Published: Sept. 12, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
It was March 13, 1997, a pleasant spring evening in Arizona, clear and still. Countless families were outside in larger-than-usual numbers gazing at the sky because Comet Hale-Bopp was to be visible that night.
Instead, beginning about 8 p.m, they were provided with an even more astounding aerial spectacle: a series of massive, eerily silent craft gliding overhead.
One central object moved from the north, southeast across the state, traveling about 200 miles from Paulden to Tucson, passing near Phoenix and surrounding communities. It was on display from 8:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Many hundreds - more likely thousands - saw it that night.
Police phone lines were jammed, and Luke Air Force Base was overwhelmed with calls. Reports of sightings from around the state flooded the lines at the National UFO Reporting Center, a well-known Seattle-based repository for UFO reports cited in the Federal Aviation Administration manual.
Even so, air-traffic controllers apparently did not register the strange objects on radar. Although descriptions of the array of lights differed, one overriding characteristic prevailed: The craft was massive; it was a solid object, not merely lights; and it often appeared to be low in the sky, blocking out the stars behind it.
No government officials were dispatched to investigate or respond to questions from alarmed and awestruck citizens. To put it bluntly, the federal government failed to react to the presence of something huge and unknown invading restricted airspace over a capital city in the United States.
Phoenix Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood, responding to pressure from journalists and her constituents, was the only elected official to launch a public investigation.
But she said that she, too, received no information from any level of government. Barwood says she spoke with more than 700 witnesses who called her office, including police officers, pilots and former military personnel, all providing similar descriptions of the objects.
Minimal coverage was provided at the time of the incident by the media, even in Phoenix, with a few local papers and news stations making note but few following up.
Three months later, on June 18, that all changed when USA Today brought the case into the national spotlight with a front-page story. It was further catapulted onto the network evening news when the sightings were covered, although minimally, by ABC and NBC, and became known as the Phoenix Lights.
The next day, on June 19, Gov. Fife Symington announced that he was ordering a full investigation and would make "all the necessary inquiries."
"We're going to get to the bottom of this," he said. "We're going to find out if it was a UFO."
Television news and documentaries about the Phoenix Lights repeatedly feature a video taken around 10 p.m. by an amateur photographer, as if it represented actual footage of the UFO. But there is a discrepancy between the time the video was taken and the earlier sighting of the UFO.
The now-infamous video has been subjected to detailed analysis by at least two qualified professionals, and both determined that the brilliant lights shown hanging in a row over a mountain ridge and then dropping out of sight were, in fact, flares.
The time of the flare drops is extremely important. The most widely viewed sightings of unidentified objects across Arizona that evening began at approximately 8:15, although some objects were viewed earlier in daylight.
Clearly, the UFO flyovers were a separate event occurring independently of the later flares. The case simmered until Symington brought it into the limelight in 2007, the 10th anniversary of the Phoenix Lights. He unexpectedly made a dramatic surprise announcement: that despite his spoof news conference of the incident while governor, he had witnessed what he called a "craft of unknown origin" along with his fellow citizens on that same March evening but had decided not to make this public.
In addition, Symington stated the case remained unsolved, that it should be officially investigated, and that UFO incidents in general need to be taken seriously by the U.S. government.
Symington's words represent a historical turning point in the effort to bring official recognition and policy change to the UFO issue in America. Never before has a twice-elected official of this stature not only acknowledged witnessing an unmistakable unidentified flying object but also taken a public stand advocating for change.
When he was forced to test the system, the governor discovered that it doesn't work. As a result, he has to some extent made this effort a personal mission, which is being carried forward with the support of other equally convinced former officials from other countries.
As a former elected government official in America and part of the political establishment, Symington is uniquely positioned to influence a change in policy. Through his contacts and experience in government, he can help move us toward the founding of a new government agency - which he could have benefited from so much while in office - and has already done so by adding his voice and support to our international effort.
Investigative journalist Leslie Kean is the author of the New York Times best-seller "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record" (Harmony/Crown), from which this was adapted for The Arizona Republic. Her work has appeared in many publications, including the Nation, International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe. She is also the co-author of "Burma's Revolution of the Spirit" and co-founder of the Coalition for Freedom of Information. For more information, visit Kean's website, www.ufosontherecord.com, or her Facebook page under Leslie Kean.
See the UFO Casebook case file, The Phoenix Lights.