by David Clarke and Martin Jeffrey
It was a story which could have been lifted straight out of a plot from the X-Files TV series: An unidentified flying object hovering in the clear night sky; callers jamming police switchboards to report a light aircraft skimming rooftops on a collision course with the hills west of Sheffield; RAF jets screaming through the sky as if in pursuit of something…And finally, a deafening explosion which sent gamekeepers rushing from their isolated cottage on a Yorkshire moor.
Did – as some have claimed – a UFO crash into or explode above the Howden Moors, on the border between South Yorkshire and Derbyshire Peak District, shortly after 10pm on the night of Monday, March 24, 1997?
Has the evidence for this “crash” been covered up by the authorities ever since? Is there a massive cover-up underway to hide the truth from the public?
Or was this “incident” simply the product of a series of unconnected events and coincidences including a military exercise and the misperception of natural and man-made aerial objects by a comet-sensitised public?
Whatever the source of the phenomena, it is clear that the authorities took the initial reports seriously. The emergency services mounted one of the region’s largest ever air and ground rescue operations in response to a suspected air disaster – an operation which involved almost 200 personnel and cost in excess of £50,000. For 15 hours emergency services from four different counties, co-ordinated by South Yorkshire Police, were involved in searching up to 50 square miles of the most barren Pennine moorland for wreckage from a suspected aircrash – a crash which we now know never happened.
This report aims to clear away the aura of mystery which has continued to surround these events, cutting through wild speculation to reveal the truth behind the Howden Moor Incident. In the process, the twists and turns of the investigation has led the author into the very core of the melting pot of belief and experience which gives birth to the UFO phenomena and provided a unique insight into the psychology behind those who promote beliefs in Extraterrestrial Visitors and conspiracy theories. For while the Howden Moor Incident was not initially UFO case, it has all the hallmarks of one and has been promoted as such more recently by those who today have become the self-styled proponents of modern belief in alien visitations.
It is a story which begins on a clear, cold spring night in the Peak District National Park, a night when many necks were turned skywards in search of the spectacular Hale-Bopp comet which at that time was prominently visible in the night sky.
However, this particular night something else was stirring which would make this evening a very long one for the emergency services, and spark a mystery which remains a uncompleted jigsaw puzzle to this day….
The Aircrash Which Never Was…
This was how news of what was to become one of the most controversial incidents in British UFOlogy was first broken by the local newspaper the Sheffield Staron the morning of Wednesday, March 25, 1997:
“Emergency services from four counties were today involved in a massive operation to solve an X-Files style air crash riddle in South Yorkshire.The operation was launched after a suspected air crash and explosion were reported on Peak District moorland near Sheffield. Police treated the reports seriously because callers reporting the incident were so specific – even though air traffic authorities had no official reports of missing aircraft.”
The Howden Moor incident began shortly after 10pm that night, when the operations room at Ecclesfield Police Station in Sheffield began to receive emergency calls from people living in the area of Bolsterstone, an isolated village high on the moorland border between Sheffield and the Peak National Park. The first call came at 10.15 pm from two farmers near Bolsterstone who asked the control room staff if they had received any reports of aircraft coming down over the moors. They said they had seen a plane flying low and disappearing over the highest point on the western horizon, formed by the moors known as Featherbed Moss, followed by a “flash” and several plumes of smoke. Shortly afterwards further calls were received both by South Yorkshire and the Derbyshire forces, reporting “aircraft in distress” and another reporting “a plane having gone down west of the Midhope Moors area.” These circumstantial reports were enhanced by a report from Strines Forest by gamekeepers who heard a large explosion and reported a “large orange glow” visible on the horizon.
By 10.30 pm that night, with a number of consistent and reliable reports at hand, an alarmed police controller had called out 40 police officers and placed the county’s Fire and Rescue Service and Ambulance Service on full alert in anticipation of a possible disaster involving a light aircraft. The manner in which the events unfolded from that point onwards can be followed precisely via the Major Incident Log produced by South Yorkshire Police [an edited version of which appears as an appendix to this report], who co-ordinated the search and rescue operation which lasted until 2pm the following afternoon. At 10.53 on March 24 Chief Inspector Christine Burbeary had taken command of the incident, and initial contact with Manchester Airport ascertained that no distress calls had been received or aircraft reported missing. Furthermore, nothing had been registered on the airport’s radar which covers a large segment of the northern Peak District. Staff in both Sheffield and Derbyshire were now placing urgent calls to both civilian and military airports who may have had traffic flying above the Peak District. However, the message that came back from everyone was loud and clear – “it’s not one of ours.”
By 11pm that night West Yorkshire Police’s helicopter had reached the moors near Bolsterstone and was beginning a large scale search of the area using its Night-Sun searchlight and hi-tech Thermal Imaging equipment to detect signs of a fire or wreckage. It was joined at midnight by an RAF Sea King helicopter from RAF Leconfield on the East Coast. Use of the Sea King had been authorised by a Flight Lieutenant at RAF Kinloss in Scotland, a base which co-ordinates airsea rescue operations around the coastline of north Britain. The police log provides evidence that staff at Kinloss ran checks on military radar but discovered nothing, but later checks with the British Geological Survey found evidence of a “sonic boom” coinciding with the initial reports from the Peak District moors.
Meanwhile on the ground, Fire and Rescue tenders from stations in Tankersley, Penistone, Stocksbridge and Hathersage were racing towards the moors, and staff at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital were reportedly warned to stand-by to receive possible survivors or casualties from the “aircrash.” The fire crews rendezvoused at the Strines Inn, a public house which stands in an isolated spot high on the moors, while others joined police at the Bar Dyke road junction, from where a track leads west onto the wild moors above the Derwent and Howden Reservoirs. However, with no clear information concerning where the “crash” was located, and the possibility that it could have occurred anywhere in a wild and inhospitable zone extending for more than 50 square miles, police and fire crews had no option but to call upon the Mountain rescue service for assistance.
By midnight dozens of volunteers from the seven mountain rescue teams in the Peak District were being contacted by phone, some roused from beds, others asked to leave their places of work and join the search operation. Sgt Mike Hope and a civilian, Mike France, the co-ordinator of the Peak District Mountain Rescue Service (PDMRS), established their headquarters at the service’s Hepshaw Farm base on Langsett Moor. The farm was later used as a rendezvous base for the Sea King, which landed there on several occasions during the course of the following 12 hours, picking up Mountain Rescue staff and equipment to help the search.
By the early hours of March 25 a total of 141 mountain rescue volunteers from all seven teams were out on foot searching the difficult and often treacherous terrain stretching from Broomhead Moor, west of Bolsterstone, out towards the vast and uninhabited tracts of peat bog north of the Howden Reservoir complex. Joining them were teams of police officers and dog teams from the Search and Rescue Dog Association. The MRS commanders split this large group of personnel into groups, each of whom were assigned sectors of the moors to search on foot with help from dog teams. This was a long and painstaking process but resulted in a thorough search which was able to rule out any chance of overlooking a crash site.
The West Yorkshire helicopter had by this time found no evidence to indicate an aircrash of any kind had actually taken place. However, calls were continuing to police stations both in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire reporting a low-flying aircraft, an explosion and a flash over the moors. One of these corroborating reports came in shortly after 1am from a police Special Constable who had seen what she thought was a light aircraft flying very low and apparently on a collision course with the moors while she was driving near Bolsterstone around 10pm. Early the following morning, when police set up a special phone line for the public to report sightings, they were flooded with information from people who had seen low-flying aircraft and military jets across a wide area from Chesterfield in the south to Thurgoland, on the border between South and West Yorkshire.
Chief Inspector Burbeary said these later reports simply served to confirm the earlier information that a plane had actually gone down on the moors. Despite skepticism from her opposite number in the Derbyshire Police – who refused to order his officers to join a similar search operation – Chief Insp Burbeary decided to scale up the search operation in the early hours and called in additional mountain rescue volunteers. She said:
“My concern was that we could have about eight people from a crashed aircraft lying on the moor seriously injured. It was an exceedingly cold night and we had to find them straight away.”
By 7 am on March 25 the RAF, after consulting with the Civil Aviation Authority, authorised the setting-up of what it called a “Dangerous Flying Zone” with a ten-mile radius, centred upon the Howden Reservoir where the search was centred. As a result, Air Traffic Control staff at Manchester were notified and airliners stacking up at high altitude were warned of the flying restrictions below their flight corridors. The Danger Zone was established, as later admitted in Parliament, as a routine measure to allow the two helicopters to complete their search unhindered by both military and civilian aircraft, particularly TV camera crews. The Danger Zone was a temporary measure to allow the two helicopters to complete their sweep of the moors with the minimum of disturbance.
In the event, as dawn broke, the two helicopters made a further two thorough checks of the moors maintaining radio contact throughout with MRS volunteers on the ground, without finding anything. The Sea King returned to its base at Leconfield at 2pm, as Chief Inspector Burbeary gave the order to scale down the operation. She admitted:
“We got nothing back from air traffic control, no reports of aircraft failing to return, and eventually, having looked at all the circumstances, the decision had to be made to call the search off. The conclusion at the end of the search had to be that no aircraft crashed on the moor.”
However, the experienced senior officer was forced to admit that there had been a number of genuine reports of “phenomena”, including a low-flying aircraft, a huge explosion in the sky, and smoke. Mike France, the Mountain Rescue co-ordinator, remained as baffled as the police. He said his teams – who knew the area initimately – had thoroughly searched up to 50 square miles of the moorland with help from the helicopters.
“There was no scouring to the moor, there were no bits of wreckage. There was no oil traces on the reservoirs,” he said.
Officially, South Yorkshire Police categorised this incident as “unexplained” but senior officers remain convinced that the truth about what really happened has still to be revealed. At the time, the closing entry in the Police Log suggested the incident had been caused by a series of unconnected events and concludes: “..enquiries reveal a combination of circumstances that would lead people to believe a plane might have crashed.”
Today the police continue to remain open-minded about the incident and have even considered the possibility that the Howden Moors event was triggered by a plane involved in a drugs drop, or was caused by the appearance of a phantom “ghost plane” which, according to local folklore, haunts the moors surrounding the Ladybower and Derwent reservoirs (see ‘Ghost Fliers‘). Their most recent comment, prior to the screening of a BBC “Mysteries” documentary on the case in October 1997, was:
“No explanation was ever found and we remain open-minded about what was behind the sightings.”
Since that time a second TV documentary has appeared on the case, alongside a flurry of speculation linking it with UFOs and sinister Government cover-ups. The UFO mythology is littered with speculation about secret military retrievals of alleged crash-landed flying saucers, and believers are eager to seize upon any rumour which alleges such an event has occurred in Britain and abroad. To the police, emergency service and local people who took part in the events of March 24, 1997, the Howden Moors incident remains a baffling mystery, but one of mundane proportions, and none of them has ever seriously considered the involvement of Extraterrestrial visitors. However, the weeks which followed the incident saw an influx of what one landlord described as “fruitbats and assorted nutcases” who set out to search for evidence of UFOs and associated cover-ups. It was not long before rumours were circulating concerning mysterious burnt patches in fields, ‘Men in Black’, flying triangles, objects removed from the moors on low-loaders and unmarked helicopters. The most precise rumour concerned an alleged sighting of ‘body bags’ being pulled out of a reservoir and flown by the Sea King to a waiting ambulance. In this instance it soon became clear that the ‘body bags’ were simply equipment being transferred from the Sea King to the Mountain Rescue HQ at Hepshaw Farm during the search operation. The “ambulance” turned out to be the four-wheel drive rescue vehicle used by the Peak District Mountain Rescue Organisation which was present at the scene. Among the rumours was one which suggested that Yorkshire Water workers who had witnessed the above scene had been “told to keep quiet” in true cover-up fashion. However, this investigation quickly located the workers in question and they were only too keen to discuss what they remembered about the incident. They had been ordered to check up to three of the reservoirs in the Strines area for signs of oil or debris which may have resulted from a possible crash, but they claimed the search had been called off before lunchtime on March 25. It was at this point they said they had been told by the police that the RAF had admitted the incident had been caused by one of their jets on an night-time exercise, which had accelerated to supersonic speed, causing a flash and a bang which had been witnessed by a number of local people. An official said:
“The police told us to stand down as the RAF had admitted the flash and bang had been caused by a plane involved in a night-time exercise which had gone through the sound barrier. I got the impression from the police that they had been wasting their time and if they had known they would not have put as much effort into it [the search].”
