The Cold War and UFOs
There is more to the Ministry of Defence UFO files than reports on strange sightings in the sky. They provide insight into the public’s perception of the Cold War and technological advances, as well as extra-terrestrial life, through an increase in sci-fi-related television, publications, and media reporting.
In this podcast, recorded as part of The National Archives’ Cold War season, Keith Mitchell, a specialist in our UFO records, delves into this fascinating topic.
The National Archives holds files on UFO reports and correspondence released by the Ministry of Defence, we’re all aware of that. They include various letters, reported alleged sightings, close encounters, as well as official replies from parliamentary questions.
But there is more to the UFO files than just the reports and letters concerning an imminent invasion by extra-terrestrials or their buzzing of our skies. The files give an idea of how the public views our skies, how they perceived what they could not explain, and how the Ministry of Defence responded to reported sightings, whether unexplained or unidentified, and how the MOD shifted the public’s perception from terrestrial tensions to alleged extra-terrestrial life and little green men.
Well without there being a spate of unexplained events over Sweden in 1948, it wasn’t until July 1952, when Washington DC experienced unexplained phenomenon, that many people claim was the start of the modern day UFO. Washington National Airport, now Ronald Reagan, reported radar contacts whilst St Andrews Air Force Base reported sightings of `an orange ball of fire and fast moving lights’.
The Washington sightings inundated Project Blue Book, the American investigation of UFOs, with reports and sightings. And ultimately, the sightings were put down to misidentified aerial phenomenon and temperature inversion. These sightings prompted Winston Churchill to ask `what does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? And what can it mean?’
The Flying Saucer Working Party report in 1951 confirmed the American project’s grudge and sign reports, the predecessors to Project Blue Book. Nearly all sightings could be explained. The Project Blue Book report also referred to Ockham’s Razor from a 14th-century friar named William of Ockham, a philosopher and theologian.
The assumption was that simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones and simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable. The report concludes `on the evidence so far available, further investigations are a singly profitless enterprise’.
The media prompted interest in space and ET and the term flying saucer. The term is reportedly from either an American pilot who reported the shape he saw was `nine saucer-like aircraft’, whilst the British journalist in a Bronx cafe claimed the term whilst talking with three New York reporters during the late 1950s. Within an hour the term was in use and within two hours, ninety Americans had seen one.
The term is more likely to have originated with American clay pigeon shooters from the 1880s.
The use of a flying disc or a saucer in clay pigeon shooting may explain the sightings reported to the MOD. The DEFE 24 files have descriptions such as `upturned cup without handles’, `inverted cup and saucer’, `like a teapot lid’ or `perhaps it was the shape of a meat dish’. Either way, the term caught on and everyone now saw flying saucers.
The media inspired the public to look beyond our planets and stars and extra-terrestrial life although the idea of men in space was not a new concept. Science fiction had countless authors and writers intrigued by outer space. Jules Verne wrote From Earth to the Moon in 1865. The image on the right is from a game from Moko. A Trip to the Moon was based on the novel. This Bavarian company registered this image in the Stationers’ Office in London in 1901.
But it wasn’t just going to the stars that attracted interest. 1897, H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds – this time, aliens from the red planet Mars attack Earth. So the public’s paranoia to extra-terrestrial life was evident in 1938. Orson Wells broadcast a radio adaptation of the novel. The broadcast reportedly resulted in the local residents leaving their homes in mass panic.
Another dramatisation in 1949 resulted in panic and riots in Quito, Ecuador. That was in a Foreign Office file. Hollywood, notably in 1953 and 2005 have based movies on the book and in 1978 the novel was turned into a rather popular musical. Although unfortunately the Royal Navy has never had a ship called Thunderchild.
The post war also saw authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke writing about life on other planets. In 1968, writer Philip K. Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Probably better known as the Harrison Ford classic, Blade Runner. Although not a sci-fi regarding aliens but still it involves off-world humanoid life forms being hunted on Earth.
Comics have also highlighted the appetite for space and alien-related stories. This is one out of DEFE 24 and comes from the Evening Standard. So Philip Nowlan created Buck Rogers in 1929, a war veteran who survives in suspended animation for 492 years. Later, television put Buck Rogers into a futuristic 25th century space scenario.
But the success of Buck Rogers led Alex Raymond to publish a comic strip of his own in 1934. This adventure involved the athletic hero being aided by his girlfriend in The Scientist. They travelled across the stars to save Earth from the planet Mongo. Depending on your age, depends on whether you remember the black and white TV series re-runs on a Saturday morning, or Brian Blessed bellowing out `Gordon’s alive!’ I won’t attempt to do that, I promise!
Or unless you’re like some of my younger colleagues they just don’t recognise who it is at all. So during the post-Second World War years, television and film started producing more sci-fi. The 1950s series such as Science Fiction Theatre and Twilight Zone increased the public’s interest in the unknown, extra-terrestrial life and space travel. It wasn’t until the 1960s that television really came to the forefront with the public’s imagination towards the stars and alien life. Doctor Who, Lost in Space, Star Trek and The Invaders all started in the 1960s. These all brought aliens and space travel to everyone’s front room and the small black and white TV in the corner.
This increase in sci-fi related culture coincides with a gradual increase in the MOD receiving reports of UFO sightings. In 1959 there 22 reported sightings but by 1966 this had risen to 95. Although the annual number of reported sightings fluctuates. Nothing much for ET to phone home about. Nothing to cause alarm.
Prior to 1967 reports of UFO sightings were not retained. There was not sufficient interest to keep them, so they said. Possibly correct with an average of 50 reported sightings annually between 1959 and 1966. There are indications of types and numbers of unexplained reports prior to 1962. Between 1955 and 1957 there were 64 reports received. These included newspapers, radars and a photograph published in the Daily Sketch in 1957, although that was later admitted to be a fake. The MOD accounted for nearly all of these reports. The 1962 reports indicate a large proportion of the inquiries regarding UFO sightings were from schoolchildren doing projects for their CSEs.
Possibly other events that year were more important than an unidentified aerial sighting. The analysis from 1968 found that for 90% of sightings there was a plausible explanation. Unfamiliar objects or phenomenon were the more common reports. During this period the Air Ministry took some investigations but they concluded the unexplained 10% were too imprecise or inadequate to permit further investigation.
The Americans had over 10,000 reports from 1947 to 1965, failing to identify about 600 resulting in the University of Colorado being awarded a contract to study the reports. The report, known as the Condon Report, was largely regarded by individuals and organisations as a bias conspiracy by the American Air Force and American government to conceal facts from the American public.
The Russian studies involved a Soviet Air Force commission to investigate UFOs. But due to insufficient information the commission had, officially anyway, been disbanded. And in 1961 the Russian newspaper Pravda reported on space saucers over Soviet territory and beings from Venus landing in search of cheap oriental sweets. The article does also mention how easy it is to fabricate a photograph. As with the Americans, the Ministry of Defence confirmed their interest was purely an Air Defence interest.
So why did the Air Ministry write a report in 1968 and why did they start to keep records from this year? In 1967, the MOD received a staggering 362 reported sightings, up from 95 in 1966, more than the previous five years combined. As I mentioned prior to 1962 there are very few MOD UFO reports. But from 1967 the British authorities took an interest in the reported sightings specifically for national security. Government files are generally reviewed after five years from the date of the last entry in the file. In the case of the UFO files prior to 1967, the files would have been routinely destroyed when they reached this five year review stage. In 1967, the decision was made to keep the files. This resulted in the files from 1962 and a few stranglers from earlier being reviewed and kept from 1967. They were not reviewed thus not destroyed prior to 1967.
The MOD were not interested in extra-terrestrial life; their interest was to secure the skies from any threat to UK airspace from the Warsaw Pact or Soviet Bloc, USSR and Russia. Ports were looked at, but when Russian aircraft were discounted, the investigation ended. The keeping of reports of sightings from 1962 when the number of reported UFOs dropped that year was probably more coincidence than anything to do with that year’s world events and the threat from the Soviet Bloc.
