By Enigma Labs

The Phoenix Lights is a well-known UFO sighting that took place in the skies over and around Phoenix, Arizona on the night of March 13, 1997. According to witness testimony, the Phoenix Lights actually consists of two separate events spanning from 7:30 PM local time to around 10:30 pm local time, covering approximately 300 miles from the Nevada state line, through Phoenix, and finally to the edge of Tucson, Arizona.

The first sightings occurred as early as 7:30 pm and up to 8:30 pm and involved a series of lights in a “V” shape that many witnesses describe as a boomerang-shaped craft that flew at a low speed directly over homes across much of the Mesa and Phoenix skyline. At present, there is only one video that purports to show that event.

The second sighting, which occurred around 10 to 10:30 pm, involved a line of up to nine bright lights in the sky southwest of Phoenix that was recorded by a number of witnesses. This event boasts over 20,000 direct witnesses, as well as a number of videos, and is often touted as the largest single mass UFO sighting in history.

In the two and a half decades since the pair of events, a number of ideas and theories have emerged to explain them. In the first sighting, the large number of witnesses who claim to have seen a physical, boomerang-shaped craft has been countered by a lone amateur astronomer who says he saw the lights through his telescope and was able to confirm they were simply planes flying in a V formation and not a single craft.

The second event has been more closely scrutinized, with analysis of the various recordings of the events and testimony from the Air National Guard offering some support for these lights being flares that were dropped by military aircraft. This report was ultimately confirmed by the Air National Guard, even though they had initially denied having any planes in the sky that night.

Following both sightings and the outpouring of concern by local citizens, then Arizona Governor Fife Symington held a press conference where his chief of staff came out in an alien costume and handcuffs. At the time, Symington said this was an effort to calm the frenzy that was building around the pair of sightings. Years later, Symington said he regretted the press conference, while also admitting that he was a witness to the V-shaped lights.

Symington’s initially cavalier approach to the concerns of local citizens was in notable contrast to local Phoenix councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood and even Arizona Senator John McCain, both of whom asked for a formal investigation into the mysterious lights. In numerous interviews, Barwood says that like Symington, her office was also flooded with calls by concerned citizens, leading her to demand the Air Force investigate the sightings.

Also notable, the lights were reported to the local FAA by a “general aviation pilot” who called from his private airplane just before landing to report the lights and see if the airport had anything on their radar. According to that witness, the radar operators said they did not have anything on their scopes. In 2017, actor Kurt Russel came forward as that general aviation pilot, explaining in a live television appearance that he had been arriving in Phoenix with his then 10-year-old son Oliver and that he was the pilot who called them into the FAA.

The First Event: First Witnesses & The Ley Family

Starting around 8 pm local time, a number of Phoenix-area witnesses say they saw a large, boomerang-shaped craft fly slowly over the city, with many witnesses also saying the massive, silent craft flew directly over their heads.

The first report came in at about 6:55 pm PST (7:55 pm MST), from a man who reported seeing a V-shaped object above Henderson, Nevada. That witness said it was about the "size of a (Boeing) 747," that it sounded like "rushing wind," and had six lights on its leading edge. 

Soon, other reports were coming in from Prescott valley residents, who said the object was definitely solid since it blocked out stars as it passed overhead. One of the most referenced witness accounts of this first event comes from local residents Tim and Bobbie Ley and their son Hal.

In an interview with the local Phoenix media. Mr. Ley said he was coming into the driveway with his son, Hal, when he looked out the side window and he saw five distinct lights “far up in the direction of Prescott (Arizona).”

At that point, Hal ran into the house to get his mother, Bobbie. Mr. Ley says that he, his grandson (Damian), his wife Bobbie, and their son Hal continued to monitor the lights as they came closer to their family home.

“All of a sudden,” said Mr. Ley, “instead of being five lights in a round, arc shape, the lead light seemed to come out in front, and now it looked like a V-formation flying towards us. “

At this point. Ley says he started to think they may be a formation of helicopters. But as the lights held a perfect formation, Ley said that he and his family started to think it was some kind of object.

“When it was about just a couple of miles away…All of a sudden, I caught the image of what it was. I could see its outline. It was almost the same exact color of the sky, but because it was passing over stars, the stars were being blocked out, and then come back after it passed. And it looked like a very geometric carpenter’s square. Like an equilateral triangle without the bottom.”

Bobbie Ley echoed this description.

