A childhood UFO laid to rest

One of my most vivid memories is of being interrupted from play in a schoolfriend’s backyard by a terrific roar that shook the ground, then seeing in the sky a descending plume of red flame.

There were hundreds of witnesses. I remembered that it took place on a Friday, early evening, and the next day it took the headline on the local newspaper. I remember also an official explanation was offered at the time, that a light aircraft had made an emergency landing at Sywell Aerodrome, the local airfield. But this explanation did not seem to fit the facts. An earth-shaking plume of flame was difficult to reconcile with a light aircraft experiencing engine trouble.

This sighting has bugged me down the years, because it seemed to hint at a cover-up. I’ve wondered if, instead, it were a military accident; or perhaps space junk burning up; or maybe a bigger-than-average meteor. Recently, I decided to stop passing it on as an anecdote, and see if I could get to the facts.

The first problem: I didn’t know when it happened. Certainly, it was the mid to late seventies. But I remembered that a schoolfriend had written to the newspaper, and his letter had been published a week after the sighting. Perhaps he’d kept a copy… I was able to find his email address from the internet. Luckily, he had indeed kept a copy in his family’s scrapbook, and supplied me with a date: April 30th, 1975.

Newspapers for this period were available at one of the county’s libraries, but I was frustrated to find nothing on the date in question. Then I noticed that April 30th, 1975, fell on a Wednesday. My memory was pretty sure it had been a Friday when the sighting occurred. With the librarian’s help, we ascertained that April 30th fell on a Friday in 1976, and when that volume was brought up, here’s what I found:

Towns shaken by mystery ‘rocket’
Riddle of the fiery aircraft

Mystery still surrounds the identity of an aircraft which left a trail of flames and smoke in the skies over Rushden last night.

The aircraft – flying at over 5,000 feet – appeared to be in trouble as flames shot out the back.
The noise shook houses and rattled windows in Rushden, Higham Ferrers and Wellingborough.

Eyewitnesses described the unidentified object as looking more like a rocket than a jet.

Police stations at Rushden and Wellingborough were inundated with calls from people who saw the strange craft just after 6.30pm.

Rushden and Raunds firemen were alerted and headed for RAF Chelveston only to find that the aircraft had passed over heading eastwards into Cambridgeshire.

Headline on newspaper: 'Riddle of the fiery aircraft'.

Front page of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph. Sat May 1st, 1976.

A spokesman for the American communications base at RAF Croughton, near Brackley, said he knew nothing of the mystery flight.

The base is in charge of the communications station at Chelveston, where the aircraft was said to have tried to land.

Spokesmen at RAF Wyton and RAF Alconbury, both in Cambridgeshire, said they knew nothing of the incident.

Mr. Neil Clarke said: “I was in the garden shed at home when I heard this terrific noise. I only saw it for a couple of seconds in a break in the clouds.

“There was a great sheet of flame from the rear about 4 times the length of the body. It was very frightening. It followed the flight path of the F1-11 fighter jets but it certainly didn’t look like one,” said Mr. Clarke, of Wellingborough Road, Rushden.

Mrs. Doreen Marks, of Carnegie Street, Rushden, was just sitting down to her evening meal with her husband and four children when they heard the noise.

“We thought it must have been an earth tremor at first. But when I looked up at the sky I saw something that looked like a rocket with flames shooting out the back.”

A Whitehall spokesman for the RAF said today: “We have no record of any aircraft in difficulties. But it sounds like a Phantom with its re-heat on. It’s an extra injection of fuel that gives it a boost. It’s usually used for climbing.”

Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph (Saturday 1st May, 1976), p. 1.

So, yes, my memory was correct that the story had made the front page. But a ‘light aircraft at Sywell’ was not mentioned. Perhaps this had been a word-of-mouth story spread around the town. Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding. The newspaper, however, had evidently fixed its sights on the military from the outset.

