Monday, October 10, 2005

Witnesses Say 'UFOs' Were Flares Suspended By Two Balloons

Balloon Flare
UFOs have a flare about them

Witnesses postulate a new theory about those mysterious red lights

By Lauren FitzPatrick
Staff writer
Daily Southtown

     Unidentified flying red objects spotted recently over Tinley Park and Orland Park have stirred up UFO investigating communities everywhere.

     National UFO Web sites are all over the red beauties. The latest news cited on the home page of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center reads, "Late Friday night, Sept. 30, 2005, our offices began receiving reports of several peculiar red lights, seen in the night sky above Tinley Park and Orland, Ill."

     Those peculiar pulses of red light floated over Southland skies last weekend, around 11:15 Friday night and again at 1 a.m. Saturday, eerily similar to ones that showed up last year on mild weekend nights in August and October. Hundreds of Southlanders saw the lights last weekend, too — and found them just as puzzling as their predecessors.

     But a small circle of friends in Tinley Park believe they've debunked the mystery of the glowing red floaters.

     Dave Palagi was sitting with his wife around a fire in their friends' back yard Sept. 30, enjoying a lovely, clear night when they all saw the oddity explained.

     "We could clearly see the red lights themselves were flares, and each was suspended by two balloons," he said.

     "An occasional ash could be seen dropping. Another member of the party then saw a third balloon, farther to the north and much higher. We were watching them actually rising — lazily drifting along and going up."

     Palagi figured the balloons were launched around 175th Street and 84th Avenue, not far from Wally and Maureen Bekta's home in the 8200 block of Queen Victoria Lane where the group sat.

     Maureen Bekta also saw lights and the "balloon-type thing on top of the two that were lower and closer.

     "It was low enough that we felt like it was a prank," she said. The balloons themselves were dark-colored — "you could just see the outline."

     "Aha!" Palagi said, "This is how they did it. It was just such a revelation after seeing these things last year."

The naysayers
     It's been anyone's guess what the lights are, since everyone seems to know what they're not.

     A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said she checked into the lights last year, too. If they weren't planes or helicopters, the FAA wouldn't track them.

     "We don't track lights," Elizabeth Isham Cory said.

     Tinley Park police, who received some calls last weekend, denied reports of flares.

     "From all the reports we've ever received, they're not flares with some helium balloons or anything like this," Tinley Park police Cmdr. Tom Boling said.

     Boling said his department would not investigate the lights unless "there's some reckless conduct that would endanger someone."

     "We just don't know what's causing these red lights to appear in the sky," he said.

     The National Weather Service also was stumped.

     But an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, who concluded the lights weren't meteors or comets or satellites, said they did appear to be man-made.

     Dr. Mark Hammergren watched several tapes of last year's lights at the request of a local Mutual UFO Network chapter.

     "One thing that makes me very suspicious is that these sightings all have occurred on weekends — (that) suggests that there's some human activity connected with it," he said. "I would love to believe this, but I'm not going to base my career and spend my time on something that's cooked up by some hoaxers."

     There exists a "standard" UFO hoax that uses a candle and a plastic dry cleaning bag to fashion a sort of glowing hot air balloon, but these lights are too brilliantly red to be ordinary flames, Hammergren said.

     He likes the road flare theory.

Flying flares
     Automotive flares typically are red, and burn brightly enough to be clearly visible from great distances, easily a quarter of a mile and up, said Bob Defonte of Orion Safety products, the largest of a handful of domestic flare manufacturing companies.

     And they can burn 15, 20 — even up to 30 minutes, he said. They're inexpensive and readily available, too. Wal-Mart sells a pack of three 15-minute flares for less than $5, Defonte said. While half-hour burners are slightly harder for the civilian customer to find — they're commonly used by state troopers and railroad workers, he said.

     Getting ahold of flares is the easy part, Defonte said. Launching them into the sky would be harder, considering a 30-minute flare measures 16 inches in length and weighs just under a pound.

     It would take two helium balloons about 2 or 3 feet in diameter to lift that kind of weight, said Marshall Brain, a man of science and the founder of

     "It strikes me as possible, but profoundly dangerous," Brain said. The thing is, he said, flares are really hot and don't stop until they burn out on their own.

     Someone connecting burning flares to a balloon-type propeller would have to consider heat, and neither Palagi nor Bekta could tell what linked the light to its source.

UFO fans hang on
     UFO investigators said they're not ready to call these sightings a hoax — not yet, anyway.

     Peter B. Davenport, the National UFO Reporting Center's founder, said balloons couldn't account for the complex paths the lights followed across the sky.

     "(They) were actually maneuvering in a seemingly complex fashion," Davenport said. "How would a person arrange to have that happen, I wonder."

     And what about the danger?

     "How many people do you know who would be willing to launch high-temperature flares over a populated area?" Davenport wondered. "What happens if a flare cuts its tether and falls onto the local petroleum refinery, chemical plant, filling station, paint warehouse, school auditorium roof, etc.?"

     And Chicago-based UFO investigator Dr. Mark Rodeghier said he needs more information to make any kind of judgment.

     "I'm certainly open to the idea that the cause of these sightings is man made, not alien, but I'm not convinced I've heard any theory that makes any sense," he said. "Something has to be flying or holding the lights in a huge formation well over 1,000 feet across."

     Proper investigations would require going up in a helicopter the next time the lights appear, shining a powerful spotlight onto them from the ground or viewing them with a powerful telescope that also would record what it took in, he said.

     But his Center for UFO Studies lacks those kinds of resources and must rely on eyewitness videotapes and interviews.

     So he will join others like Hammergren who continue to watch the skies and analyze what they see, hoping for the best.

     After all, said Hammergren, who believed in UFOs as a child: "You never know when something might come out of it.

     "I'm an astronomer; I'd like nothing more than to see an alien spacecraft."

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