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The Stephenville Lights

Donate This modern UFO case has been declared to be one of the most compelling ever.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Aliens & UFOs

Skeptoid Podcast #940
June 11, 2024
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The Stephenville Lights

Today we have a story for you from the UFO files — in fact it's from my own UFO files, and it's been sitting in there for years, because I never considered it extraordinary enough to be worthy of an episode. But apparently now that is a minority view. The story is known as The Stephenville Lights, and it concerns an aerial light show that astonished residents of Stephenville, TX on the evening of January 8, 2008. It was regarded by the HISTORY Channel as #4 on their list of "The 5 Most Credible Modern UFO Sightings" and was the subject of episode #1 of Netflix's Encounters series promoting UFOs as alien visitors. So I guess my disinterest was misplaced.

Here is a description of the event from the HISTORY article:

The small town of Stephenville, Texas, 100 miles southwest of Dallas, is mostly known for its dairy farms, but on the evening of January 8, 2008, dozens of its residents viewed something unique in the sky. Citizens reported seeing white lights above Highway 67, first in a single horizontal arc and then in vertical parallel lines. Local pilot Steve Allen estimated that the strobe lights "spanned about a mile long and a half mile wide," traveling about 3,000 miles per hour. No sound was reported.

Many people reported F-16 fighter planes in the mix as well, with frequent use of their afterburners, making their jet blast look almost like a rocket flames. This all happened after sunset but before it was completely dark, and gave a whole show of flaming jet engines, bright stationary lights, flashing lights, and all kinds of things. The general hypothesis was that F-16s were sent in to chase a fleet of UFOs, seen and even videotaped by many. The location where all this had happened was inside the Brownwood MOA (Military Operating Area, a section of airspace reserved for military exercises), about 10 miles from Stephenville.

However, there was a problem with the public's identification of F-16s. In response to numerous media inquiries, Maj. Karl Lewis, public affairs officer for Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, issued a clear statement that there had been no military aircraft flying in the MOA during the time in question, which was between 6 and 8pm.

The big break in the case came when some phone calls were made by James McGaha, a retired Air Force C-130 pilot, an astronomer, and a skeptical investigator. His first call was to the FAA on January 17 — nine days after the event. It seemed improbable to him that the MOA had indeed been empty during the event, as the Air Force had claimed. Well, he was right. The FAA told him that at least eight F-16 fighters had entered the MOA on the evening of January 8, beginning at 6:17pm. They did maneuvers inside ranging from 7,000 feet to 34,000 feet, and all left the area by 6:58pm. The timing matched the witness reports perfectly.

So McGaha called the public affairs office at the base himself and said "Hey, the FAA says you guys did have planes up when you said you didn't. What's the deal?" They double checked, and quickly found the error. I've not found that the nature of the error has been reported anywhere previously, so I called James McGaha myself and we spoke about it. Here's what happened.

When public affairs initially got the call from local news media asking if they had any planes in the air between 6 and 8pm on January 8, they checked their logs. The US Air Force, like many militaries around the world, refers to flight operations and other things using UTC, Coordinated Universal Time, formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time, and commonly referred to within the military as Zulu time — Z for the zero meridian. So when the news asked for 6-8pm on January 8 (assuming Central time zone for Texas), the officer looked at the logs and found there were no planes in the air between 6-8pm on January 8… Zulu. 6-8pm Zulu is noon to 2pm Central, and it was true; they'd had no planes operating between noon and 2. So Maj. Lewis had given a correct and honest answer; they had simply miscommunicated on what time zone was intended.

Now that this had been figured out, Maj. Lewis put out a revised press release saying that there had indeed been a group of F-16s in and around the MOA at the correct time. Without specifying the nature of the error, the release blamed an internal miscommunication which had since been corrected. Naturally, the press — always hungry to report something sensational — took this as a sign that the Air Force was scrambling to cover something. NPR News reported "The Air Force is changing its story on what happened," and The New York Times said "A local Air Force reserve base stepped up on Wednesday with a statement that either completely debunks the story or fuels it further, depending on whom you ask and when you ask them."

Many of the eyewitnesses had said the F-16s were using flares, including an unnamed medical helicopter pilot who was flying during the event, and had been an Air National Guard pilot himself and was very familiar with flares. So skeptical investigators like McGaha quickly turned to flares as a candidate explanation for the entire event; the only problem being that the eyewitness reports of what the lights looked like and how they behaved was so diverse.

There are two basic kinds of flares that F-16s use. The first are countermeasure flares designed to fool incoming heat-seeking missiles. They are small and the pilot will fire off a bunch of them at once. They burn for only a few seconds.

The second are illumination flares. An illumination flare is designed to light up a large area of a battlefield at night, like an artificial sun. This is a big heavy canister, about a meter long, that falls with a parachute and burns magnesium with about a two million candlepower flame. The heat is so great that it acts almost like a hot air balloon and falls very slowly, hardly at all to an observer. They burn and are visible for 4-5 minutes (less if they disappear behind a hill or other obstruction), and are absolutely visible from 10 miles away and much more. In the famous Phoenix Lights case of 1997, they were visible to observers up to 100 miles away.

Because of the dangers of landing a fighter jet loaded with gigantic magnesium-filled illumination flares, any such flares carried up are typically jettisoned and burned off before landing. This is what happened in Phoenix — resulting in a slanting line of lights appearing above the Sierra Estrella mountains outside of town.