“When it was coming toward us…I could see it just as clear as a bell, that it was shaped, what I said at the time, was like a carpenter’s square. It looked like a flying carpenter’s square.”

“The outer edge of this thing was so perfectly straight,” added Mr. Ley, “dark, almost the same color as the sky. But you could see the stars, and then you couldn’t see the stars.”

He then describes the massive size of the object as it flew directly overhead, noting that it was so large he could no longer see the farthest edge of the craft. Hal Ley said it was also flying very low as it passed. 

“My nephew Damian said that you probably could have thrown a tennis ball or a rock up and hit it. It was that close,” he said.

Tim Ley also describes the brightness of the lights as they passed directly overhead, noting that they were extremely bright but didn’t seem to illuminate the area around them. He then says the craft continued past them and toward some local mountain peaks before he and his family lost sight of it in the haze of the lights from the nearby airport.

The First Event: Nurse David Parker

Another witness who more or less supports the Leys’s account is a nurse named David Parker who recounted his observations on the 2022 television show Mysteries Decoded: The Phoenix Lights.

“I was driving back west, from Mesa to Phoenix…and when I got off the freeway very close to here, there was this massive boomerang floating in the air, coming towards me very slow. Huge. As it came closer, it gently floated over me above my head. I could see the entire skin of the craft. It was like a gunmetal gray, slightly reflective, and it was covered with thousands of what looked like thumbprints, little oval divots, all over the bottom side of it.”

When asked to estimate the size of the craft, Parer said, “I’m gonna say, from wingtip to wingtip, this boomerang-shaped craft, probably a mile to a mile and a half wide. I could see there was multiple lights at the bottom of it.”

Parker also added that the craft took up about 70% of the horizon as it passed overhead.

“I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “With the massive size that it was, and how it just drifted by. It didn’t make any wind, it didn’t blow my hair. It didn’t make any sound.”

Parker says he was initially very vocal about what he saw, but after Governor Symington minimized the event in the now notorious press conference, he decided to “shut up about it.”

Amateur Astronomer Offers a Different Explanation for First Event

Alongside the numerous witnesses who say they saw a large, V-shaped craft, there is also a witness named Mitch Stanley who said he was able to view the craft through his telescope, and that it was not a single craft.

According to his testimony, Stanley had a Dobsonian telescope that employs a 10-inch mirror. This size telescope gathers 1,500 times as much light as the human eye. According to media reports, Stanley’s telescope also had an eyepiece that magnified the sky 60 times.

After spotting the lights around 8:30 pm, Stanley says his mother asked what the formation was. He says he checked them out using this telescope, and that he could see that it was not a single object but a formation of individual objects, telling his mother that it was simply “Planes.”

“They were planes,” he said. “There’s no way I could have mistaken that.”

A number of other witnesses to the initial event also say they couldn’t tell if it was a single object or simply aircraft flying in formation, but Stanley is the only witness to definitively state that the V-shaped lights were a formation of planes.

Only One Video of the First Event Exists

Since the 1997 sightings, numerous videos of the 10 pm event have surfaced. However, only one video that supposedly shows the first event has surfaced. Mysteries Decoded had this video analyzed by audio and video expert and forensic analyst Jennifer Owen.

“The power of video processing is, now we can go frame by frame,” explains Owen as she cues up the video in her analysis software. “And in doing so, we can see, it’s definitely a singular mass, flying object.”

“It’s geometrically sound,” she adds. “We can see the sky, but what about right here?”

Owen points to the center of the formation of the lights before continuing her analysis.

“There nothing in between this mass right here. So, that would lead us to believe that this is an aircraft. This is a pretty big aircraft that holds its shape, and these five lights moving as a singular unit throughout the video.”

Thus far, no other photos or videos of the first event have surfaced.

The Second Event

The second event to take place on the night of March 13, 1997, involved a string of lights along the southwestern edge of Phoenix toward Sierra Estrella. According to witness statements and numerous video recordings, the string of up to nine lights seemed to hang motionlessly in the sky for several minutes before winking out one by one. This event was witnessed by thousands of local residents and caused a flood of calls to local officials for an explanation.

The most famous of the videos of the second event, which has appeared in the majority of media coverage, came from local resident Mike Krzyston, who witnessed and recorded the lights from his Moon Valley home.

