What were the speed-shifting, colour-morphing UFOs that mystified hundreds of eyewitnesses around Stephenville, Texas, last January? Optical illusions? Secret military operations? Alien space-ships? PM investigates.
“It was the most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen,” says Steve Allen, who has seen 50 years of sunsets in central Texas. “That’s what I first thought.”
It was January 8, 2008, and the trucking entrepreneur was sitting around a fire outside the Selden, Texas, home of Mike Odom, his friend since first grade. Then he saw the lights – orbs that glowed at first, then began to flash. “There was no regular pattern to the flashing,” he says. “They lined up horizontally, seven of them, then changed into an arch. They lined up vertically, and I saw two rectangles of bright flame. That’s when I knew it was a life-changing experience.” He watched the lights drift north toward Stephenville, the seat of Erath County. “They came back a few minutes later,” Allen says, “this time followed by two jets – F-16s, I think.” Allen, who owns and flies a Cessna, has seen plenty of military planes over the years. “The jets looked like they were chasing the lights, and the lights seemed to be toying with them. It was like a 100-horsepower car trying to keep up with a 1 000-horsepower one.”
Odom also saw the lights and called to his wife, Claudette, who came outside in time to see the second display. When Allen returned home, he phoned friends at the local airport who checked with the Fort Worth airport tower. “Both said nothing was flying,” Allen says.
That night, James Huse, a former Air Force navigation specialist, was in downtown Stephenville saying goodnight to a couple of friends. “Out of the corner of my eye I saw two red orbs moving overhead,” he says, “the reddest things I’d ever seen in the sky.” They came right in front of him at 1 000 m about a kilometre away. They weren’t going that fast, maybe 100 km/h. They didn’t make any noise.
Outside Dublin, about 20 km southwest of Stephenville, Constable Lee Roy Gaitan finished eating a slice of his wife’s birthday cake, then headed out to his patrol car to get his wallet so his family could watch on pay per view. That’s when he saw the lights. “First, I saw a yellow-red orb the colour of lava in a volcano,” he says. “Then, instead of the red orbs, there were nine or 10 flashing lights.” About 1 000 m up, they were bouncing and very bright. “They hovered there, strobing for 2 or 3 minutes, bright like German auto headlights. Then they shot off at blazing speed like a school of fish, you know, when it’s frightened.” Later, Gaitan says, two jets flew over.
The next day Allen called Angelia Joiner, a reporter at the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, and told his story. The paper published Joiner’s piece – “Possible UFO Sighting” – on January 10. It was the first of the paper’s numerous articles about the lights. On January 11, Joiner called Major Karl Lewis, public affairs officer of the 301st Fighter Wing at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth (formerly Carswell Air Force Base). Lewis said the base had nothing flying on the night of the sightings. Other nearby bases issued similar denials. It all added up to the most dramatic UFO incident in more than a decade. “Texas Town Abuzz Over Dozens of UFO Sightings,” wrote Foxnews.com. “Are UFOs Invading Texas?” asked Texas Monthly. “UFOs Put Stephenville in World Spotlight,” said the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. CNN showed up, along with ABC, the BBC and other TV crews from as far away as Japan. So did Bill O’Reilly and Larry King. A longtime UFO fan, King devoted a segment to Stephenville and interviewed Gaitan and Joiner. Jake and Dorothy’s Café, near the courthouse square, became a favoured journalist hangout.
“One day I went into Jake and Dorothy’s for coffee, the way I always do,” Huse says, “and there was a TV crew on one side of me and reporters on the other.” The Stephenville sightings had all the elements of a classic UFO incident – first reports, official denials, independent witnesses stepping forward. The Texas dairy town of 17 000 with the statue of a cow in the main square had joined Roswell, Area 51 and other small places as an iconic name in the annals of UFOs.
On the December night I drive from Dallas to Stephenville, the Moon is in congruence with Venus and Jupiter: The two planets and crescent suggest a flag’s heraldic pattern. By the end of the evening, the sinking moon is huge and orange, like a Ferris wheel-sized slice of melon hung in the trees.
The illusion that the Moon is bigger near the horizon is just one of the tricks our eyes play on us when we observe objects in the heavens. Humanity has long infused these mysterious shapes and lights with portents and meanings interpreted according to the cultural notions of the day. The star-related deities of the Egyptians, the godlike comets of the Greeks, the mysterious shapes in the skies of Renaissance frescoes – all were forerunners of flying saucers. “The tendency to believe in the paranormal appears to be there from the beginning,” Christopher Bader, a Baylor University sociologist, told LiveScience. “What changes is the content. Few people believe in fairies and elves these days. But as belief in fairies faded, other beliefs, such as belief in UFOs, emerged to take its place.”
