Papal fallibility

Nick Pope, Open Skies, Closed Minds, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
First published in Magonia 58, January 1997. Reviewed by John Harney.

"We have no proof that an alien craft landed in Rendlesham Forest, but we have no proof that it didn't." After discovering this gem on page 151 I am at a loss as to how to proceed; it just about sums it up.

Well, you might ask, what about Rendlesham Forest? Does Pope manage to shed any new light on the affair? Why don't I get on with my review? Why is Pope, or his ghostwriter Mei Trow, so fond of question marks? Do you think it might be catching?

Anyone who looks for any revelations about UFOs over Britain will be disappointed. Most of the book consists of rehashes of the various topics usually discussed under the rubric of ufology, and the treatment is generally credulous and uncritical.

In discussing the Rendlesham Forest affair, Pope makes much of Lt-Col Halt's notorious memo to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Apparently Halt never got so much as an acknowledgment from the MoD. Perhaps they found it too embarrassing. The memo describes Halt and his men wandering around in the forest looking at lights which they fail to identify. Of course, if they could not identify them then they could not have known how far away they were. Pope brushes aside suggestions that they may have been fooled by Orford Ness lighthouse, and possibly by the lights of cars on nearby roads.

Many of you have probably heard the tape recording which was made at the time, on which, to put it charitably, the speakers sound somewhat confused and disorientated. In the last paragraph of his memo, Halt says that two star-like UFOs hung around in the sky for an hour in the north and another one for two to three hours in the south. Now, most ordinary folk and, indeed, most ufologists would refer to star-like objects which remain in the sky for hours as - well - stars, perhaps. Or maybe planets. If Halt really believed they were UFOs, he was surely in a position to initiate the necessary action to investigate them.

Pope, a civil servant in the MoD, wrote this book after adopting a rather high profile during his three years in a posting which involved dealing with UFO reports. He claims that he was the only person in the MoD responsible for investigating them, though no well-informed ufologists believe this. He reminds us that the MoD line is that UFOs are of no defence significance. Perhaps not, but if pilots see things which they can't identify, then these are certainly of air safety significance and have to be investigated by suitably qualified officials.

Pope seems to think that because he is unable to explain a series of UFO sightings then there is no explanation apart from the tired old alien spacecraft one. He knows better than his superiors in the MoD and their counterparts in other countries, who have been saying for the past 50 years that the UFOs do not constitute a threat. If they were wrong, we would not be here to argue about the matter.

The highlight of Pope's stint at the UFO desk was the wave of sightings over Britain on the night of 30-31 March 1993. These were similar to the Belgian flap which had occurred on the same date three years earlier. He plotted the sightings on a map and he remarks: "The resulting pattern did not give me the straight line I'd hoped for..." No, he does not explain why he had hoped for a straight line. Many of the reports described a triangular object or a triangular arrangement of lights. It does not seem to have occurred to him that many of these reports were perhaps not independent of each other.

Police officers have radios and most people have telephones. For example, he mentions sightings at Cosford, Rugeley and Shawbury involving mysterious lights associated with a peculiar humming sound. Although he does not mention the fact, these sightings were not entirely independent. According to my source, what happened was as follows. A family in Rugeley were 'very distressed' by a large diamond-shaped object flying over them.

This incident was reported to MoD Police at RAF Cosford, who phoned the meteorologist on duty at RAF Shawbury describing the incident at 0115 (31 March). At 0130 they called again, very excited, saying that they had seen the thing themselves and that it seemed to be heading towards Shawbury. At 0135 the meteorologist went outside and saw a similar object which he watched for several minutes until it suddenly sped across the airfield making a 'low humming noise'. Of course this does not invalidate the reports, but such communications between witnesses and potential witnesses during a UFO flap must be taken into account in any serious investigation.

Apart from Pope's own experiences at the MoD the book is padded out with the usual credulous rubbish about Roswell, crop circles and cattle mutilations. Pope has now gone on the UFO lecture circuit and has been given an enormous advance for his next book. So, don't buy this book and waste your time reading it, Write your own crappy UFO book and watch your bank balance grow.

Incidentally, seeing and writing about UFOs will not damage your career, as popular belief has it. Pope was promoted when he was switched to his next job, and the met. observer at Shawbury has also been promoted and is now a weather forecaster.

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