Intrigue persists over lights in sky-For first time, military pilot tells of dropping flares; others say 'Phoenix Lights' were UFOs.
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 25, 2007 12:00 AM
On a mild springlike evening the string of amber orbs appeared as if by magic, a celestial sleight of hand that would in the coming weeks make headlines and video highlights across the nation.
Although little more than an atmospheric curiosity at the time, the hovering and evenly spaced balls of light would soon become known as the Phoenix Lights, an event that 10 years later continues to spark debate over just what was seen that night.
Those who accepted the explanation that it was military flares dismissed the controversy with logical precision, while people who saw it as an otherworldly encounter claim the truth has been shrouded in lies and disinformation.
In the ensuing decade, the Phoenix Lights would change outlooks, minds and even a few lives. What hasn't changed is this: The mystery that still hovers above March 13, 1997.
The key witness
What she was seeing had barely registered when Lynne Kitei raced inside to fetch her video camera. Lights, six of them, evenly spaced in a direct line. They were - floating? - over Phoenix. Certainly not a plane. Or balloons.
She had seen something like this before, but could these be like the amber orbs she saw in 1995 hovering in formation just 100 yards from the backyard of her Paradise Valley home? And she had seen orbs like that just two months ago. In each case she had snapped photos. This time she wanted video.
By the time she was back on her patio, only three lights continued to shine. She pressed "Record," and those several seconds of tape would become one of the seminal recordings of the Phoenix Lights to be shown on the news, TV specials and, several years later, her own documentary.
In the decade since that night Kitei, a respected physician, has resigned from her position at the Arizona Heart Institute to devote herself full time to talk about, and further investigate, the Phoenix Lights.
"If you had told me this is what I'd be doing," she says, "I would never have believed it, not in a million years."
For seven years she spent nearly all her spare time trying to answer the question that plagued her: What were those orbs, and what did they want? She finished with 750 pages of notes detailing her interviews with witnesses, experts and UFO investigators. Her notes included extensive research of similar sightings around the world.
Kitei remained anonymous for seven years, fearful of the ridicule that accompanies those seen to be tilting at extraterrestrial windmills.
But her chase for the truth eventually overcame her fears of going public. She condensed her notes into a 222-page book, The Phoenix Lights, where she revealed her findings as well as her name.
What she has not found is a definitive answer, only educated speculation as to the meaning of the lights.
"It's never been about me; it's about the data," Kitei says. "To present it I had to come forward, to tell people what I know."
Kitei also has discovered something nearly as surprising as interplanetary visitors - a wider acceptance of things that can't quite be explained. She said she still receives e-mails from fans of her book and her documentary, The Phoenix Lights . . . We Are Not Alone.
She takes no offense at those who call her efforts a waste of time.
"Some people deny it even exists, that it all feeds into a logical explanation," she says. "That's OK if it gives them comfort. Everyone in their own time."
The lights appear
It is generally agreed that at about 10 p.m. on March 13, 1997, under a clear sky with no breeze, a string of lights appeared to the southwest. The orbs seemed to form a flattened V shape, like a boomerang. They appeared to be motionless, or traveling so slowly that movement was imperceptible.
They shimmered for five to 10 minutes and were seen by hundreds, and likely thousands, of people.
In the days to come, air traffic controllers at Sky Harbor International Airport would tell reporters and UFO investigators that they spotted nothing on radar. Officials at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson would report that no military maneuvers were taking place that night at the Barry M. Goldwater Range to the west of Gila Bend (and would change their story two months later, saying the person on duty that night failed to look at the proper logbook).
Photos and video of the Phoenix Lights were popping up on local and national TV news. The images made their way around the world.
Then things got crazy.
Stories trickled in of isolated sightings from northwestern Arizona about three hours before the mass sighting in Phoenix. Some people said the lights seemed to float before accelerating and disappearing into the night. From those sightings, experts in the UFO community assembled a timeline that had a mysterious craft drifting north to south across Arizona.
Video of the Phoenix Lights appeared on TV tabloid shows with breathless commentators wondering if this was the proof UFO believers had been waiting for. And when Gov. Fife Symington called a press conference, few expected to see the extraterrestrial who emerged from backstage (a Symington aide in alien drag).
At least one person wasn't laughing.
Frances Emma Barwood never saw the lights as she drove home March 13 north along Highway 51. Her eyes were on the road, not the sky, though in a week's time she'd be eye-deep in controversy.
As the Phoenix city councilwoman fielded calls from curious constituents, she decided she needed to know more.
She called for an investigation.
What she got, Barwood says from her home in Dewey, was ridicule.