So what happened in 1967 to see a rise from less than 100 to over 360? The Air Ministry’s thinking on the increase on sightings was simple – the space race was putting more man-made satellites into orbit. Aircraft were more frequent and the advances to aviation and jet engines both civil and military. The fine weather meant more aircraft, balloons and gliders in the sky. People saw more aircraft or aircraft lights. Heathrow and Gatwick airports were undergoing expansions – this coincides with more sightings from London. Although there were no mass sightings from any of these reports.
1967 saw a fine summer and autumn with clear evenings. Everyone is now in the swing of the sixties and a better feeling about the world. People are starting to go abroad on holidays. 1965, Thomas Cook make a £1 million net profit for the first time. Costa del Sol, the French Riviera and Amalfi Coast now replace the likes of Brighton, Blackpool and Bognor. I won’t go on about the sixties and changes to culture and life but just think about the Beatles and pirate radio set against the new anti-Communist war raging in Vietnam.
So with the clear skies, natural phenomenon are more apparent. People spent time outdoors in parks and gardens looking to the skies. They now saw stars and 1967 was a very good year for sighting the extremely bright planet Venus. Both Russia and America sent probes to this distant planet and NASA reports show there were four eclipses seen around the world and six meteor showers that year. The public needed an escape from the escalations of tensions brought on from the Cold War and the increase in sightings and the media reports regarding supposed extra-terrestrial activity was possibly a distraction from the world and growing tensions between the East and West.
The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the war in Vietnam were more than a Cold War. They were often open hostilities between the East and West and brought the world closer to a third and possible extinction event.
1962 saw the world on the verge of a new terrifying war, a nuclear war. The American deployment of nuclear weapons through Europe led Russia to start building their own missile launching facilities in Cuba. All eyes were on the superpowers, less so than the alien space invaders.
The Crisis highlighted the threat of the Cold War but the goal of the superpowers was the space race. The ultimate show of power and strength – who had the better scientists, technology and stronger economy.
Ballistic missile technology was used to launch rockets and during the 1950s the Ministry of Defence had looked at launching satellites into orbit. Blue Streak was a static ballistic missile system planned to coordinate the space programme with Commonwealth countries especially Australia. This was ultimately abandoned in the 1950s due to costs.
United States and Russia though both continued to use missile technology to launch satellites – the Russian Sputnik 1 in 1957 and Explorer from America in 1958. Britain did launch Skynet 1, communications satellites in the 1960s and 70s but costs would ultimately mean Britain relied on American satellites.
It wasn’t until 1982 and the Falklands War that Britain started looking at their own communication satellites again, although people will most likely associate Skynet with Arnold Schwarzenegger and a self-aware AI machine. Released at the same time as Britain was looking at less dependency on American satellites and launching their own communication satellite, the next one Skynet 4.
But from 1957 the Russians were initially ahead in the space race. The launch of Sputnik 1, which orbited Earth for approximately three months before burning up in the atmosphere, culminated in 1961 with the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.
Following the success of the Russian flights the US President, John F Kennedy, proclaimed the Americans would be the first to the moon. At the time an ambitious boast at best. Both Russia and America had attempted with some success upon man moon landings in 1958. It wasn’t until 1969 that America had success with the landings of Apollo 11 and the walk by Neil Armstrong proving man could leave our Earth and walk on a different planet. Around the world people were glued to the black and white images beamed to their living room. The flight over space continued with regular the launches including the Space Shuttle and the orbiting Russian Mir Space Station which is now part of the International Space Station.
It wasn’t just space where technology and the race for supremacy were paramount. The Cold War continued with advances in aircraft as well as rocket technology. During the 1940s civilian passenger planes were still propeller planes. But the 1950s saw the British de Havilland Comet start flying, the first purpose-built jet airline. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that Russian and American jet airliners started flying regular flights. By that I mean Douglas and Tupolev all manufactured passenger aircraft. The 1950s now saw a major investment in aircraft, both civilian and military. The public now saw satellites and different aircraft all at higher altitude and faster speeds.
