ON THE TRAIL OF THE PHANTOM FLIER
During the winter of 1973-74 British detectives were drawn into a cat-and-mouse pursuit of a phantom helicopter which they feared was being operated by Irish terrorists. As DAVID CLARKE reveals the scare had all the elements of an urban legend in the making.
Late one September night in 1973 security guard Simon Crowe was alerted by an urgent phonecall. Crowe guarded high explosives stored in a quarry high on the Peak District moors near Buxton. Nearby residents had seen what they thought was a helicopter about to land inside the quarry and called police. Crowe raced towards the site in his Landrover. This was the second time in one week he had been called out in the middle of the night and this time he was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
“But I had no luck,” he told me. “On the first occasion it hovered at about fifty feet from the ground with the spotlights shining downwards into the main quarry floor. When I approached in the Landrover with my headlights on, it rose slowly and flew away. On this occasion it rose out of the quarry and I was not aware of it until I saw the lights. It quickly disappeared in the same direction as before. But it was odd, because at no time could I identify it as a helicopter – apart from its ability to hover and the sound from the rotor-blades.”
This was more than just another sighting of lights over the Pennine moors. Crowe’s report came at the height of one of the most intensive IRA bombing campaigns on mainland Britain. The attacks culminated in a series of bombings in central London and on pubs in Guildford, Woolwich and Birmingham. At the height of the carnage, some senior police officers suspected the IRA was planning to use unregistered helicopters and even light aircraft to smuggle guns, explosives and terrorists across the Irish Sea to feed the cells operating on the mainland.
Early in 1974 IRA gunmen successfully used helicopters hijacked from the Irish republic in operations north of the border. When more sightings of unmarked helicopters flying late at night were made across a swathe of northern England, a direct connection with terrorism appeared possible. By November 1973 detectives had received twelve reports of helicopters “apparently practicing landings in the vicinity of quarries and explosive stores in the Derbyshire countryside”. One of the most detailed was made by two police officers who saw the copter at close range. They were able to identify the exact type of machine involved, a two-seater Bell 206A Jet Ranger. This was a medium sized machine, capable of carrying five people, with a range of 250 miles.
Special Branch were asked to review the evidence and warned the Home Office and “Box 500” (MI5) of the potential threat in a briefing which read: “[CID] has made numerous enquiries to discover the ownership and reasons for the flights from various sources but has yet failed to establish any positive facts. [They] have contacted an experienced RAF helicopter pilot… who explained that night flying in the Derbyshire area would be extremely dangerous due to the nature of the terrain and to the number of overhead pylons in that area. There is therefore a strong possibility of these flights being of an illegal nature.”
Papers released via the Freedom of Information Act reveal how initial fears were increased by confessions allegedly made to West Yorkshire police by IRA prisoners along with unspecified “delicate information” supplied by informants. These hinted that “the IRA has access to and is alleged to have used a helicopter for training purposes in the Derbyshire area.” One revealed how a plot was being hatched to use the copter in a daring jail break on a prison where IRA members were incarcerated. Despite the lack of any hard evidence these rumours were initially taken seriously. On the basis of this questionable intelligence, West Yorkshire’s Chief Constable asked Special Branch to set up a national helicopter index listing all 340 machines owned by companies and private individuals. He also asked for discreet inquiries to be made into any with former armed service experience who might have sympathies with the IRA.
The mystery took an unexpected turn early in January 1974 when dozens more sightings poured into police stations in Derbyshire and Cheshire. On one occasion detectives searched fields near Jodrell Bank telescope after the chopper appeared to land, but it took off before they could reach it. According to the police the helicopter was only active in the early hours and swooped as low as 100ft, sometimes without lights and on other occasions used a searchlight to pick out pylons and hillsides.
