History

The Phoenix Lights UFO Sightings in 1997: An Oral History

Some unusual things were seen in the skies over the Valley on the night of March 13, 1997.
Tim Gabor
Some unusual things were seen in the skies over the Valley on the night of March 13, 1997.
All Chris McLennan wanted to do on the night of March 13, 1997, was a quiet session of skywatching. What she got was a close encounter with one of the world’s most famous UFOs.

The night started out simply enough. McLennan had planted her eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector telescope in the yard of her north Phoenix home at the time.

She'd intended to get close-up views of Comet Hale-Bopp, the naked-eye comet that Earthlings were going gaga over because of its unparalleled brightness and visibility.

Fate, or possibly otherworldly forces, had other plans that early spring night in 1997. Around 8:30 p.m., McLennan looked into the northwestern Valley sky where Hale-Bopp had been appearing and saw another sight: a series of seven glowing orbs arranged in a chevron-shaped formation. As they cruised by silently and headed to the southeast, McLennan was stunned.

"I just couldn't comprehend what they were," she tells Phoenix New Times. "They were so bizarre, so unnatural. They just didn't look man-made."

She attempted to get the formation into her telescope's field of vision, only to be hampered by their unearthly maneuvers.

"I kept trying to focus on them and they'd move in the weirdest ways. They'd be in one spot and then suddenly go much lower and then back, like zigzagging," she says. "It wasn't how you'd see [planes] move at air shows or normally flying overhead."

Feeling "anxious and scared," McLennan rang up then-boyfriend, now-husband, Jim, who was living in London. "It was the middle of the night there, but I had to tell him, 'This is really strange. Am I crazy? Am I the only one seeing this?'"

She wasn't.

McLennan was among the thousands who witnessed the mysterious lights on March 13, 1997 exactly 25 years ago this week above the Valley and elsewhere. Approximately 30 minutes before McLennan's sighting, others saw the phenomenon traveling southeast from Nevada, across Prescott, and into metro Phoenix. It then reportedly continued to Tucson and southeastern Arizona before heading into Mexico by 10:30 p.m.

By then, the city had encountered a second set of lights, a line of glowing orbs seen near the Sierra Estrella mountain range in the southwest Valley.

The two incidents became known as the Phoenix Lights, one of the largest and best-known UFO sightings in history. That's down to the sheer number of people who witnessed it — as many as 10 percent of Arizonans, according to a Rocky Mountain Poll at the time — and the hullabaloo that followed.

It didn't take long for the fervor to build. In the following months, it grew into a worldwide obsession. The late Art Bell, host of syndicated paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, called it "the second biggest case in UFOlogy after Roswell."

click to enlarge A screengrab of camcorder footage of the V-shaped formation of lights that appeared over the Valley on March 13, 1997. - SCREEN CAPTURE
A screengrab of camcorder footage of the V-shaped formation of lights that appeared over the Valley on March 13, 1997.
Screen Capture

The media reported on the lights and aired the sparse footage that existed. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Some, like then-Phoenix City Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Frances Emma Barwood, called for an official investigation. Others dismissed it as foolishness, as Arizona Governor Fife Symington did when he called a lampoon­­ing press conference with an aide dressed as an alien.

Throughout, the public clamored for answers, chiefly about what caused the lights. It started locally, but went global after a USA Today story.

Skeptics theorize that man-made aircraft from Luke Air Force Base in Glendale or other nearby military facilities engaged in exercises caused the eerie light show. UFOlogists contend the Phoenix Lights were from something not of this world.

Shane Hurd, assistant state director of the Arizona chapter of the Mutual UFO Network, which investigates sightings, falls into the latter camp. But even after spending decades looking into the Phoenix Lights and accumulating evidence, he admits the cause will "never be 100 percent proven."

"Something anomalous happened that night. There's no doubt about that," he says. "Exactly what it was, that's up for debate."

