Five photographs of fairies dancing at the bottom of a Yorkshire garden that became ‘the world’s longest running hoax’ are the focus of a compelling new exhibition.
The Cottingley fairies legend began in the summer of 1917 as the Great War raged in the trenches of the Western Front. Schoolgirl Elsie Wright, 16, took a photograph of her nine-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths posing with some tiny dancing figures that she had drawn and attached to hat pins arranged around the Cottingley Beck, between Bradford and Bingley, in West Yorkshire
According to the exhibition it all began with a tall tale. One day the youngsters were scolded after they returned home from the beck with wet feet. Frances explained that she went there ‘to see the fairies’.
Her story was greeted with disbelief so the girls borrowed Elsie’s father Midg quarter plate camera, determined to provide proof. They came back with two photos, one showing Frances with the dancing fairies and a second showing Elsie with a leaping gnome.
In the aftermath of the war the girl’s mothers shared the curious images at a meeting of Theosophy Society in Bradford. News reached one of its senior members, Edward Gardner, who was convinced they were genuine. From here the prank spiralled out of control when Gardner sent them to his friend, the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Doyle had converted to spiritualism during the war and wanted to use the images in his ongoing battle with skeptics. He deliberately courted controversy, describing the fairy photos as ‘an epoch-making event’ when he published the first two images in The Strand magazine during 1920.
Doyle never met the young women but Gardner visited the beck and said he felt ‘energies’ there. He arranged for a photographer, Harold Snelling, to make ‘improvements’ to the photos and left Elsie and Frances with a new Kodak camera. He clearly hoped they would produce more evidence and sure enough, in the summer of 1920, the girls took three more images of fairies dancing around the beck.
The women stuck to their stories for 60 years. Interviewed by Yorkshire TV in 1975 Elsie Wright, aged 74, said: ‘I have told you that they’re figments of our imagination and that’s what I’m sticking to.’
But in 1983 Elsie and Frances, both grandmothers, confessed to the hoax when the truth was exposed in an article by Geoffrey Crawley, editor of the British Journal of Photography.
Even then Frances continued to maintain the fifth and last image, dubbed ‘the Fairy sun-bath’ was a genuine photograph of the little folk she had seen around the beck.
During the past century dozens of books, newspaper articles, TV documentaries and two Hollywood movies have been devoted to telling versions of the story. Few photographers today can look at these images and accept them as anything but fakes. The lighting of the ‘fairies’ does not match that of the young women and the figures have a flat, one-dimensional appearance because that was precisely what they were.
The original negatives have long since disappeared but fourth-generation copies from the batch ‘improved’ by Snelling can be scrutinised by visitors. Also on display is a copy of the Princess Mary’s Gift Book, published in 1914, that inspired Frances to draw the fairies.
The book contained Alfred Noyes’ poem A Spell for a Fairy, that was illustrated with three dancing figures. They have an unmistakeable similarity to those depicted in the Cottingley photographs. Ironically the book also contained a chapter by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The exhibition was originally planned to mark the centenary of the last three photographs that show Elsie and Frances posing with individual fairies sporting distinctive 1920s hairstyles. This big giveaway did raise some suspicions in Doyle’s inner circle but he refused to believe two ‘young girls’ could hoodwink the creator of Sherlock Holmes who employed hard logic to solve riddles.
In fact Elsie was a skilled artist and worked for a few months in a photographer’s shop in Bradford where she had experience retouching photographic plates.
Following his death in 1969 Edward Gardner’s family donated his Cottingley fairy collection to the Brotherton Library. This exhibition has been curated by Dr Merrick Burrow, head of the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, who summarises the story as ‘an accidental conspiracy’.
‘There were a series of minor deceptions that in themselves would not really have amounted to anything,’ he said. ‘But these were blown up into a global cause celebre through the combination of Elsie’s skill with the camera, the “improvement” of the photos by an expert working for Gardner, and the involvement of Conan Doyle – probably the world’s foremost popular author with an interest in spiritualism’.
In the online lecture that accompanies the exhibition Dr Burrow compares elements of the story with fake news and social media bubbles in the present day. He said in one corner there was Conan Doyle and those ‘who believed without question in spiritualism’ whilst in the other were their opponents in the Rational Press Association and opponents of spiritualism.
‘Neither would give ground to the other, which is what we see now’.
The Cottingley Fairies: a study in deception runs until 17 November 2022 at the Treasures of the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds LS2 9JT.
Current opening hours are Tuesday-Friday, 11am-2pm but check the website for updates:
An aura of mystery has grown around this story because the identity of the photographer is currently being with-held by the MoD, under Data Protection laws, until 2076.
Despite the fact that he or she originally sent their negatives to a Scottish newspaper, The Daily Record, the name of the photographer remains redacted from MoD UFO files released by The National Archives in 2009. The newspaper did not publish a story and passed the images to the Ministry of Defence.
Today, more than 30 years later, it seems that first generation images, taken from the negatives, remain squirrelled away in the UK and/or US intelligence archives (or both).
Pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic – and Freedom of Information requests – might lead to their release.
The image on the right (below) is a ‘colourised version of a blurred image’ published by the UK tabloid The Sun in October 2020, based upon a photocopy of a drawing that was released by The National Archives.
According to which version of the story you believe, the original is one of six colour photographs taken by two men walking near the A9 in the Scottish highlands one August evening in 1990.
They show a dark, wingless diamond-shaped craft accompanied by a smaller aircraft, identified as a RAF Harrier jet.
Both were seen and photographed as they buzzed a remote Scottish valley, 20 miles north of the town of Pitlochry.
What is often not mentioned in media accounts is the incident allegedly happened on Saturday 4 August 1990, just two days after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, triggering off the first Gulf War.