The Local Air National Guard, stationed at Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, initially said they had not dropped any flares that evening, an explanation which had initially been offered as the most likely cause for the lights seen to the southwest of Phoenix. However, a 2017 article titled “The Phoenix Lights 20 Years Later: Still the Same Set of Panes and Flares over Arizona,” says it was ultimately determined that the lights seen by thousands of residents were indeed flares.

“In June (1997), KPNX-TV Channel 12 reporter Blair Meeks filmed a drop of flares by military planes over the Air Force gunnery ranges southwest of Phoenix. The hovering lights looked remarkably like the 10 p.m. lights of March 13, and Meeks suggested it as a possible solution to that night’s second event.”

“Within days, Tucson Weekly broke the news that the Maryland Air National Guard, in Arizona for winter training, had a squad of A-10 fighters over the gunnery range that night (March 13), and they had dropped flares. An Arizona National Guard public information officer, Captain Eileen Bienz, had determined that the flares had been dropped at 10 p.m. over the North Tac range 30 miles southwest of Phoenix, at an unusually high altitude: 15,000 feet.”

The same report notes that Captain Drew Sullins, spokesman for the Maryland Air National Guard, said that the A-10s, “which have squarish wings,” never flew north of Phoenix, “so they could not have been responsible for the formation of planes seen at 8:30 p.m.”

The U.S. Air Force later explained that the second event was slow-falling, long-burning LUU-2B/B illumination flares dropped by a flight of four A-10 Warthog aircraft on a training exercise at the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in western Pima County.

Video Analysis

A self-described video expert named Jim DIletosso determined that the lights seen around 10 pm could not have been flares since his spectral analysis showed their light signature was inconsistent with flares. Numerous experts later countered Diletosso’s claims, noting that the video camcorder recordings he was analyzing did not possess the required data to do such a spectral analysis.

To bolster his claims, Diletosso said he contacted Dr. Richard Powell at the University of Arizona, and that Powell supported his spectral analysis.

“He called here and I talked to him,” Powell later conceded, “and I could not, for the life of me, understand him.”

“I don’t know how you take a photograph or a videotape after the fact and analyze it and get that information out,” added Powell of Diletosso’s suspect claims. “We didn’t say that his method was valid, we said we didn’t have any other way that was any better.”

After initially reporting Diletosso’s claim as a valid “spectral analysis,” the Discovery Channel sought a second analysis of the Kryzston footage from Dr. Leonid Rudin at the Pasadena image-processing firm Cognitech. Rudin was also provided a daytime shot from Krzyston’s yard which depicted the distant Sierra Estrella, a mountain range that is not visible in the nighttime video.

In his analysis, Rudin was able to match up the daytime and nighttime shots frame by frame, lining them up perfectly using a distant ridge. As a result, Rudin was able to show that the lights were not only above the Estrella, but also demonstrated how each one blinked out at the precise time they would have reached the top of the mountains. His ultimate conclusion was that this is consistent with the 10 pm lights being flares.

Governor Fife Symington Press Conference & Sighting

In a now infamous press conference the day after the sighting, then Arizona Governor Fife Symington addressed the matter to an anxious public. After some initial statements, Simington turned toward the back of the stage.

“And now I’ll ask Doctor Stein and his colleagues to escort the accused into the room so that we may all look upon the guilty party.”

At this point, Symington’s Chief of Staff, who was dressed in a generic alien costume and handcuffed, was led to the stage. When the audience of reporters and concerned citizens who appeared to be hoping for an actual explanation of the mysterious lights sounded unamused, Symington shook his head, chuckled, and stated, “Now this just goes to show that you guys are entirely too serious.”

Years later, Symington said he regretted the press conference and ultimately penned a piece for CNN chronicling his own experience, which included witnessing the first event.

“In 1997, during my second term as governor of Arizona, I saw something that defied logic and challenged my reality,” Symington wrote.

“I witnessed a massive delta-shaped, craft silently navigate over Squaw Peak, a mountain range in Phoenix, Arizona. It was truly breathtaking. I was absolutely stunned because I was turning to the west looking for the distant Phoenix Lights. To my astonishment this apparition appeared; this dramatically large, very distinctive leading edge with some enormous lights was traveling through the Arizona sky. As a pilot and a former Air Force Officer, I can definitively say that this craft did not resemble any man-made object I'd ever seen. And it was certainly not high-altitude flares because flares don't fly in formation.”

In other reports, Sygminton described what he saw as “otherworldly.”