Tabloid headlines were dominated by news of the unfolding drama. Rumours spread linking the midnight flights with terrorists, spies, drug smuggling and cattle rustling from the air. Most bizarre of all was one theory reported by the Daily Telegraph that “it might be a ‘home-made’ helicopter which the owner, unable to obtain an air-worthiness certificate, if flying dangerously at night, or…it might be a modern – and wealthy – lover who finds it the most convenient way to reach his mistress or girlfriend.” The espionage theme was a favourite of the Daily Mirror who described the flier as “a devil-may-care pilot”. It said the scare had “all the drama of a James Bond spy spectacular.” Mirror reporter Ed Macauley took a flight in a private Jet Ranger during daylight over the High Peak and was told by ex-Army pilot Alex Parker that “to try to get through these hills at such a low level makes this guy a madman – or a great pilot. Whichever he is, I still feel he has been lucky to get away without having an accident.”
The scare reached its height in March 1974 when the Home Office convened a secret intelligence conference in London. It was attended by Special Branch detectives, along with representatives from the Derbyshire and Cheshire police and the Ministry of Defence. The meeting considered a dossier of 27 reports compiled by the CID, along with some evidence collected by Air Traffic Control radars. Three of the “hard” visual sightings could be linked with unidentified radar plots but the meeting heard that “no useful pattern of timing or positioning” could be identified and “no crimes were reported at the times of the alleged flights.” Senior detectives agreed the sightings could not be ignored and the MoD were asked to report back on what facilities they could offer to track and capture the helicopter and its operators. Although “the use of searchlights, radar, MoD helicopters and the Harrier Jump Jet were discussed” the military refused to commit their crews to a costly and risky low-level pursuit of a phantom in darkness over the UK.
Leading the investigation was Special Branch Det Chief Supt John Warwicker, a qualified pilot with experience flying helicopters. In June 1974 he prepared a detailed report on the mystery for the Home Office and MI5. He revealed the how senior officers had begun to doubt that a real helicopter was involved and concluded that “helicopter flights at night are a high specialised undertaking, requiring a fully equipped aircraft and an expert pilot [and blind landings] at night are a risky undertaking.” Warwicker concluded “the sightings…seem to me to be a random amalgam of the frequent reports which are made to one authority or another on a daily basis.”
Special Branch recognised that the border separating the helicopter sightings from the equally nebulous UFO reports received by the police and MoD was very thin. As soon as the existence of a helicopter could be eliminated, police interest came to an end. As Jenny Randles remarks in The Pennine UFO Mystery: “Since, as far as officialdom is concerned UFOs do not exist, then object must be a helicopter, even if no one knows where it comes from, or goes to, or why its pilot is insane enough to fly over such dangerous terrain in such a foolhardy fashion.”
Detectives soon realised the publicity their investigation had received was counter productive. Hundreds of reports had poured into official sources, many describing perfectly normal helicopters on legitimate flights. Throughout the world an oil crisis was causing widespread fuel shortage, yet the phantom seemed to be untroubled by this problem. Doubts were increased when a psychologist put forward the theory that the flap was a rumour-fuelled panic triggered by the police and the media. Professor John Cohen of Manchester University said the initial reports from the police might have triggered off the flap. “It is contagious,” he said. “Plant an idea and you get a kind of visual epidemic.”
With no resolution found and no evidence of IRA involvement established, the scare ended almost a quickly as it began. The Special Branch file was closed in October 1974 with the comment “the helicopter and pilot were never identified.” But the mystery chopper never went away. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic a wave of mysterious cattle mutilations spread across the US Midwest and these were quickly linked with the activities of unmarked “black helicopters” linked in folklore with UFOs and their occupants.
A final sinister twist to the mystery came in 1976 during the trial in Leeds of the murderer Donald Nielson, whom the Press called ‘The Black Panther.’ Nielson’s reign of terror in January 1975 culminated in the kidnap and murder of a heiress, Lesley Whittle, who was left to die in a culvert at Bathpool in Staffordshire. The police hunt for Nielson coincided with a fresh crop of helicopter sightings. During the trial his barrister appealed for witnesses who saw the machine on the night of the crime to contact the defence team, but did not reveal why this was a factor in the trial. Murder had now joined terrorism and smuggling in the sinister links that were made with the phantom helicopter in the popular imagination.
David Clarke, ‘Phantom Helicopters: a rumour-generated visual epidemic’, Contemporary Legend new series 5 (2002): 67-91
Jenny Randles, ‘The Pennine UFO Mystery’, Granada 1983.
Copyright David Clarke 2011