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Defence Significance? by Gary Stedman

To most people, the mention of UFOs and alien encounters immediately brings forth images of the infamous Area 51 site in Nevada or graphic accounts of alien abductions. These sensationalist stories have dominated the headlines in recent years to the detriment of other incidents, but it has been argued that governments encourage speculation on these issues to deflect interest from other sensitive projects (such as Aurora, the alleged SR-71 replacement, to use one commonly quoted example).

One rather disturbing aspect of UFO mysteries that does not attract coverage from a increasingly irrelevant press is the phenomenon of attempted UFO interceptions by the world's air arms. Despite the obvious difficulties in researching classified incidents there is enough evidence to suggest interceptions of UFOs have been attempted, and if some incidents are to be believed have occasionally resulted in the loss of the the aircrew involved. Although these incidents appear to occur world-wide with no obvious pattern the majority of cases that reach the public domain come from Western Europe and the United States.

P51 Mustang; okay, so we haven't got a F51, but it's near enoughLeaving aside the Roswell saga (despite all the interest, we still don't know), 1947 is still considered to be the dawn of the modern UFO age, as it was in July of that year that pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine discs whilst looking for a crashed aircraft over mountains in Washington state. This still unexplained sighting was the first aerial encounter to be well documented, the following year seeing arguably the first pilot fatality during an attempted interception. The loss of an Air National Guard F-51 flown by Captain Thomas Mantell in January 1948 was considered a case of oxygen starvation, the Mustang plunging vertically to the ground in Kentucky. Mantell was leading a flight of four Mustangs on a ferry mission when requested by Goodman tower to investigate a object visible at high altitude, the other pilots abandoning the pursuit as Mantell climbed alone towards the object. It has never been clear exactly what Mantell was chasing before his F-51 came down, speculation that it was Venus or a balloon (Roswell again!) was found to be unlikely as Mantell's final radio call suggested an object of tremendous size, metallic in appearance.

Whilst the unfortunate loss of Captain Mantell was the result of his aircraft diverting from a routine flight, it is known that in the years immediately following this and other early incidents the USAF considered placing fighters at readiness to intercept 'flying discs' increasingly being reported over the United States. Especially, intelligence agencies were becoming concerned over a number of sightings over sensitive atomic installations. According to former USAF officers attempts were made in the early '50s to intercept and shoot down the intruders, resulting in some unspecified losses; one incident known to have occurred during this time was the disappearance of a F-89 over Michigan in 1953, the Scorpion having launched from Kinross AFB to intercept a unknown target spotted by Air Defence Command radar. The F-89's track was seen to merge with that of the unknown object and then disappear, with no wreckage found. Unsurprisingly, this incident has remained a complete mystery.

Ahhh...happy daysAlthough many Lightnings flown by the Royal Air Force ended their flying career in the North Sea during the type's long service life, virtually all can be attributed to the attrition a frontline jet always experiences. However, the loss of Lightning F6 XS894 is still shrouded in mystery. XS894 and its pilot, USAF exchange officer Captain William Schaffner, crashed into the North Sea on the night of 8 September 1970. This remains undisputed, but it is only when looking at events leading to the Lightning's loss that two alternative accounts emerge. On the one hand, a tragic but common training accident during a NATO exercise (a scenario put to me by one individual who should know), the other a chain of events starting with a unknown contact detected by radar over the North Sea. Earlier, the QRA from Leuchars was guided to what was assumed to be a routine interception of a Russian reconnaissance aircraft, but the contact was seen to turn through 180 degrees and move off the screen at very high speed. Following the unknown contact's reappearance soon after, USAF Phantoms from Keflavik, along with further pairs of Lightnings from Leuchars and Coltishall, were dispatched in a fruitless attempt to close with the target, the object displaying a speed far beyond their capability.

As the contact manoeuvred further to the South a single Lightning was dispatched from Binbrook, flown by Captain Schaffner, who was able to close with the unknown and observe a blue light alongside his Lightning. Ground based radar then observed the two tracks merge, the single blip then separated into two, one disappearing off the radar to the North. After contact was re-established with a disorientated Captain Schaffner a rendezvous was then arranged with a previously dispatched Shackleton. Despite Schaffner's assurances that he could bring the Lightning home, he was instructed to ditch the aircraft while the Shackleton orbited overhead, an air-sea rescue helicopter already en-route. Following the Lightning's controlled ditching the Shackleton crew observed the canopy open but were unable to see Captain Schaffner, the Lightning soon sinking, presumably taking Schaffner with it. Later the same year the Royal Navy located the wreckage of XS894 on the sea bed and the Lightning was raised, initially going to RAF Binbrook. The investigation into the loss of the aircraft was carried out in great secrecy, few being allowed to observe the wreckage.

The account given above is a greatly abridged version of a story that has been told several times in recent years, so I make no claims for its accuracy and as previously mentioned the loss of Captain Schaffner and XS894 could be no more mysterious than a training accident. If the accounts of former RAF Personnel are accurate then the Schaffner incident remains (as far as I know) the only fatal UFO interception attempted by the RAF, although other encounters have certainly taken place.

In October 1967 a young aircraft enthusiast observed two Lightnings chasing a UFO over his house in Hampshire, his family just seeing the Lightnings before they flew into cloud. Whilst it could be argued the observations of a young teenager are hardly reliable, it could also be said they make better witnesses, but unsurprisingly the MOD was not aware of any RAF aircraft involved in this incident.

