According to procedure, all UFO reports received by military, police, and civil aviation agencies should have been channeled to a department at Whitehall which was called Sec(AS)2a at the time. Within this department, a single individual was tasked with reviewing the reports and assessing whether or not they represented a threat to the integrity of UK airspace. In March 1993, this individual was Nick Pope. Although I refer to Pope explicity throughout the site, many of my remarks could equally well be applied to whoever occupied the "UFO desk" at any given time. Some remarks apply to Pope specifically however due to his continued association with the UFO topic consequent to his departure from that role.
Since leaving the post at Sec(AS)2a, Pope has embarked on a secondary career as an author, lecturer and media "expert" on the topic of UFOs. He often cites the events of 30/31 March 1993 as contributing significantly to his conversion from sceptic to believer in the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs. Pope tends to exaggerate the level of activity and interest that existed within Sec(AS)2a during his incumbency, sometimes referring to his role as "the British equivalent of Project Blue Book", for instance. The comparison is akin to comparing a Samurai sword with a penknife - they both have blades, and can be used as weapons, but that is where the similarity ends.
Project Blue Book was an US investigation set up in 1952, with an establishment of eight full-time staff and a part-time scientific consultant. The project could also draw on Air Force field intelligence resources to carry out field investigations on their behalf. Over the years, the resources allocated fluctuated, at times extending to the availability of Air Force jets to transport members of the project team. The project ran until 1969.
In contrast, Sec(AS)2a had a single person who was allocated the task of evaluating UFO reports. This was only one aspect of his role, which also included clearance of military flights over foreign territory and drafting responses to general enquiries by politicians and members of the public. Additionally, it appears unlikely that the individual in the role at any given time had received any training relevant to the investigation of UFO reports. Pope was interviewed by television producer Lawrence Moore on 25th April 1994 for a programme called "Network First". In response to a question by Moore relating to the charge that the MoD was engaged in a cover-up of matters relating to UFOs, Pope responded:
I should stress that overall, in the scheme of things, UFOs is a tiny part of my branch's business - probably not even taking up a quarter of my time
This statement appears in an MoD copy of a transcript of Pope's interview. This is further supported on page 193 of "A Covert Agenda" by Nick Redfern which reads as follows:
Evidence presently available suggests that the role played by Sec(AS)2a with respect to unidentified aerial objects is relatively minor. Indeed, I have been advised that no staff within the department are appointed to study the subject on a full-time basis.(2) Nick Pope, who was the Desk Officer within Sec(AS)2a responsible for handling UFO reports between 1991 and 1994, has informed me that for Sec(AS)2a: 'There is no specific "UFO budget", excepting the staff costs, i.e. around 20% of my salary, together with a tiny percentage of some other salaries, reflecting my line management's supervisory role.'(3)
The premise that the MoD had very limited resources to apply to UFO investigation was further underpinned in a response dated 29th September 1999 from Sec(AS)2a to an enquiry by James Easton specifically about Pope's role in which the MoD stated:
The main duties of the post concern non-operational RAF activities overseas and diplomatic clearance policy for military flights abroad. A small percentage of time is spent dealing with reports from the public about alleged 'UFO' sightings and associated public correspondence. The Ministry of Defence has not investigated a case of alien abduction, crop circle formations, or animal mutilation.
Pope was, however, able to request assistance from DI55 (the MoD department dealing with ballistic missile intelligence), and RAF Fylingdales, part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). He could also request records from the the Air Defence radar network and had limited time to speak to witnesses on the telephone, but the demands of his other allocated functions precluded him from carrying out any kind of field investigations and he had no defined resources to carry out this function on his behalf. This factor meant that he was unable to verify estimates of direction, height, speed, and size, other than via the telephone which is an unsatisfactory substitute for a site visit and personal interview with the witnesses.
[Details of the reports, including scans of the related MoD documents can be viewed on the sightings page]
An inherent weakness of the MoD response to UFO reports is that the "UFO desk" of Sec(AS)2a was only staffed during office hours. Outside office hours, it was expected that Air Defence Operations would recognise any military threat but it would seem that they were either unaware of the sighting reports during the early hours of 31st March 1993, or else they were aware of them but didn't consider them to be a military threat, since there is no record of any action taken by them. Consequently, the first that Pope knew about the events was when he turned up for work as usual at 09:00.
He received a number of phone calls from witnesses (mainly Police), and the signals which were generated overnight will also have reached his desk. By lunch time, he was aware that an event of some significance had occured and it was apparent that there was a concentration of sightings close to 01:10. Pope however appears to have eventually related most, if not all, of the sightings occuring between 21:00 on the 30th March and 02:40 on the 31st March. He also appears to have taken the witness accounts at face value, eg estimates of times, height, speed, and direction, contrary to internal MoD advice regarding accuracy of witness estimates. In doing so he actually confused the issue, linking unrelated events and attributing an object as having meandered zig-zag fashion across the UK. As will be seen later, this was not the case.
Even amongst the official reports, there are obvious discrepancies;
Although individually these errors and ommissions are trivial, collectively they cast doubt on the validity of details recorded on the remaining reports and add to the overall general confusion.
Early in Sec(AS)2a's assessment of the events, Pope decided to try and plot the reports received on a map. While this might seem a sensible thing to try and do, by including unrelated sightings, it tended to mask the major event which occured at 01:10 AM. This was further compounded because Pope has inexplicably reversed the described course of sighting 8 (00:15, Haverfordwest). This might be due to Pope having to "fit in" his assessment of the reports while trying to carry out his other duties. I have produced a similar map, that includes only sightings (which include explicit indication of the direction of travel) 1 hour either side of the 01:10 core sightings (reports 8-26). As can be seen from the revised map, a much clearer pattern is evident. With the exception of four reports (13, 14, (10/11/23 - duplicates) & 26), all of the reported directions of travel are between East and South. If this method had of been used, Pope could then have focussed on the conflicting reports to request confirmation from the witnesses as to the direction of travel, ideally with the use of a compass. This would have revealed errors either in the original reports, or their transcription. Even if the directions were confirmed as accurate, it would be fair to regard them as not related to the remainder of the sightings, which overwhelmingly (>2:1 ratio) suggest a direction of travel towards a point between South and East of the witnesses.
Amongst the files received from the MoD were some unattributed, undated notes, some handwritten and some word-processed. These appear to be notes made by Pope to help him organise the information and provide a clearer view of the night's events. Because they are undated, it isn't obvious when they were compiled, but their position in the file suggests that were made quite early in the course of his assessment.
The first documents in this group under discussion are handwritten. The copy provided by the MoD is not particularly good, is heavily (excessively) obliterated, and difficult to read. The images on this site are therefore barely legible, but the pertinent details are discussed below. The scans can be viewed on the following links:
[Page 1] [Page 2]
Firstly from these notes it is evident that Sec(AS)2a did make and receive telephone calls to/from witnesses, and the documents are in turn a record of those discussions. There is little in the conversations that isn't already covered on the sightings page however. The notes mention that Doug Cooper (DUFORO/BUFORA) had been in touch, and that he was going to send a copy of his report (this report is covered in another section of this site).
Notes are also included which show that Sec(AS)2a contacted the London Air Traffic Control Centre (Military) at West Drayton, who confirmed that there were no military flights at the time of the RAF Cosford report (report 22 on the sightings page) and that West Drayton had secured the radar records for the period concerned for further analysis.
Of equal significance in the notes are details of Sec(AS)2a's dialogue with RAF Fylingdales. Fylingdales is a part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). It's primary function is to detect and track potential ballistic missiles targetted at NATO member countries, but it also has limited abilities to track satellites. Sec(AS)2a contacted them to ask if they detected anything on their system, or if they had any information as to what might have caused the sightings. From the notes, their response appears to have been that the only re-entry which they were aware of for the time period was a scheduled re-entry of an unmanned MIR resupply mission at around 01:30, but that it was unlikely to have been visible from the UK. Fylingdales apparently called back later to say that "burn up may have been visible over UK on a previous orbit but time would be 12:10 am."" Pope goes on to write ""Possibility of mix up over times (zulu etc.), but v. unlikely with so many reports". Both of these statements are interesting - the Mir resupply vehicle referred to by Fylingdales was in fact Debris from a much earlier MIR mission, and designated 1986-017GX (NORAD Catalogue Number 22225) which did not re-enter the atmosphere until 1st April.
