The Perkins-Wimbledon Paradox
An Opinion by Martin Shough
As soon as one looks behind the headline statements, the matter of the interrelations of these different accounts becomes subtle and complicated. Wimbledon's account of the attempted interception of an agile radar target substantially corroborates the core of the Perkins/BOI-485 scenario. But Wimbledon's statements are highly critical of Perkins (and BOI-485) in respect of the report that Lakenheath controllers communicated with the pilots. Indeed, on the face of it certain conflicting details insisted on by the two men, supported in one case by a contemporary USAF documentary source and in the other case by every expectation based on RAF territorial responsibility and natural practice, seem difficult to associate to the same event.
The obvious possibility is that they are not in fact the same event. But if they are not then we have two events. This is possible, even though the a priori likelihood of two very similar but unconnected radar-UFO interceptions by RAF jets in the same area and close together in time, each unknown to the other, perhaps seems small. But then do we know that they were close together in time?
Although BOI-485 apparently fixes the date of the Perkins event there is no equivalent contemporary record from Neatishead. So the Wimbledon event - remembered after 22 years - could actually have happened days, weeks or even months earlier or later. This possibility is in my opinion very difficult to support in the face of independent documentary and witness sources which almost certainly narrow down the Neatishead incident to the same date. So if the Wimbledon and Perkins/BOI-485 accounts are not of the same event, then they are accounts of independent twin episodes close together in time. The collective strangeness of this circumstance would surely be greater than the sum of its parts. It is not at all clear that the effective corroboration is less powerful in this case than if they were accounts of the same period of real time.
If two such events did occur in the same area on the same night but at different times then the reported times, which in fact don't disagree, cannot both be right. One of them at least would have to be wrong. In fact, looking ahead to discoveries of 1995, one can point out that there is RAF documentary evidence of a radar-UFO intercepted by Venoms over Lakenheath after 0200 on the morning of the 14th, at a time inconsistent with Perkins' certainty (well-founded in my opinion despite the disagreement with BOI-485 in this particular) that his event happened on the evening of the 13th. So maybe Wimbledon's testimony belongs with that of the 23 Squadron aircrews?
There are several problems with this:
a) Wimbledon's own earliest statement gives somewhere between 2330Z and 0000Z for the time when his GCI radar was brought in on alert by Eastern Sector Control (themselves on alert by the US Army's 60th Anti-Aircraft Artillery at Lakenheath as stated in BOI-485). Perkins' recollection was that Lakenheath radar observations began 10-20 minutes after they received the alert from Bentwaters, timed at 2255Z in BOI-485, and that the decision to launch an interceptor was taken 30-45 minutes later. Taking Perkins' averages leads to a GCI alert time of just after 2345Z, smack in the middle of the period bracketed by Wimbledon. These completely independent statements thus interlock, but both sit awkwardly with the 23 Squadron scramble times, 2 to 3 hours later.
b) All three prior sources -Wimbledon, Perkins and contemporary document BOI-485 - describe a single extended interception episode by a single jet, accompanied by a second jet which did not arrive in time to engage the target. As argued in detail elsewhere, this asymmetry is contradicted by the 23 Squadron events in which both aircrews describe identical extended episodes of attempted interception.
c) Both of these 23 Squadron interceptions were proveably under the exclusive control of Lakenheath GCA, not of Neatishead GCI, and so cannot be the same event(s) described by Wimbledon.
It seems to me that these discrepancies are material and need to explained. But they all relate to strong structural features of the accounts that are in turn coupled to other strong features. In no case is it easy to ascribe it to a mistyped digit or a lapse of memory.
But if the alternative is that the Neatishead description and the Perkins/BOI-485 description both relate to a different event earlier in the night, what can explain the disagreement over control of the interception and the communication between Lakenheath and the pilots?
Corroborating statements to this effect in BOI-485 and Perkins cannot be arbitrary invention. There has to be a sensible reason for them. Nevertheless in a letter to the author Wimbledon averred stridently that all of this "is total fiction":
I cannot stress too highly that at no time did the USAF Watch Controller at Lakenheath ever talk to my aircrew.
