By Jim Nintzel and Julian Grajewski
JULY 28, 1997: THOSE UNIDENTIFIED flying objects that passed over Phoenix last March 13 may have finally been identified.
Lt. Keith Shepherd, public information officer at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, confirms that an eight-plane squadron of A-10 fighter-bombers from the 175th Fighter Wing, based in Baltimore, Maryland, landed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base at approximately 8:30 p.m. on March 13, returning from the Phoenix area. The Baltimore unit was in Arizona to conduct training exercises.
The squadron launched a number of flares, which seem to have been responsible for the unidentified row of lights that caused a minor sensation when it appeared in Phoenix skies in March. The sighting received national attention when USA Today picked up the story in June; the tale quickly jumped to network news reports, which led Sen. John McCain to ask the Air Force to investigate the incident.
Last week, the Arizona Republic ran a front-page story on military's refusal to launch an investigation. But even as the Air Force was publicly declining to look into the light show, it seems an investigation of sorts was being conducted.
The pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place when 21-year-old amateur astronomer Mitch Stanley reported seeing a squadron of planes through his telescope on the night in question. Stanley's claim, first published in the Phoenix New Times and reprinted in the Tucson Weekly ("Answering The Arizona Question," July 3), left a nagging question: Who was flying the planes? In a Twilight Zone twist, no Arizona airfields had any reports of landings that could be traced to the mystery flights.
Shepherd says an initial check at Davis-Monthan revealed that all of the planes permanently stationed at the Air Force base had landed before 6 p.m. on March 13. It was a recent report from a Marana Air National Guard unit that inspired a deeper look at the records.
"They fly Apache helicopters and they do a lot of night flying and they reported having seen a flight of A-10s that appeared to be following I-10 back to Tucson," Shepherd says. "That's when we went back and further checked and...there was this group from the national guard in (from Maryland)."
The A-10s dropped a number of flares that evening, according to Shepherd.
"It's standard to use flares with the A-10 because it operates very low and very slow over a battlefield, which makes it very susceptible to heat-seeking missiles," he says. "They use them as a decoy for surface to air missiles and they will do that during training. Basically, any missiles that are fired will track after the flares and not the aircraft.... I was speaking with some of our experts here and they said the kind of flares that they use are attached to a parachute and when they are jettisoned from 6,000 feet, you can see them from about 150 miles away."
Shepherd stops short of declaring the case closed.
"We're not making that decision," he says. "This is what was operating that night. We'd have to get ahold of the FAA and the FAA would have to conduct an investigation into that, because they'd have to go back and look at all the radar tapes."
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