And it's still raging. One aspect of the Phoenix Lights that can't be argued is its influence. Over the past 25 years, it's inspired movies, been fodder for programs such as the 2021 Showtime docuseries UFO, and became an opportunity for entrepreneurs and crafty types. Vendors on websites like Etsy sell Phoenix Lights merch ranging from T-shirts to jewelry.

click to enlarge Inside the “Phoenix Lights” exhibit at the Arizona Heritage Museum. - NEW TIMES STAFF
Inside the “Phoenix Lights” exhibit at the Arizona Heritage Museum.
New Times Staff

It's also become a part of the Valley's lore, woven into its cultural fabric. Over at the Arizona Heritage Center at Papago Park in Tempe, there's a permanent exhibit dedicated to the sightings. Since 2015, local electronic dance music promoter Relentless Beats has put on a Phoenix Lights-themed DJ festival.

For some locals, it's also been a calling. Dr. Lynn Kitei, a local physician, left medicine to research the Phoenix Lights and unexplained aerial phenomenon years after she witnessed the sightings. In 2004, she published a 222-page book on the sightings and produced and directed a documentary the following year. She even sells Phoenix Lights coloring books.

What follows is an oral history of the Phoenix Lights in honor of this week's 25th anniversary.

According to Shane Hurd, the stars were aligned for a mass sighting the night of the Phoenix Lights.

Shane Hurd, assistant state director, Arizona MUFON: There have always been a lot of reports of UFO sightings here in Arizona. I think some of the reasons might be because we have clear skies and, when the weather's good, people are out a lot more. So there's more opportunities for something to be seen.

Dr. Lynne Kitei, director and executive producer, The Phoenix Lights Documentary: My husband and I have a house nestled in the mountains by the [Arizona Biltmore Resort] and have these good, clear views of the Valley. In 1995, I managed to get a strip of 35mm photos of these oval orbs I saw arranged like a pyramid outside of our home. And then in January, two months before the mass [sighting], I filmed this mile-wide group of six lights hovering in the distance at 1,000 feet over the Class B restricted airspace of [Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport].

Hurd: In the spring of 1997, there were a lot of people outside at night looking at the Hale-Bopp comet.

Claude Haynes, East Valley Astronomy Club: Hale-Bopp was one of the last big monster comets. It was easily visible to the naked eye and there was a lot of interest, so many people were skywatching.

Hurd: That time of year, there's baseball, Little League, soccer, and softball. It was a weeknight and all these people were outside doing something. There wasn't much of a moon at that point. So it was the right sort of circumstances for thousands to see a UFO.

click to enlarge An artist’s depiction of the triangular craft from a video in the Arizona Heritage Museum “Phoenix Lights” exhibit. - NEW TIMES STAFF
An artist’s depiction of the triangular craft from a video in the Arizona Heritage Museum “Phoenix Lights” exhibit.
New Times Staff

The first sightings of what would become known as the Phoenix Lights happened nowhere near the Valley. A V-shaped object as big as a 747 was spotted 285 miles to the northwest over Henderson, Nevada, at approximately 7:55 p.m. It then reportedly headed southeast, crossing Arizona in less than 40 minutes. Sightings were made along the way in places like Paulden (where a retired police officer saw a "cluster of six or seven lights"), Chino Valley, and Prescott. By 8:30 p.m., it hit metro Phoenix. Sightings increased exponentially, although details began to differ.

Eyewitness accounts of the first group of lights are generally the same: A series of lights in a chevron or boomerang pattern were seen slipping silently through the Valley skies from the northwest to the southeast. Some say it was high in the air. Others claim it was only hovering a short distance above. Multiple witnesses describe seeing an underlying structure, while others say that wasn't the case. The lights also differed in color, quantity, movement, or brilliance, depending on who tells the story. People's reactions during these encounters also differed, ranging from eerie to awestruck. A few experienced a certain feeling of serenity. Some freaked out.

Hurd: It's not atypical, even with some of the cases we investigate. And if you have the good fortune to have multiple witnesses, they're often slightly different.

David Sankey, Tempe resident: Me and my friend Aaron were cruising down [U.S. Highway 60] taking two female friends home from out in Apache Junction to all the way up to 32nd Street and Shea [Boulevard]. We were probably around Alma School [Road] or McClintock [Drive] when the female friend in the front passenger seat said, "Hey, what the fuck is that?" It was out the right side of the car. We saw these lights and were all looking at each other like, "Is this really happening?" It's like something out of E.T. or an alien movie where they make contact.

