“…At the time immediately I didn’t feel frightened. I did subsequently feel that we were looking at something that really we shouldn’t be seeing. And I remember being told on landing that I looked fairly shaken, almost as if I had seen a ghost….”
Air Commodore Michael Swiney O.B.E. (RAF Retired)
October 2002 marked the 50th anniversary of what we believe to be the most impressive UFO incident ever reported to the Ministry of Defence. The sighting involved two highly experienced military pilots whose visual report was backed up by two independent radar plots. Yet details of their amazing story have remained an official secret for half a century – until the key witnesses agreed to be interviewed during the research for our book Out of the Shadows and the BBC Radio 4 production ‘Britain’s Secret X-Files’ broadcast in April 2002. Since that time further evidence has come to light which underlines our contention that this case constitutes the best evidence for unidentified flying objects as a real defence threat.
For the first time, the full story of the Little Rissington incident can now be told.
1952 marked a turning point in terms of the British Government’s interest in the UFO enigma. In the previous year the final report of the Flying Saucer Working Party had recommended that no further investigations of aerial phenomena should be undertaken by the MoD “until some material evidence becomes available.” When, in July 1952 UFOs were tracked by radar and pursued by interceptors above Washington D.C. the USAF was obliged to hold an unprecedented press conference in an attempt to play down the furore. News of the Washington flap reached the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who famously asked his Air Minister for a briefing on the subject of ‘flying saucers.’ He was assured there was nothing to worry about: “….nothing has happened since 1951 to make the Air Staff change their opinion” that UFOs were optical illusions, hoaxes and misidentifications of known objects.
It is unfortunate that Churchill did not, as far as we are aware, pursue his question later that same year. For an incredible series of events occurred during the autumn of 1952 that produced a radical change in the attitude of both the MoD and the Royal Air Force towards unidentified flying objects. These were the sightings made by airmen and naval personnel who took part in the NATO Exercise Mainbrace staged in September 1952 to simulate a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. According to Captain Edward Ruppelt, who led the USAF’s Project Blue Book, it was these sightings which “caused the RAF to officially recognise the UFO.”
Indeed, the high-level of interest which the Mainbrace sightings generated is reflected in a sensational memorandum prepared by the CIA’s Assistant Director of Scientific Intelligence, Dr H. Marshall Chadwell in December 1952. The memo – ‘British Activity in the Field of UFOs’ – remained “Secret” for 50 years until we obtained a copy in 2001 following an application and appeal under the American Freedom of Information Act. Chadwell, who had worked closely with the British Flying Saucer Working Party in 1950-51, reported to the CIA director how the MoD had been forced to take a second look at UFOs as a direct result of the Mainbrace incidents. It had covertly reformed the British UFO ‘working party’ under Dr R.V. Jones who was the new Director of Scientific Intelligence at MoD. Chadwell further reported how Jones was ‘distressed’ at the newspaper coverage of sightings reported by military personnel, particularly those by Shackleton pilots at RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire, that had made headlines across the globe.
Chadwell noted that UFO activity was “quiet and normal” until what he called “the Yorkshire incident”:
“…In some RAF field, there was some sort of demonstration to which high officials of the RAF in London had been invited. During the show, a ‘perfect flying saucer’ was seen by these officials as well as RAF pilots. So many people saw it that many articles appeared in the public press. This is distressing to [Dr] Jones because he realises that the creation of the correction of public opinion is a part of his responsibilities.”
Although the Topcliffe incident received wide publicity, the even more spectacular Little Rissington report was successfully kept secret. The former Royal equerry, the late Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley, told us how he was personally notified of the report, but as he was about to leave England for a Royal tour of Australia, he was unable to interview the aircrew for his study on behalf of Prince Philip. As was the case with the Mainbrace sightings, the Little Rissington incident occurred in the midst of a major military exercise, code-named ARDENT, organised by RAF Bomber Command. This fact may explain the renewed concern, and the determination to prevent service personnel speaking about a phenomenon that could not be officially explained or controlled.
“What on Earth is going on?”
