A narrative reconstruction of the events
It has not so far proved possible to eliminate all the ambiguity from this complex series of events. Where there is some significant uncertainty, or disagreement between members of the collaboration, this is advertised in a red text box. Follow 'Opinion' links from the box to compare alternative interpretations.
(Referenced documents and additional background notes are accessible through links embedded in the text)
At 1810Z on the evening of August 13 1956 Flying Officer George Sandman took off in a De Havilland Venom NF.3 nightfighter of 23 Squadron from RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire (see map below), on a routine flight above the flat landscape of East Anglia. His navigator/radar operator was Flying Officer Peter 'Digger' Dell. They were to carry out medium-level practice interceptions under control of GCI (ground controlled interception) radars at Neatishead, Norfolk.
When they were at about 35,000 feet Neatishead diverted them to try to identify an unidentified radar target at high altitude. FO Dell acquired the target on the Venom's AI radar, but it was far above the maximum ceiling of the Venom. Dell estimated that it was at 80,000 feet and still climbing.
In a 'phone interview with Dave Clarke, Flt. Lt. Dell recalled that "he cranked up his AI set to full tilt and picked up the UFO at maximum altitude, but after some attempts to close gave up and dismissed the target as a balloon . . . reporting the results to Neatishead who he implied were taking the incident far more seriously than he or his pilot (George Sandman) were."
No further action was possible and they landed back at Waterbeach at 1920Z. Dell thought little about it. He believed it was probably a balloon.
|Note: Dell's logbook entry for this incident is dated August 14; however his written account states that this is a mistake and he is sure that the incident happened on the evening of the 13th. Dell also told Dave Clarke that he "recalls talking to Brady, Logan, Chambers et al in early hours of the next morning after their attempts to intercept the thing [see below] and said they all agreed it must have been a balloon of some kind. That was why he could place his own incident on the same night, as he believes that he 'was the first one asked to look at this thing."'|
This was the start of an eventful night. Dell recalled later that 'half the air force were scrambled', but his own opinion was that events were due to one or more meteorological balloons a) initially caught up in a high altitude jet stream and b) slowly falling to the ground later. He said that other 23 Squadron crews he spoke to agreed that the object they tried to intercept at low level near Lakenheath later that night must have been a balloon, 'judging from its rapid vertical movements and virtually nil horizontal (other than wind speed)'.
Flying Officer Dell had the responsibility of keeping the 23 Squadron diary and the entry for 13-14 August 1956 reflects this conclusion: '. . . it was later decided that the object must have been a balloon.' But no proper investigation appears to have been conducted. Indeed nothing at all in the nature of an official RAF or Ministry report on these incidents survives. This might be taken to mean that the squadron CO agreed with Dell that it was all 'something of nothing' and that no 'UFO' was ever reported upwards in the first place. But these events were only part of an extensive affair which at the time was certainly not discounted at operational level and was of genuine concern to UK and US military authorities.
A possible reference to the Dell/Sandman event occurs in an Air Ministry Directorate of Intelligence briefing note dated May 1957, which describes three 1956 radar sightings which were still carried as unexplained. One of these involved
|"an unusual object on Lakenheath Radar which at first moved at a speed of between two and four thousand knots and then remained stationary at an high altitude. No visual contact was made with this object by the Venom sent to intercept it and other radars failed to pick it up."|
But no exact date is given. The meaning of the vague phrase 'Lakenheath Radar' in this context is unclear, and the relationship to the events described below remains unresolved.
1. Events at RAF Bentwaters
A couple of hours after Dell and Sandman landed back at RAF Waterbeach, a radar operator at Bentwaters RAF Station, an airfield near Woodbridge in Suffolk tenanted by the US Air Force, detected an unusual echo on a surveillance scope of the Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) radar. The blip attracted the attention of A/2C John L. Vaccare Jr. because although it looked like a "normal aircraft target" approaching from the sea it appeared to be travelling at several thousand miles per hour and was heading straight for the airfield.
The AN MPN-11A GCA system was housed inside a trailer mounted near the main runway. It comprised a blind-landing radar plus a CPN-4 surveillance radar which was used to control traffic over the airfield and guide planes onto final approach. The surveillance scope (known as a PPI, or plan position indicator) showed the radar picture out to a range of approximately 60 miles.
According to the report of this incident, IR-1-56, subsequently compiled by Captain Edward Holt, Air Targets Officer, 81st Fighter Bomber Wing, the target was picked up at a range of 25-30 miles inbound from the ESE . The rate of closure was measured with each 4-second sweep of the radar antenna. Each scan showed the target between five and six miles closer: well over 4000 mph. It crossed the centre of the scope and receded to the WNW, on an almost exact heading for RAF Lakenheath, some 38 miles further inland. But after about half a minute, at a range of 15-20 miles, the little spot of light faded for the last time from the tube phosphor and was not reacquired.