There is no dispute that UFOs exist – that is, objects flying through the sky that are unidentified. (In fact, one in seven Americans say they have seen UFOs.) But that, of course, does not mean they are ships from a distant galaxy. We humans tend to leap to conclusions, imagining alien spacecraft while discounting more likely explanations.
Over the centuries, the technology to record UFOs has evolved from marks on clay to video clips, and the causes of sightings may have changed from comets to secret aircraft, but the psychological pattern endures: it is the story of people projecting hopes and fears onto objects in the sky.
The mutual UFO Network (MUFON), which is probably the most influential organisation within the highly combative and suspicious UFO community, received so many reports about theStephenville lights that the Coloradobased group set up an open hearing in nearby Dublin, Texas. On Saturday, January 19, some 500 people streamed into the 1909 brick building that is home to the local Rotary Club. “Everywhere I turned there were TV tripods,” says Steve Hutcheons, a Fort Worth construction project manager and chief of MUFON’s investigations in Texas.
Many people in attendance were simply curious. A few wore aluminium foil caps. But more than 200 people came forward to tell their stories, with some sightings going back 30 years. Hutcheons and other MUFON investigators considered about 20 reports to be substantive and relevant to the January 8 incident, and promised to publish a report.
On January 23, 12 days after denying it had planes in the air, the military reversed itself. According to a carefully worded press release issued by Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs, “Ten F-16s from the 457th Fighter Squadron were performing training operations from 6 to 8 pm on January 8 in the Brownwood Military Operations Area (MOA), which includes the airspace above Erath County”. Why the flip-flop? “It was an internal communications problem that has now been fixed,” says 301st Fighter Wing spokesman Lewis. Inconsistent disclosures by the military have often fuelled UFO speculation. The military changed its story about Roswell numerous times after 1947, when Air Force officials first claimed to have “captured” a flying saucer, then denied it.
Adding to the atmosphere of mistrust is the military’s refusal to release details of operations, including training flights. Lewis declines to give specifics on hardware or tactics used over Erath County. During training, he says, “we fly like we fight”.
By mid-February the Empire-Tribune had lost interest in the Stephenville lights; their reporter Joiner had not. She left the paper to run a Web site about the sightings, funded by Allen. The Dublin Citizen, however, continued to pursue the story. Publisher and editor Mac McKinnon, a former Air Force historian whose office is hung with model warplanes from his days in the service, saw some curious lights in January. “I believe the military has all sorts of exotic propulsion systems and other technologies we don’t even know about,” he says. He assigned the story to reporter Jon Awbrey, who also saw lights – “a triangle with squares at the corners”.
Awbrey put me in touch with Dublin police chief Lannie Lee. In January, two of his men had taped one of the lights using the dashboard video in their patrol car. He had not made the tape public. “I didn’t want any notoriety to be attached to the department,” the mild-mannered chief says. He pulls out a VHS tape, leads me to the back of the station and puts it in the machine. On the screen, a dot appears against a black sky and begins to dance. The camera zooms in on a shimmering, bouncing but otherwise featureless circle of light. “It goes on like that for about an hour,” Lee says.
The reports from January reminded another Dublin resident, machinist Ricky Sorrells, of a huge object he says he saw in December when he was deer hunting. “I looked at it through the scope on my deer rifle,” Sorrells tells me over burgers at the Dublin Dairy Queen. He is a big man who has just come in from hunting, dressed in full camouflage. He describes what he saw as a “huge grey object”, the colour of galvanised metal, with no rivets, bolts or seams. It was about 30 m tall and about 100 m up in the air, he says, comparing the height of the object to the grain elevator where he once worked. It was the first of several sightings for Sorrells. He captured one of them on video. In the Dairy Queen, he unfolded his cellphone and handed it to me. I saw a tiny video of a barely discernable white shape moving through the sky.