Another curious fact is the Calvine photographs were completely unknown to the public until 1996 when Nick Pope, ex-MOD desk officer turned UFO pundit, published a brief account of the sighting in his first book Open Skies Closed Minds.
In the book Pope says his Head of Division – who he does not name – believed they might show the mythical US spy-plane Aurora that was the subject of much Press speculation at the time.
Pope claimed that expert analysis had revealed that the photographs are ‘not fakes’, but neither they nor he accepted the Aurora theory. He added:
‘The Calvine report remains one of the most intriguing cases in the Ministry of Defence’s files. The conclusions, however, are depressingly familiar: object unexplained, case closed, no further action’.
He added: ‘The photos are pretty much as good as it gets. They were assessed by the defence intelligence staff as real…they were clearly visible, sharp focused, broad daylight with the Scottish countryside in the background.’
According to three separate senior MoD sources and documents I obtained from responses to Freedom of Information requests, the photographs wereindeed the subject of several expert investigations. These were carried out by the Defence Intelligence Staff, the RAF’s JARIC agency and by the Pentagon.
The dossier reveals how, in 1992, the DIS sent an image of a ‘possible research vehicle‘ flying in Scottish airspace to the CIA. That image was sent to the Pentagon where it was subject to further US-UK analysis, as revealed in a document written by the UK’s Air Attache in Washington DC.
But although my sources disagree about what they images show, they all agree that whatever was captured on film was not a UFO because it was not unidentified. That might explain why a full set of papers are missing from the UFO files released at The National Archives in 2009.
A source in MoD’s defence intelligence staff, whose identity I have chosen not to reveal, claims the object in the photograph was identified as a US experimental aircraft. He says it was operating from a RAF base in Scotland and was escorted, not shadowed, by RAF and US aircraft.
If true this would contradict Parliamentary statements in 1992-93 that no authorisation had been given by the UK Government for the US to operate experimental aircraft in its airspace.
‘There was nothing extraterrestrial about what was seen in Scotland,’ he said. ‘No one else other than the Americans had anything like it at the time. We were not allowed to say exactly what it was. But we knew what it was.’
He claimed the US agencies ‘went ballistic’ when they saw the image, which he said had been captured by civilians in ‘a one in a million chance’.
But his story is contradicted by RAF Air Commodore Simon Baldwin, who commanded Britain’s last V-bomber squadron that saw action in the Falklands War. Baldwin was serving as Air Attache in Washington when one of the images from Scotland surfaced at the Pentagon in 1992.
When I spoke to Baldwin he dismissed the theory that the object in the photograph was a Stealth aircraft. He believes the whole story is a spoof – the same word he uses in a memo sent to MoD in December that year that I obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.
Baldwin says he was called in by a 3-star Lt General after the CIA sent one of the photographs to the Pentagon without informing them the source was UK MoD.
In the misunderstanding that followed, it emerged that the Pentagon believed the image actually depicted a RAF experimental aircraft developed using secret Stealth technology, shared with the British, without the knowledge of the US Government!
Baldwin believes the story – and the photographs – were the result of an elaborate hoax that briefly fooled the intelligence services.
He says the photographs – one of which he saw – depict ‘an airborne Loch Ness Monster’.
Baldwin’s involvement is revealed in a series of letters he sent to London whilst Air Attache during 1992, copies of which I obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. One was addressed to Sir Donald Spiers, Controller of Aircraft at MoD, a 3-star rank at the time.
The prank explanation was confirmed by Sir Donald, a former Assistant Chief Scientist RAF. He said that he recognised the black and white image from the MoD files as the same one he saw at the time. There was, he said, ‘no doubt that the photograph was a spoof,’ a conclusion he claims is based upon analysis by ‘our technical experts’.
So, who should we believe?
It seems to me that we have three options.
No 1 – the Calvine photographs show an unidentified, extraterrestrial spacecraft shadowed by RAF/US aircraft flying in broad daylight over Scotland. The UK and US intelligence agencies have covered-up the evidence for 30 years and have silenced both the photographer and the newspaper that was sent the photographs.
But if this was true the conspiracy has not been very effective.
Why if the photos were ‘above top secret’ was a poster-sized copy of one image printed out and placed on a wall in the MoD office where it could be seen by civilians such as Nick Pope? (for more details see my case file here).
Even if this was an error, why did the intelligence services then allow Pope to blow the gaffe in his book that we know was subject to security clearance before its publication?
And why did MoD agree to the the release at The National Archives of poor quality black and white photocopies of the images 13 years later?
No 2 – the ‘object’ in the photographs is a super-secret US experimental project such as the TR-3 Black Manta or the hypersonicAurora. This is the explanation offered by my Defence Intelligence source. I am convinced he is telling the truth as he remembers it. This is not impossible but seems unlikely.
I remain unconvinced that such a project could be concealed for three decades. Also, if it is so super secret, why risk flying it in broad daylight on a weekend evening in Scotland when it could have been tested in secrecy at Area 51 or above the ocean? When I asked Nick Pope about this possibility he said ‘we know where we exercise and we know where we test’ and where you test your exotic hardware is generally over the sea at night.
Even so it remains possible the images show a UAV or some other experimental platform that was undergoing tests shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in Kuwait. Only the full release of UK and US analysis of the images – and the photographs themselves – can resolve this question.
No 3 – To quote Sherlock Holmes ‘once you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’.
Using Occam’s Razor I believe we can eliminate option 1 as fiction that belongs to a plot from The X-Files. It would be nice to believe it but the evidence simply does not stack up.
