Air Traffic Control, UFOs and the FOIA

Each month Air Traffic controllers receive reports of flying objects ‘that don’t conform to normal flight patterns’ the head of Britain’s National Air Traffic Control Services admitted on BBC Radio 4.

This blog post was followed up by Lee Spiegel’ of The Huffington Post in an article published on 28 August 2012: ‘British Civil Aviation Authority Highly Interest in Pilots’ UFO Sightings.’

Towards the end of a general interview on the Today programme (17 August 2012), reporter Simon Jack took the opportunity to ask a question posed by his children who wanted to know ‘if you…or your staff have ever been unable to identify a flying object.’

Traditionally, NATS and Civil Aviation Authority officials prefer to avoid questions on UFOs like the plague, but on this occasion Chief Executive Richard Deakin was pressed for a Yes/No answer. His response, which you can listen to here, was:

“It’s a yes…not just in the UK but around the world, typically around one a month.’

But he quickly downplayed the significance of this admission by adding that ‘it’s not something that occupies a lot of my time.’

Simon Jack was surprised by Deakin’s statement as it appeared to suggest the ‘skies are buzzing with UFOs.’ But the head of NATS was not given the opportunity to explain the vast majority of these ‘flying objects’ turn out to be terrestrial aircraft that have strayed into busy airlanes, military aircraft, microlites, hot airballoons and a host of other routine  hazards.

But a far more accurate litmus test of how frequent reports of ‘UFOs’ (or UAPs) by aircrew actually are can be found in the records kept by the Civil Aviation Authority, the government agency that employs NATS to run air traffic services in the UK.

As a private company NATS is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But I have received a series of interesting responses to FOIA requests for data on Mandatory Occurrence Reports (MORS) and Near-Miss investigations recorded by the CAA. The MORS scheme is for aircrew to report occurrences ‘which endangered or which, if not corrected, would have endangered an aircraft or its occupants’. Although not designed specifically to capture UFO data any sightings reported by UK aircrew – whether in UK airspace or elsewhere in the world – enters the CAA database and is subject to Freedom of Information requests.

A CAA MOR report dated 18 December 2006 reporting a conflict between a ‘UFO’ military aircraft inbound at RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire.

MORs (see example above) tend to be little more than one paragraph in length and simply summarise the incident, often without any obvious resolution. But in those cases where crews report a more serious near-miss (or airprox), an independent team of experts is called in to carry out a more detailed investigation. Possibly the best known example of an airprox involving an unidentified flying object was the near-miss reported by the captain and first officer of a Boeing 737 approaching Manchester Airport in January 1995. You can read Ian Ridpath’s account of this interesting case here.

The response to my most recent FOI requests to the CAA reveal that between December 2004 and October 2011 ten ‘mandatory occurrence’ reports were logged by the authority. One of these referred to the UFOs reported near Alderney in the Channel Islands by pilot Ray Bowyer in April 2007. Just two of the reports had led to separate air proximity inquiries by the UK Airprox Board (UKAB).*

This figure of ten suggests that Richard Deakin’s guesstimate of one per month refers to a larger body of sighting reports that never make it onto the CAA’s database, as we should expect the numbers of MORs to be nearer 80 for the six years ending in 2011. However, it is well known that aircrew and ATC controllers are reluctant to file UFO sighting reports because they wish to avoid publicity and others fear the effect it could have on their flying careers.

A determination to downplay UFOs and avoid being drawn on this issue appears to be endemic at the CAA and Ministry of Defence, as UFO files released at The National Archives have revealed. One senior MoD official, responsible for flight safety, even referred to the official attitude as “ostrich like” in a 1977 memo, writing that:

“If we do not look, it will go away. If it does not officially exist, I cannot get terribly worked up if someone sees one, in the busy airlanes over the Channel or anywhere else.” (UFOs – Flight Safety Considerations, TNA DEFE 71/33)

Possibly the most interesting revelation from my FOI requests is that the Civil Aviation Authority (and by default NATS) decided two years ago to continue collecting UFO reports made by aircrew and air traffic controllers, despite the MoD’s determination to shut down its own X-files.

The MOD closed its UFO desk and reporting facilities in December 2009. In January the RAF wrote to the Head of Aviation Directorate requesting that ‘any reports received by the Department of Transport or air control centres are not forwarded to MoD and that members of the public who make such reports are not encouraged to believe an investigation will take place.’

Members of the CAA Safety Regulation Group met at Gatwick airport to discuss the changes on 11 March 2010. According to a copy of the minutes I obtained (see extract below) there was a lengthy debate on the subject after which CAA decided to update its guidance to air traffic controllers on how to handle UFO reports in future.

Extract from CAA minutes 11 March 2011 released following my request under the Freedom of Information Act (credit: CAA)

Soon after this, a special instruction was issued to ATC centres that ‘UFO reports [should] no longer be forwarded to MoD for investigation’ but reports remained of interest to the CAA.

This was because ‘UFO reports have been used and continue to be used for issues related to flight safety…some UFOs eventually become Identified Flying Objects (IFOs) following investigation, therefore it is still a requirement for controllers either observing a UFO or receiving a report from aircrew to consider if the sighting has any flight safety significance.’

One outcome was the issue, on 1 July 2010, of a updated version of the 45-year-old guidance document appended to the Manual of Air Traffic Services covering reporting of UFOs by aircrew (see extract below)

Pg 1 of the CAA’s updated UFO reporting procedure, extracted from the Manual of Air Traffic Services 2011 (credit: CAA)

Of significance is the fact that CAA have decided to remove two items from the reporting procedure that dates back to 1968. This relates to UFOs observed ‘through surveillance means’ (e.g. by radar only) and visual sightings reported by members of the public. From 2010 any reports originating from the general public have been forwarded by CAA to the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA).

This move shows that the CAA, like the MoD, has no interest in UFO reports from the public regardless of how credible they may be. It also has no interest in ‘UFOs’ observed on radar without visual corroboration, as long experience has shown the majority of these can be explained as atmospheric phenomena.

*Recent MORs that have resulted in separate investigations by the UK Airprox board include (1) a sighting reported to ATC at Bristol Filton of an ‘unidentified object at 6000ft overhead’ at the same altitude, flying under the nose of the aircraft, on 21 February 2010.  Nothing was seen on radar. This was assessed as a ‘conflict with an untraced object in Class D airspace’ by UKAB.

(2)  a report by the crew of a MD 80 of an object that ‘looked like a parachute/hang-glider’ at FL170 over Lambourne, Berkshire, on 25 April 2010. Nothing was seen by other traffic in the area and the incident was assessed as ‘Conflict in Class A airspace with an untraced aircraft. No further CAA action possible.’

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2 Responses to Air Traffic Control, UFOs and the FOIA

  1. Ian Ridpath says:

    More good sleuthing, Dave. This suggests to me that the biggest reason for the reluctance of aircrew, ATC controllers and the CAA to submit UFO reports or discuss UFO sightings is _not_ potential ridicule by the public, who are presumably supportive of efforts to make air lanes safer. Rather, it is to avoid unwanted publicity by UFO groups. In other words, the CAA and the MoD fear the UFO believers more than the disbelievers. In this context, we can see how Nick Pope “coming out” as a UFO believer influenced the MoD to shut down their UFO desk completely. Although Nick could not have anticipated it, this left a juicy media role to be filled by… him!

  2. Paul Haresnape says:

    I can never understand the importance given to radar evidence in relation to UFOs; we ourselves have had stealth technology for decades now. Travel light years and/or cross dimensions only to show up on civilian air traffic radar? Seems rather unlikely.

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