Lights in the Sky

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This page last updated on 04/17/2017.

Copyright 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer


I've always been interested in what happens "Up There."  Clouds, rain, lightning, thunder, wind, aircraft, meteors, planets, stars, aurora, spacecraft, etc. have held my rapt attention as far back as I can remember.  When I was a boy, I used to lay out on the grass on warm summer nights, systematically recording satellite passes (I still have my old log).  Over the years, I've seen a few odd things.  For me, they inspire feelings of wonder and mystery.  I really like those feelings because they remind me that science hasn't answered all the questions, or indeed even scratched the surface!  So, once in a while, I reach into my memory pocket and curiously finger these few worthless little coins.

Many people see lights in the sky that seem mysterious.  Most of the time it's impossible to say what they are...it's just some luminous phenomenon...could be anything really.  Sometimes it seems pretty clear what the lights are, but sometimes they remain an enigma.  In the following list, I tally up and try to explain a few accounts of these kinds of lights.  The accounts include one interesting light seen by my Dad and the rest personally by me.

  • A Luminous Green Orb, Circa 1978
    My Dad was returning from a business trip and had flown into Pasco, WA.  He and a couple of co-workers piled in a car and were driving home to Walla Walla.  Around 10 PM, a few miles east of Wallula junction on Hwy 12, the three of them spotted a light coming over the hills.  My Dad described it as a luminous green orb with well defined edges (not hazy or misty).  It appeared over the hills on their right and flew south to north, cutting perpendicular across the highway at an altitude of about 200 feet.  It flew in a straight line at a constant speed, disappearing beyond the hills to the north.  Dad said he thought it was "terrain following" because of the way it kept a constant altitude, contouring the hills.  A perplexing experience.

    I started trying to think of possible explanations for what my Dad saw that night.  I thought about Earthquake lights, but there are no significant fault lines oriented north-south through that section of the state.  Also the rock is almost exclusively basalt down to a depth of several thousand feet...not really suitable for Earthquake lights (granite is preferred).  The distinct edges also tend to bias against Earthquake lights.  An parcel of ionized air would have hazy edges.

    My Dad speculated that it could have been a military aircraft.  He was not sure how to account for the lack of any aircraft-like shape...just a luminous green orb.  He did wonder whether he was just seeing cockpit lights or maybe some unusually colored jet exhaust.  Perhaps it was some other kind of military vehicle...maybe an unmanned reconnaissance vehicle of some kind.  The Boardman bombing range is nearby and there used to be1986 Seattle Sectional excerpt showing VR1354 crossing the road where my Dad saw the green object. quite a bit of action out there.  I frequently heard sonic booms growing up in Walla Walla, so there was obviously high performance military aviation going on.  I checked a 1986 Seattle Sectional Aeronautical Chart and found that in almost the exact area that my Dad saw the light there is a northbound military aircraft training route designated VR1354.  Routes like this one are meant for low-altitude navigation and tactical training below 10,000 feet at airspeeds in excess of 250 knots under visual flight rules.  In fact, the 4-digit number means the route is flown at an altitude below 1500 feet above the ground.  (A 3-digit designation means it's flown above 1500 feet.)  This seems to fit the bill for what my Dad saw.

    My Dad must have seen a military aircraft, flying VR1354 at less than 1500 feet, and more than 250 knots.  It was very likely on terrain following autopilot as my Dad noted.  The terrain around that area has some significant vertical features and flying fast and low at night would be pretty risky, if flown by hand.
     

  • The Pendleton Light, Fall 1979
    A buddy of mine, Dave, and I went flying one evening from Walla Walla, WA to Pendleton, OR.  Dave was a pilot and needed to get in some night landings for currency.  The night was clear with scattered cirrus and no moon.  We piled into Dave's Piper Pacer and took off.

