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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Saucers in the sky
Personnel pointing in the air
Popular culture quickly embraced flying saucers

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

It's 60 years since the term flying saucer was coined and the most celebrated "extraterrestrial" episode - Roswell. Alien believers are dismissed as cranks, but even the earthly explanations of objects in the sky are fascinating.

Sixty years ago Kenneth Arnold saw something which changed his own life and the lives of millions of others, and impacted on popular culture like a shockwave.

Flying his plane near Mount Rainier in the US state of Washington, he observed a line of strange objects either crescent-shaped or disc-like, flying with the motion of a saucer skimming on water.

Arnold's sighting, quickly picked up by the press, was followed a fortnight later by the revelation of perhaps the most notorious episode in the history of UFOs, at Roswell in New Mexico.

UFO over Bulawayo in then-Rhodesia
1980, Rendlesham Forest: US airbase staff see strange lights in woods
1957, RB-47 encounter: US jet followed by UFO for 700 miles
1979, Livingston: Forestry worker sees dome-shaped object
1950, McMinnville: Farm couple photograph saucer
1961, Betty and Barney Hill incident: Couple see UFO and under hypnosis describe abduction

Having announced it had recovered a "flying disk", the Army airfield backtracked and referred only to a weather balloon.

What followed was perhaps one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all time, involving post-mortem examinations of swollen-bellied grey aliens, the cloning of sophisticated extraterrestrial technology and an epic cover-up. Or not, as the case may be.

In the 60 years since 1947's first major wave of sightings, thousands of ordinary people have claimed to have seen inexplicable objects in the sky.

When the Ministry of Defence released papers on its own investigations into the phenomenon in 2006, it was revealed more than 10,000 eyewitness accounts had been collected.

And for every sceptic who prefers explanations of weather balloons and freak atmospheric conditions there is someone who genuinely believes intelligent life is visiting the planet.

Alien belief

A national newspaper survey in 1998 suggested 33% of men and 24% of women thought aliens had already visited the earth.

Such polls are testament to the powerful impact of six decades of media coverage, disputed science, heated mythology and Hollywood films. We have now completed six decades of projecting our hopes and fears onto the UFO phenomenon.

Image of UFO
Many UFO images are less than overwhelming

David Clarke, a lecturer in journalism, has spent 30 years studying UFOs and the sociology of the flying saucer sighting.

He is no believer in little extraterrestrial men, but believes mainstream scientists should recognise the rational explanations for sightings are themselves worthy of study.

"They wouldn't touch it," he says. "It's got such a bad press. Anything that people don't have an immediate explanation for - it must be little green men."

The "ufologists" who study the phenomenon comprise both sceptics and believers. They seek to "resolve" each incident, explaining away each aspect. And there is a wealth of explanations for most sightings that is as fascinating for sceptical enthusiasts as the notion of space visitors.

Cold War projection

Sundogs, or strange refractions of the sun in another part of the sky, burning space debris, weather balloons, ball lightning, meteors, disc-shaped or lenticular clouds, mirages, even the planet Venus low in the sky, are all classic methods of resolving UFO sightings.

But underlying them is a need also to explain people's desire to believe that a UFO sighting can be explained by alien activity. The timing of the start of the golden age of the UFO, in a Western world recovering from World War II and gearing up for the start of the Cold War, is significant.

"We were projecting things to reflect our fears and concerns about the Cold War," Mr Clarke says.

Sundog  (Picture: Erik Axdahl)
Sundogs: Refracted image of the sun
Space debris: Burning satellites or rocket fragments
Meteors: Such as bolides or fireballs
Clouds: Lenticular or disc-like
Mirages: Hot or cold-air induced images
Stars/planets: Such as Venus
Planes: Such as experimental aircraft
Ball lightning: Unpredictable brilliant spheres
Weather balloons: Classic explanation
Hallucination: Viewer under stress
Mass hysteria: Early explanation
Earthlights: Caused by electromagnetic fields in seismic activity areas

"Organised religion was in decline but when worried or concerned it is comforting to feel there is a greater power looking after us. It is quite nice to think there is another civilisation that has been able to overcome the things destroying our civilisation."

The UFO phenomenon is also linked with the modern reliance on conspiracy theories, a mixture of a need to believe in something more than the mundane in an increasingly rational world and an all-pervading distrust of authority.

As the Fortean Times, which this month dedicates an entire issue to the UFO anniversary, puts it: "UFOs fill a niche in the human spirit that thrives on wondrous ideas."

Earlier generations had also seen UFOs but without the term flying saucer in existence, they were labelled as other things.