Radar has been a mainstay of securing the UK’s airspace since the Second World War. But how good and reliable was British radar? One of the first questions any UFO researcher asks is: Was anything seen or reported on radar? The general response is usually along the lines of `nothing unusual and nothing significant’.
The ceiling for post-war radar coverage was about 40,000 feet. That’s about the height a modern-day commercial aircraft will fly. The aim was to fly reconnaissance aircraft above radar. Both East and West also required their bombers to fly above radar. This led to high altitude and supersonic aircraft being designed and built. Britain built the iconic Vulcan bomber, a mainstay of the Royal Air Force from 1956 until the 1990s. The bomber was part of a Bomber Command’s V bombers along with Valiant and Victor. The Hawker Hunter, the UK’s first supersonic fighter aircraft and the American’s included the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and the Russian’s had their Yak-27 Intercepter.
The unidentified reports from the 1950s to 60s indicate the majority of the reports the MOD could not identify were radar. A memorandum following a parliamentary question in June 1952 regarding the identification of unidentified aircraft in the vicinity of Scapa Flow stated the early warning system was broken and would hopefully be repaired by October. The nearest working radar was either RAF Leuchars or the Firth of Forth.
In December 1950 a sighting was reported from Seven Oaks, Kent. A bright object moving at about 130mph at 3000 feet from west to east. Wing Commander Russell reported they could not identify aircraft as the CNR, the early warning and control system, was not operational for the southern sector. This would possibly indicate anything could have flown across the Home Counties and even London without being tracked. Also in June 1950 a radio station in Wartling returned an unknown target. The investigation found this was likely caused by a sea-based radar at Portsmouth. If the radars were slightly different frequencies then they would leave an unusual signal described as very thick leaving more afterglow.
Another report in 1954, radar picked up three aircraft heading towards East Anglia. These could not be identified and the report concluded it was unlikely to be aircraft of an unfriendly power. They could identify these objects as friend or foe. And in 1957 the most notable event they couldn’t account for was a radar report from West Freugh up in Scotland. In 1957 a fighter jet was scrambled following another radar report, although this object was reported as being erratic and at high speed. But no visual contact was ever made.
These UFO reports would indicate that the UK’s radar was, shall we say, unreliable during the 1950s. Radar stations had been wound down following the end of the war. The cost of maintaining the stations was too much for the British economy. But the successful Russian atomic bomb tests of 1949 led to the MOD to re-establish the radar network. The systems in the 1950s were the original Chain Home radars from the Second World War. These were used for an early warning role and the aim is Type 7 radar was used for plotting and interception. The system had a network of mostly underground control station connected by telephone and telex.
From 1953 the aim is Type 80 radar, known as green garlic apparently, was introduced. This involved far fewer radars which could act as both early warning plot and interception. The advances in both radar and radar jamming meant stations were continually being upgraded or even superceded. The new ROTOR radar was problematic and still not fully functional during the 1950s. In 1956 the system was declared functioning. A report from 1957 on the Type 80 radar reports an inconsistency with the beam elevation. The aerial trials may have been influenced by the beams reflecting off the sea. This report shows what it looks like on radar when it’s jammed, as you can see on the right hand side. There is apparently another aircraft amongst all that scramble that can’t be seen.
So by 1959 the system was not fit for purpose. New mid-range ballistic missiles and advances in jamming meant ROTOR needed replacing. This meant that from the 1960s the Military Air Defence of the United Kingdom was merged with the growing Civilian Air Traffic Control. All the changes to radar during this period indicate that an aircraft could have entered UK airspace without being identified or even spotted. So the reports of lights or high fast moving objects could have been an intruder within British airspace.
Russian air defence was no better. The flight of a Cessna aircraft from Finland to land less than a mile from the Red Square in Moscow in 1987 demonstrates how easy it could have been to breach a national air defence system.
