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LEHI -- Over the last couple of weeks, there have been a flurry of reports about mysterious lights in the night sky over Utah County -- to the delight of those who would like to believe we are being visited by spacecraft from another planet.
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But the explanation for the latest wave of mystery lights will almost certainly turn out to be something less exciting, and more Earth-bound. In fact, the finger of suspicion points strongly toward model-airplane enthusiasts and people flying Chinese lanterns to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
There's been at least one sighting near Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City, but most of the reports have come in from northern Utah County.
"It was a steady, continuous, bright red light," said Orem resident Robert Campbell, who saw lights in the sky while driving one evening last week in Lehi.
"And then immediately below it, every few seconds," Campbell continued, "a brilliant white strobe light would appear and it would continue to blink as it lost altitude."
Campbell is an Army parachutist with years of experience around aircraft. He said what he saw was unlike any military training he has ever experienced and the lights in the sky did not resemble military flares. The white lights appeared to him to be electrical strobe lights.
Several sketchy and indistinct videos of the sightings have been posted at YouTube. On one video, the man holding the camera says, "They could be, like balloons, sending down flares or something." A woman can be heard responding, "It's so weird."
The YouTube videos show several red lights in the sky and, from time to time, bright, white lights dropping or dangling below. "What on Earth is that?" a man's voice says off-camera.On another YouTube video shot in a shopping mall parking lot, the cameraman can be heard saying, "Am I on crack? Nobody else sees this!"
The lights have also been seen by Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon. At first he thought he was seeing a helicopter, until he noticed the movement of the lights.
"They were going up and down and in circles and turns that you wouldn't expect to see in a helicopter," Cannon said. "I guess, technically, they could be UFOs because I don't know what they are. I guessed that they were probably some kind of a remote-control airplane or device."
Campbell reached a similar conclusion. "My feeling is it's probably a remote-control, probably fixed-wing, aircraft of some kind," he said.
However, some of the sightings seem clearly attributable to launches of Chinese lanterns, which are hot air balloons made of paper and energized by a flame-hanging beneath.
There have been reports of numerous such devices being launched in recent weeks during celebration of the Chinese New Year. Brian Roskelley of Cedar Hills said he personally saw about nine of them launched, and they looked very much like the lights visible in one of the YouTube videos.
There is supporting evidence for the remote-control airplane, though, on a website frequented by hobbyists who fly radio-controlled model aircraft. Some enthusiasts send their model planes and helicopters aloft at night, lit with extremely bright LED lights.
A blogger recently posted a message on the website, identifying himself as a member of UFO, the Utah Flyer's Organization. After gloating over people's reaction to the recent sightings, he wrote, "Don't tell them it was just some of our club flying R.C. (radio control) at night."
Two other flyers sent e-mails confirming such planes were flying on at least one of the nights in question, strongly suggesting that the lights people are seeing are attached to model planes.
Two enthusiasts flying radio-controlled planes on a recent afternoon were amused by the controversy and not taking a position one way or the other.
Pocho Gonzalez-Chavez, a veteran flyer of radio-controlled planes, acknowledged that people could be seeing model aircraft at night. "These airplanes could look at times like something extraterrestrial," he said.
But Gonzalez-Chavez also wants to keep alive the possibility that aliens are involved. "This universe is big enough to where, to think that we're alone is kind of arrogant," he said with a laugh.
Campbell is less amused about the situation because of safety implications. "No, I don't think it's extraterrestrial," Campbell said. "I think it's something someone has created that could cause an accident on the ground from somebody watching it while driving. Or something could fall and hit somebody or something. Someone could get hurt from this, and that's why I called 911 and reported it."
The FAA's has created a list of standards for the operation of model airplanes, which includes selecting an operation site "that is of sufficient distance from populated areas." Those standards, however, are completely voluntary.