Case Histories : Howden Moor Incident> [prev ¦ 1 ¦ 2 ¦ 3 ¦ 4 ¦ 5 ¦ 6 ¦ 7 ¦ 8 ¦ 9 ¦ 10 ¦ 11 ¦ 12 ¦ 13 ¦ 14 ¦ 15 ¦ 16 ¦ next]


Military Denials...and questions in the House

South Yorkshire Police and the Mountain Rescue Service contacted RAF sources as part of their routine checks as the search and rescue operation moved into full swing around midnight on March 24. Both Chief Inspector Burbeary, who was in charge of the police operation, and Det Insp Christine Wallace, who carried out further checks the following morning, were assured that there had been no military aircraft flying that night which could have triggered the reports of the low-flying plane and the “explosion.”

The police and MRS were primarily in contact with staff at RAF Kinloss in Morayshire, Scotland, which is the designated Air Sea Rescue Co-ordination Centre for the British coastline. It was Kinloss who authorised the scrambling of a Sea King helicopter from RAF Leconfield on the East Coast of Yorkshire to help the police and MRS search the moors for the plane. Kinloss were also responsible for contacting the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh at 9.30 on the morning of March 25 to check if there was “any record of disturbance” recorded on their seismographs which might confirm a ground impact. The result at 11.45 that a sonic boom had been recorded was followed 30 minutes later by Kinloss reporting that checks of radar tapes for the area had discovered “nothing of signficance.” Soon after this, the RAF scaled down their operation and withdrew the Sea King.

Meanwhile, the RAF Press Office at Whitehall was denying that a military exercise of any kind had taken place the previous night. An MOD spokesman said at lunchtime that day that the MOD were not involved in the investigation of the incident, and that it was outside their remit, He stated that “nothing had been picked up on radar and an RAF plane was not responsible.” And he added that the report concerned a low flying aircraft and the inquiry was “a matter for the police.” Police, Peak Park officials and many others who live in the area are aware that the whole of the northern Peak District is a regular practice zone for the Royal Air Force. Indeed, Broomhead Estate manager Chris Thompson told us he clearly recollected seeing a large, military-style helicopter flying low and slow up the Ewden Valley the day before the events of March 24. Park ranger Brian Jones also recalls the overflight of an unidentified helicopter at dusk on March 24. All this testimony appears to suggest preparations for an exercise on the part of the military were well underway hours before the Howden Moor incident began.

The testimony of numerous witnesses suggests the bland denials by the MOD were far from the truth. Many people in the Dronfield area of Derbyshire and parts of Sheffield witnesses low-flying military jets between 9.30 and 9.50 that night, just minutes before the reports of a low-flying aircraft and an explosion triggered the search of the Howden Moors. Other reports of low-level military jets came from observers watching the Hale-Bopp comet from the Baildon Moor area of West Yorkshire, Wigan in Lancashire and the M62 at Scammonden Dam earlier that evening. Among the testimony is that of an ex-RAF officer John Brassington, who said he clearly heard a single-engined aircraft flying low above his home in Dronfield, Derbyshire, followed minutes later by a pair of very low flying jets - almost certainly Tornadoes. Mr Brassington’s testimony is supported by others, including Emma Maidenhead, who saw a formation of low flying jets approach from the east and disappear towards the northern moors - where the search and rescue operation would be sparked minutes later.

In due course, when the MOD were forced to admit a low-flying exercise had taken place that night, they stated that this had ended at precisely 9.30pm - conveniently avoiding responsibility for the events over the northern Peak between 9.30 and 10.10pm. Direct inquiries with a number of front-line RAF bases operating fighter aircraft which may have been responsible for the events of March 24 drew a blank. An aquaintance of investigator Martin Jeffrey had said he had seen six Tornadoes leaving RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire at 8.45 pm. Checks with the base, which is the home of 56 squadron, found the flight log recorded four Tornadoes landing at 9.25pm “following a routine exercise over the North Sea” but a spokesman said they would not have been over South Yorkshire. Similar denials came from RAF Waddington, Linton-upon-Ouse and Leeming in North Yorkshire, which is home to three Tornado squadrons and Hawk training aircraft. The log there showed two squadrons flying over the North Sea at 4.30pm, with the others on detachment elsewhere.