On further review
It was the biggest UFO sighting in years, witnessed by thousands of Phoenix residents – a string of bright lights that appeared about 10 pm on March 13, 1997, before disappearing over the Estrella mountain range. The Air Force initially claimed that no warplanes were in the area. Two months later, officials from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson cited a logbook error and confirmed that Maryland Air National Guard A-10 pilots completing a training exercise ejected leftover illumination flares near Phoenix before returning to base. “One of our guys had about 10 or so left,” Lieutenant- Colonel Ed Jones told the Arizona Republic, “so he started to puke them out, one after another.” Illumination flares on parachutes form long-lasting shapes in the sky, but other aircraft flares act very differently. Decoy flares fool the sensors of antiaircraft missiles. Infrared decoys form heat signatures that resemble those of aircraft. Since some missiles discriminate targets by their movement, kinematic decoys are designed to fly as fast as the warplane that ejects them, at least briefly. “Some even come with thrusters,” says Dennis Clark, a countermeasures engineer at BAE Systems. These flares extinguish quickly, which from the ground could appear to be unearthly acceleration. New missiles have sensors that use colour to distinguish target aircraft, so a new type of multispectral flare changes hues to defeat them.
Seeing is not believing
Why are people who see isolated lights so sure they are observing a solid UFO? The same reason the ancients saw figures in the stars: a need to make sense of what’s around us, says Stanford ophthalmology professor Michael Marmor. “If you see lights that seem to form a circle, you try to fill it in,” he says. Viewing the illusion developed by psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa in 1955, observers think they see an intact triangle brighter than the surrounding space.
After its Dublin open hearing, MUFON filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the military branches and other governmental agencies. Only the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Weather Service acknowledged they had relevant information and forwarded radar data.
In July, the group released its report, which suggests that several fighters as well as an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane were in the area. But so, they claim, was a mysterious large object, without the required transponder that identifies and locates aircraft. The report concludes that a very large unidentified craft or object “was tracked on radar for over an hour. Most of the time, the object was either stationary or moving at speeds of less than 60 mph. At 7.32 pm, the object was tracked accelerating to 532 mph in 30 seconds and then slowing to 49 mph only 10 seconds later”. Radar blips would seem to present a positive, non-subjective way to observe UFOs. Studies from the Condon Report, published in 1968 by the University of Colorado, to the Air Force’s Blue Book project to a 1997 evaluation by the Society for Scientific Exploration, however, have found that radar can be “fooled” in simple ways. Anomalous propagation, or false echoes, is most often caused by ground clutter, frequently as a result of low-level temperature inversions that muffle ground radar’s electronic pulse and lead to a circular scatter of returns based on hits from buildings and trees.
In extreme examples, called ducting, the temperature inversion can bend thebeam all the way back to the Earth’s surface, so a surprising radar blip turns out to be a hill or a building. With the introduction of more advanced filtering software over the past decade, the number of UFOs attributed to false returns has decreased significantly.
Former Air Force pilot, astronomer and longtime UFO sceptic James McGaha believes that some such form of radar scatter was responsible for the returns that MUFON interpreted as a solid object. The FAA did not describe any such object, nor was it clear whether it was in the Brownwood MOA. “They had a huge amount of data,” McGaha says, “and they just pulled a few bits of information out of it and drew a line.”
By autumn, just when it seemed as though Stephenville might be forgotten, the sightings began again. People were no longer hesitant to come forward. Their descriptions often compared the lights to arc welding or burning magnesium – lights bright enough to interrupt a little league football game in Stephenville. The descriptions followed a pattern similar to the one experienced by Peggy Delavergne. On the night of November 18 she saw lights while driving her children home to Stephenville after a basketball game in Dublin. “At first there were two very bright gold lights,” she says. “Then there were more lights, like a string of pearls – not quite a circle and not quite eggshaped. My husband was in another vehicle, and he saw them too. He called me on his cellphone and asked me, ‘Do you see that?’ I don’t know whether it was from somewhere else or from the military, but something is going on out there.” A high school student named Carli Crutcher shot a photo of the lights that Mac McKinnon ran in the Dublin Citizen. It shows streaky, stringy forms.
On June 24, 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed he had seen gleaming aircraft he later described as “saucerlike objects”. He had no photos to bolster the first and most famous report of a flying saucer.
In Fate magazine, Arnold wrote: “I would have given almost anything that day to have had a movie camera.
” His vision of saucer- shaped craft was quickly embraced by popular culture, showing up in comics, movies, even children’s toys. Astronomer Carl Sagan noted that depictions of UFOs in entertainment often have a strong influence on how observers perceive phenomena in the sky. Sure enough, over the next few years UFO sightings increasingly mentioned silvery, saucershaped objects. Such UFO iconography is reinforced by a cultural feedback loop: a report offersintriguing new details; the entertainment industry amplifies those images; and future sightings “confirm” their existence. Hoaxes – pieplate photos, crop circles, Alien Autopsy: (Fact or Fiction?) on the Fox network – abet the process, no matter how conclusively debunked. Just as the ancients were inclined to see gods and flaming chariots in the skies, modern humans became primed to see saucers and aliens whenever something strange appeared overhead.