This explanation is at odds with what both the Mountain Rescue co-ordinator and the senior police officer in charge of the operation claim they were told by the RAF at the time, namely that there was no military operation. However, it fits neatly with what has since been discovered, and suggests that someone is being economical with the truth. It should be noted, however, that at least one senior officer who took part in the 15 hour search, Inspector Jack Clarkson, remains convinced it was caused by a covert military operation. His views can be read in the Opinions section.
Monday, March 24, 1997 was a clear, cold spring evening with a full moon and many people from Sheffield and the neighbouring areas took advantage of the fine weather conditions to venture out onto the Peak District moors west of Sheffield to watch the comet Hale-Bopp which was at its brightest and most prominent in the night sky. The gazetteer which follows follows chronologically the events of that evening from dusk until midnight, using wherever possible direct quotations from witnesses transcribed from shorthand notes taken during face to face and telephone interviews.
Readers will note there appear to have been two separate groups of observations; the first seeming to describe a formation of low-flying military jets observed at intervals between 8.30 and 9.50 pm. Then shortly after 10pm a single, low flying aircraft is seen moving west across the moors on the northwest outskirts of the city of Sheffield. It appears to crash and simultaneously a loud explision is heard. This was the event which triggered the search operation. From that point onwards, the appearance of the two rescue helicopters, the first of which reached the scene at 11pm, adds to the confusion as witnesses including Sharon Aldridge and Dan Grayson quite clearly observed the West Yorkshire Police helicopter performing its search pattern and associated this with the “crashed airplane” scenario.
The influence of the media was also important in the generation of rumour, as the events received widespread coverage both in the local and national media, in newspapers and on TV and radio. This resulted in a flood of calls to the police from further witnesses who had sighted aircraft and other flying objects on the night of March 24 but had not deemed them out of the ordinary until they heard the news reports about the search for the downed plane on the radio the following morning.
Det Insp Christine Wallace, who collated more than 40 reports for the South Yorkshire force, told us later how these described mainly low-flying aircraft but also UFO type craft, the observations spanning several hours and originating from areas outside the zone of the search and rescue operation. A summary of these reports can be found in the Police Log, but only the most significant are discussed in this gazetteer.
[dusk] Derwent Valley, Derbyshire. Park Ranger Brian Jones hears “an horrendous noise” in the sky and sees a low-flying helicopter flying acros the valley towards Glossop. It carries a red and a white light. The same helicopter was seen and heard by several other residents in the Ladybower/Bamford area but has not been identified.
7.40pm. Sighting in police log from a Bryan Haslam of Keighley, West Yorkshire, who had seen an object in the sky while travelling from Sheffield station. He was in the Barnsley area when he saw “a triangle shaped object with lights all around it hovering…” The police log of the incident reads: “…[caller] does not think it was a plane. Thinks we are wasting our time.”
8.30pm Gavin Stewart, driving on the M62 in West Yorks sees “an aircraft with its lights on travelling at 1500 feet nose down at a rate of knots. The aeroplane disappeared over a ridge and he expected to see flames but saw nothing more.” He reported the sighting to South Yorkshire Police after hearing about the search for the crashed plane on the radio.
8.30pm Paul Bradley was outside the Little Chef restaurant on the A61 Chesterfield by-pass in Derbyshire when he saw a formation of three military jets on the horizon. He said the formation were flying northwest towards the Derbyshire moors. Later the same night, around 10.15pm, he said he saw more military jet activity while in the Shiregreen area of Sheffield.
9.25pm Mr Rhodes of Ridgeway, near Mosborough, Sheffield: “On the night the incident I was watching the sky for the comet. At 9.25 I saw a bright light travel from my right (Dronfield) to my left (Ridgeway). I know this was the time because every night I always stand outside at this time. I saw the light dip, then I heard what I thought was a bang. I thought nothing of it until I heard the news about the crashed plane. I don’t think my sighting had anything to do with the aeroplane as it was nowhere near Bolsterstone. It was mysterious but I think it can be explained as a meteorite. Since the time I reported it to the police I’ve been contacted by the BBC, alien magazines, UFO investigators and other assorted nutcases. The piece [by Max Burns] struck me as one of the usual ‘made-up stories’ about this case.”
9.30pm Tony Moore and Paul Byson, watching the comet from the Shiregreen area of Sheffield, saw what they described as a formation of fighter jets flying directly above them in the direction of Derbyshire. A number of other witnesses in Sheffield and northeast Derbyshire reported similar sightings, including an entire football team in Dronfield. At around the same time, a radio journalist from Hallam FM reported hearing “a loud humming noise” from above his car while comet-watching on the Peak District moors. This lasted 2-3 seconds, faded away and then returned,at one point “resembling a bird flapping its wings.” Despite pointing torch skywards he was unable to see anything above him. It was only after hearing of the search the following morning that he connected the two events.
9.55pm Series of sightings in the Dronfield/Chesterfield area of Derbyshire, of aircraft travelling in a north/northwest direction towards the Peak District including jet aircraft and at least one light aircraft. Emma Maidenhead [pseudonym] at Dronfield heard two jet aircraft pass over her home just before 10pm, and went upstairs to the bedroom where she heard “a low humming noise.” Then she saw what she described as a triangle fly across the street. She told investigato Martin Jeffrey: “I saw a triangle with the corners cut off. There were two pink lights on the front and I saw blue lights all around it. The triangle was a wide as the street, it was really bright and just above the rooftops. It flew pretty slow heading for the moors.” Max Burns describes the object Emma saw as a “huge triangular object, 2-300ft across” and said it passed over her house at a height of 200ft. He said it had pink/cerise lights around the front and “an almost blinding electric blue light underneath.” The UFO made a humming noise like an “like wet powerlines/electrical substation.” She claimed the object lit up the whole street as bright as day. Less than a minute before this object disappeared towards the moors two more jet aircraft screamed overhead. Emma also claimed to have seen helicopters in the sky and said: “It was like an air show..I have never seen as much air traffic in the sky at the same time.” Emma then rang UFOlogist Max Burns and the pair travelled in Emma’s car into Derbyshire, where they were stopped at the Ladybower Dam by a police patrol and saw helicopters searching the moors to the north.
Shortly before Emma’s sighting a retired RAF officer, John Brassington, heard two very low level fighter jets scream over his house in Dronfield, so low they shook the foundations. He was certain they were Tornado fighter jets. These aircraft were heard minutes afterhe had distinctly heard a single-engined light aircraft flying low and circling above the area. He was convinced the light aircraft was flying illegally as it was so unusual to hear one at that time of the night over a built up area. He said:
“I think the RAF had the right to be in this area flying at night, but I think the light aircraft was on an illegal flight, that was why I phoned the police the following day when I heard about the search for the crashed plane. I can assure you that if the RAF say nothing was going on that night they are talking a load of rubbish. Those jets were so low they shook the foundations of my house.”
Shortly before 10pm an off-duty police sergeant at Edale in the Peak District saw a formation of fighter jets pass overhead. He said it appeare one low-level jet was being pursued by a formation of Tornadoes flying in a V-formation behind it. The formation of jets was flying at low-level and appeared to the eye as a large triangular object in the sky.
10pm? An 81-year-old woman pensioner at Woodlands View, Stannington, onthe outskirts of Sheffield, watching the comet from her bedroom window saw a long dark cigar shaped object flying in a westerly direction across the moors from Bradfield towards Strines and the Peak District. She said it was surrounded by an eerie “glow” as if it was on fire, and was “very low” in the sky, almost at rooftop level. Speaking afterwards, she said: “I was watching for the comet from my window which has a panoramic view over the moors when I saw what I first thought was a plane come over the top of the hills beyond High Bradfield. It went towards Strines in the west and was shaped liked a long cigar which looked as if it was on fire because it glowed. I couldn’t make out any wings and it made no noise at all. The light just glowed, it didn’t flash, and it was very queer looking.” The pensioner reported the sighting to Hammerton Road police after hearing about the search. Police there said she was a clear-headed reliable witness who was familiar with the night sky.
10-10.05pm Police special constable Marie-France Tattersfield was driving a car with her husband Steve, a light aircraft pilot. They were heading along Brightholmlee Lane near the hill village of Bolsterstone looking for a good viewpoint for comet Hale-Bopp.
Suddenly what looked like a large four-seater aircraft flew directly across their path, coming from the direction of Grenoside across the Morehall reservoir, heading west towards Broomhead Moor. They clearly saw lights on the wings, but could not identify what kind of plane it was – whether prop-driven or a jet. There were four to six windows on the side of the plane, all brightly lit. She said:
“It was a very clear night so we decided to go and have a look at the comet. We left the house about 9.20 and decided to go towards Bolsterstone. It was then that we saw a light aircraft which was on my right. It was very unusual because all of its lights were on and it was very bright. We watched it for a while. It was very low and all the time it looked as if it was coming down. It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen. It was a big aeroplane and was well below the legal altitude for night flying, it must have been no higher than 500 feet.. All its windows were lit up which made it look even more odd as no light aircraft would fly blind at that time of night over these hills.”
The couple carried on driving until they reached the top of the moors…”it was in front of us all the time with the lights still on and then it disappeared behind some tall confiers.” During this period Marie-France heard what she thought was a boom or bang in the area. The couple reported their sighting to Ecclesfield Police Station at 1 am the next morning, after they saw the lights of helicopters searching the moors near their home.
10.10pm A farmer and his mother at Edge End Farm, Bolsterstone, rang 999 after seeing what they thought was an aircrash. The police report describes how they saw “a low flying plane travelling in a west south westerly direction and apparently having come from the direction of Deepcar. Both he and his mother commented on the low level of the aircraft and its low speed. He was able to see clearly the planes’ navigation lights. A short while later he saw an orange glow followed by several plumes of smoke.” The plane disappeared in the direction of the moorland ridge formed by Featherbed Moss and Margery Hill where the search was later concentrated. Both witnesses later told police they could detect “a strong smell of burning” following the appearance of the orange glow. The pair were later interviewed further by police and provided further details. Press spokes- woman Gillian Radcliffe later told us how Mr Morton said the aircraft he saw was “flying so low he instinctively dipped his head as it passed over his head…he said he had lived here 30 years and had never seen anything like it before.”
10-10.15pm Farmer David Robinson was attending to his lambs at Windybank Farm, Upper Midhope, when he saw what he described as “a light aircraft” flying over the nearby reservoir from the direction of Stannington towards Langsett. He said:
“It was lambing time and I left my house at 10pm, as I looked towards my left I could hear a plane. Then it flew across me towards Midhope. I could not see any lights except for two red lights on each wing. The next day two ordinary policemen called and interviewed me. I see planes flying low all the time and thought the whole thing was a charade.”
10-10.15pm Midhope Moor, near Langsett. Possibly the most detailed observation of the “mystery aircraft” was by gamekeeper John Littlewood. He was out on the moor in his four-wheel drive vehicle when he saw two red lights in the sky approaching from the direction of Stocksbridge. As he watched the lights approached and it became obvious they were attached to the wings of an aircraft. He said: “It was definitely a plane and it was a big one; it was like an old time plane but different to a Lancaster, and not a Hercules because I’ve seen these too. It came right over the top of me and I could see there were no lights on it like you usually see on aircraft, just two red ones. It was making a loud humming noise and it came from Stocksbridge straight over the top of me and disappeared towards Dunford Bridge and Woodhead. It was very long, slow and low, probably about 500 feet in altitude.It was a clear night and I could clearly see the outline and it was making quite a noise. I just thought ‘What the hell is that?’ and took it to be a military plane, but I could not understand why it had got just the two lights on its wings. The planes I regularly see have the usual flashing strobes but this one was different. Later when I got home I found my neighbours little girl at Upper Midhope saw the lights through the bay window of their house and had run out to tell her dad she thought she had seen ‘a flying saucer.’ It was only the next day when I heard that people had heard explosions and there had been a search that I thought any more about it.”
Mr Littlewood reported his sighting to Inspector Jack Clarkson at Deepcar police station some weeks later. His sighting does not appear on the police log of the incident.
10.06? pm Hollindale Cottage, Strines. Gamekeepers Mike and Barbara Ellision are watching TV when they hear “a terrific explosion” in the sky outside their home on the moors. Mrs Ellison said: “We had just sat down to watch the news and we heard an almighty bang to the extent that it cut out the noise of the TV; you could not hear anything else but the ringing. It was a a very loud “boom or bang”…We immediately got up and rushed out and proceeded up onto the moor to have a look and see if we could see anything. The explosion was so severe I expected to see carnage, aeroplane, fire. But there was nothing – just nothing there to find.” After an initial sweep of the moors, Mick Ellision phoned 999 to report the explosion; call logged by Sheffield Police incident room and adds confirmation to suspicion that a plane has gone down. Mr Ellision sets off in his range rover to search the moors and notes “an eerie red glow in the sky to the south.” He is joined by community PC Mick Hague, who also saw the glow. He believed it was caused by the cement works in the Hope Valley to the south and suggested the clear weather conditions had deceived witnesses into believing the plane they saw was close by when it could have been many miles away.
10.05-10.30 Peak Park Warden Hilary Ambrose spots a strange light on the moors as she drives eastwards over the Woodhead Pass towards her home in Penistone. As she arrived at Salters Brook Bridge at the top of the moors she said she became aware of a light on the moors to the south. Initially she thought it must be a fire, but when it was still visible after driving for a further mile she decided to stop her car at Fiddler’s Green. The light was still visible and appeared to be hovering at ground level in the area of Featherbed Moss or the Shepherd’s Meeting Stones on Howden Moor.The light was stationary and did not flash or project a beam, and appeared to be “bright white” in colour. Discounting fires, bright stars or planets,she thought the only other explanation could be someone on the moor with an extremely bright flashlight. When she heard about the search of the moors the next day she reported her sighting to the head warden and returned to the spot the following night with Glossop Rescue Team commander Phil Shaw. The timing of the observation suggests Mrs Ambrose could have seen the lights of Mick Ellison or PC Mick Hague’s landrover who had begun to search the moors west of Strines shortly after 10.10pm; but the timing rules out the lights of the search teams who did not reach the moors until just before 11pm.
10.30-11pm Sharon Aldridge and a friend called Joanne, who were staying at theStrines Inn had decided to drive to Boot’s Folly which stands on a hill above the Strines Reservoir. to photograph the Hale-Bopp comet. Whilst standing on the hill they heard what Sharon described as “a weird noise.”She said: “It was very strange, the weirdest noise I have ever heard and very very loud and came from behind us. It was not a plane noise, and the nearest I could describe it was like a meteorite. The best way I can describe it was like a giant childrens’ windmill, very loud and longish. We both looked behind us but could not see anything. It was a freezing cold night and it was very frightening. As we began to walk back to the car a helicopter appeared and circled us with a flashlight on. When we got tothe pub [Strines Inn] there were fire engines there. They said there had been reports of a light aircraft going down. I went up to them and described what we had seen and heard. It was odd because at first the fireman said a light aircraft had gone down and then later when I asked he said it was a jet. Later in the night I saw a plain clothes police car come up and the police questioned Jo the next day about what we had heard.” Sharon added: “We heard rumours about ghost planes and smugglers but the noise we heard was not like a plane and there was no splash or anything. UFOs were never mentioned until Max [Burns] came to the pub and started asking us about it.”
10.35pm Teenagers Leon Rockley and Alex Hardy film a low-flying light aircraft from their home in Doe Royd Crescent, Parson Cross, in north Sheffield. The pair were outside using a hand-held camcorder to film the Hale-Bopp comet when the plane appeared in the sky. “It was just a flashing light in the sky to the south at first and came nearer and nearer until you could hear the droning noise of its engines,” said Leon. “It was flying very low for the night time and was going towards Deepcar or Stocksbridge. It came towards us and you could see a clear white strobe light underneath, and and lights on the wings. Then it banked and turned and the lights looked as if they were in a triangular formation.” Police examined the footage but could not identify the plane and concluded that it did not take their inquiry any further.
Det Insp Christine Wallace said: “There’s no doubt it shows a fixed wing aircraft with lights on the wings which makes it look like a triangle when it turns. But we don’t know where it came from or where it went because we checked all possible sources including civilian and military airfields.” The timing of the observation, recorded at the end of the tape, rules out this aircraft as being responsible for the sightings 30 minutes earlier in the Bolsterstone/Howden area of the Peak District.
10.54pm The crew of a mobile Derbyshire Police traffic patrol car report seeingwhat they believed to be “a plume of smoke” rising into the air to the west of the Woodhead area while heading for the suspected crash zone (entry no.32 in police log); similar unexplained smoke is spotted later near the Strines Inn and fire crews are asked to direct a spotlight in the direction from which the smoke appeared. The West Yorkshire Police helicopter (Y99) searches the area but finds nothing.
11.45pm? Businessman Dan Grayson, watching the horizon to the west from his home in Stannington sees what he describes as “a bright red light stationary in the sky” towards Glossop. “I thought it was Mars at first but then it moved off and split into two. The two lights then flashed off and disappeared. Shortly afterwards I saw a helicopter in the same area which had a number of lights on it; this was visible for about three or four minutes. I did not think it was anything strange at the time and afterwards I realised I must have seen the rescue helicopter.”
In Max Burn’s report on the incident Mr Grayson is described as having watched a huge triangular shaped UFO hovering silently for 15 minutes between 11.30 and 11.45 [while the search was on-going] at an altitude of 200ft, before it moved off while being shadowed by an “unmarked helicopter”. He is described as saying the object was “not of this world.”
When asked in September 1998 if he had seen a triangular UFO Mr Grayson said: “No I did not, and I have never claimed I had seen a triangular UFO.” The timing of the observation suggests this witness saw either the Sea King or the West Yorkshire Police helicopter, which at the time were both flying in the area he describes. The lights he observed were clearly those of the night-sun searchlights used by both machines.
Tracked by radar?
Claims have been made that a UFO was tracked on radar at 9.55 pm that night by the Royal Signals based at RAF Linton-upon-Ouse in North Yorkshire. The claim, made by Max Burns, is based upon information allegedly supplied by an un-named radar operator who was a schoolfriend of a fellow DJ in Sheffield. Burns claimed this schoolfriend had excitedly called up his colleague on the morning of March 25 and told him he had “tracked a UFO on his radar screen at 9.55 for a ten minute period the previous night, at the end of which the UFO had “shot off the screen.” When pushed for more information this myserious radar operator allegedly said: “I am not allowed to discuss it and if I do I will be in breach of my national security oath.” This turn around was claimed to be a direct result of the military authorities imposing a wall of silence around the case.
Press inquiries with the public relations office at RAF Linton-upon-Ouse on March 25 had resulted in the following statement: “We are the only people in this area who would be flying above the region, and we were not practicing last night. We can confirm nothing was picked up on radar either.”
Checks with RAF Linton-upon-Ouse ascertained that the base is not part of the UK’s air defence network and its radar has a very limited radius for use in training rookie pilots. It certainly could not have been used to detect a UFO almost 100 miles away over the Peak District. In fact, the base public relations officer, Flight Lieutanant Philip Inman was able to provide evidence that the base, and its radar, was closed on the night of March 24, 1997. He pointed out the Royal Signals personnel are part of the British Army, and although some are attached to radar and communications centres operated by the RAF, this would be unlikely to be the case at Linton-upon-Ouse, which is a small base primarily used for training purposes. It is left to the reader to draw conclusions as to the reliability of the “evidence” provided by the mysterious “radar operator” who continues to remain anonymous.
The police log for the night of March 24 does in fact reveal that a check of radar tapes was in fact made by Lieut Stilwell at the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue Centre at RAF Kinloss at 12.04am on March 25. He told the police: “…we have consulted with all radar information for that particular area and surrounding area, [and] nothing significant is indicated from the readings around that particular time.”
Additionally, the radar operated by Air Traffic Control at Manchester which covers the region directly above the flightpath of the “UFO” was checked by controller Jeff Carter at 12.35 am and revealed “nothing in the area at the time.” Checks by Derbyshire Police with East Midlands Airport and RAF HQ at West Drayton revealed they had no reports of missing aircraft. As a result the Derbyshire force “stood down” at 12.25am and refused to the take the incident seriously as a possible aircrash,
The Sonic Booms
Most UFO cases are based purely upon uncorroborated witness testimony. In this case solid evidence exists in the form of recordings of two unexplained “sonic events” by the British Geological Survey from the night of March 24, 1997. The Edinburgh-based BGS operate sensitive recording equipment at a growing number of stations across Britain listening for seismic events (earth tremors) and quakes. Occasionally this equipment detects other “anomlies” including what the BGS call “sonic events” – air blasts caused by objects breaking the speed of sound. These recordings provide the key evidence which has helped to unlock the mystery surrounding the Howden Moors incident.
According to the South Yorkshire Police log, at 9.30 on the morning of March 25 RAF Kinloss were checking with the British Geological Survey “to see if there was any record of a disturbance in the area at the appropriate time.” Checks found no record of any ground impact, which might have been caused by an earth tremor, meteorite impact or aircrash. But at 11.45 the following morning Edinburgh were able to confirm “there was sonic boom in the air” at 10.06pm the previous night.
A statement released by the BGS on 27 March 1997 read:
“BGS have received reports via the RAF search and rescue and the Sheffield Star newspaper of people hearing an explosion around 2200 UTC on 24 March 1997. Data from the rapid-access network in Leeds was examined and a signal consistent with an atmospheric origin was recorded on two seismograph stations and on the low-frequency microphone at Leeds University at around 2206 UTC. RAF flying complaints were contacted but they could not confirm if any military aircraft were in the area at the time.”
Subsequent examination of the recordings from the BGS network discovered not one but two separate sonic booms had been recorded by the Leeds University microphone that night, fourteen minutes apart, the first at 9.52pm and the second at 10.06pm, the latter being consistent with the “explosion” heard at Strines Forest in South Yorkshire. The latter event had also been recorded at the BGS stations at Haverah Park, near Harrogate (North Yorkshire) and at Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, just fifteen miles away from the Strines/Bolsterstone region.
Senior seismologist Glenn Ford said the readings from Leeds were consistent with a strong signal, and there was no doubt the signal came “from the direction of Sheffield” due to the signature of the sound wave which had been recorded. Pressure waves caused by sonic booms can travel hundreds of miles, and have been known to blow out windows and disrupt communications systems when they have occurred over land.