However, at the same time another group of targets was being tracked on a slow course to the NE. According to IR-1-56 these echoes were also detected at 2130Z, but there is good internal evidence that this group was picked up at 2100Z and so had already been under observation for half an hour. In fact it appears likely that arrangements were made to scramble an RAF jet interceptor after these targets, which got off the ground at 2120 (see Section 4.b below) but aborted after a few minutes owing to the accidental loss of its wing-tip fuel tanks. Meanwhile the straggling cluster of about a dozen or more echoes, preceeded by three others which maintained "a triangular formation", crossed the scope centre heading NE at speeds varying between about 80 and 125 mph.
At about 2130, Bentwaters GCA (possibly at this time learning that the RAF interceptor had had to turn back) radioed the pilot of a T-33, a small jet trainer of the 512th Fighter Interceptor Squadron which was returning to Bentwaters from a routine flight. The T-33 was vectored to the area and asked to search for these targets. Since the GCA radar was not operated in tandem with a heightfinder the controllers could not offer accurate altitude guidance. Nevertheless 1st Lieutenants Charles Metz and Andrew Rowe visually searched the area at a few thousand feet, without seeing anything to explain the targets. The Lockheed jet then headed to the E and SE sectors, where a star-like amber light had been observed low on the horizon by Control Tower Shift Chief Sgt. Lawrence S. Wright since about 2120. They reported what was evidently the same "bright star", and noted the flashing beacon of Orford Ness lighthouse visible in coastal haze to the E, but still found nothing unusual.
Meanwhile the target cluster proceeded to a point about 40 miles NE of Bentwaters, whereupon the individual echoes converged to form a single integrated echo with a presentation several times the strength typical of a B-36 (one of the largest production aircraft ever built) under comparable conditions. This very strong echo now stopped moving and maintained station for more than ten minutes, before recommencing movement to the NE. But after 5 or 6 miles of travel it stopped again. This time it stayed stationary for less than 5 minutes before picking up speed and moving off the scope on a N heading at 2155Z.
Only a few minutes elapsed after the disappearance of these curious targets before yet another was detected due E of Bentwaters at a range of about 30 miles. This one, too, appeared as a "normal" return on the GCA scope operated by T/Sgt Whenry, and like the first rapid target detected 30 minutes earlier it was inbound to the station at a speed that Whenry estimated as "in excess of 4000 mph". The phosphorescent blip crossed the scope diametrically and fled westward, where at about 25 miles range the target "disappeared . . . by rapidly moving out of the GCA radiation pattern", leaving the PPI dark and empty save for the ceaseless 4-second sweep of the scope trace and the familiar creeping glow-worms of routine light traffic.
For 20 minutes or so Sgt. Wright's amber star continued its predictable rise into the SE sky, intermittently fading from view presumably due to passing patches of thin cloud in the otherwise near-CAVU weather conditions. At 2220 the Control Tower observers lost sight of it for the last time. At this time Bentwaters personnel had not contacted any other facility. And as far as the only available first-hand report from Bentwaters tells us, nothing further happened. Events returned to the methodical quietude of a night shift like any other.
However, according to RAF Lakenheath sources this was not the end of the affair at Bentwaters. Those sources tell us that at 2255, when Bentwaters GCA operators were watching the bright echo of a USAF aircraft crawl across the phosphor-coated glass of the cathode ray tube, an unexpected blip flared and died, 30 miles E of the field out over the North Sea. Four seconds later the rotating scope trace ignited another bright spot, several miles closer, then another, and another. As had happened twice before that night, an unidentified target seemed to be heading straight for Bentwaters at hypersonic speed. At a displayed range of a couple of miles the target disappeared briefly from the scope, as would be normal for an object passing overhead into the zenithal shadow unilluminated by the radar beam, then reappeared to the W on the same straight course. According to BOI-485, Bentwaters Tower Controllers saw a bright light streak westwards over the field at what seemed to be only a few thousand feet, whilst the USAF pilot in flight over the airfield at 4000' reported that a bright light had gone by underneath his aircraft, travelling E to W at "terrific speed". This time somebody got straight on the 'phone.
Discussion: Detailed analyses by one of us of the possible explanations of these radar reports are offered in two Opinions, here for the three fast tracks, and separately here for the slow cluster. The Bentwaters visual reports are discussed here.