Flying saucers were the last thing on Flight Lieutenant Michael Swiney’s mind when he climbed into the cockpit of a Meteor trainer jet on the afternoon of 21 October 1952. Swiney was a staff instructor based at the RAF’s Central Flying School (CFS) at Little Rissington, Gloucestershire, where his job was to provide tuition to Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm student instructors. Seated behind him was his student for the day, a Royal Navy Lieutenant, David Crofts. In Michael Swiney’s Flying Logbook Exercise 18 is described as “a high-level cross-country flight” that would take the two men on a southwesterly course towards a turning point on the south coast, then return to Little Rissington. Swiney, who was instructing, occupied the front seat and his student was seated directly behind him in the small cockpit. As the aircraft taxied along the runway, there was nothing to suggest this exercise would be any different to other routine flights both men had made together. Little did they realise it would become the most dramatic – and unusual – experience of their entire flying careers.
In our interviews, Swiney described how, as the Meteor jet punched through a layer of cloud at around 15,000 feet he suddenly “..got the fright of my life because there appeared to be, smack in front of the aeroplane three white, or nearly white, circular objects. Two of them were on a level keel, and one of them was canted at a slight angle, to one side. I thought ‘God Almighty this is three chaps coming down on parachutes,’ and I literally took the stick or pole, as we used to call it, out of David’s hand so we didn’t tear through these parachutes. He issued some sort of expletive, I don’t know what it was, and said ‘What on Earth is going on?’ and I said: ‘David, have a look at this!’
“It was something supernatural. I immediately thought of course, of saucers, because that’s actually what they looked like. They were not leaving a condensation trail as I knew we were. They were circular and appeared to be stationary. We continued to climb to twice that height [to 30,000 feet] and as we did so they did in fact change position. They took on a slightly different perspective. For example the higher we got they lost their circular shape and took on more of a ‘flat plate’ appearance – like when you hold a tea-saucer above your head and look at it, and then bring it down to your eye-level, it loses the circular shape and becomes a flat plate.
“At one time the objects, which were still very much in view, appeared to go from one side of us to the other, and to make quite sure it was not an illusion caused by us in our aeroplane moving to one side, I checked that we were absolutely still on a very steady heading, and sure enough they had moved across to the starboard side of the aircraft.”
As the Meteor levelled out at 35,000 feet the three strange objects remained clearly visible. They were saucer or plate shaped, slightly off-white in colour and emitted a fuzzy or iridescent light from their edges. There were no visible signs of propulsion: no portholes, turrets or other tell-tale signs that might have identified them as conventional aircraft viewed at an unusual angle.
According to the version recounted by Sir Peter Horsley, the instructor (Swiney) found it so difficult to take in what he was seeing that he thought he was suffering from oxygen failure. David Crofts’ account corroborates Horsley’s memory. In 2002 he told us:
“I remember doing the 35,000 foot check and Mick, who was in the front seat, said: ‘David, did you have anything to drink at lunchtime?’ and I said: ‘No, why?’ and he said: ‘Is your oxygen on?’ and I replied: ‘Mick, we’ve just done the 30,000 foot check and you checked with me that your oxygen was alright and I checked with you that my oxygen was alright’…then he said: ‘Well, look at that – straight ahead!’
“Mick [who was in the front seat] put his head to one side and I looked straight through the D-window and there were three dots ahead…[initially] they wouldn’t have been bigger than my thumb-nail at arm’s length and there were certainly three of them. I looked up from time to time and saw they were approaching and getting further and further apart. What I saw looked like the bottom of a stemmed glass. They were lens shaped, like an ellipse and the sun was behind them, and there was no cloud at that height. It was impossible to tell the size of them or how far away they were.