Option 2 is not impossible but remains unlikely. This leaves us with one remaining theory that makes the fewest uncorroborated assumptions. The only explanation that makes sense is the photographs are fakes. Either this was a deliberately created hoax or an opportunistic one, in that the person or persons concerned photographed a Harrier then, when the pictures were processed, found a flaw on the negative that they then tried to pass off as a UFO.
Due to the compartmentalised nature of the UK MoD this would explain why both Nick Pope and my DI source had no ‘need to know’ about the results of the UK-US analysis of the images that must have happened early in 1993 and has left no record in the released documents.
It would also explain why the photographer has not come forward, despite significant media coverage. It might also explain why the Daily Record spiked the story and why no one (including MoD at the time) has been able to trace the source of the RAF Harrier shown in the image.
If it really was a spoof then the unusual date, time and location provided in the original report to MoD might also be false. As it is a pre-digital image there would be no way of proving its precise provenance.
Interest in the Calvine photographs continues to grow as the story becomes a prototype UFO legend. The idea of a vast conspiracy to hide the truth is characteristic of how these stories grow and become part of the larger UFO mythology.
Last year I told a freelance journalist how The National Archives had removed the name of the Calvine photographer from a MoD dossier that mentions the photographs, first released in 2009.
This revelation was published by The Sun on 10 October 2020, along with the ‘colourised version’ of the image and a comment from Nick Pope, the man who first released news of the story in his 1996 book.
But the tabloid omitted any reference to the actual source of what it called ‘a complaint lodged under the Freedom of Information Act about the National Archives withholding documents’ that was ‘now under investigation by the UK information watchdog’.
It went on to claim ‘a dossier into Britain’s most significant UFO sighting is to be kept secret for another 50 years’ adding further layers to perceived cover-up.
But the redaction of the name was not ‘without explanation’ as the tabloid claimed, nor was it anything to do with a massive cover-up of the Calvine images.
The facts are that the names and addresses of all UFO witnesses and MoD officials who dealt with their reports have been routinely redacted from files transferred to The National Archives since 2005. From that date section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act, covering personal information, replaced the former ’30 year rule’. This has been further complicated by the arrival of the GDPR European legislation covering private information.
The name of the photographer is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of other names and addresses currently being with-held from those files under the draconian Data Protection legislation, sometimes for up to 80 years.
The TNA decision to withhold the name, if upheld on appeal, will remain in force until 1 January 2076. If successful it will ensure that, unless he comes forward voluntarily, we will never learn who took the Calvine photographs in either his and our lifetime.
Only pressure from politicians and the media will resolve this mystery once and for all.
Of course it would be a better story if the Calvine photographs turn out to be genuine ‘compelling evidence’ for UFOs – or indeed, top secret military technology.
But if they were the result of a clever hoax that successfully fooled the MoD, the CIA and the UFO community, then maybe his decision to remain anonymous might be a very sensible policy!
A team of space researchers found parts of a meteorite that burned up over southwest England embedded in a muddy field in Gloucestershire during lockdown.
The charcoal-black object was found by analytical chemist Derek Robson on the second day of a ground search near the village of Woodmancote that was organised by members of the East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation (EAARO).
The seven-strong EAARO team was assembled by Jason Williams within days of the appearance of the fireball that was captured by specialist detection cameras as well as doorbell cameras.
Jason said several thousand meteors burn up in the atmosphere every day often over the oceans and uninhabited regions. Those that occur at night are often missed because there are so few people around to observe them.
‘So when I received a phone call from a very excited colleague who had successfully captured video data of a meteor fireball seen in the skies above the UK I felt compelled to put together a search team to hunt for possible fragments,’ Jason said.
‘As the UK was in lockdown due to the Covid pandemic we had to seek official permission to search the area. This was granted and we set out with camera data and accurate information regarding the meteorite’s trajectory.’
A number of sites highlighted as possible landing areas were in hazardous industrial locations and the team was issued with PPE and two-way radios prior to the searches.
The first day’s search failed to locate any fragments but on the way home, whilst travelling east along the A14, Jason and Rob both saw a very bright meteor heading in the same direction.
‘We joked that this was a sign to organise a return visit,’ Jason said.
On the morning of 28 March – one month after the fireball – the team began searching muddy fields near the village of Woodmancote in Gloucestershire.
Less than half an hour later Derek, from Loughborough, came across a dark stone embedded in the mud and called out to the others. As they gathered around a small crater no more than two inches wide, they immediately recognised the object as a fresh meteorite. Derek said. ‘We could see a fusion crust and iridescence – a lustrous rainbow of colours that changed whilst viewing from different angles. As the realisation sank in, our feelings changed to excitement sharing a very special moment’.
‘It was hard work and on the second weekend search, thinking of the vast areas covered with no luck, in pain and downhearted, I felt like giving up’.
‘At times of need I sometimes call upon my late Dad for help. In the field I said “come on Dad, help me find a meteorite” and within half an hour I came across the fragments embedded in the mud’.
Since the meteorite was found impacted well into the ground, the team decided to remove the fragments in situ by cutting out a rectangular section of the mud. This was then photographed and carefully wrapped before it was removed and taken to EAARO’s HQ in Huntingdon.
The meteorite fragment has an uncanny resemblance to a human face and Derek said it could be compared to the so-called ‘face on Mars’, an optical illusion photographed in the Cydonia region of the red planet by the Viking orbiter in 1976.
The following week Cambridge Clinical Laboratories offered to assist the team delicately remove the fragments from the mud and carefully weigh, measure and photograph each piece for storing in a laboratory-controlled environment.
Jason and Derek agreed on a chemical analysis strategy. ‘For volatile organic compounds it is particularly important to analyse meteorite samples as soon as possible,’ Jason explained.
‘While curating the meteorite fragments we noticed they exhibited a strong odour which we believe indicates the presence of volatile organic substances that may provide an exciting insight into the origin of this material and the early solar system’.
EAARO is working with a number of UK universities, commercial laboratories and overseas scientists studying this fascinating remnant of the early solar system.
Work began early in May 2021 and is currently ongoing. Jason Williams, managing director of EAARO – a not for profit, charitable company, said:
‘Finding the meteorite in Woodmancote has created opportunities which align with our aims – to inspire and educate people in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics through exciting and meaningful space research projects’.
BBC History Magazine/History Extra published my article that explains how the idea of visitors in mysterious flying objects grew from its origins in the Cold War into the most enduring modern myth.
You can read the main feature here (password access required). There are links to a UFO timeline (1946-2021) and my list of the Top Ten UFO sightings from Kenneth Arnold to the USS Nimitzhere.
History Xtra‘s Rachel Dinning also recorded an interview with me that can be downloaded as a podcast. The History and Mystery of UFOs, here.
International media interest in UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) has intensified following the release of the Pentagon’s intelligence report on UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) on 25 June, almost 74 years since the first modern report of ‘flying saucers’ by pilot Kenneth Arnold in 1947.
Pressure has grown after three years of news coverage that began with a story published by the New York Times in December 2017 that revealed the existence of a semi-secret Department of Defense programme that investigated UAPs.
A series of close encounters reported by US Navy pilots led the Office of Naval Intelligence to establish a UAP Task Force in August last year.
The last time the CIA convened a panel to review the best evidence for UFOs (or ‘flying saucers’) was in 1953 at the height of the Cold War.
The recommendation of the Robertson Panelwas that federal agencies ‘take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired’.
And here we are 68 years later awaiting a new US intelligence report on a subject that refuses to die. Commenting upon the enduring mystery, inHistory Xtra I say:
‘Today, as tensions grow between the USA and its main adversaries Russian and China, how fitting that unidentified flying objects should once again become a factor in what some historians have called the Second Cold War.’
At 9pm on Wednesday, 19 December 2018, a security guard left work at Gatwick in Sussex, Britain’s second busiest airport. As he waited in the rain for a bus he saw two lighted objects hovering low in the sky inside the complex. He immediately called the airport control tower to report a breach of security and soon afterwards the main runway was closed to air traffic.
As police patrols combed the area clusters of further sightings were made. According to some media reports the object or objects seen was described as an ‘industrial specification’ drone. More reports poured in until 9 am on the following morning, Thursday 20 December.
By daybreak 58 flights into Gatwick had either been cancelled or diverted, five police forces were involved and the Sussex constabulary had sent up its own drones and a helicopter in search of the intruders.
According to a BBC Panorama investigation 140,000 people were caught up in the chaos that followed the airport closure. The 33-hour shutdown at Gatwick led 1,000 flights to be cancelled or delayed at an estimated cost of £50 million to airlines.
Fearing further incursions, on the afternoon of 20 December Gatwick called in special military radar systems that can jam the signal between operator and the drone.
According to new information released in response to Freedom of Information requests by the Department for Transport, further drone incursions were logged at 2.30, 7.45 and 10.30.
The very last confirmed sighting was logged at 5 pm on Friday, 21 December – almost 48 hours after the first drone ‘sighting’.
As the panic spread, there was much speculation about the identity and motives of the drone operators. Some media sources claimed airports were being targeted by terrorists or eco-activist groups for attacks using drones.
Sussex Police continue to believe that a real drone or drones were involved in the Gatwick incident. But at an early stage in their investigation doubts were expressed by one of their own senior officers, Det Chief Supt Jason Tingley, who told the BBC: ‘We cannot discount the possibility that there may have been no drone at all’.
The Gatwick case shares some similarities to the phantom helicopter scare of 1973-74 that began with a series of ‘sightings’ by security guards at quarries where explosives were stored. These convinced senior police officers in northern England the IRA were using a stolen or unregistered machine to steal explosives or for use in a jailbreak. As in the 1974 scare, the Sussex police decision to launch their own helicopter to investigate the mysterious intruder at Gatwick triggered off a spate of ‘sightings’ of the phantom drones.
Among the new drone witnesses was a Brighton-based press photographer, Eddie Mitchell, who drove to Gatwick with his cameras at the ready and two of his own drones locked in his boot. At 5pm on 20 December Eddie saw and photographed what he believed were the white, green and red lights of the drone as it hovered above Gatwick airport. But when he downloaded the images it became apparent that he had actually snapped the Sussex police’s own helicopter!
Eddie later told The Guardian ‘if I’m making a mistake – and I fly drones two or three times a week – then God help us because others will have no idea’.
But the tabloids were less concerned about the identity of the object in Eddie’s photographs. As Ian Hudson who runs the UAV Hive website explained ‘some journalists just didn’t really care if the photos they were using were a drone or not’. One of Eddie’s images continues to appear on The Sun website captioned as ‘the drones’.
Ian told me ‘the idea a couple of drones were flying around in the rain for prolonged periods’ seemed far-fetched.
He also finds it ‘beyond credible’ that not one single clear photograph or video of the intruder has emerged and ‘a number of camera operators that were at Gatwick have spoken out since on social media about their belief there was no drone’.
Even more persuasive is the evidence from the specialist counter-drone systems (known as C-UAS) installed at Gatwick airport in the hours after the first sighting. One arrived at 2.40 on 20 December and another was in place by 9pm when visual sightings were still being reported. Both were capable of detecting both the drones and their transmitter but neither recorded anything unusual.
Despite these evidential problems in April 2019 Gatwick’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe, told the BBC the airport authorities had received 170 separate ‘credible drone sightings’ from 115 people including trusted staff such as security patrols and police officers. ‘They knew they’d seen a drone. I know they saw a drone,’ Woodroofe said. ‘We appropriately closed the airport’.
At the time of writing the operators have never been identified. A married couple from Crawley were arrested by Sussex Police and held in a police station for 36 hours on the basis that they owned a collection of model aircraft. They were released without charge after questioning. In June 2020 Sussex police paid the couple £200,000 in an out of court settlement. No one ever claimed responsibility for the scare or claimed the £50,000 reward offered by Gatwick for information that might lead to those responsible.
In the aftermath, the government passed new legislation to widen the exclusion zone around airports from one to five kilometres. Nationwide, police forces were given more powers to seize drones from their operators and prosecute those who break the strict regulations that prevent them from being flown in sensitive places.
Sussex Police formally closed their investigation of the incident in September 2019 after 18 months, having spent £800,000 on their inquiry, with no further ‘realistic lines of inquiry’. The force said it had ruled out a link with terrorists and there was no evidence ‘it was either state-sponsored, campaign or interest-group led’. They believe it was a ‘serious and deliberate criminal act designed to endanger airport operations and the safety of the travelling public’.
Drone experts including Ian Hudson interviewed by journalist Samira Shackle for her Guardian investigation remain unconvinced. Probing more deeply, what exactly did the witnesses at Gatwick actually see? A moving object with bright lights attached that hovered and was seen fleetingly on a rainy night in darkness. In any other context this would be classified as a sighting of a UFO. From the point of view of the airport authorities and police this must be a drone because UFOs do not exist.
But as Hudson told me, basic facts about the case don’t support this theory. ‘The first sighting was in the rain,’ he said. ‘Drones tend to fail in the rain. In fact there are few models that are capable of any kind of semi-reliable rain use’. Commercial drones also have in-built geofencing software that block them from flying near sensitive locations such as prisons, stately homes and airports.
If the operators were clever enough to hack the drone’s software and evade the regulations to fly them into Gatwick airspace, why did they allow the UAV to carry lights? ‘The normal lights on drones are low power LEDs that couldn’t be seen at a significant distance,’ he said. ‘Also drones aren’t equipped as standard with a strobing light. Any mischievous drone pilot that didn’t want to be caught wouldn’t use lights. You would turn them off in the software or tape them up’.
Hudson and fellow UAV operator Gary Mortimer filed a series of FOI requests asking Sussex police and the Department for Transport for basic information about the more evidential sightings made by police and security guards. Hudson asked for confirmation of one description given to the media at the time that ‘the alleged Gatwick drone was industrial sized’.
But on 5 May this year the DfT admitted their records ‘do not hold any information on the description’. Hudson tells me this suggests neither the police nor the government have any clear account of what the drone actually looked like. He said the DfT had consistently hidden behind national security as a “get out clause” when quizzed about the specifics.
Mortimer briefly flirted with the idea of the scare being a cover for some other covert operation. Now he feels the actual explanation is more prosaic. He told Shackle ‘one option is that something that wasn’t a drone was reported and then the next day, police flew their [copter] there and people saw that’.
As UFO investigations have discovered time after time, ordinary objects can suddenly become extraordinary when people expect to see something unusual – or in this case threatening – in the sky. During the phantom helicopter scare of 1973-74 there was widespread anxiety about Irish terrorists and police confirmation of the sightings triggered off a visual epidemic. Today that anxiety has transferred to other terrorist groups and mysterious drone operators.
The 2018 scare was not the first cluster of mysterious aerial sightings in the vicinity of Gatwick airport. Earlier incidents were reported in 2017 and the MoD’s archived UFO files reveal how on 15 July 1991 the crew of a Britannia Airways Boeing 737 returning from Greece and descending into Gatwick at 14,000 feet saw ‘a small, black lozenge-shaped object’ zoom past at high speed 100 yards off the port side. Ground controllers confirmed a ‘primary contact’ was visible on radar 10 nautical miles behind the 737 moving at a speed estimated as 120 mph. Helium-filled toy balloons could potentially reach this height, but commercial drones cannot.
More recently a series of airprox reports from aircrew involving close shaves with ‘unknown objects’ in Gatwick airspace have been investigated by UK Airprox Board (UKAB) which is sponsored by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Military Aviation Authority (MAA). Statistics from UKAB’s log reveal a dramatic increase in reports of drones and other ‘unknown objects’ made by civilian aircrews in UK airspace from just seven in 2018 to 31 in 2019.
The log includes an incident from April 2018 that was placed in the highest collision risk category. At lunchtime on 28 April 2019 the runway at Gatwick was temporarily closed after the crew of an Airbus 319 climbing out of the airport saw an object breaking through cloud at 17,000 ft (5,200m). According to the crew ‘it passed below them from the centre of the aircraft and under the right-hand wing’ and was clearly contrasted against the clouds. The small object ‘appeared dark green in colour with a white light on top’ and may have been hovering. As a result of this close shave, three other aircraft were diverted to other airports.
Further details of recent UKAB investigations and the possible sources of the current UFO-drone epidemic are explored in my article Close Encounters of the Drone Kind in Fortean Times 406 (June 2021). Special thanks to Ian Hudson and UAV Hive for information used in this article.
The death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, aged 99 on 9 April has resulted in a flurry of tributes and obituaries. But so far none of the extensive media coverage has mentioned the Duke’s lifelong interest in UFOs – or “flying saucers“.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet, is probably the best known British establishment figure who had publicly expressed his fascination with flying saucers and UFOs.
His interest reached its peak during the first wave of public interest in the subject, between 1950-55 and declined during his time as Chief of Defence Staff at MoD from 1959-63.
But Mountbatten shared his early fascination with with his nephew Prince Philip who served in the Royal Navy during WW2 and married Princess Elizabeth in 1947. He became Duke of Edinburgh in 1952 when his wife became Queen Elizabeth II following the death of King George VI.