Mr Ford said the signal was “not consistent with a ground impact” but was consistent with a “sonic event”, usually the result of an aircraft breaching the speed of sound. RAF regulations stipulate that military aircraft are forbidden to break the sound barrier above land, and captains must by law report all such events immediately upon landing. The regulations surrounding such incidents are contained within the Military Flying Regulations, and can result in prosecution or court martial if breached. As the Press Release stated, the BGS did contact the RAF Low-Flying Complaints Department on March 25 and were told they “could not confirm” that a military jet was the cause. In a written answer in the House of Parliament in March 1998 Defence Minister John Spellar stated the RAF “had no record” of a sonic booms over Sheffield on March 24, neatly evading responsibility for them.
The BGS state unequivocably that sonic events have three causes: 1. Military Aircraft; 2. Concorde. 3. Bolide Meteors and other space junk re-entry.
On this occasion Mr Ford was able to state:
“We did pick up signals consistent with sonic origin and we have got very good signals from the Leeds station which were definitely caused by a sonic boom. We don’t know the source of that sonic boom..on the balance of probabilities this signal was definitely caused by an aircraft, probably a military aircraft, reaching supersonic speed, possibly while performing a mid-air turn. This is unusual over land, and the RAF have a low flying complaints department to deal with this sort of thing. I believe it was probably a covert operation.”
The BGS publish an annual bulletin UK Earthquake Monitoring which carries a section recording “unusual events” which includes sonic booms. The eighth annual report covering 1996-1997 lists five “sonic events” for 1996 and eight for 1997, two of which were the unexplained signals recorded on the night of March 24 in South Yorkshire.
Two other highly relevant events recorded by the BGS during 1997 include:
*Sonic Event: 23 September, 0758 UTC. Numerous reports reach RAF Kinloss and the media from people in Northumberland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Wick, Grampian, of “flashing lights in the sky” and “a loud bang and windows shaking” early in the morning. Data from the BGS’ rapid-access seismograph networks in Orkney and Moray were checked and “a signal consistent with an atmospheric origin was recorded on four seismograph stations and two low frequency microphones.” RAF Flying Complaints were contacted but “could not confirm whether any military aircraft were in the area at the time.” Later it was concluded by the BGS that the lights and bang were caused by an object burning up in the atmosphere above northern Scotland. This could have been a meteorite or a fragment of a Russian satellite which re-entered the atmosphere at around the same period.
*Sonic event: Hartlepool area, 7 November, 10.34 UTC. Numerous reports received by the BGS from Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station, police stations and and environmental health officer of a loud bang felt in the area. A number of people in the power station’s visitor centre ran outside in alarm, while residents in the coastal towns of County Durham and Cleveland also heard an explosion.. Reports described how people ran outdoors, houses shook, doors flew open and windows rattled. Data from rapid access networks at Leeds and Eskdalemuir were examined and a signal consistent with a sonic boom was recorded on several seismograph stations at 10.34. RAF Flying Complaints were contacted and they confirmed that military aircraft, in the form of 16 F3 Tornado jets were taking part in an exercise over the North Sea at this time.
These reports suggest there are effectively two explanations for the majority of the sonic events recorded by the BGS network in Britain, namely military aircraft and meteorites. In the case of the Howden Moor incident the balance of probabilities clearly points the finger in the direction of the military. But is there any additional evidence for unusual atmospheric phenomena contributing to the events of that night?
One theory considered by the BGS as an explanation for the unexplained sonic events recorded in the Sheffield region was a Bolide meteor or man-made space junk burning up on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Debris such as this can appear as flashing lights or strings of moving lights in the upper atmosphere, and have been accompanied by loud explosions, for instance in the case of the 23 September 1997 event in Scotland described above. Indeed, just three days after the Howden Moors Incident, scores of calls were made by anxious people to police and coastguard stations along the east coast of England reporting “distress flares” which the RAF later told the local media had been caused by a meteor shower. However, meteorites or space debris were apparently ruled out as an explanation for the March 24 sightings by the UK’s tracking station at RAF Fylingdales,a fact confirmed by the base PRO in the summer of 1998. At no time since the search operation in March 1997 have the UK authorities, in the form of the RAF, Ministry of Defence or South Yorkshire Police sought to explain the Howden Moors incident as being caused by a Bolide meteor. This explanation was put forward by Dr Jacqueline Mitton of the Royal Astronomical Association at Cambridge University when she was asked to comment on the incident early in April 1997, and made the following statement:
“Everything people saw that night is consistent with a bolide meteor. They often look like a series of lights in a trail when they are breaking or burning up in the atmosphere and they have been known to cause explosions or sonic bangs. Very bright bolide meteors are not uncommon and I have seen one myself and it even left me puzzled. The one I saw seemed to move very slowly across the sky and for people who are not familiar with the night sky it would be very easy to see it as a slow moving object with lights attached. People were out of doors that particular night watching for the comet when this thing was seen so it was more likely they would notice a bolide. It was certainly nothing to do with Hale-Bopp because this was too far away but meteor showers are associated with comets because bits of debris from their trails hit and burn up in the atmosphere.”
Bolide meteors are common phenomena and sightings of blazing fireballs crashing to earth have often caused outbreaks of reports describing UFOs and “crashing aircraft.” A bright fireball meteor has been invoked as one possible explanation for the sightings at RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk on December 26, 1980. More recently, spectacular meteor showers witnessed by numerous witnesses in Britain on the evenings of June 11 and July 10, 1998, resulted in a series of calls to the police and emergency services reporting “flying saucers”, “distress flares” and “blazing aircraft.” The July 10 shower was accompanied by a large explosion in the sky above the Isle of Man, and the appearance of vapour trails in a “Z” and “Y” formation in the night sky. The explosions and smoke reported over the Butt of Lewis in the Hebrides on October 26, 1996, which triggered a major air sea rescue operation costing several hundred thousand pounds, was most likely caused by a bolide meteor or space debris of this nature. Even so, many of the observers who witnessed this explosion remain convinced that they saw a “real” aircraft, and speculation continues that the event was “covered-up” by the military.
Meteor showers and bright bolides burning up in the atmosphere can clearly be mistaken for more exotic phenomena. They are often spectacular, unexpected and can be accompanied by loud explosions and other optical effects. It is little wonder that sightings of these celestial phenomena often result in calls to the emergency services and searches for aircraft which are presumed to have been lost.
On December 1, 1997, just nine months after the Howden Moors incident, South Yorkshire Police scrambled their new force helicopter to search the Pennine Moors once again following reports of “a blazing object” crashing to earth. On this occasion John Barker, a resident of Crow Edge, a village high up on the moors at the border with West Yorkshire, called police after seeing what he described as “the oddest thing I have ever seen in the sky.” He said:
“I was sitting in the living room of my house facing the moors when I saw what looked like a multitude of coloured lights like an oxyacetylene torch through the window. It had all colours of the rainbow including orange, yellow, magenta and green and I could see burning debris dropping from it. It seemed to drop down or land on the moors and then it just disappeared. I was concerned that it could have been a small aircraft and because of the bad weather they would be in trouble so I called the police.”
The police helicopter searched the area of fells near Crow Edge where Mr Barker saw the lights descend with its heat-seeking equipment but found nothing. Later they discovered that police in Greater Manchester had received reports on the same night describing “a bright green or yellow light with tails trailing behind” falling from the sky in Oldham, on the western side of the Pennines. Air traffic control at Manchester Airport said they had not picked up any unidentified aircraft on their radar. Later it was revealed that both groups of witnesses had observed a huge meteor which had actually crashed to earth that night thousands of miles away, disappearing on the island of Greenland in the Arctic Ocean.
This evidence clearly demonstrates how easily eye-witnesses can be mistaken in their descriptions of unidentified objects in the sky, particularly at night when even qualified observers have difficulty judging distance and height. Many UFO reports can be explained as misperceptions of natural phenomena and aircraft under unusual atmospheric conditions, and clearly the Howden Moors incident is a prime example of this phenomenon at work.
Questions in the House of Commons (1998)
South Yorkshire Police and the Mountain Rescue Service contacted RAF sources as part of their routine checks as the search and rescue operation moved into full swing around midnight on March 24. Both Chief Inspector Burbeary, who was in charge of the police operation, and Det Insp Christine Wallace, who carried out further checks the following morning, were assured that there had been no military aircraft flying that night which could have triggered the reports of the low-flying plane and the “explosion.”
The police and MRS were primarily in contact with staff at RAF Kinloss in Morayshire, Scotland, which is the designated Air Sea Rescue Co-ordination Centre for the British coastline. It was Kinloss who authorised the scrambling of a Sea King helicopter from RAF Leconfield on the East Coast of Yorkshire to help the police and MRS search the moors for the plane. Kinloss were also responsible for contacting the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh at 9.30 on the morning of March 25 to check if there was “any record of disturbance” recorded on their seismographs which might confirm a ground impact. The result at 11.45 that a sonic boom had been recorded was followed 30 minutes later by Kinloss reporting that checks of radar tapes for the area had discovered “nothing of signficance.” Soon after this, the RAF scaled down their operation and withdrew theSea King.
Meanwhile, the RAF Press Office at Whitehall was denying that a military exercise of any kind had taken place the previous night. An MOD spokesman said at lunchtime that day that the MOD were not involved in the investigation of the incident, and that it was outside their remit, He stated that “nothing had been picked up on radar and an RAF plane was not responsible.” And he added that the report concerned a low flying aircraft and the inquiry was “a matter for the police.” Police, Peak Park officials and many others who live in the area are aware that the whole of the northern Peak District is a regular practice zone for the Royal Air Force. Indeed, Broomhead Estate manager Chris Thompson told us he clearly recollected seeing a large, military-style helicopter flying low and slow up the Ewden Valley the day before the events of March 24. Park ranger Brian Jones also recalls the overflight of an unidentified helicopter at dusk on March 24. All this testimony appears to suggest preparations for an exercise on the part of the military were well underway hours before the Howden Moor incident began.
The testimony of numerous witnesses suggests the bland denials by the MOD were far from the truth. Many people in the Dronfield area of Derbyshire and parts of Sheffield witnesses low-flying military jets between 9.30 and 9.50 that night, just minutes before the reports of a low-flying aircraft and an explosion triggered the search of the Howden Moors. Other reports of low-level military jets came from observers watching the Hale-Bopp comet from the Baildon Moor area of West Yorkshire, Wigan in Lancashire and the M62 at Scammonden Dam earlier that evening. Among the testimony is that of an ex-RAF officer John Brassington, who said he clearly heard a single-engined aircraft flying low above his home in Dronfield, Derbyshire, followed minutes later by a pair of very low flying jets – almost certainly Tornadoes. Mr Brassington’s testimony is supported by others, including Emma Maidenhead, who saw a formation of low flying jets approach from the east and disappear towards the northern moors – where the search and rescue operation would be sparked minutes later.
In due course, when the MOD were forced to admit a low-flying exercise had taken place that night, they stated that this had ended at precisely 9.30pm – conveniently avoiding responsibility for the events over the northern Peak between 9.30 and 10.10pm. Direct inquiries with a number of front-line RAF bases operating fighter aircraft which may have been responsible for the events of March 24 drew a blank. An aquaintance of investigator Martin Jeffrey had said he had seen six Tornadoes leaving RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire at 8.45 pm. Checks with the base, which is the home of 56 squadron, found the flight log recorded four Tornadoes landing at 9.25pm “following a routine exercise over the North Sea” but a spokesman said they would not have been over South Yorkshire. Similar denials came from RAF Waddington, Linton-upon-Ouse and Leeming in North Yorkshire, which is home to three Tornado squadrons and Hawk training aircraft. The log there showed two squadrons flying over the North Sea at 4.30pm, with the others on detachment elsewhere.
