Phoenix has a deep connection to the unexplained.
On March 13, 1997, many Arizonans from across the state allegedly saw a series of strange lights on two distinct occasions. The first was triangular formation that reportedly flew across the state while the second was a series of stationary lights hovering over Phoenix.
While the U.S. Air Force has explained the hovering stationary lights --- flares from an A-10 Warthog aircraft as part of training at the Barry Goldwater Range, according to the Mutual UFO Network --- the second one doesn’t have an explanation.
The first event was a series of lights in a V-formation that traveled across the state from as far north as Henderson, Nevada to as far south as the State of Sonora, Mexico.
One possible explanation is the wind direction from the night in question appears consistent with the reported movements of the lights, according to MUFON’s website. This could, the website claims, explain the event as merely wind-driven objects such as flares or balloons.
But to others, the event was not of this world.
“I’ll never be the same,” Bill Greiner, a cement truck driver who reportedly saw the lights, said via a statement on MUFON’s website. “Before this, if anybody had told me they saw a UFO, I would’ve said, ‘Yeah and I believe in the Tooth Fairy.’ Now I’ve got a whole new view and I may be just a dumb truck driver, but I’ve seen something that don’t belong here.”
In the years since, there have been reportedly other large-scale incidents in 2007 and 2008, but explanations have come with those events. Still, the fascination with UFOs, or unidentified flying objects, has permeated in the state.
In 2019, there were 229 reports of UFOs in Arizona, according to the National UFO Reporting Center. That is a stark jump from 91 in 2018, but is the first increase from year-to-year since 2014, which saw a peak of 304 for the past decade.
While some of these sightings have explanations, others do not, allowing for some imaginations to run wild.
By definition, a UFO doesn’t necessarily mean aliens, it can be as simple as a flying drone that people don’t know exactly its origins.
Bryan Martyn flew helicopters in both the Army and the Air Force for many years before transitioning to medical evacuation helicopters. He’s never had an experience where he didn’t know what object he was seeing in the sky, except for a recent sighting of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites.
This experience exemplifies to him the unidentified lights must be a technology people are not aware of, similar to the satellites.
“When I see objects in the sky that I can see, that kind of tells me they’re probably military because it’d be too easy,” Mr. Martyn said. “If we were being observed by something from outside, like an unidentified thing, they’d probably turn their lights off.”
For others, seeing unexplained phenomenons in the sky tugs at the question many have: are we alone in the universe? Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center, says he thinks as people’s curiosity grows the more they understand what is past Earth’s atmosphere.
“Once a person develops a better grasp of its immensity, I feel it is a natural extrapolation for that person to ask what might be going on out there,” he said via email. “And that leads a person to at least wonder whether we might have neighbors and even visitors to our planet.”
In 1974, Robert J. Gribble founded the National UFO Reporting Center. His mission was to record sightings via people’s submissions by phone or by mail. He continued in this role until 1994, when Mr. Davenport took over.
Mr. Davenport said the primary goal of the center is to record, not investigate. Part of his duties include operating the 24-hour UFO hotline, which has been in operation for 46 years, and to curate online submissions.
Of the submissions that come in, some are easily explained away such as people seeing Venus or Space X’s Starlink satellites and those type of submissions carry a note stating the possible explanation. Other than the occasional note, Mr. Davenport leaves submissions as is for the database.
While the site has a trove of reports from across the country, Mr. Davenport says he believes the amount of reports are grossly undercounted. By his estimate, he believes for every 10,000-20,000 who see UFOs, only one will report it, usually because they will explain it away in their minds.
When Mr. Gribble ran the center, he would reach out to all county sheriff offices to provide them with an outlet for those wanting to report UFO sightings. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration has it in its bylaws to refer such encounters to the NUFORC.
All submissions are anonymous and are published in NUFORC’s public database. Reporters can submit short statements detailing their experience.
“For the purposes of our work, it does not matter whether the incident had occurred eight minutes ago or eight decades ago, we at the National UFO Reporting Center believe that the information is worth preserving and sharing with the public in an anonymous format, of course,” Mr. Davenport said.
Mr. Davenport said it’s important to record these encounters to better answer the question of if humans are alone in the universe and should be made public.
“In fact, I think it is imperative to do so,” he said. “Such information is certainly more important than most of the items we see offered up by Hollywood, the news media and the internet.”
At the time of the Phoenix Lights, Mr. Davenport said there was minimal media coverage on the event, a trend he believes has continued. Further, he believes academia is too skeptical and the government isn’t letting on as much as it knows.
That still hasn’t stopped people from reporting. Mr. Davenport said he’s seen a fluctuation of reports from year to year but doesn’t know exactly why that happens.
There are many factors for why Mr. Davenport believes sightings have increased recently but he believes the increase of the subject in news reports and entertainment is drawing attention.
