The secret search for Extraterrestrials

For half a century the Ministry of Defence (MoD) kept what it knew about sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects locked away in a secret archive. But with the arrival of the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) in 2005, the fascinating contents of “Britain’s X-Files” were revealed.

This article was first published in the August 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine

The public’s obsession with UFOs and alien visitors has continued to grow alongside man’s first faltering steps into space. For centuries people have speculated about visitors from other worlds. But it is only since the end of the Second World War that large numbers of people have believed alien visits have actually occurred and been concealed by world governments.

In recent years MPs, peers and some senior military figures have added their voices to the many ordinary people who have demanded that the Ministry of Defence opens its files and releases the information that it holds on this contentious subject. This pressure was reflected in the fact that when the FoIA finally arrived on 1 January 2005, UFO sightings were among the three most popular topics among the hundreds of requests they received from the general public.

So what do Britain’s X-Files actually tell us? The answer is disappointing for those who believe the British Government has been concealing evidence of alien visitors. But to social and military historians the files are a treasure trove of material. The papers contain details of 10,728 UFO sightings reported to the MoD between 1959, when statistics were first kept, and the present day. The largest number of reports (750) came in 1978 when interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial life reached a crescendo with the release of the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The vast majority of UFO reports logged by the MoD came from members of the public and could be easily explained. Records show that the most common causes of UFO reports were aircraft, satellites and space debris, balloons, stars and planets. Around nine per cent fell into the “unexplained” category. An intelligence report from 1954 states that resolving these cases was incredibly difficult because “ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the scent is completely cold” by the time reports arrived at Whitehall.

However, a significant proportion of reports in the “unexplained” category were made by trained observers such as RAF aircrew, air traffic control staff and civilian pilots. Some of the most puzzling involved seemingly solid objects moving at exceptional speeds and heights that were tracked by defence radars. On occasions these sightings have led the RAF to scramble fighter aircraft to intercept the mysterious objects.

During the Cold War, Russian reconnaissance aircraft (nicknamed “bears”) regularly probed NATO defences across the North Atlantic. Until the early 1990s British radars were continually on the look out for these Russian intruders and many so-called UFOs were later identified as Soviet aircraft. As one senior RAF officer explains: “Any object appearing on our detection radars was literally a UFO until identified. There were some that were never identified, but this must not be taken to mean that they were caused by phenomena from other worlds”.

Emma Mason - History Extra

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