Steffany Dubois, Phoenix resident: We have a cabin in Camp Creek and were driving up Seven Springs Road on our way there. It was me, my son, who was really little, and my dad, and [the lights] were just there. It couldn't have been higher than the [high-tension] power lines. We stopped in the middle of the road to check it out. Whatever it was, there were six lights in a triangle and you couldn't see the body. I don't know how long we sat there. And then it was just gone. Disappeared. Lights out. 

Jon Vanderlin, Tempe resident: I was about 7 and we were swimming in our backyard pool in Glendale with my dad. He glanced up and said, "What the hell!?" We all looked up and you could see eight lights in a V and it looked like it actually blocked out the stars. It actually sparked quite a fascination with UFOs and extraterrestrials.

Conni Ersland, Glendale resident: We were up around 20th Street and Greenway [Road] and my friend Linda had just left, but came back minutes later and said, "I see something in the sky; is it the comet?" I took a look, and, yeah, it wasn’t a comet. I ran and got my binoculars and by then it was passing over us so I could see the lights and this distinct triangular bat-wing formation. It was just so odd.


Anthony Schmidt, Chandler resident: I was going down the I-10 West with my great-grandmother after leaving my 14th birthday party. We saw this thing that stretched across the width of the freeway with seven lights on it. We took the HOV exit at 79th Avenue, pulled over, and rolled down the windows for a better look. All we could see [was] this inky blackness against the darkened sky, like there was an underlying [aircraft]. I was excited because it was my birthday and this made it even better.

Jesse Valencia, former Valley resident: I must’ve been 11 and I lived near 35th [Avenue] and Beardsley [Road]. What I remember is I was out riding my bike and saw some lights in the sky in kind of a formation, like they were in a line. So I thought, off the bat, “Is that some sort of a military thing?” because Luke Air Force Base was nearby and there's a couple of different airports around there. I didn't think much of it and just went home.

Sarah Gillian Bower, Tempe resident: Me and my husband were moving here from back east that summer, but came out early to look at the house my mom got for us. She gave me a call and all she said was, “They're coming. Come get me." I didn't have any idea what she meant. My husband went and got her, and I got my friend Kathy and we all went down to the bottom of South Mountain. And I thought, “This ought to be interesting." I’d seen something similar before, but not like this. This was like something from the fucking X-Files. It was so fucking big that when I looked up, all I saw was the lights. I didn't see any sky. I didn't see any stars. It was fucking huge, dude. Huge.

Kitei: I just looked outside at one point and I saw these lights appear [in the distance] that were huge orbs, like suddenly they were there, all in a line, like the ones I'd caught two months before. I was thrilled that it popped up again, but this time I grabbed my video camera. I ran out there and I couldn't focus the camera. It was so frustrating. Finally, it started working, and the six lights had turned to three and then into six lights in a V, and I got it on tape.

Anonymous (by request): I was a pilot with Southwest [Airlines] at the time and was living on the west side with my wife. We'd just left a restaurant. And I had her stop and pull off to the side of the road. I got out, and kinda stood by the car. And it was kind of flying directly over us. I'm looking up and I'm trying to think of how I can explain [to her], because I'm going, "Well, maybe it's like a C-5, a large military transport." Then I go, "No in-air collision lights, no strobes, and it's moving really kind of slow." They actually looked like can lights, like recessed into [a surface]. There were five and I wouldn't say glowing, they're just weren't very bright and didn't have any harsh incandescence.

click to enlarge Actor Kurt Russell may have been the first pilot to officially report the Phoenix Lights. - GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0/FLICKR
Actor Kurt Russell may have been the first pilot to officially report the Phoenix Lights.

He wasn't the only pilot to witness the Phoenix Lights. In 2017, actor Kurt Russell told BBC's The One Show he flew his stepson Oliver Hudson into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that night and spotted the V formation while landing. He may have been the first pilot to officially report the sighting.

