There is no doubt that something real passed over Phoenix on the night of March 13. Hundreds of people reported what they saw passing slowly in the sky. Two New Times writers were among those witnesses.
David Holthouse and Michael Kiefer were in separate parts of the Valley that night, but their reports are remarkably consistent: Each saw a V-shape of five lights moving slowly from north to south. The lights were bright and yellow-white, and seemed very high in the sky. No sound accompanied them. Holthouse says he perceived that something connected the lights in a boomerang shape; Kiefer disagrees, saying they didn't seem connected.
Other witnesses reported seeing six lights. Some saw seven. Videotapes of the event show seven lights, and the V-shape, clearly. Reports of the lights' altitude and speed vary widely.
Interest in the light show has exploded lately, perhaps fueled by its nearness to the 50th anniversary of an incident near Roswell, New Mexico, which continues to be the most celebrated in UFO history.
The notoriety of the lights of March 13 has been propelled by the likes of Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood, who called for a city investigation into them.
Barwood continues to press for more investigation. But New Times has learned that Barwood herself ignored the claims of a witness who might be the most important of all.
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."
He was so certain, his mother didn't bother to look in the scope herself. And she thought nothing of it until the next morning when she heard radio reports that hundreds of people had thought they had seen something extraterrestrial. That day at work, she told her fellow Honeywell employee and amateur astronomer Jack Jones what her son Mitch had seen in the telescope.
When Barwood made her appeal and the story began to appear in local newspapers, Jones attempted to let people know of Stanley's sighting. He called Richard de Uriarte, reader advocate at the Arizona Republic, as well as Barwood, directly. To both, Jones said that a local amateur astronomer had examined the lights through a large telescope and had seen that they were airplanes.
Jones says both promised to have someone call back who would take down his story and contact Mitch Stanley.
Neither one did.
"They really don't want to know," Linda Stanley says. "Here was a person who had seen it and [Barwood] never bothered to contact us at all."
Barwood counters, however, that she did pass on Jones' call to Village Labs, a Tempe firm which has been the focus of many media treatments for its pronouncements that the lights were not possibly terrestrial in origin. Jones says he never received a call from Village Labs.
De Uriarte recalls receiving a call from Jones, but says he didn't pass the information along to news editors, and that he apparently had lost Jones' phone number. Since then, the Republic has covered the sighting on its front page under the headline "UFO Mania."
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.
But whose planes were they? Sightings place the group north of Prescott about 8:15 and south of Tucson by 8:45. That's 200 miles in 30 minutes, which suggests an air speed of 400 miles per hour. Many witnesses swear that the group was moving slowly and was near to the ground, perhaps as low as 1,000 feet. But from the ground, such naked-eye estimations--particularly of shapeless lights--are unreliable. If the group seemed to go only 50 miles per hour when it was really going about 400 mph, the group must have been very high indeed. Such is the stuff of simple physics. Some quick trigonometry based on Holthouse's memory of the group's angular speed suggests a height of 6,000 feet. Other witnesses claim that the group seemed so slow as to have almost no angular speed, which suggests a much higher altitude (and might explain why no sound was heard on the ground).
Mitch Stanley's sighting jibes well with witness reports that the configuration of the lights changed over time. In Prescott, for example, witnesses claim that one of the lights trailed the rest. Such evidence supports the claim that the lights were separate objects rather than one large craft.
Pilots consulted by New Times say that a group of planes flying in formation at night suggests military aircraft. The squarish wings, as opposed to the swept, triangular variety, suggest A-10s or T-37 fighter-trainers.
Among the rumors making the rounds in commercial aviation: that the group was the Canadian Snowbirds, a group of T-37s which flies at air shows. A spokesman for the Snowbirds says their season does not begin until April, however, and that the troupe was not in Arizona in March. New Times has contacted numerous military bases in the Southwest, but none claims the planes.
All witnesses seem in agreement on one thing: the unusual brightness of the lights. Flight controller Grava says that's the only reason he is reluctant to accept the explanation that it was a group of airplanes that flew over Arizona March 13.
Until a group comes forward to claim the flight, however, the planes' unusual lights and apparent lack of transponder signals suggest the possibility of a calculated hoax.
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