Unidentified Substances + Wishful Thinking = UFOs


Earlier this month more UFO files were released as part of a three year ongoing project between the Ministry of Defence and The National Archives. The files can be viewed here. They range from the more usual “I saw some lights in the sky and don’t know what they were” type of report, to the more extravagant “Flivob the Venutian wanted my sperm to repopulate his planet” kind of story. Ok, I obviously made that last one up, but those kinds of stories do crop up. I believe whiskey is normally involved. And a prior tendency to spout nonsense.

The files range from the years 1981 to 1996, and we get some cool stuff in there. We get waves of sightings recorded across Belgium in 1989 – 1990, which led to F-16 jets being scrambled by the Belgian Air Force. The F-16s obtained lock-ons with their radars but were unable to explain the phenomena. We also get a 1994 report by an air crew flying from Moscow to Tokyo, which describes a huge object entering the Earth’s atmosphere over the Arctic, creating a shockwave supposedly 200 miles long. The crew reports that the UFO came in over the North Pole at an estimated speed of 10-15,000mph. There are numerous records in the files of reports by pilots and air crews, including near-misses between UFOs and airliners.

I love this stuff. There are probably perfectly mundane explanations for all these events, but in the absence of knowing what they are, there is some great fodder for the imagination here. It’s difficult to split anecdote and exaggeration from fact, but the great thing about UFOs is that it is still somewhere in the realm of the possible. It’s edging towards the door eyeing up the woo gathering outside, but it’s still sort of in the room. And the point for me is that it does no harm to believe in fanciful explanations for lights in the sky. I’ve never been a believer (I would need a lot more than sightings before I would entertain any possibilities for real), but I’m ok with the fact that some people are. They don’t harm anyone, they just get together with friends and watch the stars occasionally. It’s not like homeopathy or chiropracty, which make false medical claims and potentially lead people into making dangerous choices regarding their health. Or psychics who take money from the bereaved. UFO hunters aren’t scamming anyone except maybe themselves, in a harmless sort of way.

Stories like the ones above genuinely interest me. Yet by and large they’re not the ones from the files that make it to the national papers. Stories like this do:

Two Staffordshire teenagers on their way home from a youth club one night in May 1995 both experienced a burst of intense heat and saw a large, inverted saucer-shaped object hovering fourty feet away. It was supposedly four houses high. They also apparently saw a creature with a lemon-like head, who said “We want you. Come with us.”

Most papers took note of other important details, like: the phone call came from the local Nags Head pub, and that same night a local farmer was spraying his crops in the same field as the sighting in his enormous, well-lit combine harvester.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I find reports about pilots recording near-misses between airliners and UFOs much more interesting. For one, they’re not drunk (I hope), and they’re not in the habit of reporting silly stuff.  It may have not been an alien spacecraft outside the cabin window, but at least we can have a bit of imaginative fun. Stories like this one are non-starters. Give me something with at least a hope of being possible. Feed my imagination, dammit!

The papers also picked up on waves of sightings across London in 1994. They turned out to be of a Virgin airship advertising the launch of the Ford Mondeo, a much more Earth-based vehicle.

More famously, the Rendlesham Forest Incident of 1980 (sometimes called ‘Britain’s Roswell’) is also in the files. This involved sightings by two military policemen of eerie, flashing green and blue lights through fog. On approach, they saw a “strange, glowing object, metallic in appearance… [with] a pulsating red light on top and a bank of blue lights underneath”. This was revealed as a practical joke in 2003. The source of the lights was a police car driven by bored miltary policeman, Kevin Conde, who stuck red and green lenses on the spotlight, and then drove round in circles flashing his lights. Again, another EARTH-BASED vehicle.

Stop reporting dead news, people! Give us the unexplained stories! Alas, the more you read between the lines, the less ‘unexplained’ everything becomes, and the realm of UFOs becomes a little duller. The number of UFO sightings peaked significantly, for example, in the years 1978 and 1996, the release dates of the films Close Encounters of The Third Kind and Independence Day respectively. The X-Files’ popularity was also at its highest in 1996. Coincidence seems unlikely. Especially when trends such as this can be seen with regard to other aspects of UFO sightings. Saucer sightings, for example, only became common after a journalist misquote turned “a boomerang-shaped object skipping like a saucer” into “a flying saucer”. Similarly, stories of meeting the ‘greys’ tend to ride the coat-tails of popular culture, most notably The X-Files, and Whitley Strieber’s book Communion.

Hear this story and more in Skeptics with a K episode #003

Hear this story and more on Skeptics with a K

But this doesn’t stop these reports being entertaining in their way. My favourite report in the recently released files regarded two women revellers at 1994’s Glastonbury, who claimed to see flashing, moving lights which moved towards them and communicated with them by mimicking the colours of their clothes (!?). When asked why none of the other tens of thousands of festival-goers had seen what they had seen, the women replied: “They didn’t look hard enough or take it seriously.”

Kids, this is why you should avoid the Herbal Highs tent…

An air crew flying from Moscow to Tokyo in March 1994 reported seeing a huge object was seen entering the Earth‟s atmosphere over the Arctic that created a shockwave 200 miles long. The crew reported that the UFO came in over the [North] pole at an estimated speed of 10-15,000mph. They initially
believed it must have been a Space Shuttle, but subsequently found it was already down.

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