During this time both men were subscribers to the magazine Flying Saucer Review and according to its editor Gordon Creighton since its inception in 1955 copies have been sent to Buckingham Palace.
RAF Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley (1921-2001) who was equerry to the Duke from 1952–5 wrote that during this period, much like Mountbatten:
“Prince Philip was open to the immense possibilities of new technology leading to space exploration, while at the same time not discounting that, just as we were on the fringe of breaking out into space, so other older civilisations in the universe might already have done so.”
Horsley’s autobiography Sounds From Another Room (1998) reveals how reports of flying saucers were enthusiastically discussed at Buckingham Palace throughout his time as equerry.
In 2000 he told us that Prince Philip ‘agreed that I could investigate the more credible reports [of flying saucers] provided I kept it all in perspective and did not involve his office in any kind of publicity or sponsorship.’
As a result of his position in the RAF, Horsley was given ‘carte blanche to read any reports and interview pilots.’
He told us that he had arranged in 1952, with the Duke’s personal approval, for RAF Fighter Command to send copies of the latest ‘flying saucer’ reports made by aircrew for examination at Buckingham Palace.
During our meeting at his home in Hampshire he provided documentary evidence of his investigations, including papers from the informal study he conducted for Prince Philip. Horsley said the originals were now part of the Royal Archives.
Perhaps the strangest outcome of this inquiry was Peter Horsley’s role in inviting a number of flying saucer witnesses to discuss their experiences at Buckingham Palace.
These included the captain of a BOAC airliner, James Howard, who had reported, along with other crew members and passengers, a formation of UFOs while flying over the North Atlantic in June 1954. Another visitor was schoolboy Stephen Darbishire who had taken two photographs of a ‘saucer’ above Coniston in February of that year.
During our interview with Sir Peter Horsley, shortly before his death in 2001, he explained his reason for inviting UFO witnesses to the Palace was partly to ‘put them on the spot’ and test their honesty in the presence of royalty, a method as effective as any truth serum.
Sir Peter told us the sincerity of the RAF and civilian witnesses he interviewed was evident and this led him to conclude that UFOs were a real and unexplained phenomenon.
But he was less impressed by the burgeoning UFO movement and what he described as ‘the growing body of people promoting sightings for mercenary reasons or self-advertisement.’
Among these less than objective influences he included Desmond Leslie, who was on friendly terms with General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning. The General, who was the husband of author Daphne de Maurier, led the British airborne forces during the disastrous Operation Market Garden in 1943.
In retirement Browning became a private secretary to the Queen and like other former military officers became fascinated by flying saucers. But Browning went further than any other establishment figure by taking seriously the claims of those who said they had met the space people.
This situation came to a head in 1959 when a plot was hatched to engineer a meeting between Prince Philip and the famous Polish-American author and mystic George Adamski. Adamski had co-authored the 1953 best-seller Flying Saucers Have Landed with Desmond Leslie. The book contained his personal account of a meeting with the Venusian pilot of a ‘scout-ship’ that landed the Mojave Desert of California and communicated with Adamski by telepathy. According to his account the space people wished to warn us of the impending threat posed by nuclear weapons in future warfare.
Adamski’s message combined old-fashioned spiritualism with the new craze for seeing flying saucers and this appealed to many who feared for the future of planet Earth, including some members of European royalty.
In April of 1959 Adamski embarked on a European lecture tour that included an audience with the Dutch royal family. Shortly before the 68-year-old contactee arrived in London Desmond Leslie wrote to both Browning and the Duke, enclosing a personal invitation for them to meet Adamski, in strict secrecy if necessary.
The Duke immediately realised the danger this would place him in and he annotated Leslie’s letter with the words ‘Not on your Nellie!’ And in a note to Browning he added: ‘He may not be a crank but he’s a bit too fanciful for me!’ (Sir Peter Horsley, personal communication 2000).
Nevertheless both General Browning and Peter Horsley met Leslie and Adamski during his visit at a private address in London.
Horsley told us was not impressed by either. He felt that Desmond Leslie was ‘probably sincere but gullible, sucked into the saucer cult by people who hoped to profit from it such as Adamski’ and he warned Browning against having any further contact with them.
Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands also met Adamski and at a press conference in The Hague on 20 May when he made the bold claim that the British royal family were keen to meet him and that ‘Prince Philip so far has been the most interested.’
This summary is an extract from my 2007 book with Andy Roberts: Flying Saucerers: a social history of UFOlogy (Heart of Albion Press).
In 2017 I wrote to Prince Philip to ask if his ‘flying saucer’ file had been preserved in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. I said there was considerable public interest in its contents and in particular the private study of the subject, completed on the Duke’s behalf, by Peter Horsley in 1955.
On 27 June Prince Philip’s private secretary, Brigadier Archie Miller-Bakewell, responded, after a lengthy delay: “I am afraid that extensive searches have not yielded any papers that would be of help to your research. This letter comes with His Royal Highness’s best wishes.”
Text Copyright David Clarke & Andy Roberts 2007 and 2021
Two new Cold War era stories concerning mysterious ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ (UAP) have been added to my RADAR pages.
Both form part of my personal archive of interviews, archive documents and FOI materials that cover radar detection of UAPs from the WW2 era to the present day.
The first is an exclusive first hand account provided by Ronald Burr who was the chief engineer responsible for the team who designed the powerful Type 80 radars that provided an Early Warning screen for the British Isles for almost 40 years.