2. The Alerting of RAF Lakenheath
The moment when the alert reached Lakenheath was recalled in 1968 by T/Sgt Forrest D. Perkins, who was on duty at the time as Watch Supervisor in the Radar Air Traffic Control Center located in the airfield Tower building:
. . . It was the 5:00 PM to midnight shift. I had either 4 or 5 other Controllers on my shift. I was sitting at the Supervisor's Coordinating desk and received a call . . . - it was Sculthorpe GCA Unit calling and the radar operator asked me if we had any targets on our scopes travelling at 4,000 mph. They said they had watched a target on their scopes proceed from a point 30 or 40 miles east of Sculthorpe to a point 40 miles west of Sculthorpe. The target passed directly over Sculthorpe RAF Station, England (also USAF Station). He said the tower reported seeing it go by and it just appeared to be a blurry light. A C-47 flying over the base at 5,000 feet altitude also reported seeing it as a blurred light that passed under his aircraft - no report as to actual distance below the aircraft. I immediately had all Controllers start scanning the radar scopes . . . .
Perkins' testimony conflicts with BOI-485 in the matter of the origin of this alert. Where the intelligence report cites Bentwaters, Perkins' has Sculthorpe (a link to a discussion of this point is available from the box below). Saving this point, Perkins' 12-year-old recollection of the alert turned out to be quite closely supported by the classified teletype BOI-485 sent from USAF intelligence at Lakenheath on August 16 1956 (a declassified copy of which was not made available to Colorado University investigators until some months after the receipt of Perkins' letter). BOI-485 began:
This is "UFOB" report in compliance AFR 200-2, 12 August 1954.
Preliminary or background info: At 2255Z, 13 August 56 Bentwaters GCA sighted object thirty miles east of the station travelling westerly at 2000-4000 mph. Object disappeared on scope two miles east of station and immediately reappeared on scope three miles west of station where it disappeared thirty miles west of station on scope. Tower personnel at Bentwaters reported to GCA a bright light passed over the field east to west at terrific speeds and at about 4000 feet altitude. At same time pilot in an aircraft at 4000 feet altitude over Bentwaters reported a bright light streaked under his aircraft travelling east to west at terrific speed.
At this time Bentwaters GCA checked with RAF Station Lakenheath GCA to determine if unusual sightings were occurring. Lakenheath GCA alerted 60th AAA (stationed at Lakenheath) and Sculthorpe GCA to watch for unusual targets.
this point it is impossible to avoid some speculation.
The crux of the matter is a pair of problems which may,
or may not, be related. These are:
BOI-485 is a contemporary written source, but because of many omissions and ambiguities and the constraints of the reporting format it does not at all times tell a coherent story - to say the least. Perkins' testimony, whilst a coherent story, is twelve years old. Discrepancies are therefore only to be expected. But most commentators express surprise at how few there are, and there are striking structural similarities which are quite as important as any discrepancies. Probably the main structural similarity runs through the two accounts of the interception and 'tail-chase' episode.
3. Interception actions near Lakenheath
a) the Perkins/BOI-485 scenario
Perkins recalled from memory that after receiving the telephone report he was sceptical but got his controllers to start scanning the scopes of the CPS-5 surveillance radar, using MTI in conditions of 'little or no traffic or targets on the scopes'. At some point an anomalous stationary target was noticed which was confirmed also by the airfield's CPN-4 GCA radar. The target then started moving around the area in a high-speed rectilinear pattern of abrupt stops and starts, and similar movements of round white lights were reported by visual observers. A conference line was set up with a number of Air Force authorities patched into the Lakenheath RATCC switchboard. After discussion an interception action was agreed with the RAF and the first of two RAF jets approached the area. Perkins recalled:
Radio and radar contact was established with the RAF interceptor aircraft at a point about 30 to 35 miles southwest of Lakenheath inbound to Lakenheath. On initial contact we gave the interceptor pilot all the background information on the UFO, his (the interceptor) present distance and bearing from Lakenheath, the UFO (which was stationary at the time)'s distance and bearing from Lakenheath. We explained we did not know the altitude of the UFO but we could assume his altitude was above 1,500 feet and below 20,000 feet due to the operational characteristics of the radar (CPS-5 type radar I believe). Also we mentioned the report from the C47 over Sculthorpe that mentioned the light passed below him and his altitude was 5,000 feet.