He listened to my GCI Controller's conversation with our aircrew because, on request, I had informed him on which frequency the interception was being carried out . Moreover he did not have the necessary equipment [i.e., heightfinding radar] capable of carrying out an interception so why he lied in his report I cannot think.
You mention that the pilot might have known the frequency of Lakenheath and spoken to them. This is a complete nonsense as the pilot was on the GCI frequency from take-off to hand over to his base on completion and it is impossible to listen out on two channels simultaneously. . . . Here I would stress that the frequencies available on R/T at this period of time were limited. Later on the situation improved with the introduction of UHF but in 1956 the pilot had a comparatively short list of [VHF] frequencies upon which he could operate. Lakenheath's would be unlikely to be one of those. [Emphasis added]
Wimbledon remains bewildered by the Perkins/BOI-485 account, but feeling that some sort of air-to-ground communications must have been heard by Lakenheath personnel he appears himself to be improvising here in order to explain this.
In his earliest account he had declared forcefully that it was "impossible" for Perkins' team to monitor his GCI channel since "only I and my Interception Team would know that frequency", whereas he was now recalling that he had himself actually supplied Perkins with that frequency. Asked by the author to explain this inconsistency he replied that "for some reason known to the Editor [of FSR], the vital words 'without being informed' were left out," and that he had not meant to suggest that the frequency was not passed on. This sits awkwardly with his initial statement in June 1978 that this frequency would not only be unknown to Lakenheath RATCC but would have been physically "unavailable". Moreover he had reiterated the same denial unambiguously 3 months later in a letter to Thayer, saying, "I cannot understand at all the reports . . . that Lakenheath listened in to my Interception Controller . . . they were extremely unlikely in a GCA unit [sic.] to know or have the radio frequency in use . . . They most certainly would not have been told by me." [emphasis added]
Clearly the assumption that the communications heard by Lakenheath must have been those between the pilot and his GCI controller leaves Wimbledon no alternative but to conclude that he did pass on that frequency to Perkins, and he is now interpolating a creative "memory" to that effect based, possibly, on the accurate memory that a request for this frequency was received from someone. This interpretation receives support from Wimbledon's further statement: "I released the frequency of the interception because I believed the request came from 'higher authority' in the USAF . . . I would never have passed it to an NCO!!" In other words, his subsequent identification of Perkins as the source of that request was only a reluctant inference drawn from the otherwise inexplicable conclusion that Perkins must have been monitoring the GCI frequency.
That conclusion is itself problematical, however, since the content of the communications reported by Perkins is quite different from that reported by Wimbledon, and indeed is quite different from anything that would have been said over the GCI channel, as Wimbledon is the first to agree. Why? If we assume that Perkins did somehow have access to the GCI frequency, but that over the course of years he dramatised in his memory the content of bland transmissions between the pilots and their GCI controller, then an explanation exists. However this interpretation instantly falls down when we remember that Perkins' account is substantially corroborated by the contemporary intelligence report, compiled not only from interrogations of other Lakenheath controllers but also from written logs (Capt. Stimson does not mention using the tape-recordings for her reconstruction but this is possible). Furthermore there is no evidence whatsoever that Perkins either sought, or could have obtained, the RAF GCI frequency.
If all sources are accurate even in the broadest terms, therefore, the most natural interpretation would seem to be that Perkins was not monitoring the GCI frequency, and that no request was made by his facility for that frequency. The difficulties then disappear to be replaced by different questions, which in turn pose different problems: What other communications might have taken place? When? On what other frequency? With what authority and for what purpose?
These questions certainly presuppose answers that would be at odds with normal interception procedures, but it would also be true to say that the situation was probably not perceived as "normal" and it is legitimate to consider the possibility of unusual proceedures if the means, motive and opportunity can be established and if the resulting scenario reconciles the reported facts. For example, the above interpretation immediately removes some of Perkins' puzzlement since he had volunteered to Stanton Friedman in 1975 that the RATCC had direct lines (other than to USAF facilities) only to London Air Traffic Control Centre and RAF Marham, a smaller airfield to the north of Lakenheath which was "usually closed at night". It would never have occurred to him to initiate any contact with the RAF. To Friedman he wrote:
Our procedure was to do what I did, contact 7th Air Division (SAC), 3rd Air Force, the base commander, and 7th Air Division patched in the RAF Liaison Officer to the line. I included my Squadron Commander because I thought he'd be interested.
