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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Lights, camera, action and UFOs

by Clay Coppedge

Though I have seen a lot of weird things, I never saw the Lubbock Lights.

I once saw a man -- a half-man actually -- perched atop a trash can lid that had roller skate wheels attached to the bottom. He had a broomstick that he used to propel himself down the sidewalks and streets of a small West Texas town. My friend Ernie and I were on our way back to Lubbock from Austin early one Sunday morning when we saw him. I screamed and bit my sun visor because I had never seen anything like that and did not know how else to react.

Once, in the wee hours of the morning, I was awakened by the sound of high-pitched voices singing "Going to The Chapel." I went outside to investigate and saw several little people dressed as munchkins, standing in my yard and singing that inane old song at the top of their little lungs. I yelled at them to go away and they did. I went back to bed and wondered: Did I see that?

So, as I say, I've seen some weird things. But I never saw the Lubbock Lights. They came along a couple of years before I was born, in 1951. As far as I know, which isn't very far, they haven't returned but their mystery and the legend surrounding the lights has never quite gone away.

The Lubbock Lights phenomenon, as it's usually referred to, occurred in late August and early September of 1951, a couple of years before I was born, in and around my hometown of Lubbock.

The first sightings occurred on August 25, 1951 a little after 9 p.m. Among the first witnesses were three Texas Tech professors. They were sitting in a back yard when they saw dots of light flying in a U or V formation over the city. The lights moved northeast to southeast across that vast South Plains sky at a rapid rate of speed, leaving the professors curious and puzzled. People have always seen weird things out there on the High Plains but nobody had ever seen anything quite like these lights.

The professors, all scientific sorts, said the lights were not meteors. The lights were described as looking a little like stars, only brighter. Other witnesses said they looked like a string of beads moving in a rough semi-circle, their color "a soft glowing bluish green."

The scientists who saw the lights that first night were Dr. W.I. Robinson, Professor of Geology; Dr. A.G. Oberg, Professor of Chemical Engineering; and W.L Ducker, head of the Petroleum Engineering Department. A mathematics professor, Dr. R.S. Underwood, got in on the act by triangulating that the lights were flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet and moving at about 750 miles per hour.

The sightings continued. People all over the area reported seeing the lights, albeit with slightly different descriptions and wildly varying explanations.

The most popular possibility was that these were flying saucers. Others said they were birds, flying in a V pattern and illuminated by the lights of a growing city out in the middle of nowhere.

One thing that gave the sightings wings, so to speak, was some photographs taken by a Texas Tech freshman, Carl Hart, Jr. He snapped off five photos of the lights and took them to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, which printed the pictures. In time, the pictures would run in newspapers all across the country and in Life magazine. The lights were famous and, for a time, so was the town where they were seen.

The Air Force was eventually called in to investigate. Lieutenant Edward J. Ruppelt, supervisor of the Air Force's Project Blue Book program, interviewed the professors, Hart and other witnesses. The Air Force studied the pictures in the kind of detail that only the government can manage and basically said: "Dunno.". Officially, the Air Force said it could neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the photos.
One of the people Ruppelt interviewed was a rancher in Brownfield who said he saw the lights and heard the "unmistakable call of the plover." Plovers are water birds about the size of quail with oily white breasts. Such a combination could easily reflect city lights. Others discounted the "plover" theory, partly because the birds rarely travel in large groups. Another witness told Ruppelt, "It definitely was ducks."

Ruppelt, who wrote about his life as a UFO investigator in a book titled "The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects," believed that the lights might have been caused by light reflecting off moths.
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At any rate, the lights were written off by the Air Force as a natural phenomenon. The Blue Book report said: "The Air Force conclusion is that birds, with street lights reflecting from them, was the probable cause of the sighting...

"The kind of birds responsible for this sighting is not known, but it is highly probably that they were ducks or plovers. Since plovers do not usually fly in formations of more than six or seven, ducks become more probable. The fact that this was late summer, and that the objects consistently flew to the south, tends to substantiate the conclusion that the objects of this sighting were migratory birds."

That didn't end the controversy. Twenty-six years later Ground Saucer Watch, a Phoenix-based civilian aerial research group, examined the Hart photos with the aid of computers and determined that the lights were phenomenal but not natural.. The lights were, the group concluded, "a formation of extraordinary flying objects."

"Based on the photographic evidence and the analyzed data on the said Lubbock photographs, it is the consensus of the GSW photographic staff that the images depicted herein represent a formation of extraordinary flying objects," the researchers wrote in their report.

The lights were, the researchers said, "one of the more vexing photographic sequences ever taken, since the conception of modern-day UFO sightings."

The report discounted the notion that these were migratory birds because the density of the alleged birds was too great for that conclusion to hold up.

Some of the sightings might have been birds, the group said, but the objects in Hart's photographs most definitely were not. They were flying objects and they were unidentified: UFOs.

In a sense, the lights never have left Lubbock. The stories persist, theories abound and no one can say for sure what the lights were or were not. A documentary about the high number of talented musicians that Lubbock has produced was titled "Lubbock Lights."

Since I never saw the Lubbock Lights I can't weigh in on what they looked like or what they might have been, other than what I've been read and been told. I wish I could have seen the lights but I never did.

Also, I wish I had never seen that man with the missing legs using the garbage can lid with roller skate wheels as a means of transportation.

Me, I would prefer to have seen the Lubbock Lights but I was born too late. I was four years old when a UFO was said to have landed in Levelland, a few miles from Lubbock. I didn't see that either, but I keep my eye on the sky at night anyway because I believe, as the old TV show would have it, that the truth is out there.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 7, 2007 Column

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