In a 2007 interview with The Daily Courier in Prescott, Arizona, Symington said, "I'm a pilot and I know just about every machine that flies. It was bigger than anything that I've ever seen. It remains a great mystery. Other people saw it, responsible people. I don't know why people would ridicule it."

Conspiracy Theory

Over time, the majority of witnesses have seemingly accepted the answer that the 10 pm lights were most likely flares dropped by Air National Guard pilots. However, some have suggested these flares were only dropped to confuse witnesses to the V-shaped craft seen two hours earlier.

In the episode of Mysteries Decoded, host Jennifer Marshall explains this theory to former Air National Guard pilot Jeff Bucher, who was actually in the air in Phoenix on the night of March 3, 1997, and who says he dropped flares.

“There is a conspiracy theory that says there actually was some sort of event, whether it was extraterrestrial or foreign military in nature, and that the National Guard deployed the A-10s as a way to kind of cover-up or divert attention away from the first event,” says Marshall. “What are your thoughts on that?”

“A scenario that you are talking about, we would almost have to be on a strip alert of some sort, which we don’t do, with the munitions loaded to make all of that happen,” countered Bucher.

An anonymous Vietnam War fighter pilot who offered testimony to his experience that night isn’t convinced that the flares seen at 10 pm were not dropped to distract from the sighting of the v-shaped craft he and others saw.

“Why, on this night, were flares dropped on the very northern edge of the range on a night when there is this other sighting?” he asks, also stating he thought he might be designed to confuse those who saw the initial craft.

Kurt Russell Comes Forward as General Aviation Pilot

Reports of the event often refer to a “general aviation pilot” who spotted the Phoenix Lights as he flew his small private plane in for a landing. That pilot’s identity remained a mystery until 2017 when Actor Kurt Russell came forward during a BBC television broadcast where the incident was being discussed and admitted he was the pilot who had contacted the radar tower to report the lights.

“The tail number of that plane was Bonanza Two Tango Sierra, and I was the pilot,” said Russell.

Following the clearly shocked reactions by the rest of the panel, which included fellow actor Chris Pratt, the reporter who was discussing the event looked over his paperwork and exclaimed, “it doesn’t say that in the briefing!” 

Russel then proceeded to recount his experience that night.

“Oliver (his son) and I were flying in, I was flying him to go see his girlfriend. And we’re on approach, and I saw six lights over the airport. In an absolute uniform, in a “v” shape.”

Russell said that after his son expressed concern for their safety, he called the lights into the tower. According to Russell, the tower said that they were not “painting anything,” meaning the lights he and his son were seeing were not showing up on the airport’s radar.

“I said ‘well, okay, I’m gonna declare it’s unidentified,” explained Russell, “but it is flying and it is six objects.”

Russell says that at that point they landed without incident, and he put the encounter out of his mind. Two years later, his longtime partner, actor Goldie Hahn, was watching a TV show about the Phoenix Lights, and the incident suddenly came back to him.

“I’m kinda hearing this TV going and I stopped, and I started watching, and it was on that event. Now that was the most viewed event, over 20,000 people saw that. And I’m watching this, and I’m feeling like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was like, ‘why do I know this?’ And it’s not coming to me. And then they said a pilot reported it, a general aviation pilot reported it on landing. I had never thought of it since then, and I said ‘that was me! That was me!’ And I said, wait a minute, I’ll go to my log books. And I go to my log books, and there was the flight, at that time, and I didn’t mention anything about the UFO.”

Russell points out that he had put it out of his mind and Oliver never mentioned it, so had Goldie not been watching that particular show at that particular time, he may have never made the connection and the identity of the general aviation pilot would have remained unknown.

“That, to me, was the weird part,” concluded Russell.

Appearances in Media & Legacy

Due to the massive scale of the Phoenix Lights events, which included as many as 20,000 witnesses, a number of documentaries have recounted the events of March 13, 1997. This includes a 2005 documentary titled “Phoenix Lights,” an entire episode of the four-part JJ Abrams Docuseries “UFO” which appeared on Showtime in 2021, the Mysteries Decoded episode from 2022, and several others.

As of 2022, the Phoenix Lights case, particularly the first of the two events, is still considered unsolved. The second event, although potentially military flares, also remain historically significant as the largest mass sighting in UFO history. Both events continue to inspire books, documentaries, and TV shows to this day.


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