Showtime 'UFO' Phoenix Lights True Story

UniqueThis 136 Aug 8


You’ve heard of Roswell, but that’s hardly the only supposed U.F.O sighting in the United States. In Showtime’s sleek and sophisticated new docuseries, UFO, co-directors Paul Crowder and Mark Monroe revisit some of the hundreds of other encounters of the third kind that might not be as famous as Roswell but are no less real to those who witnessed them.

Take, for instance, the Phoenix Lights. In case you aren’t familiar, the Phoenix Lights refers to a pair of U.F.O sightings in Arizona in 1997. The infamous incident anchors the first episode of the docuseries, which was executive produced by J.J. Abrams, and elicits strong reactions from the series’ talking heads. “There’s a lot of mystery behind this and a lot of unanswered questions that no one wants to talk about,” says one such talking head at the start of the episode’s narrative arc. It’s an eerie and fitting introduction to the Phoenix Lights saga which, as the investigative journalist Leslie Keane points out, is far from over.

But first, some history: On the evening of March 13, 1997, thousands of people across Arizona and parts of Nevada reported witnessing two separate incidents of unidentified flying objects. The earlier event involved a lit-up V-shaped object that witnesses reported first appeared in the northern Arizona towns of Prescott and Dewy around 8:00 p.m. The object then allegedly headed south, in the direction of the point of the V, towards Tucson. You can actually read some of the eyewitness accounts on the National UFO Reporting Center website.

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In an on-camera interview for UFO, then-Arizona Governor Fyfe Simington recalls his own experience seeing the object, saying “I turned around and this great big delta-shaped thing came out of the northwest and headed down towards the southwest valley.” Simington says. “It was really eerie. It had embedded lights. I always refer to it as otherworldly. I’d never seen anything like it.”

The second incident occurred a few hours later at 10 p.m. and involved a smattering of lights that appeared to hover over the Phoenix area in a boomerang pattern. Hundreds of people reported seeing the lights turn on and off at regular intervals, and various eyewitnesses quoted in an old USA Today article agreed that the object was enormous (potentially 6,000 feet), silent, and slow moving. Making matters even more mysterious, nearby air traffic controllers said that even though they could see the lights, nothing showed up on their radar screens. The controller on duty that night, Bill Grava, described the experience as “weird” and “inexplicable” to the USA Today reporter. “I have no idea what it was,” said Grava. “Something military I guess.”

But the military denied any involvement, at least at first. A bit later on, the U.S. Air Force took responsibility for the events, saying the lights were leftover high-intensity flares that were dropped by a fleet of A-10s during a training routine at the nearby Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Unfortunately, plenty of people remain skeptical of this explanation, including Gov. Simington who served in the Air Force. In a CNN op-ed, Simington wrote, “As a pilot and a former Air Force Officer, I can definitively say that this craft did not resemble any man-made object I'd ever seen. And it was certainly not high-altitude flares because flares don't fly in formation.

The federal government never responded to criticisms of the Air Force’s explanation and repeatedly denied requests for further investigations from both Gov. Simington and then-Senator John McCain. And while he may be more forthcoming now, Simington and other state government officials essentially stonewalled their own citizens when they asked for an investigation in the immediate aftermath of the sightings. In a particularly damning moment in UFO it is revealed that Simington and then-Secretary of State refused to investigate the claims of more than 700 eyewitnesses that former Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood says she brought to his office’s attention.

What UFO effectively highlights are the lasting consequences of the government’s skittish dismissal of the Phoenix Lights incident. As Kean says halfway through UFO’s first episode, “It’s irresponsible and it’s dangerous to ignore.” She then adds, “It’s also really disrespectful to the witnesses.”

All 4 episodes of UFO premiere on Showtime on Sunday, Aug 8 at 9 p.m.

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