    About 10 miles north of Pendleton, I saw a white light with a greenish hue high in the southwestern sky, moving west to east.  It was traveling in a straight line at a steady pace.  It looked exactly like a satellite and that is what I thought it was.  It seemed very high and far away.  I was always a keen observer of satellites and pointed it out to Dave.  I watched it slowly move lower in the sky, until it was near the eastern horizon over the Blue Mountains.

    Suddenly, the light changed course to the northwest and rapidly approached.  In a matter of about 1 minute, it appeared to descend level with our altitude and moved to a point about 3 miles off our left wingtip.  The light now held our rapt attention.  It appeared to alter course again and headed straight for us.  The light momentarily glared like the landing light of an aircraft in the distance.  It rapidly grew larger and seemed to move directly toward us.   I got a little tense, thinking it might be a collision hazard.  It abruptly altered course again and passed about mile behind us, headed west.  "Let's chase it and see what it is," I exclaimed.  Dave was already talking to Pendleton tower and was getting set up to land.  He thought chasing it was a silly idea.  I suppose it was, but I was very curious about the light.


     

    Over the years, I've come to believe that what we saw was an aircraft landing light, despite its unusual appearance.  The aircraft likely passed over the Pendleton airport, using it as a waypoint, then altered course to continue a cross county.  Maybe it was a military jet on a training flight.  Even though it seemed very far away, in fact, it must have been only a few miles ahead.  The apparent distance could have been an optical illusion.  It's really pretty hard to gauge distances to other aircraft, especially at night.  That could have thrown us.

    Still, there's a remnant of doubt.  It's the issue of initial distance.  Really, the whole interpretation of the event rests upon this one item.  If the light were tens of miles away then it could not have been an aircraft.  Any normal civilian plane just can't cover that kind of distance in less than a minute.  Of course, if the distance were misjudged and the airplane was only a few miles ahead, then everything tags up nicely.  If it weren't for the implications of saying it, I'd swear the light must have at least 20 to 30 miles distant.  My impression of the initial distance has just got to be wrong.

    There are other little things that throw particles of doubt into the mix:
     

    • We saw no evidence of position lights, a beacon, or strobes.  Some lighting of this sort is required for aircraft flying at night.
       
    • The greenish-white glow did not diminish, even when viewing the object from the aft.  If the glow were from a landing light, it should have dimmed significantly when it was not pointed our direction.  I've thought about that for a while.  Maybe what we were actually seeing was the side of an airliner illuminated by the logo light.  That could explain why the light appeared uniformly radiant when seen from such a wide variety of angles.  We were able to view it from about a perspective encompassing about 180, nose to tail, around the left perimeter of the object.  Also from about 40 below the object to about level with it.  The light did look different when it was approaching directly, and at that point we may have been looking into the landing light itself.  It's notable that this is the only point in the encounter where the light actually glared like a landing light.
       
    • The light had a distinct greenish hue.  It wasn't white or yellow-white like you would expect from an halogen or incandescent bulb.  An illuminated airline logo might account for this too.  Just for the sake of argument, assume what we saw was a green airline logo painted on a white background, illuminated by the logo light.  From a distance, the reflected light might look greenish-white.  Pendleton is served by a number of scheduled airlines.  There were a couple of different airlines operating in the region during the late '70s and early '80s that had green logos:

      One of several versions of the Alaska Airlines logo.                        A Frontier Airlines logo.

    Anyway, I'm about 70% certain what we saw was an illuminated aircraft; either the landing light or a combination of landing and logo light.  The thing that bugs me is the apparent distance of the light when first seen.  It would be nice to know for sure what it was...I've always had some nagging doubt.
     

  • Bizarre Lunar Distortion Effect, June or July of 1980
    It was about 8:30 PM.  I had just gotten off work out at the Buchanan ranch near Walla Walla, WA.  My buddies, Rick and Bob, piled into my Dad's truck and I slid behind the wheel.  We had to drive east on a gravel road for about a mile to get to the nearest asphalt road.  While we were bumping down this gravel road, I noticed the moon had just risen over the Blue Mountains.  The moon was nearly full and very beautiful.  It looked large hanging just above the mountain tops.  Suddenly, the shape of the moon changed from a perfect circle to a horizontally elongated ellipse.  It stayed in this very stretched ellipse shape for about one second before snapping back to a perfect circle.  It was as if the moon were made of rubber and a giant had grabbed it on both edges and pulled it apart horizontally.