In that case, investigators contacted Luke Air Force Base, and that got them in touch with the lead pilot of the A-10s that had dropped the flares, who happily provided all the information; we even know the exact model number of the illumination flares that were used: the ATK Thiokol LUU-2B/B air-deployed high intensity illumination flare. That doesn't seem to have been done in the Stephenville case. Numerous anecdotal reports were collected, both by McGaha and by MUFON investigators (the Mutual UFO Network), from eyewitnesses with relevant expertise who recognized that the F-16s were dropping flares. But I can't find any record that anyone tracked down anyone directly connected with those F-16s who could confirm that they were using either illumination flares, countermeasure flares, or both. Some anecdotes are consistent with illumination flares, some with countermeasure flares. Maybe someone listening to this will know, and if you do, please get in touch.

Perhaps the best description that nails down illumination flares as the culprit is found in the report Stephenville Lights: A Comprehensive Radar and Witness Report Study, written by Glen Schulze and Robert Powell in 2010. Powell was a longtime MUFON investigator, has legit science credentials, and has a good reputation even among skeptics for doing solid work. One of their eyewitnesses, unnamed but described as a chief of police, says in his testimony "Not knowing exactly how far away the lights were, I formed no opinion as to size or distance between the lights." Since we had the one person in a thousand who seems to understand that, I give his story more credibility than I would most. He said, in part:

I noticed a bright light in the sky, and I immediately thought that it was a flare dropped from a military aircraft in the Brownwood Military Operating Area. It is not unusual to see flares in that area… As I watched the flare, it did not appear to decrease in altitude, as flares normally do. Also, it was not decreasing in intensity as they normally do…

He understood he was looking into a MOA, and he recognized the flares for what they were. Keep in mind these were a minimum of 10 miles away, and they would have to be insanely bright for him to see them at all. The fact that they were that bright, that they stayed aloft a long time and maintained a constant brightness, is all perfectly consistent with illumination flares.

Let's take a brief look at two more pieces of evidence from Stephenville. The first is video evidence; a number of people tried to take video of the bright lights. Although they're of poor quality due to shaking hands in the pre-stabilization era, and due to night mode, it's clear that the only thing shown in the videos is single static bright lights; again, perfectly consistent with an illumination flare.

The final piece of evidence is radar data — a lot of it — but it was so widely panned as being of such poor quality that I think it needs to be dismissed as useless. MUFON's report on Stephenville consisted mostly of Doppler radar data, which they obtained through a FOIA request to the FAA. Their report states "The Doppler radar was running in 'clear air mode' indicating that no precipitation was in the area. In clear air mode, Doppler radar can [pick] up birds, insects, and even atmospheric particulates." In other words, it was noise. 2.5 million data points of noise.

What they did was to go through it, point by point, and line up radar returns that seemed to make a line through time and space. Out of that 2.5 million, they selected 187 returns, contending that it represented a gigantic object moving through the scene. This constitutes a textbook example of the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy — apropos since this was in Texas. That's where you fire a machine gun at the side of a barn then draw a target around three holes that are really close together, and claim to have hit the mark. MUFON took 25 million bits of noise, drew a target around 187 that appeared to be roughly in a line, and claimed the existence of an enormous alien spacecraft — something totally inconsistent with the eyewitness reports.

And so, when we look into the totality of the Stephenville Lights UFO case, we find nothing that doesn't have a perfectly prosaic explanation. We find the Air Force changing its story — appearing to indicate some kind of scramble to cover something up — turns out to have been nothing more than it was explained to be: a miscommunication due (as we now know) to time zones. We find there were more than enough lights in the sky — illumination flares, countermeasure flares, and afterburners — to explain all the common elements among the diverse eyewitness accounts. We find the video evidence to have been perfectly consistent with an illumination flare. And we find that whatever radar tracks were claimed to prove a gigantic UFO was there were due to invalid cherry picking of data that indicated no such thing. So if HISTORY Channel truly considers this to be among the very most credible UFO sightings, then we do not think that word means what they think it means.

Correction: An earlier version of this said Greenwich Meridian Time, which is an obsolete term. Greenwich Mean Time has been the correct term for some time. —BD


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Stephenville Lights." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 11 Jun 2024. Web. 20 Jun 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4940>

 

References & Further Reading

Editors. "UFO Investigators Flock to Stephenville, Texas." ABC News. ABC News Network, 9 Feb. 2009. Web. 4 Jun. 2024. <https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=4142232&page=1>

Frazier, K. "The Stephenville Lights: What Actually Happened." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jan. 2009, Volume 33, Issue 1: 56-57.

Goodwyn, W. "Air Force Alters Texas UFO Explanation." NPR News. National Public Radio, 24 Jan. 2008. Web. 4 Jun. 2024. <https://www.npr.org/2008/01/24/18375952/air-force-alters-texas-ufo-explanation>

Hudgeons, S. "Stephenville: Report of Cluster of UFO Sightings in Erath County, Texas, Nov. 2007 to Feb. 2008." MUFON UFO Journal. 1 May 2008, Number 481: 3-12.

Nizza, M. "F-16s at Scene of U.F.O. Sighting in Texas." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 24 Jan. 2008. Web. 4 Jun. 2024. <https://archive.nytimes.com/thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/24/f-16s-at-the-scene-of-ufo-sighting-in-texas/>

Schulze, G., Powell, R. Stephenville Lights: A Comprehensive Radar and Witness Report Study. Fort Myers, FL: Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, 2010.

Shapiro, R. "The 5 Most Credible Modern UFO Sightings." HISTORY. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 25 Apr. 2018. Web. 4 Jun. 2024. <https://www.history.com/news/ufo-sightings-credible-modern>

 

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