January 2009. Police in the western French province of Brittany are puzzled by a wave of reports that strange, undulating lights have been drifting across the night sky. They call for a national operative who works out of a small, unmarked office in the southern city of Toulouse. He arrives on the scene swiftly and begins making subtle inquiries, wary as always of spreading panic among the public.
The investigator in this real-life Gallic version of “The X-Files” is Yvan Blanc, a diminutive, balding, 57-year-old engineer who bears a striking resemblance to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Until last year, Blanc was a project manager helping launch the European Space Agency’s Herschel Observatory, a job he thought might cap a three-decade career at the French national space agency CNES. Then he got an unexpected offer: to head up the Group for the Study and Information on Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena, or GEIPAN—the French government’s UFO office.
The first flying saucer sighting is generally credited to a hobbyist pilot in Washington state, who reported seeing a fleet of nine in 1947, and ever since, the vanguard of the cosmic imagination has been occupied by the United States. But the U.S. government closed the book, literally, on official UFO studies in 1969, when outside researchers reviewed 22 years of sightings in the Air Force’s Project Blue Book and found none that could be traced to either the Communist Bloc or extraterrestrials. Not so other countries. Well beyond the 1970s, governments from Uruguay to the U.S.S.R. kept some sort of tabs on unexplained airborne apparitions. The most systematic and long-lasting programs were sponsored by Britain and France.
Beginning in 1959, the U.K. Air Ministry and later Ministry of Defence (MoD) logged more than 11,000 UFO reports—until the MoD finally shuttered its monitoring program in 2009. France started later, establishing GEIPAN’s predecessor in 1977, but still carries on, though the agency’s staff has shrunk from a dozen to just Blanc and a secretary. Both countries published their UFO records recently after decades of secrecy, drawing enormous public interest. GEIPAN posted files online in 2007, and the first day they were up, the Web site crashed. The United Kingdom emptied MoD’s filing cabinets into the National Archives, and over two years or so, the digitized bits have been downloaded two million times. That swamps the archives’ former greatest hit, the Domesday Book, which catalogued taxable property transactions in England after the Norman Conquest.
The new wealth of official information has lent substance to the longstanding debates over how to identify the unidentifiable. The newly declassified document piles have forced the hardest-headed researchers to admit that, strictly speaking, unidentified aerial phenomena do exist. Pilots and other legitimate witnesses have sworn to, and radar at times has confirmed, heavenly anomalies that cannot be readily explained. But the French and British files also confirm that if alien civilizations have probed our planet, they have been pretty darned subtle about it.
One UFO obsessive who resists belief in ETs is David Clarke, a journalism professor at Sheffield Hallam University in the English Midlands whose relentless freedom-of-information requests helped unseal the MoD’s vaults. He now acts as the National Archives’ official expert on the vexing phenomenon. “I’ve been involved in the investigation of UFO reports, firstly as an enthusiast and later during my career as a journalist. I defy anyone to do this for over 20 years and emerge anything other than skeptical,” he exclaims during an interview at a distinctly down-to-Earth pub across the street from the university’s campus.
What the government’s papers prove, Clarke explains, is that garden-variety UFO sightings are heavily driven by banal suggestion. They peaked when Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit British screens in 1978, and again in 1997 with the release of Independence Day. Clarke thinks better-documented visions likely stem from rare weather manifestations such as ball lightning—spheres that can shoot through the sky for minutes at a time—and red sprites, which appear above thunderclouds when lightning flashes beneath.
But not everyone who worked behind the UFO curtain entirely agrees. Nick Pope was a career MoD bureaucrat who from 1991 to 1994 fielded celestial weirdness reports in the Secretariat (Air Staff) office overlooking 10 Downing Street; he passed the juicier ones on to a military intelligence subdivision known as DI55. Some of the reports, he says, forced him to keep an open mind to the possibility of visitors from other worlds, most notably a night in March 1993 when more than 30 separate observers reported an object akin to “two Concordes flying side by side and joined together” flying at a leisurely pace across England for six hours.
“I’m not a fully paid believer in little green men, but some cases do give you pause for thought,” Pope muses during a conversation in a London coffee shop. “Conventional science feels very uncomfortable with UFOs because they involve studying something that is no longer there.” (Clarke argues that the 1993 sightings were simply a Russian rocket reentering Earth’s atmosphere.)
Jean-Jacques Velasco, who for 21 years sat in Blanc’s chair at GEIPAN and its predecessor organizations before leaving in 2004, strays much farther than Pope into green man territory. “Artificial and controlled objects have appeared in our atmosphere without any question,” he concludes. “UFOs are phenomena with a deliberate behavior, often traveling at incredible speeds. If they are artificial probes, they cannot be of terrestrial origin.” Velasco’s working hypothesis, it becomes clear, is that the best-documented UFO reports correlate with nuclear weapons tests in the decades after World War II. Therefore benevolent aliens may be warning mankind against its dangerous folly.