We immediately issued headings to the interceptor to guide him to the UFO. The UFO remained stationary thruout this vectoring of the intercept aircraft. We continually gave the intercept aircraft his heading to the UFO and his distance from the UFO at approximately 1 to 2 mile intervals. Shortly after we told the intercept aircraft he was one half mile from the UFO and it was twelve o'clock from his position, he said, "Roger Lakenheath I've got my guns locked on him. (Then he paused. Then he said)
"Where did he go? Do you still have him?" We replied "Roger, do you have anything following you?" He said "Roger, do you have anything following me?" We replied "Roger, it appeared he got behind you and he's still there." There were now 2 targets one behind the other, same speed, very close, but 2 separate distinct targets. ( . . . ) The first movement by the UFO was so swift (circling behind the intercept) I missed it entirely but it was seen by the other controllers. However the fact that this had occurred was confirmed by the pilot of the interceptor. The pilot of the interceptor told us he would try to shake the UFO and we'd try it again. He tried everything - he climbed, dived, circled etc but the UFO acted like it was glued right behind him, always the same distance, very close but we always had 2 distinct targets.
The interceptor pilot continued to try and shake the UFO for about 10 minutes (approximate guess - it seemed longer both to him and us). He continued to comment occasionally and we could tell from the tonal quality he was getting worried, excited and also pretty scared.
He finally said "I'm returning to Station, Lakenheath. Let me know if he follows me. I'm getting low on petrol." The target (UFO) followed him only a short distance as he headed South South West and the UFO stopped and remained stationary. We advised the interceptor [that] the UFO target had stopped following him and was now stationary about 10 miles south of Lakenheath. He rogered this message and almost immediately the 2nd interceptor called us on the same frequency.
The second pilot was given the position of the object, said Perkins, but even before his plane appeared on Lakenheath radar he reported an engine malfunction and turned back for home.
Teletype BOI-485, originally encrypted and classified SECRET, described what appears to be the same incident in the following terms.
was straight but jerky with object stopping instantly and then
continuing. Maneuvers were of the same pattern except one object
was observed to "lock on" to fighter scrambled by RAF
and followed all maneuvers of the jet fighter aircraft.
. . . British jet aircraft, Venom, operating out of RAF station Waterbeach, England . . . Lakenheath RATCC vectored him to a target 10 miles east of Lakenheath and pilot advised target was on radar and he was "locking on." Pilot reported he had lost target on his radar.
Lakenheath RATCC reports that as the Venom passed the target on radar, the target began a tail chase of the friendly fighter. RATCC requested pilot acknowledge this chase. Pilot acknowledged and stated he would try to circle and get behind the target.
Pilot advised he was unable to "shake" the target off his tail and requested assistance. One additional Venom was scrambled from the RAF station.
Original pilot stated: "Clearest target I have ever seen on radar!"
Target disappeared and second aircraft did not establish contact. First aircraft returned to home station due to being low on fuel.
Second Venom was vectored to other radar targets but was unable to make contact. Shortly second fighter returned to home station due to malfunctions.
BOI-485 also records, with a cryptic brevity which eludes all but the most careful reading, that in addition to the CPS-5 and CPN-4 surveillance radars and the Venom's APS-57 airborne radar, an additional ground radar at Lakenheath designated TS-ID also detected unknown targets. This is almost certainly a clerical corruption of a TPS-1D search radar operated by the US Army 60th Anti Aircraft Artillery battalion in its airfield defence role (see here and here).
Discussion: The structural similarity between these narratives is very striking. But one problem, which assumes increasing importance in the later history of this case, is an inconsistency in the timing claimed by the two sources. This is a discrepancy which runs deep because it, too, is a structural feature that cannot be ignored. See this individual Opinion for a treatment of this and related issues.
b) the RAF Chief Fighter Controller's testimony
In 1978 a sketch of the above scenario appeared in a Sunday Times article which happened to be read by a retired RAF officer, Flt. Lt. Freddie Wimbledon. In a couple of brief paragraphs the article described how in 1956 ground radar at Lakenheath tracked a UFO which 'tailed' an RAF Venom interceptor whose pilot was unable to shake it off. This was sufficient for Wimbledon to recognise the incident in which he had himself played a central role, as a Chief Fighter Controller in the RAF's Ground Controlled Interception radar facility at Neatishead, Norfolk. But he contested some of the claims made in the article and wrote a brief letter of correction to the Times, which attracted attention. A slightly fuller version of this reply was then published in the magazine Flying Saucer Review :
. . . I remember Lakenheath USAF Base telephoning to say there was something "buzzing" their airfield circuit. I scrambled a Venom night fighter from the Battle Flight through Sector and my Controller in the Interception Cabin took over control of it. The Interception Control team would consist of one Fighter Controller (an Officer), a Corporal, a tracker and a height reader. That is, 4 highly trained personnel in addition to myself could now clearly see the object on our radar scopes. I also took the precaution of manning a second Interception Cabin to act as "backup" to the first. . . . After being vectored onto the trail of the object by my Interception Controller, the pilot called out "Contact", then a short time later "Judy" which meant the Navigator had the target fairly and squarely on his own radar screen and needed no help from the ground. He continued to close on the target but after a few seconds, and in the space of 1 or 2 sweeps on our scopes, the object appeared behind our fighter. Our pilot called out, "Lost contact, more help," and he was told the target was now behind him and he was given fresh instructions.
