originally published in Fortean Times 199 (2005)
Around 1.15am on Wednesday, 31 March 1993 dozens of people across western Britain saw triangular shaped UFOs speeding across the night sky. Do these sightings provide hard evidence that aliens were able to evade Britain’s air defences, as one former MoD official has claimed? DAVID CLARKE found the answer in the X-files:
“It seems that an unidentified object of unknown origin was operating in the UK Air Defence Region without being detected on radar; this would appear to be of considerable defence significance, and I recommend that we investigate further, within MOD or with the US authorities.”
These were the words used by Nick Pope in the conclusion of a report he put together for the attention of his superiors at the Ministry of Defence following the UFO “flap” in 1993. To this day Pope claims that “no satisfactory explanation” was ever found for the reports that reached his office from Devon and Cornwall, the West Midlands and elsewhere that night. He was particularly impressed by the story told by an MoD police patrol who saw the lights from RAF Cosford and rang ahead to alert the meteorological officer at nearby RAF Shawbury that the UFO was coming his way. His sighting – coming from a credible witness familiar with military aircraft – was the most impressive of all. According to Pope’s account of the case in 2005 he saw “a vast triangular shaped craft flying at about 200ft.” This UFO made a low frequency humming noise and fired a narrow beam of light which swept the ground “as if it was looking for something.”
Later other sightings came to light from parts of Ireland, northern France and elsewhere in Europe. Unlike many UFO stories, the core collection of sightings – timed between 1.10 and 1.15 am – tallied to a remarkable degree. Most described two bright white lights speeding towards the southeast horizon, leaving trails of luminous vapour in their wake. Some described a third light which gave the impression of triangular shape, but there were a few maverick reports from different times and places that did not fit the pattern.
For once, the MoD’s UFO desk had something of potential “defence significance.” Checks ruled out the possibility that military or civilian aircraft could have caused the flap. Radar tapes were carefully scrutinised but drew a blank – no intruder had been detected by the UK’s air defences. As a result Pope cited this case as the turning point on his tour of duty – the “big case” that led him to believe that extraterrestrials really were able to penetrate Britain’s defences at will.
But as Jenny Randles has explained (in Fortean Times 194:23) a simple explanation for the event was available from day one. On the evening of 30 March 1993 Russia launched the Cosmos 2238 radio satellite into orbit. The Tsyklon rocket booster 22586U, which propelled the satellite into space then later re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, breaking into two or more pieces as it decayed.
A US Space Command/NASA data computer simulation of its trajectory, obtained by amateur astronomer Gary Anthony, shows it transit over Ireland at 1.07 am BST moving south-easterly towards Western England at imminent re-entry height. It crossed Devon and Cornwall between 1.10 and 1.15 am – and was seen by police patrols who described “two very bright lights…hovering at about 2000ft (600m)” – before the debris crossed the English Channel.
Dozens of witnesses saw these lights and ion trails, including Fortean Times contributor Peter Brookesmith who watched them with a friend from the foothills of the Preseli Mountains in West Wales. Brookesmith initially believed they were fast-moving jets at 2000ft (600m) until he realised they could not be aircraft as they were silent.
The NASA data simulation clearly shows the flaming debris would be visible to anyone in the British Isles who looked in any of the right directions during the time it incandesced. Experienced UFOlogists have found that in many similar cases, witnesses – even trained observers – often make fundamental errors when they try to estimate the direction and height of lights seen in the night sky, especially when they are visible only for a short period of time with few reference points. Debris burning up high in the atmosphere can appear much closer, and where formations of lights appear the human mind can “fill in the gaps” to produce impressions of structured objects as witnessed in the diversity of the witness statements found in this case. Observers are also frequently mistaken about precise times sightings are made, which must explain the reports here clearly describing the same phenomenon but at wildly different times and even dates.
Two X-files were opened on the case the MoD called “The Cosford Incident”. The Sec(AS) file covering the incident (released by The National Archives as DEFE 24/2086/1 in August 2009) was compiled by Nick Pope who copied his work to his opposite number in DI55, a branch of the defence intelligence staff.
Quite early in the investigation, RAF Fylingdales – the early warning station in North Yorkshire that tracks satellites and ballistic missiles – told Pope that a Russian rocket had re-entered the atmosphere around the relevant time. The file reveals they initially believed this occurred shortly after midnight, i.e. one hour before the main cluster of sightings. But after a BUFORA investigator updated Pope on the Russian satellite theory, he contacted Fylingdales again. This time they reported back that the Tsyklon rocket had re-entered at 2.20am local “with an error margin of an hour either way.”
In hindsight, we now know from the catalogue of space debris maintained by US Space Command and NASA that the correct time for the decay was in fact 1.15am local time, leaving no doubt this indeed was the source of the UFO flap. On 7 May 1993 Nick Pope wrote to DI55 with the comment:
“Whilst the decay…might explain some of the high altitude sightings, it does not explain the low level sightings. It also fails to explain [the] report of a low hum, or the report from Mr Elliott, the Met Officer at RAF Shawbury. The spread of timings and bearings of the sightings also argues against this decay explaining all of them.”
