The real X Files

The alarm sounded and Lieutenant Gordon Cooper ran across the airfield to join his mates in the 525th Fighter Bomber Squadron. He had been on regular forays into the sky and was prepared for anything. It was 1951 at Neubiberg Air Force Base and the new

Soviet MiG-15 jets often penetrated German air space.Cooper reported: 'My squadron mates and I dashed from the ready room and scrambled skyward in our F-86s to intercept the bogies. We reached our maximum ceiling of around 45,000ft, and they were still way above us, and travelling much faster.'

The young jet pilot, who would become an astronaut, realised that the aircraft above him were not of a type he had encountered before. 'I could see that they weren't balloons or MiGs, or like any aircraft I had seen before,' he said. 'They were metallic silver and saucer-shaped. We couldn't get close enough to form any idea of their size; they were just too high.'

For the next two or three days, according to Cooper, the objects passed over the base daily. They could outmanoeuvre and outflank the American planes, and occasionally came to a dead stop as the airmen flew beneath.

What had he seen? Only one thing is certain: Cooper had unwittingly been drawn into the very centre of a maelstrom: the debate on UFOs — Unidentified Flying Objects.

The stuff of myth, controversy and schoolboy wonder, there have been reports of unusual aerial phenomena dating back thousands of years.

Now, for the first time, a new book (NEED TO KNOW: UFOS, THE MILITARY AND INTELLIGENCE by Timothy Good) documents each significant sighting from 1939 to the present and asks: do UFOs exist? And, critically — if so — does their presence indicate the existence of intelligent life beyond earth?

Millions of UFO sightings have been reported throughout the world. According to the author, up to 95 per cent of these can probably be explained in conventional terms, but that still leaves tens of thousands of unexplained cases.

Documents declassified by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) under the 2005 Freedom of Information Act reveal that, far from the public image of the oddball UFO enthusiast, many sightings have in fact been recorded by respected military personnel.

Some of the thousands of reports by pilots, army and naval officers, astronauts and astronomers have now been documented. Their testimony is often supported by radar, sonar and sometimes by film and photographs.

Indeed, a survey of members of the American Astronomical Society revealed that more than 60 per cent of them have witnessed events they believed could be linked to UFOs, and the majority felt these warranted further scientific study.

Of course, there is nothing new about UFOs. In 1896, for instance, there were sightings of 'mystery airships', particularly in the U.S. In 1920, unexplained lights were seen in the sky around the entrance to the Bass Strait, Australia, as a ship disappeared. The search aircraft sent to investigate also vanished.

The Bass Strait is one of a number of areas, such as the Bermuda Triangle, where aircraft and ships have mysteriously disappeared, often after witnesses reported strange lights in the sky.

Most of the sightings recorded were made during World War II, perplexing world leaders at the time. For example, Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, took great interest in sightings by his reconnaissance agents.

Telegrams related instructions for the recovery of a flying disc grounded near Milan in 1933. An Italian government report of 1936, written by a secret service agent, describes an unknown flying craft near Venice. It reads: 'It was a metallic disc, polished and reflecting light. It didn't emit sound, which would lead one to consider an aerostat. Yet nobody knows of balloons that can fly faster than the wind.'

As war progressed, the sightings intensified, and not just in Europe. Following reports by fishermen of strange lights off the Tasman Peninsula, the Royal Australian Air Force investigated such a report in 1942. The pilot described a domed object as 'a singular airfoil of glistening bronze colour'.

Several reports from 1942 relate to sightings of unusual aircraft seen by RAF crews. A memo from Headquarters, No 5 Group, to Headquarters, Bomber Command, begins: 'The crew refuse to be shaken in their story in the face of the usual banter and ridicule.'

The airmen, based at RAF Syerston in Lincolnshire, saw the object after a raid on Turin. They said: 'It was seen by the entire crew of the aircraft. The speed was estimated at 500 mph and it had four pairs of red lights spaced an equal distance along its body.'

More typically in this period, many Allied and Axis airmen reported small, apparently remotely controlled objects which followed aircraft during missions.

Amid speculation that the Germans had developed a new weapon, the U.S. Eighth Army Air Force ordered a full investigation but was unable to resolve the matter.