I then scrambled a second Venom which was vectored towards the area but before it arrived on the scene the target had disappeared from our scopes and although we continued to keep a careful watch was not seen again by us.
A senior officer from the Air Ministry interviewed the Neatishead personnel and collected reports, telling them not to discuss it. Wimbledon was told that they took the incident seriously and that the officer would also be interviewing the aircrew.
In 1978 Wimbledon had no knowledge of how the incident came into the public domain. In the course of subsequent correspondence with Thayer, Friedman and others, he was surprised to learn that US documents on the case had been public for ten years; he had believed it to be still an official secret. He was also puzzled because some of the circumstances described in the US sources did not fit. Either they did not fit with his recollection of how things had been handled, or they did not fit with his expectation of how things would have been handled.
In particular, he insisted that the RAF interceptor had certainly not been controlled by USAF personnel at Lakenheath but had been controlled by his own GCI personnel at Neatishead, Norfolk. Furthermore, the air-to-ground and air-to-air radio talk described in the American sources had not taken place as far as he knew, and he could not see why his pilots would ever have been talking to Lakenheath in the first place. And finally, although he believed in the event he had seen with his own eyes, he remained sceptical about other reports of radar-UFOs made from Bentwaters that night, knowing full well from experience that spurious responses due to anomalous propagation (AP) were not uncommon.
On the face of it, the substance of the Perkins/BOI-485 scenario seemed to be confirmed by Wimbledon, saving the unexplained belief of USAF personnel at Lakenheath that the Venom was responding to radio instructions from RATCC controllers, and the reports of radio talk which according to the RAF Fighter Controller did not take place - or at least, did not take place on the RAF GCI frequency.
Discussion: One interpretation of the 'Perkins-Wimbledon Paradox' which preserves both points of view is explored in an Opinion here.
Debate on these and other issues continued during the years that followed. Speculative scenarios were constructed to explain the inconsistencies [Shough, 1987,1988], but direct evidence of what really happened was lacking. Not until 1995 did new witness and documentary evidence unexpectedly emerge, introducing - once again - new clarifications and new confusions.
c.) A civilian eyewitness report
There was one other immediate result of the exposure which the case received in 1978. On February 2, a few weeks before the Sunday Times article which had exercised the indignation of Flt. lt. Wimbledon, the Daily Express had published its own brief account of the story as part of an ongoing 'probe' into UFO reports, stimulating a letter from John H. Killock of Ely, Cambridgeshire:
. . . I was a witness, with others who wish to remain anonymous, to the Lakenheath flap of 1956. I have never seen such panic. From the Prickwillow Rd., Ely, we could see searchlights sweeping the sky in every direction. We saw a bright white star-like light speeding low across the fen straight towards us. When the light reached us it stopped dead. It did not slow down. It just stopped. The light went out, then a bright flash of light and it shot off on the exact course from which it came as if on a slack string.
This was reportedly between 9.30 and 11.30 pm (BST, or 2030-2230Z) on the evening of August 13. Soon afterwards they then saw the red navigation light of a jet fly low overhead towards Lakenheath. Mr. Killock remembered that he confidently identified the 'distinctive' engine tone of a deHavilland Venom's 'Ghost' power plant.
Discussion: At this stage a natural pause ensues. For the next eighteen years no substantial new information emerges and the 'classical' Lakenheath UFO-interception scenario becomes consolidated, assuming iconic status in the literature. Detailed analyses of the radar and visual evidence, respectively, are offered in Opinions by one of us here and here.
4. The 23 Squadron Venom aircrews.
a.) Brady/Chambers, Logan/Fraser-Ker
The discovery in 1995 of (initially) two Venom aircrews who were scrambled from RAF Waterbeach that night to intercept a radar 'UFO' was a watershed. The essence of the recollections of both crews was the same, and their personal flying logbooks showed that their Venoms were scrambled at 0200 and 0240 on the morning of the 14th August 1956 in response to an alert originating from the Americans at Lakenheath.
