Originally published in 2007 for the Fortean Times special issue celebrating 60 years of the UFO mystery – this is my revised Top Ten list of ‘classic’ unresolved UFO cases, reflecting my bias towards UK incidents that I have personally investigated or researched:
1. RAF Lakenheath-Bentwaters. A complex series of anomalous radar ‘sightings’ both from the ground and the air over East Anglia on the night of 13–14 August 1956 (see Case Files here). This case sums up the UFO mystery: partly resolved, but leaving many technical and human questions unanswered, particularly in terms of misperception.
2. RAF Farnborough, Hampshire. A close-range sighting of a ‘flying saucer’ by RAF test pilot Stan Hubbard in August 1950, followed by a multi-witness report of a similar UFO at greater distance by a group of RAF personnel. Investigated by the MoD’s Flying Saucer Working Party who dismissed both reports as “optical illusions” (read my interview with RAF test pilot Stan Hubbard in my case files here). This is a key case simply because if Hubbard’s story stands up to scrutiny – and I believe it does – then either he saw a craft from somewhere else, or…..
3. Livingston incident, Scotland, 1979 In a ‘close encounter’ at Livingston, Scotland, on 9 November 1979, forestry worker Bob Taylor saw a huge, dome-shaped, semi-transparent object sitting in a clearing in Dechmont Woods. He was then approached by two objects like wartime mines that emerged from the larger object; he lost consciousness and suffered some physical after-effects. Traces were found on the ground and a police investigation was launched. Taylor was an impressive witness who never changed his story. Attempts to find a rational explanation have been unconvincing and the incident remains unexplained to this day. Bob Taylor died in March 2007, aged 88.
4. Operation Mainbrace sightings, September and October 1952. These include both the sighting made by Shackleton aircrew at RAF Topcliffe and the sighting by Flt Lt Michael Swiney and Lt Cdr David Crofts from their Meteor jet of “three saucer-shaped objects” high above the West Country. This report was apparently confirmed by ground radar – see my Case Files here for further details. According to Project Blue Book head Captain Ed Ruppelt it was these sightings that ’caused the RAF to officially recognise the UFO’ (The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, 1956).
5. Rendlesham Forest Many aspects of this ‘classic’ case have been adequately explained by the work of astronomer Ian Ridpath and others. But the sighting of ‘unexplained lights’ outside the gate of RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk, in December 1980, retains enigmatic elements despite the contradictory nature of the witness narratives. In 2010 the base commander Col Ted Conrad went on record to debunk some of the wilder stories and rumours spread by his men as invented ’embellishments to the story during 1981 and subsequent years’. But even he had to admit: ‘…in the final analysis the Rendlesham Forest lights remain unexplained [but] I think they are explainable.’ Read my paper New Light on Rendlesham for a sceptical interpretation of this UFO legend.
6. PC Alan Godfrey’s close encounter, Todmorden, West Yorkshire, early hours of 28 November 1980. Policeman sights and sketches huge UFO before ‘missing time’ ensues. Regression brings memories of spacecraft and medical exam, with two types of entities and even a black dog! Other police in area see UFO in same general area at same time. Read the Fortean Times feature from 2011, written with Peter Brookesmith and Andy Roberts for a sceptical examination of this classic case.
7. The disappearance of Frederick Valentich. Undoubtedly one of the most puzzled unresolved UFO mysteries. Valentich was a 20-year-old Australian pilot who vanished whilst flying a light aircraft from Melbourne to King Island in Bass Strait on the evening of 21 October 1978. No trace of the pilot or his aircraft were found, despite an air sea rescue search. The UFO connection relates to the conversation Valentich had with ground control shortly before his aircraft disappeared, during which he describes being buzzed by a strange flying object. A transcript of the conversation was released in 2012 to Keith Bastefield by the National Archives of Australia in a Department of Transport file on the case, here.
8. USAF Sabre pilot vs UFO over East Anglia, winter 1956-57. The intriguing and still unresolved story told by USAF Sabre Dog pilot Milton Torres who was scrambled from RAF Manston one night in 1956 to intercept a UFO detected on air defence radar over the English coast. His account (see TNA UFO files #2) is unusual in that Torres was ordered by the RAF to both intercept and destroy the UFO which, fortunately, departed before the order could be carried out. No official record of this incident exists in either MoD or DoD files. Was it really a UFO or a secret exercise involving electronic ‘spoofing’ as suggested by Mark Pilkington in his book Mirage Men? (Constable 2010, pg 90).
9. Stephen Darbishire photo, Coniston, Cumbria, February 1954. Schoolboy photographs Adamski-like scoutcraft on the slopes of Coniston Old Man in the English Lake District. The photo becomes a mainstay of UK ufology and was used by Desmond Leslie as proof that contactee George Adamski’s story of visits from angelic Venusian spacemen was fact. To this day the photographer alternates between “it’s a real UFO photo” and “I hoaxed it”. A classic example of the ambiguous nature of the ‘UFO evidence’ in its social and psychological context. For the full story read our UFO photograph case histories here.
10. Alitalia UFO, 21 April 1991. Crew of airliner carrying 57 passengers from Milan to London sighted a dark, missile-shaped object which passed within 300m (980ft) of the aircraft at 6,700m (22,000 feet) above Kent. An unknown track was seen on radar at the relevant time. MoD and CAA investigation lists sighting as “an unidentified flying object.” (this case is covered in more detail in chapter 6 of my book The UFO Files, 2009).
And our special category of ‘Most over-hyped UFO Case’:
This has to be Roswell. Government and public all agree ‘something’ happened in the deserts of New Mexico during 1947. No one can agree what! Decades of wishful thinking and selective interpretation of the available evidence has muddied the waters to the extent that the ufologists are convinced an alien craft landed and no amount of contrary evidence is going to change their minds.