As Donna Stensland drove to work at 7:30 a.m. Thursday morning, she was prepared for a typical day working at her housekeeping business. What she got instead was an experience that was out of this world.
While approaching the Don Pedro dam along Highway 132, Stensland said she saw something large reflecting sunlight that appeared to be moving over the hilltops. Then she could make out what she described as a coal-colored, cylindrical object moving slowly before disappearing to the south.
“It freaked me out,” said Stensland, who has never seen an unidentified flying object before. “Never in my life have I witnessed something this crazy weird.”
Officials with multiple military outlets said what she likely witnessed was the result of a missile test at a New Mexico Air Force base that caught the attention of thousands of people and multiple news outlets in the Southwest.
Though according to Stensland’s account, the phenomenon appeared much closer, just over the nearby ridges.
“I was looking at (what looked like) a big giant wine bottle without the elongated head … as if it was going at helicopter speed. I thought, there’s no way I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing,” Stensland said. “All of the sudden it just shot off. It just vanished like it went into a cloud. … But the sky was clear.”
She said she didn’t report her sighting to anyone until telling a client what she saw. She said she took out her cell phone to take a picture, but the object wasn’t in sight by the time she could snap a shot.
“I saw something I never saw before, and I’m really frustrated (to not get a photo),” Stensland said on Thursday. “It made me feel rattled, uneasy.”
According to military accounts, the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico conducted a multi-rocket test beginning at approximately 6:30 a.m. The Army-run base in White Sands released some details about the test, which reportedly lit up morning skies across the West.
According to the missile range, the test involved launching a rocket target called a Juno from Fort Wingate near Gallup, N.M. Two Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles were later launched from the White Sands base about 350 miles away and reportedly intercepted the Juno target successfully.
The Patriot missiles kill incoming targets by direct strike and don’t explode.
The rising sun backlit the Juno missile’s contrail and provided a spectacular morning sight for early risers across the region in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and even California.
The test was the 14th from that location since 1998, though it requires the right time of day and atmospheric conditions to be visible from so far, according to the Army.
“It’s one of those things. It does not happen every time — the weather and light conditions have to be just right, and this was one of those times,” White Sands base spokesman Drew Hamilton said. “We even had people calling from (Los Angeles) asking about it. They want to know about it. Apparently this thing really lit up the sky really well.”
Law enforcement agencies in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado received some reports of a crash, but those were quickly discounted. San Juan County deputy J.J. Roberts in Northern New Mexico told the Associated Press he was driving between Aztec, N.M., and Farmington, N.M, when he saw the missile heading into the sky.
“It was pretty obvious. The first thing that came to mind, it was some sort of a missile or a jet or something like that,” Roberts said. “We had gotten reports that there was an explosion or a UFO or missile or whatever, and people thought it was real close so they were concerned there would be debris falling from the sky. ... To me, it was obvious when I saw it, it was real high altitude. It wasn’t something real close.”
The missile test also resulted in calls for the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County from people asking about the phenomenon, said base spokesman Jerry Clemens. That’s likely what Stensland and any other locals observed Thursday morning, he said.
“That was the only thing we know of, anyways,” Clemens said when asked if there was any other aircraft activity in the area.
Officials from Edwards and Nellis Air Force bases, the Modesto airport, Columbia Air Attack Base and North American Aerospace Defense Command all reported no aircraft activity in the area at that time Thursday. Multiple residents and businesses in the area of the Don Pedro dam contacted by The Union Democrat reported no unusual sightings between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m.
Holly Osborne, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said it requires clear weather and the right atmospheric conditions for a contrail to form and be visible from so far away. And Osborne also said high-altitude winds can change their speed, though she wouldn’t say whether that was specifically the case with the Don Pedro sighting.
“If it happens to get into a jet, it might move quicker based on the stability,” she said.
But Ruben Uriarte isn’t discounting the possibility that Stensland saw something different from the missile test. Uriarte is the state director for the Northern California chapter of the Mutual UFO Network, and he said the Sierra foothills historically have a lot of activity when it comes to unexplained aircraft.
The organization maintains a database of UFO reports and sightings, and he said Sonora has been a “hot bed” over the years. He said some of that can likely be attributed to the numerous military bases in the region that test new aircraft technology. And MUFON investigators can often attribute sightings to events like missiles, Uriarte said.
“But that doesn’t really take away from the unusual anomalies in the area,” he said. “There’s a lot that can’t be explained.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.