Why have a Government UFO Desk?

The Naked Scientists spoke to Nick Pope, Ministry of Defence
19 December 2004

Interview with 

Nick Pope, Ministry of Defence


Cartoon of a flying saucer


Nick - The MOD have been in the business of looking at UFOs since the 1950s. The government's UFO project was set up by Sir Henry Tizzard, a radar expert and scientific hero from the Second World War. After the war, he said that the government could not and should not dismiss strange readings without a scientific reason. The committee was amusingly named The Flying Saucer Working Party, and spent time studying a range of phenomena.

Chris - Looking back in history, how long have people been claiming to see UFOs?

Nick - Biblical writings and other ancient texts talk about various sightings, showing that people have always seen strange things. As far as modern UFOs are concerned, it all started in 1947 with a pilot named Kenneth Arnold. He saw a number of delta-shaped craft. When the press asked him how the objects moved, he said they looked like a saucer would if you skipped it over water. This is how the name flying saucer came about.

Chris - Why didn't people see flying saucers before the advent of planes?

Nick - We don't really know that people didn't see flying objects centuries ago because the sightings might not have been recorded. It wasn't a time when people had access to the media, so information from many people has been forgotten.

Kat - Are you a believer?

Nick - I do want to believe. I think there is some intriguing evidence but not necessarily complete proof.

Kat - How much of peoples' descriptions are based on science fiction films?

Nick - That's an interesting question, because many people dismiss those who have seen UFOs as people who watch too much Star Trek. However, when making Sci-Fi films and programmes, the producers of the series read a lot of literature on the subject, which has come directly from people who have seen UFOs. Movies on the big screen take images and information from accounts of sightings, not the other way round.

Chris - What is your most memorable experience from the UFO desk?

Nick - There was a case in 1993 where I went into work and the phones were ringing off the hook. There had been a massive wave of sightings of a diamond-shaped metallic craft flying slowly and low to the ground. It was observed by one witness as firing a narrow beam of light towards the horizon while emitting a low frequency hum. Having been flying slowly the entire time, it suddenly shot off into the horizon. During the day it had even flown directly over two military bases. The sighting is still unexplained to this day. The government will have the odd secret craft, but at the end of the day, we know where we trail our own bits of kit.

Kat - Where do these crafts come from? Nick - To be honest, we're as much in the dark as anyone else. When people get together, we just brainstorm.

Catherine - Is there a particular part of the world with UFO hot spots?

Nick - There are some parts of the world with more sightings, but this could be related to there being more people to see them. It also depends on whether the country has a media network predisposed to reporting it. Examples of hot spots are the United States in general, and in this country, Suffolk, which has been a hotspot ever since the Rendlesham sightings of the 1980s. Rendlesham is Britain's version of Roswell. Over several nights in December 1980, numerous United States air force personnel saw a UFO: not just lights but a proper metallic craft. Some people got close enough to touch it and said they saw a metal hull with hieroglyphic - type writing on it. The craft even left evidence of its being there. The following morning, there were indentations on the floor of a clearing in the shape of a perfect equilateral triangle. A Geiger counter taken to the scene showed that radiation readings were ten times normal levels; readings that were later verified by MOD intelligence staff. As radiation levels were normal outside the marks in the triangle, it is clear that the radiation came from whatever it was that landed there.

Chris - Do photos of UFOs usually come out?

Nick - Yes. When I was at the MOD, I was sent stack loads of photos and videos. If I still worked there, I imagine I would probably get even more due to the development of digital cameras and camera phones. Some people claim their photos don't come out because their equipment froze up. There have been incidences of this phenomena reported by the military when encountering unknown objects on radar.

Chris - What do you do when you receive a UFO report?

Nick - Every night, I would have in front of me a whole range of information, including plane flight paths, the position of particularly bright satellites and the occurrence of any meteor showers. I would usually take the UFO report and try and correlate it with any of this information.

Kat - Are most UFO sightings at night?

Nick - They are, but the daylight sightings are much more interesting, especially if there is a photo.

Chris - What do we know about Area 51?

Nick - It does actually exist and is part of the vast Nellis Air Force Base. Where the truth and the conspiracy theorists diverge is what is actually there. Aerospace experts say they are testing advanced prototype aircraft. Conspiracy theorists say this is where the Roswell aircraft is kept. Others say that Area 51 is where aliens and American scientists work hand in hand to develop spacecraft. Personally I'm not sure about that one! Some conspiracy theorists go off the deep end! The notion of a conspiracy arose as a response to the actions of the US army; the first people to mention the Roswell in a press release. They said that having seen the flying discs, they had managed to capture one after it had crashed at a nearby farm. A few days later they released another statement saying it had all been a mistake and the discs had really been weather balloons. People picked up on this and suspected the military of covering up spacecraft and aliens.


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