Having discovered sufficient evidence to suggest there had indeed been a military exercise that night it was decided the only remaining option to obtain more details was via questions in Parliament. As a result a meeting was arranged with Helen Jackson, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, whose constituency included the “crash” zone. She agreed there was a clear case for probing questions to be put to both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office concerning the source of the sonic booms and the sightings which triggered the futile and costly search and rescue operation. Quite apart from any other considerations, if military aircraft had caused the explosions which sparked the search, flying laws had been broken and public money wasted (the total cost of the search operation was later estimated to have been in excess of £50,000).
Almost precisely one year after the incident Helen Jackson MP tabled seven written questions in the House of Parliament. Six were directed at the Defence Minister George Robinson, and the seventh to Home Secretary Jack Straw. The questions, tabled on March 23, 1998, are reproduced below, with the answers in italics:
1. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what complaints were received by the RAF concerning low flying aircraft relating to 24th March 1997.
2. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if RAF/NATO military aircraft were engaged in an exercise over Northern England between 9.30 and 10.30pm on 24th March 1997.
3. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence for what reasons the RAF imposed an air exclusion zone around Howden reservoir on the morning of 25th March 1997.
4. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what reported sightings of UFOs were received from (a) the public and (b) police from the South Yorkshire/Derbyshire area on 24th March 1997.
Reply 30 March: John Spellar [Under Secretary of State for Defence]: A number of military aircraft were booked to carry out low flying training in northern England on the evening of 24 March 1997. The Ministry of Defence received 13 complaints about aircraft activity for that date from locations across the UK. No reported sightings of “UFOs” on 24 or 25 March were received by my Department. A Temporary Danger Area was established on 25 March, centred on the Howden Reservoir, to allow a RAF Search and Rescue helicopter, in response to a request for assistance from South Yorkshire Police,to carry out a search of the area without disturbance by other military aircraft. Such Danger Areas are routinely established for Search and Rescue operations.
5. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if an RAF/NATO aircraft was responsible for two sonic booms aboce Sheffield detected by Edinburgh University Seismology Unit at 21.52 and 22.06 on 24th March 1997.
Reply 30 March: John Spellar: We have no record of sonic events being generated by RAF or NATO aircraft for the evenning of 24 March 1997.
6. To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what complaints were received by police forces relating to low flying aircraft on 24th March 1997.
Reply 30 March: Mr Michael: Information on complaints to the police of low flying aircraft is not held centrally. I understand that on the evening of 24 March 1997 South Yorkshire Police received reports of a low-flying aircraft which was thought to have crashed. An investigation by the police and other authorities failed to find any trace of the aircraft.
7. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the regulations covering military aircraft breaking the sound barrier above (a) urban and (b) other areas.
Reply.1 April. John Spellar: The following regulations, which are an extract from Military Flying Regulations, apply to supersonic flying by military aircraft in UK airspace: In the United Kingdom Flight Information Region (FIR), all medium and high level supersonic flights are to be made over the sea. Aircraft heading directly out to sea may accelerate to supersonic speed when at least 10 nautical miles (nm) out to sea and along a flight of at least 20 degrees divergent from the mean line of the coast; the angle of dive is not to exceed the minimu necessary. Supersonic flights with the aircraft pointing towards the land, turning or flying parallel to the coast are to take place at least 35 nm from the nearest coastline. Supersonic flying at low level over the sea within UK FIR may take place provided that the above rules are followed and that, in addition, a radar/visual search is maintained in order to avoid the following by the margins indicated:
(a) Shipping and fixed or mobile oil and gas installations: 3 nm; (b) Civilian military transport aircraft: a minimum of 6nm; (c) Helicopter main routes or corridors: 6nm. With the exception of Air Defence missions, operating authorities are to notify the appropriate radar station of all planned supersonic flights in advance. Radar stations are to maintain a permanent record of supersonic flights carried out under their control. If any captain knows or suspects that his aircraft has inadvertently made a supersonic flight he is to enter details in the Flight Authorisation Book. In addition. it is the responsibility of the station concerned to notify the appropriate radar station of the flight within 30 minutes of the aircraft’s landing. The radar station is to maintain a special record of all such occurrences.
Early in April, 1998, Helen Jackson tabled one further written question in Parliament which read:
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, pursuant to his Answers of 30th March, Official Report, column 414, if the military exercises were carried out over the Sheffield area; what regulations govern (a) military and (b) other aircraft breaking the sound barrier; and if the sonic booms detected by Edinburgh University Seismology Unit above Sheffield, on 24th March 1997, were the result of aicraft breaking the sound barrier.
Reply: 7 April. John Spellar: It is not possible, twelve months after the case in question, to state precisely where military aircraft activity was being carried out. Records kept show only that aircraft were booked to carry out low-flying over the Peak District between 2030 and 2107 hours local time on the evening of 24th March 1997. No low level flying is permitted over the Sheffield urban area, orany other major conurbation. Records of flying at medium level – between 2,000 and 24,000 ft – are not maintained so it is possible that there were aircraft in the area at medium level. The regulations governing military aircraft flying at supersonic speeds are contained in the Joint Service Publication entitled ‘Military Flying Regulations,’ an extract of which was provided in the answer I gave her on 1 April 1998… The regulations which apply to civil aviation are a matter for my hon Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. As for the sonic event detected by the British Geological Survey at Edinburgh University, I refer my hon Friend to the answer I gave her on 30 March 1997.”
Afterwards Mrs Jackson gave her opinion that the MOD were not being entirely straightforward in their answers to the questions. She said:
“I tabled a number of written Parliamentary questions about what did happen that night. The responses came from the RAF a bit reluctantly and slowly. They did admit that there were military aircraft flying over South Yorkshire that night. They did not admit to the possibility of any of them breaking the sound barrier.”
Following the Parliamentary questions, the pressure was continued upon the Ministry of Defence with a series of direct questions to the RAF Press Office spokesmen, Alan Patterson and Flight Lieutenant Tom Rounds during the spring and the late summer of 1998. In October Flt Lieut Rounds provided a list of the 13 locations from where complaints of low-flying aircraft had been received on the night of March 24, Unfortunately, the times of the complaints were not officially recorded. The locations included, from the south coast of England: Sherborne, Dorchester and Bridport in Dorset, Saltash in Cornwall and Westbury in Wiltshire; Brecon and Sibenfro in Wales; Alyth and Arbroath in Tayside; Maryport in Cumbria, and in the Midlands from Rugeley (Staffs), Aston in Birmingham and two complaints from Birstall, near Leicester. This infomation only added to the impression that a major RAF/NATO exercise was underway that evening, involving a number of military aircraft from bases across Britain.
Flt Lieut Rounds said he was unable to specify which squadrons were involved but said:
“These complaints form a normal pattern. Most of the low flying is done in the Southwest, Wales and Scotland. We rarely do so, but we can fly inland between Manchester and Leeds. Its very high ground, up to 2,000 feet in places, and is a very risky place for us to be flying at low-level, especially if there is low cloud,as this could lead us to penetrate built-up areas. An additional hazard for military flying is that above this area is airline traffic above Manchester and Sheffield. However, if the weather is good this would not stop us.”
Obviously, the weather was “good” on the evening of March 24, which was a clear and still frosty spring evening – ideal for a covert military exercise. Although Flt Lieut Rounds was unable to specify the squadron involved, the civilian PRO Patterson said he understood the aircraft came from RAF Marham in Norfolk. He said at least two Tornado GR1 Strike aircraft were involved in the exercise, which may have involved other military aircraft including Jaguars at various stages. He said Marham’s GR1s were reconnaisance and bomber aircraft and would not be the type that would be scrambled to pursue a UFO. All flights that evening were pre-booked training exercises, he said, which did involve low-flying above the Peaks sometimes as low as 250 feet above sea level where conditions permitted. He said this type of low level training is carried out regularly over areas such as the Scottish Highlands, the Lakes and the Peak, and it was essential to give pilots experience for possible future action in troublespots such as the Gulf, the Balkans and elsewhere.
RAF Marham’s PRO Ed Bulpitt made inquiries on my behalf and established that six aircraft from 2 Squadron were involved in the exercise on March 24. These were Tornado GR1A’s, the photo reconnaisance version of the Tornado fighter. He said the first left Marham at 6.45pm and landed at 9.10pm. A second left at 6.50 and returned at 9pm, while two others left at 7.40 and landed at 9.30, along with a fifth which had left at 7.50. The final aircraft involved left at 7.55 and was safely back by 9.35. “They were on routine low-flying through the Peak District and all returned safely,” he said.
I followed this by directly challenging the RAF Press spokesman over claims that there had been a cover-up over the incident on March 24. I also asked if they would confirm or deny that military jets had been scrambled to pursue and Unidenfied Flying Object, or whether one of the jets taking part in the exercise had inadvertently broken the sound barrier while exercising or pursuing an unidentified target. The full text of Mr Patterson’s reply, which is in effect is a summary of the MOD’s official stance on the Howden Moors incident, is reproduced here in full:
“There has been no cover up over this incident and I can confirm we did not scramble aircraft that night to intercept a UFO. All missions were regular pre-booked training flights. We have to fly low at night for training pilots for action in places like the Gulf, but we don’t fly over the urban conurbations and would have avoided Sheffield. We don’t break the sound barrier over land, and we don’t fly below 250 feet although operational low flying is allowed in the Scottish Highlands as low as 100feet. Our pilots know very well they should not fly at twice the speed of sound over land and would face disciplinary action or even a police investigation if this was proved. It is not impossible that a pilot would accelerate to supersonic speed in order to take avoiding action if a civil aircraft was detected in their flightpath. We could only prove this by comparing radar traces from the night in question, but these would not show anything for the night in question as the exercise was over when the booms took place. We responded to a request from the police to help them search for a crashed aircraft and we sent a helicopter along to help. We have not been chasing UFOs. It was not an exercise but rather a low flying sortie by two aircraft booked long beforehand and they were a long way away before this explosion was reported. We would send fighters to intercept if we picked anything up on radar screens. It has happened before, not so much now but certainly in the past. Radar is constantly looking out and can spot incoming objects, and we have a requirement to defend the UK from attack, whether that be from Libya or from Mars. But often we find objects picked up on radar are caused by people in light aircraft wandering onto the screens and not having notified us. We are only interested in establishing if there is a threat to UK airspace. We don’t discount there may be unexplained phenomena in the sky, but we are not funded to investigate them. We would admit the fact if we had chased a UFO.There were no intercept missions that night. There is no cover-up. We don’t know what caused the sightings and the sonic booms and the whole thing remains a mystery to us. We don’t know what went on and there will always be people who seize on mysteries like this to make claims about cover-ups.”
Theories and Context
This report aims to stick to the known facts with the minimum of speculation in an attempt to reach the truth behind an event which to this day is categorised as “unexplained” by South Yorkshire Police who were the main investigators. Clearly, a real phenomena, or series of phenomena occurred but my contention is that these can be explained rationally without recourse to wild and fantastic theories which have no solid evidence to support them. As is the case with so many reports of Unidentified Flying Objects and other unexplained aerial phenomena, the Howden Moors incident has all the hallmarks of a genuine mystery. Unsolved mysteries create vacuums which are filled by speculation and are ideal breeding grounds for the imaginations of those who are looking for evidence of conspiracies, cover-ups and alien visitors. As a result the Howden Moors incident has been hi-jacked by those whose will to believe or sensationalise has overcome their critical faculties, and others who have sometimes mis-reported and distorted (sometimes deliberately) the evidence, and the testimony of witnesses, for their own ends.
Crucial to the understanding of the Howden Moor Incident are the many other theories about its origin which were promoted both by those who took part in the search and rescue operation, and others who were quoted in the subsequent press coverage.