UFO sightings evolve with the culture. By the 1960s, classic saucer images had started to fade. Instead, people began reporting more direct contact with aliens (who often resembled the big-eyed creatures seen in the TV movie The UFO Incident). But a darker strain emerged, when tales of grey aliens performing experiments on human abductees flourished. UFO stories sometimes took on spiritual dimensions: aliens were godlike creatures coming to save our planet – or transport us to a better one. In recent years, most UFO reports have grown far less sensational; many sightings these days simply describe lights in the sky.
Arnold regretted not having a camera at hand during his sighting. Today camera phones and video cameras are ubiquitous. And yet clear, detailed images have all but disappeared from the photographic record. Even the clearest recent images are little more than glowing dots and squiggles.
What’s in the sky? Some sceptics, like McGaha, believe that the Stephenville, Phoenix and many other sightings can be attributed to military aircraft and evasion or illumination flares.
Flares have a long association with UFO sightings. One night in late February 1942, the sky over Southern California lit up with strange blinking lights near various defence plants. In what has become known as the Battle of Los Angeles, the Navy unloaded four batteries of anti-aircraft artillery at what turned out to be a balloon carrying a red flare. A decade ago, mysterious lights seen by thousands of Phoenix residents were actually leftover flares dumped by A-10 pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard.
Some Erath County residents dismiss the flare theory. “I’ve seen military flares,” Allen says. “They are not even the same colour as the ones I saw.” But evasionflare technology evolves rapidly as the military tries to keep one step ahead of the increasingly sophisticated tracking capabilities of anti-aircraft missiles. At one time evasive manoeuvres consisted of sharp turns against the Sun. When missiles got smarter,pilots began dropping bright flares; infrared seekers homed in on the decoys while warplanes fled from the field of view.
But today’s missiles can track far more than the heat signatures of engines. They can pick out targets among decoys by discerning a warplane’s movement and shape. Spectral sensors on missiles can even detect the colour differences between a jet engine and a flare. In response, the military has deployed a variety of flares that can move under their own power and change colour.
People in Erath County are certainlyfamiliar with warplanes. During my visit, I get a taste of the 8 300 km2 Brownwood MOA in action. Helicopters and jets fly day and night. One afternoon, while I’m driving to Dublin on Highway 377, a T-38 Talon supersonic jet trainer rips past only a couple of thousand metres above the road.
The MOA is well known to the leading civilian authority on Texas airspace, Steve Douglass. The author of Military Monitoring and an expert consulted by Aviation Week, Douglass has been tracking operations from his base in Amarillo for a quarter century. He is part of the so-called interceptors network, the plane spotters caricatured in the film Broken Arrow as “those guys in lawn chairs” staking out runways and bases. “Brownwood is used by Navy, Air Force and Army units,” Douglass says, “including Apache helicopters, B-1s, C-130s and F-16s. There are AWACS from Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City and KR-135 tankers from Altus in southwest Oklahoma. The airspace is especially active these days, with the new F-35 tactical fighter being assembled at a factory in Fort Worth and tested in the MOA.” Lockheed Martin spokesman John Kent confirms that on January 8, 2008, the first – and until June 2008, the only – F-35 test plane, the AA-1, was in Fort Worth, but it was not in the air that night. “It’s restricted to daytime flight,” Kent says, so that chase planes can monitor it.
Top secret aircrafts
Spy and stealth planes – some with bizarre, batshaped wings, others with triangular silhouettes that imply otherworldly designs – have long generated UFO sightings and lore. And official denials feed rumours that the government isn’t telling all about alien ships. The CIA estimates that over half of the UFOs reported in the United States from the ’50s through the ’60s were U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. At the time, the Air Force misled the public and the media to protect these Cold War programmes; it’s possible the US government’s responses to current sightings of classified craft – whether manned or remotely operated – are equally evasive. The result is an ongoing source of UFO reports and conspiracy theories. Here are the Earthbuilt craft that likely have lit up emergency services switchboards over the years.
RQ-3 Darkstar Lockheed Martin/ Boeing
First test flight: 1996
Deployment: None (it was cancelled in 1999)
Size: 4,6 m long; 21 m wingspan
Performance: 463 km/h (cruising speed); 14 000+ m< (max. alt.)
UFO link: The official lifespan of this unmanned spy plane was brief and disappointing, with a crash and a programme cancellation after just three years. But in 2003, Aviation Week reported that a similar stealth UAV was being used in Iraq – fuelling speculation that the craft had been scrapped publicly only to be secretly resurrected for clandestine missions.