You will recall that the clocks in the UK changed from GMT to BST on 28th March. Pope's remark about possible confusion about ZULU time is notable, as it might account for later confusion in respect of information received by Sec(AS)2a from Fylingdales. The suggestion that the number of reports reduce the likelyhood of confusion about BST/ZULU time suggests that Pope was confident that no such misunderstanding existed between Fylingdales and Sec(AS)2a, but could be an issue on the received sighting reports, which is evidently the case on a minority of them. Why Pope was confident that no such confusion could exist between Fylingdales and Sec(AS)2a remains obscure, although in another document he states that he positively eliminated this as a possibilty.
The following entry in the notes is a record of a suggestion from the Greenwich Observatory that fireballs are more frequently observed from the West and South West of the country, but Pope appears to have dismissed this suggestion as a possible cause because "this doesn't appear to explain these sightings." Quite why they didn't appear to explain the sightings isn't expanded on, and is surprising since at this stage he has not found an alternative explanation as far as he was concerned.
The next note relates to the sighting by the meteorological officer from RAF Shawbury (sighting 29), and reads as follows:
[Name obliterated] saw object at 2.40 am (local). Stationery, then moving straight up, then zig-zag movements. 2 red lights, and beam (white) which was narrow, like laser beam, and appeared to be searching for something on the ground. When the object was at its lowest point (approx 400-500 ft, 1 or 2 km from Shawbury). Object then passed directly overhead at approx 4000 ft heading almost due South. 3 red lights seen, 2 side by side, 1 larger red light slightly behind and slightly larger, flashing. Guesstimate of objects size: somewhere between C-130 and 747.
We shall return to this sighting later, though it is unrelated to the main 01:10 event.
The final paragraph on these handwritten notes relate to the Cosford sighting by two RAF policemen (sighting 22). The most important aspects are that an estimated speed of 600-900 mph is offered up by the witness during the course of the phone call, and more significantly, the reported direction of the disappearance of the object is given as "into NNE", seriously at odds with the formal report which indicated a direction of travel "towards the South-East". Seemingly more corrupt information is now entering into the record, whether this is an error in transcription, comprehension, or a difference of perception is unclear.
This handwritten list appears to have been summarised and re-ordered in a word-processed document at the following links (scanned image file):
[Page 1] [Page 2]
While this duplicates much of the information from the handwritten notes, it is worthwhile mentioning other potentially confusing aspects of this document.
The second entry on page 1 of the list refers to a sighting at 01:25 near Rugeley. This is most likely the very same report referred to in sighting reports 10, 11, and 23. If so we now have a single incident with four different times attributed to it, 01:09, 01:10, 01:15, and 01:25.
The next event in the list is described as having taken place near Shawbury at 02:50. This is almost certainly report 29 from the sightings page. The time that it was reported to the RAF police was 02:50, but in Pope's handwritten list he has attributed a time of 02:40 for this incident. Yet again, we have inconsistencies being added to the official records without any explicit reason.
Moving on to another set of word-processed notes which can be viewed at the following links:
[Page 1] [Page 2]
I find this document fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, the overall tone of it is pseudo-formal, and more in the style of what one might expect in a UFO enthusiast's newsletter rather than in an MoD file. The title "UFO visits UK?" is directly suggesting that the object might be unidentifiable and have a definite purpose (to "visit" the UK). My first impression was that Pope had written this to help him order his thoughts, but on further deliberation, it appears to me to be more in the form of a circular or press release. It is undated, but because of it's position in the file, I suspect it was written at an early stage of the Sec(AS)2a assessment.
The whole document appears to emphasise the notion that a single event or object caused all of the sightings - the opening paragraph states "at least 30 people saw the event". The next paragraph mentions the geographical diversity, which is then implicity related in the following paragraph to a list of common features.