More detail is provided in a later section of this report where the opinions of those involved are directly quoted. A summary of the theories include the following:
The high, mist-shrouded moors of the Dark Peak have become the graveyard for more than 50 aircraft and cost more than 200 lives since the Second World War. These tragedies have become part and parcel of local folklore, with the lonely wrecks of planes becoming the scene of annual pilgrimages and the setting for eerie stories of ghosts and poltergeists. In the last ten years a local legend has developed about a phantom “ghost flier” or ghost plane – sometimes in the form of a Lancaster bomber and at others a Dakota – which has been seen flying noiselessly above the Derwent and Ladybower reservoirs of the Hope Valley. Since the sightings received local publicity in 1995, a number of local people have come forward with their own experiences of seeing this silent phantom plane, many of whom had contacted the police to report possible aircrashes which have triggered earlier search and rescue operations. Indeed, one Peak Park Ranger states that the Peak District Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) is called out approximately two or three times every year in response to reports of “crashing aircraft” where none are ever found. He suggests the explanation is partly due to optical illusion contributed by the fact that the area lies upon both a major route for civilian air traffic and an RAF training ground. The connection between the Howden Moors incident and the legend of the “ghostplane” was made by the national Press shortly after March 24, and the report was featured in extensive feature articles in both the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Express early in 1997, contributing to the folklore which surrounded these sightings.
The toll of lives claimed by the Peak District moors has continued into recent years, and added to the sinister reputation of the area to fliers. In June 1993 for instance, a privately-owned Hawker Hunter jet plunged into the peat bogs on Broomhead Moor after its pilot flew into an electrical storm above the Peak whilst en route to an air show in Blackpool. His 35-year-old plane disappeared from radar screens while he was flying above the Kinder Scout plateau and a loud explosion was heard as his plane impacted at a speed estimated at 450 mph into the moors, scattering smoking debris across the peat and creating a 50 foot wide crater. The body of the pilot, Walter Cubitt, has never been recovered and remains entombed within a 30 foot deep grave in the boggy moors above Bolsterstone. It is from such tragedies that folklore and legend is created.
This explanation was initially favoured by police, senior mountain rescue co-ordinators (Mike France and Phil Shaw), aviation expert Ron Collier and Peak Park ranger Brian Jones, who is based at the Fairholmes centre in the Derwent Valley. The Derbyshire police have certainly investigated claims that both helicopters and light aircraft have been used by both drugs couriers and terrorists in the Peak District and other areas of the British countryside to ferry illegal substances and arms in and out of the mainland by drawing the minimum of attention to their activities. In 1973 and 1974, for instance,seven police forces in the Midlands were investigating sightings of a “mystery helicopter” which flew only at night and at low altitude above the Peak District. The identity of the pilot was never discovered, but rumours suggested the involvement of IRA terrorists or drug-runners. These fears were taken so seriously that Special Branch were called in to investigate the reports early in January 1974. However, no definitve proof of a connection between terrorists or drug-runners has ever emerged in connection with the Howden Moors incident.
*COVERT MILITARY OPERATION*
This theory was first put forward by Graham Birdsall who suggested a Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV), of which prototypes have been developed by the military, may have manfunctioned or crashed. triggering the search. The Peak District is in fact a major training zone for military aircraft who use it for low-flying exercises on a regular basis. The large number of reports describing low-level military aircraft activity shortly before the Howden Moor incident supports the possibility that it was triggered by a covert operation, as does the sonic booms recorded by the British Geological Survey that night. New evidence uncovered by this investigation suggests the incident may indeed have been started by an exercise of this kind, possibly involving an experimental aircraft, RPV or a light military aircraft used for training as part of the exercise. This theory is backed by circumstantial evidence and is supported by one of the senior police officers present during the search operation.
*BOLIDE METEOR/SPACE JUNK*
This explanation was first suggested by the Royal Astronomical Association and by the British Geological Survey as an explanation for the sightings of lights in the sky and explosions. There were no other reports describing meteors or spece debris elsewhere that evening, although a meteor shower did take place above the east coast three nights later, on March 27.
There can be little doubt that misperception played a major role in the events of March 24 which led to the initial emergency calls. Police and Peak Park rangers regularly receive emergency calls from members of the public reporting planes crashing and on fire, where these have turned out on investigation to have been caused by low-flying aircraft, either civil or military, for the Peak is a regular training ground for the RAF. Many visitors are not aware of this fact, and a combination of the right weather conditions and the role of perception has triggered reports of “phantom plane crashes” from otherwise sane and sensible observers who have seen aircraft apparently disappear behind hillsides over the horizon. This explanation is suggested to account for a number of unexplained reports of plane crashes which have resulted in fruitless searches by the emergency services. A good example of this phenomenon occurred on February 20, 1996 in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. This was how the Sheffield Star reported the incident:
“EMERGENCY crews across South Yorkshire were put on alert after reports that an aircraft had ditches in a quarry near Doncaster [last night]. Two fire engines, an emergency tender and a specialised foam tender were sent out by South Yorkshire Fire Service to Marshall Quarry on the A18 near Dunsville. The police were also called out and two helicopters used to try and locate the light aircraft yet nothing was found. A spokesman for South Yorkshire Police said: “There were a number of calls to the police from people living in the Hatfield and Doncaster areas. They thought they had seen an aircraft come down in the fields but an extensive search of the area found nothing.”The spokesman said no aircraft had been reported missing and all that had been found was a haystack on fire in the area.”
*CRASHED UFO CONSPIRACY*
Self-styled UFO investigator Max Burns who, in a posting on the Internet, proclaimed the case as:
“One of the biggest UFO incidents in recent years involving a huge flying triangle, military jets, sonic booms, a bolide meteor, unmarked helicopters glowing orange objects and what I hope, when you have studied the evidence, you will agree is a conspiracy on behalf of the civilian and military authorities to hide the facts from the public.”
In a nutshell, Burns contends that the case arose out of an incident whereby RAF jet interceptors were scrambled to pursue a slow-moving triangular UFO of Extraterrestrial origin over Sheffield and the Peak District. As a result of the chase one of the pursuing jets was attacked and destroyed by the UFO, subsequently crashing to earth into one of the reservoirs northwest of Sheffield with the loss of at least one of the crew. The two sonic booms which were detected that night were to Burns “proof” of an “air burst” caused by a jet exploding or an ET weapon firing upon pursuing jets. A report, recorded on the police log, of a dark-skinned man seen wandering on A57 road at the Ladybower Viaduct, apparently covered in fuel, has been interpreted by Burns as a sighting of the co-pilot of the downed Tornado. This man was spotted by the passengers of a minibus returning to Sheffield at around 11pm, an hour after the reported “aircrash” and the police report reads: “…when crossing the viaduct over the reservoir at Ladybower they were flagged down by a man who was walking towards Sheffield. The man said he needed to get to Sheffield and wanted a lift. The mini bus was full so it was declined. There were no parked vehicles anywhere in the area. The man smelled strongly of diesel. Said to be of eastern extraction, Indian/Pakistani and dressed in dark brown clothing…”
The young man who was a passenger in the minibus reported the incident to the police the following morning after hearing the reports about the plane crash on the moors, and told them he thought the man was behaving “suspiciously.” More than a year later, when he was contacted by a UFO investigator, he had begun working for the RAF as a jet engine engineer at RAF Cosford and was able to claim that the “diesel” he smelled that night resembled that of the aviation fuel he was familiar with at air bases.
As a result, Max Burns felt he was able to conclude that the man spotted that night was the pilot or co-pilot of the Tornado jet he believes was lost as a result of ET action above the Peak District, an incident which he alleges is the subject of a massive and high level cover-up and “dirty tricks campaign.” He wrote:
“It is without doubt that the military are involved in a large cover-up regarding the attempted interception of the triangle [UFO], including conspiracy, the placement of cover-stories, debunking of witnesses, however with this damning evidence from a member of the Royal Air Force who encountered the pilot or the co-pilot on the Snake Pass about an hour after the explosions occurred, stinking of aviation fuel within three miles of Howden Moors…the distance of three miles had been covered in one hour allowing for the time necessary to unhitch his parachute then walking at 4 miles an hour would place him exactly where he was encountered by the mini-bus. I feel that this is without doubt the co-pilot of the Tornado jet, who was soaked in aviation fuel and was making his way to the nearest metropolis to alert the military.”
Unfortunately for this theory, the identity of the man encountered by the mini-bus on the Snake Pass that night was known to both the police and the Peak National Park ranger service. A spokesman for the latter said:
“I do remember the incident as it was reported to the Peak Park Ranger service the next morning. I understand it was a failed suicide attempt. It was someone who had driven out to the country and poured petrol or some other inflammable liquid over himself. But he had not gone through with the suicide. It had been reported to South Yorkshire Police who had passed it to Derbyshire to deal with. It’s the sort of thing that happens occasionally in a remote area like this.”
These details were later confirmed by a senior officer in the Derbyshire Police Force, based in Bakewell. The theory that the mystery man soaked in diesel fuel was actually an RAF or NATO pilot who had bailed out of his crashed jet clearly stretches credibility to its limits, and is not necessary to explain why this man was walking along the Snake Pass road that night. The young man who reported the incident to the police described the man as West Indian or Pakistani in appearance and wearing dark coloured or brown clothing. This witness never once suggested he could have been the victim of an aircrash accident, despite having his report construed in this way by over-eager UFO investigators.
The lack of one single eye-witness reporting such a mid-air encounter between a jet and a UFO, and the improbability that the wreckage which would have been left in the wake of a crash would not have been immediately spotted by the hundreds of volunteers who were searching the moors within hours of the incident did not faze Burns. Using the usual convoluted logic employed by conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs, the lack of wreckage was accounted for by the possibility that the downed Tornado had disappeared beneath the waters of one of the 13 reservoirs which litter the high moorland region between Sheffield and Manchester. This was a rumour which had been mooted on the night of the incident by fire crews and others in the Strines area, but was quickly ruled out by Yorkshire Water workers who checked a number of the reservoirs early that morning and found no evidence of oil slicks or wreckage which would have clearly been evident had a crash really occurred. The reservoirs, whose ownership is split between Yorkshire and Severn Trent Water Authorities, are the subject of regular and stringent structural inspections and an array of specialist water quality monitoring set by statute. A spokesman for Yorkshire Water said a crash of any kind into the waters would immediately result in an oil slick and trigger alarms at the quality monitoring stations which carry out frequent filtration and testing of water supplies from the reservoir complex.
The half-hearted response of the military to the report of the “aircrash” hardly fits the scenario envisaged by Burns. Experience with real air disasters involving Tornado jets, for example the fatal mid-air collision between a GR1 fighter from RAF Cottesmore and a Cessna light aircraft above North Nottinghamshire in January 1999, demonstrates the rapid response of the military and the immediate mobilisation of both ground and airborne RAF units. In the Howden Moors case it was more than one hour before the air search rescue base at RAF Kinloss authorised a single Sea King helicopter to help the civilian search and rescue effort. It is also clear from the testimony of local people, and the civilian mountain rescue staff that other than the Sea King crew no other military personnel were involved in the ground search, as would have been the case had a warplane really been reported missing.
In addition, the complex nature of the scenario dreamed up by Burns begs the question of why it was necessary to invoke a Tornado crash at all. Initially, in the summer of 1997 he was making the claim that a UFO had crashed onto the moors and had been secretly retrieved by the military under the noses of the “official” search team. Although unprovable in itself, such a rumour would have been certainly easier to promote than the current theory which involves a conspiracy on a massive scale, including the concealment of the deaths of at least one serviceman from his or her familiy and from the hundreds of police and mountain rescue volunteers on the ground.
One may be tempted to laugh at such a bizarre and extreme claims, but Burns “evidence” was subsequently adopted by many “UFOlogists” in the USA, Europe and in the UK who have enthusiastically posted his report on the World Wide Web. Nevertheless, Burns was correct in one of his assertions: namely, that there was a military cover-up about the events of March 24, 1997…but as is often the case it was not a cover-up of a UFO chased by jets, or a UFO crash; but more probably a covert NATO exercise in preparation for the Gulf Crisis. What the investigation of the case has revealed is the real cover-up is perpetrated by the UFOlogists, particularly those who are aggressively trying to promote and export belief in Alien visitors/Abductions/Animal Mutilators/Flying Triangles. The placement of rumours such as these provide a ready smokescreen for the military to carry out exercises and covert operations which might otherwise come to the attention of the wider public, and result in awkward questions in Parliament. This is not to suggest that the military are directly involved in the seeding of UFO stories to cover their tracks, as the eager ranks of UFO believers are more than happy to step in and do the job effectively without the need for outside intervention.
In this case, a believer in the alien theory has used the Internet to distort and misrepresent the true facts behind this incident, by ignoring testimony which does not fit the theory and in some cases willfully distorting evidence and testimony in order to promote this case as “Britain’s answer to Roswell” to a credulous and unquestioning audience in North America. We hope this report goes some way to establishing the facts behind this genuinely puzzling incident without resort to the wild, unscientific and un-supportable hypotheses promoted by the believers of the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis.
South Yorkshire Police’s conclusion about the incident (taken directly from the police log of incident) reads:
“Enquiries reveal a combination of circumstances that would lead people to believe a plane might have crashed. Mountain rescue, police and RAF completed a thorough search between 11pm on March 24 and 1pm on March 25 without any trace [of wreckage] being found.”
Detective Inspector Christine Wallace, or Hammerton Road CID (Sheffield) said:
“The bottom line is that more than 100 mountain rescue people were out that night, along with RAF and police helicopters, and our own area officers. They found nothing. We contacted the military, the Civil Aviation Authority, and other police forces across the country. None of them had any reports of missing aircraft or planes returning late. The police reported it as a plane under distress, but it is still a mystery who was flying it. We had about 40 reports from the public in all. We have had reports of UFOs, triangle objects [referring to the report by Bryan Haslam] and alien spaceships, right across the board. Then there are the theories about the phantom plane which has been seen in this area before…But in my opinion it was caused by a series of coincidences. I don’t doubt that people have seen a low-flying aircraft, fixed-wing and propeller-driven, which seem to disappear into the moors. We had a full search operation but there was no sign of any wreckage. We are keeping an open mind and not ruling anything out.”
Superintendent Christine Burbeary, of South Yorkshire Police, who co-ordinated the 13 hour search operation, added:
“We got nothing back from air traffic control, no reports of aircraft failing to return, and eventually having looked at all the circumstances the decision had to be made to call the search off. The conclusion at the end of the search had to be that no aircraft had crashed on the moor. But there is no doubt that there WAS a number of phenomena. There was most certainly a very low flying aircraft [which has never been identified]…There is no doubt at the same time there was a huge explosion and a light in the sky and smoke – and I don’t know what caused that.”
However, Supt Burbeary’s opposite number in the Derbyshire Police operations room, Inspector Andy Howard, took a completely different view. He said he had maintained from the outset that a search of 40 to 50 square miles of moor based upon the directions given at the time was “a complete waste of time and money.”:
“I was skeptical about it right from the word go…Derbyshire just would not believe it. We received three reports from people in the Strines area about a possible plane crash. I did not take them seriously after making checks with Manchester Airport and West Drayton and finding there were no aircraft missing. That’s why we decided to pull out early on; South Yorkshire did take it seriously and they decided to launch a very costly search. Afterwards I was carpeted by the Assistant Chief Constable for not taking it seriously but I believe subsequent events prove I was 100 percent correct in my assesment of the situation; and this officer had to admit I had taken the right decision in the end. The search of the moors was a complete waste of time and public money because nothing crashed. We in the Derbyshire force are continually receiving reports from the public of this kind and we are aware of how easily people misperceive objects in the sky. Only recently [in June 1998] during the meteor shower we had people ringing in saying they had seen an aeroplane crashing and on fire. People see something odd in the sky and their imagination does the rest.”
And Insp Howard added an interesting anecdote to his statement:
“I have seen the claims in one of those UFO magazines [Alien Encounters] which one of my PCs brought into the office, claiming there was a cover-up over this case. The theories these people are putting forward are so far-fetched they are hilarious. The guy who wrote the article was saying ‘why would they have sent two helicopters to search for something if nothing had happened’; but if had my way, we would not have sent any helicopters out. Just because helicopters are sent out and search teams are scrambled, it doesn’t mean to say that something must have happened. You make the decision based upon the information you have at the time. I decided the reports were not reliable so we stood down and let South Yorkshire carry on.”
Similarly, the Station Officer in charge of the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service operation on the night of March 24 was equally skeptical. Tankersley Fire Station Station Officer Mick Fretwell said:
“We were ordered out by the control room after they had received a message from the police saying there had been a possible air crash. Appliances from five stations in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire were committed to the scene, and we were among the first emergency services to arrive, between 10.30 and 11pm. We rendezvoued in two groups. one at the Strines Inn, the other at the top of the moors at Bar Dyke. We were not involved in any search of the moors as we did not have the equipment and we left that to the Mountain Rescue service. It seemed to us the reports about crashed aircraft were just speculative, and we heard rumours about drug-runners, IRA, etc. There was no wreckage, but there was talk about something crashing into one of the reservoirs, but we saw no evidence of that. If something had crashed we would have seen some trace of it. The West Yorkshire helicopter came over while we were on stand-by; its heat-seeker is so sensitive it could have picked out someone smoking a cigarette on those moors – but it found nothing. Our role was simply to stand-by until the police and mountain rescue reached the scene. But I can confirm there was no military presence or military personnel at the scene while we were there.”
Inspector Jack Clarkson of Ecclesfield Police Division, was involved in the search and rescue operation in command of a Task Force team which assisted the MRS search of the moors. He said:
“The control room at Ecclesfield Police Station received several calls from members of the public indicating that a low flying aircraft had been seen travelling from Sheffield, had disappeared over the moors, and an explosion had been heard together with an orange glow. That was enough to instigate a search for a crashed aircraft. There is always a chance there are survivors. On that particular night there was a ground frost; it was extremely cold and there was an extreme wind-chill factor which could kill people off from hypothermia. I think it was probably caused by a low-flying aircraft which belonged to the RAF. I think one phone call to us could have prevented the search. RAF Leconfield sent a Sea King but it was pulled off the next day and there was no real urgency. You have to reach your own conclusions and I have just got to conclude that if it was a “real” plane crash there would have been a lot more fuss. I think it was a military aircraft or an experimental aircraft of some description. They would not need to tell us if that was the case as there is no duty on them to let the police know. They could even allow us to send out the helicopters and search teams just to cover their backs.”
His conclusions were echoed by PC Mick Hague, the community police constable assigned to the Bradfield Moors area, who knows the region and its people well. He said:
“I was off duty when I received a call from the local control room who told me there had been a plane crash on the moor. I volunteered my services and went out and liaised with a few of the local people including in particular Mick Ellison, the local gamekeeper. I stayed on duty all night and did not get back into bed until 7 am the following morning. About 11 am I phoned back in and reported back on duty and was told that nothing had been found at all. Search parties had been out, and there was no indication whatsoever. It was a pretty long night for all the officers concerned. As time has gone on I have had plenty of time to reflect on that night and what happened. I’m not decrying anyone – I’m sure that someone saw something. But the fact that no answers have come back to us makes me think that a lot of people wasted a lot of time looking for something that was never there in the first place.”
Chairman of the Peak District Mountain Rescue Association, Mike France, co-ordinated the seven mountain rescue teams during the search operation, said:
“An operation like this does cost a lot of money – they had police, fire, ambulance, etc and a chief inspector was in charge, The Sea King helicopter came from RAF Leconfield, and the search was co-ordinated from the Air Sea Rescue base at RAF Kinloss which covers the whole of northern Britain. The Sea King arrived at around midnight and performed two searches, landing at around 2 or 3am at the Hepshaw Farm base for a debriefing. We then asked them to do another sweep of the moors as daylight broke. The West Yorkshire police helicopter did a massive overflight over the area first from early on after 10pm using its heat-seeking equipment but found nothing. That’s when we wondered if it had gone into a reservoir, and we asked them to have a look. There were 141 civilians in all involved in the search, then there was the Search and Rescue Dog Association teams, seven or eight of them, from 11pm until 1pm the next day.
“The Dangerous Flying Zone was standard procedure; it was placed because of all the helicopters that were flying around the area, and it was also to stop the Press or TV camera crews flying over and obstructing the search. At the time it was imposed we still had an “unknown quantity” so it was justified at that time. It covered a 10 mile radius centres upon the Howden Reservoir. During that time they did warn aircraft going into Manchester Airport as they have a stacking system for the airliners. We were being pushed by the police to scale this operation up early on in the morning around 4.15am. That’s when we had to call in over a hundred more civilians even though we had no solid evidence anything had crashed. There was nothing missing from radar according to Manchester Airport, and no evidence of any crash. It does not surprise me to hear it was caused by a secret military operation. If it was nothing secret, then why didn’t they admit it. If that’s true then one arm of the RAF was not talking to the other arm, as surely they would not have deployed an airsea rescue helicopter if they had known. It was a waste of resources, but if it was caused by a secret military operation I can understand why no one is owning up to it.
“The first question we always ask in situations of this kind is: ‘Is it anything civilian?’ and then we ask ‘Is it anything military?’ The RAF would not tell us if it was, but they would tell the police. However, on this occasion we were told ‘no, it’s not military’ on many occasions during the course of the night. The military knew we had aircraft flying for over five hours – why did Kinloss not find out what was going on when they checked? No one has ever come back to me and told me ‘this is what really happened’ and I have even heard Chief Insp Burbeary saying it is still a mystery. As far as we are concerned it is still on the cards as an unexplained mystery. The military play around this area all the time. If someone saw a low-flying aircraft that could have been a covert operation. We believe there was a military operation going on and a low-flying operation too. People saw both and that’s what has caused the confusion. The people who saw the plane from the Bolsterstone area were adamant it was a light aircraft, not a military jet. It went up the valley and over the trees at the top, and it would have been extremely low. Then there was a boom and a flash. I think it was too separate things that were tied together. The light aircraft could have been involved in a drugs drop – Manchester is the second biggest city in the UK and very near the English coast; a plane could easily have made it from Holland flying low and staying out of the reach of radar.”
Peak National Park ranger Brian Jones, based at Fairholmes Visitors Centre in the Derwent Valley, said he was convinced the incident was caused by a drugs-run, as were the police and mountain rescue. He has 30 years experience of working in the area, and was the first National Park ranger to live in his patch. He said at dusk on March 24 he had been watching Hale-Bopp when he heard “an horrendous noise” over the Snake Road and saw an old two-seater type helicopter travelling low above the Ladybower Reservoir towards Glossop. It was displaying both red and white lights and travelling very slowly. The next morning he heard about the search and rescue operation, and he said of that:
“Search and rescue teams are called out on average two or three times every year in the Peak District following reports from members of the public about aircraft in distress or apparently about to crash. What they don’t realise is that the whole area is an MOD training ground, as well as being below a major international flight path into Manchester Airport – with the northern Peak being one of the stacking areas for airlines descending into Manchester. Most of the reports come from people who are strangers to the area and happen at night when landing lights come on unexpectedly. When these reports are received we have always gone through the normal procedures and it takes awhile before it registers we are not looking for a crashed aircraft, only the possibility of a crashed aircraft. So the tendency is to get the search dogs in fast and back it up with search personnel. It takes awhile to realise we are not looking for a crashed aircraft but one flying very very low. By that time the police will have checked with air traffic controllers who will have said that nothing has been reported missing. What has been reported is a phenomena. The people who have reported these things are very genuine people and usually they are in trauma. They have seen these things, they can’t understand it and why should I disagree with them? I honestly believe that they believe they have seen these things. and the last thing we want to do is to refuse to turn out and an incident has actually occurred.”
