Close encounters between military aircraft and UFOs are today few and far between. But at the height of the Cold War there were a series of puzzling incidents involving aircrew and what were referred to as “aerial phenomena”. From the early 1950s crack US Air Force units were moved to forward bases in eastern England to assist the RAF in the event of any surprise attack by the Soviet Union.
In the UK the best known example where RAF aircraft were scrambled to intercept UFOs is the Lakenheath-Bentwaters incident of 13/14 August 1956. But even this ‘classic’ encounter pales in significance compared to the story told by a retired USAF pilot who claims he was ordered to shoot down a UFO over East Anglia – several months after the dramatic events at Lakenheath.
One of the USAF units sharing air defence duties with the RAF was the 406th Fighter Bomber Wing, whose pilots flew the F-86 Sabre Dog from bases at RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, and RAF Manston in Kent. In 1988 Manston hosted a reunion for USAF veterans and it was here that Lt Milton Torres met up with his former wingman Dave Roberson, who both flew with the USAF’s 514 Squadron.
It was then that Torres – now a professor of civil engineering in his native Florida – spoke for the first time of his close encounter with a UFO.
It was from the runway at RAF Manston that Torres, then a 25-year-old pilot, was waiting in his aircraft when the order came to scramble. It was near midnight and “a typical English night in Kent”: pitch black with a thick layer of cloud. Whereas other fighter aircraft of the period carried a pilot and navigator, with the F-86D the pilot had to fly the aircraft as well as operate the airborne radar. This was used to ‘lock onto’ to the target once it was within a range of 15 miles. Initially pilots relied upon guidance from ground radar stations to direct them towards their intended prey.
But this night was different. Torres was under the control of a RAF controller who was tracking something unusual from deep beneath the Essex countryside. The radars at Metropolitan Sector, near Brentwood, fed data into an underground control room built to withstand the effects of a 20Kt nuclear blast at a range of 400 yards. Torres remembers being vectored to a point at 32,000 feet somewhere over East Anglia. Ground control briefed that the RAF were tracking a blip that had been orbiting the area for some time, displaying “very unusual flight patterns”, for example remaining motionless for long periods.
Then orders came to fire afterburners and Torres, with his wingman following slightly behind him and below, turned towards the blip. Over the radio the controller asked both pilots to report any visual contact but neither could see anything. Torres recalled: “Then the order came to a fire a full salvo of rockets at the UFO,” Torres continued. “I was only a Lieutenant and very much aware of the gravity of the situation. To be quite candid, I almost shit my pants!”
The order was so unusual that it remains burned into the veteran’s memory; so unusual that he stalled, demanding authentication before he opened fire. The F-86D had a formidable armory of 24 unguided rockets – dubbed ‘Mighty Mouse’, carried in a missile tray beneath the fuselage. Each weighed 18 pounds and had the explosive power of a 75mm artillery shell; when fired they travelled at a speed of 2,600 feet per second. The rockets could be fired in salvoes, but in this case the orders were to fire all 24.
As seconds passed authentification was confirmed and in complete darkness Torres struggled to select his weapons: “I used my flashlight, still trying to fly and watch my radar,” he recalled. “The final turn was given, and the instructions were given to look 30 degrees to port for my bogey…there it was exactly where I was told it would be….burning a hole in the radar with its incredible intensity.” The size of the blip visible on his radar scope was similar to that produced by a giant B-52 bomber and Torres is emphatic that it was the best target he could remember having locked onto during his flying career. Torres told me:
“After we were on our final vector … I called ‘Judy’ at 15 miles [a code-word signifying he could then take all further steering information from his airborne computer]…The F-86D was flat out and at about .92 Mach and we were closing very fast.” With just ten seconds to go Torres saw the target begin to move away from him. Reporting this to his controller he was asked “Do you have a Tally Ho?” (can you see anything?). But nothing emerged from the inky blackness – except on his radar scope where the blip had broken lock and was now leaving his 30 mile range. He reported the UFO had gone, only to told the blip had left the ground scope too, in two sweeps of the radar, which he later realised indicated “a speed in excess of 1,000 kts (more like double or triple Mach numbers).”