Kurt Russell (on The One Show): And we were on approach and I saw six lights over the airport ... in a V shape. I was just looking at them and I was coming in — we're maybe a half a mile out — and Oliver said, "Pa, what are those lights?" I reported it. [Sky Harbor air-traffic controllers] said, "We're not pinging anything. We don't show anything." I said, "Well, okay. I'm going to declare it's unidentified, it's flying, and it's six objects." We landed, I taxied, dropped him off, took off, and went back to L.A. Never said a word. He never said a word. I never thought of it. 

Two years later, [wife Goldie Hawn] is watching a television show when I came home. And the show is on UFOs ... I stop and I started watching, and it was on [the Phoenix Lights]. And I'm watching this and I'm feeling like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's like, "Why do I know this?" It's not clear to me ... and then they said a general aviation pilot reported it on landing. I've never thought of it since then. And I said, "That was me."

Not everyone claimed to have seen a single boomerang-shaped craft or formation of lights while looking at the Phoenix Lights. As New Times reported in June 1997, Mitch Stanley, a 21-year-old amateur astronomer living in Scottsdale, used his 10-inch Dobsonian mirrored telescope to view what he described as a squadron of smaller planes in formation. He viewed it for a minute or so, preferring to look at the stars instead.

Mitch Stanley (in 1997): They were just planes, I didn't want to look at them ... They were planes. There's no way I could have mistaken that.

The V formation cleared the Valley's airspace by 8:45 p.m., reportedly bound for Tucson, southeast Arizona, and Mexico. Around 75 minutes later, a second series of lights appeared just after 10 p.m.: a line of nine orb-like lights appearing to hover over the Sierra Estrella mountain range in the southwest Valley before eventually vanishing. Reactions and perceptions differed.

Stacy Holmstedt, Mesa resident: I was working for azcentral at the time. I'd just graduated college the year before and was so new, they put me on the swing shift. I'd gotten off work and was driving home on the eastbound [Loop] 202 and I had a really good vantage point [on the stretch near Tovrea Castle]. And I remember seeing this line of glowing lights to the west of me, like six of 'em, all in a row, and they weren't moving. And it was really eerie. 

Carminda Loleng, Phoenix resident: We were riding our bikes around Roosevelt and 13th Street after getting off at 10. And there was this row of six or eight lights in the distance that were flashing on and off. It's a vivid memory because everyone says I've looked like an alien my whole life. I always joke that I'm E.T. and they left me here, so I saw those lights and I started jumping up and down and screaming, "They're here! They're here! Beam me up!"

Holmstedt: To this day, I have no idea what I saw. I didn't immediately think aliens, but later figured that if it was aliens, we'll know pretty soon because somebody will report it and it will be on the news.

Hurd: Thousands and thousands of people saw what happened that night and started reporting it, whether it was to MUFON or [the National UFO Reporting Center] and also media and the police.

Verlee Nanneman, Phoenix Police Department 911 operator: It started out slow, and then all of a sudden, we were getting lots of calls, and they were all regarding strange lights in the sky. The calls came in very steady for about an hour. Everyone seemed calm and was saying it was either the V shape or five lights or seven lights [over the Sierra Estrella mountains]. In the 24 years I worked there, we'd get an occasional call or two about strange lights, but nothing like that night.

Phoenix's 911 operators weren't the only ones getting inundated with calls. On that night's episode of his nationally syndicated paranormal talk radio program Coast to Coast AM, the late Art Bell fielded dozens of "frantic" callers describing "a very busy night in the skies above Arizona." One was from NUFORC director Peter Davenport, whose organization took dozens of calls that evening. Eyewitnesses also reportedly reached out to Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, the National Weather Service, and local media outlets like the Arizona Republic, which ran a short story five days later.

City of Phoenix officials were also getting an earful. Frances Emma Barwood, then a city councilwoman and vice mayor, stated in an episode of Showtime's 2021 docuseries UFO that her office received 700 calls asking for an investigation. She championed their cause, but at a cost.

Hurd: Frances Emma Barwood was the only local official who took the case seriously. She took reports at her council office and met with people at her office.

Frances Emma Barwood, former Phoenix city councilwoman and vice mayor (on UFO): I was going to a City Council meeting [on] May 6 of 1997. I was stopped by a reporter and she asked me if I knew about this object that flew over Phoenix on March 13. And she said, "Could you ask at the meeting?" When it came my turn for councilor's requests, I told them about the reporter and could we find out whatever this object was. Everybody turned around and looked at me and it was like, "Did I say something wrong?"

