allows you to see the silhouettes of planes very nicely" (Stanley). These witnesses are very likely mistaken and one should be skeptical of this object being singular and massive. William Hartman in the book "UFO's: A scientific debate" states that this is called the "airship effect", "..in which observers conceive of moving lights in a dark sky as connected in a single entity,.." (Sagan and Page 19)

The fact that Mike Fortson saw no structured craft as the lights passed between him and the moon and that a significant number of witnesses reported relative motion is highly indicative that the reports of a solid object behind the lights are inaccurate. Perhaps this quote by the airline pilot's report is revealing,

As they passed overhead, I took note of a particularly bright star and noted that the star was never obscured by any solid object as the lights passed it...I know this is at odds with some of the more dramatic reports of a gigantic dark object, but I am certain that I am not mistaken. Being a pilot, I am a trained observer of lighted airborne objects and, while these lights were indeed strange, there is no doubt in my mind that they were individual objects and not the running lights on some single large object. (Davenport Database)

Frame grabs showing how the V formation changed shape (Ross)

The final straw was the only video of this event taken by Terry Proctor, which clearly shows motion between the lights after 43 seconds of video tape. Terry also correctly determined the speed but seems to have underestimated the altitude. He felt the lights were 10,000-15,000 feet high. Considering the limitations of Mr. Proctor's observations, this is not surprising. His video tape supports the observations that indicate the lights were not attached to a massive object and were likely individual aircraft at high altitude.

Psychological/Physical aspects

Tim Ley mentions some psychological or physical effects of the craft on he and his family:

Somehow I was 'feeling' the craft in my nervous system; and so was my family. It was as if there was some type of field extending beyond the edge of the structure, and we could sense it....the kids started jumping up and down talking about how there was no sound and mentioning the movie 'Independence Day' and exhibiting symptoms of hysteria. (Ley)

Ley's description of the children seems more like any response from young kids seeing something unusual in the sky and I doubt the "spaceship" was causing his children to go into hysteria. He also states that he felt rather uneasy or slightly excited. This can be attributed to the situation at hand. Ley is trying to put more into his story than the facts.

Why did the lights mysteriously vanish after passing overhead?

The witnesses report direction lighting, which indicate landing lights as Contry observed. As the objects would pass overhead, the lights would go out since they could no longer be observed from below. Many witnesses reported the lights faded after they passed their position and several indicated that the lights just turned off. This was also reported in the Arizona Daily republic, when a Cub Scout reported seeing the lights turn off one at a time.

Why didn't they show up on radar?

The lack of radar confirmation is the big question. Why didn't anyone identify these aircraft? In the "Great UFO Coverup", Tony Ortega has a few key points to add on this matter.

Air traffic controller Bill Grava was on duty on March 13 at Sky Harbor International Airport. He, too, saw the lights, but not until they were on the southern horizon, slowly disappearing behind South Mountain. The lights were so bright that he thought they might have been flares.

He confirms that the object or objects did not register on radar as they passed overhead, a fact seconded by Captain Stacey Cotton of Luke Air Force Base. But both admitted that that doesn't rule out the possibility of a group of airplanes. Cotton says that the radar used by air traffic controllers reads signals emitted by transponders in the airplanes themselves.

Normally, in a formation of seven planes, only the lead plane would turn on its transponder so air traffic controllers could track it. If the lead plane's transponder was turned off, however, the seven planes could have passed by without detection.

Grava says that depending on the planes' altitude, that may have been perfectly legal. (Ortega Great)

If the aircraft were above the 18,000-foot ceiling, which defines the controlled airspace for the airport, then the Air Traffic Controllers would not be interested in tracking them. Instead it would have been the enroute flight controllers job to track these aircraft. The enroute controller is at a completely different location than the airport! Pilot Larry Campbell for American West knew this when he asked for information about the lights. Bill Hamilton promised Tom King would get the radar tapes in his MUFON report. This did not happen and as a result we are left grasping at straws for the radar situation. However, in the words of one air traffic controller (Rich McIntosh),

The Air Traffic System is designed to identify aircraft who want to be identified. I have been aware of instances where the transponder of a medium sized aircraft failed and we flat never saw the guy on the digitized radar. It is very easy to elude FAA radar... (McIntosh)

In my discussion with an ATC on AOL, I was told that some of these assumptions were not correct. Although, he admitted that the transponders were key to tracking, he felt that the aircraft above 30,000 feet would have to have been seen by the ATC's at Sky Harbor. He also mentioned that low altitude aircraft had a better chance of avoiding the radar since below a certain altitude it was legal for the aircraft to not use transponders (see Grava's statement above). Thus, it seems the Sky Harbor Radar, assuming that they had their transponders on, should have tracked the aircraft. Once again, the radar tapes would help resolve this situation. However, I am not as quick to agree that the ATC's at Sky Harbor were so vigilant. An incorrect bearing or a controller who is busy directing landing traffic could easily have missed the formation of aircraft above 30,000 feet. Once again, it is possible the aircraft could have been missed by the ATC's as Bill Grava and Rich McIntosh state.

Tony Ortega addressed the problem again in the March 5-11, 1998 edition of the Phoenix News Times,

The media have widely circulated reports that the 8:30 and 10 p.m. lights were mysteriously invisible to radar.

But a formation of a craft or crafts traveling at high altitude over Phoenix would have been monitored by FAA radar operators in Albuquerque, not at Sky Harbor Airport, says air traffic controller Bill Grava, who was on duty at Sky Harbor that night and witnessed the later, 10 p.m. lights. Grava says that if five planes in a vee passed over Phoenix at 8:30 p.m., they would have been represented by a sole asterisk on consoles at Sky Harbor -- not something that would have raised the curiosity of operators. As for the 10 p.m. event, Grava acknowledges that the North Tac range is beyond Sky Harbor's radar; if planes dropped flares over the range, it's no mystery why they would not have appeared on consoles at the airport.

Luke Air Force base has more powerful radar systems. But Luke's Captain Stacey Cotton says that radar operators at the base were asked if they had seen anything unusual that night, and answered no. She says that a formation of five planes -- traveling at high altitude above Sky Harbor's and outside of Luke's restricted air spaces -- would not have been considered unusual. Neither would a flare drop over the gunnery range.

Whether the 8:30 vee formation did register on the FAA's radar monitored in Albuquerque will apparently never be known. Despite the fervent activities of UFO investigators in the days following the sightings, no one bothered to make a formal request with the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office for radar tapes of the Phoenix area for March 13. If anyone had made such a request by March 28, there would be a permanent record for the public to examine, says the FAA's Gary Perrin. (Ortega Hack)

Bill Hamilton stated that Tom King would investigate this in his report. However, it appears that these efforts were half-hearted at best. On the discovery channel show, we listen to Bill Grava speak about the point when the radar check was done. The report of lights not registering on radar appears to have occurred during the 10PM event. It is possible that reporters confused the two events. The 10PM event would not be visible on radar since the flares were many miles to the south (and they would not show up on ATC radar). It is very possible for a formation of aircraft at high altitude to pass over Phoenix and not be noticed by ATC radar.

How large was the formation of lights?

The angular size of the object was observed by several people to be greater than 10 degrees. Many of these were directly under the flight path. Tim Ley's computer drawing of the object appears to cover an area about this size or even bigger. His sketch seems to imply something a bit smaller but one can not truly tell since he gives no scale. His description seems to describe something 20 degrees or more across. Twenty degrees from a distance of 35,000 feet is two and a half miles across. Mike Fortson's sketch (which he says was not his drawing but he would not give me any angular size) showed the object to be only two to three degrees across, which equates to one quarter to one half mile across from his location. Mitch Stanley almost fit three (he told me that the third aircraft was just outside the FOV) of the five planes into his field of about a degree from Scottsdale. He also stated to me that the formation was about 5 degrees across at best. This computes to about one mile across. The Fortson and Stanley observations are from an odd angle and perspective could be a problem. At best, I can state the size was some one to two miles across. This is important when we look at the ATC's scanning their radar for a compact formation of objects at low altitude. Did they look for a wide spread formation of aircraft at very high altitude? Would they have been able to notice this? Ideally, they should have been able to. However, if the formation had its transponders off or only one transponder was being used (as is normal for a formation flight), then it would be very difficult for the ATC's to identify this formation as the cause. The AFB radar which would have all aircraft flying around the city of Phoenix that night, would have to pick out 5 aircraft that were about 1000-3000 feet apart from each other on the same vector. Considering the air traffic and that they were following a standard air route, the AFB could easily have ignored this flight as well.

Why didn't the others recognize the lights as aircraft?

Stanley's observation of the lights being aircraft with three lights is the only observation other than Contry revealing the lights as distant aircraft. There is some confirmation in several NUFORC reports . Assuming these lights were 10 feet apart, they would cover an area of the sky less than 1 minute of arc across when passing overhead. If the lights were as bright as many have stated, this would cause the three to merge into one and also probably mask out any other lights. To the naked eye, there would be no second or third light. Several people report using binoculars. Hand held binoculars that were not used properly may have caused the witnesses to miss the split. Although it would not have been an easy split because 1 minute of arc equates to the size of Venus when it is closest to earth. The glare of Venus often will hide the crescent phase from only keen eyed observers who are using binoculars. Magnification, steadiness of the observers arms, and clarity of the view would be key for the observer to resolve the lights. Rich Contry's sighting was apparently made when the craft were at a lower altitude and he was using high magnification binoculars (10X50 vice 7X50 which are standard binocular sizes). He heard the engines and also apparently saw the landing gear with the lights. The stability of Stanley's scope aided him in making the necessary observation. We also do not know if the witnesses saw the lights split into two/three because of the editing of data. This is apparent in Tim Ley's account where he mentions seeing one light as actually appearing to be composed of two separate lights. This was not mentioned in the MUFON or NUFORC reports. The directional lights indicate that the landing lights may have been on or that they were lamps set up this way.

Another potential confirmation that Mitch's observations were correct came from Captain Bienz of the Arizona National Guard. She sent the following FAX to Bill Hamilton on July 9, 1997:

As I told you on the phone, my involvement started because one of our Apache helicopters pilots called a local T.V. station and told them he was flying that night and that he thought it was a combination of training flares at the Gila Bend range and A FORMATION OF MILITARY AIRCRAFT FLYING IN A WEDGE FORMATION (My emphasis). They were flying using their FLIR (Forward Looking Infared) and picked up the "heat" and made the assumptions that it was dur to flares or aircraft. They were flying down in Picacho Peak area at the time. (Bienz)

The helicopters would have seen the V-formation around 8:40 - 8:50 PM based on the timeline in the reports. A little over an hour later they would have seen the flares. I am not sure when the pilot apparently saw the formation since Bienz does not mention this. However, Hamilton apparently did not follow this line of questioning. The helicopter could have been operating during the 8:30 - 10PM time period to see both events! If he saw the formation with his FLIR and deduced them to be aircraft, it would be solid proof that Mitch's observations were very accurate.

Final conclusions

The desires of the "Investigators" to discard Stanley's sightings was made clear in my communications with Jack Jones (the astronomer who got Mitch's story published in the Phoenix Newstimes article). He states that Tom King and/or Village Labs were to contact him about Mitch's observation. Nobody contacted them. Is it because they were too busy or did they just not want to hear about this explanation? Mitch's appearance at the "town meeting" was met with some opposition, which was apparent on the Discovery channel show. Mike Fortson implied that several of the "faithful" thought Mitch was lying because he hesitated. However, one must realize that Mitch was like an atheist showing up to the church Sunday meeting. Mitch told me,

Well I wasn't the most welcome person there but I don't feel I was treated badly. Well they all acted like it was just another story about what could have happened. All of those people had their own interpretation of what had happened. Yeah and they did try to discredit me a little when I was talking and I don't think anybody there wanted to believe my story, like I said they all had their own interpretations of what had happened and they were not going to change their mind. (Stanley)

The desire to ignore Mitch Stanley's sighting is due to the various stories told by witnesses. Many investigators will assume that all witness testimony is 100% accurate. However, they are far from the truth. There are too many errors involved, as I have previously pointed out. The investigators should have looked closely and scrutinized the data for key information. The Fortson sighting near the moon is a key point yet nobody pursued the information. Instead, the investigators let witnesses determine the altitudes/speeds/sizes based on what they think they saw. Dr Carl Sagan writes in "The Demon Haunted World", "No anecdotal claim - no matter how sincere, no matter how deeply felt, no matter how exemplary the lives of the attesting citizens - carries much weight on so important a question. As in the older UFO cases, anecdotal accounts are subject to irreducible error." (Sagan Demon 180)

My analysis attempted to extract the key information that was available (as meager as this data was). There is some error involved but I am confident that the values presented are accurate enough for the purposes of evaluating what happened that night. As for Mitch, he had the right equipment and the experience to make a close examination of these lights. He did not assume anything until he was able to clearly identify them. To dismiss his observation, shows a desire to perpetuate a mystery and not solve it. The investigators need to provide all the data available to the public in addition to their summaries. The Internet is a wonderful place for information. Why did I have to go to so many sites to find the data? Some of the sites are now dead (Bill Hamilton and Tom King keep dropping and changing sites). Anyone, who wishes to, must be able to duplicate the work of Hamilton/Village Labs/NUFORC/MUFON in order to give these conclusions credibility. Since this is not done, one must question the hypothesis presented. Mysterious individuals from unknown locations are not credible. The locations of the individual to the nearest couple of blocks with observational data that can be quantified and used for deductive purposes go a long way. This is far more informative than imaginative claims of speed and altitude produced by the observer.

For those who feel that a formation of aircraft could not have been the cause, I present two cases that turned out to be aircraft formations. The first case comes from Ed Ruppelt's book, "The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects",

On October 8, 1954, many Los Angeles newspapers and newscasters carried an item about a group of flying saucers, bright lights, flying in a V formation. The lights had been seen from many locations over Southern California. Pilots saw them while bringing their airplanes into Los Angeles International Airport, Air Force pilots flying out of Long Beach saw them, two CBS reporters in Hollywood gave an eyewitness account, and countless people called police and civil defense officials. All of them excitedly reported lights they could not identify. The next day the Air Force identified the UFO's; they were Air Force airplanes, KC-97 aerial tankers, refueling B-47 jet bombers in flight. The reason for the weird effect that startled so many Southern Californians was that when the refueling is taking place a floodlight on the bottom of the tanker airplane lights up the bomber that is being refueled. The airplanes were flying high, and slowly, so no sound was heard; only the bright floodlights could be seen. Since most people, even other pilots, have never seen a night aerial refueling operation and could not identify the odd lights they saw, the lights became UFO's. (Ruppelt 8)

The second case is reported by Allan Hendry.

The Air National Guard in Grand Rapids, Michigan, decided to fly three Cessna Skymasters in formation around the suburbs. The planes, outfitted with bright white lights in the front and red and green lights in the back, flew at 2,500 feet altitude at 160 mph...A couple of college students I spoke to watched them pass in a line directly overhead; they could see the light configurations and hear the loud droning noise. Yet one of them even crouched in far when the trio flew overhead, and concluded that they must be UFOs. Ten miles away and fifteen minutes later, other witnesses caught sight of the planes and provided these descriptions:

***one large round objects with lights

***three lights that "whipped across the road" almost instantly--"much too fast for aircraft"

***three white lights followed by red lights that moved "all over", very quickly converged, and hovered over a woods.

What does it mean when independent witnesses can be equally excited over these Cessna planes and offer inconsistent accounts of their appearance and behavior? (Hendry 39)

As you can see, it has happened before and the precedent has been set.

The three possible aircraft candidates. The A-10 (Left), CT-144 (middle), and T-37 (right). The CT-144 and T-37 have lights in the nose of the aircraft, which is similar to what Mitch Stanley reported seeing.

What about the types and identity of the aircraft were involved? This is the final answer that should have been ascertained by rapid investigation. Unfortunately, it appears that nobody bothered to check on the possibility of aircraft until it was too late. We know that Mitch states they were straight wing aircraft and the speed/altitudes involved suggests jet aircraft (although propeller aircraft could have been involved). There are few jets of this type in the military inventory. The A-10 is a prime suspect and we also have the Tutor (CT-144/CT-114) mentioned in the Fitzgerald article. There is also the T-37B "Tweet". All three aircraft are capable of the altitudes and speeds involved. Based on the flight pattern it appears this was a simple training flight from Nellis to Tuscon. Air units from Canada and northern states need training time and the weather is better in the south at that time of year. Stopping over in Tuscon for one night and then proceeding onto the next airbase would have allowed the flight to "slip through the cracks" of a less than thorough investigation.

Could the aircraft appear as described by the eyewitnesses? This video of a Snowbird flyby at low altitude gives the impression of seeing three lights on the aircraft as described by Stanley. The following image shows several frames from that video clip. Note the very bright nose light on the aircraft in the images. Especially the one when the aircraft were distant on the left, where the navigation lights are difficult to see. Could the noselight on this type of aircraft been the source of the bright light that made up the formation that evening?

The snowbirds flying over at low altitude during the Canadian Grey Cup pre game ceremony for 2006.

The T-37 also has a similar noselight in the front.  Remember, numerous witnesses described the lights winking out after they passed overhead! 

One last possibility is aircraft enthusiasts flying vintage aircraft from WWII. The P51 Mustang and P47 Thunderbolt were high altitude fighters capable of the speeds involved. Such possibilities should also be examined if one were looking for the formation's source. Since there was no effort to get the radar tapes or investigate flight plans, we may never know. An investigation would need to check civilian and military flights coming from Utah, Nevada, or California, in addition to Northern Arizona. Without this information, the case will remain open.

From the above information, it is highly likely that the V-shaped formation was a formation of aircraft cruising over Phoenix at high altitude. Could it have been alien spaceships? I doubt it. Remember the lights did nothing unusual to indicate that they were alien in nature. Instead the lights followed Interstate 17 and 10 for most of their flight. Anyone flying at high altitude would have a lighted ribbon to follow for navigation purposes (Certainly, aliens who traveled light years would have a better navigation system than following illuminated highways!). I am not saying that my analysis is the absolute answer but when one looks at the basic facts involved, it is the most likely explanation.

 

Works Cited

Bienz, Eileen. FAX to Bill Hamilton. Online. Internet. (Link no longer available)

Contry, Rich. "Re: Lights over Arizona [4 msgs]" Online. Internet. Area 51 Mailing List. http://www.ufomind.com/area51/list/1997/mar/a19-003.shtml

Davenport, Peter. "The Phoenix Lights: Update From Peter Davenport." Online. Internet. (Link no longer available)

Davenport, Peter. National UFO Center UFO Reports Database. Online. Internet. http://www.nuforc.org/webreports.html

Fitzgerald, Randy. "UFOs-A Second Look." Readers Digest. May 1999.

Fortson, Mike. E-Mail to Author. December 1997.

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

Hamilton, Bill. Photograph of Tim Ley's UFO dated 4/6/97. Online. Internet (Link no longer available).

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

Ley, Tim. "Tim Ley family -- Eyewitnesses of 3/13/97 Arizona UFO flyover event called "Phoenix lights". Online. Internet. http://www.qtm.net/~geibdan/a1999/aug/b7.htm

McIntosh, Rich. "Former Air Controller Says No Restriction on UFO Reports" Online. Internet. Area 51 Mailing List. http://www.ufomind.com/area51/list/1997/jun/a20-008.shtml

Ortega, Tony. "The Great UFO Coverup." Phoenix Newstimes. 26 June 1997.

Ortega, Tony. "The Hack and the Quack." Phoenix Newstimes. 5 March 1998.

Page, Andy. "1997 Prescott Arizona Sighting". Online. Internet. (Link no longer available)

Price, Richard. "Skies, Phone Lines Light Up Arizona". USA Today. 18 June 1997.

Ruppelt, Edward. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. New York: Doubleday 1956.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon Haunted World. New York: Ballantine 1996.

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

Stanley, Mitch. E-Mail to Author. 1-10 February 1998.

 

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