Chinese Lanterns Cause UFO Scare in Utah

On the evening of Oct. 1, a series of strange lights were seen in the skies over the city of Washington Terrace, in northern Utah.

The UFOs more than a dozen in all were first seen just after 11:30 PM, and glowed a strange fiery red as they as they headed north at an estimated speed of about 70 mph according to one eyewitness. The lights were only seen for a few minutes before disappearing into the night sky.

Traffic stopped as baffled onlookers watched and photographed the UFOs, and soon police were called to investigate. A police officer in the area reported that he had not seen the UFOs, and nearby Hill Air Force Base was asked if they had any experimental aircraft, helicopters, or planes in the sky. Officials claimed that they knew nothing of the UFO lights, and that no air training exercises had been conducted at that time.

Soon the whole town was abuzz: it seemed the UFO lights defied explanation. What made the case all the more mysterious is that the lights were estimated to only be a few thousand feet off the ground, and yet they moved silently. No known airplane or helicopter technology could fly that low and remain completely silent.

Could it be a super-secret stealth military helicopter like the kind that crashed in April during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan? If it was, why would the military be flying such a high-tech craft over a sleepy Utah town with a population of around 10,000? Then again, could it have something to do with Area 51, not far away in neighboring Nevada? [Are We Alone in the Universe? New Analysis Says Maybe ]

Finally, locals came forward with the real explanation: Students at Bonneville High School had launched sixteen UFOs around 11:30 that night. The unidentified flying objects became identified floating objects: Chinese lanterns, made of lightweight paper and a candle that provided the heat that lifted the lanterns as well as the light that made them glow. That explains why there was no aircraft engine sound, and why some reported that the lights had a flame-like appearance.

Gage Marberger, the school's student body vice president, told the local media they hadn't intended to fool anyone into thinking that alien craft were in the skies. Instead, the kids got the idea from the recent animated film "Tangled," in which the main character sees hundreds of lit Chinese lanterns in the sky.

This is of course not the first time that such lanterns and flares have been mistaken for UFOs. Sometimes the lights are launched by hoaxers ; other times it's just innocent fun. This is clearly a case of the latter.

Lights in the night sky whatever the source can easily be misinterpreted and mistaken for strange extraterrestrial craft. The town had a good laugh over the incident, and learned a lesson: just because you don't know what a light in the sky is doesn't mean it's unknown or mysterious.

Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is