    I was just stunned.  I had never seen anything like that before.  I immediately turned to Rick and Bob and asked them if they had seen it.  "Seen what," they asked.  I tried to explain what happened, but they just laughed it off.  Apparently they weren't looking and missed it.  Dang, I know what I saw!

    I began trying to figure out how something like that could happen.  After a lot of thinking, I have a theory that I believe is correct.  It had been a clear, hot day and the sun had heated the ground to a considerable degree.  I believe a column of heated air rose off the foothills of the Blue Mountains in front of us.  Basically, this column of heated air was a dust devil without the suspended dust.  The temperature difference between this column of air and the ambient air was great enough that the column had a significantly different refractive index.  As the column of heated air rose into my line of sight, the image of the moon was distorted.  This was only a momentary condition because the column of air continued to rise and quickly passed out of the field of view.

To test this theory, I filled a glass with water and held a small ball behind it.  When the ball is viewed through the glass of water, guess what happens?  Yep, it elongates horizontally, just the way the moon did that night.  The glass is operating as a crude lens distorting the image of the ball.  Below is a little movie of this experiment.

Movie of a Model of the Lunar Distortion Effect

  • A Bright Yellow-White Meteor, 7/1980
    I was working night-shift pea harvest out at the Buchanan ranch.  The combine fleet was deployed on a hillside east of Dixie, WA on highway 12 between Lewis Peak Road and McCowan Road.  I was standing near the top of a ridge looking north at about 5:00 AM.  The eastern horizon was becoming very bright, although the sun had not yet risen above the hills.  The sky was entirely clear of clouds.  Suddenly, I noticed a very bright yellow-white light falling straight down very fast.  It's difficult to estimate distances to objects in the air, but it appeared to be about three miles northeast and looked like it must have been moving maybe 300-400 miles per hour.  I had it in sight for about four seconds before it disappeared behind a hill about two miles away.  It passed in front of another set of hills maybe seven miles distant, so it must have hit the Earth between two and seven miles distant.  I looked up into the sky for an aircraft that might have dropped something, but there was nothing in sight. 

    The object did not have a tail, but I thought it must be a meteor.  Meteors only glow brightly at high altitude (like 30 miles) as they enter the atmosphere.  The characteristic ionization trail fades pretty quickly as the meteor slows and penetrates deeper into the atmosphere.  By the time it is near the ground, the meteor will be cool.1  Still this object glowed brilliantly as if incandescent.  It may have been reflecting the light of the sun since it was only about 15 minutes before sunrise.

    I really wanted to find the thing, especially if it were a meteor.  Unfortunately, it would have taken an excessively large effort to search the rolling hills and ridges for miles, looking for a softball-sized piece of black rock.  Ah well.
     
  • Pokey Weather Balloon, Spring 1996
    One cloudless, spring day at about 2:30 PM, I was walking down the hall at work when I noticed a co-worker of mine staring out the window at something up in the sky.  "What are you looking at," I asked.  "That," he pointed.  I looked and far up in the sky was a small white ball.  We debated what it could be.  My co-worker seemed convinced it was a flying saucer, but that seemed silly.  There are only about a hundred more likely explanations!  I thought it surely must be a weather balloon.  After a few minutes, there were about six people standing around arguing about the identity of the mysterious object.  I went back to my cube and continued working.

