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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
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.
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.
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.