U-2 Lockheed Martin,
First test flight: 1955
Deployment: 1957 to present
Size: 15 m long; 24 m wingspan
Performance: 660 km/h (max. speed) 26 000 m (max. alt.)
UFO link: Designed for high-altitude reconnaissance, the U-2’song, gliderlike wings and silver colour would have been notable to observers on the ground and in the sky.In the 1960s the plane was painted black to avoid reflections. The U-2 is also famous for being among the first classified planes to be flown from the Air Force’s secret test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada – aka Area 51.
SR-71 Blackbird Lockheed MartinFirst
First test flight: 1964
Deployment: 1966 to 1990, 1995 to 1998
Size: 32 m long; 17 m wingspan
Performance: 3 600 km/h (max. speed); 25 900 m (max. alt.)
UFO link: The tailless spy plane has an even more unusual cross-section than the U-2. This Area 51 alumnus was briefly reactivated in the 1990s, and rumours of a followup – the now-legendary Aurora project – have supplied both UFO believers and sceptics with a possible source of unexplained sightings.
P-791 Lockheed Martin
First test flight: 2006
UFO link: Plane spotters’ photos and videos blew the top-secret cover off a 5-minute inaugural flight in Palmdale,California. The hybrid airship – it uses gas and a wing shape for lift – fuels speculation that classified airships quietly roam the night skies.
F-117A Nighthawk Lockheed MartinFirst
First test flight: 1981
Deployment: 1983 to 2008
UFo link: This long-range stealth fighter, which could stay aloft indefinitely thanks to mid-air refuelling, remained classified through much of the 1980s during test flights at Tonopah Test Field Range in Nevada, 130 km from the legendary Area 51 Groom Lake facility. Along with the B-2 Spirit, the bat-like F-117A was a perfect candidate for triangular UFO sightings.
B-2 Spirit Northrop GrummanFirst
First test flight: 1989
Deployment: 1997 to present
Size: 21 m long; 52 m wingspan
UFO link: Although the long-range bomber was never a true “black aircraft”, since it was displayed to the public approximately eight months before its first flight, an airborne B-2 is a UFO report waiting to happen. It looks like an alien craft from nearly any angle and specifically like a flying saucer when viewed head-on or in profile.
The skies over Earth are home to regular displays of bizarre natural lights that could be mistaken for UFOs.
Venus:It’s responsible for the greatest number of sightings – including one by former US President Jimmy Carter in 1969. The planet usually appears just above the Leonid meteor blast on November 18, 2001, left this eerie ring. Screen grabs: David Caron’s (above, left), and the History Channel’s re-creation. horizon around dusk or dawn; it trails only the Moon in luminosity; and depending on the air mass in front of the viewer, the planet can be magnified into a ball or seem to skip around. World War II pilots mistaking it for a Japanese plane once shot at it.
Plasma: Some 90 km up, electrons that shower the atmosphere interact with neutral atoms and release bursts of photons. In 2006, the United Kingdom’s Defence Intelligence Staff concluded that the resulting aurora generates a number of the country’s annual sightings.
Meteors: About 25 million pass through the atmosphere daily – some resulting in showy mid-air displays that have been mistaken for UFOs since as early as 1965, when residents of Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, were bewildered by a meteor.
Lenticular clouds: Stratified and saucershaped, they tend to form near mountains. In July 2008, the North Wales Pioneer ran a resident’s “strange images” – of a lenticular cloud
The most provocative imagery to emerge from the Stephenville sightings came from resident David Caron, who videotaped squiggling, multicoloured lights on January 19, 2008, that he says must have been a UFO (below, left). “You could see it much better through the camera than just with the naked eye,” he told the Stephenville Empire-Tribune. That might have been the problem. “Video cameras record at about 30 frames per second,” says George Reis of Imaging Forensics. “This recording refreshes twice per second, so very long exposures are being used.” Caron was likely filming a distant, stationary light. “A handheld exposure of a bright light results in light streaks from camera movement that would look like these images,” Reis says. The colour shifts, he adds, may be from colour mosaic filtration on the camera’s CCD chip. The History Channel’s UFO Hunters reproduced a similar effect with a video camera set to night mode zoomed in on a cluster of coloured lights across the lab (below, right). UFOlogists on Internet forums did the same by shooting the star Sirius, which is known for its luminescence and vivid colouring.
Stephenville is only the latest in a long list of UFO incidents that are probably based on military operations, starting with the Battle of Los Angeles. Whether the recent Texas sightings were flight exercises involving evasion flares or tests of an exist