Let's now examine these common features in the context of the 13 reports that he refers to. The first difficulty that I encountered was in identifying the specific reports. His handwritten list on which the sightings page was based contains far more than 13 reports. It appears that the reports which he refers to excludes those which were contained in Doug Cooper's report and significantly the report by the meteorological officer at RAF Shawbury, yet he has included sightings reported several hours before the main event. On examination of fields "O" or "P" (Date, Time of Receipt) of the signalled reports, it is reasonably certain that reports 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 & 11 (duplicated), 13, 14, 16, 19, 21, 24, 25, and 26 are what he based these notes on.
Let us now break down what Pope perceived as common factors in relation to these reports:
"Timings around 0110 to 0120"
It is clear that from the information available to Pope at the time, there is indeed a correlation in terms of time, with a few exceptions:
"Two bright white lights"
Again, Pope is correct that there is a correlation in terms of the descriptions:
"In a set formation from each other"
Although the number of reports explicitly or implicitly suggesting a formation of some kind outnumber those which make no such suggestion, there is little correlation between the suggested formations. Only 4 of the 13 reports explicity mention a formation.
This applies to all of the sighting reports except report 10 and is obviously correct.
"Altitudes estimated around 1000 ft."
Only 2 of the reports offer up an explicit height estimate of 1,000 feet, though 8 of the 13 reports suggest that the object was "low", either implicitly or explicitly. However, what one person regards as "low" might be "high" in the opinion of another person - if someone kicks a ball 20 feet into the air, is that low or high? What about 10 feet or 30 feet? To attribute a height of 1,000 feet based on these descriptions seems premature to say the least. This is even more curious in relation to later remarks in the same document.
Pope then goes on to write "The observers were mostly RAF/civil police or personnel involved in aviation, making them reliable witnesses." I would not dispute that Police officers are adept atrecording details such as the time accurately, and their knowledge of the local geography may improve their estimation of direction (although as we have seen there is some confusion in report 22, with one description indicating a direction of travel to the NNE and another to the SE). I would also concede that they are less prone to embellishing the details of a report. However, when it comes to estimating the height, speed, and size of an unknown object in the night sky, I would not regard them as any more or less reliable than anyone else. Incongruously, Pope also conceded (in the same document) that their estimates of height etc might be in doubt, writing:
Some of the witnesses quoted dimensions and altitudes. How do you estimate the height of a light of unknown size at night, with nothing with which to compare it? Also, the estimates are not necessarily independent. For example, Sgt.[obliterated] estimated an altitude of 1,000 feet. However, he filled in his report after interviewing another witness who also gave that figure.
It would appear that even at this stage, Pope is attributing characteristics to the event which are based more on his impression than what was actually witnessed.
There is a third word-processed document which appears to be related to these. This seems to suggest that Pope had not ruled out the possibility that the main body of sightings may have been caused by a satellite re-entry.
All of the documents above (with the exception of the actual sighting reports) were undated, and probably not circulated. We now move on to the dated and circulated correspondence.
The earliest document with an unambiguous date aside from the sighting reports themselves, is a little odd. There is no indication as to who wrote it, or who it was addressed to. It is however significant, because it offers a possible explanation to some of the reports before midnight on 30th March. The memo states:
All they [MATO] could suggest was a pair of Sea Kings from RNAS Yeovilton who were operating in LFA2 up to 2400 local on 30 March.
LFA2 is a low-flying area, covering a large area of the South-West of England. The Sea King helicopters could possibly explain sightings 1-4, but there is no indication within the file that this potential explanation was followed up in any way.
One final peculiarity of this memo which I find strange is the use of "2400" to define midnight. It is normal military practice to avoid using 00:00 or 24:00 as time indicators, due to potential confusion as to which day it applies to, and 23:59 or 00:01 would normally be used. This may suggest that the author was a civilian, unfamiliar with the military protocol.
The next document under this category is from Sec(AS)2a to LATCC(Mil) (London Air Traffic Control Centre (Military)) dated 6th April 1993. It is a written follow-up to a telephone conversation between them, requesting the transfer of the radar data on to video tape and it's examination. Further discussion of this document would be superfluous, although this is the start of far more significant correspondence.
The next item [Page 1] [Page2] is a response sent on 14th April 1993 to the witness involved in sighting 6. It is remarkable for two reasons; it is one of the most explicit responses that I have come across from the MoD to a civilian witness, and because it includes the contact details for UFO groups which the witness might wish to contact. It suggests that Pope was significantly more sympathetic to witnesses and UFO groups than most other incumbents on the UFO desk prior to his appointment.