    Forty minutes later, I emerged from my cube to grab a soda.  I glanced down the hall and the guy that had originally noticed the object was still looking at it.  When I walked up beside him he pointed, "It's still there."  I looked up and sure enough that white ball was suspended exactly where it had been almost an hour ago.  What kind of balloon stays stationary for an hour?  "How do you explain it's still there," he challenged me.  Well, heh, I don't know.  I was truly puzzled, if it were a balloon, surely the wind would have blown it away long ago.  Maybe the wind was just very light and it wasn't drifting very fast.  Still, an hour is a long time.  I moved around until I found a spot on the window and a certain tree limb outside that, when lined up exactly, intersected with the floating object.  I noted the position of the object, got my soda, and went back to work.

    After about 90 minutes, I went back to the window and was astonished to see the white ball still floating about where I'd seen it last.  I found my spot on the window and lined it up with the tree branch.  Lo-and-behold, the object had, in fact, moved...slightly.  It had been three hours since the object was first sighted.  I started to worry.  Maybe this wasn't a balloon after all.  How could a balloon hover in the same spot for hours.  There was a wind outside, but the object seemed very high, and the winds could be significantly different up there.  Maybe it was just a rare daylight sighting of the planet Venus; that occurs sometimes when Venus is especially bright.  Still, it didn't look like a planet.  It looked like a dimensional object, reflecting a dull white color.  My balloon theory seemed on shaky ground, but if I concluded it wasn't a balloon then...well then what did that mean...that it was a flying saucer or something!?  I had to get home and get my telescope on this thing.  If it were a weather balloon then I should be able to clearly see that with the scope.  I couldn't wait until quitting time.

    On the drive home, I kept glancing up to make sure the object was still there.  As soon as I got home, I set up my telescope in the back yard and took a look.  Yep, it was a weather balloon.  I thought so!  I guess the winds were almost non-existent at the altitude of the balloon.  Weird how it stayed there for so long.

    The next day at work, I talked to the guy that thought it was a flying saucer.  I told him I looked at the thing with my telescope and could clearly see it was a weather balloon.  He eyed me suspiciously.  "Sure it was," he sniffed.  Guess some people don't need facts, they just know!2
     
  • Psychic Weather Balloon, Fall 1999
    One warm fall evening, I was playing with the kids in the back yard.  I exhausted myself chasing the kids around and around in a game of tag.  As the sun was setting, I lay down on my back to rest and scanned the sky.  It was basically clear except for a few thin, wispy streaks of cirrus.

    My attention was drawn to a bright round object, almost directly overhead, and very high.  I looked like a weather balloon reflecting the light of the setting sun.  I watched it for about ten minutes as it drifted slowly northeast.  It seemed higher than the cirrus clouds, because as it drifted behind them the reflected sunlight would dim slightly. 

    A whimsical thought occurred to me.  I decided to try to tell the weather balloon to go away with my thoughts.  I concentrated on the weather balloon and thought, "If you can hear me, go away."  I was startled when about one second later, the balloon instantly disappeared!  Just winked out like switching off a light!  What the...what just happened?!  That was bizarre.  I thought, "No, no...it just popped...that's what happened.  It just popped and so it looked like it disappeared.  It was just a coincidence."

    I thought how amazing it would be, if I could bring it back, so I concentrated on the spot where the balloon had been and thought, "If you can hear me, come back."  Nothing happened, so I tried again.  "See stupid...it just popped," my brain told me.  Yeah, but what a weird coincidence!
     
  • Mysterious Red Light #1, 12/22/1999
    Around 8 PM was flying from Addison to Spinks airport, which is south of Fort Worth in Burleson, TX.  Air Traffic Control routed me west out of Addison and directly over the DFW airport at 2000 feet.  They then turned me south, direct to Spinks.  Occasionally, ATC would call and warn me of various traffic.  The Class B airspace around DFW is very busy and I was careful to heed ATC traffic advisories and look for other aircraft.  As I was approaching Lake Arlington, I noticed a bright red light at my 11 o'clock position about two miles distant.

Red light hovering over Lake Arlington at my 11 o'clock position.