UFO students say there are peaks and troughs in sightings that are probably based on cultural, social and political trends.

Golden age

Expert Paul Devereux says a new golden age during the 1990s, particularly after the broadcast of the cult television series the X-Files, has given way to a current wave of indifference.

Mr Clarke concurs, suggesting: "It could be the case that post-9/11 people are more concerned about the threat from terrorism or the environment."

Debris from the Roswell site
US military said a crashed weather balloon explained Roswell

Mr Devereux has drawn on the work of controversial Canadian academic Michael Persinger and believes many unresolved UFO sightings can be explained by "earthlights", clouds of plasma being charged by strong electromagnetic fields occurring in areas of seismic activity.

Having witnessed a UFO that could not initially be explained, Mr Devereux has dedicated his life to research.

"It bugged the hell out of me, almost gave me a mental breakdown. I couldn't make it fit into the everyday mundane world view."

Pilot Ray Bowyer was the principal witness to the most recent publicised UFO sighting in the UK.

Flying a commercial plane from Southampton to Alderney in the Channel Islands in April this year, Mr Bowyer saw two objects up to a mile across in the sky over Guernsey.

"I saw a bright yellow object, a light in the sky some miles ahead. I could see this specific shape of a flattened disc, like a CD on its edge, slightly tilted."

UFO protest
Many UFO enthusiasts believe governments hide the truth

He says some of his passengers, as well as another pilot, saw the objects and he has been told they were picked up on radar.

Mr Bowyer's sighting may be a prime candidate for the "earthlights" theory, coming just days before the Dover earthquake. He accepts this as a possible explanation.

"I'm open-minded about everything. It would be a fairly perverse universe if we were the only inhabitants."

Despite the drop-off in interest in UFOs, the ufologists and their acolytes carry on their work, and the UFO-loving public continues to believe in conspiracies.

"No matter how much material the authorities produce and release the people who want to believe a conspiracy to hide aliens will never be satisfied," Mr Clarke says.

"It is such an emotional thing. They are convinced they are here, that they are walking among us."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Mobile phones are near-useless for snapping UFOs on account of their wide angle lens, tiny CCD sensors and poor resolution. The point about satellites warding off UFOs is a good one, though...
Michal, Warsaw, Poland

Two mile-wide UFOs are seen by pilots near Guernsey. Not clouds, balloons, geese, etc. I really do think it's time for the authorities to own up about what they know or don't know. The objects were on radar for nearly an hour. I hope the story does not get the usual treatment.
Johann, Salford

About 10 years ago, I was woken by my father (I was at home during university vacation) telling me to look out of my bedroom window. He was already at the window, filming with hs video camera. What we saw can only be described as large, white, the shape of a teardrop on its side, and flying very fast. At that time, we lived in southwest Cornwall, and watched as it flew behind St Michael's Mount, and reappeared the other side after a second or so. My father got all of this on video, and had it analysed by several experts shortly after. The results were inconclusive, but we were advised categorically that it was not a cloud, and that it was, indeed, very large, some way in the distance, and travelling at great speed. As it happens, we weren't the only witnesses to this, and a large feature appeared a week later in the local paper. Certainly changed me from a die-hard disbeliever into your common or garden sceptic!
Kay, Plymouth, UK

I note the Roswell 'Cover Up' quoted that the debris contained indestructable, light as a feather material. If it was so light and indestuctable how come it crashed into the ground leaving debris?? It should still have been perfectly formed if it was indestructable!!
Mark, London

I have actually seen the electromagnetic discharge about 5 minutes before the earthquake that was centred around Clun in Shropshire struck in the early nineties and it didn't look like no UFO. It just looked like all the air surrounding me just lit up. I walked for one building to the other , heard a rumble, looked out of the window and the ground just looked like a series of waves running towards me then the building shook.
Pablo, UK

I saw a huge black triangle over a Roman town called Vienne in France. Using crude estimations with a tv aerial as point of reference, I guess it was perhaps 3-400 metres across. It was silent, moved very slowly and blocked the stars out as it passed over. It was very chilling indeed
Rene Pasini, Hammersmith

I find it strange that the UFO over Singapore in the 1970s never gets a mention in lists of sightings. It was around for days and thousands of people must have seen it, so why are the reports supressed?
John, Chesterfield, England

I personally doubt that we've been visited, because even if there is a possibility of other life in the universe, you have to reduce that possibility to life existing within a reasonable distance of earth, say 500 light years. On the other hand, a recend drying up of sightings could be due to an increase in the number of satellites that look down, ie. observe the skies and ground beneath them. This might cause an investigating visitor keep to a distance higher than satellite orbits, which would have a knock-on effect of reducing accidental naked-eye observations.
Luke, London