Barwood's crusade drew more attention to the sightings by local media outlets and tabloid-style TV shows like EXTRA. It also put a target on her back.

Hurd: She got blasted by the media. I remember the political cartoonist for the Republic [Steve Benson] roasted her pretty good. And I feel bad for her. She basically wound up losing her Council seat and later dropped out of politics. It destroyed her career.

On June 18, 1997, USA Today ran a front-page brief, complete with an artist's depiction of a boomerang-shaped craft, teasing an inside story about the Phoenix Lights. It turned the sightings into a worldwide phenomenon overnight.

Kitei: Things really took off with that article. Now, it was everywhere. It was on every national morning show. It was on Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, you name it. We were deluged overnight by media from all over the world.

Networks continuously played the snippets of footage available from the sightings, including Kitei's camcorder video of the flying V formation.

Kitei: I just let them have my video and put it out there because I wanted as many people as possible to see it.

Hurd: There's only one, maybe two known videos of the craft itself, including Lynne's [footage]. And back in 1997, consumer-grade cameras, I don't even think they were digital. Everything was still on tape, and it makes for pretty poor-quality videos, comparatively speaking. But the lights [from the second sightings] over the Estrellas, was very visually stunning. You could see it from 30, 40, 50 miles away, and many people caught videos of it.

The nationwide media attention increased pressure on local, state, and federal politicians to investigate the sightings. Days after USA Today's front-page article, then-Arizona Governor Fife Symington announced an emergency news conference.

Kitei: Once the networks were interviewing witnesses, their descriptions were so detailed and so heartfelt that they, too, started asking, "Why isn't there an investigation? Why isn't there an explanation?" So it was almost like [Symington] had to do something in response.

click to enlarge Governor Fife Symington (left) goofs on the Phoenix Lights sightings at a news conference in June 1997. A decade later, he’d claim he saw the lights the night they happened. - SCREEN CAPTURE
Governor Fife Symington (left) goofs on the Phoenix Lights sightings at a news conference in June 1997. A decade later, he’d claim he saw the lights the night they happened.
Screen Capture

Symington's news conference was anything but serious. After declaring state officials had found the "guilty party" behind the sightings, his chief of staff, Jay Heiler, was perp-walked to the podium dressed as a grey alien in handcuffs before unmasking. Everyone in the room had a good chuckle. Kitei and other UFOlogists didn't appreciate the joke.

Kitei: He comes marching out and made a mockery of it, which was really disconcerting. People wanted answers after seeing something in the sky that was two or three miles wide, and he's making jokes.

On the Phoenix Lights episode of UFO in 2021, Symington says didn't see the harm in what he referred to as "the alien caper" since it was meant to deescalate the growing frenzy over the sightings.

Fife Symington, former Arizona Governor (on UFO): We weren't trying to ridicule anyone's concerns, but there was an element of building hysteria, which really needed to be dealt with. I'm sorry if I offended people, but it was a lot of fun. 

Barwood believes it was an attempt by Symington and his administration to steer clear of the "ridicule I got."

A decade after the Phoenix Lights, Symington had a change of heart. In 2007, he began claiming in interviews that he gave the slip to his Arizona Department of Public Service security detail on the night of the sightings, joined a crowd of skywatchers at Piestewa Peak (then Squaw Peak), and witnessed the V-shaped formation's fly-by. Symington repeated this tale on UFO in 2021.

Symington (on UFO): I remember I'd been listening to the news and people were reporting lights over Phoenix and I turned to my wife and said, "I'm going to take my car and I'm going to drive to Squaw Peak to see what all the hullabaloo is about." There were a whole bunch of people in the park and everybody's looking for the lights. And then somebody said, "Holy cow, look at that." And so I turned around and this great big delta-shaped thing came out of the northwest and headed down into the southeast Valley. 

On the same episode of UFO, Symington claims his reluctance to reveal that he witnessed the sightings was due to being under federal indictment at the time for 21 counts of extortion, bank fraud, and making false financial statements. "It was a fairly tumultuous time for me politically and I certainly didn't want to pour any kerosene on the fire," he said. "So the next day, I kept my mouth shut." (Later that year, he was convicted on seven counts of bank fraud, which was overturned on appeal in 1999.)

Symington claims that, as governor, he inquired with officials at Luke Air Force Base about the possibility of military exercises or flight maneuvers being mistaken by witnesses as alien spacecraft, two explanations cited by debunkers over the past 25 years.

In the case of the V, Mitch Stanley's observation of multiple planes flying in formation has been accepted by many skeptics. As for the nine glowing orbs near the Sierra Estrellas, then-Lieutenant Colonel. Ed Jones of the Maryland Air National Guard told the Arizona Republic in 2017 it was caused by A-10 Warthogs dropping parachute-equipped flares while conducting exercises at what's now the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range near Gila Bend.

Schmidt: I'm not completely sold on the alien spacecraft some people are talking about. When I saw the [Solar Impulse 2 solar-powered aircraft] fly into Goodyear Airport in 2016, the profile was remarkably similar to the V-shaped plane. The way they did the lighting and its silence was about the same, too. So it might've been something like that.

Anonymous (by request): I was in the Army flying a Huey in Vietnam. Then I went in the Air Force and I flew F-15s and fighters for 17 years. I can say it was absolutely not aerial flares. They wouldn't stay in formation and move and fly really slowly out of sight. And you don't fly around in a V-shaped formation at night.

Holmstedt: Those [orbs] were spread out so evenly, so it looked intentional. They were all at the same height, so it didn't look like parachutes. It seemed too perfect to be flares. But it also wasn't moving like aircraft. I still to this day have no idea what it could've been. Maybe no one will ever know.

Hurd: [The sightings] have never been proven to be extraterrestrial in origin. They might never be. You're not going to say we have proof, until you got an actual craft, and you've got a real alien. Okay? That's proof. Anything short of that is evidence.

McLennan: What troubles me is why there haven't been any true and definitive explanations after all these years. No one's been able to state without a doubt what caused [the sightings]. Maybe that's asking too much these days, when everything divides everyone, but it would be nice to know.

The only certainty about the Phoenix Lights most people can agree on is its enduring appeal after 25 years. It's become part of the Valley's identity and, as former New Times and Arizona Republic scribe Dave Walker once stated, "as much of a national calling card for Arizona as disgraced politicians, mediocre pro sports teams, and soul-searing summer heat." It's also inspired a few horror films (like 2017's Phoenix Forgotten) and even the annual Phoenix Lights electronic dance music festival.

Holmstedt: It's just one of those enduring mysteries of the Valley. And people love a mystery.

Nanneman: All those cable channels like the History Channel have done so many shows about the Phoenix Lights. There's been so much coverage [over the years].

Sankey: It's crazy how it all panned out and here we are 25 years later and people are still talking about it. They have that Phoenix Lights festival that [local electronic dance music event promoter] Relentless Beats does.

click to enlarge Patrons of the Phoenix Lights music festival, which takes its theme from the sightings. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Patrons of the Phoenix Lights music festival, which takes its theme from the sightings.
Benjamin Leatherman

Thomas Turner, owner, Relentless Beats (in 2017): The festival is something that identifies with our city and is a fun way to play off something that happened a long time ago. We built some custom-designed art pieces to put at the [event], like one that looks like a Phoenix Lights triangle spaceship that has crashed.

Justin Barber, director, Phoenix Forgotten (in 2017): The interest has persisted. It was such a big story and it remains such a big story. It's a modern urban legend for the Southwest. For a lot of people, we remember it [more than] 20 years on, because it was such a bizarre event, and a lot of people think that it has not been fully explained.

Kitei: The Phoenix Lights touched people on such a deep level. People were in awe. People were in wonder. They were curious about it and still are. I still have people, to this day, tell me that they feel blessed to have had an experience with the Phoenix Lights.

Editor's note: Some quotes were edited or condensed for clarity.

The Phoenix Lights 25th anniversary event, which will include a screening of The Phoenix Lights Documentary plus special guests, presentations, and a Q&A, will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 20, at Harkins Theatres Shea 14, 7354 East Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale.