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.
International media interest in UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) continues in the run up to the release of the Pentagon’s intelligence report on the subject that is due out at the end of June.
Pressure grew 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.
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Britain’s best known UFO legend, when unidentified Christmas lights haunted the sky above Suffolk’s Rendlesham forest.
Books, TV dramas and films have portrayed the sightings reported by groups of US air force personnel who witnessed the puzzling events outside the perimeter of RAF Woodbridge over two nights in December 1980.
Until recently little was known about how the British Ministry of Defence had dealt with the incident.
When the contents of Lt Col Charles Halt’s now famous memo were broken by TheNews of the World in 1983 the MoD said his report had been passed to ‘staff responsible for the air defence of the UK’ who had decided it was ‘of no defence significance’.
But the ‘Rendlesham file’ was mainly a collection of correspondence with members of the public years after the incident itself. It did, however, contain original documents from 1981 that I used to piece together what happened in the corridors of Whitehall.
Now the former MoD civil servant who received Col Halt’s report and worked with RAF experts to establish the facts has agreed to explain exactly how their decision was reached.
Simon Weeden joined the MoD as a junior civil servant after the general election of 1979 when Margaret Thatcher won power for the Conservative party. As a graduate entrant he was assigned to defence secretariat DS8 – the MoD branch responsible for UFOs – in the following year.
Dealing with UFO correspondence was a tiny part of his duties and his department had no resources or remit to investigate hundreds of sightings that reached the ‘UFO desk’, mainly from members of the public. He said:
‘Our role was primarily dealing with correspondence from ministers and members of the public…We didn’t investigate but acted as fact-finders, consulting with experts in areas like radar and air defence.’
Then early in January 1981 an unusual report arrived on Simon’s desk. The subject matter was ‘Unexplained Lights’ and it was signed by Lt Col Charles Halt, USAF deputy base commander at RAF Woodbridge.
Halt described how on 27 December a US security patrol had reported seeing a triangular object in the forest after responding to reports of an unusual lights outside the back gate of the NATO complex.
The following day Halt’s report said unusual marks were found at the ‘landing site’ on the ground and in the trees. Col Halt reported having supervised a second night-time expedition into the forest. On this occasion unusual radiation readings were detected at the ‘landing’ site and Col Halt and his men saw a ‘red sun-like light’ moving through the trees.
Halt’s dramatic account was accompanied by a covering letter signed by Squadron Leader Donald Moreland, the British liaison officer. He forwarded the account of ‘mysterious sightings in the Rendlesham forest near RAF Woodbridge…for your information and action as considered necessary’.
Weeden said that Moreland’s note, dated 15 January – 18 days after the sightings – was the first time MoD was notified of the sensational events.
‘Nearly always the reports we got were from ordinary members of the public,’ Simon said.
‘This one was very unusual in that it came from a military source within our organisation. It is the only one of its kind that I can remember from my time working on UFOs for DS8.’
His first action was to circulate Halt’s report to the specialist branches that he relied upon for guidance on what action, if any, was required.
Among these was a RAF air defence branch, Ops GE, whose experts monitored UK airspace using real-time data from radar stations that defended the East Coast. These were the front line in the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union at that time.
In the days that followed RAF Squadron Leader Jack Badcock checked Halt’s report with the joint CAA-military Eastern Radar at RAF Watton, near Thetford and with the RAF sector radar HQ at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk.
‘The MOD priority at the time was to establish if this was something that had an air defence aspect…Should we be concerned about this? Did it come up on radar? Did anyone notice anything odd…bearing in mind that the radars at Neatishead and Watton were manned 24 hours every day by skilled radar operators.’
But none of the radar stations checked reported anything unusual on their logs over the Christmas holidays. If there had been an air defence alert, RAF Ops would have known about it.
‘Aircraft were scrambled on a routine basis,’ Simon added. ‘If something is out over the North Sea and you don’t know what it is, it’s not responding, you would send up a Phantom or Lightning to have a look and see what it was.
‘But once we had been through all the basic checks and found there was nothing seen on radar, no obvious explanation, no obvious threat to air defence, we decided no further action was needed.’
Simon did recall talking to his RAF colleagues about other potential explanations. US Air Force night time manoeuvres, people such as poachers moving around in the woods at night with lamps ‘that sort of thing’ were considered.
‘This was quite a flat part of the world and maybe these were lights from quite far away that were shining through the trees,’ he said, referring to the theory – championed by skeptic Ian Ridpath – that the airmen saw the flashing beacon from the Orfordness lighthouse 6-7 miles away.
But the MoD did not investigate UFOs and even though Badcock was told Col Halt had made a tape recording of his adventure in the forest, it was decided not to ask for a copy because it would ‘reveal no better report than that already received’.
Weeden also copied Halt’s report on radiation anomalies to desk officers in the Defence Intelligence staff who had resources to follow-up if required. But although DI55 said they could not explain Halt’s report they decided not to investigate further.
‘Our interest was never in unidentified flying objects as potential spaceships,’ he explained. ‘Unidentified flying objects are exactly that. They are unidentified. They might have lots of natural explanations but we would not put any effort into investigating, to try and sort out exactly what it was once the initial assessment had decided we didn’t need to worry about it’.
Simon Weeden left the MOD many years ago and this event is not uppermost in his mind but, despite the lack of concern at the time, he does not dismiss the UFO phenomenon. After leaving the MoD in 1988 he trained as a clergyman and spent the next 30 years in parish ministry.
‘People do have extraordinary experiences,’ he told me. ‘That’s a fact. So I would never poo-poo those people who say to me they have had things like near-death experiences or felt some kind of angelic presence at times of crisis.
‘I do believe that people have experiences that can’t be explained. But they can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The interpretation depends upon what your viewpoint or standpoint is. If people have a propensity for conspiracy theories or alien manifestations they will interpret them through that filter.’
And Simon’s final word on the Rendlesham Forest UFO mystery 40 years after the events?
‘I think this is obviously something that exercises people’s imaginations. People want to know what the explanation is. I suspect that at the end of it all the explanation is probably going to turn out to be something quite mundane. But I can’t say that definitively; because I just don’t know.’
The 40th anniversary of Britain’s best known UFO legend has also been marked by a BBC News feature here. The article includes quotes from John Burroughs, whose book Weaponisation of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, was published earlier this month. John served in the US Air Force for 27 years and was one of the three man patrol that was sent to investigate what was first thought to be a plane crash in the forest beyond the RAF Woodbridge perimeter.
BBC reporter Nic Rigby also interviewed forester Vince Thurkettle who lived in the Rendlesham forest at the time and who was visited by two mysterious men who arrived at the Forestry Commission office late in December and asked if anyone had reported strange lights in the vicinity of the USAF complex.
Vince believes they may have been British officials who had heard rumours about the UFO incident. But it is more likely they were local journalists who had been tipped off by the Suffolk police who had responded to call from RAF Woodbridge in the early hours of Boxing Day morning.
One of the first civilian investigators to begin inquiries into the UFO mystery is Jenny Randles, author of the first book on the legend, Skycrash (1986) and UFO Crash Landing (1998).
Earlier this month I interviewed Jenny along with John Burroughs for a special extended 40th anniversary edition podcast UFO-LORE. Jenny had not spoken to John since 1988 when they last met at UFO conference in Arizona.
The free-flowing discussion that follows touches on many of the more puzzling aspects of the mystery that continues to fascinate and engage people across the world so long after the original events.
You can listen to the podcast on SoundCloudhere or visit our Facebook page for more information here. UFO-LORE is also available from iTunes and Spotify.
To mark the event I have contributed a chapter to a new book co-edited by John Burroughs, one of the original USAF airmen witnesses to these extraordinary events near RAF Woodbridge on 26-28 December 1980.
Weaponisation of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon: the Rendlesham Forest UAP incident 40 years later by John F. Burroughs and James Worrow (editors) is available to purchase/download here. A review by Nick Redfern can be found here.
My chapter The Real UFO Project covers my campaign that used UK freedom of information legislation to uncover a series of British Ministry of Defence UFO documents that had been with-held from the public for years. I argued there was a clear public interest in their release ahead of the 30 year rule that applied before the arrival of FOI in 2005.
The first record released was the elusive ‘Rendlesham File’ that was opened by the MoD when news of the incident, dubbed by the media as ‘Britain’s Roswell’, first broke in the British media.
This blogpost is a shorter version of my chapter, covering my role in the release of the MoD Defence Intelligence Staff’sCondign Report and summarises the results of my inquiries that led to the identification of its author Ron Haddow, the MoD’s former UAP consultant.