"Oh, the media had a heyday with me," says Barwood, who would never hold another political office when her City Council stint was up.
Barwood did not assume the lights were UFOs as the media inferred, she says. She only wanted a government agency to look into the odd occurrences of March 13. She received calls from eyewitnesses in Prescott Valley, Phoenix and points south.
A decade ago, Barwood would have leaned toward a logical explanation. Today, she's open to the not-so-logical.
"I don't know what it was, but I'm a lot more open to that thing coming from elsewhere," Barwood says. "What makes us think we're the only intelligent being in the whole entire universe?"
The flares exposed
Those who believed in logical explanations would have to wait four months for the proof they knew was out there when the military, spurred by a June 1997 story in USA Today that brought national attention to the Phoenix Lights, decided to take a second look.
They were flares, said the Air National Guard, dropped during nighttime exercises at the Barry M. Goldwater Range.
That simple explanation didn't fly with those who had four months of mystery on their side.
They were flares, insists Lt. Col. Ed Jones, who piloted one of the four A-10s in the squadron that launched the flares.
Jones, in his first interview with the media about the night 10 years ago, can't believe a decision to eject a few leftover flares turned into a UFO furor that continues to this day.
Jones now is assistant director of operations for the 104th Fighter Squadron of the Maryland National Guard. His title has changed, but his story remains the same.
He and the rest of his colleagues were cruising the night skies of southwestern Arizona on the last night of Operation Snowbird, so named because they were winter visitors. Pilots dropped flares to light the night but had no idea they were about to ignite controversy as well.
On the way back to Tucson, not far from Gila Bend, Jones says, he reminded pilots to eject their leftover flares. Since this was their last night on maneuvers, it was more cost-effective to eject the flares than to offload and store the munitions upon returning.
"One of our guys had about 10 or so left, so he started to puke them out, one after another," Jones says. "So every few seconds or so, when the next flare was ready to go, he hit the button and launched it."
Jones looked behind him and saw an evenly spaced string of lights over the desert, floating ever so slowly to earth. Each was extremely bright, a "couple million" candle power, Jones knew. They seemed to hover because heat from the flare rose into the parachute, as if each were a tiny hot-air balloon. The planes headed for the base.
Jones and the rest of the crew returned to Maryland. Several weeks later, Jones says, "All this stuff just blew up."
News of the unexplainable Phoenix Lights reached Maryland, where the logical explanation sat waiting to be discovered. It would not be until the end of July when it was announced that the Maryland Air National Guard had launched flares that night and were the lights everyone had seen.
"With flares that bright, they can be a lot closer than they seem," Jones said. "Yes, they could have looked like they were right over Phoenix."
There are those who believe the flare story is a lie, the military's attempt to cover up the truth. Others think flares were indeed dropped but only as a diversion so officials could explain what people saw that night.
Jim Dilletoso belongs in the first camp. The Phoenix computer specialist who has analyzed film and video of dozens of alleged UFO sightings says Lynne Kitei's video, the best taken that night, is not of military flares.
Dilletoso compared the lights to the thousands of images on his database, which he likens to testing fingerprints or blood samples. He tests for size, brightness, movement characteristics and more.
"I have thousands of knowns," Dilletoso says. "I didn't get a match to flares, airplane lights, Venus, swamp gas, flashlights, whatever. That means it's unknown. Not a spacecraft necessarily, but unknown."
The questions remain
A decade has passed, and while the Phoenix Lights have dimmed, they refuse to disappear.
Steve Kates is not surprised. Dr. Sky, as he is known on radio and on his Web site, follows aviation and astronomy and often is called upon to explain unusual occurrences above us. Kates is hardly surprised the mystery of the Phoenix Lights endures today.
"Mystery is a great thing," Kates says. "We don't want to think we're alone. I imagine even ancient people looked to the sky and wondered."
The night had a profound effect on Bobby Brewer, who was with a friend driving southbound on Highway 51when the lights appeared.
Brewer would write UFOs: 7 Things You Should Know, which many may consider unusual coming from a pastor.
The experience led Brewer to respect those who have reported sightings, encounters or even abductions.
The lights were so compelling that night, he pulled off the highway to stare.
"It was like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time," says the pastor for young adults and singles at Citichurch in Scottsdale. "It took my breath away."
Brewer did his own research, yet to this day he is still unsure of what he saw. Flares certainly seem plausible. A high-tech craft pushing the edge of physics is in the realm of possibility. And he won't discount a visit from another world.
For Brewer, the Phoenix Lights remain a tantalizing mystery. He can live with that.
Also see the UFO Casebook case file, The Phoenix Lights.
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