Pretty much all sightings are explainable, which leaves some which are "unidentified flying objects". Just because they're unidentified it doesn't mean they're alien spaceships - by definition they're unexplained. They could be spaceships but there's no way of knowing. If you want a real conspiracy theory try this one: the furore around government cover-ups of UFOs to make us think they're from another world is to divert us away from what they're really up to - and heaven alone knows what thet might be!.
Mark Grady, Southampton, UK

Yesterday evening at exactly 18.06:06 hrs I was walking on the Great Orme in Llandudno when to my amazement I saw a very strange object in the skies over the Irish sea. The object was shaped similar in configuration to a crucifix, as if you were looking at it side on but with a slight tilt, it also appeared to have a green symbol/shape on the side of it. The symbol/shape looked something like this: Ryanair.
paul richardson, Deganwy North Wales

My wife and her parents were scared by a low flying very fast UFO one night in South Yorkshire over 20 years ago. Last year I had my wife carefully draw what she saw then I loaded up google... what she saw was an F-117 stealth fighter years before the US admitted they existed. I suspect most of the 'credible' UFO sightings are new, top secret military aircraft.
Peter, Nottingham

I don't know if UFOs are real but it seems pretty obvious that intelligent life must exist elsewhere in the universe. I remember reading that scientits had calculated that with the number of stars in our galaxy, the milky way alone must contain at least 100,000 advanced civilisations. People who say extra terrestrial life doesn't exist seem to be the crank to me. It's like claiming the earth is flat, because it looks that way from our perspective on the ground. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that they will be friendly.
Andrew, Edinburgh

I've always found it fascinating that UFO images are so rubbish, when people are regularly taking pictures of aircraft etc that look just fine. The western world now seems to have a camera in every pocket (camera phones?) and yet there have been no new photos for years. Military video allows us to see missiles slamming into bunkers in great detail but no UFOs with the same detail. Perhaps.... because they simply don't exist? Now open the lines to the conspiracy theorists... "Of course that's what THEY want you to think!"
Dan Thurgood, Liverpool UK

Another attempt at debunking.One of the leading officers who organised the Roswell 'Cover Up' recently died, but wrote an afadavit to say that he saw the craft debris, handled the material which was silver, indestructable and as light as a feather. He also organised the local undertaker to supply four child sized coffins for the UFO occupants and oversaw the entire weather balloon story. This was in a recent Daily Mail spread about the Roswell Truth.
Stuart Chambers, Mill Hill London

I served with the UK forces in the Falklands in the 90s and from our hill top perch one night, the 3 of us saw a bright blue light moving fast over the water in the distance (map showed about 50 miles away) You could see the blue reflecting off the sea. We reported it and had to fill out a classified report.. 2 Phantom jets were scrambled and we confirmed the light had also been picked up on a radar station. They followed the light for a while as we watched... It travelled up Falkland sound then just switched off leaving the jets flying in circles looking for it.
Witheld, UK

If there are aliens amongst us they can't be very intelligent, otherwise they would have started an immediate cull of the most destructive life form in the universe - humans!
Mike Preston, Blackpool

The idea that aliens would bother to travel across vast reaches of time and space to buzz grannies in cars, experiment with farmers in the mid-west of the USA and emit some kind of ray that only produces ambiguous grainy images on cameras is just - rediculous.
David Case, Westgate on Sea

Strange with the advent of digital phones with cameras and videos that UFO sightings have dried up....isn't it?
Puggy, Glasgow

With everyone these days carrying a camera in their mobile phones surely we should have a half decent photograph of a UFO by now. Or have the aliens stopped coming becouse the weather is so bad?
TeeGee, Belfast

If you type Area 51 itno Google Earth you will see an amazing area which does get the imagination going. Whether or not the Government knows about it, the chances of 'others' are very high. If we have evolved and survived this long, there are bound to be others. We may never see or hear from them but to think we are the sole beings in the universe is a bit naive.
Lewis, Portsmouth

I read about all these sceptics saying 80% or 90% or 99% of sightings are earthlights, or moonlight on geese or the planet Venus - and they quietly don't mention that fact that still leaves more than a few sightings that aren't explained. Doesn't it worry anyone that there are things in the sky and we don't know what they are? I'm not saying they're aliens, just that these sightings should be studied properly, not swept under the carpet and dismissed as cranks or drunks or idiots not be able to recognise a plane when they see it.
Nona, London

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