The former Secret/UK Eyes only report was released to the public in 2006 following an FOI request from myself and Gary Anthony. The account that follows was originally published in Fortean Times 396 (September 2020):
It is 14 years since I left the MoD Main Building in Whitehall holding one of only a handful of hard copies of the 3 volume report Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defence Region, codenamed ‘Condign’ by its elusive (and at that point anonymous) author.
The penultimate UFO desk officer Linda Unwin was, like all MoD staff, subject to the Official Secrets Act. She was responsible for releasing the redacted text to me after I used the Freedom of Information Act to prise it from the secret vault of the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS).
For years the MoD had maintained that Linda’s department were the focal point for all British government interest. But the report she handed over made it clear this was far from the whole story. Condign was a project funded entirely by the Defence Intelligence branch DI55 that had kept tabs on UFO reports since the mid-1960s when they inherited the task from the former Air Ministry.
Files released at the UK’s National Archives under the old 30 year rule have revealed that DI55’s main responsibility was guided missiles and space weapons. UFOs or UAPs were a spin-off task inherited from the Cold War era. Anything unidentified that entered Earth’s atmosphere was of interest to DI55’s ‘space desk’ and they used press reports of foreign UFO sightings to track and locate space debris that had fallen to Earth in places as diverse as Nepal and Tanzania.
The scientific and technical content of the Condign report betrayed its author as someone educated at least to PhD level and with some level of personal interest in the subject. He was also someone who did not buy into the extraterrestrial hypothesis that obsessed the media and public during the X-files era.
The documents also revealed a deep suspicion of the UFO desk and its links with UFOlogists. This was evident from the author’s closing directives in the last three UFO files, released in 2018, that sought to hide its existence and conclusions from Nick Pope’s former branch because of their ‘leakiness’. So, who was the author?
In 2009 I appealed to the UK’s Information Commissioner against the decision to redact the name plus that of the other intelligence officers involved. Working with LibDem MP (and former Cabinet Minister) Norman Baker, questions were raised in the House of Commons. But despite the public interest the MoD continued to refuse to be drawn on the identity of the contractor involved.
By that point I already knew that former GEC Marconi scientist Professor Ron Haddow was the author, a fact now in the public domain thanks to Nick Redfern’s book The Rendlesham Forest UFO Conspiracy (2020). I hoped that Haddow, with the permission of his former employers, might be allowed to talk publicly about his controversial conclusion that UFOs existed and were an unknown type of natural phenomena linked to ball lightning.
But Haddow, now an octogenarian, decided not to go on the record. As he had expressed a wish to maintain ‘a low profile’ I decided it was unethical to name him publicly. I did, however, warn Haddow that others – including several contributors to online UFO discussion groups – would eventually follow the same trail of clues that I had and discover his identity for themselves. By 2018 when the MoD declassified three remaining files covering the project journalists at several national newspapers also become aware of his identity.
But as author Nick Redfern says on his Mysterious Universe blog ‘nothing stays hidden forever’. And when the remaining files were released at The National Archives they revealed another reason why Haddow remained wary of attention from both UFOlogists and the media. In 1999 a West Midlands UFOlogist, Irene Bott, phoned MoD Main Building to report a sighting and asked to be put through to the person responsible for UFOs.
Present in the same room was Redfern, author of the 1997 book A Covert Agenda and at that time one of the MoD’s more persistent correspondents. Bott expected the switchboard operator to put her through to desk officer Gaynor South who was the only person officially acknowledged by Whitehall as responsible for UFO matters.
But a mistake was made and, instead, her call was patched through to DI55 who were then based in another central London building.
A man answered the phone. He said his name was Ron Haddow and it quickly became apparent that he was the person who investigated UFOs for MoD.
It is clear from the surviving transcript, released in 2018, that Haddow was not happy:
‘Someone has given our (my) name and number,’ he wrote. ‘This could raise awkward questions since [the UFO desk] not long ago denied publicly that any work was going on. UFOlogists know about DI55 because of the [National Archives] and subsequent TV leaks…at best the name and telephone number will be throughout the UK ufologists in a matter of days’. And he adds: ‘at worst the press could get hold of it!…Any disparity in future responses will be seen by the UFO community as a “sensitive” cover up and only serve (in their eyes) as confirmation’.