On 16th April 1993 (more than two weeks after the events), Pope wrote to the head of his department (via his line manager): [Page 1] [Page2]
There are a number of interesting features in this document. The comments apparently written by Pope's line manager betray a lack of knowledge as to how to proceed.
Mr. [Pope] has spent a lot of time following this up, within the confines of restricting his approaches to official sources and not speaking to members of the general public. It would certainly appear that some unidentified object was seen. The problem is to decide what, if anything, to do next.
Obviously Pope's report had rattled them, and they had no experience of similar situations on which to base any reaction. In paragraph 4, Pope wrote "Sector Operations Sector (South) at RAF Neatishead have told D Air Def's staff that nothing was detected on Air Defence radar. London Air Traffic Control Centre (Military) confirmed that nothing was detected on Air Traffic Control radar". This appears to be inaccurate, as will be evident from later documents. It wasn't the case that nothing was seen, but that nothing of an unusual nature was seen, and it also ignores the fact that MATO had reported helicopter activity in LFA2 until midnight on 30th March.
In paragraph 5, Pope remarks that the reports were inconsistent with a satellite re-entry. In paragraph 7, Pope again includes the much later report by the Met Officer from RAF Shawbury, as if it was related to the main body of sightings and failing to mention the time factor. In the same paragraph, he also implies that Aurora (a speculated US intelligence- gathering aircraft) might be responsible for the reports. In paragraph 8, he voices concerns that the standard MoD response that the reports were of no defence significance would not wash if the story reached the press. His conclusion in paragraph 10 states
It seems that an unidentified object of unknown origin was operating in the UK Air Defence Region without being detected on radar; this would appear to be of considerable defence significance, and I recommend that we investigate further, within MOD or with the US authorities
From the above it appears that Pope, whether deliberately or unconsciously, has emphasised the anomalous aspects of the reports and suppressed some of the more mundane factors in an effort to justify further investment of resources.
Just three days later (19th April), Air Information Services (Military) wrote to Sec(AS)2a with detailed information about radar data relating to some of the sightings. This appears to be in response to the telephone call to LATTC(Mil) on 6th April. This document and associated map is very revealing and provides possible explanations to at least one of the sightings. It is important to note that timings on this document are expressed in Zulu, one hour earlier than local time on the date of the sightings. It is also important to understand what is meant by a "squawk".
Most commercial aircraft, and many military, police, and private aircraft carry a device called a transponder. The transponder generates an identifying signal known as a "squawk", either in response to an automated "squawk request" originated by secondary radar, or manually by the aircrew (usually in response to a request from Air Traffic Services). Radar systems can then relate the squawk identity to the plot on the radar display. More information about primary and secondary radar and "squawks" is clearly explained at The Australian Airways Museum website. An amusing fact from the site is that the system was derived from a wartime system called "Parrot", and that the instruction for an aircraft to switch the system off was "strangle your parrot". This also accounts for the term "squawk".
The document lists radar tracks according to time, and in some cases provides location details. Although many of them could be responsible for some reports, most details are either contradictory to the eyewitness narratives, or are too vague to determine with a reasonable level of certainty as to whether or not they caused a specific report. This does not however appear to be the case with the 02:40 RAF Shawbury sighting (sighting #29 on the sightings page). The relevant entry reads:
9. 310140z Clee-Hill Squawk 2304/200 descending on A25. At 0146z overhead Shawbury squawk 5231/203 southbound. [my emphasis]
Although the transponder on the aircraft indicated that it was flying at 20,300 feet over Shawbury, and this doesn't match the description given by the witness, there is no mention of having noticed this aircraft at all. There is also another possible explanation for this report which will be covered later. It would appear that Sec(AS)2a either did not understand the significance of the radar data, particularly the direct reference to an aircraft positioned directly overhead Shawbury heading South at the same time as the report from the RAF Met officer at Shawbury, or chose to regard it as irrelevant in the light of the witness description. Whatever the reason, there is no rationale in the documents to show that it was even noticed. More information about this report is provided in the "ufologists" section of this site.