“I was thinking all the time that I’ve got to make this a good exercise and didn’t want to muff it by looking around at extraneous things…but Mick kept talking about them and saying that he thought they were UFOs so I thought: ‘Oh yes, well let’s go after them!’ thinking well now we can stop doing the exercise and we can officially say we are off the hook. But he didn’t, he said: ‘Oh Lord no, don’t you remember something that happened on the West Coast of America where a couple of pilots went after one of these things and they all got vapourised and they have never been seen since.’ I then asked him what he intended to do, and with that he called Air Traffic Control at Little Rissington and said what he could see and within a very short time he said: ‘I have control’, he turned the aircraft and we headed back to base.”
Swiney recalled what happened at this stage:
“We got to the top of the climb and I decided that really there was nothing much we could do. I was too shaken by what I had seen and decided to call the exercise off and go back to base. I called up Air Traffic Control at Rissington and said I had three unidentified objects fairly close and gave them my course. I understand later that there was a certain amount of pandemonium on the ground because they weren’t used to having their own staff instructors calling up saying ‘we have got three unidentified flying objects in front, what do we do?’ They didn’t know what to do either.”
According to Horsley’s account, Air Traffic Control instructed Swiney to approach the UFOs and the pilot subsequently turned the aircraft towards them, opening up to full power. “At Mach.8 they gained quite rapidly but when the circular object [sic] filled half their windscreen, it suddenly turned on its side ‘like a plate’ (their words) and climbed away out of sight at great speed.”
Swiney and Croft’s memory is somewhat less dramatic.
“It was quite extraordinary. As we kept them under observation, thinking what else could they possibly be, all of a sudden, having looked across at them at one moment, then looked back in another direction just to clear one’s eyes a bit, we just looked back and they simply weren’t there. They had just disappeared.”
Altogether the three ‘flying saucers’ had been in view for around ten minutes. He added:
“I had then been flying for about nine years and I had seen many funny reflections, refractions through windscreens and lots of other things, but this was nothing of the sort. We tried very hard to explain away what we were looking at but there was no way we could do that. There was something there, there is absolutely no doubt about it. It was NOT a reflection.”
Tracked on Radar
Unknown to the two men on the ground, the control tower at Little Rissington had called HQ Fighter Command at Stanmore, near London. It was the height of the Cold War, and with fear of a Soviet attack looming, senior officers triggered an air defence alert. Simultaneous with the Meteor pilot’s visual report RAF Sopley, a Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) radar in southern England, were tracking an “unidentified aircraft” moving across the southwest of England. Sopley’s controller alerted the commander of RAF Southern Sector at Rudloe Manor between Chippenham and Bath in Wiltshire. The nerve centre of the Sector – known as RAF Box – was an underground bunker that contained a Signals HQ and a fighter plotting control room where aircraft movements were monitored over the whole of southern England.
All unidentified blips were treated as hostile until positively identified, and the Sector Commander gave the order to scramble interceptors. A pair of Meteors on 24-hour Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty at RAF Tangmere, Sussex, screamed into the air and were vectored towards the unidentified radar target under Sopley’s control. According to Sir Peter Horsley, officers in the filter room at Rudloe Manor were able to identify Swiney’s Meteor on the plotting table as it closed on the unidentified blips, which suddenly disappeared off the tube at speed estimated as 1,000 mph. The two Meteors from Tangmere followed the target, but failed to make contact.
Independently, Mick Swiney described from memory how on his return to Little Rissington he was informed that “a radar station, which I think was a place called Box, somewhere in the Bath area, confirmed that they could see exactly what [we] could see, but it was on their radar screens as opposed to visible.” David Crofts was even more precise about the source of this information. He said the radar tracking was confirmed to him by intelligence officers from the Air Ministry who had travelled from London to interview the two men. Crofts said:
“They also told me that they [the UFOs] had been picked up on radar. I’m sure he said Sopley radar [Sopley G.C.I. north of Ringwood, Hampshire]. He certainly said that the fighters had been alerted and scrambled and that the target had a ground speed of 600 knots or 600 miles per hour, heading east but the fighters saw nothing, didn’t make a contact and returned to base.”
