updated 3/23/2007 6:44:33 PM ET 2007-03-23T22:44:33

Former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, who trotted out an aide dressed as an alien 10 years ago to spoof the frenzy surrounding mysterious lights in the Phoenix sky, now says the lights were actually an alien spacecraft.

Now a pastry chef and business consultant, Symington is keying in on the anniversary of the sighting of the so-called "Phoenix Lights" by reversing course, saying the lights were really extraterrestrial and that he saw a UFO himself.

"I'm a pilot and I know just about every machine that flies," Symington said Thursday. "It was bigger than anything that I've ever seen. It remains a great mystery. Other people saw it, responsible people. I don't know why people would ridicule it."

During a news conference in 1997, Symington, a former Air Force captain then in his second term as governor, told the assembled press that an alien had been captured. He then ushered out his chief of staff, Jay Heiler, dressed in a costume complete with oversized head and eyes.

"This just goes to show that you guys are entirely too serious," Symington said at the time.

Later that year, he was convicted of bank fraud charges stemming from his bankrupt real estate empire. The conviction later was overturned and he was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001 before federal prosecutors decided whether they would retry the case.

Symington recently told a UFO investigator making a documentary that he hadn't acknowledged his own encounter at the time because he didn't want people to panic. He repeated the story in an interview on CNN and other media, saying the craft he saw was "enormous. It just felt otherworldly. In your gut, you could just tell it was otherworldly."

Heiler, who says Symington is one of his closest friends, said he isn't surprised he believes in UFOs.

A "Trekkie" who enjoys discussing space travel, Heiler said Symington is convinced that earthlings will travel to distant solar systems at above the speed of light "in our lifetimes."

Heiler said he remained "the earthbound skeptic" in those talks.

The lights, which appeared in a V shape on March 13, 1997, as they moved across the sky, were widely explained as flares dumped by a military training flight, though many still doubted the government was telling all it knew.

Tucson astronomer and retired Air Force pilot James McGaha said he investigated two sightings over Phoenix that March night and traced them both A-10 aircraft flying in formation at high altitude.

"It was clearly aircraft in formation, flying at two different times and then dropping flares and it's clear to any rational person that's what it was," McGaha said.

McGaha said Symington "is not a trained observer and what he feels in his gut doesn't make any difference."

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