The first publicized sighting of the lights occurred on August 25, 1951, at around 9 pm. Three professors from Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University), located in Lubbock, were sitting in the backyard of one of the professor's homes when they observed the "lights" fly overhead. A total of 20-30 lights, as bright as stars but larger in size, flew over the yard in a matter of seconds. The professors immediately ruled out meteors as a possible cause for the sightings, and as they discussed their sighting a second, similar, group of lights flew overhead.
The three professors - Dr. A.G. Oberg, chemical engineer, Dr. W.L. Ducker, a department head and petroleum engineer, and Dr. W.I. Robinson, a geologist - reported their sighting to the local newspaper, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Following the newspaper's article, three women in Lubbock reported that they had observed "peculiar flashing lights" in the sky on the same night of the professor's sightings. Dr. Carl Hemminger, a professor of German at Texas Tech, also reported seeing the objects, as did the head of the college's journalism department.
The three professors became determined to view the objects again and perhaps discover their identity. On September 5, 1951, all three men, along with two other professors from Texas Tech, were sitting in Dr. Robinson's frontyard when the lights flew overhead. According to Dr. Grayson Mead the lights "appeared to be about the size of a dinner plate and they were greenish-blue, slightly fluorescent in color. They were smaller than the full moon at the horizon. There were about a dozen to fifteen of these lights... they were absolutely circular... it gave all of us... an extremely eerie feeling." Mead claimed that the lights could not have been birds, but he also stated that they "went over so fast... that we wished we could have had a better look." The professors observed one formation of lights flying above a thin cloud at about 2,000 feet (610 m); this allowed them to calculate that the lights were traveling at over 600 miles per hour (970 km/h).
On the evening of August 30, 1951, Carl Hart, Jr., a freshman at Texas Tech, was lying in bed looking out of the window of his room when he observed a group of 18-20 white lights in a "v" formation flying overhead. Hart took a 35-mm Kodak camera and walked to the backyard of his parent's home to see if the lights would return. Two more flights passed overhead, and Hart was able to take a total of five photos before they disappeared. After having the photos developed Hart took them to the offices of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. After examining the photos the newspaper's editor, Jay Harris, told Hart that he would print them in the paper, but that he would "run him (Hart) out of town" if the photos were fake. When Hart assured him that the photos were genuine, Harris paid Hart $10 for the pictures. The photographs were soon reprinted in newspapers around the nation, and were printed in Life magazine, thus giving them wide publicity. The physics laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio analyzed the Hart photographs. After an extensive analysis and investigation of the photos, Lieutenant Edward J. Ruppelt, the supervisor of the Air Force's Project Blue Book, released a written statement to the press that "the [Hart] photos were never proven to be a hoax, but neither were they proven to be genuine." Hart has consistently maintained to this day that the photos are genuine. Curiously, the Texas Tech professors claimed that the photos did not represent what they had seen, since their objects had flown in a "u" formation instead of the "v" formation depicted in Hart's photos.
In late September 1951, Lieutenant Ruppelt read about the Lubbock Lights and decided to investigate them. Project Blue Book, founded in 1948 as Project Sign, was the Air Force's official research group assigned to investigate UFO reports. Ruppelt traveled to Lubbock and interviewed the professors, Carl Hart, and others who claimed to have witnessed the lights. Ruppelt's conclusion at the time was that the professors had seen a type of bird called a plover. The city of Lubbock had installed new vapor street lights in 1951, and Ruppelt believed that the plovers, flying over Lubbock in their annual migration, were reflecting the new street lights at night. Witnesses who supported this assertion were T.E. Snider, a local farmer who on August 31, 1951 had observed some birds flying over a drive-in movie theater; the birds' undersides were reflected in the light. Another witness, Joe Bryant, had been sitting outside his home with his wife on August 25 - the same night on which the three professors had first seen the lights. According to Bryant, he and his wife had seen a group of lights fly overhead, and then two other flights. Like the professors, they were at first baffled by the objects, but when the third group of lights passed overhead they began to circle the Bryants' home. Mr. Bryant and his wife then noticed that the lights were actually plovers, and could hear them as well. In addition, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer and one of Project Blue Book's scientific consultants, contacted one of the Texas Tech professors in 1959 and learned that the professor, after careful research, had concluded that he had actually been observing the plovers.
However, not everyone agreed with this explanation. William Hams, the chief photographer for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, took several nighttime photos of birds flying over Lubbock's vapor street lights and found that he could not duplicate Hart's photos - the images were too dim to be developed. Dr. J.C. Cross, the head of Texas Tech's biology department, ruled out the possibility that birds could have caused the sightings. A game warden Ruppelt interviewed felt that the sightings could not have been caused by plovers, due to their slow speed (50 mph or 80 km/h) and tendency to fly in groups much smaller than the number of objects reported by eyewitnesses. The warden did admit that an unusually large number of plovers had been seen in the fall of 1951. Dr. Mead, who had observed the lights, strongly disputed the plover explanation: "these objects were too large for any bird...I have had enough experience hunting and I don't know of any bird that could go this fast we would not be able to hear...to have gone as fast as this, to be birds, they would have to have been exceedingly low to disappear quite so quickly." Curiously, in his bestselling 1956 book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt himself would come to reject the plover hypothesis, but frustratingly refrained from explaining what the lights in fact were:
"They weren't birds, they weren't refracted light, but they weren't spaceships. The lights... have been positively identified as a very commonplace and easily explainable natural phenomenon. It is very unfortunate that I can't divulge... the way the answer was found.... Telling the story would lead to [the identity of the scientist who "finally hit upon the answer"] and... I promised the man complete anonymity."
While investigating the Lubbock Lights, Ruppelt also learned that several people in and around Lubbock claimed to have seen a "flying wing" moving over the city. Among the witnesses was the wife of Dr. Ducker, who reported that in August 1951 she had observed a "huge, soundless flying wing" pass over her house. Ruppelt knew that the US Air Force did possess a "flying wing" jet bomber, and he felt that at least some of the sightings had been caused by the bomber, although he could not explain why, according to the witnesses, the wing made no sound as it flew overhead.
The Lubbock Lights were one of the best-publicized events in American UFO history. In April 1952 Life magazine published a popular article about the UFO phenomenon; the Lubbock Lights were a prominent feature of the article. Lieutenant (later Captain) Ruppelt devoted an entire chapter of his bestselling 1956 book to the incident. A novel, by Dr. David Wheeler, focuses on the Lubbock Lights.
In 1994, the Albuquerque-based progressive rock band Skumbaag staged a rock opera called "The Lubbock Lights- a melodrama and interpretive ballet" inspired by the 1951 sightings with music and words by John Bartlit and Wm. Craig McClelland.
In November 1999, Dallas, Texas-based television station KDFW aired a news story about the Lubbock Lights. Reporter Richard Ray interviewed Carl Hart, Jr. about taking the famous photos and being investigated by the U.S. Air Force. The coverage concluded that after decades of intense scrutiny, Hart's photos are still among the most remarkable and vexing in UFO history.
The Lubbock Lights were featured prominently in the 2002 Sci Fi Channel miniseries Taken, in which one alien poses as a human in the Lubbock area for a brief period of time.
In 2005, a film called Lubbock Lights was released about the music scene in Lubbock which describes some theories about the lights by the musicians from the area.
In 2006, Lubbock-based alternative country band Thrift Store Cowboys wrote and recorded a song entitled "Lubbock Lights" on their third album, Lay Low While Crawling or Creeping.