UFOs that never were

Jenny Randles, Andy Roberts and David Clarke. The UFOs That Never Were. London House, 2000.

This is an important book taking a critical look at some of the major British IFOs of the last 30 years. but an opening chapter on the 1897 airship by David Clarke may be the most important, showing how folklore, hoaxes, and expectancy create UFO waves.

Of the major British cases discussed, three are included here because of their promotion as UFO crashes rather than being on the face of it typical UFO events. These are the 'phantom plane crashes' at the Isle of Lewis in October 1996; Howden Moor, March 1997 (basically a version of David Clarke's article in Magonia 71); and the Berwyn Mountain affair of January 1974.

Clarke concludes that the Lewis incident was a large bolide, whereas at Howden he preferred a light aircraft plus jets breaking the sound barrier. The solution to Howden Moor may revolve around whether the witnesses who claimed to see a flash and plumes of smoke were mistaken or not. If not, then it seems as though Howden also may have been a large bolide exploding at high altitude, but if seismic readings of the noise rule out that in favour of sonic booms at lower altitude, then the 'flash and smoke' would seem to be hallucinations brought on by expectancy and closure (the brain interprets the bangs as explosions and provides the flash and smoke which go with explosions).

I had started to take an interest in the Berwyn Mountain affair recently, not because I thought of crashed saucers but I was beginning to wonder if it represented the high altitude explosion of a small asteroid, with the earthquake reported at the time really being an atmospheric shock wave. From Andy Roberts researches it seems that there was a coincidence between an earthquake that seismographs reported as being at six miles depth, and the presence of bolides and some nefarious rural activities that same night.

None of these three stories appeared to be obvious UFO stories, yet each became converted by ufological fantasists into incredible tales of crashed flying saucers, or shot-down aircraft, with mysterious secrets. In the case of Berwyn. Andy Roberts also shows that events which happened years apart became conflated in the tales.

Another case which featured in Magonia was the Cracoe Fell UFO photograph which turned out to be the sun reflecting on rocks. Again we see how ufologists convert ordinary, if unusual, events into spectacular mysteries.

A more spectacular case to start with was the Peter Day film, now known to show burning fuel jettisoned from an F-111 fighter in terminal trouble, but which for a long time appeared to be in the upper 1% of genuinely puzzling cases, and we hear of Doctor Hynek waffling on about mysterious force fields, to account for blurring caused by movement of the camera. In many ways the Peter Day film is the most important IFO here. Its demolition suggests that almost any case can be explained given sufficient time and trouble.

Sometimes the really impenetrable mysteries are those of human motivation. One such is that of Alex Birch and his on/off claims to have hoaxed his 1962 UFO photos. Though Clarke and Roberts appear rather baffled as to just which story is true, there is no real doubt. In his 1972 statement Birch didn't just make a vague confession, he actually demonstrated exactly how he had done it on a TV documentary, complete with the glass plate on which the 'UFOs' were painted. There is at least a 99.9% certainty that this picture was a hoax.

What does that then say about Birch's claims for a lifetime of paranormal experiences? There seem to be two areas of explanation: one is that these experiences were at least subjectively real and Birch faked the photo to make them public and concrete; the other is that Birch's claims to amazing powers are themselves part of a fantasy narrative. If that were the case, there is no shortage of material in the public domain from which such stories could be constructed, and we may be dealing with fantathesia, with its confusion between external and internal stimuli, or the narrational fantasy of Caraboo Syndrome, or some mixure of the two.

This is by no means a unique case, Clarke and Roberts refer to the Cottingley Two, and there have been numerous cases of clearly fraudulent mediums narrating tales of a lifetime of psychic experience. The closest parallel however is with Stephen Darbyshire and his cousin who in 1954 produced photographs whose similarity to the then much trumpeted Adamski photographs caused glee among ufologists. Every so often ufologists interview him and he continues to insist that the photos aren't faked. Derbyshire's story also has the strange element of enchantment, in that the boys claimed a mysterious impulse made them go up the 'Old Man of Coniston'. Birch's and Derbyshire's stories have other points of similarity as well, such as the claim that Earl Mountbatten and/or the Duke of Edinburgh were interested in their tales.

There is a chapter on the UFO wave of 1987, which I suspect takes the claims of Tim Matthews about amazing secret aircraft too seriously, but the largest piece in the book is Jenny Randles penultimate stage in discarding Rendlesham. She still tries to cling on to the mystery with her fingertips, by going on about mysterious mind-altering radar experiments, but you can hear the slipping fingernails grating against the rocks. New evidence uncovered by James Easton more or less demonstrates that the principle witnesses actually saw the lighthouse at Orford Ness. Their stories have grown over the years, but as I pointed out before, the alleged field effects and perceptual distortions which Jenny hints were caused by nefarious experiment are actually quite accurate descriptions of the effects of extreme fear and stress.

There may be other factors in perceptual distortion: the effects of flashing point sources of light for example which may in certain people generate alternated states of consciousness. Then again local rumours picked up by Probe/SCUFORI suggested that, how shall we put it, an overenthusiastic getting into the seasonal spirit may have been a contributing factor.

Jenny calls this chapter 'Rendle Shame', which perhaps prompts the question, whose shame is if? Certainly not Probe/SCUFORI who investigated the case very soon afterwards, and came to the conclusion that there was nothing much to it, a conclusion also reached by Kevin McClure. Their comments make it clear that the 'investigation' by Street and Butler was a textbook example of how not to investigate a case taken to nth degree.

Members of Probe/SCUFORI were so disgusted by the later promotion of Rendlesham that several left the subject entirely, not however before revealing some of its background to Roger Sandell and John Rimmer at a BUFORA meeting on the case, and providing points which Roger incorporated in his review of Skycrash. These points have been reiterated by one of the original investigators, who in several conversations with myself, and over a period of years separately to John and Roger presented some interesting and amusing background which the libel laws prevent being discussed.

I hope that this book at least will turn the tide and perhaps start a habit of actually publishing the results of case investigations, rather than leaving them to moulder in files. To answer perhaps somewhat legitimate complaints that many of the cases in this book were intrinsically weak, perhaps a case-by-case review of the really puzzling cases, if any, is needed: those CEIII and CEIV we used to read about, but never seem to encounter these days. No vague talk of UAPs and fields and so, just a real mainstream-science attempt to find out what is going on. I wager if that is done with the energy that Dave Clarke and Andy Roberts can muster, very little will be unexplained at the end. Perhaps nothing.


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