But despite his clear desire to remain in the shadows Haddow had already discussed his own unconventional theories about UFOs at a religious event in Israel soon afterwards. And in 2006, after his retirement from MoD, Haddow published an intriguing novel – No Weapon Forged– ‘with a basis of biblical prophecy’ that was promoted by its publisher as ‘a compelling and entertaining read’ for fans of the Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The blurb describes his novel as ‘a technically, militarily and historically authentic novel about a forthcoming Middle East conflict that is triggered by a dispute over oil. The scenario and weapons in use are frightening – but there is a prophetic twist at the end’.
Redfern’s book lists No Weapon Forged as another example of a science fiction novel written by ex-MoD insider that seeks to interweave a fictional plot with science fact. This literary tradition can be traced back to 1948 when ex-MI5 operative Bernard Newman published The Flying Saucer with a narrative based around crashes of alien spacecraft at remote locations across the world – including the New Mexico desert.
In 1985 former MoD civil servant Ralph Noyes produced a novel, A Secret Property, that implied the existence of technology ‘that produces etheric visions of aliens and spaceships’ that ‘can affect the real world in real and hazardous ways’.
In his MoD role Noyes helped produce a cover-story to hide the true function of the giant UK-US experimental radar station at Orfordness, code-named Cobra Mist, near the UFO-haunted Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk. Nick Redfern believes that he clearly knew something unusual had happened in the forest but did not have access to the whole story.
In his book Redfern sets out his theory that the Rendlesham events were created by elements of the US and UK military as part of a series of top secret experiments involving ball lightning and the ‘the use of sophisticated holograms and hallucinogens’ to test the reactions of the military personnel who were exposed to them. In his view, using a cleverly plotted novel allowed Noyes to avoid the pitfalls of the Official Secrets Act whilst hinting at deeper secrets.
In the absence of Haddow’s own account what can we learn from the content of No Weapon Forged? It opens with a detailed biography of his career in defence intelligence that closely matches the information provided in his report and the remaining DI55 UFO files declassified by the MoD in 2018.
Sadly, the book makes no mention of UFOs or UAPs. But it does contain a surprising new fact that may explain the MoD’s reluctance to talk about him. Haddow had ‘a life changing experience’ at a talk on Biblical prophecy in 1982 and afterwards joined a Christian Zionist group.
In October 2000 he was ‘one of just two scientists invited to speak by the International Christian Embassy at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem’. Did Haddow link his new-found religious beliefs with his interest in UAPs? An independent first-hand account of the Jerusalem feast, posted online by a Canadian delegate, provides a clue. It refers to an unusual talk by ‘a government spokesman’ who claimed that most UFO sightings can be explained by the ‘poorly understood phenomena’ of plasmas.
‘Some of these plasmas are man-made by aircraft with radar shield generators,’ the speaker said. ‘These have been in use since WW2 (foo fighters) but have only be declassified since the Kosovo war… The rest are tectonically generated (earthquake lights) or generated by meteor events in the upper atmosphere’.
Nick Redfern agrees that Haddow’s religious beliefs must have had some bearing on the MoD’s attempts to conceal his identity from the media and UFOlogy. He compares Haddow’s interests in End Times prophecies with those held by members of a military think-tank that once existed in the US Department of Defense who were ‘deep into UFOs but also into Old Testament-type religion’. Mixing UFOs with religion was always going to be controversial, Nick says, especially when ‘in a roundabout way, it leads to a secret UFO project’. He adds: ‘I can easily see how and why the MoD would want to keep all of this very low key’.
Indeed, in his book Haddow implies the central character is based loosely upon his own life experiences. In doing so he reveals his interest in aircraft and guided missiles began in childhood when he heard a German V-weapon strike on a village near his home in Bedfordshire. He joined the RAF at 18 and in 1954 took part in testing one of the earliest types of airborne radar. Later he took part in Operation Grapple, the British H-bomb test on Christmas Island and flew intruder missions in Canberras during the Cold War.
During this time he must have become aware of the Air Ministry and later MoD’s interest in UFO reports made by test pilots and RAF aircrew. Indeed, one memo refers to having filed his own report with the UFO desk following a sighting during a RAF mission during the 1950s. No details of this incident have ever emerged. But Haddow’s expertise in Electronic Warfare, radar, air defence and guided weapons made him a perfect candidate for the MoD’s real UFO expert.
In 1977 he was based at RAF Cranwell working as a specialist in guided weapons. His PhD thesis, completed in 1982, investigated ‘the probability of detecting and tracking radar targets in clutter at low grazing angles’, a handy technique for someone keen to capture evidence of UFOs on radar.
During the 1980s Haddow was called upon to advise US intelligence on aspects of the Pentagon’s ‘Star Wars’ missile programme initiated by President Ronald Reagan. By the 1990s he was Chief Scientist for Systems at GEC-Marconi, the premier electronics company in the UK, now part of BAE Systems and visiting professor for the Royal Military College of Science.
According to his biography, ‘for the whole of this period he was also a consultant-analyst to a department in the MoD, travelling extensively for NATO, for industry and for government’.
The MoD’s decision to ask him to return, one last time, to write their final report on UFOs must have some significance even if the Official Secrets Act continues to prevent him from saying anything else.
The Condign report was Haddow’s swansong after a lifetime in the world of secret intelligence. His own words reveal that he was aware that it would become a source of speculation and debate for decades to come. But for now, at least, he remains in the shadows.
The Tigh nam Bodach or House of the Cailliche (Old Woman) is a small rocky shrine perched above a rushing burn deep in the Grampian mountains.
The tiny house or miniature shieling, and its stone family has been described as ‘the oldest uninterrupted pagan ritual site in Britain’.
Some believe it is a more recent creation as the earliest written reference to the site was in 1888. Whatever the explanation it is a piece of living folklore that deserves protection.
Glen Cailliche (pronounced KAL-yach), a side branch of Glen Lyon, is home to the house that contains a number of water-worn stones from the river chosen because they have anthropomorphic shapes.
This is a place that has a special significance for me. I first learned of its existence from my friend and colleague the late Celtic scholar Dr Anne Ross, author of Pagan Celtic Britain (1967).
Anne told me that when she visited the shrine with the archaeologist Charles Thomas in 1950 the little house was thatched annually on May Eve (the feast of Beltane) and the stones were brought out to watch over the livestock.
The stone family were then put to bed on 1 November (the feast of Samhain), with the thatch removed and replaced with moss to keep the stones warm for the winter. Dr Ross said that following the death of its last ‘guardian’, she did not know if the tradition continued, although the stones continued to be treated with respect.
Happily The Guardian article suggests the tradition does continue today:
“This weekend, at Samhain the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season, according to a modest local custom that may span centuries, the figures will be returned to their quartz-studded shieling – a basic shepherd’s hut – to spend the winter months undercover.”
Back in 1992 I followed directions provided by Anne Ross during the writing of my book Twilight of the Celtic Gods with Andy Roberts. In the book, published in 1996, I describe how:
‘…we arrived after a lengthy trek across a treacherous bog and rushing burn before the ascent into Glen Cailliche brought us to a triangular stone suspect upon a rock outcrop. This was a specially placed marker, pointing towards the lair of the Cailliche. There were in fact not three but six stones in the family, all gazing down the glen, as they have done for centuries…’
The largest stone in the group represents the Cailliche and when I photographed the site in 1992 she was accompanied by the Bodach (Old Man) and a number of smaller water-worn stones.
At one time the tiny shieling was marked by a large quartz stone ‘shining like a seagull’ that allowed visitors to locate the shrine from the surrounding hills. Recent photographs show the quartz rock has vanished but smaller pieces can be seen inside the tiny house.
Tigh nam Bodach appears on the Scottish Sites and Monuments Record where it is listed as ‘a simple pagan shrine’. The entry notes the figures ‘are pieces of sandstone weathered into rough resemblance of human figures’.
It continues ‘…shielings in the area were in use until after 1782 and the inhabitants regularly thatched [the house]…the biennial re-thatching of the shrine continued down to the present century [and] [the gamekeeper/guardian] still puts the figures inside the hut in winter and takes them out in the spring. This action has vague associations with good weather’.
According to local lore, strange and terrible things will happen to anyone who disturbs the lair of the ‘old woman’. In 2011 plans for a hydro-electric power scheme that would have run overhead powerlines along the loch beside the little shrine were dropped after a successful campaign by historians.
As author and story-teller Sharon Blackie writes ‘…in Scottish folklore, the Cailliche isn’t someone you’d want to mess with. She’s a fearsome character with white hair, a dark blue face, rust-coloured teeth and a single eye in the middle of her forehead; she whips up great storms and ice forms in her wake‘.
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.