UFO Files exclusive: Cold War spyplane incident

The release by Britain’s Ministry of Defence of 15 of its last remaining UFO files at the UK’s National Archives has revealed details of a stunning Cold War close encounter witnessed by the entire crew of a US Air Force spy-plane.

A RC-135 Rivet spyplane of the type operated by the USAF during the Cold War (credit: Wikipedia/USAF)

Formerly secret RAF files opened at The National Archives include a detailed account of an incident on 19 October 1982 when a USAF RC-135 plane, monitoring Soviet military activity, was buzzed by ‘a big object’ over the Eastern Mediterranean.

According to the files, British personnel at RAF Troodos, a remote base on the island of Cyprus listened in amazement to the radio calls of the American crew as the encounter unfolded at 35,000 feet above the sea.

The UFO – – described as covered in ‘a multitude of flashing lights 20 at a time’ – was picked up on the spylane’s radar as it approached from the south.

It then circled around the plane, call-sign Beano 73 – and closed in as the navigator appealed for help from the ground.

Two US Navy F-14 fighters were scrambled from an aircraft carrier and a RAF Phantom was diverted from a night flying exercise to intercept the UFO, south of the island of Cyprus.

As the three interceptors approached the USAF crew saw the UFO depart towards the African coast. Nothing was seen by the fighter pilots.

The files reveal how RAF personnel at the Troodos radar station monitored the entire incident for a period of 90 minutes, beginning shortly after 4pm local time.

Radome at 280 Signals Unit base, RAF Troodos, Mt Olympus, Cyprus – one of the most important overseas British installations (credit: Wikipedia/Ed Weissman)

But nothing was seen by British air defence stations – ‘nor was it seen on any ground or seaborne radar, including at 280 SU [280 Signals Unit – RAF Troodos]’.

Following the encounter a secret investigation was launched by the British authorities. The results were sent to the US Department of Defense in November 1982.

Neither the British or US government have ever released information about this incident before the files were opened this week.

Officially the US Air Force’s UFO Project, Blue Book, was closed in 1969. The British Ministry of Defence closed its own UFO desk in 2009 and its secret space intelligence unit, DI55, said it was no longer interested in ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ (UAP) in 2000.

But the newly-released RAF file reveals that officials ordered a transcript to be made of the tape recording that captured radio transmissions made between the spyplane crew and ground controllers.

Copies of the report were circulated to Assistant Chief Scientist (RAF), DD Ops (GE) RAF, DI55 and DSTI.

Film provided by the RAF Troodos radar station was carefully studied by photographic experts in London and large prints, taken from the radar picture,  were prepared for scrutiny by intelligence officers.

The file does not reveal what happened to this evidence. The results of the joint UK/US investigation do not appear in the file.

An extract from the RAF file on the incident [David Clarke/The National Archives]

But a tentative explanation is offered by a senior RAF official, who wrote: ‘We have a strong suspicion that the “UFO” was a mirage effect from lights on the coast of Israel or Lebanon’.

A signal reporting the sighting sent from RAF Troodos to MoD UK on 20 October describes the UFO as ‘larger than [a] RC-135’.

Boeing RC-135 aircraft are used by the USAF and RAF to support intelligence gathering. They have been used in every armed conflict including Cold War operations around the borders of the former Soviet Union. The aircraft are 136ft (41m) in length with a wingspan of 130ft (nearly 40m).

The RAF signal reporting the encounter says the ‘object’ was first spotted: “…initially about two miles from wing of RC-135…moved position around aircraft and closed…object tailed Beano 73 for 90 mins on its northeast/southwest race track….”.

The signal says the UFO was seen by the ‘whole crew’.

Three RC-135s were purchased by the RAF in 2017 to serve with 51 Squadron based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. The crew includes two pilots, a navigator and up to 25 mission staff.

Elsewhere in the file a RAF Group Captain collated information on UFO reports received by his air defence staff for a thirty year period ending in 1996, in response to a Parliamentary Question from the Labour MP for Don Valley, Martin Redmond.

He asked all radar stations including the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at RAF Fylingdales on the North York Moors to submit UFO data to HQ No 11 Group.

His report says he could find “no reports or mention [was] found of UFOs detected by ADGE [Air Defence Ground Environment] units or 11/18 Group aircraft using radar equipment“.

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13 Responses to UFO Files exclusive: Cold War spyplane incident

  1. Philippe says:

    Thanks for this post about this fascinating event. Let’s see if Americans researchers can locate further official files…It is important for drawing a fair historical perspective !

  2. Robert Powell says:

    Clearly there is a lot more information related to this case that has not been made public. Radar data from the plane, pilot statements, pilot to ground recordings, the British investigation into the case and sent to the U.S., other electronic detection data from the spy plane, etc. There is just no reason that the U.S. and British governments should keep this type of information away from the public. The tentative explanation by a RAF official that, ‘We have a strong suspicion that the “UFO” was a mirage effect from lights on the coast of Israel or Lebanon’, is likely a more recent attempt at providing a simple explanation. The U.S. & British military is very unlikely to initiate an investigation into something that is merely lights caused by a mirage. Furthermore, this explanation would not explain the radar detection made by the spy plane.

    • “The U.S. & British military is very unlikely to initiate an investigation into something that is merely lights caused by a mirage. Furthermore, this explanation would not explain the radar detection made by the spy plane”

      It might, if the airborne radar was also affected by anomalous propagation, causing unexpected echo from a distant coast or mountains. There are about a zillion unknown observational, electronic and meteorological factors to consider before ruling out that conclusion – all that data which, as you say, we don’t have. It sounds strange that the thing “circled around the plane” which a mirage couldn’t do; but the RC-135 was on “a racetrack” so the relative bearing of a static mirage could possibly “circle round” as the plane turned. This phrase seems to be an interpretation by someone of something said in a real-time radio transcript; but we don’t have an actual quote, let alone details of times, object-bearings and plane headings by which to calibrate what it might mean.