The knowledge that British radar was easily jammed and both sides playing real life war games may have led to the deliberate intrusion into British airspace. The operators and radar could either have been confused by the jamming or misreading what they were seeing. The Air Force had used chaff or foil backed sheets to jam German radars during the bombing of Hamburg in 1943. And another operation apparently gave the impression that a fleet approaching the coastline. It is more likely a Russian bear or badger rather than a flying saucer was seen above the UK. In 1997 RAF were scrambled following unidentified radar plots in the northern region. This was found to be Russian maritime patrol aircraft. The parliamentary question stressed the aircraft had not penetrated UK airspace. Although close enough to scramble two aircraft.
It wasn’t just aerial phenomenon that affected radar. The church spire at Boston, Lincolnshire was known to appear occasionally on local radars. In 1997 a loose minute on UFO policy on future handling of reports states reported sightings are described as `at a great height which may lie above radar coverage, only Fylingdales cover space or the endo atmosphere. All reported overland or at night in areas with little radar coverage’.
The files also give another example of radar failure. In 1970 the logbook for 5 Squadron reports the failure of Clanbedra radar during late November and early December. They were unable to find missiles during a training exercise. This is a couple of months after the tragic loss of a lightning aircraft during a night flying exercise.
The reported losses of lightning aircraft between 1963 and 1974 around the world totalled over 110. They are listed in one of the DEFE files. This would indicate the British Isles did not have 100% radar coverage 100% of the time. In 1988 a request to a RAF station in Northallerton in North Yorkshire regarding sightings over Rotherham, South Yorkshire received a reply stating `their coverage did not extend that far south’. In the same year the MOD stated UK Air Defence region was extremely well protected and it is highly unlikely that an intruder of unconventional origin would be able travel to the UK without being spotted.
Most alien aircraft were more likely UK military or civilian or a host of other uncontentious objects. During the re-entry in March 1993 of Cosmos 2338, the Cleehill, Shropshire primary radar was not working. They were relying on aircraft working secondary surveillance. Parliamentary answer in 1997 reported an unexplained radar plot as a permanent echo caused by a natural phenomenon – nothing unusual and occurs in certain weather conditions apparently.
Another example from the 1950s mentions objects originating within the UK were not tracked. Only those originating from outside the United Kingdom would be tracked. The MOD had reduced readiness following the end of the Cold War and a minute acknowledges that the problem is unlikely to subside due to advances in technology including unauthorised penetration of UK airspace by UAVs.
Most people think drones, such as the one last year that closed Gatwick airport causing mayhem, are a relatively new phenomenon but drones and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) have been used by the military for a number of years. In 1944 the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation includes an article on pilotless aircraft, Article 8. This convention was still being used up until the 1990s.
Desert Storm in 1991 used surveillance drones. The Americans established a UAV joint project office in 1988. Up until 1993 there were plans for a UAV with a speed of 0.9 Mac and an altitude of 40,000 feet, which would be just over radar coverage. Because of this increase in the new technology, in 1993 the Federal Aviation Administration drafted new rules regarding civilian UAVs. So with the imperfections of radar and the increase in the use of high altitude aircraft and drones, it’s no wonder the public started to believe what they were reading.
The drone around Gatwick last year wasn’t the first time that Gatwick has been the centre to a UFO report. Although they know this was a drone, the MOD has a number of claims of reports of sightings over or near the airport, all within DEFE 24. The airport, both military and civilian, are regularly hotspots of UFO sightings. Usually cylindrical shaped with headlights and two flashing lights. In 1991, a plane reported a near-miss whilst on approach to Gatwick Airport.
Near-misses are not uncommon. Between 1971 and 1976 there were 92 near-miss reports within 20 nautical miles of RAF Heyford in Oxfordshire alone. Other RAF bases close to Norwich Airport were also highlighted as having a high number of air misses. Anybody who knows Norwich will know that within a 50-mile radius you’ve got Bentwaters, Lakenheath and Mildenhall – all three American air bases as well as British air bases as well. The military were using Civilian Air Traffic Control, a reportedly excessive workload for controllers to identify, coordinate and track the large amount of traffic.