It may also be significant that at 00:55 (local) (23:55Z) there were three aircraft airborne in the vicinity of Bristol. This may explain sighting #9 on the sightings page. Other sightings may be tentatively explained by the radar information, though no definite conclusions can be arrived at from the information available.
The next document under discussion is a loose minute dated 7th May from Sec(as)2a to DI55c, and is very significant. In the first paragraph, Pope mentions that he is sending DI55 three video recordings of radar data, and that targets in the Devon and Cornwall area between 01:10 and 01:20 are probably due to radar clutter.
Paragraph two is much more interesting - Pope intimates that he received information from BUFORA suggesting that the cause for the majority of the reports were due to the re-entry of a rocket booster from a Russian satellite (Cosmos 2238, not specified in the loose minute) identified as US Space Command catalogue reference 22586 and International Designator 1993-018B. Since when did the MoD have to rely on a UFO organisation in order to identify space activity? It is apparent even at this early stage that ufologists were relating the sightings to the re-entry.
The third paragraph reveals that Pope had contacted Fylingdales subsequent to the time referred to in his earlier notes, though there is no other record of this in the files. He does not identify the particular satellite, but say that Fylingdales informed him that there had in fact been a re-entry at 02:20 am (local). In fact there was no such re-entry, therefore it would seem reasonable to assume that their re-entry time was based on inaccurate data or calculations, and not on the detection of any re-entry - unless, of course there was some confusion between local and GMT time?
The final paragraph is a masterpiece of apparent confusion or deliberate misdirection;
Whilst the decay mentioned in para 2 might explain some of the high level sightings, it does not explain the low-level sightings.
We know from the earlier analysis of the characteristics of the reports that only two of the thirteen reports made directly to the MoD explicitly indicated that the object witnessed was "high level". Pope himself wrote in an earlier document;
How do you estimate the height of a light of unknown size at night, with nothing with which to compare it?
Yet here he is, apparently accepting that "expert witnesses" are able to do exactly that. The paragraph continues;
It also fails to explain [obliterated]'s report of a low hum, or the report from [obliterated] the Met Officer at RAF Shawbury.
Of course it fails to explain these factors, however, how could he be certain that the noise was not due to an unrelated factor? Only a single report mentioned any noise, and it has to be considered in that context. The Shawbury sighting took place 90 minutes after the re-entry, and is clearly unrelated. In conclusion, Pope wrote;
The spread of timings and bearings of the sightings also argues against this decay explaining all of them.
Talk about stating the obvious - if you merge all of the reports between 21:30 on one night and 02:40 on the following morning, a single satellite re-entry will not explain all of them. On the other hand, if you examine the reports carefully, discarding those that are obviously unrelated, the re-entry accounts for 6 of the 13 reports to the MoD. With a little more checking, several of the other reports could almost certainly have been ascribed to the re-entry, due to inaccuracies of reported times or directions. He could then have focussed his efforts on the residual, and far more interesting reports. It is apparent at this point that Pope has made his mind up, based on the flimsiest assessment of the reports, that something out of the ordinary had occurred. He now had the bit between his teeth.
The above minute was addressed to DI55, and the example was copied to the Head of Sec(as). The handwritten notes on the minute indicate that Pope has passed all of the details to DI55 for more detailed assessment. The Head of Sec(AS) wrote:
I suggest you now drop this subject.
This is an ambiguous comment - does it mean that the Head of Sec(AS) is telling Pope that DI55 will take up the assessment from then on and that Pope need not concern himself with it, or is it suggesting that they were in some way dubious of Pope's findings? There is no way to tell.
There is no further correspondence on-file until fully twelve days later. It appears to be a summary written by DI55, derived largely from Pope's file, presumably just to hold on-file in case of future reference. Incredibly, it re-affirms the erroneous details of height and speed, and also incorrectly references the re-entry of the Mir resupply mission. It does not appear that any actual investigation of the reports was carried out by DI55, or that they paid close attention to the contents of Pope's file.
There are four more items of correspondence in the MoD file, essentially a dialogue between ufologist Doug Cooper and Nick Pope. These are immaterial to the MoD handling of the case, and are covered in the "ufologists" section of the site.