When Robert Brewer first saw brake lights and traffic stopped on the 51, the Scottsdale pastor and PhD assumed there had been an accident. “They’re all looking up. What’s going on?” Brewer’s friend asked as he pulled his car to the side of the road.
To this day, Brewer doesn’t believe in aliens or space ships, but he does know the silent, hovering lights he watched for about 20 minutes on March 13, 1997, were unlike anything he’d seen before or since. “It was like the first time you walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon. I was literally breathless,” Brewer says.
Along the shoulder of the 51, bystanders watched silently. Some were on their knees. Others raised their arms. From Prescott to Tucson, hundreds of Arizona residents stood in awe of the massive lights. The witness reports read the same: a V of huge, unblinking, hovering lights parading in silent unison across the night sky.
Almost 10 years after the sighting, Valley astronomers, pilots and psychiatrists are still searching for an explanation to what was arguably the most documented UFO sighting ever, now dubbed the Phoenix Lights. Among those still affected are former UFO skeptics. Explanations vary from military tests to extraterrestrial visitors, but the eyewitnesses do agree on one thing: “You had to be there to really understand.… This was not like anything from Earth.”
“I’VE SEEN FLARES BEFORE. THESE WEREN’T FLARES.”
On a recent cool October evening, media personality and astronomer “Dr. Sky” Steve Kates is hosting a black-tie audience under a starlit Gilbert sky. Kates is a regular on TV and radio programs discussing the astronomically unexplained.
Kates doesn’t believe in aliens. In the nine years since the Phoenix Lights sightings, he has hosted hundreds of discussions about the phenomena. Tonight, between live phone interviews with world-renowned astronomers and former astronauts, Kates says experimental government aircraft are responsible for the Phoenix Lights. “I think it’s a very major event that took place and a matter of national security,” he says. “Two separate events took place the night of March 13, 1997.”
Kates believes a very large, silent surveillance blimp flew over Arizona while diversionary flares hoped to distract any Hale-Bopp comet watchers from noticing, adding that one need only interview so many sane, educated eyewitnesses to conclude the Phoenix Lights were more than just flares.
Among the sane, educated type described by Kates are Mark and Celia Chapman, neither of whom believe in little green men or messages from the stars. But when asked if they’re familiar with the Phoenix Lights, the Honeywell engineer and healthcare consultant exuberantly recounts their 1997 sighting of the lights.
“We were sitting in the spa. There was nothing by the McDowell Mountains back then. We look up and see this huge wedge V of lights, no noise,” Mark Chapman says. “We knew it wasn’t an airplane or anything. I’ve seen flares before. This didn’t fit flares. These lights were equidistant, moving together, hovering.”
The Chapmans represent hundreds, if not thousands, of Arizona eyewitnesses who offer similar stories. Many are well educated, and don’t buy the National Guard’s flare explanation.
“That was the only time I’ve ever seen anything like that. I’m an engineer. I was always skeptical about UFOs, but this was amazing,” Chapman says. “You can’t believe what you just saw. I do find it kind of humorous that the government doesn’t acknowledge any kind of sighting. A lot of people saw this.”
“A VIDEO OVERLAY STRONGLY SUPPORTED THE FINDING THAT THOSE LIGHTS AT LEAST WERE MILITARY FLARES.”
Weeks after the sighting, officials from Luke Air Force Base and Sky Harbor Airport claimed they had no explanation for the countless reported sightings. National networks aired reports on the unexplained phenomenon. Then a USA Today article reported the sighting was “the most confounding UFO report in 50 years. So far there is no explanation, but the government is not investigating.”
Former Paradise Valley physician Dr. Lynne Kitei, an expert on the Phoenix Lights, says that article caused a major turning point with local military officials. “I’d been calling around to military,” Kitei says. “They were just as interested and curious as I was, until that USA Today article.”
After the front-page expose, military officials were no longer openly curious, helpful or conversational, Kitei says. A month later, the U.S. National Guard issued an answer to the months-old mystery. Military test flares from the Marlyand National Guard had been dropped in Phoenix as a training exercise. With that announcement, most media attention being paid to the Phoenix Lights ended, but many eyewitnesses remained unsatisfied.
“I have no doubt that flares were set off to avert attention,” Kitei says. She and Dr. Sky agree; the flares functioned to divert attention to whatever the real lights were. Both add that flares near Luke Air Force Base wouldn’t have been visible to the eyewitnesses in Prescott and Tucson. The Prescott reports in particular came in before any media hype or Phoenix news.
“I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A SCIENTIFICALLY-MINDED SKEPTIC.”
Perhaps more inexplicable than the Phoenix Lights themselves is the effect the sighting had on numerous eyewitnesses, among them Dr. Kitei.
Most Phoenix Lights eyewitnesses say they’ve never seen anything like it before or since. Kitei is a notable exception. The glass bedroom wall in Kitei’s mountainside Paradise Valley home has given her a front-row seat in a light show that has quite literally defined the course of her life for nearly a decade.
Kitei says the 1997 mass sighting was but one in a string of revelations she has witnessed from her bedroom window. For four years, Kitei managed to keep her multiple sightings to herself, not wanting to jeopardize her position as a chief clinical consultant for the Arizona Heart Institute.
Today, at La Madeline café, Kitei acknowledges she has all but thrown away her medical career in order to spread the good news about the now famed Phoenix Lights. She will leave the interview and catch a plane for California, where her documentary has won acclaim at two more film festivals.