So the Boeing 737 on approach to Gatwick reported a cylindrical object. This was not reported to the MOD UFO Desk. This was seen as a near-miss not a UFO, and reported to the CAA, the Civil Aviation Authority. Researchers requested information from the MOD a few years later so the CAA report finds its way to the UFO Desk.
This highlights some of the other records you can find within the files. One inquiry regarding the UFO sighting saw the MOD give details of firing ranges, including testing at Lydd in Kent and Aberporth Range where air-to-air missiles were tested, in this case two Sidewinders.
Files in DEFE 71 on radar coverage referred to UFO investigations by both America and Britain and national security implications.
Another event in 1992 is mentioned within the UFO files. July saw the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The files include a number of sorties and flying reports and flying hours on that day within a UFO file. The type of sightings reported vary from lights to objects to clouds. The reported objects fly either low level or over housetops, high altitude or even among the stars. As you can see from these ones, top left, number 26, size R, shape star, colour star, was it bright? Yes. Ok, nice clear day maybe. One on the right, no noise, large white light, brighter than three car headlights. So you get the general idea. People look at the sky, they don’t recognise what they’re seeing, they might report it.
In the early hours of 31st March 1993 a police officer based in Bodmin, Cornwall reported seeing two bright lights descending at speed. The officer reported sightings also at Bristol Airport, by security guards at Tern Hill Barracks and RAF Stafford. There were no military or civil aircraft in the area, although the sightings were high altitude. The objects were seen flying high across the South West. Further reports came from the public and police officers as far as Bristol, Cornwall, Hampshire, Staffordshire and Wales. With descriptions varying from `two objects identical to stars’, `oval shaped dark silhouettes’, `two bright lights larger than Jupiter’ and `star shaped with vapour trail’. They’re all from DEFE 24 files.
This sighting was ultimately found to be the re-entry of a satellite rocket boosters, Cosmos 2238. This was a Russian naval reconnaissance satellite used to determine the position of foreign or enemy (as in NATO) naval forces through the detection and triangulation of a ship’s electro-magnetic emissions. This is according to NASA, that’s what it’s for anyway.
The differences in the report show how people can view unexplained sightings differently. Two bright lights in a dark night can give an impression of shape. We’re all used to seeing light pollution and the black outer around the sky, around a bright light such as a street lamp or even the moon. The re-entry would have been extremely bright as it entered the atmosphere in the darkness of the early hours. A further example is from December 1993, a fireball or meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere.
There are reportedly hundreds of meteors or space debris per year that burn up in Earth’s atmospheres. The reported sightings from 1993 range from Kent to Bedfordshire. The reports again vary from `like a shooting star but not a shooting star’, `pencil shaped with three areas of light’, `saucer-shaped white light’ and `very bright star shaped’. In one instance somebody actually reported seeing four objects.
Jupiter was the highlight of planetary calendar in 1994. During July a comet, Shoemaker-Levy 9, entered the vast planet’s atmosphere. This apparently not only caused the largest explosion witnessed on a planet but also a spate of reported sightings. Venus was also brilliant in the night sky. And during March to August that year was possibly the very light saucer shaped objects spotted from the M4 at Slough.
The 1990s saw two major UFO shapes over the UK. In 1996 reports such as `a very big saucer shape’, `red flashing light underneath’, `cigar shape’, `oval, very bright’ or was it `circular with white lighting underneath’. All refer to the virgin lightship which was regularly seen across London and the Home Counties at that time floating quietly across the evening sky causing all sorts of reported sightings.
The other major sighting was the increase in V or delta wing shaped objects from Norfolk to Scotland. In 1993, eight F1178 stealth fighters stopped over at RAF Lakenheath following operations. Later Lakenheath based the squadron of the B2 stealth bomber, a dark, quiet and very odd triangular aircraft at the time. During 1993 it was suggested to initiate a study of the files as there had never been any effort except filing of the reports. The proposal was to modify an existing private contract. There would be four categorisations for events. NATO or civilian aircraft, space-based such as meteorite planet or re-entry of a vehicle, hoax or stunt and a catch all unidentified.