Ron describes how he was present in the control room of the prototype Type 80 at RAF Trimingham in Norfolk when the antenna detected a large target travelling at Mach 2 at a range of 220 miles over the North Sea towards the English coast. No known aircraft operated by NATO or USSR was capable of flying at this speed at that time. Burr says:
“I can hazard no explanation for what had been an extraordinary event and I do not attempt one now.”
The second story is a summary of my archived interview with fighter pilot Michael Forrest (1931-2018) who flew jet aircraft with the RAF in Europe and the Far East for two decades. Forrest describes an incident in October 1954 when he and another pilot were scrambled from their base at RAF Sek Kong to intercept an ‘unusual target’ that was approaching the British territory from China.
Forrest and his wingman were directed by ground control towards this strange target that had ‘supernatural manoeuvring capabilities’. At one point they were on a collision course with the ‘object’ but never at any stage were they able to see it, despite a clear view in daylight.
On return to base they were told the probable explanation was ‘anaprop’ created by unusual atmospheric conditions in the atmosphere. But Forrest told me that the incident remained the strangest experience in his entire military career. The entry in his logbook simply reads: “Scrambled for bogies – no contact.”
My feature article Echoes and Angels: UFOs on Radar was published in the March 2021 edition of the magazine Fortean Times (FT 403). The article covers some of the best known radar UAP incidents in the past 80 years including the USS Nimitz/Princeton incidents in 2004, the Belgian flap of 1989-90 and earlier cases investigated by the USAF Project Blue Book.
Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) ballistic missile early warning station at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire has detected an ‘unknown object’ that appeared in Earth’s orbit.
RAF Fylingdales single phased array radar tower circa 2006 (Copyright David Clarke)
Top brass at the BMEWS base – that is part of the NORAD missile defence system – ordered a secret investigation of the tracking, according to a military source who once acted as a former RAF UFO desk officer for the MoD.
The Fylingdales incident happened in 1981-82 when RAF Group Captain David Todd was Senior Duty Officer at the base. Todd returned as commander of the base in the 1990s after a spell at HQ Strike Command when his work ‘included review of UFO reports and advice to MoD Secretariat Air Staff’ [the so-called ‘UFO desk‘].
RAF Fylingdales was built on the A619 between Whitby and Pickering during the 1960s as part of the BMEWS radar network that linked the UK with sister stations in Iceland and Alaska.
The current pyramid-encased phased array radars at Fylingdales replaced the three original mechanically steerable ‘golfballs’ that made the base such an icon of the Cold War until 1992.
Then, as today, the radars are not configured to detect objects in Earth’s atmosphere because they look outwards to scan the horizon for missiles and satellites. Fylingdales radar sweeps 360 degrees of the horizon, tracking hundreds of objects of different sizes as they move in orbit.
Despite numerous official denials I can reveal that, on occasions, the base has tracked unknowns outside Earth’s atmosphere as the radars are capable of seeing objects as small as a felt-tip pen in orbit 3,000 miles away from the North York Moors.
Radar & UAPs feature in Fortean Times 403 (March 2021)
“Unknowns came up on the radars at regular intervals for all sorts of reasons,’ Group Captain Todd told me.
“I remember this incident clearly. It came up as an unknown and [Fylingdales] radar tracked it.
“We could not match it up with anything on our computers. And radar tracked it for quite a long time…
“It appeared to be in Earth’s orbit…so that got us really interested, because people started saying ‘ooh, is it a UFO?’ and we were duty bound to investigate because this was an unknown object.”
MoD contractors SERCO, who built the early warning base, were tasked by Todd to investigate and ‘they came up with various theories’, one of which was:
“an unidentified flying object with little green men inside”…but the best solution that we, or they, could come up with at the time was that it was a meteorite that appeared to be in orbit at the time it was tracked by our radar.’
No official record of this remarkable incident exists in the official records released by the Ministry of Defence. The base Operation Record Books for 1981-2 have yet to be released at The National Archives as they are covered by ‘extended closure’ for national security reasons.
However a letter I discovered sent by MoD UFO desk officer Peter Watkins to a member of the public in 1982 says:
“…it is conceivable that Fylingdales might pick up an “alien spacecraft”, but only if it happened to be within the parameters of the radars. There is every chance, therefore, that an “alien invasion” would be as unannounced as that in [H.G.] Well’s War of the Worlds.”
In my article I explain the possible reasons for the secrecy surrounding this incident and why the role of BMEWS radars in relation to UAP trackings is often misunderstood.
Astronomers plan to listen for noise made by alien factories using the first UK telescope dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrials.
The EAAROCIBO project – launched by a group of scientists and businessmen based in East Anglia – aims to ditch the traditional method of searching for ET that has so far failed to detect interstellar radio transmissions.
Aerial view of former RAF Alconbury airfield showing HQ building of EAARO (credit: Chris Hornby)
The new project is named after the iconic space telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico that featured in the 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster.
Last November the US National Science Foundation announced the closure of operations at the 57-year-old observatory after two cables gashed a 30-metre hole in the telescope’s huge reflector dish.
60 years ago Frank Drakeused the 85-foot antenna at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank in West Virginia to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). This was humanity’s first attempt to detect interstellar radio transmissions.
There have been many other unsuccessful attempts to detect alien signals from space. Billionaire Yuri Milner recently extended the search by backing Breakthrough Listen, a new $100 million effort to find alien life searching for signals from a million nearby stars.
Argentinian physicist and UNESCO consultant Guillermo Lemarchand believes that we have only probed around a hundred-trillionth of the cosmic haystack for intelligent signals. Scientists say that the search for ET is a numbers game and the more you look the greater the chances of you finding evidence for their existence.
East Anglian Astrophysical Research Organisation logo
Jason Williams and Jeff Lashley of the East Anglian Astrophysical Research organisation (EAARO) have a new search concept, based on an idea by British-born physicist Professor Paul Davies.
