My friend Edgar saw a UFO while sipping wine and enjoying the cool night air on his porch in Bellflower, California, in 1968. He waved.

Recently, over a glass of malty Negra Modelo beer, he told me how the square craft had hovered over his neighbour’s house. Square? “Aren’t most UFOs round or triangular?” I asked. “No,” said Edgar firmly. “It was square.”

“Why did you wave?” I said gingerly. “It seemed the thing to do,” replied Edgar, a friendly and polite chap who also waves at the low flying Los Angeles black and white police helicopters that circle overhead, sometimes making us feel like we’re in a police state.

I’d been telling him about a trip I’d taken to Arizona. My taxi driver on the Phoenix freeway had been set to launch into a right-wing rant, not uncommon in that part of the US where many folk believe climate change is a liberal plot and that more guns mean a safer nation. I’d diverted him with a question I’d been burning to ask. The answer showed we had at least one belief in common. “Do you think extraterrestrials flew over here in 1997?” He did.

The so-called Phoenix Lights of March 13 that year was one of the most famous ever UFO sightings, seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of locals. A city council woman interviewed 700 of them, including police, pilots, and military personnel.

Many witnesses had been staring at the cloudless night sky to see the Hale-Bopp comet. Instead some saw lights. Others saw an enormous silent V, or boomerang-shaped UFO, so big that it blocked out stars.

One person who says he saw the craft was the then Arizona Governor and long-term pilot Fife Symington, although he waited ten years to admit it publicly. If he’d been a Northerner he would have said that he’d been gobsmacked. Instead he said the incident was “truly breathtaking” and that he was “absolutely stunned” at the “dramatically large” craft with a “distinctive edge” which did not resemble any man-made object he’d ever seen.

Lynne BatesonAt the time he outraged witnesses who felt he’d ridiculed them by getting an aide to dress in an alien costume at a press conference – you can see it on YouTube. Now he says he was only trying to lighten the mood of his state, which was on the edge of hysteria.

The military has explained away the sightings as aircraft flying in formation, and military flares. Like me, my taxi driver thinks so many credible witnesses can’t be wrong, and he said it is significant that the lights seemed to disappear over the Estrella Mountains. Estrella is star in Spanish. Maybe, he said, the ancient people who named them knew more than we do. Indian folklore is full of star or sky people.

Eyes, of course, can be poor instruments, easily confused by height, and we’ve a tendency to see shapes within lights – that’s how illuminations such as the Blackpool Lights work. Most UFOs have prosaic explanations – everyday objects such as Chinese lanterns, Venus, weather balloons, or even lamp-posts. Now they could be drones.

Less commonly, UFOs are hoaxes, or maybe secret advanced aircraft. Add into the mix attention seekers, ratings-hungry news networks, the delusional, and authors wanting to sell books, and we’ve a recipe for great yarns.

I live near Los Angeles, a city that has suffered more on-screen antics at the hands of extraterrestrials than any other, except perhaps Tokyo. Ufologists say LA was the site of the first ever official cover-up. Weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, coastal defences saw something in the skies over LA. Thinking it was a Japanese raid, they fired nearly 1,500 rounds of artillery for about an hour trying, unsuccessfully, to bring the object down. Buildings and vehicles were damaged by shell fragments and five civilians died indirectly in the chaos. The US Secretary of War blamed jittery war nerves and a weather balloon.

The US seems to have more UFO sightings than most places. I’ve never had an encounter, but over burgers (mine veggie) in a local restaurant I interviewed a man who swears he has and warns that aliens are monitoring our nukes.

He is former Captain Robert Salas who, in 2010, among one-time top military brass and major public officials appeared at a press conference in Washington DC calling for the US Government to act on the UFO threat.

He recounted, quietly and matter-of-factly, how a UFO disabled nuclear missiles he was guarding in central Montana back in March 1967. He says he watched as most of ten highly reliable warheads, which operated independently, and had to be switched off one by one, went offline in rapid succession. There was, he says, no question of power failure. “They had power, back-up power, and batteries.”

Salas, then a 26-year-old lieutenant, 60 feet underground in a tiny launch control capsule, was monitoring the readiness and security of Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. He’d just taken two calls from a frightened guard topside under the cold Montana night sky. The first time the guard reported strange, fast-moving lights doing 90 degree turns. In the second the guard reported a large, oval-shaped pulsating craft at the launch control centre gates. The guards had their weapons drawn.

Several friends have seen odd objects in the sky. But Edgar’s story was the best. After seeing the craft, he told no one.

Years later, while working at a library, long after humans had set foot on the moon, he was leafing through some discarded magazines. One had a story about young astronauts at Downey, the hub of America’s lunar mission testing equipment, and the town next door to Edgar’s home. They’d been in the habit of having a bit of fun by taking out the lunar lander for a spin at night.

I wonder if they waved back?

By Lynne Bateson, US Correspondent


As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.