Prior to 1978 he had never heard of Flt. Lt. Wimbledon and certainly had no knowledge of, or communications access to, a secure RAF Sector Operations Centre such as Neatishead. To the author he wrote:
I don't remember requesting any GCI frequency - if Wimbledon was the RAF bloke on the phone [an RAF Liaison Officer on the conference line: this was certainly not Wimbledon]. I thought I had 7th AD, 3rd AF, High Wycombe (English ATC), the Base Commander, my Sqdn Commander - but any one of these could have patched in other people thru their switchboard and I wouldn't have known. The P.M. or even the Queen could have been patched in and listening!
In other words, Wimbledon's original belief that the GCI frequency was requested - for whatever reason - by a "higher authority" was quite possibly correct, but this action had nothing whatever to do with Lakenheath RATCC who, it turns out, were themselves asked to supply an air-ground communications frequency by the authorities on the conference line. Perkins stated:
The Venoms were given our frequencies when they were alerted, and probably 126.18/126.2 M[Hz] was given by me over the phone for the intercept a/c, although our operating frequencies were published in all Nav Aid Books etc. We didn't set up a specific frequency - we couldn't - we could only use those that we had. On VHF we only had 121.5 (emergency), 126.18 ("B" Channel), 116.1 ("A" Channel) and 137.88 ("C" Channel). At least this is my recollection at this time. The frequency probably used for the intercept (126.18, later changed to 126.2 I believe) was a pretty standard VHF ATC frequency for all AF and many English or RAF planes - it was normally what we used for VHF (most traffic was on UHF, USAF fighters and bombers that is) but all three of these [frequencies] were standard VHF ATC frequencies used at the time.
This obviously contradicts Wimbledon's confident opinion that Lakenheath's RATCC frequencies would not have been available to RAF pilots. Nevertheless, Perkins is correct. Although the VHF options on offer to the pilot were limited, copies of derestricted Ministry of Supply Air Publications relating to the Venom's A.R.I.5490 radio installation show that its two 10-channel transmitter-receivers provided a total of twenty pre-selectable spot frequency channels between 100 and 156 MHz. That is to say, any of Lakenheath RATCC's available VHF frequencies was within the Venoms' tuning range, and it is not only possible but highly probable that the widely used "standard" Air Traffic Control frequency recalled by Perkins was among the twenty pre-tuned channels available.
There is therefore no physical reason why RAF pilots could not have contacted Lakenheath, notwithstanding Wimbledon's continued insistence that any such action would have been unproceedural and therefore almost unthinkable: "No RAF Pilot ingrained into correct R/T Combat proceedures would ever deviate from those proceedures." In normal circumstances this is presumably true. But as we proceed it should be borne in mind that in the military there is one thing that overrides a proceedure, and that is: An order. Moreover, the fact that, as we now know, two RAF interceptors were scrambled after a radar UFO under Lakenheath GCA control at 0200 and 0240Z proves a) that GCA controllers, at least, did have access to VHF radio frequencies used by RAF planes and b) that routine proceedure was indeed overriden on at least one occasion that night.
Wimbledon is certainly right to think such an arrangement unusual, and it seems that he had not knowingly come across it in his years of RAF experience. One can sympathise with the scepticism - almost, indignation - aroused by the idea that these untrained, non-specialist, ill-equipped, American air traffic controllers could have muscled in on the RAF's role in defence of sovereign UK territory. But the fact is that according to Wing Commander R. G. Grocott, a senior officer at Eastern Sector Control, RAF Bawburgh in 1956, the air defence regime was not so rigid. The Sector Controller had a broad latitude to request assistance from any aircraft, RAF or USAF, either on the ground or in the air, as the exigencies of the situation might dictate. USAF fighters took part in Operation Fabulous scramble exercises alongside RAF fighters throughout 1956. For example, the Neatishead 271 Signals Unit ORB records no less than 737 interceptions using USAF F-86Ds of 512 and 514 Squadrons, Manston and Woodbridge, under Neatishead control, during August 1956 alone. As for RAF interceptors providing help to a USAF ground radar site (as we know did indeed happen later that night) Grocott agrees that this also is the sort of thing that might well have been authorised.
