23 Years Later, the Phoenix Lights Are Still Unexplained

A new documentary explores one of the most infamous UFO mass sightings in history.
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 9
Motherboard explores UFOs, UFO culture, and the paranormal.

23 years ago today, the people of Arizona witnessed one of the most infamous UFO incidents in history.

A new documentary series by filmmaker Seth Breedlove takes an in depth look into the so-called “Phoenix Lights.” On the Trail of UFOs doesn’t try to prove that the incident was aliens or flares, but instead expertly explores the cultural ramifications of the event on the UFO community.

“As an event, the Phoenix Lights is important simply because it gained so much media attention, was witnessed by so many people, and today, can still not be precisely explained away,” Breedlove told Motherboard. “Every year more witnesses come forward; from airline pilots to military personnel to ordinary people living from places as far removed as downtown Phoenix to Las Vegas.”


On March 13th, 1997, hundreds of Arizonans called their local law enforcement and a popular UFO reporting hotline to report a series of strange lights moving over their cities and towns. The Phoenix Lights case remains one of the largest UFO sightings in history, and continues to be an established fixture of contemporary UFO discourse.

At roughly 7:00 pm, people in northwestern Arizona began reporting a large craft passing overhead. According to the National UFO Reporting Center, the first call they received came in at 8:16pm from a retired police officer in Paulden, Arizona, a town about two hours north of Phoenix. He reported seeing a series of reddish lights arranged in a V-formation.

Over the next couple days, calls continued to pour in regarding the sighting of multiple lights in the sky, some arranged in the shape of a boomerang, and others as odd moving lights with tails and “fireballs.” Ron Regehr, a veteran UFO researcher with the Mutual UFO Network and a former engineer with Boeing and Northrop Grumman, told Motherboard in an interview that he was part of the team that helped in developing the Defense Support Program Satellites (DSP), a series of infrared sensing tactical satellites that detect the launch of missiles, space launches, and nuclear detonations.

Regehr explained that he generated regular reports about what the DSP detected every 60 days. According to Regehr, he received a phone call from a colleague that the DSP picked up an object over South Eastern Nevada. It traveled in that direction until its signal became too weak, and it was lost over Tucson, Arizona.


Regehr told Motherboard that the event was “significant in that so many people witnessed the event and the extent authorities went to to denounce their experience. But, so many people were polarized that it took on an almost immediate ‘cult like’ life of its own. 23 years later folks are still talking about it!”

The world did not notice the event until USA Today picked up the story in June of that year. Arizona’s governor even held a press conference where he brought in his chief of staff dressed in an alien costume, telling the press that they were “too serious” about the UFO stuff. The military eventually took responsibility for the strange lights explaining that the two events were a series of jets flying in close formation and some military flares.

On the Trail of UFOs follows podcaster and author Shannon LeGro into the murky and weird UFO world. While it explores several other cases, the series spends its time analyzing the UFO community and the people who claim to have encounters with the anomalous. Breedlove’s previous documentary work includes Terror in the Skies (2019), The Bray Road Beast (2018), and The Mothman of Point Pleasant (2017). Much like his previous work, Breedlove’s focus is on the individuals caught up in the event, and how it altered their lives instead of trying to ascertain whether aliens or monsters are real. As for the Phoenix Lights, Breedlove points out that “it’s a culturally important event because it illustrates how at-risk witnesses were of being ridiculed if they came forward.”

“I’m not sure today that the response to the Phoenix Lights would be as over-the-top as it was in 1997 when you had the governor going on television with a man in an alien costume to poke fun at the very idea of a UFO,” Breedlove said. “Things have changed drastically in 23 years and the Phoenix Lights helps illustrate that fact.”

On the Trail of UFOs drops on March 20th on Prime Video.