ATC had not warned me about this aircraft, which is unusual because it was so close and nearly at my altitude.  The light was at about 2500 feet and I was flying at 2000 feet.  I watched the light closely and noticed that it was rather unusual.  It was very bright but did not glare; more like a glow than a spotlight.  It was of an exceptionally deep red color (which my illustrations do not capture well).  The light was steady red; it did not blink like an aircraft beacon.  I looked carefully for position lights (small red, green, and white lights) because they can offer clues to the direction of flight of the other aircraft.  No other lights were visible.

I began to relax as I became fairly certain the object was holding position over the lake.  Good, if it didn't move then I could avoid hitting it.  I wondered why ATC hadn't warned me of this aircraft.  It was the most obvious collision hazard I had encountered on the entire flight.  I considered radioing them to ask if they had traffic nearby but decided against it.  It was pretty clear the light was just hovering there, stationary over the middle of the lake.  It was close, but didn't seem to be in my way so there was no real need to bother ATC about it.

The light was truly weird looking with this radiant, deep red luminosity.  There was a bright, full moon out, but I could discern no structural details.  I considered altering course to pass closer, but thought it better to steer clear.  I had three passengers aboard and didn't want to go on some hazardous, mid-air, traffic-chasing expedition.  I watched the light suspiciously as it passed off my left about mile distant.  It looked rather large.

Red light hovering over Lake Arlington abeam on my left.

I've thought a lot about it over the years but haven't really figured out what the light was.  I assume it was an aircraft, maybe a helicopter, but it did not have the usual external lights expected on an aircraft.  The bright and very deep red character of the light was unusual for an aircraft.  If it was a hovering helicopter then the externally visible lights on the aircraft should have looked different when my viewing angle changed as I flew past.  The light looked the same from every angle I looked...which amounted to an arc of about 120.  The light was directly over the center of the lake, which seems to rule out an anti-collision beacon on a tower (those blink anyway).  It's possible it could have been something like a red road flare on a balloon.  That tags up pretty well with the facts, including the lack of a traffic warning from ATC (no metal or transponder so no RADAR return).  Still, it was a uniform, steady glow.  It didn't flicker like a flare, and there was no glare as typically seen in road flares.  It was also clearly an object of some dimension, not a point light source like a flare.  However, if several flares were illuminating the interior of a small hot air balloon, it would probably look similar.

Bah...I don't know what it was.  I'll just say it was a helicopter...but I don't think that's a very satisfactory explanation.
 

  • Vanishing Weather Balloon, Winter 2001
    Late one afternoon at work, I decided to take a break from the office and walk around the parking lot.  It was cold and clear with scatter cirrus.  As I was walking along, I noticed a bright white object high in the northeastern sky.  It was about 30 minutes before sunset, but no stars were yet visible.  Still, it looked shiny and brilliant like a star.  I concluded it was either an early evening star or a brightly illuminated weather balloon.

    As I walked along, I casually glanced at the object, mildly curious.  A cirrus cloud drifted in front of the object and it began to dim slightly, so it seemed higher than the clouds.  As denser parts of the cloud obscured the object, it dimmed more until it was hardly visible.  Finally, I couldn't see it at all.  I stopped and stared, waiting for the cloud to drift out of the way.  After about three minutes the view had cleared, but I could no longer see the object.  It had simply vanished.

    If it were a star, I should have been able to see it again after the clouds drifted out of the way.  I think it must have been a weather balloon.  It just happened to pop when it was obscured by the cloud for a few minutes.  A strange coincidence.  Funny how I've now had two curious experiences with disappearing weather balloons.  (see the Fall 1999 entry above)

     
  • Mysterious Red Light #2, 11/11/2003
    I was out with my flight instructor, Rick, in a Cessna Cutlass at about 7:40 PM.  We were doing practice instrument approaches at the McKinney, TX airport.  We had just gone missed off the ILS 17 approach.  The tower cleared us to depart to the west back to Addison, so we turned and began climbing.  About this time, another pilot, who was on approach to runway 17, called the tower and asked who was hovering in a helicopter over the airport.  The tower said only one other aircraft was in the area (me) and that aircraft was well west of the field.  The other pilot insisted that some helicopter was hovering over the airport at pattern altitude because he could clearly see a red light.  The tower said it had nothing on RADAR.

