The real X-Files: Is the truth really out there?
UFOs are big news again as public imagination runs riot with another flying saucer flap. But is the truth really out there? David Barnett investigates
Just a little over 40 years ago, in February 1977, a group of children at Broad Haven Primary School in Pembrokeshire, Wales, were excited by a mysterious sighting on their school fields. The teacher in their class didn’t see what got the children so wound up, but they would not be calmed down, so their headteacher ordered the class to be split up and for the children to draw what they thought they’d seen.
With a few expected variations, the 10-year-olds pretty much turned in this unusual assignment of one mind and accord. What they had seen, and what they drew, was a long, cigar-shaped object with a silver or glass dome on top.
It was the start of what would become known as the “Dyfed Triangle”: a UFO “flap” that lasted several months and saw the media descend on Wales as more and more sightings of mysterious objects in the sky were reported. A local hotelier even claimed a close encounter with humanoid creatures with pointed heads.
There were official investigations, reports and theories. Some suggested it was the work of pranksters, others thought the children at Broad Haven had confused a distant sewage tank for a visiting spaceship.
Common sense tells us that explanations such as these are the sensible ones. And yet we persist in seeing unexplained lights in the sky, in reporting phenomena we just can’t account for.
People with no axe to grind, no profit to be made — but, indeed, reputations to lose — talk of coming up close and personal with beings who cannot be of this Earth.
And the Dyfed Triangle flap is by no means an isolated event. UFO sightings are constantly being reported, compiled and collated and it’s only when the media takes one of its periodic interests that the topic comes to the fore again. Like now.
The latest resurgence of interest in the prospect of there being life other than on Earth and that they’re criss-crossing the vast, trackless wastes of space to visit us, is not based just on a clutch of sightings of indistinct lights in the sky, though.
If recent reports are to be believed, we’ve had confirmation of ET’s existence straight from the horse’s mouth.
Earlier this month, after a probe by The New York Times, the Pentagon finally admitted the existence of something UFO investigators (both amateur and professional) had insisted for decades had existed in top secret: the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP).
This highly covert department, based in the Pentagon’s building, sucked up $22m (£16.4m) of the US’s annual $600bn defence budget and was devoted to doing what innumerable films and TV shows have always proclaimed the American government is doing, from the Project Blue Book to the X-Files to Independence Day: taking the idea of a potential threat from outer space very seriously indeed.
The Pentagon insisted that the department had been closed in 2012. But in the wake of the story, the former head of the AATIP, Luis Elizondo, who said he had quit his post just two months ago, did a series of media interviews telling the Daily Telegraph (among others) that his department had logged descriptions of aircraft travelling at incredible speeds with no known method of propulsion being used.
“In my opinion, if this was a court of law, we have reached the point of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. I hate to use the term UFO, but that’s what we’re looking at,” Mr Elizondo said. “I think it’s pretty clear this is not us, and it’s not anyone else, so one has to ask the question where they’re from.”
The modern interest in UFOs can be said to date back to 1947, when private pilot Kenneth Arnold made his celebrated sighting of nine saucer-shaped objects in the skies over Washington state.
Arnold’s initial thought was that they were some form of experimental military aircraft, and he spoke of his sighting to other pilots and the Press. But something captured the imagination in Arnold’s report, and people quickly began to believe he had seen something of extraterrestrial origin.
A woman who saw him in a cafe a few days after the story broke ran sobbing into the street, saying she had to save her children from an impending invasion from Mars. A preacher called Arnold and said that what he had seen were harbingers of doomsday and the end of the world was nigh.
Arnold said in a newspaper interview a few days later: “This whole thing has gotten out of hand. I want to talk to the FBI or someone. Half the people look at me as a combination of Einstein, Flash Gordon and screwball.”
From that point on, UFOs were a part of modern life. Around the same time as Arnold’s sighting, an incident occurred at Roswell in New Mexico, when what the authorities said was a weather balloon crash-landed near a ranch.
The Roswell incident has entered popular culture as nothing so mundane; for years people have believed that what the military recovered was actually a crashed alien spaceship, held and probed at the infamous Area 51 highly secure section of the Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada.
The government has issued many denials over the decades, but nothing has satisfied the public as much as the idea that it was an alien spacecraft.
In the aforementioned X-Files, the long-running TV and movie series featuring Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as two FBI agents tasked with investigating paranormal phenomena, Mulder is famous for having a poster with the legend “I want to believe” on the wall of his broom-cupboard office.
We do, it seems want to believe. We would much rather let our imaginations fly and consider the idea of life elsewhere in the universe than accept that we are alone.
And the internet, of course, has given much more power to those who believe not only that aliens are among us, but that the authorities are hushing things up.
MUFON is one of the biggest online presences of UFO hunters across the world. Originally begun in 1969 as the Midwest UFO Network in the US, it is now an international organisation under the banner Mutual UFO Network.
They utilise technology like never before to take UFO spotting out of the bedrooms of enthusiasts sharing sightings and theories in photocopied newsletters and magazines and put their data in the hands of everyone.
On Mufon.com the organisation features a live UFO tracker map, where sightings are uploaded as they happen. As I write this, the very latest sighting on the map is from Newcastle in the UK, reported on Thursday morning.
According to the witness report uploaded to the map, “I looked out my window and I saw this white trail that wasn’t moving, so I zoomed in on my camera and there was a black object in front of it, I am used to seeing planes with white trails; however, I checked flightradar24 and there were no aircrafts I thought it could be.
“It left about 20 minutes after by fading out then it returned 30 minutes later and stayed for 30 minutes then left. I’m not sure if this was some sort of military project, so I would like to know in the comments whether you guys think this is a UFO. There were also other objects near it I’m not too sure what they are, as well.”
The previous sighting logged was on December 27 in Oxford: “I was travelling southbound on the a34 from Oxford (UK) in the direction of Newbury when I saw a bright white light appear from my right (the west), move steadily over both carriageways to my left (the east) and once over a small line of trees which run along the length of the A road, it disappeared.”
And the one before that was in Melbourne on Boxing Day: “Some dark grey to black-coloured objects were observed appearing, congregating in random shaped groups, becoming more visible (darker) then either moving away or fading away from sight.”
Despite the internet and all the new technology at our fingertips, there’s something these latest sightings have in common with the Dyfed Triangle flap in 1977 (and no, it isn’t as a more cynical person might suggest, that they occur around the release of a Star Wars movie).
It’s the sense of wonder that we have when confronted with something beyond our ken. Like Fox Mulder, we want to believe.
Given that a high-ranking Pentagon official has apparently broken ranks and spoken of UFO’s being “beyond reasonable doubt”, might 2018 finally be the year that we find out once and for all that we are not alone?