Interestingly there is nothing to state foreign aircraft, thus any Warsaw Pact or Russian aircraft is classified along with all those UFOs. This dataset was established with printouts of reports giving date, time, place and description of the sightings published on the MOD website, until 2006 when the desk was closing. The occupation is given where known, so in 2003 a RAF sergeant from Wolverhampton reported two triangular objects in perfect synchronisation with low humming noise, and a captain of an aircraft saw a ball of fire. You can view those if you go onto the web archive and look through the MOD website under the publications section. It takes a little bit of time to find them but they are all there.
The MOD kept replying to reports saying they were committed to the security of the United Kingdom but could not justify diverting defence funds from defending against the Warsaw Pact without a clear threat to the United Kingdom. They responded to most inquiries though you were likely only to receive the standard stock reply.
It is interesting though to compare some of these replies. In 1962, the response was `because of the Defence’s responsibilities, the MOD would only investigate if there is sufficient information’. By 1986 the response was `the sole interest was the defence of the country. There’s was no justification to devout military resources to or further investigate UFOs. Defence funds were fully committed to the continuing security against the aggression from the Warsaw Pact’.
During the 1990s, the response was similar. The security of the United Kingdom was the main concern. Investigating lights in the sky was not a priority. And to date no threat had been found – there was no evidence of extra-terrestrial life and they did suggest contacting a UFO organisation. The groups to contact included BUFORA, the British UFO Research Association, and Contact International UK. Their details and addresses are redacted for data protection, as with most of the files personal data is redacted.
The UFO organisations were continually attempting to be associated with the MOD Desk during the 1990s. Quest International UK requested they were added to the groups in 1991 when they learnt BUFORA and Contact were already on the list. These groups varied in their research and the individuals who volunteered. One letter from the 1990s accused a rival UFO group of `unscrupulous activities’, that’s an extract from his letter. The claim regarded the illegal activities of an individual who believed there was a planned mass alien invasion. The unnamed individual was also pocketing the profits from his dubious investigations and using his publicity machine against the serious UFO researchers.
By 2002, nearing the end of the UFO Desk, the response reverts to the 1980s standard response. The concern is more national defence and the threat of a hostile or unauthorised aircraft entering UK airspace. The UK and the MOD cannot justify the expense of investigating further. The replies are the same, even when the object or light can be identified.
The reports following the Cosmos 2238 satellite launch confirms there is no threat to UK airspace. The increase in the sightings resulted in a minute from Wing Commander DI55C. This indicates that having never investigated UAPs means they have difficulty in meeting their remit regarding British air defence. Although DI55, or their predecessors, did investigate enough to establish the sighting was not a Russian plane.
UAPS or unidentified aerial phenomenon are how the MOD referred to UFOs from around 1997. The term UFO was now commonly associated with actual physical extra-terrestrials and alien spaceships, not necessarily all those lights or effects seen in the sky. UAP more accurately described the topic. Two files within DEFE 41 Communications and Intelligence records may give an insight into the MOD’s thinking. The files are catalogued as unorthodox aircraft. They contain newspaper and magazine cuttings from around the world. The extracts all relate to the sightings of various unidentified flying objects or UFOs from the 1940s.
What is more interesting are the German PW interrogation reports from 1949 to 1950 within those files. The reports all relate to various aircraft factories and airfields in East Germany. They detail the types of aircraft stationed in these airfields and what the bases look like. The MOD were associating UFO sightings with new aircraft design including helicopters. The phenomenon known as Foo Fighters seen during and after the war were thought to be advanced German aircraft.
The connection between terrestrial events and UFO sightings such as the fall in reported sightings during 1962 is evident during the late 1980s and 1990s. The number of sightings in 1988 rose from 150 to nearly 400. This rise coincides with an increase in Russian satellite launches. Descriptions such as `white ball of light with blue flame’, `shooting star with vapour trail’, `light in sky larger than a star’ were all reported to the MOD.
But during the Gulf War in 1990, the first Gulf War, the number of reported sightings fell to 209. And in 1991 just 117 sightings were reported. Either ET was avoiding all the extra military aircraft flying around or the public were watching events in the Middle East rather than watching for that imminent alien invasion.