“Those programs may make a viewer more comfortable with the subject of possible alien visitation of our planet, and make it easier for the person to talk or write about it,” he said. “In addition, many of those programs may introduce the viewer to organizations like the National UFO Reporting Center, providing the person with a place to report his or her sighting(s).”
Over his time at the NUFORC, Mr. Davenport has handled many reports, leaving him with one major lesson: “how real the UFO phenomenon appears to be,” he says. He also concluded there is more work to be done in UFO detection as ufologists have relied on amateur evidence.
“It occurs to me that if we are going to progress beyond the amateur stage of investigation, we will have to improve the means by which we collect, and analyze data about the UFO phenomenon,” he said.
Scientists have taken interest in whether there is life on other planets, although that research tends to be more grounded in search of microbial organisms rather than intelligent life.
Dr. Chris Impey, the associate dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Science and distinguished professor of astronomy, has done research searching for microbial life on other planets.
As the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are sequestered home, which Mr. Impey says might spur more UFO sightings. In fact, according to a 2018 survey at Chapman University, 41.4% of American respondents believe alien intelligent life has visited the earth in the ancient past, up from 27% in 2016.
“People like to imagine there might be intelligent life out there, which is harmless, but the conspiracy theories that have the government covering up evidence of aliens is hard to defend,” he stated via email. “UFOs are not of interest to professional scientists because they know the hard evidence of alien visitation is lacking.”
Where Dr. Impey places his research is in looking for microbial life on other worlds. Over the last decade, Dr. Impey noted experts have projected 10 billion habitable Earth-like worlds in the Milky Way Galaxy, leading him to think those planets could theoretically host microbial life.
He explained this theory is based on how Earth hosts mostly microbes and they were the planet’s only inhabitants for 3 billion years. In a 2017 interview with futurism.com, Dr. Impey suggested scientists would find microbial life elsewhere in 10-15 years.
He stands by that assumption because of future plans to send rovers to Mars as well as missions to Jupiter’s moon of Europa and Saturn’s moon of Titan to see if they are inhabitable.
He also pointed future experiments with the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021, and new large ground-based telescopes aimed at observing other planets that may have microbial-altered atmospheres.
Dr. Impey noted scientists are working on targeting exoplanets, or a planet outside of the solar system, to see if their atmospheres contain molecules like oxygen or methane. He calls those molecules, “the telltale signs of life” on Earth. These experiments are still a few years away, he said.
As for intelligent life, Dr. Impey stated scientists have listened for artificial radio or optical signals from other planets around other stars but noted these experiments have failed over the past 60 years.
“Intelligent life may exist but it will logically be rarer than microbial life, and it may be much rarer to the point where the nearest example is very far away,” he said. “That’s why the odds of travel or communication with aliens are low.”
These odds haven’t stopped many from believing in past or future encounters with extra-terrestrial life, leading some to study the potential reaction humans might have to such an encounter.
Arizona State University Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Michael Varnum, along with graduate students Jung Yul Kwon, Hannah Bercovici and Katja Cunningham, published a study in 2018, suggesting humans would have largely positive reactions extra-terrestrial life visiting the Earth.
Mr. Kwon, who was the first author on the study, further explained people in the U.S. and other Western societies would generally have positive responses, both to microbial and intelligent lifeforms.
He and the other researchers did find certain factors did affect peoples’ potential responses. He said the study found those wanting to avoid disease were more likely to have a negative reaction. Another finding was less religious people tended to have more positive responses to a visitation.
Mr. Kwon said there are other potential factors, such as day-to-day life and if people have enough room in their lives to question if they are alone in the universe.
“I can only speculate, but perhaps the rise in people’s interest in ET life reflects changes in the environment leading people to be less sensitive to external threats, to be more open to things that challenge their belief systems or to simply have more opportunities to think about what, [or] who, is out there,” he said.
Regardless of what the reaction might be, the interest in UFOs is there for many Americans. This interest was on full display when the Pentagon recently released videos of “unidentified aerial phenomenons.”
The three released videos show an unknown flying object, in 2004 and 2015, with service members sharing their wonderment of the craft’s speed and movement with some speculation of it being a drone. The video drew the attention of President Donald Trump, who called it a “hell of a video” in an interview with Reuters.
There were many who joked about the video with “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill claiming the video showed a TIE Fighter space ship from the multi-movie franchise. There were also many within the alien-believing community who saw this a big step forward, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News report.
It’s been over 23 years since the mysterious lights presented themselves in the desert sky above Phoenix, but time hasn’t slowed the reports to the NUFORC of continued sightings.
One such sighting came from Phoenix on Jan. 9 from a self-proclaimed pilot who claimed to see a rectangular object with lights that changed colors hovering in the evening sky.
“I’ll never forget this sighting,” the anonymous reporter said via their Jan. 9 report. “I already believed we are being visited by other planets. Now I can say I know for sure.
“This had to be a UFO.”