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The ‘Phoenix Lights’ Become an ‘Incident’

Sheaffer’s “Psychic Vibrations” column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for forty years. His new book, Bad UFOs, is available through his blog, BadUFOs.com. His website is www.debunker.com.

One of the best-known UFO sightings in recent years—the so-called “Phoenix Lights”— took place on the evening of March 13, 1997. They were very widely seen largely because that was one of the best nights to see the bright naked-eye Comet Hale-Bopp, and large numbers of people went outdoors to observe it. They were surprised to see something else in the sky. (There were later, unrelated Phoenix Lights events as well; see, for example, “The Mysterious Phoenix Lights,” SI, July/August 2008.)

The Phoenix Lights episode actually consists of two unrelated incidents, although both were the result of activities of the same organization: Operation Snowbird, a pilot training program operated in the winter by the Air National Guard out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In the first incident, something described as a large “flying triangle” was sighted during the eight o’clock hour. Five A-10 jets from Operation Snowbird had flown from Tucson to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas several days earlier, and because this was the final night of the operation, they were now returning. The A-10 jets were flying under VFR (visual flight rules), so there was no need for them to check in with airports along the route. They were following the main air corridor for air traffic traveling that route, the “highway in the sky.” (Why a UFO would follow U.S. air traffic corridors is a mystery.) Because they were flying in formation mode, they did not have on their familiar blinking collision lights but instead their formation lights, which look like landing lights (in any case, Federal Aviation Administration rules concerning private and commercial aircraft lights, flight altitudes, etc., do not apply to military aircraft). The A-10s flew over the Phoenix area and flew on to Tucson, landing at Davis-Monthan about 8:45 pm. Some witnesses claim that it was a single huge solid object, but the sole video existing of the objects shows them moving with respect to each other, and hence were separate objects.

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