Also one needs to appreciate that this wasn't just a UK air defence situation in quite the usual meaning of the term. The UK air defence system, designed to detect and intercept intruders inbound over the sea, had in a sense already failed. A potential hostile intruder was believed to be over an inland airfield at low level. A sensitive SAC nuclear bomber base, that had recently hosted one of the very first U-2 deployments in the CIA's supersecret overflight programme, had its own air defence concerns, and these overlapped with those of the RAF Air Defence Control system but were not subordinate to tactical control from Neatishead, for example. Lakenheath did not have defensive fighters stationed on-base, but it did have the 60th Anti Aircraft Artillery, equipped with radar-controlled gun batteries and long-range defence-acquisition radar, and these people were not at all nonspecialists in the art of air defence.
In coordination with RAF Eastern Sector Control it was the 60th AAA, operating under the purview of an overall USAF air defence responsibility for US assets, that set the ball rolling for the interception action in this case. In this context the involvement of Neatishead was not a matter of pedantic deference to the way things were usually done; such issues of protocol were irrelevant to the situation. Neatishead was brought in as a pragmatic requirement for the purposes of fighter control. Wimbledon's feeling that RAF Neatishead's role would have represented the extent of official action in respect of this situation is an understandable but slightly quaint parochialism.
Wimbledon was of course quite correct to point out (as Perkins would have been the first to admit) that the CPS-5 ATC radar at Lakenheath, lacking the vital assistance of a height finder, was not designed to direct an interception, which has been well-described as comparable to flying an aircraft by remote control. Azimuth vectors could be supplied by Lakenheath, but the object of interception control is to guide the interceptor to within AI radar and gunnery range of the target, and when there is an unknown height difference of perhaps 20,000' between aircraft and target on the PPI this is impossible. Why indeed ask Lakenheath RATCC to undertake control of a potentially dangerous engagement given the existence of dedicated GCI equipment and trained controllers at Neatishead?
If the target and/or aircraft could not be seen by Neatishead, because the action was at very low level for example, then one might imagine Lakenheath controllers being asked to make the best of a bad job. Some height guesstimate might be possible by inference from the beam geometry, for example, and the interceptor's AI radar might strike lucky. That appears to have been the situation in the case of the 0200-0240 scrambles, which were not controlled by Neatishead. But in this case, obviously, the target was visible at Neatishead, and the interception was controlled by a team of RAF personnel at Neatishead. As Wimbledon says, there is thus no question of Perkins or any member of his team properly controlling this interception. Why, then, involve Lakenheath at all? In these circumstances the only logical reason for the pilot being instructed to communicate with Lakenheath RATCC is that somebody patched into the RATCC switchboard wanted to hear what was happening.
That is not to say, however, that Lakenheath RATCC did not believe they were offering useful vectors to the pilot by radio. Other commentators have pointed out that the closure of the aircraft onto the target under the control of Neatishead GCI would (given that Perkins' team were unaware of the existence or involvement of Neatishead at this time) appear on the RATCC scopes to be happening in response to their instructions. Given, therefore, some good reason and some opportunity for the pilot to have been in radio contact with Lakenheath prior to the period of GCI control, his subsequent radio silence on "B" channel would not now naturally suggest to the Lakenheath controllers that he was no longer hearing them. Having no need to know about RAF interception procedures they would simply not be informed, and they would have no way of telling whether or not the receiver on the aircraft was tuned to their frequency. Thus, Lakenheath RATCC would have no reason not to assume that, having once been in contact with the aircraft shortly after its take-off from Waterbeach, they remained in contact during the intercept. If contact was subsequently re-established (as indicated by Perkins and BOI-485) this impression would merely be confirmed.