But do the facts bear out this claim?
The sighting by the Meteorological Officer, Wayne Elliott, made a big impression on Nick Pope, coming as it did from a credible witness with considerable experience as an observer of military aircraft. In his 2005 re-telling of the story Pope implies that Elliott’s sighting occurred shortly after the sighting of the “two bright lights” by the police patrol at RAF Cosford at 1.15 am (now clearly identified as the Russian rocket decay).
However, the file released under the FOIA reveals that Elliott’s sighting actually took place at 2.40 am – one hour and thirty minutes later – after he left his office to take his weather observations. Pope’s original account does not mention a “triangular shaped” UFO but includes a guesstimate of size “somewhere between a C130 and a 747 [jumbo-jet]”. The UFO carried three red lights “two side by side and one larger red light slightly behind”, which may be where the idea of a triangular object originated. Elliott was indeed familiar with military aircraft and helicopters, but said this was unlike anything he had seen before. He said it hovered for several minutes 15-20 kms away before moving across the airfield at a speed estimated at hundreds of miles per hour. As it passed over Elliott heard what he described as “a low humming noise” and at one point when the object was 400ft above the ground it projected a thin shaft of light, like a laser beam, which “appeared to be searching for something on the ground.”
Clearly the object seen by Wayne Elliott wasn’t the Russian Tsyklon rocket. What else carries red lights, moves erratically at low altitude and uses a beam of light to search the ground late at night? The answer seems obvious. But it wasn’t until 2005 that an airman serving at RAF Shawbury read Nick Pope’s account of the sighting and decided it was time to speak out.
“The UFO supposedly seen at RAF Shawbury was later identified as a Dyfed-Powys police helicopter following a stolen car down the A5 between the A49 junction…The observer was using his NiteSun to illuminate proceedings.”
How could a meteorologist – a trained observer – be so mistaken? When I put this new evidence to Mr Elliott, now a senior figure in the Met Office, his reply was equally surprising. Elliott confirmed that it was indeed the MoD police at Cosford who, having seen the rocket decay, phoned his station and suggested he look out for UFOs. When, over an hour later, he saw unfamiliar lights hovering near the airbase, he was primed to interpret what he saw as a UFO. Basic details of his sighting were passed by Cosford to Whitehall and Nick Pope rang to quiz him. Elliott said he was assured that checks had ruled out military or civilian aircraft. But had enquiries been made with local police forces? At the time both the Dyfed-Powys and West Mercia police forces operated helicopters equipped with searchlights. Unfortunately flight logs are only kept for a short period before destruction. As a result, it is impossible to establish with certainty whether a helicopter was indeed responsible for Mr Elliot’s sighting.
“At the time it did not strike me as being something familiar,” he told me. “However, it’s clear in hindsight that what I saw was not the same object seen at Cosford as it was much later. I never made anything of it, I just reported what I had seen. Nick Pope was very excited about it and made a great deal of the fact that I was an official observer which was true. He assured me that he had checked with all the military sources for aircraft and ruled them out…I believed what I was told at the time, but now I’m convinced that what I saw has been explained. I have to accept that the noise like a humming and the beam of light are very similar to what you would expect of a police helicopter.”
This case has quickly become a classic in the UFO literature thanks to the publicity Nick Pope gave it in his book, Open Skies Closed Minds, that was published in 1996 after he “came out” as UFOlogist. In the book he ponders on the significance of the date of the Cosford sightings. The Belgian flap involving triangular shaped UFOs had taken place on the same date in 1990. In that case was it just a coincidence that newspapers were likely to print reports of the UK sightings on 1 April – when many carry April Fool jokes? Could it be, he asked, that the date of the UFO visit had been “deliberately chosen and planned” by “an intelligence fully familiar with human frailties?”
The Cosford UFO stands revealed as an Identified Flying Object but has recently become a “classic case” entirely as a result of its promotion by Nick Pope. In fact it was a classic case of misinterpretation, both of an initial phenomenon by the witnesses and later by a UFOlogist with a will to believe.
Today Nick Pope continues to promote ‘the Cosford incident’ as one of his top 10 unexplained cases and ignores the fact that every element of the case can be satisfactorily explained. Ironically, his last word on the subject in his official capacity as UFO desk officer at MoD on 6 April 1994, in response to a question from a Spanish UFOlogist about the Cosmos 2238 re-entry,was:
“I think it is clear that most of the UFO sightings that occurred on the night in question can be attributed to this event.” (TNA DEFE 24/1967/1).
For detailed commentary on the Cosford/Shawbury incident, including scans of key documents from the MoD file, visit Joe McGonagle’s UFO-UK Cosford page.
Gary Anthony’s Cosford webpage contains a detailed analysis of the Cosmos 2238 data and discussion of the sightings in Ireland and France on 31 March 1993.
Copyright David Clarke 2011