According to Fox 10 News, one fan at the high school took a video and posted it to YouTube, where within days it became one of the top stories on Yahoo News, sparked "a national mystery" and garnered over 50,000 views.
Several explanations were put forth to explain the mysterious lights, ranging from helicopters to camera lens flares. But of course the favored explanation was spacecraft: did we finally have good video proof that mankind is being visited by aliens?
Others weren't so sure and suggested that the bright lights resembled nighttime skydivers with flares. To some this explanation seemed even more outlandish than extraterrestrial spacecraft flying by to watch a high school football game: What would skydivers be doing with flares in the night sky? And if they were skydivers and had done this before, why wouldn't people have known about it, or recognized it? Was it all some prank or hoax?
As the story got more and more publicity, a helicopter pilot for Fox Channel 10, Rick Crabbs, went on the air and told what he knew. And he knew a lot.
He was at an event called the "Halloween Balloon Spooktacular" in which a skydiving team called the Arizona Skyhawks jumped out of a plane with bright magnesium flares for a show. "I was at the location where those skydivers were coming in Friday night," Crabbs stated in a Fox10 news report, "That's exactly what happened: there were some skydivers. And they did have pyrotechnics on their ankles. There were four of them, and if you look at the video, you can see actually four different lights."
Much of the area surrounding Horizon High School is open space that would be ideal for skydiving. But why weren't the lights identified earlier?
The answer is that though the event (held at a place called Salt River Fields) is about 15 miles from the high school, it is difficult to judge the distance of unknown objects in the sky -- and that's especially true for the night sky. Under clear conditions, bright lights can be seen for dozens of miles; some lighthouses can be seen more than fifty miles away, for example.
Robert Sheaffer, a UFO investigator with Skeptical Inquirer magazine and author of the Bad UFOs blog, told Discovery News, "It's remarkable how so many people, when they see lights in the sky, immediately jump to the conclusion that they might be seeing alien visitors... In reality there are many different possible explanations for lights in the sky, all of them more likely than 'alien visitors.' In this case, just a few minutes of web searching revealed not only that these lights were parachutists carrying flares, but gave us the actual identity of the parachutists."
This is not the first time that UFO lights have been reported over Phoenix. In 1997, bright flare-like lights were seen in the night sky, causing a surge of UFO reports. It was soon revealed that high-intensity flares had been dropped from the sky over a testing range at nearby Luke Air Force Base during military exercises.
In 2008 another set of mysterious lights were sighted; hundreds of Phoenix residents reported four bright red lights in the sky at about 8 p.m. Those turned out to be a hoax created by road flares tied to helium balloons.
Of course, as with the previous UFO lights seen over Phoenix, there will likely be some people who reject this latest explanation as inadequate, or smell a cover-up. For example, some suggest that the timing is wrong for skydivers to explain the Phoenix UFO lights seen Oct. 28. The Fox 10 news report clearly states that the high school video was taken at about 8:30 p.m. -- yet the skydiving was not scheduled until half an hour later, at 9 p.m.!
Aha! Is this proof that the "official explanation" is wrong, and that the lights remain unexplained?
Hardly. The news reporter may simply have misspoken, or the videomaker may not have looked at his watch to note the exact time, or the Skyhawks team may even have performed the jump a little earlier than advertised. The fact that some details don't match up perfectly (or that some eyewitness statements may be wrong or inexact) doesn’t mean that the explanations are wrong.
For many conspiracy theorists nothing is as it seems, and simple explanations are viewed with suspicion. In their minds, it's ridiculous to think that flares in the night sky (in military exercises, or attached to balloons or skydivers) could account for the mysterious UFO lights.
Image: Flares in the sky -- like the military flares seen here during the Lebanon-Israel conflict in 2006 -- can be misidentified as UFOs. Credit: Corbis.