1994 Michigan UFO event


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The second episode of the third season of the 2022 show "Unsolved Mysteries" details this event. It's been stubbed out on Wikipedia and there's a summary currently published on the Unsolved Mysteries website:


From Wikipedia:

On March 8, 1994 more than 300 people reported a sighting of multiple UFOs in West Michigan, United States.[1] The UFOs were described as resembling flickering Christmas lights, consisting of five or six objects, cylindrically shaped or circles with blue, red, white and green lights. According to Chicago Tribune, there were over 300 witnesses in 42 counties of Michigan[2] (including Muskegon, Ottawa, Berrienand Allegan counties).[3] The sightings were reported to 9-1-1 and were observed by police and a National Weather Service radar at Muskegon County Airport.

The Mutual UFO Network interviewed dozens of witnesses,[2] but the event remains unexplained. The possibilities of a small plane, gas, a blimp, weather balloon, satellite, shooting star, military aircraft or debris have been ruled out.[3]

A small repository of digital copies of transcripts and testimonials has been made available here:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/p2iv4fl5965x0dm/AAAFEnTdC2FLYJ_fjfTIwkJLa/2 - Something in the Sky?dl=0

They're not terribly useful other than to substantiate that some people saw strange phenomena in the sky that night.

I imagine it'll be difficult to bring much rigor to an event like this, having occurred quite some time ago with little or no concrete evidence to bring under scrutiny, but my expectations are adjusted accordingly. If any potential respondents have the stomach to actually watch the episode, I'd appreciate that.

For me, there are two things about an event like this which make it difficult to dismiss as e.g. mass hysteria, which is what I wanted to do initially:
  • The sheer number of eyewitnesses who, while describing the same or very similar characteristics of lights/objects in the sky, and who likewise were, presumably, not easily able to influence one another
    • This event began late in the evening in Michigan during winter, while most people were inside their homes/heading to bed. This was 1994, so communications spread more slowly than they do now. Some may have called others in the area on the telephone, but it may be reasonable to assume that enough of them saw what they saw in isolation, free from the influence of the broader group
  • The testimony/experience of the National Weather Service radar operator, which local authorities called on to confirm whether or not anything could be observed using radar
    • This fellow allegedly tracked and observed the objects for a number of hours, and had some interesting things to say about this experience
      • It would be useful if this radar data had been captured and could be made available, that would at least provide something to scrutinize other than eyewitness testimony. I don't know much about radar systems, but I'm inclined to think that the systems available at that time were not designed with capture/record features
      • There are drawings of the radar observations available on this page: https://www.netflix.com/tudum/articles/unsolved-mysteries-something-in-the-sky
Again, if folks have the stomach for it, I think watching the episode will make it easier to understand why this event has piqued my curiosity. There's little to no editorializing/sensationalizing; it's almost entirely comprised of eyewitness testimonial.

I'm here because I'm a skeptic. What I am not is any kind of expert on any subject in particular that would enable me to easily imagine a terrestrial explanation for an event like this, which is ultimately what I'm after. I'll ask: what are some examples of phenomena that could result in and explain circumstances such as these? I may offer counterpoints from what I have learned so far about the event, with the understanding that those counterpoints will be weak given that they'll likely rely on what some people said they saw or experienced nearly 30 years ago.

Also, if there are any comparisons that can be drawn from this event to others that have since been debunked, please do draw them.
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mufon uploaded some 911 dispatch calls including from the weather service.
my notes as listening

4lights to 3 lights to 2 lights in a circle, wider than a plane. southeast

hot air ballon or helium ballon with lights, maybe the wind broke them apart.

down by holland city heading southeast
dispatch: something about radio towers down in the area

to weather service from 911: southern ottawa county area? (on radar) nothing more than the usual.
911: a tower had light replaced but now they are blinking (the cop is reporting from the ground)
8:50 weather service: (looking again) saw something briefly 6000 feet. yea something big, thats really strange. 9:40 its moving, moved about...um...looks like around 80km from me, right down near south haven. moving toward west southwest looks like a big blob. 11:00 yea it was up about 6000 feet or so unless that was a... it disappeared, its moving, (hes having trouble tracking it) looks steady right now, 12:00 getting it now at 12000 feet weird strong return. now im getting multiple returns. theres 3, and uh seperated by about about 5000 feet in height and maybe um 50 kms...
13:20 very strong returns, im seeing 3. one by near south haven, another over lake michigan north west ben harbor and the other east of ben harbor. another one in [..] county. these are very strong. yea im seeing 3 returns, south haven,
15:00 south haven, has moved to north west, now theyve changed positions one about 20 miles w of south haven, one above coloma, one off coat of ben harbor. sotuh haven has moved further out over Lake michigan. all between 7 and 12000 feet,
17:30 theyve mmoved position again.im sweeping, each sweep im getting the same position but then they instantly change position as im sweeping. its really weird. these are bigger than planes, planes are like a pin point these are like 1/2 a centimeter..they all look like they are moving toward chicago. center over lake michigan, rea l southern part lake michigan. end call