John Brady, radar operator in the first Venom, recalled in interview with Dave Clarke and Andy Roberts that he and his pilot, Dave Chambers, were sitting at readiness in the aircraft cockpit on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty when the scramble instruction came over the telebriefing landline. Unusually, they were not sent to a high altitude after some inbound east-coast intruder; instead the Operations Controller told them that the USAF at Lakenheath wanted an interception on a low-level radar target near the airfield. They were airborne within two minutes:
. . . we called Lakenheath, and they were directing us towards this thing at around 7,000 feet. The first run we had at it I saw nothing. The next time we went beyond, and I can remember saying to David CONTACT and he kept saying to me Where is it? Where is it? I cant see it as we rushed past on each pass. And it would go down the right hand side or the left hand side, depending which way we went at it and it would be a little paint like that [moves hand in a diagonal jerky fashion to indicate movement of radar contact across the tube] and it was fairly obvious that whatever it was, it was stationary. (. . .) In the end we just turned round and went back home when we were getting a bit low [on fuel] and had several runs at it but each time I would say to David There its out 45 starboard now at one mile and hed be looking out and hed see nothing and said: What is it? What is it? and Id said: I dont know and there it was. (. . .) But a day or two later it was all forgotten about, and no one put any more emphasis on it. But I have to say, one was a bit sceptical of the Americans and one tended to be a bit dismissive about the whole thing but the fact remains that I saw something, Ivan [Logan, in Venom #2] saw something and we had a go at it, and we both agreed that it was stationary, and that was about it.
Ivan logan was the navigator/radar-operator of the second Venom, piloted by Ian Fraser-Ker. They were scrambled at 0240, and their experience was virtually identical to that of Brady and Chambers. Interviewed here by Jenny Randles, Logan recalled:
We took off at about 2.40 and we were scrambled in the Lakenheath area. The odd thing about the scramble was that we didn't go to the normal height for an interception scramble which would be say 40,000 feet to the east. Instead we went to the Lakenheath Area at 2 or 3, perhaps 4000 feet. (. . .) The interception was not quite how I would have expected it. I didn't get to pick up an interception as I would with a moving aircraft target. We had difficulty - in fact we could not turn behind this contact - and to all intents and purposes it appeared that it was a stationary target - something like perhaps a met balloon or a barrage balloon - something of that nature. We had a blip - an indication on the radar - which came down the tube extremely quickly - which would indicate that the target wasn't moving or it was flying directly towards us. At the time it certainly looked to me like the target wasn't moving. We tried, obviously, to get behind it as you would with an aircraft contact, but that didn't work out. In effect we were unable to intercept it. We did not get a visual but we had a radar contact. After we tried unsuccessfully to intercept it - after we had been airborne for 40 or 35 minutes we were getting very short of fuel -as you would if you were flying low level - so we returned to base. (. . .) I had a good contact on the radar but it did not behave like an aircraft target would have done. It behaved more like a stationary target. (. . .) Certainly I would have expected the target to allow us to turn behind and give us a visual indication. But we were not able to do that. We tried for perhaps a quarter of an hour or so. All we saw was a blip which rather indicated a stationary target. Now what that target was - a balloon - perhaps a helicopter - I don't know. We saw nothing visual at all and so were unable to complete a successful interception. (. . .) I had an indication on the radar of something - whatever it was I do not know. But at the time we did not worry too much because it was likely to be a balloon or something like that. But I had never seen anything like it before and I have never seen anything since.
Statements by Dave Chambers and Ian Fraser-Ker, pilots of Venom #1 and Venom #2 respectively, confirmed these accounts.
After the incident both crews were debriefed somewhat casually by another member of the squadron. This was merely routine and there was no visit from higher authorities and the all parties reportedly thought little more of the incident afterwards. It seems to have been regarded as a curious diversion but not as anything very dramatic. The discovery of the Squadron Diary confirmed this impression. 'It was later decided', it records in a brief entry, 'that the object must have been a balloon.'
Especially noteworthy is the uniform absence from these accounts of the canonical 'tail chase' episode which had been the central feature in the Perkins/BOI-485 accounts. The frustrated attempts by the Venom crews to 'get in behind' what appeared to be a stationary object did repeatedly result in them rapidly overshooting its location, so that from having been in front of the interceptor it would rapidly appear behind it. This arguably reproduces some of the features of the classical 'circling' manoeuvre. Could it be that the original intelligence report and Perkins' independent 12-year-old recollection were both exaggerations, due to overexcited misinterpretations of the radar picture?