With the UFO gone the mission was over and the two pilots returned to RAF Manston with orders to contact Met Sector by landline. He was told very little other than the mission was considered classified. The next day he was debriefed by a civilian who travelled to the base from London.
“This gentleman was definitely an American and I think that the ID he had was a National Security Agency – but that is only a perception,” Milton told me. “He advised me after listening to my story [that] it was top secret and he forbade me not to tell anyone about the incident; he then scared the hell out of me by saying any breach in security would result in my being grounded permanently.”
32 years passed and only after retirement did Torres feel confident to talk publicly. At the reunion he was surprised to find that his usual wingman, Dave Roberson, was not paired with him for the shoot down mission. Roberson did, however, recall another incident where he was scrambled to intercept what ground control described as “multiple unknowns…changing speed and altitude frequently”, tracked by radars along the east coast of England.
Before the action began Roberson’s F-86D landed at RAF Bentwaters where it was armed with live rockets. He then led a number of interception runs against the UFOs at an altitude of just 3,000 feet over Norfolk. Again, in a re-run of experience reported by the RAF pilots involved in the Lakenheath incident, he was unable to see anything and “never got a positive radar contact on an unknown.”
Compounding the mystery is the almost complete lack of any official records. Both MoD and USAF maintain they have no knowledge of the incidents described by Torres and Roberson. But some intelligence briefings prepared for Air Minister George Ward in 1957 have survived. Ward was told there had been three “unexplained radar incidents” during 1956; one of these was clearly the Lakenheath case.
Another involved an object seen on radar by a USAF base in Essex: “one of the two aircraft sent to intercept made a momentary contact the other made no contact at all”. Four radar incidents from 1957 remained “unexplained” including one from 19 March 1957, that involved “unusual responses which did not resemble aircraft” detected by RAF radars on the east coast. Again, interceptors were scrambled but failed to make contact with anything.
Ward was told investigators were looking at unusual weather “[as] it is possible that the response was due to seasonal phenomena known as ‘Angels’…which is a result of inversion and reflections from the ionosphere”. The phenomenon of radar angels was the subject of a special study by RAF Fighter Command’s Research branch during 1957-58. This concluded many unusual blips seen by radars on England’s east coast were caused by migratory birds. Those that could not be explained as birds, weather or aircraft were dismissed as “spurious echoes of unexplained origin”.
None of these explanations can account the strong and clear target which Milton Torres says he saw on his airborne radar. Remember this target could also be seen by at least one other ground radar, operating on a different frequency, which had tracked its movements for a lengthy period of time. Nor do they explain why, in this case, the RAF decided to shoot down an intruder over UK territory despite the lack of any evidence of hostility. The lack of any official record of this incident, and the way it was handled at the time, raises one other possibility – that Torres was an unwitting pawn in a covert exercise involving “electronic warfare”.
In 1998 the CIA revealed the existence of a highly secret programme codenamed Palladium which allowed their experts to insert “ghost aircraft” with different radar cross sections into Soviet radar returns. The project was developed alongside the U2 programme and although it was not operational until the early 1960s, it must have been in development for some years. One of the key figures in the Palladium programme, Gene Poteat, said his team could “simulate an aircraft of any radar cross section from an invisible stealth airplane to one that made a large blip on Soviet radar screens – and anything in between, at any speed and altitude, and fly it along any path.” By listening in on radio chatter that ensued, the CIA could determine which of their spyplanes could successfully evade Soviet radars.
Was Milton Torres sent to intercept a phantom aircraft as part of an experiment to test a prototype of the Palladium system? This might explain why he could see nothing despite the close range; but it would not easily explain how this phantom could be detected simultaneously by two different radars, or the order to shoot and ask questions later. As Torres says: “This was the first and only time I had been given an order to shoot someone down and [the events] are as vivid to me as the day it happened.”
David Clarke & Andy Roberts, Out of the Shadows, London: 2002
Doug Gordon “Thunderjets and Dogs”, Air Pictorial, January 2002
Gene Poteat “Stealth, Countermeasures and ELINT, 1960-1975”, Studies in Intelligence 48/1 (1998).
Milton Torres, personal communications, 2002-3; Sign Historical Group interview with Milton Torres (Tom Tulien).
The National Archives UFO page: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ufos