19:33 weather service calls 911 back to verify not a hoax call. what do they look like? 5 or 6 calls south holland area. repeats above to new cop.

i dont know if its an atmospheric phemonen, the northern lights are going on, i hear they are really bright.there will be a recording of it its on the computer.
Content from External Source

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYawV4ui53A&feature=youtu.be&app=desktop
Not much to go on. I'm seeing a lot of dead links.

But since they were looking out over Lake Michigan what seems most likely to me is that they were seeing ground lights on the far shore due to unusual atmospheric refraction; i.e ducting. If that were the case, the lights would be distorted and wavering in intensity, and appearing and disappearing; which pretty well matches the descriptions.

...five or six glowing orbs https://allthatsinteresting.com/1994-lake-michigan-ufo-incidentabove Lake Michigan.

...bright, flashing orbs moving in seemingly random directions.

...the far left moved off. It moved to the highway and then came back in the same position. The one to the right was gone in the blink of an eye and then, eventually, everything disappeared quickly.

I saw six lights out the window above the barn across the street,” Joey said. “I got up and went to the sofa and looked up at the sky. They were red and white and moving.”

Sightings were reported from Ludington, Michigan all the way down to the Indiana state line, 200 miles away

People that far apart were probably seeing different ground lights on the far shore, but due to the same reason - atmospheric refraction.

See this discussion: https://www.metabunk.org/threads/simulating-atmospheric-refraction.7881/

The radar stuff may have been unrelated. Or ground objects were being picked up due to atmospheric refraction. Ducting.

Ducting is exceptional super-refraction. Super-refraction occurs when the trajectory of a radar beam bends towards the earth's surface more than normal. In other words, the rate the elevation of the radar beam changes with distance away from the radar is less than normal. The radar beam will tend to increase in height above the earth's surface when moving away from the radar site because of the earth's curvature. In a super-refraction situation, the radar beam could be increasing at a lesser rate with height than normal as the beam moves away from the radar site or the beam could even be bending back down and getting closer to the earth's surface in spite of the earth's curvature. It is ducting when the radar beam actually bends closer the earth's surface with distance away from the radar. The bending could be strong enough for the radar beam to bounce off the earth's surface.

Ducting is caused by strong low level inversions (temperature increases with height). Ducting can also occur when a strong cap (EML) of warm and dry air exists in the lower troposphere above very moist air. Ducting causes the radar to be able to sample much further distances than normal. Ducting increases ground clutter also since the radar beam remains closer to the earth's surface for a greater distance and can even bend into the earth's surface. Ducting is more common in the morning hours since this time of the day experiences the strongest low-level inversions (due to cooling of earth's surface through longwave radiation emission) but ducting can also occur anytime a strong cap exists in the lower troposphere.

The advantages of ducting are increased radar range, being able to sample storms further from radar, and being able to sample lower elevations within storms further from radar. The disadvantages of ducting are increased ground clutter and increased anomalous propagation (due to radar beams bouncing energy back from hitting earth's surface or sampling storms beyond the radar's maximum unambiguous range).
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From 2010

Wednesday Night Lights: On Lake Michigan's horizon -- it's called 'fata morgana'​


Lake Michigan shoreline residents from Grand Haven to Whitehall reported seeing "the lights of Milwaukee" Wednesday night along the western horizon.

They didn't actually see the Wisconsin shoreline, but a rare and complex atmospheric condition that creates a reflected [refracted!] image of the Milwaukee-area coastline for a brief time. Observers reported seeing the lights before and after 10:30 p.m.

Those seeing the Milwaukee lights were most likely observing a "fata morgana" mirage, caused by differences in temperature between the water and air.

The weather-based phenomenon reveals not just the "glow" of Wisconsin's biggest city on the horizon. Observers see actual lights of buildings and objects, such as the red blinking beacons of large communication towers.

"It's an optical illusion," said Dennis Donahue, the marine superintendent of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory's Lake Michigan Field Station in Muskegon.

"It is caused by the difference in temperature of the air and the water," explained Donahue, a veteran Great Lakes mariner. "I have seen the effect in Lake Superior and across the Saginaw Bay."

And for some magical moments every few years or so, the effect is observed on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, allowing for the lights of Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities to be seen.

Paul Kara was at his Norton Shores home a quarter-mile south of the Muskegon Heights water filtration plant Wednesday night. He said he watched the rare light show for 45 minutes.

"We've seen this about a half-dozen times," said Kara, who has lived for 19 years along the lake. "This was not the best. Sometimes they are far more dramatic. I swear sometimes you can see vehicles driving along the (Hoan Bridge) highway."

The "fata morgana" mirage is described in the "American Practical Navigator" of the U.S. Department of Defense's Mapping Agency.

The characteristic of a true "fata morgana" is that it is seen on a narrow band near the horizon. Atmospheric conditions can distort the object being observed -- in Wednesday night's case the Wisconsin shoreline.

The Milwaukee lights can be larger than normal and brighter. Changing temperatures make the mirage change rapidly -- alternately compressing and stretching the zones of light.

When observed at one point Wednesday night from Muskegon, the lights could be seen from the city of Milwaukee and several cities north and south. The light pattern looked like a flotilla of 1,000-foot lake freighters all lit up on the horizon, yet the lights weren't boats.

The "fata morgana" effect can be observed on land or at sea and at night or day, according to federal instructional materials. In calm weather such as Wednesday night, a warm layer of air rests over colder denser air, forming an "atmospheric duct," which acts as a refracting lens.

What happens to the light rays is similar to what happens at night with radio waves of certain frequencies, as when AM radio stations can be heard from hundreds of miles away.

From 2012

The 'lights of Milwaukee' were seen Thursday night from the Lake Michigan shores of Muskegon​


Late in the evening Thursday stretching into early Friday morning, you could see the lights of Wisconsin from the Muskegon shoreline. The rare atmospheric condition allows lights 80 miles across Lake Michigan to be seen as if one was looking from one shore to the other on Houghton Lake.

As the reflect image fades and intensifies -- magnified at times by the layer of warm air resting over colder dense air over Lake Michigan – it was as if an armada of lake freighters were in a line off the shores of Muskegon. Another described it as a “string of jewels on a necklace.”

But when looking out into Lake Michigan, there is no doubt that one is seeing the other shoreline. Actual lights, such as the red beacon of a communications tower, are seen not just a glow on the horizon.

The lights appeared to stretch from Kenosha, Wis. on the south to south Milwaukee on the north. At times, Racine, Wis. was so brilliant that a lighthouse or a navigational aid flashed on the horizon as it if was 10 miles off shore.

From 2018

Milwaukee lights visible from Lake Michigan beach in Muskegon​


A Lake Michigan beach could have used signage reading, "Objects here are closer than they appear," late last week.

Because just after 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 26, Milwaukee appeared to be just a short swim away from the Lake Michigan shoreline in Muskegon, even though its more than 70 miles away.

Why? Because of something called a fata morgana, which the American Meteorological Society describes in depth.
"A mirage, but the specific physical circumstances under which fata morgana should be applied to a particular sighting are ill-defined."

"The best that can be said is that the mirage interacts with features in the landscape to present a scene of sufficient ambiguity that viewers often arrive at quite fanciful interpretations.

"Cases reported include those of the apparent sighting of cities, mountains, forests, or islands (sometimes metamorphosing one into the other) in places where it was known that no such things existed."

This photo was taken by Cameron Mosier with his cell phone at the south end of Pere Marquette Beach in Muskegon.

"The for the record reaction was 'wow,' I can't believe how detailed it is," he said. "It didn't take any time for me to realize what it was because I've spent my childhood growing up in the neighborhood and have heard stories of it being visible."

Mosier said he saw a similar phenomenon the day before, only this time with dunes near Grand Haven.

These effects are often called Superior Mirage or Fata Morgana by the media but these are catch-all terms for effects caused by ducting. There are also looming, ducted mock mirages and sub-duct mirages to consider.

These are 3 separate incidents. I've checked. I think this establishes that these displays are fairly common. They even have a local name - The Milwaukee Lights.

Why would the 1994 sighting be reckoned anything but one more Milwaukee Lights display? In this case it was picked up as something mysterious, perhaps because it was less widely known at the time. But who knows? UFO sightings are finicky things. There may have been plenty of locals at the time who knew what it was, but only the exciting stories from excited people were reported by local media. Local media often has a huge influence on UFO flaps.

Or maybe it was an exceptional display that really caught attention.