Further confirmation came in November 2002 when a retired RAF Signals officer, Terry Barefoot, contacted us independently with his own story. Terry worked in the underground complex at Rudloe Manor as a switchboard operator in 1952 and remembered the telephone call they received from the GCI station. “The radar station called up saying that three objects had entered our airspace, going at a fantastic speed, approximately 3,000 miles per hour. We had nothing that went that fast, and neither had the Russians or the Americans.” Mr Barefoot said the incident triggered a commotion in the control room, and led to an order to scramble a squadron to intercept the UFOs. Before the pilots could be vectored towards the fast-moving blips, they had disappeared from the plotting tables – still in formation – off the coast of Kent and out towards the English Channel.
The central role played by RAF Signals in relaying messages between RAF stations during the UFO alert may explain another intriguing feature of this incident, which again underlines its unique status in official history. For it appears that GCHQ, the Government’s secret listening station at Cheltenham, in Gloucestershire, were made fully aware of the events as they took place. In 1997 researcher Robin Cole privately circulated a booklet researching GCHQ’s role in the alleged ‘UFO cover-up,’ drawing upon sources who worked there. Cole wrote that the earliest UFO case that was linked to the secret listening post occurred in 1952 “when pilots from RAF Little Rissington were out on manoeuvres when in their sights, an object similar to the descriptions of a flying saucer came into view.” This was clearly the same incident described by Swiney and Crofts.
Coles’ knowledge of the case came from the person who typed the report on the case at GCHQ. At that time the listening station had no ‘UFO branch’ of its own but became involved by virtue of its critical role in the collection of ‘Signals Intelligence’ (SIGINT). Cole concluded his account of the incident by noting “that it appears that GCHQ picked up on the various messages passing back and forth from the aircrew and RAF Little Rissington. In other words, GCHQ intercepted the conversation.”
What’s more, there is now evidence that a second, independent civilian radar station had plotted the movements of the UFOs during the incident. During our research at the PRO we came upon an entry in the Operations Record Book of CFS Little Rissington, dated 21 October 1952. It read:
“Flight Lieutenant M.J.E. SWINEY, instructor, and Lieutenant D.CROFTS, R.N., student, sighted three mysterious, ‘saucer-shaped objects’ travelling at high speed at about 35,000’ whilst on a high level navigation exercise, in a Meteor VII. Later, A.T.C.C. Gloucester reported radar plots to confirm this, but Air Ministry discounted any possibility of ‘extra terrestrial objects.”
The ORB entry was the first contemporary official record we found that corroborated the accounts of the eye witnesses. What’s more it confirmed that Air Traffic Control radars, in addition to the RAF’s air defence radars, had detected unidentified flying objects at the same time as the visual sighting from the Meteor jet. When we located the PRO record the first question that occurred to us was this: how could the Air Ministry “discount the possibility of extra terrestrial objects” so soon after the incident happened? Where is the file containing the final report? Maybe this is where the role of GCHQ – and its direct connections with the Security Services and US intelligence – played a crucial role in the investigation. To officially admit the role played by these secret agencies in a UFO incident would expose the agency’s interest in a subject that has long been denied. This factor alone may explain why the authorities continue to claim they have no record of this case to this day.
The Air Ministry investigation
David Crofts memory of what happened when they landed at Little Rissington after the experience are clear after 50 years.
“….[as soon as we disembarked] Wing Commander flying grabbed the pair of us, he came out to the aircraft if I remember rightly. I was told to go to my cabin, I was not to talk to anyone, all my meals would be brought to me, if I wanted anything to drink I would have to get in touch with someone to get them for me, I wasn’t to go in the bar. Mick was to go home forthwith, and stay there until he reported to Wing Commander flying the next morning. I was to be there too at 9 o’clock and there were a couple of officers from the Air Ministry intelligence section who debriefed us separately. They interviewed us and got us to talk about it and to draw what we thought we saw.
“Thinking back I don’t think they asked the right questions. They didn’t give me the impression that they were very high powered, I wouldn’t have thought they were any higher than Squadron Leader in rank. I have an opinion now that they didn’t know much about what it was all about. They said yes we are looking into it, and gave me the impression that we had seen something unusual. But I got the impression that they were just going through a routine.”