This hypothesis was discussed at some length with both principals. It found weary favour with Perkins: Long-since disenchanted by general apathy and carping critiques, an argument over what seemed to him to be a secondary issue had become irrelevant and his initial response was a mixture of impatience and resignation:
If we believe Freddie Wimbledon then it seems logical that he could have been giving the same instructions I was. There was only one way to run an intercept - he had to use the same headings to get the interceptor to the UFO. What difference does it make? I wrote what I remembered hearing, saying and seeing, and as long as the basic facts don't change I'll happily give Wimbledon all the credit he wants.
After further consideration he concluded:
I shouldn't have judged Wimbledon so harshly earlier. Your scenario makes sense; we both thought we were right and we probably were - from our perspective.
The idea elicited somewhat fainter praise from Wimbledon. He had never sought to deny the obvious fact that Lakenheath radars followed the actions of the target and his interceptor, and his position had long been that to "give [USAF personnel] the benefit of ignorance rather than deliberate distortion of what happened" they must have been thoroughly confused. The reason for the extent of that confusion - such as reporting specific radio talk which he says did not and could not take place - had never been clear to him.
Latterly, however, he was moved to revise his earlier position that no third-party contact of any kind could have occurred at any time during the flight, conceding the possibility of such before and after the period of close GCI control -
conversation would only be likely to occur with a third party before GCI contact and after GCI had given "Pigeons" - i.e., the bearing and distance to the a/c's base after the interception is completed.
- whilst remaining adamant that no opportunity for contact would exist during the busy episode of the interception proper.
Normal proceedure after release from the GCI mission would be for the pilot to leave the GCI frequency and tune to his base approach frequency. As Wimbledon points out this frequency would not be known to Lakenheath RATCC either, which to Wimbledon means that Perkins and his team simply could not have heard the air-to-air conversation between Venom #1 and Venom #2 which he reported hearing at this time. It is therefore mystifying that the content of this reported conversation was subsequently found recorded essentially identically in BOI-485, compiled by intelligence personnel within 48 hours of an event which, according to Perkins, was not only made the subject of immediate detailed written reports but was tape-recorded throughout. These "impossible" transmissions, then, simply must have occurred.
The most natural interpretation of all these facts is that the air-to-air conversation probably did occur much as reported, but not on the GCI frequency and not on the interceptors' base frequency; but rather, on a frequency available to Perkins and presumably therefore on the same frequency as the other pilot talk reported in BOI-485. This is strong circumstantial evidence, therefore, that "normal proceedure" was not being followed and that, at least some of the time, both pilots were talking out on an unorthodox frequency. All indications are that this was the "B" channel whose frequency Perkins passed to the authorities hooked into the conference line through his RATCC switchboard, and Perkins' account supports this:
We did hear Venom #1 talking to Venom #2 on the frequency we were using with Venom #1, probably VHF 126.18 or 126.2 - we called it "B" channel. Venom #1 was south of us returning to base, Venom #2 was south of us and had not called us yet. As I remember it Venom #2 called Venom #1 and asked him what had happened. After their conversation Venom #2 called us and shortly after that said he was returning to base as his engine was malfunctioning. We didn't blame him a bit for not wanting to get involved . . . .
The inescapable inference of the aforegoing seems to be that the aircrews were instructed to preselect the VHF 126.18 MHz frequency on one of the 20 channels available to them, for purposes connected with the requirements of one or more of the USAF/RAF or other authorities who were monitoring events via the conference line. But why set up a further communications channel, when the Venoms would otherwise automatically be in nearly-constant radio contact with the Interception Control teams at Neatishead?
The answer is that any requirement other than interception control would conflict with the vital operational role of that radio link, as Wimbledon rightly points out, and it simply could not be used as an open communications channel. Its function is solely to guide an aircraft onto the tail of its target, obviously with the minimum of radio talk. The GCI regime is not remotely concerned with the gathering of intelligence, for example. The other side of that coin, of course, is that before GCI assumes control of the interception, and similarly after GCI has handed off the aircraft on completion or abortion of the interception, GCI has no communication with the aircraft and no interest in, or responsibility for, its activities.