Retired meteorologist shares his account of 1994 West Michigan UFO sightings​

Words inside brackets are my comments.
"They were just moving so fast, and two more started coming into play there. I really had little time to describe where they were before they had moved and jumped again," said Jack Bushong, a retired meteorologist describing what he saw on radar the night of March 8, 1994.

Bushong spent his career working for the National Weather Service. On the night of March 8, 1994, he was manning the National Weather Service office by himself in Muskegon on a cold but routine night. The NWS no longer has an office or radar there after the government forecasting agency went through modernization and reorganization in the mid-90s.

The phone rang and Bushong answered to find an Ottawa County dispatcher on the other line who had been fielding reports of strange lights in the sky. They called the National Weather Service to see if anything was showing up on weather radar.

It turns out, over 100 people reported witnessing the strange lights in the sky. Cindy Pravda, who lives in Grand Haven, shared her account with News Channel 3 in March of 2019 on the 25th anniversary of one of of Michigan's most famous UFO sightings.

That's when Bushong took manual control of the Muskegon radar, and began waving its beam back and forth across Ottawa County looking for any objects. The conversation between Bushong and the dispatcher was recorded, which the Michigan chapter of the Mutual UFO Network has shared online.

That night, there weren't any thunderstorms to track on radar, but rather, something else.

“You could pretty much use it like a spotlight," Bushong said when describing the operation of the radar at the time. "I had two cranks to bring it up or down, or side to side. You pretty much sent it out searching for weather: any type of rain, sleet snow; or hail is what we were usually looking for when we took it off of automatic mode.” [Which may have pointed the radar beam into an inversion layer. All that "searching", it seems to me, may have affected what was happening to the radar beam, and how far it was seeing over the horizon. Which could be responsible for the antics of the blips, including the changing altitudes.]

Bushong recounts the object first appeared alone on radar returns. "It started as one," he said. "The object was coasting at about 100 miles per hour."

He said as he was watching the object, it stopped and started hovering. "And then it shot up, about 5,000 feet, then 10,000 feet I was getting it, just straight up," Bushong said. "At this point, the police officer was saying that he was seeing the same thing with that same object." [Classic scenario: Excited witnesses, one looking at a visible light, another at a radar blip. The visible object and the blip are probably unrelated, but they imagine they are both looking at the same thing, thus supporting their shared narrative. People, especially excited people, create exciting stories together.]

"It was almost as if, it was like it was saying to me, 'hey, I know you can see me,'" Bushong said. [Classic feature: People anthropomorphize things and happenings and spin themselves into the yarn. "It was under intelligent control. "It was noticing and reacting to me."] "Until that one got up to about 30, 40 thousand feet, and finally I saw it."

He then described seeing a triangle of objects on radar, oriented vertically, before they finally spread out in the horizontal.

"One that’s closest to the radar, so it would look bigger, and then there were two more," he said. "One on the shore of Lake Michigan, and the other inland a little bit. They were all separated by about 20 miles."

He said one of the objects would zip about 20 miles away before the others followed in a geometric pattern. "I either saw them hovering or they were jumping at a high rate of speed over to the next spot. Then there were two other spots jumping to get back into the same triangle, and they kept doing this," Bushong said.

Their heights even topped off close to 60,000 feet at times, according to Bushong. This, he said, disqualifies a theory some used to try and debunk his observations as ground clutter. Ground clutter, caused by a radar phenomenon known as anomalous propagation, occurs when radar beams bend down towards the surface of the earth, echoing back returns from objects close to the ground. [This does not rule out anomalous propagation due to superrefraction. Just as visible light is "bent" downwards and the images of distant objects are thus "raised up" above the horizon, superrefraction of radio waves due to ducting causes anomalous altitude readings on radar. Only more so, because radio waves can follow ducts much farther distances than visible light. The changes in altitude were, I think, changes in how far the radar was "seeing" over the horizon. Is this a case of Bushong being willfully ignorant of things he should know?]

Bushong said this continued to happen until the three and at times four objects made it over southern Lake Michigan, where Bushong said he observed dozens more. For a total of about two hours, he saw a larger cluster of stationary objects with some slowly moving in between them. [Buildings and moving vehicles?]

This coincidentally was an area of open water on Lake Michigan in a year where the lake was almost entirely covered in ice. [Prime conditions for the formation of an inversion layer over a lake: The lake is colder than the air above it.]

Bushong later called the FAA control tower at the Muskegon County Airport to see if they had observed anything. Bushong said he spoke to an air traffic controller that had observed 3 aircraft in formation off in the distance but didn't have any transponder code.