We asked Lt Cdr Crofts what questions the intelligence officers asked.
“What did you see? What happened? Tell us your story?…Much the same as you’ve done now, but they didn’t go into the detail that you’ve gone into and they should have perhaps tried to locate where we were when we saw them. They told us, or he told me, that they had been in telecommunication with every country in the world that was likely to have that sort of aircraft in the vicinity at that time and they all agreed that they didn’t.
“The only thing that I could think of was that we happened to see three Bell X supersonic aircraft that at that time were doing that sort of thing in a loose formation over the UK all the way from the USA. But of course it was not possible with the aircraft we had, and it was not possible with the Bell X-100. The only other possibility I have considered were lenticular clouds. But I remember going to the base Meteorological Officer afterwards and asking: ‘Is there any possibility that it could have been a lenticular cloud or any cloud at all?’ and he replied: ‘David, there was no possibility of there being any clouds above when you broke through the cloud base.”
When the officers left base, the incident was officially ‘closed.’ Neither Swiney nor Crofts recall being specifically warned not to discuss their sighting in public. However, a year later the Air Ministry felt it was necessary to issue new instructions to all RAF stations, warning all aircrew that reports of ‘aerial phenomena’ were classified as ‘Restricted.’ “Personnel are warned that they are not to communicate to anyone other than official persons any information about phenomena they have observed, unless officially authorised to do so.” (HQ No 11 Group letter ref 11G/0.2802/8/Int. 16 December 1953).
The reports produced by Swiney and Crofts, including drawings of the three UFOs were returned to London for scrutiny at the headquarters of the Deputy Directorate of Intelligence, or D.D.I. (Tech), on the 9th floor of the Hotel Metropole near Trafalgar Square. And there they disappeared into the same black hole that swallowed many other ‘classic’ UFO incidents reported to the MoD, never to be seen again.
In December 1953 the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence) Air Marshal Sir Francis Fressanges delegated to D.D.I. (Tech) responsibility for the investigation of UFO reports made by radar stations and aircrew. Early in 1955 D.D.I. (Tech) produced a 10,000 word report on their study of reports received since 1950. A security-cleared version of this ‘Secret’ report, at a quarter of the original length, was published in the Air Ministry’s ‘Secret Intelligence Summary’ available at the PRO. It concluded that 90 percent of the reports could be explained as “meteors, balloons, flares and many other objects” but 10 percent remained unexplained. These cases “need be attributed to nothing more sinister than lack of data.”
Group Captain Harold Collins was Deputy Director of Intelligence at Air Ministry from 1950-52. Now aged 95, he still recalls receiving “about a dozen so-called reports of aerial phenomena” as part of his duties: “..they ranged from one woman who reported on a man from outer space knocking on her door to two reports we were never able to explain as misidentifications,” he recalled. Significantly, Group Captain Collins confirmed that the two reports that remained “unexplained” were made by RAF aircrew. We believe one of these was the Little Rissington incident.
GCHQ and Whitehall: UFO cover-up?
Mick Swiney was to rise in rank to Air Commodore before retirement at the end of a long and eventful career in the RAF. During the course of his career, he heard nothing further about his ‘UFO’ experience. Although he was to have two further, but less dramatic “sightings” whilst piloting aircraft from bases in Germany during 1953-54, he was able to ‘explain’ one of these as a sighting of an escaped meteorological balloon. But he was never able to account for his 1952 experience, and it continued to play upon his mind, particularly the official silence that continued to surround the circumstances. It was not until 1974, during a posting to the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, that he decided to make some discreet inquiries of his own.
At that time, the MOD’s standard answer to all public and Parliamentary questions was that because UFO sightings had such mundane explanations all files were routinely destroyed at five yearly intervals. This practice, they said, had been halted in 1967, and as a result the earliest UFO records held in MoD archives dated from 1962. Evidently, in public at least, someone was being economical with the truth, because about 1974 – long after the date at which the MoD claimed they had been destroyed – the reports made by Swiney and his co-pilot remained on file.
