Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Mexican Air Force UFO Affair: Aliens, Ball Lightning, or Flares?

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Mexican Air Force UFO Affair: Aliens, Ball Lightning, or Flares?

Article excerpt

ON FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 2004, a Mexican Air Force flight crew filmed 11 unidentified flying objects in the skies over southern Campeche state, but the public was not notified of the sightings until Mexico's Defense Department issued a statement on May 12. A press release was accompanied by a videotape that showed some bright objects resembling sharp points of light moving rapidly in what appeared to be a late-evening sky. The lights were actually heat sources filmed by the flight crew using infrared equipment during a surveillance mission in search of drug-smuggling planes. They were reportedly flying at an altitude of about 11,500 feet.

"Was I afraid? Yes. A little afraid because we were facing something that had never happened before," said radar operator Lt. German Marin in a taped interview quoted in the press release. "I couldn't say what it was ... but I think they're completely real," added Lt. Mario Adrian Vazquez, the infrared equipment operator. Vazquez insisted that there was no way to alter the recorded images. The plane's captain, Maj. Magdaleno Castanon, said the military jets chased the lights "and I believe they could feel we were pursuing them." He added that when the jets stopped following the objects, they disappeared.

Accounts of what actually happened varied wildly. SKEPTIC publisher Michael Shermer appeared on CNN three times the week the story broke. "Initial reports indicated that the UFOs were only discovered upon later review of the footage after the flight," Shermer said. "Subsequent reports stated that the flight crew saw the UFOs during the flight, but nothing much was made of it until the infrared footage was later reviewed, still later reports claimed that the flight crew not only saw the UFOs during the flight, but that they chased them, were surrounded by them, but were unable to continue the chase. It was like a fisherman's tale, growing with each retelling."

The UFOlogists glommed onto the story when Mexican UFO investigator Jaime Maussan presented the footage, which he said he obtained from Mexican Secretary of Defense Gen. Ricardo Vega Garcia, as proof of alien visitation. "This is historic news," Maussan told reporters. "Hundreds of videos (of UFOs) exist, but none had the backing of the armed forces of any country.... The armed forces don't perpetuate frauds."

Other, more skeptical investigators suggested either ball lightning or a meteorite breaking up in the atmosphere as possible explanations. Ball lightning is an interesting hypothesis, but it would be extremely unlikely in this case. First, the weather that day was definitely not conducive to any type of lightning; also it was reported to be at an altitude of 11,500 feet, and most ball lightning occurs at or near ground level; finally ball lightning usually appears singly or at most in pairs instead of the ten or more heat source images. The meteorite explanation is plausible, but unlikely given the length of time the lights hovered in the atmosphere. Still other explanations have included satellite debris, secret military vehicles, and electrically ignited gas.

A more probable explanation is that the UFO lights were no more than oil platform burn-off flares. (See Figure 1.) This idea was suggested by Captain Alejandro Franz ( Based on his understanding of the area and his knowledge of the direction the infrared camera was pointed, he suggested a significant match between the Bay of Campeche Cantarell oil platform flares and the UFO lights. These platforms have one or more flares to burn off" very large amounts of gas and waste products, either elevated and mounted on a boom, or at "ground" level (see, for example, Villasenor R. 2003. "An air quality emission inventory of offshore operations for the exploration and production of petroleum by the Mexican oil industry," Atmospheric Environment, August, vol. 37, no. 26, pp. 3713-3729 (17), http://mirage-mex. …

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