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Bizarre Green Balls of Fire over the American Southwest

The UFO phenomenon has many aspects that are all increasingly weirder than the last. It is often difficult to ascertain just what we are dealing with, and such accounts can really run the range from the merely odd to the downright absurd. Among all of these reports one can find certain strings of reports that don’t seem to really fit into any particular mold, and definitely one of these was a strange flap of anomalous green fireballs that appeared over a period of a couple of years over New Mexico, in the United States, which are mostly an obscure oddity but which still have never been solved.

The strange phenomena known as the “green fireballs” can best be tracked back to December 5, 1948, when a USAF C-47 transport plane crew was on their way from Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado, to Williams Air Force Base in Chandler, Arizona. It had been a fairly routine flight until they got near Las Vegas and observed an eerie green light described as a “green ball of fire” illuminating the sky to the west of the city, followed by another not long after. At around the same time, another plane in the vicinity reported the same thing, describing it as pale green with a pale green trail, and saying that the light seemed to be coming towards them, fast enough that they took evasive maneuvers to avoid a collision. The crew at first thought it might be a meteorite but they dismissed this due to the fact that the object was too low to the ground and not moving fast enough. One pilot would say of the object:

Take a soft ball and paint it with some kind of fluorescent paint that will glow a bright green in the dark… Then have someone take the ball out about 100 feet in front of you and about 10 feet above you. Have him throw the ball right at your face, as hard as he can throw it. That’s what a green fireball looks like.

Image by Steve Baxter

Interestingly, while it was mostly thought that this was clearly a meteorite, when a Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, head of the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Meteoritics was sent to the area where it was believed the object should have fell based on its reported flight path there was no sign of any impact and no trace of a meteorite. On December 8, 1948, sightings of these strange green lights would continue, when a Beech T-7 on its way from Kirkland AFB to Las Vegas when the pilot and co-pilot saw a brilliant green light about 2,000 ft above them, which was headed their way at high speed and with a trajectory described as “flat and parallel to the ground.” The researcher LaPaz would once again step in to investigate and learn that there had been several other sightings of these green balls of light, all of them near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Sandia atomic-weapons laboratory, as well as at other key military and sensitive installations in the region such as radar stations, nuclear reactors, and fighter-interceptor bases around the country. Why? No one knows.

Making it all rather intriguing was that most of these sightings were being made by trained observers and reliable witnesses such as pilots, weather observers, scientists, intelligence officers and other military personnel, who were unlikely to be making this all up or making mistakes as to what they were seeing. During his investigation LaPaz was also unable to uncover any evidence of meteorite activity, nor that there had been ever any rocket or flare tests in the areas where these sightings were taking place during those time frames. He also was beginning to doubt the meteorite theory by this point, because of the horizontal trajectories of the objects and the fact that green was not considered to be a usual color for meteorites, with him saying of the strange phenomenon:

The fireballs are Kelly green, whereas meteors are red, yellow, blue, or white. A green color could be caused by large amounts of copper, but this element is rarely found in ordinary fireballs. It could also originate from certain man-made atomic fuels. They make no noise. None of the observers of green fireballs, nor persons in the area of the balls, have report any sound whatsoever. Also the fact that they disappear and no fragments have been found on the earth, may be evidence that their flight is controlled.

Sightings of the strange green balls of fire would continue coming in over the coming month, with LaPaz himself seeing one of them on December 12th near Santa Fe that due to its perfectly horizontal trajectory, color, speed, and the way it wobbled convinced him this was no meteor. He would later ascertain that the object had passed directly over the Los Alamos laboratory and had been seen by several other witnesses in the area. A particularly spectacular sighting was made on December 20, when a patrol at Los Alamos observed several luminescent green lights descend rapidly at an angle of 45 degrees, only to then level off and continue on a horizontal pathway out of sight. On this occasion there was even mention made of what looked like an exhaust trail, similar to that of a rocket. Making it more curious is that when these sightings were reported the Air Force was quick to keep it all under wraps, even going as far as to halt the press release on the incident because of “pressure from other agencies also investigating this occurrence.” The story still managed to get out, and in a Feb 29, 1949 edition of the local newspaper Skyliner it was written of the secrecy:

A call to El Paso, Tex., brought official denial from D. K. Brown, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation district that embraces Los Alamos, that his agency had not been called to deal with the matter. At the information or thought-control office officials indicated that they knew about the recurring green flame in the sky but indicated that it wouldn’t be wise to write about it. Capt. Carroll Tyler, project manager, said simply that all he knew about the lights was rumor — the same rumors that everyone is hearing.

Why was there so much official denial over these sightings? Who knows? Sightings would continue into the next year, when there were more reports into January. One notable account occurred on January 30, 1949, when an extremely bright green fireball was observed over New Mexico by over one hundred witnesses, including trained military personnel, oil workers, aircrew, control tower personnel, all of who described the same thing and noted that the object was completely silent. Sightings would keep on coming in right on into the following year, when pilot Captain A. Harvey and co-pilot Merrick C. Marshall saw a green fireball as they were approaching Albuquerque from Gallup, New Mexico. The Dec. 18, 1950 edition of the Albuquerque Journal would say of the encounter:

The two flyers reported that the light first appeared in the northeast, approximately over Las Vegas. They watched the light for ten minutes, they said, as it moved in the direction of Las Alamos. During that time the “greenish fireball” seemed to circle Los Alamos and then head directly toward Albuquerque. In turning, the light changed from green to a very bright white and passed over and to the rear of their plane — then near Albuquerque — at an estimated speed of over “700 miles an hour.” The time when the light was first sighted was at exactly 11:25 p.m. It remained in view until 11:35. Both pilots are experienced airmen and said it could not possibly have been another plane.

After this the sightings of the green fireballs sort of peter out and we are left to search for answers. Theories have abounded as to what could have caused the 1948-1950 green fireball flap of the Southwest. The meteor theory was largely put to rest by LaPaz, who could find no evidence whatsoever that meteorites were to blame and also pointed out time and time again that the objects displayed very uncharacteristic features for meteorites. Another idea is that it was caused by the phenomenon called ball lightning, which is in itself little understood and entails hovering orbs of electricity that appear and then blink out of existence. Still other ideas are that this was evidence of top secret aircraft or rocket tests, fallout-debris clouds associated with top-secret atomic testing, or Soviet spy technology, which might explain why they were always seen near these government installations. Of course there is also the idea that these were UFOs or even probes dropped from larger alien spacecraft. What was at the heart of the deluge of green fireball accounts reported by so many during this time span? Was this meteors, atmospheric phenomena, or visitors from another world? We didn’t know then, and we don’t know now. It remains a mystery.