The Secret Files»
UFOs in History»
originally published in Fortean Times 199 (2005)* Also see the feature article about the case!
Around 1.15am on Wednesday, 31 March 1993 dozens of people across western Britain saw triangular shaped UFOs speeding across the night sky. Do these sightings provide hard evidence that aliens were able to evade Britain’s air defences, as one former MoD official has claimed? DAVID CLARKE found the answer in the X-files:
These were the words used by Nick Pope in the conclusion of a report he put together for the attention of his superiors at the Ministry of Defence following the UFO “flap” in 1993. To this day Pope claims that “no satisfactory explanation” was ever found for the reports that reached his office from Devon and Cornwall, the West Midlands and elsewhere that night. He was particularly impressed by the story told by an MoD police patrol who saw the lights from RAF Cosford and rang ahead to alert the meteorological officer at nearby RAF Shawbury that the UFO was coming his way. His sighting – coming from a credible witness familiar with military aircraft - was the most impressive of all. According to Pope’s account of the case in 2005 he saw “a vast triangular shaped craft flying at about 200ft.” This UFO made a low frequency humming noise and fired a narrow beam of light which swept the ground “as if it was looking for something.”
Later other sightings came to light from parts of Ireland, northern France and elsewhere in Europe. Unlike many UFO stories, the core collection of sightings – timed between 1.10 and 1.15 am - tallied to a remarkable degree. Most described two bright white lights speeding towards the southeast horizon, leaving trails of luminous vapour in their wake. Some described a third light which gave the impression of triangular shape, but there were a few maverick reports from different times and places that did not fit the pattern.
For once, the MoD’s UFO desk had something of potential “defence significance.” Checks ruled out the possibility that military or civilian aircraft could have caused the flap. Radar tapes were carefully scrutinised but drew a blank – no intruder had been detected by the UK’s air defences. As a result Pope cited this case as the turning point on his tour of duty – the “big case” that led him to believe that extraterrestrials really were able to penetrate Britain’s defences at will.
But as Jenny Randles has explained in FT194:23 a simple explanation for the event was available from day one. On the evening of 30 March 1993 Russia launched the Cosmos 2238 radio satellite into orbit. The Tsyklon rocket booster 22586U, which propelled the satellite into space then later re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, breaking into two or more pieces as it decayed. A US Space Command/NASA data computer simulation of its trajectory, obtained by amateur astronomer Gary Anthony, shows it transit over Ireland at 1.07 am BST moving south-easterly towards Western England at imminent re-entry height. It crossed Devon and Cornwall between 1.10 and 1.15 am – and was seen by police patrols who described “two very bright lights…hovering at about 2000ft (600m)” – before the debris crossed the English Channel. Dozens of witnesses saw these lights and ion trails, including FT contributor Peter Brookesmith who watched them with a friend from the foothills of the Preseli Mountains in West Wales. Brookesmith initially believed they were fast-moving jets at 2000ft (600m) until he realised they could not be aircraft as they were silent.
The NASA data simulation clearly shows the flaming debris would be visible to anyone in the British Isles who looked in any of the right directions during the time it incandesced. Experienced UFOlogists have found that in many similar cases, witnesses – even trained observers – often make fundamental errors when they try to estimate the direction and height of lights seen in the night sky, especially when they are visible only for a short period of time with few reference points. Debris burning up high in the atmosphere can appear much closer, and where formations of lights appear the human mind can “fill in the gaps” to produce impressions of structured objects as witnessed in the diversity of the witness statements found in this case. Observers are also frequently mistaken about precise times sightings are made, which must explain the reports here clearly describing the same phenomenon but at wildly different times and even dates. »