UFOs in History: Operation Charlie> [prev ¦ 1 ¦ 2 ¦ 3 ¦ 4 ¦ 5 ¦ 6 ¦ next]


6. The Air Ministry investigation
This was the third occasion that unidentified flying objects had been tracked by stations defending England’s east coast and the third time that interception attempts had ended in failure. On each occasion the mysterious blips came in over the North Sea towards Norfolk before descending from great height and disappearing beneath radar cover. Concern was mounting and the ORBs record how, as a direct result of the incidents on 23 January, Flying Officer Sewart of HQ Northern Signals Area spent six days at RAF Neatishead on a special mission to investigate the mysterious events. F/O Sewart’s assignment was to produce a report ‘on the unidentified high flying aircraft that have been plotted in recent months.’ [19]

Sewart’s report was completed on 27 January 1947 but is missing from the Public Record Office file where it is listed as an attachment to the station logbook. Summarising its contents, Squadron Leader Cruwys said ‘evidence appears to be strong’ that the unidentified tracks were caused by radio-sonde balloons released from Downham Market in Norfolk. Downham was a World War Two bomber airfield that was used by the USAAF’s 8th Weather Squadron in 1947 for the release of balloons for the study of the upper atmosphere. It can be inferred, in the absence of his original report, that Sewart had matched the release of radio-sondes with Charlie’s movements. He may have decided that balloons trapped by turbulent upper-air currents that were developing over southern England had been blown back towards their launch station in Norfolk. Their movements whilst trapped in upper air currents had taken radar operators by surprise and had led to the scramble of aircraft.

However statements made by the Air Ministry, firstly to the Press in April 1947 and again to the USAAF in July, flatly contradict Sewart’s conclusions and imply that the Air Staff remained open-minded about the identity of Charlie. Even Group Captain Kent’s account of the ‘unidentified aircraft’ ended with this comment: “I mentioned that a burst met balloon was a possibility, deduced afterwards from its ‘behaviour’...but at that time these things [flying saucers] were unheard of and not taken at all seriously.” [20]

Other expert opinion attributed the unusual radar blips to freak weather conditions. Operation Charlie coincided with the arrival on 24 January 1947 of a deep cold weather front over southern England, a fact that did not escape attention at the Air Ministry. Before the 1950s, knowledge of the role played by freak weather conditions in the production of ‘false’ echoes nick-named ‘angels’ was in its infancy. Although little understood at the time, the astronomer Dr J. Allen Hynek, who was employed as a consultant to the US Air Force Project Blue Book, believed “atmospheric inversion effects” were the most likely explanation for the English ‘ghost plane’ reports. [21] This explanation is challenged in a technical assessment of the evidence by Martin Shough (see Appendix).

The Air Ministry may have decided it could dismiss the majority of the mysterious blips on its screens as balloons, but in July when the US authorities began to investigate reports of ‘flying saucers,’ the RAF continued to list the North Sea incident as ‘unexplained’. Dr Hynek’s notes on this case read: “The object observed here was obviously not astronomical. From the information given, it appears that this was definitely an aircraft..” [22] This raises an obvious question: if it was an aircraft, then where was it from?

According to Geoff Easterling the RAF’s prime suspect was a Russian intruder aircraft flying from a base in occupied Germany. However, if the speed and performance of the target tracked on 16 January 1947 recalled by David Richards (and apparently confirmed by the contemporary press reports) are correct, this becomes an unlikely proposition. Soviet aircraft were unreliable at long range, and it seems inconceivable that an intruder mission would risk an overflight of UK territory in such a reckless fashion during a period of extreme and unpredictable weather. In addition, Soviet versions of the US B-25 were capable of a maximum speed of 250-300 kts, a figure well within the interception ratio of the RAF Mosquito.

It remains unclear if further unidentified radar blips continued to plague the RAF as the ‘ghost plane’ era moved into the age of the ‘flying saucer.’ Entries in the logbooks of radar stations on the south coast of England describe a number of similar incidents during April and May, 1947. One entry from the logbook of RAF Rye, a CH station in Kent, reads: “...the most noteworthy track plotted was an unidentified aircraft which was plotted from 52 miles out to the maximum range of 186 miles.” [23] Group Captain Kent recalls: “I have no other sorties listed in my log books as ‘scramble intercepts’ such as that of 17 January 1947, but I did fly a few others against ‘odd’ and ‘strange’ blips as seen by ground radars in an around East Anglia. I flew at least one in daylight but nothing was seen.” [24]
When rumours concerning the panic of January 1947 leaked to the national newspapers in April the Air Ministry decided to deny all knowledge. A spokesman told the Daily Telegraph they were taking no further action. ‘We have found no evidence to support the reports at all,’ he said. The Yorkshire Post was less inclined to dismiss the mystery completely and its editorial looked at the problem from a different angle:

‘Radar has plotted some strange things in its time, from children’s kites and raindrops to formations of geese. But it surely never plotted a stranger thing than this. What is the aircraft? Speculation takes us into those regions where the scenes are laid for so many thrilling stories in the boys’ magazine. Is it a diamond or drug smuggler? Is it conveying a secret agent from one foreign Power to another? In that event it would of course have the secret papers and probably also a beautiful woman spy on board. Is it a guided missile?’

The newspaper compared the ghost plane mystery with the reports of phantom German Zeppelins that had circulated before the outbreak of World War I and observed: ‘It seems to be established that it is only at times of peculiar stress that the public is in the psychological state to receive and circulate such stories.’ The practical steps to solve the mystery were clear:

‘Fast RAF fighters must continue trying to intercept the visitor if it should return. Our air service has the fastest fighters in the world and should not find it impossibly difficult … meanwhile we may enjoy the atmosphere of mystery and imagination which surrounds the ghost aircraft.’ [25] »

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