The EAARO team have developed a disruptive approach to traditional SETI that is dedicated to finding the techno-signatures of interplanetary industry and mining operations.
This novel search method works by looking for noise produced by industrial technologies such as machinery and spacecraft. Unlike traditional searches, EAAROCIBO’s ground-based telescope will focus on a particular patch of space with the largest number of stars, a concept similar to that used by the orbiting Kepler Telescope in its search for extra-solar planets.
EAARO are looking at two possible locations for siting the telescope. The first is near Bodmin in Cornwall, and the second option is in North Yorkshire on the edge of the National Park. Filming started last month for a documentary that will be used as a resource for crowd funding. The first funding stage is to build a scale working model of the antenna, the second stage will be for the materials and services required for the actual antenna and associated equipment.
“I’m delighted that EAARO will be dedicated to this new approach to SETI,’ commented Professor Davies. ‘While all searches are welcome, what the subject really needs is some innovative thinking. Under Jason Williams’ leadership, the EAARO project will serve as an inspirational trailblazer for SETI 2.0.”
In 1977 Jerry R Ehman using the Big Ear Telescope in Ohio discovered the historic WOW! signalwhich showed characteristics of being extra-terrestrial. The origin of this 72 second radio signal is still unknown and may be the strongest candidate for an alien radio transmission ever detected. Ohio State University scrapped the telescope in 1998 to make way for the expansion of a golf course.
In honour of Dr John D Kraus who designed and built the Big Ear, EAARO plan to rebuild a similar ‘Kraus Style’ Telescope as the receiving end of EAAROCIBO. It will be the only telescope of its kind ever to be built in the UK and its design elements fit well with Jason and Jeff’s design concept.
Inside EAARO’s space operations centre in Cambridgeshire (EAARO)
EAARO MD Jason Williams said:
“EAAROCIBO will be the first dedicated SETI instrument of its kind ever to be built in the UK. Our novel research strategy and innovative approach to combining classic and cutting-edge technologies will give us a refreshing new perspective in this exciting field of research.”
Robert Kuhn, creator and host of the TV series Closer to the Truth, said:
“For centuries, as part of humanity’s grand quest to comprehend existence, to find our place in the vast, ineffable cosmos, great minds have been wondering about, and arguing about, the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence on other planets. As we continue to confirm new earth-like planets throughout our galaxy, and no doubt throughout the universe, employing new technologies in our search, here’s hoping EAARO can help bring us closer to truth.”
The project is supported by Associate Professor David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Culture Media and Society. He said:
“The desire to find evidence that we are not alone in the universe may become one of the defining human quests of the 21st century. Opinion polls consistently show that up to half of all Britons believe that ET life exists. This project is important because direct confirmation that we are not alone is seen by many as being fundamental to understanding our true place in the cosmos.”
EAARO is a not for profit charitable company established back in 2011 as a space research organisation with a high level of public engagement: http://www.eaaro.org.uk/
The organisation has a growing estate with a Space Operations Centre at the former RAF Alconbury airfield near Cambridge, a fully operational radio observatory, a satellite ground station in Hertfordshire and an on-going meteor radar system project on the Orkney Islands Their objective is to educate and inspire people in the areas of Science, technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) through meaningful space research.
For 2021 I have launched a new resource on my website that is dedicated to Radar, UAPs and other anomalies related to radar detection systems.
The case studies range from anomalous ‘angels‘ detected by the earliest RDF sets in the 1940s to so-called UAPs – unidentified aerial phenomena – tracked by sophisticated ground and air phased-array radars used by Western powers in the 21st century.
This is a subject that has fascinated me for some time. During the past 20 years I have collected a large archive of material including first hand accounts from military and civilian radar technicians, fighter controllers and experts such as the late NASA meteorologist Dr David Atlas.
I intend to add new material to this resource on an ongoing basis as I begin to digitise my archive, starting with these case study files:
East Anglia radar/visual 1996: this multi-faceted incident was the subject of a rare field investigation by the RAF and featured in the MoD’s Condign report.
MoD Defence Intelligence Condign report, 2000 – released under the Freedom of Information Act in 2006. Chapter 3 includes a lengthy analysis of radar related UAP materials.
At the moment the Radar UAP resource is UK focussed as a direct outcome of my fieldwork. But as the resource grows I will include links to reliable/authoritative source material relating to radar anomalies and case studies from Europe, North America and elsewhere in the world.
David Clarke is Associate Professor in the Department of Media Arts and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. He teaches media law and his research specialism is contemporary legend. Previously he worked as a journalist for The Sheffield Star and Yorkshire Post and spent four years working as a Press Officer in local government. His PhD in Folklore and was completed at the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield, in 1999. From 2008-13 he acted as consultant and curator of the MoD UFO files project with The National Archives. His books include The Angel of Mons (2004) and How UFOs Conquered the World: the history of a modern myth (2015). In 2018 he co-founded the Centre for Contemporary Legend at Sheffield Hallam University. This blog covers his twin research interests in journalism and folklore. The views expressed in the contents are entirely his own.
What is Folklore?
Once upon a time… ‘Folklore’ meant ancient ballads or fairy tales or the peculiar superstitions and customs of ‘primitive’ peoples. Today folklore is a tool for studying custom and belief, urban legends, modern myth and even rumours spread via the internet. Much folklore can be found online and buried in the narrative content of media and social networking - from legends and reports of ghosts, UFOs and 'big cats' to language, customs and traditions. The study of folklore is centrally and crucially important 'in our attempts to understand our own behaviour and that of our fellow human beings' according to one scholarly definition. Folklore is a vital and ongoing area of study and one of the few academic disciplines that engage, in a fundamental way, with everyday life.