On the other hand, could it be that the aircrews' 40-year-old recollections were pale shadows of what had actually occurred, due to the fact that they were only conscious of what their AI radars showed in front of their noses, so to speak, and were blind to the bigger picture visible to surveillance radars on the ground? They never saw their target(s) show signs of the rapid accelerations and pursuit reported, but - having no tail radar - as Logan remarked they probably wouldn't.
Even then there are problems, however. Their four accounts, mostly independent of one another and every bit as self-consistent as Perkins and BOI-485, all describe repeatedly being vectored onto a target (or targets) that at all times appeared to remain stationary and never gave a hint of doing anything at all exciting. And as for the AI radar 'lock on' allegedly reported by the pilot of Venom #1 according to BOI-485 and Perkins, this was roundly dismissed by both radar operators as complete nonsense. The modified APS-57 radars fitted in the Venoms had their 'track and lock-on' facilities disconnected, and neither pilot had reported any such thing.
Discussion: The issue of the reported radar lock-on was originally identified as a problem by avionics journalist Philip Klass . He interpreted the pilot-report of lock-on as evidence of unfamiliarity with the equipment and suggested controversially that this, together with absence of explicit reference to a radar operator, pointed to a pilot attempting to fly the two-man aircraft alone, an idea which found little favour. Since then the issue has remained cloudy. An attempt to clarify the matter of the alleged lock-on is offered by one of us in an Opinion here.
Observing that this somewhat anti-climactic story did not live up to its star-billing, some commentators who had a lot of respect for the canonical scenario began to ask whether these new witnesses might not be witness to a different incident altogether. It was pointed out that in addition to the inconsistencies of content, the time appeared to be grossly inconsistent with the Perkins/Wimbledon evidence. Quite so, agreed those who were more inclined to scepticism - the pilots' log book times were grossly inconsistent with Perkins story, but they were not inconsistent with the times in BOI-485, so what did that say about Perkins? (See Discussion box above and this Opinion.)
But then why should BOI-485 only agree with these aircrews as to the time, yet agree with Perkins about almost everything else? Could these 23 Squadron Venom aircrews actually be the wrong aircrews? Could other planes have gone out earlier in the night, either from Waterbeach or from elsewhere? It seemed improbable. The question was asked of all the RAF sources: 'Could there have been planes scrambled other than those we now know about?' Everyone, without exception, very promptly replied that this was impossible.
suggestion that the depth of agreement between Perkins
and BOI-485 is mere testimony to confabulation is
discussed in an individual Opinion here.
b.) another aircrew; the Scofield/Arthur scramble
But the 23 Squadron Diary (whose compiler in 1956 had in fact been F.O.Peter Dell; see Prelude above) contained another clue. After the entry describing the scrambling of two planes after a UFO on Lakenheath GCA radar, it added: 'On being scrambled after this target Flying Officer Arthur lost his wing tanks. It is thought that this was due to a faulty switch-guard ...' The fact that another plane had been scrambled that night was unknown to any of the other 23 Squadron airmen. It was also a complete surprise to the Neatishead GCI Fighter Controller. When in 2001 Dave Clarke located Flying Officer Les Arthur, the pilot of this third Venom, and his navigator/radar operator, Flying Officer Grahame Scofield, another phase of the story began to emerge.
F.O. Scofield's and Arthur's flying log books record that their Venom, #WZ 315, was scrambled from RAF Waterbeach at 2120 GMT on the evening of 13 August. They weren't told the nature of their target (possibly it was related to events ongoing at Bentwaters at this time - see Section 1. above and Discussion box below) but took off to the west then executed a climb and turn in the vicinity of the city of Cambridge onto a northeasterly heading. However sometime during the climb out their two wing-tip fuel tanks were accidentally jettisoned, apparently owing to an electrical fault, causing them to abort the flight and return to Waterbeach DNCO or 'Duty Not Carried Out' at 2200. Scofield and Arthur were interrogated before the Commanding Officer. (This was a serious matter. Their Venom was isolated for inspection, its instruments examined and navigation charts impounded. Fortunately the error was traced to a faulty switch and the fuel tanks were eventually found intact in a field just outside Cambridge.)
According to Scofield it was about 2300 before they were released and returned to the crew room. In the crew room was kept a radio unit removed from an aircraft cockpit, which the relaxing airmen were wont to use to monitor airborne radio transmissions in order to relieve the tedium of QRA duty. This night Scofield found himself listening via this "squawk box" to a fighter pilot acknowledging a ground-control vector to a target which he recalled was at 20,000' over East Anglia. They heard the pilot report AI radar contact and close to about three miles before losing the target. "They were called off," Scofield recalled,
and the second crew instructed to make an intercept. They also reported radar contact at about ten miles dead ahead. The navigator called off the distance as the target rapidly closed. At one mile there was a shout of confusion from the pilot who had seen nothing. We then heard 'I think they are now on our tail!' Almost immediately both crews were told to break off the engagement and return to base.