Memories, by definition, feel familiar and intimate. But the past is really an alien place. In 1976 there was no digital typesetting, so those stiff grey pages looked ancient and quaint. Not at all how I ‘remembered’ them. I was struck by the large advertisements for cigarettes, and also – more poignantly – the numerous vacancies for jobs in boot and shoe manufacturing, because Northamptonshire still had its local industry, back then.

It was a funny old week for my home town. Those airborne flames on Friday were followed, on the Monday, by a stretch of the river catching alight. Somehow, 30,000 gallons of jet fuel had leaked into the River Nene at Irthlingborough, and a spark from a riverside bonfire did the rest. Fire crews from surrounding towns banded together, and seem to have prevented a more serious incident.

Once again, the military was in the frame. The airbase at nearby Chelveston was in the process of being converted into an RAF communications station, which it would remain throughout the height of the Cold War, up until 2004. A contractor, hired to lift and purge underground fuel tanks at the base had either made a mistake, or perhaps had taken an unscrupulous short cut. (Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, May 3rd, 1976, p.1; May 4th, 1976, p.11.)

More than a coincidence? In a sense, yes, it was. At eight years old, you don’t have much grasp of the geo-political context in which you live. There were RAF and USAF bases dotted throughout the region where I grew up. When the US bombed Libya, on April 15th, 1986, fighter jets roared overhead all day. By then, I was more than old enough to worry about the start of World War III.

The explanation for what I saw on that long-vanished Friday evening was waiting in plain view as I read through the news of the succeeding days:

Fiery aircraft mystery solved

The mystery of the fiery aircraft which shook Rushden last week has been solved.

The United States Air Force confirmed it as one of their aircraft – an F111 jet fighter similar to the one pictured right, which could have been in trouble.

A picture of an F111, as printed by the newspaper.

The culprit. Picture printed alongside the newspaper’s explanation. Sat 8th May, 1976.

The aircraft, flying at 10,000 feet, jettisoned fuel to make an unscheduled landing at RAF Alconbury, a spokesman at the Third American Air Force said at its British headquarters at Mildenhall.

And he apologised to the [Evening Telegraph] for not revealing this sooner. Last Saturday, a day after the aircraft’s flight, air bases at Alconbury, Wyton, Croughton and Wittering denied all knowledge of it.

Earlier this week, the base at Upper Heyford joined them. But the aircraft did take off from Upper Heyford, it was revealed yesterday.

According to eyewitnesses, the aircraft had a large sheet of flame coming from the rear.

Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph (Saturday 8th May, 1976), p. 2.

But they would say that, though, wouldn’t they?

In this case, it seems that once the tight-lipped military had decided to say something, they were saying it because it was true. Having taken a look at photographs and films of F111s jettisoning and igniting fuel (known as a ‘dump and burn’) it looks pretty much like what I remember having seen.

Mr. Clarke of Wellingborough Road was almost on the money when he noted the object followed the familiar F111 flight path, except it didn’t look like one. Myself, I didn’t see any object ahead of the flames – only the fire – but aircraft are manoeuvrable 3-D objects, and we can’t expect them always to present their most recognisable aspect.

Could a dump and burn really make the earth and buildings shake? Glancing through the recently released MOD UFO files, I noticed that the very same thing happened again in 1991. An F111 pilot from Upper Heyford encountered bad weather and was ordered to return, obliging him to jettison excess fuel. Only, this time, the good people of Hereford and Wales were treated to the consequences. A report form submitted by RAF Hereford to the MOD describes how

F111, flaming from the rear, as it performs a 'dump and burn'.

An F111 performs a ‘dump and burn’.

A bright white light was producing a flashing vapour trail […] This phenomenon was accompanied by extremely loud rumbling, windows and floors shaking. The whole incident lasted approximately 2 minutes. DEFE-24-1953, p. 201.

