Sighting at Otterburn, Northumberland, midnight 14 August 1956

Jenny Randles received a report of this sighting from the witness in 1984. The witness, 47-year-old Ken Young from Sunderland, had been an 18-year-old National Service soldier at the time of the incident. Jenny's account follows:

The report originally came to me by letter but we followed it up and he filled out an R1 and obtained other data including a colour reproduction of the event.

On 'the' night of 13/14 August 1956 Ken was in the Army and on night gunnery practice at a firing range in Otterburn, Northumberland. He was located outside the barracks facing south east on guard duty.

He says 'I will remember what I saw as long as I live. It was just there. We did not see it land. But it was quite big, round and very, very bright. It floated up to about over a hundred feet or so, then it came down to ground level. Then it would float around to and fro. It lighted up the ground and trees around it.'

He notes that these movements went on for 'over an hour' - starting at about midnight - thus placing this event pretty contemporary with the air scramble.

His description of what the light did also sounds rather like the radar recordings. He says - 'It was very quick - the movements I mean. It would dart to and fro all the time.'

He says they went off duty sometime after 1 am and it was still there. He alerted the new guard but did not make an official report since as a national service man he wanted 'no trouble' and only to get out of the army!

One other witness was with him - 'a guy on guard duty - his name was John -same age as me - when we left the army we did not keep in touch'.

He recalls the fuzzy light was 'white-bluish' and 'hazy but I could see the outline of it' - shape 'oval'.

He notes the weather was dry, very starry, with a moderate wind and warm. All features that sound consistent with some kind of temperature inversion effect on a bright stellar object.

I tried to get more about 'John' but he could only recall that he was from London.

He never mentioned the Lakenheath case so I asked how after nearly 30 years he was sure of the date. Heres what he said:

'Not long after the sighting we were called back to camp in Scotland . . . The Suez crisis was about that time. Thats how I know. We were rushed out to the trouble at the time and ended up in Cyprus and that was in August l956.'

However, I know he was aware of the Lakenheath case when he reported since he got my address from a book in which it features.

On investigating this case at the time BTW I discovered that venus was bright in the south east from this spot and set between 2 and 3 am. Therefore it was located very low on the horizon close to where this witness was looking and surely had to be the cause of this sighting.

IMO this has to carry huge relevance for Lakenheath. We know from this sighting that eastern England witnesses looking east had a clear view around the time of the scramble of a big fuzzy light located where venus was but looking sufficiently odd to create misperceptions. Moreover that it would have vanished around the time the scramble ended. And that it was clearly being 'perturbed' in some way by the nights atmospherics - causing it to jerk about in a way very much like the radar targets.

You have to conclude from this that there must have been some sort of atmospheric distortion that night on the eastern horizon causing a temperature inversion. The Otterburn sighting sounds to me precisely like a sighting of venus through a temperature inversion layer creating these optical distortions (smearing it into a fuzzy mass) and with autokinesis also involved.

Given that and the almost certainty that similar things were occurring further south on the eastern side of England the resolution to much else beyond the air crew sighting seems to present itself. I think we need good weather data for that night and to ask Terence if he will check it through and comment on the possibilities for an inversion layer.

Best wishes,

Jenny suggested that the apparent motions of the object could have been due to a combination of autokinesis and atmospheric optical distortions. With the limited information available and with due allowance for some exaggeration and the usual imperfections of memory this seems a reasonable explanation.

It is not true however that Venus was visible low on the horizon in the SE at this time, or at any time. In fact it would not have been visible in the SE at all. If the times given are BST then the fit is very bad; if they are GMT it is not quite so bad. I will assume here that the times are GMT. (This is consistent with the fact that the witness states that the object was first seen at midnight and was still visible when there was a change of guard duty at about 0100. Military time being GMT year-round and local time being variable for summer daylight-saving, it seems likely that this was a routine midnight GMT guard change and that '1 am' means 0100 BST.)

From the witness's location (approximately 55N, 2.5W) Venus was still 8 below the astronomical horizon in the NE at midnight GMT. (Note that changing the time to BST means that Venus would have been even further below the horizon - some 13 - at 'midnight' and would not even rise in the NE until about 0200.) It did not rise here until 0115, still in the NE at azimuth 57, and by 0400 was still only due E. This is two and a quarter hours after the start of astronomical twilight, the sun just a few degrees under the horizon and only 45 minutes from daylight. Moreover by this time it was already at 23 elevation - many times the critical mirage angle - and still rising. It was not located SE from Otterburn until about 0700, more than two hours after sunrise, and was by then at an elevation of 50. In other words Venus was only ever visible during the hours of darkness in the NE or E, never in the SE. And it was only visible at low elevations close to the critical grazing angle for mirage in the NE. Moreover, since this district of Northumberland is far from flat (Otterburn itself lies in Redesdale in an area of > 1000' hills; the elevation of the camp guard post is not known) the terrestrial visual horizon is probably already several degrees above the astronomical horizon, which sets an unknown lower bound to the possible visual elevation angle of Venus in the NE.

It is obviously possible that the witness was mistaken about the compass bearings from his guard post, or was fudging an uncertain memory in order to make it seem more relevant to the reports of UFOs seen far to the south. It remains very possible therefore that the sighting could have been Venus. Its magnitude of -3.8 (about 0.57 of its maximum brightness) would have made it very distinctive. At the same time the possibility that the sort of motions reported were due to image wander in a mirage of Venus is slightly less likely than it might appear at first sight. The suggested autokinesis might more easily account for apparent motions over quite a large visual angle. Also one probably cannot infer much about the propagation conditions over the sea-level Suffolk fen country from local atmospheric conditions over the upland terrain to the northeast of Otterburn 225 miles away.

One other interesting point is that although this witness recalls the clear starry night and the general weather fairly accurately (winds were stronger over the northern UK closer to the track of the NE-moving depression) and possibly described the rising of Venus with qualitative accuracy, he did not remark on an unusual display of meteors, although the latitude, altitude and dark sky conditions in rural Northumberland should have meant that this witness was, if anything, more favourably placed to view the Perseids than observers in SE England. If not due to light pollution from security lamps (presumably not as he particularly recalled that the sky was very starry, implying night-adapted vision) then this could either be interpreted as casting doubt on the date or as a realistic check on the supposedly spectacular prominence of the Perseids. Routine shower meteors are obvious when one knows what one is supposed to be looking at, but they are swift flickers, not majestic fireballs. Lakenheath observers did know what they were looking at, and took care to distinguish the Perseids from the "UFOs". But the fact is that most people have never seen a meteor, although there is a shower radiant of some sort above the horizon of every observer on every night of the year.