Scofield has always believed that these two attempted interceptions were those undertaken by Brady/Chambers and Logan/Fraser-Ker at 0200 and 0240, although his recollection was that the time was around midnight. Asked "Could any other aircrew have gone out between yourself and the two other crews?" he responded, "I would absolutely discount that suggestion."
c.) Wing Commander A.N.Davis & Paddy McIlwrath
But again it turns out that another 23 Squadron plane was involved.
On January 10 2003 Dave Clarke returned from "a very productive week" amongst the files in the Public Record Office, and alerted members of the Collaboration by email to new findings relating to Air Commodore Anthony N. Davis. In 1956 Davis was the Commanding Officer of 23 Squadron. In 1972 he moved to Whitehall to become head of S4, which happened to be the MoD office responsible for UFO reports.
The new tranche of S4 papers released to the PRO in 2003 proved what had until then been a mere speculation - that A.N.Davis had himself been one of the pilots involved in the Lakenheath incident. As Dave Clarke remarked, 'This clearly overturns all previous discussion concerning the sequence of events.'
The first hint had been a fragment found by Dave Clarke in an MoD file dealing with a programme for BBC Radio Oxford on which Air Commodore Davis had been interviewed shortly after the TV programme mentioned above. Davis' handwritten notes for this interview contained the words "1944 - attacked by saucer over Germany; 1956 - vectored towards UFO". The tantalising implication of this fragment turned out to be fully confirmed by S4 file documents from 1971-3 released to the PRO.
23 Squadron had temporarily moved to RAF Waterbeach to take up QRA duty during 'Exercise Fabulous' but Davis had not followed them on this occasion. In fact he had been on a visit to Stradishall (south of Lakenheath) for the duration of a fatal crash inquiry. Consequently, unknown to anyone at Waterbeach, on the night of 13-14 August he happened to be en route in a Venom night fighter between RAF Stradishall and his squadron's home base at RAF Coltishall, when he was diverted by ground radar to intercept an unidentified target in the Lakenheath area.
Little is known about this event or the time of its occurrence, except that the sky was dark or nearly dark because Davis said that he found himself being vectored by ground radar towards "a bright star". His radar operator, probably Flight Lieutenant Paddy McIlwrath, apparently did not acquire an AI radar contact and the attempted intercept was unsuccessful.
Discussion: The story of the discovery of this
information can be read in detail here.
d.) The Air Ministry DDI(Tech) summary
In May 1957, what appears to be the only surviving direct reference to official UK documentation on the Lakenheath incident was made in the context of a Ministerial briefing, by the branch of the Air Ministry's Deputy Directorate of Intelligence (Technical), designated AI (Tech) 5b, which was charged with analysis of radar reports of UFOs. The cryptic summary provided for the Minister of the day revealed only that one of a number of radar incidents in 1956 involved "an unusual object on Lakenheath Radar" which was intercepted by a Venom, and that nine months later the case was still carried as "unexplained".
However it is not possible to say with certainty that even this tiny scrap of information is a reference to the whole, or even to a part, of 'the Lakenheath-Bentwaters incidents' as documented here. It has to be born in mind that this period of around 1955-57 - and the August/September of 1956 in particular - seems to have been especially rich in military radar incidents of this general character. Air Vice Marshall Charles Moore, then Director of Intelligence but himself 'out of London' at the time and not directly involved, recalled that a DDI(Tech) investigation into 'the' Lakenheath events did take place and that a report went up to the Assistant Chief of Air Staff. However he also recalled that it was "one of many similar incidents".
Some of this 'background' is described here, in particular the Bornholm Island incidents of August 22. It quickly becomes apparent that the Lakenheath incident was being regarded within NATO, SHAPE (Air) and in Washington as only one of a number of cases exemplifying a trend in such reporting across northern Europe at this time. There was transatlantic concern about Soviet missile and overflight technology, and this concern simply has to have been reflected in the UK, especially given the sensitive status of Lakenheath at this time as a nuclear bomber base and as the location of choice for the deployment of the first U2 spyplanes.
On the one hand, therefore, this context makes it quite possible that the DDI(Tech) summary might not refer to a Ministry-level report on 'the' Lakenheath incident. On the other hand it makes it difficult to doubt that such a report did indeed exist and suggests that it must have had circulation at high levels in the UK-USA defence intelligence communities. (See also: The MoD and UFOs)