Okay, so it's a Turk...but you get the gistAn attempt by the Imperial Iranian Air Force to intercept a UFO near Tehran in 1976 is still considered to be one of the most compelling cases ever recorded, as fortunately on this occasion both F-4s returned safely - the crews considerably shaken. Following several calls to the IIAF reporting a brilliant light visible in the night sky over Tehran a Phantom was launched to intercept. Upon closing with the target the F-4 lost instrumentation and communications, only regaining them when the intercept was aborted, the crew also reporting being approached by a second unknown from astern. A second Phantom took up the chase, acquiring a radar lock-on with a airliner-sized target that resembled a brilliant white light, flashing coloured strobes. Unable to close with the target, the crew observed a small object leave the UFO and head straight at them, so assuming an attack they attempted to launch an AIM-9 Sidewinder, but also experienced a systems failure and so took evasive action. After completely out-manoeuvring the F-4, the object trailed the Phantom before returning to the primary UFO. Another similar object was seen launched towards the ground, the shaken F-4 crew orbiting the position before returning to land. A cylinder shaped object was also observed by the beleaguered crew while on approach, the tower staff also seeing this object.

The report on this impressive radar-visual case was forwarded to the USAF, the incident also receiving massive publicity in the Iranian press. Unusually, the USAF report was released publicly, but no explanation was offered. In the interest of impartiality it must be stated the IIAF was experiencing considerable difficulty in maintaining the F-4's radar equipment, US civilian contractors also believing the crews were very inexperienced, but whether these factors can explain the entire incident is questionable.

The suspicious loss of another F-4 that year was only recently brought to my attention, a USAF example crashing into the North Sea during an apparent 1 v 1 ACM exercise. The aircraft is known to have been carrying a live warload, suggesting a alert sortie rather than a routine exercise. The crashed Phantom was from the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, stationed at Soesterberg in Holland - Soesterberg was allegedly overflown by a disc shaped object, the Phantom being launched to intercept. Lack of evidence is a major factor in this incident, my source also suggesting a cold war confrontation as
another possibility.

ClickFor several years the island of Puerto Rico has witnessed some of the most bizarre UFO activity in history, multiple encounters between US military aircraft and UFOs being observed by many witnesses. During one encounter in December 1988 two F-14 Tomcats were seen to disappear inside the massive triangular shaped craft they were chasing, the incident being observed over a wide area. When questioned, the civilian authorities would only state that military exercises were scheduled in the area, enquires made at nearby military bases predictably coming up blank. A similar incident may also have been witnessed a month earlier. A US navy carrier battle group was known to be offshore during the later incident, local investigators believed that these and other incidents indicate the US military was deeply involved in the Puerto Rico situation.

The Puerto Rico UFO phenomenon has suprisingly received little exposure outside the island, but the disappearance of two (possibly four) F-14s would present numerous security problems for the US Navy; how do you keep the rumour machine quiet on a carrier with a crew of over five thousand? What was said to the aircrews families? Other confrontations between US jets and UFOs are rumoured to continue to be observed in the skies above Puerto Rico.

Belgian F16There was no lack of publicity when Belgian Air Force F-16s intercepted another smaller triangular craft in 1990, the event making headlines world-wide. What was not widely reported was that sightings of identical craft hovering at low level were being reported throughout Europe, including the UK. Earlier attempts by the BAF to intercept these UFOs had failed, the craft departing vertically before the F-16s arrived. This time the F-16s were able to acquire a radar lock-on before the target broke the lock, manoeuvring instantaneously at Mach 1+. The F-16s were able to re-acquire the target several times
before it accelerated away, ground based radars also losing the track. The whole incident was observed from the ground by a number of eyewitnesses, including police officers.

Remarkably, the Belgian Ministry of Defence allowed reporters and civilian UFO researchers complete access to their findings, even going as far as to allow viewing of the F-16s radar recordings, which have since been published. One image displays a track accelerating through 990 knots at under a thousand feet, no noise being heard as the target passed through the sound barrier, despite numerous witnesses on the ground. Although any suggestion that the unknown craft was an American experiment type is clearly absurd (an F-117 has been suggested), the Belgian MOD obtained a categorical assurance from the US government that no American craft was involved in this or any other incidents. The craft's performance and acceleration clearly ruled out ANY manned craft, a view supported by the Belgian Air Force and the many scientists who have studied the encounter.

During that Easter weekend in April 1990, a national skywatch was organised in Belgium, the air force, police and public UFO groups all working in co-operation, but the results were inconclusive as only a few sightings were reported despite alert F-16s being placed at the disposal of the organisers. This excellent example of co-operation (which UK and US researchers can only dream of) was ridiculed in one 'quality' British newspaper as a obvious mistake, as it claimed the planet Mars was clearly responsible and questioned the intelligence of the Belgian authorities! The astronomer quoted was also responsible for the solution to the Rendlesham Forest incident near the USAF base at Woodbridge in 1980, as he claims the USAF personnel had seen the light from the Orford Ness lighthouse pulsating through the forest!

The incidents I have summarised above represent a small fraction of the available accounts of encounters between military aircraft and UFOs, and to catalogue encounters involving civilian aircraft would take much greater space. In turn, airborne encounters are only a small part of the increasingly complex UFO puzzle, but I have tried to be objective and also provide a balanced account where possible. If a more conventional explanation was possible then it has been provided, but any comments on this article are welcome and can be sent to me here.

Finally, I believe it would be inappropriate to conclude this article without a brief summary of the British Government's policy when questioned about UFOs. The Ministry of Defence claims it does not investigate UFOs unless it believes they are of 'defence significance'. Cases that are brought to the MoD's attention (including the Rendlesham Forest case) are routinely dismissed as being of no 'defence significance'. With a number of airline crews reporting near misses with UFOs in the skies above the UK, just the presence of unknown craft in UK airspace must surely warrant MOD investigation. This puzzling policy is perhaps more understandable if the MOD was undertaking covert research into the UFO situation, which it repeatedly denies doing. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately if you consider the outcome of some of the above accounts, this denial is known to be less than truthful.


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