Having discovered sufficient evidence to suggest there had indeed been a military exercise that night it was decided the only remaining option to obtain more details was via questions in Parliament. As a result a meeting was arranged with Helen Jackson, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, whose constituency included the “crash” zone. She agreed there was a clear case for probing questions to be put to both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office concerning the source of the sonic booms and the sightings which triggered the futile and costly search and rescue operation. Quite apart from any other considerations, if military aircraft had caused the explosions which sparked the search, flying laws had been broken and public money wasted (the total cost of the search operation was later estimated to have been in excess of £50,000).

Almost precisely one year after the incident Helen Jackson MP tabled seven written questions in the House of Parliament. Six were directed at the Defence Minister George Robinson, and the seventh to Home Secretary Jack Straw. The questions, tabled on March 23, 1998, are reproduced below, with the answers in italics:

1. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what complaints were received by the RAF concerning low flying aircraft relating to 24th March 1997.
2. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if RAF/NATO military aircraft were engaged in an exercise over Northern England between 9.30 and 10.30pm on 24th March 1997.
3. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence for what reasons the RAF imposed an air exclusion zone around Howden reservoir on the morning of 25th March 1997.
4. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, what reported sightings of UFOs were received from (a) the public and (b) police from the South Yorkshire/Derbyshire area on 24th March 1997.

Reply 30 March: John Spellar [Under Secretary of State for Defence]: A number of military aircraft were booked to carry out low flying training in northern England on the evening of 24 March 1997. The Ministry of Defence received 13 complaints about aircraft activity for that date from locations across the UK. No reported sightings of “UFOs” on 24 or 25 March were received by my Department. A Temporary Danger Area was established on 25 March, centred on the Howden Reservoir, to allow a RAF Search and Rescue helicopter, in response to a request for assistance from South Yorkshire Police, to carry out a search of the area without disturbance by other military aircraft. Such Danger Areas are routinely established for Search and Rescue operations.

5. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if an RAF/NATO aircraft was responsible for two sonic booms above Sheffield detected by Edinburgh University Seismology Unit at 21.52 and 22.06 on 24th March 1997.

Reply 30 March: John Spellar: We have no record of sonic events being generated by RAF or NATO aircraft for the evenning of 24 March 1997.

6. To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what complaints were received by police forces relating to low flying aircraft on 24th March 1997.

Reply 30 March: Mr Michael: Information on complaints to the police of low flying aircraft is not held centrally. I understand that on the evening of 24 March 1997 South Yorkshire Police received reports of a low-flying aircraft which was thought to have crashed. An investigation by the police and other authorities failed to find any trace of the aircraft.

7. To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the regulations covering military aircraft breaking the sound barrier above (a) urban and (b) other areas.

Reply.1 April. John Spellar: The following regulations, which are an extract from Military Flying Regulations, apply to supersonic flying by military aircraft in UK airspace: In the United Kingdom Flight Information Region (FIR), all medium and high level supersonic flights are to be made over the sea. Aircraft heading directly out to sea may accelerate to supersonic speed whren at least 10 nautical miles (nm) out to sea and along a flight of at least 20 degrees divergent from the mean line of the coast; the angle of dive is not to exceed the minmum necessary. Supersonic flights with the aircraft pointing towards the land, turning or flying parallel to the coast are to take place at least 35 nm from the nearest coastline.
Supersonic flying at low level over the sea within UK FIR may take place provided that the above rules are followed and that, in addition, a radar/visual search is maintained in order to avoid the following by the margins indicated:
(a) Shipping and fixed or mobile oil and gas installations: 3 nm;
(b) Civilian or military transport aircraft: a minimum of 6nm; (c) Helicopter main routes or corridors: 6nm.
With the exception of Air Defence missions, operating authorities are to notify the appropriate radar station of all planned supersonic flights in advance. Radar stations are to maintain a permanent record of supersonic flights carried out under their control. If any captain knows or suspects that his aircraft has inadvertently made a supersonic flight he is to enter details in the Flight Authorisation Book. In addition. it is the responsibility of the station concerned to notify the appropriate radar station of the flight within 30 minutes of the
aircraft’s landing. The radar station is to maintain a special record of all such occurences. »

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