“I was then in a position to say that I wanted to see the report I had written in 1952. I simply said ‘I want to see it’ and the next thing was one of my staff (a RAF Group Captain) plonked it on my desk,” Swiney explained. The file was obtained from an Air Intelligence branch that had inherited D.D.I. (Tech)’s records, and the officer who recovered the file said it had been located “in the Blue Book.”
“So I had a look at it,” Swiney continued. “It was all there, and if I remember rightly I also saw David Croft’s report which was attached to it. I had a look at it and when I was satisfied I put it in the out-tray. I should have taken a copy there and then.”
In 2002 Michael Swiney, now in retirement, made a fresh attempt to recover his original report with our assistance. Firstly he wrote to the RAF’s Air Historical Branch, now based in the old Fighter Command HQ building at Bentley Priory. They said that UFO reports submitted to Air Ministry intelligence could have been preserved for transfer to the PRO, or alternatively marked for destruction. If MoD record reviewers “did not consider it worthy of preservation then I am afraid it would have been destroyed, which [we] think is its most likely fate.”
Not satisfied with this response, Swiney wrote directly to the Director General of GCHQ to inquire if the station had retained a copy of his report. In reply, a civil servant said an archive search had failed to locate the file and his request had been passed to colleagues in London “who historically dealt with such matters.” This was of course, the Air Staff secretariat at Whitehall, DAS 4 (formerly Sec(AS)2a during Nick Pope’s incumbency in 1991-93). In due course, the ‘UFO desk’ replied with a standard statement that returned the inquiry to square one. Swiney was advised that “…it was generally the case that before 1967 all UFO report files were destroyed after five years…[but] since 1967, following an increase in public interest in this subject ‘UFO’ files are now routinely preserved. Any files from the 1950s and early 1960s which did survive are available for examination at the Public Record Office.”
In reply, Swiney asked a pertinent question:
“If it was generally the case that before 1967 all UFO report files were destroyed after five years, how was it that I actually saw and read it in about 1974, some seventeen years later, when serving at the MoD?”
The veteran airman does not expect to receive an answer, because to admit that ‘secret’ files on dramatic UFO incidents exist that fall outside the scope of the public records system would lead to questions about the honesty of the Government’s official policy that UFOs are “of no defence significance.”
Now in his late 70s, Air Commodore Swiney is obliged to accept that he may never learn the truth about what it was he saw half a century ago. “I can’t believe it is an intentional cover-up,” he told us, but I don’t really understand why they are being so difficult.” Although the official records relating to the Little Rissington incident are “missing presumed destroyed” Michael Swiney can still point to his own documentary evidence. In what is probably a unique in the in the history of RAF flying logbooks, there exists an entry, in Swiney’s handwriting, dated 21 October 1952, that reads:
Michael Swiney’s final words on the UFO experience which made such a lasting impression on his life are these:
“I am completely open-minded. I don’t think there are little green men who are going to suddenly land and get out of peculiar-looking craft. But what I do know is that both David Crofts and I saw something, the like of which we had never seen before, and I have never seen since. I cannot explain it. But all I do know is that I did see, as did he, something which was most unusual.”
This article is based upon transcripts of taped interviews with Air Commodore M.J.E. Swiney, April 2001 and May 2002 and with Lieutenant Commander D. Crofts in February 2002. We wish to thank both men for their assistance in our research. Thanks also to the late Sir Peter Horsley, Terry Lightfoot and to Nick Redfern.
Note: Air Commodore Michael Swiney, OBE, RAF officer, was born on August 19, 1926. He died of cancer on September 30, 2016, aged 90. His obituary appeared in The Times on 15 October 2016.
David Clarke and Andy Roberts, Out of the Shadows: UFOs, the Establishment and the Official Cover-up (London: Piatkus, 2002).
Sir Peter Horsley, Sounds from Another Room (London: Leo Cooper, 1997)
Robin Cole, GCHQ and the UFO Cover-up (Cheltenham: Privately published, 1997)
Copyright David Clarke 2020