      Interesting, but so far: Insufficient information.

      • Robert Powell says:

        True, it “might”. But what is the likelihood that a highly trained crew of a plane full of electronic equipment to monitor the Soviets mistakes stationary lights as a UFO while at the same time we have an anomalous radar propagation? Very slim in my opinion. This is clearly a case that if all the information was provided to us, we could determine the answer. The U.S. and British military found the case worthy of a full investigation. Where are the results of that investigation and why can’t it be released? This is not a case of “insufficient information” as the information exists. This is a case that cannot be solved due to “withholding information”. I’m no conspiracy advocate but the denial of information, whether it’s the RB-47 case, this case, the Alaska Airlines 1986 case, or many other cases, makes it difficult to address the UFO phenomenon.

      • Hi Robert, I doubt the evidential information does still exist, sadly.
        The MoD have done a very good job of destroying anything that might have been evidential. All we have is a few bits and pieces that have evaded the shredder.

      • Frank says:

        I watched the Air Defence Radars for several years in Cyprus and in the UK . I was privileged enough to be ‘involved ‘ in most things that happened . Sorry- UFO’s don’t exist !

  3. Robert Powell says:

    David, you’re probably correct. The pattern is fairly similar in the U.S. When the files first exist they are classified and not available. After several decades goes by there is enough information available for release, so that we know an event occurred. But the detailed files have either been destroyed, or are languishing in a mound of deteriorating boxes, or the files have been transferred to another agency or location where they will remain unavailable. As to which of those three destinations is the more common—we can only guess.

  4. Philippe says:

    Hello David, how can we get the PDF files of this incident ? can someone get copies from the archives ? our Americans colleagues will surely need the original information in order to request FOIA…Merci !

    • Hi – PDF files of this incident are not available as the files have not been digitised. You can request a copy of the file from The National Archives but this is not a recommended option as the file is 3-400 pages in length and there are just 2 pages relevant to this specific incident. The archives will not copy individual pages or conduct a search on your behalf. If you require images of the pages for research purposes only (not for publication) please DM.

  5. portseaton says:

    All, from what I can see the ‘tentative explanation’ put out by the RAF is, and let’s not mince our words here, utter bollocks and absolutely typical of the kind of anodyne nonsense put out by officialdom to both alleviate and concern and provide an easy answer. In this case, however, there are too many loose ends. IMO and based on decades of fascination with the intertwined subjects of ufology and the paranormal, the idea that UFOs are purely nuts and bolts machines is extremely unlkely and the way in which the object behaved, plus the lack of radar returns, suggests, to me at least, that this, whatever it was, behaved in exactly the same manner as several other objects that have been witnessed. Sadly, this answer will not please the blinkered adherents to the ETH who profess to know all the answers, but it does leave the door open for less closed minded individuals to keep looking.

  6. Hola David: Muy interesante el trabajo de investigación sobre la documentación desclasificada. Dirijo en argentina, una organización CEFORA (Comisión de Estudio del Fenómeno Ovni de la República Argentina) que se dedica a este tipo de investigación y este caso, me recuerda, a uno vivido por personal de gendarmeria nacional. El caso que menciono, es del 2 de noviembre de 1972, donde un vuelo de entrenamiento de despegue y aterrizaje nocturno, se topan con un objeto en vuelo, al cual le solicitan identificación y fue captado por radar y además se liberó el espacio aéreo. Excelente y esperamos más información de los otros 14 documentos,
    Saludos Andrea Pérez Simondini – Directora de CEFORA

  7. Robert Moore says:

    Hi, from discussions on the ASSAP UFO page the possibility was raised that the “UFO” was instigated by a Sprite manifestation or similar high altitude lightning effect. It’s notable the main observation was made by a high altitude aircraft, and that the “UFO” was described as a body of lights that seemed to circle the RC-135 and then seemingly move away. Sadly, we will never really be sure as only the basic details of this event were retained by the MoD. But Sprites seem to be a better, more sounder explanation than “a mirage”.

    Thanks to Sefton Disney for that theory.

    • Hello Robert,
      An interesting theory, and possible given how little information we have. But I’d be interested to kinow why you think that “a body of lights that seemed to circle the RC-135 and then seemingly move away” is diagnostic of sprites, jets and the like.
      These short-lived effects are localised above cumulonimbus storm systems at altitudes of tens of miles. They don’t circle around the distant horizon. So this explanation, like mirage, implies that the report of “circling” and approaching the aircraft are misleading second-hand interpretations of a real-time verbal report we do do not have.
      Sprites occur at altitudes in the order of ten times that of the RC-135. So an intense cluster of sprites that appeared illusorily to be “a mulitude of flashing lights” close to, and co-altitudinal with, the plane, would in fact be hundreds of miles away.
      In other words, your favoured theory requires a light source probably hundreds of miles away and static in azimuth. This is the same condition for a mirage of distant lights caused by an elevated duct.
      Radar echo from lightning channel ionisation does occur, just as an optical atmospheric duct can also be a radio duct. Without knowing at least some tiny morsel of information about how these lights and echoes really behaved I don’t think we can choose between these theories easily. However, note that there are other cases of plane-following objects and lights which are already well-established as due to high-altitude mirage ducts. Again, information is desperately required, and obviously much hinges on what this “circling” really involved, in the context of the plane’s own rac-track circuit.

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