Another high-profile reported happened in March 1990. Belgian authorities scrambled F16 fighter jets following unidentified radar contacts. The contacts were fast moving and with unusual manoeuvres. The Belgian authorities investigated the incident but could find no plausible event explanation. The F16s had radar lock but no visual. I think we’ve seen that before earlier. Following increased public media attention, the incident was handed to the Belgian UFO authorities. The MOD had no interest in this case, the Belgian authorities had not informed other NATO countries as the radar tracks had been within Belgium and it was not perceived as a threat to NATO. The MOD only inquired into this incident when the public started asking questions from 1992.
The other shift in UFO sightings from the mid-1980s to 1990s was the emergence of the V or delta shape UFO. Prior to the 1980s, the majority of sightings are round, spaceship or cylindrical. The MOD continued to state the same standard replies, even when reports from a tornado squadron over the North Sea reported two fast moving V shapes overtake them.
It was well known the Americans were testing and flying stealth aircraft. The F117A fighter followed by the B2 stealth bombers. These bombers were stationed at Lakenheath again from the mid-1990s. And the fighter was known to stop over for refuelling and repairs. In response to a MP’s letter in 1997, a check was made with the US regarding stealth bombers and the response was `nothing of defence interest was revealed’. This does not deny the US aircraft were in the area.
Another sighting in 1997 was a reported black triangle, `smaller than an airliner but faster, thought to be around 40,000 feet’. The report had B2 and a question mark in brackets against the description.
There were quite a few reports of the V or diamond or delta shaped object during 1997. One of the fun ones I came across was the fact that someone described it as a banana shape. The majority of the V shapes were seen from Norfolk to Scotland. Possibly this is the flight path from Lakenheath back to America via the American air bases in Iceland. These were silent, dark although some had a beam or headlight and two flashing lights. An answer from a parliamentary question in 1998 stated `UK airspace has not been penetrated by hostile or unauthorised foreign military activity’. Again it’s that giveaway possibly the no unauthorised foreign aircraft, no mention of authorised foreign aircraft. One sighting even suggests the two objects they had seen were stealth aircraft as seen in the national press at the time. UFO organisations also believed the reports were stealth aircraft. With the American F19 Aurora top in the list of suggested aircraft, even if the Americans claim it’s never been built.
The UFO files contain more than just strange sightings people cannot explain or understand. They can correspond with global events, the re-entry or launch of a satellite such as Cosmos 2238 or meteors, a large red moon and popular culture all result in increasing sightings. Rotating flashing lights, multi-colour beams of lights onto a cloud, disc-shaped flashing lights going up and down – these can all be associated with laser shows such as concerts by Queen, Tina Turner or Jean-Michel Jarre. Or even the opening of a new nightclub in Newmarket. Even when the regular sighting of the Virgin Lightship across London causes an increase in reports as the public weren’t used to seeing such an aircraft fly over their rooftops. These events were easily explained away even if the MOD did just say don’t worry, there is no threat.
By early 2000s the East-West relations had improved. The MOD decided to close the UFO desk stating `for more than 50 years of reporting no UFO sighting had indicated the existence of any military threat to the UFO or evidence of extra-terrestrial life visiting UK airspace’. More interestingly `there is no defence benefit recording, collating, analysing or investigating UFO sightings and resources devoted to the task is increasing, diverting staff from more valuable defence related activities’.
The MOD responses to UFO inquiries were often questioned by the UFO reporters. Comments like `there was no threat to UK airspace’ followed by `we do not investigate sightings’ maybe seems a bit contradictory. But this allowed UFO societies and the media to be drawn into an apparent cover up. The denial of extra-terrestrial life without having to answer the bigger question. What was seen across the UK’s airspace? Was it friendly? Was it a new military technological advancement such as drones, missiles, supersonic or stealth aircraft? Or was it part of a bigger game, that of the Cold War? And the Russian bear stretching and testing UK and ultimately NATO’s ability to monitor and secure our own airspace.