These circumstances mean that if cognizant higher authorities had no interest in the target other than shooting it down then the GCI radio link was all that would be needed. But if it were deemed desirable to be able to query the aircrew at some point, or simply to passively receive real-time intelligence from the aircrew at some point, another frequency would have to be assigned. The natural destination for any such air-ground transmissions would be the RATCC at Lakenheath, for there the controllers had been working with the situation for some 50 minutes before Neatishead was even alerted, and it was through the RATCC switchboard that the conference line had been established for half an hour or more with Perkins and his team of controllers acting as the eyes and ears of the interested authorities. One would therefore expect that when the decision to scramble the first Venom was made (or when a fighter already airborne was co-opted, as the evidence of 23 Squadron CO A. N. Davis suggests was the case) then Perkins would be asked to supply an available VHF frequency, which would then be passed to the pilot(s) in the air and/or the stand-by QRA aircrew(s) via Sector Control together with appropriate briefing instructions. So far, the available evidence suggests that this is exactly what happened.
It is worth labouring the point that this arrangement would not be to satisfy the curiosity of USAF Air Traffic Control personnel, but to allow any relevant intelligence which the aircrews had the opportunity to transmit to feed through directly to the conference line authorities, who were displaying a very active concern over the affair, as Perkins had re-emphasised to Stanton Friedman in 1975:
. . . throughout these events I was giving a running account of the unidentified object, [and] the confirming information supplied by others (GCA etc) to many people including the base Commander Ellery D. Preston Jr., Colonel, my Squadron Commander who was either William C. Wilson Jr. Captain or Harold J. Millington Captain, the Controller at 7th Air Division London, the Commanding General of the 3rd Air Force, and an RAF Liaison Officer that was located somewhere near London [probably the Air Defence Operations Centre, Fighter Command HQ, Bentley Priory] or High Wycombe [Strike Command HQ]. The first thought each of these had was "Could it be one of ours?" This was quickly discounted by both Americans and British. The next question was "Could it be one of theirs?" meaning the Russians. This resulted in the decision to scramble the interceptors.
Of course if this reconstruction holds water then we come back to the fact that neither Perkins nor Wimbledon is talking about the incident involving 23 Squadron Venoms scrambled at 0200 and 0240. As I argue elsewhere, this is already implicit in radically different structural features of the two sets of accounts. There must, then, have been two different 'Lakenheath incidents' on the night of August 13-14 1956, each involving separate pairs of aircraft. This inference, which on the face of it looks like a suspiciously ad hoc fix to 'save the phenomena', is in my opinion the most economical way to conscientiously reconcile all the evidence without doing undue violence to it.
In the absence of direct evidence that other aircraft were involved in a separate incident that night this resolution remained uneconomical, a plausible circumstantial case only, and could understandably be criticised as desperate special pleading for a much-loved but doomed scenario. The RAF sources known to be involved denied the possibility that other scrambles could have taken place. It was argued by some of us that all of the material evidence relating to 'the Lakenheath incident' was already available in the log books and memories of Brady, Chambers, Logan and Fraser-Ker, and it was predicted that looking for a 'missing interception' would be a wild goose chase.
Today, however, there is unexpected direct evidence of impeccable pedigree, from the horse's mouth, of another RAF jet being vectored to a radar-UFO near Lakenheath that night. Wing Commander Davis, en route from RAF Stradishall to 23 Squadron's usual home base at RAF Coltishall, was part of a separate incident and was diverted unsuccessfully to intercept a ground radar target in the area. Little is known about this incident and there is as yet no proof that Davis was involved in the events described in the Perkins/BOI-485/Wimbledon scenario. Certainly the Davis factor does not bring us any nearer to a simple and easily digested 'explanation' of the case and might on that ground alone be unwelcome to some. Nevertheless, the fact that a prediction of the 'one incident' theory has been falsified ought in my opinion to carry some weight when reassessing the status of the whole corpus of evidence.