Four years after the 1997 sighting, Kitei published Phoenix Lights, a 250-page summary documenting the event. This March will mark the 10-year anniversary. Harkins’ Theatres plans to show a documentary produced by Kitei, while an exhibit is planned at ASU to commemorate the event.
“I have always been a scientifically-minded skeptic,” Kitei says. “Once you start looking, you start finding. There is so much out there confirming this is real and mysterious and anomalous and happening,” Kitei says.
Kitei maintains a scientific front all while inviting the spirit world to reveal itself. “Most things can be explained,” she says, “but there is a small percentage of things that cannot. Just because we don’t have the technology to definitively define it yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
Kitei suspects the spirit world is summoning us through events like Phoenix Lights, and that they have been for hundreds, even thousands of years. “Over the Gila River Indian reservation, they say they’ve been seeing them for centuries. They call them sky people.”
“I COULD LAND ON IT WITH MY 727.”
While Dr. Sky agrees with Kitei that the Phoenix Lights were indeed more than flares, Kates contends that talk of spiritual or extraterrestrial activity is simply out of bounds. “I think it’s a very major event, something that should be talked about,” Dr. Sky says. “I respect Dr. Kitei, but I don’t believe it was aliens. I don’t believe any of that.”
Dr. Sky isn’t the only adamant Phoenix Lights skeptic who disagrees with the outspoken Dr. Kitei. “Yes, there are a couple of fruit loops associated with March 13th,” Trig Johnston, a retired Northwest pilot says of explanations for the Phoenix Lights. “Anyone who can tell you what the little green men wish for us can probably also tell you where God wants you to send your checks. But, that’s just my opinion.”
Johnston has been flying for 44 years and has since logged thousands of hours in everything from Cessna’s to 747s.
“I know what flares don’t look like,” Johnston says. He describes a huge mass, at least a mile wide, approaching his North Scottsdale home from the northwest, the direction of the earlier Prescott sightings.
“I could land on it with my 727,” Johnston says. “What I saw bears little relation to the video of the Phoenix Lights,” he adds. But Johnston does agree with Kitei on one thing: the craft emitted an inviting telepathic message.
“When you make a UFO report, you must expect people to think you’re crazy. So here’s where you will think I’m crazy,” Johnston says. He says the craft sent out a transmission: “We are not a threat.”
Johnston says the massive lights, connected by a translucent material, then paraded in silence down Scottsdale Road at about 30 miles per hour “like in the Rose Bowl parade. The craft wanted to be seen.”
“LIKE STANDING AT
THE EDGE OF THE GRAND CANYON, I WAS
Dr. Robert Brewer isn’t surprised eyewitnesses received telepathic communication from the lights. Where Kitei sees a benevolent, loving spirit in the sky, Dr. Brewer sees a phenomenon that may indeed be spiritual, but not an altruistic one.
“From a logical standpoint they’ve done nothing to help,” Brewer says of UFO sightings and abduction reports. “How many anal probes do you have to do? We have no new cures for cancer or energy technology, not even an autographed space map. If you were this advanced and were benevolent, why not help humanity?”
Brewer is no “UFO-ologist.” In fact, the urban philosopher and pastor looks more like an MTV rock star than a Roswell alien stalker. He hangs out with Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin and reads ancient Greek literature and surf magazines in the same sitting.
Like Kitei, Brewer was in no need of a career boost or a new area of expertise when he set out to write his book, 7 Things You Should Know About UFOs. Like Kitei, he was inspired by the profound impact of the eyewitness sightings.
Brewer says it’s no surprise the Phoenix Lights took Kitei in a spiritual direction. “Studying UFOs will always lead into the spiritual,” Brewer says. “Even here in Barnes and Noble the UFO books are in the New Age section.”
“I think UFOs are the Darwinism of our time,” Brewer says. “When Darwin first came out with his theory, many looked at it as fringe. UFOs are no longer the fringe topic they once were. Popular Science is doing cover stories on this. Folks with PhDs from MIT are devoting their lives to this. By no means am I saying all UFO encounters are paranormal, but there is a percentage that seem to be not of this world.”
Brewer sees UFO curiosity and the Phoenix Lights as filler for the human need to believe in something greater.
All evidence, Brewer says, suggests the Phoenix Lights are spiritual in nature. “I do know this: people are seeing things,” Brewer says of the Phoenix Lights. “I know because I’m one. There I was on March 13, 1997, and I saw something that didn’t fit anything I knew. As an amateur astronomer I knew it wasn’t planes or comets or anything I’d seen before.”
Brewer says something happened on March 13. He respects Kitei, particularly her fearless efforts to get the word out. “We saw it, and we concur that it’s spiritual. Where we differ is what kind of spirits,” Brewer says. “I’m telling you. It’s something that will take your breath away. If I wasn’t a Christian, I don’t know what I’d think.”
In her Paradise Valley home, Dr. Kitei says the sightings continue. In October 2006 she has received multiple reports of sightings in Tucson, including one from a retired police officer and airman once stationed at Luke.
Whatever the Phoenix Lights were or weren’t. The only evident truth seems to be that had Kitei not seen the Phoenix Lights, she would just be another successful professional residing in Paradise Valley. As the 10-year anniversary of the lights approaches, there is no shortage of questions or answers. There is also no shortage of eyewitnesses still in awe of what they saw in the sky over Phoenix that night.