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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 Star on 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: