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.

Lenticular clouds tend to remain stationary; their longevity and their saucer-like appearance sometimes lead to misidentification as otherworldly spacecraft. (NOAA)
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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.

This and other sightings were reportedly collected in a so-called Blue Folder (not to be confused with the Blue Book), which after the Soviet collapse in 1991 was entrusted to Pavel Popovich, a cosmonaut-turned-UFO-enthusiast. He, in turn, drip-fed files to a wider audience over the next dozen years. (Popovich died last September; it’s not clear what became of the collection of reports in his possession.)

Yuri Andropov did not live long enough for glasnost to compel him to share his thoughts on the Blue Folder’s contents. But his top deputy and successor at the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, remained unimpressed. “The Party Central Committee and Council of Ministers asked me more than once to confirm or deny rumors about unexplained events, especially UFOs and ‘abominable snow men,’ ” he told the Russian newspaper Komsomoslkaya Pravda in 2005. “The conclusion was always fruits of the imagination. Fear has big eyes.”

State-sponsored UFO studies peaked worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Reagan Revolution ratcheted up East-West tensions, and Close Encounters and Star Wars stirred the global imagination. Latin America showed particular enthusiasm.

On May 19, 1986, Brazil had its Night of the UFOs, with five fighters scrambling to chase mystery lights across the country’s southwest for two and a half hours. The air force minister went on TV the next morning to order a full investigation. Declassified only last year, this Brazilian report found: “The phenomenon is solid and reflects intelligence by its capacity to follow and sustain distance from the observers, as well as to fly in formation.”

In the peaceful 1990s, military services in the West found it increasingly hard to justify the reporting of mystery craft. By 1991, when Nick Pope came to the United Kingdom’s UFO desk, resources had shrunk to about one half of one mid-level official’s time, namely his.

After the 1993 serial sightings of “two Concordes joined together,” popularly known in Britain as the Cosford Incident, Pope and his unnamed counterpart at DI55 began quietly lobbying for a fresh look at UFOs. He got his wish for an MoD review of the files that had piled up over the decades, but the results disappointed him.

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