Referring specifically to the Howden Moors incident, Mr Jones said:
“I see no reason not to think it was not an illicit drug run as there was absolutely no reason why a civilian aircraft would be flying at that time of night as low and hill-hopping as it was.”
Glossop Mountain Rescue Team Commander Phil Shaw broadly agreed. He said:
“There was a lot of evidence at first which made us put a full scale search and rescue operation into swing. We have speculated on various theories including that someone was using a light aircraft to smuggle drugs or explosives into the region using a small plane. There is no hard evidence to support these theories and what actually happened remains a mystery.”
Yorkshire Water’s Langsett Reservoir management Team Leader John Beever made the following statement:
“We were asked midway the following morning by the police to have a look to see if any pollution or debris were present in any of the reservoirs. We checked three reservoirs, I think these includes the Strines and Broomhead, looking for oil slicks or surface debris. Then mid-morning on March 25 we were told by the police to stand down. They told me the RAF had admitted there was a plane doing a night-time exercise and it had gone through the sound barrier. I got the impression from the police that they had been wasting their time, and if they had known they would not have put as much effort into the search, Police inquiries at first were told “no exercise” but it is my understanding that afterwards the military admitted there had been one.”
Strines Inn landlord Stan Stanish account of the night and subsequent events runs:
“We had just closed for the night and were watching a film. The first thing we heard was the throb of a helicopter right above the pub and I looked out and not only did I see a helicopter but three fire engines turning into the carpark. They told me there had been a plane crash on the moors. That was it – the helicopter was looking for the plane crash, the firemen were stood around waiting to respond to anything that might be found. I made them a load of hot chocolate…We do have a lot of military aircraft around here generally and we were snowed under with fruitbats for a few weeks asking questions about UFOs and one said to me that I had been paid off by Naval Intelligence not to say anything (because I had been in the Navy) but he went on to say I must have been paid off because so many people heard things and ‘why didn’t we?’…“Something definitely flew over, that’s the opinion of the local people. But the feeling round here was that it was just a low-flying plane that did not crash. We hear a lot of low flying aircraft around here, and the feeling is that it could have been a drugs drop. We did not hear any explosion, and none of the other families or gamekeepers who live around here heard anything either. The only people who said they did were the Ellisons.”
The two year investigation of the Howden Moor incident has taken many twists and turns in the pursuit of an explanation which can take into account all the many and varied facts which have subsequently come to light. The involvement of the military, initially denied, but confirmed with reluctance in the House of Commons one year later, is of crucial importance in the interpretation of what really happened that night. However, until the Ministry of Defence decide to open their files and reveal the exact sequence of events which occurred we are forced to draw conclusions based upon the evidence of eye-witnesses and that of the emergency services provided by the police log of events.
This leads us to four firm conclusions which follow:
1. There clearly was a military exercise taking place centred upon the Peak District that night, one phase of which (now officially admitted) is timed from 7.30-9.30pm, when the RAF claim all their aircraft were safely grounded and accounted for. However, the evidence from both witnesses in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire and the sonic booms recorded by the BGS suggest a covert part of this operation continued after the “booked” operation had been officially completed. Many more aircraft were involved in this exercise than has been officially admitted, as is clear from the 13 low-flying complaints lodged with the RAF on March 24 from widely separated areas of the British coastline. It is clear that a formation of Tornado aircraft travelled across the Peak District on a southeast to northwest flightpath between 9.45 and 10pm, coinciding with the first of two sonic booms recorded 12 minutes apart from the Sheffield area.
2. At least three groups of observers reported sightings of UFO-type phenomena during the course of the evening of March 24. These were the reports from 7.40 pm in Barnsley (uncorroborated), a second shortly before 10pm by a single observer in Dronfield, Derbyshire., and a third by a single witness in Stannington, Sheffield, who saw what she described as a cigar-shaped object. The proximity in time and space to the sightings seconds later in Bolsterstone of a low-flying aircraft suggests this latter observation was a misperception of a airplane flying at low altitude with an unfamiliar light configuration, as was suggested by a number of witnesses in the Bolsterstone area. Much has been made of these sightings by the ETH believers, to whom “triangle UFOs” have become an article of faith in their beliefs. However, when they are examined in context of the sightings of military aircraft quite clearly taking part in a low-flying operation after the fall of darkness, it becomes clear that the “triangles” are misperceived aircraft taking part in this exercise. These were almost certainly Tornado fighter/bombers, delta-winged Jaguar aircraft, and other smaller training craft.
3. The most specific evidence connecting the Howden Moors incident with the military are the sonic events recorded by the British Geological Survey at precisely 9.52 and 10.06 pm on the evening of March 24. The MOD have claimed they “have no record” of RAF or NATO aircraft causing these sonic booms, which were recorded in the Sheffield area by three separate seismograph stations in the case of the later event. However, the BGS clearly state that the explosions “could only have been caused by a military aircraft reaching supersonic speed.” Breaches of the sound barrier above land are clearly a serious offence which could result in a Military Police investigation and/or a court martial. In addition, the explosions which were recorded played a large part in the decision by South Yorkshire Police to launch a major air and land search which it is estimated cost the taxpayer in excess of £50,000. Evidence from some police sources and the statement of a senior manager atYorkshire Water suggests the RAF did admit responsibility at a later stage in the search operation. However, so far the MOD have refused to discuss whether any investigation was initiated as a result of the Howden Moor incident [note: see 2011 update], and continue to deny any connection between the sonic events and the exercise which they maintain was completed by 9.30pm that night.
4. Coincidental to the military operation, it is clear from the evidence of the eyewitnesses and the police log that at least one, possibly two, light civilian aircraft were operating in the sky above north Sheffield, and northeast Derbyshire, both before and after the events which triggered the search and rescue operation, coinciding with the second sonic boom. One of these fixed-wing, propeller driven aircraft was recorded on camcorder video by witnesses in northern Sheffield shortly after 10.30pm that night, and despite a police investigation the pilot and airfield involved has never been identified. It is clear also that a second, and somewhat larger fixed wing aircraft, followed a flightpath across the north of the city shortly after 10pm, flying east to west along the Ewden Valley at an altitude below 500 feet and disappeared in a northwesterly direction over the Midhope Moors towards the Howden Reservoir. A light aircraft could not accelerate to supersonic speed, therefore there must have been two aircraft in the same area at that time. It follows therefore that the aircraft reported in the vicinity of Bolsterstone that night must have been either a civilian aircraft flying illegally in breach of CAA regulations and having filed no flightpath, or a military aircraft which was playing a role in the covert military operation which was clearly ongoing that evening.
2011 Update: In response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by Andy Roberts in 2006, MoD admitted that a RAF Police investigation of the incident was launched in March 1998 – one year after the incident – contemporaneous with Helen Jackson’s Parliamentary questions. Writing in 2011, it’s apparent to me that MoD requested this investigation not because they believed something had occurred, but in direct response to the pressure that I had applied both in my letters and via the questions I prompted in Parliament.
Subsequently, in 2006-7 I obtained a complete copy of the investigation report by the RAF Provost and Security Service. This confirmed that a major pre-booked exercise involving fighter aircraft was underway on the night of 24 March 1997 and provided enough detail to conclude these aircraft were responsible for the majority of the ‘sightings’ that triggered the aircrash scare. However, due to the delay in the request for the investigation, the RAF P&SS were unable to identify the specific aircraft responsible for the sonic booms. With regards to the sonic evidence, P&SS concluded a more likely explanation was natural phenomena, coincident with the exercise:
“…although BGS can differentiate between sonic and seismic events, sonic events cannot be identified as being specifically caused by aircraft. Phenomena such as satellite re-entry have been known to cause sonic events and this may explain the happenings of 24 March 1997.”
The Provost & Security Services report dated 27 May 1998 also summarises the radar evidence, noting:
“AIS (Mil) at West Drayton were requested to provide a radar synopsis and the radar tape for the 24 March 1997 was still available. The tape was viewed between 242130ZMar97 and 2422000ZMar97, using the Claxby and Great Dun Fell Radar heads. The recording reveals that at 2139Z, a squawk of 2574/143 (Orcam/Karlshrue), is in descent heading west. At 2145 ac [aircraft] squark 2574/048 passed to the north by 2nm of the plotted position and the aircraft lands at Manchester Airport at 2145Z. The Air Information Service Officer is of the opinion that this aircraft is too slow moving to have caused a sonic boom. No other aircraft were seen to be flying in the area.”
The P&SS report concludes: “It is therefore considered that no military link can be established to this reported event and the case is now considered closed.”
Papers covering our correspondence with the MoD were released by The National Archives in 2011.
The author thanks the following for their help and advice throughout the course of this investigation:
Police: Superintendent Christine Wallace, Det Insp Christine Wallace, Insp Andy Howard, Inspector Jack Clarkson, PC Mick Hague, PRO Gillian Radcliffe.
Fire and Rescue Service: Station Officer Mick Fretwell.
Mountain Rescue Service: Mike France, Phil Shaw, Ted Burton and Sgt Mike Hope.
British Geological Survey: Glenn Ford, John Lovell.
Yorkshire Water: John Beever, Lester Wainwright.
Peak National Park Authority: Brian Jones.
Civil Aviation Authority: Robert Farruglia.
Ministry of Defence: Ed Bulpitt, Alan Patterson, Flight Lieutenant Tom Rounds, Flight Lieutenant Philip Inman.
Witnesses: Marie-France Tattersfield, John Littlewood, Mike and Barbara Ellison, Dan Grayson, Mr Rhodes, Mrs Dronfield, Paul Bradley, Sharon Aldridge, Hilary Ambrose, Leon Rockley, Chris Thompson, John Brassington, Emma Maidenhead.
Researchers: Andy Roberts, Jenny Randles, Graham Birdsall, Max Burns, Martin Jeffrey, Tim Matthews, Gloria Dixon, John Heptonstall.
MP: Helen Jackson.
Birdsall, Graham. “The Night of the Phoenix,” UFO Magazine, May/June 1997, pp.8-11, 58-59.
Brooke, Chris. “Mystery of the Ghost Bomber,” Daily Mail, March 29, 1997, p. 19.
Burns, Max. “Crash and Burns,” Alien Encounters, Summer 1997, pp. 22-28.
Burns, Max. “The Sheffield Incident: A Flying Triangle Incident,” Internet posting, 1998.
Clarke, David and Whitehouse, Paul. “Moors Plane Crash Riddle,” Sheffield Star, March 25, 1997, p. 1.
Clarke, David. “Dark Secrets of Death Peak,” Sheffield Star, March 26, 1997, p.6.
Clarke, David. “Mystery on the Moor,” Sheffield Star, September 27, 1997.
Clarke, David. “Skycrash in South Yorkshire: Mystery Aircraft/UFO Reports, March 24, 1997, Bolsterstone, South Yorkshire,” BUFORA Investigation report, May 18, 1997.
Clarke, David. “Crash that Never Was,” Sheffield Star, March 24, 1998, p. 6.
Clarke, David. “The Aircrash that Never Was,” UFO Magazine, July/August 1998, pp. 4-10.
Clarke, David, “The Howden Moors Incident,” parts 1-3, BUFORA Bulletin, New Series 5 (Sept/Oct 1998), 6 (Oct/Nov 1998) and 7 (December 1998).
Greaves, Gerard. “Ghost Planes of the Moors,” Daily Express, March 29, 1997, pp. 35-37.
Copyright 2000 by David Clarke & Martin Jeffrey