    That's weird, Rick and I would have flown under it during our missed approach about one minute earlier.  I asked Rick if he had seen anything when we had gone missed (I was under the hood); he said he hadn't.  Rick swiveled around in his seat and looked back toward the airport.  He said he could see the red light.  Rick called on the radio and told the tower that we had the red light in sight, stationary over the airport.  I asked Rick to take the controls because I wanted to take a look.  I pulled the hood up and turned around.  Out the back window I spotted a bright, glowing, red light directly over the airport at about pattern altitude.  It seemed stationary.  I was immediately struck by how similar this light was to the one I saw on 12/22/1999.  They seemed identical.

The red light hovering over McKinney airport.

The tower said he would fiddle with the RADAR to see if he could pick up anything.  Rick jokingly exclaimed, "It's a UFO!" and laughed it off.  The tower called the other pilot and said he was now getting a faint primary return from something over the airport.  The guy in the tower didn't seem to see it visually, even though it was hovering almost directly overhead.  Maybe he couldn't see straight up very well through the tower windows.  I really wanted to turn the plane around and head back to the airport for a closer look, but I didn't think Rick would be interested in doing that.  We switched over to approach control and began preparations for landing at Addison.  That's the last I heard of it.

I find it intriguing that this light looked so similar to the light seen on 12/22/1999.  It appeared, in all respects, identical.  Just like the 12/22 light, I'm not really sure what it was...I'll just assume it was a helicopter, but it's still a little baffling.

 

Footnotes

  1. In fact, meteors that make it all the way to the ground to become meteorites should range from slightly warm to downright cold to the touch.  The meteor started out as a chunk of rock floating in space.  In space, the rock is "cold soaked" so that it is hundreds of degrees below zero.  The only exception to this is the surface facing the sun, which is warmed a bit.  Still, the average temperature of the rock is very, very cold.  When the rock hits the atmosphere, it is going so fast that it compresses the air in front of it in a shock wave.  The air is compressed violently and is heated (through adiabatic compression) to the point of ionization.  That's what causes the meteor trail.  The popular press constantly perpetuates a myth that the glow is from the meteor itself...that the meteor is heated to incandescence by friction with the air.  That is not the case.  The meteor does experience heating from the incandescent air in front of it...as if it were in a super-hot oven.  There's even enough heat to melt a thin outer layer of rock creating a "fusion crust."  However, the meteor itself does not become incandescent.  The meteor slows down very quickly in the atmosphere.  Within seconds, the air is no longer compressed enough to cause ionization and the meteor trail stops.  The meteor is still there, it's just that the air has stopped glowing.  What happens to the meteor during these few seconds of intense heating depends on its size.  If the meteor is very small (sand grain), the heat will melt and vaporize it.  If it is a little bigger (small pebble), the heat will warm it up significantly, but the meteor will cool down again as it continues to fall deeper in the atmosphere.  If the meteor is any appreciable size at all (softball or larger), this heat pulse will have little effect on its overall temperature.  Sure, the rock was exposed to thousands of degrees, but only for a few seconds.  Not enough time for the heat to soak all the way into the -270 interior.  There are reports of meteorites being found immediately after they've fallen.  They are frequently quite cold or covered with frost.  They are not hot and were not incandescent during the fall.  Click here to read more.
     
  2. A friend of my in-laws, Herb Moore, used to debate the merits of nuclear research with me.  His arguments were strictly emotional.  Once, when I asked him where he got the facts for his wild claims he exclaimed, "Some people don't need facts, they just know!"  A classic quote, if ever there was one!