Bushong's first job after graduating from Florida State was in Grand Rapids with the National Weather Service. He was then moved over to the NWS office in Muskegon until 1994, coincidentally the same year the sightings took place. Later that year he transferred to the NWS office in Atlanta, where he'd eventually retire. He said this had nothing to due with anything involving the incident on March 8, but rather was a promotion and transfer he had been waiting on.

Bushong said he was initially not allowed to speak to the media because they didn't want the wrong message to be relayed to the public. “NWS didn’t want to become the UFO reporting center for the United States, so that’s really why they really had to duck and cover for this one," Bushong said.

He said he's faced ridicule for his account over the years, but has become more comfortable speaking about it after the U.S. Department of Defense released videos confirming what it says are "unidentified aerial phenomena."

More info on radar.

First, I've found that there's a difference between superrefraction and exceptional or high superrefraction due to ducting.

When the beam refracts more than the standard, it is called "superrefraction." In some cases, superrefraction can be so severe that radar pulses intercept the ground or become trapped, which is also known as "ducting." Superrefraction more commonly impacts radar imagery than subrefraction. When superrefraction occurs, the radar beam will bend downward and remain within a precipitating area longer. This can increase the radar's usefulness in examining precipitation that is far away, but may result in exceeding the maximum unambiguous range.


Super-refraction results in overestimates of heights measured by radar. When super-refraction is occurring, a precipitation target is observed at a higher elevation angle than standard. The beam is closer to the ground than the standard atmosphere-based charts indicate, so the antenna must be raised to a greater elevation angle than normal to find the top of an echo.

Effects of super-refraction have a greater impact on the radar operator than do the effects of sub-refraction. Since the beam is lower than standard, low-altitude targets that would ordinarily be below the beam can be detected, as was previously stated.

Unfortunately, super-refraction can result in more range-folded echoes being detected. These echoes occur when super-refraction bends the radar beam so that it tends to follow the Earth’s curvature for long distances and targets beyond the unambiguous range of the radar are detected. The unambiguous range of a radar was discussed in the module on Radar Principles.

Another unfavourable effect of super-refraction concerns the ability of the radar to detect non-precipitation targets at extended ranges. Ground clutter, a highly reflective echo pattern typically generated from terrain features and other objects close to the radar, will be expanded under super-refractive conditions. Surface features will be detected and displayed at extended ranges when the radar beam is bent enough to travel near the ground, or bounce along the ground, for a long distance. The expanded ground clutter pattern is typically referred to as anomalous propagation (AP) by radar operators to distinguish it from precipitation echoes. The usefulness of the radar is diminished because it is often difficult to distinguish ground return from precipitation targets.

Echo properties which can be used to identify AP-induced echoes on conventional weather radars include

  1. a persistent pattern for a given elevation angle, but a rapidly changing patter with change of elevation angle, and​
  2. a large number of small-scale features, particularly high-intensity reflectivity cores with abnormally large reflectivity gradients (greater than 20 dB change over a distance of 1 km).​

Figure 3. Refraction of the radar beam with associated atmospheric conditions and consequences for the returned signal

In addition to pattern recognition, the radar operator will identify AP-induced echoes with more skill if he/she is aware of current atmospheric conditions. A radar operator can actually monitor the atmospheric stability by noting how the ground clutter pattern changes for a fixed elevation angle over time. Typically, ground clutter maximizes during the late night/early morning (radiation inversion – surface-based stable layer) and minimizes during the late afternoon/early evening (dry adiabatic lapse rate – surface-based unstable layer).​


Ducting is a special superrefractive condition such that the radar "beam" gets trapped or "ducted" within a stable layer or temperature inversion. This causes the beam to bend downward more than normal, but the beam rarely comes in contact with the ground and little energy is lost through attenuation. Operationally, this is an extreme case of superrefraction which can result in the detection of targets well beyond the operating Rmax.


HIGH SUPERREFRACTION- Superrefraction is also termed ducting if the radar beam bend down toward the earth's surface enough to actually intersect the earth's surface. When radar beams bounce off the earth's surface some of that energy will backscatter to the radar to show AP. Ducting is more likely when a strong lower tropospheric inversion is in place, especially when the low-level air is moist and the air above the inversion is very dry. Ducting is more likely in the morning since inversions tend to be stronger in the morning (colder air under warmer air). When ducting occurs, ground clutter echoes are also much larger in spatial coverage since side lobes are more easily bounced off the earth's surface.
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