I grew up thinking I’d been witness to a UFO intentionally covered up. But I had remembered only the sighting and the initial coverage, not the explanation issued a week later. Perhaps there is a tendency for this to happen, because when the sighting was a mystery it made the front page, but the explanation made only a short report on page two. And so the mystery lodged in my memory, whilst the solution (assuming I ever read or heard it) was forgotten. I had grown up not really all that far from the front-line of the UK’s Cold War, and what I had seen was not as strange or as unlikely as it might have appeared to my eight year-old self.


Just because I know I’m hallucinating, it doesn’t mean I’m rational

The granddaddy of all forms of misperception is the hallucination. It can have psychological or physical causes, but its main characteristic is that there is no external object to the experience which an investigator might verify as having been misperceived. Indeed, hallucination is ‘misperception’ only in the sense that it fools us into regarding as a perception an experience that has far more to do with imagination.

Hallucinations occur in some types of mental illness and intoxication, but it is easy to underestimate their role in the everyday experiences of the sober and sane. When I need a corkscrew in a hurry, as I rummage in my overstocked cutlery drawer, I may seem to have spotted the corkscrew several times before I actually have. These ‘sightings’ of a desired object before it is actually found are hallucinations, albeit of a kind that – by checking our perception – is very easy to shake off.

Similarly, the ASSAP blogger recently explored another kind of everyday hallucination: the experience of reading words on a page, which (when we go back and check) weren’t actually there at all. [1]

Yet it has struck me how easy it is to fall into the trap of regarding the recognition of an experience as an hallucination as necessarily a victory for rational thinking. In fact, the diagnosis of hallucination can be just as irrational, yet is perhaps just as common in everyday life as hallucinations themselves.

The Hallucinated Alchemist

An early cinematic depiction of hallucination. ‘The Hallucinated Alchemist’ (1897) by film-director and professional magician, Georges Méliès.

For example, a number of times I’ve experienced someone saying to me something so bizarre or hurtful that – at the time – I’ve supposed that what I heard was actually the product of my imagination. Later, of course, I was able to verify they really had said what I’d assumed I had imagined.

On another occasion, crossing a busy street, I once saw a man reach into my girlfriend’s pocket, feeling for her purse. My instinctive rejection that what I’d seen was anything other than a misperception was so overwhelming, I could no longer be sure what had really happened.

Less ambiguous was the time I was assaulted from behind whilst walking down the street. I remember how, a couple of seconds before the attack, I heard the assailant approach – and I had actually even begun to brace for the blow – at the same time as I was rejecting these impressions as, surely, just my imagination.

Hallucinations are irrational, but so can be the diagnosis of an experience as an hallucination. The mind seems more interested in protecting its preconceptions, and isn’t fussy whether it achieves this by manufacturing experiences that are unreal, or writing-off as imagination something that is only all too real.

The reason behind my interest in this topic – indeed, for my interest in the paranormal in general – was an experience so up-close and weird that ‘hallucination’ or ‘false memory’ is the only rational explanation that lies to hand. Yet as this event retreats ever further into the past, I’m confronted with two questions.

The first has to do with what we consider ‘real’ to mean, because if the experience was a hallucination, then I’ve lived my life on the assumption that it might not have been, in which case, what is the difference – in terms of its impact upon me as an actual event – between its having been a hallucination and its not having been one?

Secondly, as this article has attempted to show, just because hallucination is the most rational explanation in a particular instance, it doesn’t mean that (in the absence of evidence) by applying that explanation I am necessarily applying rationality. How do I know that my attempt to maintain a reasoned and balanced attitude to what I experienced isn’t in itself an irrational self-deception to turn what I know I witnessed into something with a more comforting buffer of uncertainty?

I accept, of course, that an anecdote is one thing and evidence is another. Until I can produce evidence for what I think might have happened, or even work out what form such evidence could take, this wonderful quest continues into reality, perception and truth.


[1] It’s possibly more accurate to regard the ‘corkscrew’ and ‘misreading’ examples as on a boundary between hallucination and misperception, because there are objects and words actually out there. To the extent that the mind interprets them incorrectly, it misperceives. And to the extent that it manufactures something that isn’t there, it hallucinates.