On the night of May 26, 1943, during a raid over Essen, Germany, involving up to 500 aircraft, an RAF Halifax four-engine bomber encountered a craft similar to the one reported over Turin six months before, flying at high speed.

Flight Sergeant Cockcroft detailed: 'It was a long cylindrical object, silver gold in colour, with a number of portholes.'

First to observe the object was the captain, Flight Sergeant Ray Smith, of the Royal Canadian Air Force. 'I think the initial reaction of most of us was amazement,' said Cockcroft, 'because the object just had no right to be there.'

In the same month, during a raid on Germany, USAAF 348th Group Bombers reported 'a cluster of discs in the path of the formation near Schweinfurt' at a time when no enemy aircraft were operating above.

Ronald Claridge, a holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, was a wireless operator with No 7 Squadron, RAF on a 1944 raid on the oil refineries at La Pallice, France. He reported: 'Our Lancaster was flying straight and level. On our starboard side I saw a grey saucer-like object emerge. We all watched this object for about three minutes, then the vast size was gone in less than a second, without any noise or turbulence.'

Was global conflict attracting the attention of an extra-terrestrial force?

After all, this was the largest and deadliest war in our planet's history, with around 62 million people perishing, before culiminating in the explosion of the atom bomb.

According to Tim Good, a UFO expert and author of the new book: 'The proliferation of sightings in World War II was not coincidental. I have no doubt the reason lies in the inauguration of the nuclear age on Earth, necessitating increased surveillance by advanced intelligences.'

Indeed, the Americans took sightings by its military personnel sufficiently seriously to undertake an official UFO investigation which, in 1949, speculated on the correlation between the dawn of the nuclear age and the documented increase in 'visits'.

'Such a civilisation might observe we on Earth now have atomic bombs and are fast developing rockets. In view of the past history of mankind, they should be alarmed.'

The USAAF set up a special investigation (nicknamed Project Grudge) into UFOs, and a report was completed by the Intelligence Department at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio.

But it concluded that there was no evidence that such objects were the result of an 'advanced scientific foreign development' and that they did not constitute a threat to national security.

However, the UFO reports did not stop at the end of the war. In the summer of 1946, a wave of sightings of what became known as 'ghost rockets' proliferated in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

A 1947 U.S. War Department review, classified secret at the time, summarises the observations: 'The two most common descriptions of the missiles were "a ball of fire with a tail" and "a shiny cigar-shaped object". In September and October of that year, flying objects were reported over widely separate points in Europe and Africa. It is not surprising that censorship of such sightings was widespread — often for obvious military reasons, but this only added fuel to the conspiracy theorists' debate.

An incident over the town of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, has become a byword for enthusiasts' 'conclusive proof' of the existence of UFOs. An 'alien ship' was reported to have crash-landed on the Roswell Army Air Field.

The official response — that it was an experimental high-altitude balloon device to monitor Soviet nuclear tests — is still dismissed by many as a government cover-up.

But in 1995, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Corso, a highly respected intelligence officer who served on President Eisenhower's National Security Council staff, published an extraordinary account of his work on recovered fabric from the Roswell vehicle.

In The Day After Roswell, he claimed that from 1961 to 1963, he was steward of an army project which developed examples of alien technology at U.S. companies such as IBM, Hughes Aircraft and Bell Labs — without their knowledge of the background to these scientific advances.

He also claimed to have seen an alien life-form being sent for autopsy at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he was serving as an intelligence officer.

He described a 'four-foot human-shaped figure with bizarre-looking four-fingered hands and an oversized incandescent lighbulb-shaped head. The eye-sockets were oversized and pointed down to its tiny nose, like that of a baby that never grew as the child grew'.

Following Roswell, there were sightings at some of America's most sensitive installations, such as the Los Alamos Atomic Energy Commission's facility, as well as further encounters globally.

So what are we to make of the evidence? Perhaps it is most illuminating to turn to Bill Gunston, OBE, one of the world's leading aviation historians and a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

He turns the debate on its head and asks if it is credible that so many eminent military men have made these stories up.

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