Department of Flying Saucers
Nick Pope, formerly with the UK's Ministry of Defence, warns that space aliens will be drawn to the Olympic's Closing Ceremonies. Read more about the UK's UFO program—which ran from 1959 to 2009—here.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, September 2010
(Page 3 of 5)
Almost as soon as man learned to fly, he began spotting unidentified flying objects. During World War I, Britons panicked over sightings they believed to be German Zeppelins (see “Fear of Floating,” June/July 2009). World War II pilots regularly reported encounters with silvery balls of light that they called foo-fighters, whose origins were never conclusively explained. But it took the cold war and, later, the dawning of the Space Age, to turn UFOs into a popular obsession, and an object for systematic state scrutiny.
In the early 1950s, the fever spread quickly from the United States to the United Kingdom, reaching even an aging Winston Churchill. “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to?” the prime minister asked his air force chief in a note in the summer of 1952. “What is the truth?”
Churchill was informed that the Air Ministry had in fact convened a top-secret Flying Saucer Working Party two years earlier, which concluded that all the reports amounted to natural phenomena imaginatively interpreted. That assurance was partly revised in September 1952, when a squad of Royal Air Force airmen in Yorkshire reported a strange white-silvery object tailing a Gloster Meteor fighter back to base after maneuvers, then suddenly shooting off to the west at “incredible speed.” The Air Ministry set up a detail in its intelligence branch to keep track of such reports in the future.
The mission of the “UFO desk” was always restricted to watching for military threats. But reports from the public inevitably offered broader theories about unaccountably stealthy alien visitors. Toward these sightings, the ministry adopted a policy of being, as one now-unearthed internal memo put it, “politely unhelpful,” and kept it up for more than half a century. Once locked in dank cabinets, stacks of these bland assurances can now be perused by anyone at the National Archives’ airy research center in the South West London suburb of Kew. “The Department does not dismiss the possibility that intelligent life could exist in outer space,” reads a typical 1978 missive to Mr. T. Butler of the Bradlington Constituency Conservative Association. “But no evidence has reached the MoD to date to suggest that UFOs have extra-terrestrial origins.”
Occasional inquiries from Parliament gave long-suffering UFOcrats the chance to vent a bit. A certain Earl of Clancarty, a true believer who demanded a House of Lords investigation into spacemen incursions that, to his way of thinking, stretched back to at least the Biblical star over Bethlehem, particularly tried MoD’s patience in the late 1970s. “If they have not attacked for the last 2,000 years, it is doubtful whether the earl’s evidence could justify diversion of Defence resources just at present,” ministry spokesman T.M.P. Stevens wrote to another interested peer.
Weird flying stuff was just as fascinating in the Soviet Union. Authorities reacted there too, though typically in a jumbled fashion that their Russian successors have disclosed only in bits and pieces. The extant Soviet UFO trail starts in 1968, when a group of 13 senior air and space engineers worked up the courage to write a letter to No. 2 leader Alexei Kosygin, proposing a committee to study the issue. They learned to their surprise that the Politburo was already on it. “Questions about the nature of so-called flying objects have been considered by an array of competent organizations including the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Defense,” a scientist on Kosygin’s staff wrote back. “There is no necessity to create any sort of special organization.”
Little is known to this day about what the academy and the Soviet military considered. But UFOs were more enthusiastically studied in the late 1970s by Yuri Andropov, longtime head of the KGB and, for a brief term at the end of his life, supreme Soviet leader. Andropov aide Igor Sinitsin recalled approaching his boss gingerly in 1977 with a Western magazine report about a “giant jellyfish” widely witnessed in the skies over the northwest Russian city of Petrozavodsk. Andropov stunned his subordinate by pulling out a UFO dossier that he had been quietly compiling with help from the counter-intelligence directorate. (The jellyfish was later linked to exhaust gases from a secret rocket launch.)
From that year forward, the KGB kept tabs on the more spectacular airborne mysteries reported across the Soviet Union. In 1984, Soviet pilots in two fighters and an attack helicopter chased and fired on an intruding UFO from along the Caspian Sea border. One report has the unknown craft taking evasive action—diving to 320 feet to thwart the jets, then ascending beyond the helicopter’s range—but eventually retreating out to sea.