Historic UFO Sightings That Still Remain Unexplained: Flying Saucers Of Early Years

A look at some of the most spectacular UFO sightings from modern history. These are real unexplained accounts of flying saucers and what the eyewitnesses themselves had to say about the events.

UFOs were not peculiar to the post-war era. People have been seeing odd things in the sky throughout recorded history. As far back as 1646, for example, a book was published called Strange Signes From Heaven, which recorded sightings of many phenomena which would well come under the general heading of flying saucers, and even in the Bible, there are references suggesting that ancient people were puzzled by them.

One of the most sensational 'saucers' of more modern times was seen over London in November 1882 and among qualified observers to notice it was Mr Walter Maunder, a Greenwich astronomer. It was not until 1916, however, that Mr Maunder published an account of the sighting in The Observatory, in response to a request from the Royal Astronomical Society to describe the most remarkable thing he had ever seen in the course of many years sky gazing.

He said just after sunset on the 17th November 1882, he was looking across London from the roof of Greenwich Observatory, when: "a great circular disk of greenish light suddenly appeared down in the East-North-East as though it had just risen, and moved across the sky as smoothly and steadily as the sun, moon stars and planets move, but nearly a thousand times as quickly. The circularity of its shape was merely the effect of a fore-shortening, for as it moved it lengthened out, and when it crossed the meridian and passed just above the moon its form was almost that of a very elongated ellipse, and various observers spoke of it as "cigar-shaped" or "like a torpedo"..."

The object was seen by hundreds of people all over Britain and even on the Continent, and pretty accurate figures were obtained for its size and speed. It was more than a hundred miles above the earth, moving at about ten miles a second and must have been at least fifty miles long. Nobody in those days had been able to give an adequate explanation for it but I doubt whether many present-day scientists would be undoubtedly puzzled. The object had appeared at the time of a violent magnetic storm and was almost certainly part of an auroral display caused by charged particles from the sun plunging into the earth's atmosphere and lighting up like a neon tube.

A beam of particles tracking across the country would have created what appeared to be a solid object moving at speed, and this is borne out by the fact that when the beam had spent its force the mysterious object broke up over the Continent like a cloud being torn to pieces by upper atmosphere gales.

Edward Walter Maunder UFO
Walter Maunder and a drawing of the reported sighting by astronomer John Rand Capron

Flying saucers, in the sense that many people regarded them today. did not come into their own until 24 June 1947. On that day, Kenneth Arnold, an American businessman from Idaho was making a routine business trip to Washington in a private plane. The journey took him to parallel with a range of snow-capped mountains and he was startled to see a formation of strange objects swerving in and out of the mountain peaks. Never having seen anything like them before he reported the experience as soon as he reached his destination. He described the objects as 'a chain of saucer-like things'.

At first, Mr Arnold's report was not taken too seriously, but the word 'saucer' captured public imagination. Reports of other flying saucers were soon coming in from all over the United States and indeed from all over the world.

What they were, nobody could say and nobody knows for certain to this day. But the most attractive theory was that they were flying machines piloted by strange visitors from outer space. Headlines flared. 'IS ANOTHER WORLD WATCHING US?' they demanded. Cartoonists worked overtime and hoaxers rampaged the country.

Then something happened that made people wonder if it was all such a joke after all. Flying saucers suddenly became a world mystery and even a world menace. The happening was the appearance of a UFO over Godman Field, Fort Knox, on 7 January 1948 - a portentous day for all who were stationed there at the time.

The day had begun quite normally and cheerfully with routine flight training in clear sunny weather. Nobody was thinking about flying saucers. But that was before the alarm was raised before the jangling chorus of phone bells sounded and harsh radio instructions crackled from Godman Tower before the men of Fort Knox ran into the open and stood looking up at the sky with shaded eyes.

Up there, at the hazy limit of visibility, was something later described as "a huge ice cream cone topped with red."

Four National Guard P-51 planes roared off the tarmac to investigate, and from one of them as it dwindled into the sky came back the tense voice of Captain Thomas Mantell of the United States Air Force. "There it is! Twelve o'clock high. It looks metallic ... a tremendous size."

None of the other pilots had it in sight, and presently Captain Mantell radioed that the thing was climbing rapidly. "I'm going to follow it up to 20,000 feet," he said. "If I'm no closer I'll abandon chase."

On the ground, they waited. They tried calling him back, but nothing more was heard from Captain Mantell and nothing was seen of him until his broken body was recovered from the wreckage of the plane which crashed a few miles away. Meanwhile, the "cone", still unseen by the other pilots, had disappeared. And just what happened up there is still in doubt: but there is a persistent belief in some quarters that Mantell got too close, saw too much, and was destroyed by some power unknown on earth.

The incident has a fundamental place in the whole flying saucer mystery. Indeed it might be argued that had Mantell not died the saucers would have died instead, for his death occurred at a time when interest in flying saucers was beginning to flag. As it was, it boosted the mystery into a new phase in which every new sighting would stir up the old excitement.

Opponents of the notion that flying saucers are craft from outer space insisted that Mantell was not shot down by a Martian death-ray but blacked out through lack of oxygen and crashed without regaining consciousness. And the UFO he was chasing? It might have been a skyhook' balloon such as was used to study cosmic rays - later whipped away in a high altitude gale. Or it might have been a "mock sun" caused by ice crystals in cirrus clouds that lay higher than Mantell's plane could reach. But there was no clue to be found in the wreckage and to this day nobody knows the answer for sure.

Captain Thomas Mantell and the wreckage of his plane
Captain Thomas Mantell and the wreckage of his plane

While on the subject, however, it is interesting to recall that a giant cone-shaped object was observed at a height of about 15,000 feet above Brixham, Devon, at noon on 28 April 1967. Scores of people along the Devon coast telephoned police stations to ask about the object which, according to one newspaper, was slowly revolving.

The object was also observed by the coastguards using high-powered glasses, the newspaper said, and as it turned some sort of door could be seen as in its side.

Observers also claimed that they had seen an airplane approach, fly around the cone, and then make off again as the cone began to climb higher into the sky, eventually disappearing in cloud at about 20,000 feet. It really looked as though, this time, Britain had had a sighting that would pass every test required of the sceptics. Apart from the fact that there were numerous independent witnesses on the ground, somebody must have got a close-up view of the UFO. Aircraft do not fly around objects that are not there.

And if an aircraft were involved, it had to come from a nearby base, the pilot would have reported the sighting, and presumably, the report would find its way to the Ministry of Defence. In fact, according to the newspaper, a report was forwarded to the Ministry by the RAF at Plymouth. However, when the Ministry was asked about it they at first denied having received the report. Later a Ministry spokesman admitted: "Further inquiries reveal that we did receive a report but somehow it was not logged."

What the report said was not disclosed but did not appear to have moved the Ministry unduly for the spokesman added: "We can only suggest that the object may have been the reflection of some car headlights or some sort of meteorological phenomenon. I cannot comment further."

When this reaction was made known to a senior RAF controller at Plymouth his reply was: "We reported all the details. I cannot tell you where the aircraft came from and you will have a job to get anyone to admit that one was sent up. I understand the UFO was also tracked by radar."

At the coastguard station at Berry Head, Brixham, the chief officer Harry Johnson said: "It's laughable for anyone to suggest to a body of highly trained observers that this was the reflection of car headlights. It was mid-day. The object was obviously made of something highly polished and reflected the sunlight almost like a star."

Coastguard Brian Jenkins said: "I was able to make a detailed drawing of it which I showed to an air vice-marshal who called at the station a few days later. His only comment was 'most interesting.'"

All the remarks quoted above in connection with the Brixham sightings have been taken from newspaper reports published at the time and the possibility of errors affecting the sense of what was actually said has to be considered, but there can be little to no doubt that the "cone" startled many people and contained features by no means common to all UFO sightings.

The notion that the "cone" could have been a reflection of car headlights (if the reporting on this point is strictly accurate) is absurd. Who would have switched on headlights at midday? And even if this were the case it is unlikely that the light beams which would have had to be uptilted at a steep angle would have carried up to 20,000 feet! As for the alternative that some sort of meteorological phenomenon was responsible, this will hardly do either. One needs to know precisely what sort of phenomenon was in mind.

However, the Brixham sighting is not listed as unexplained, although the Defense Ministry says that it was reported too late for a thorough investigation. It was not tracked by radar. The Ministry is nevertheless satisfied that the "cone" was nothing more than a high altitude balloon. As for a door opening in it and an aircraft flying around the object, this is officially put down to the exaggeration on the part of some over-excited observer.

Well, it could be... But one cannot help feeling an opportunity was lost here, an opportunity to get really to grips with the UFO mystery and either expose it by means of photographs showing the "cone" to be a balloon or to produce photographic evidence that it was something else - something perhaps requiring further investigation.

As it is, a good many people remain uncertain what to believe and may be forgiven for suspecting that officialdom clamped down on the subject. This is the view that many American people take about the Mantell UFO which is also officially classed as a balloon.

The first time that a British saucer sighting got official recognition (of a kind) was in November 1953. The case became known as the West Malling incident and was brought to the attention of the House of Commons.

At 10 a.m. on 3 November 1953, two members of the Royal Air Force, Flying Officer G. Smythe, and Flying Officer T. S. Johnson were up in a two-seater Vampire Jet Fighter at about 20,000 feet. They saw an object which appeared at first as a stationary light. It was very bright. They could not determine the height but estimated that it was above 20,000 feet.

After they had observed it for a few seconds it began to move and shot above the aircraft at a very high speed. Although it was in sight for barely thirty seconds they had a good enough look at it to make out that it was perfectly circular. When they landed they reported the sighting to the West Malling Station Commander Group Captain P.H. Hanley, who sent the details to the headquarters at Fighter Command.

The two men were later questioned for more than two hours but it was a confidential interview and the details were never generally reported. Then the Parliamentary Security to the Defense Ministry, when questioned about the West Malling incident in the Commons, said no more than that meteorological balloons were flying at the time. He added, amidst laughter, that there was nothing peculiar about the occurrences and an MP got another laugh by remarking that the West Malling incident could, therefore, be regarded as "all ballooney."

Nothing was said about the high speed at which the object moved, nor did anyone seem surprised that trained airmen, who must have seen many a balloon in flight, should have been mistaken about this one and thought it was something else. John Rowland in Mysteries of Science comments: "The object, whatever it was, was, in fact, very unlikely to have been a balloon; it is in the last degree unlikely that there was, even at a great height, a sudden gust of wind which would take a balloon out of sight in thirty seconds."

And perhaps this is the place to recall also the famous Coniston sighting of a few months later and the photograph taken by a boy, Stephen Darbishire, a keen amateur photographer, who was walking in the Coniston area of the Lake District with his cousin, Adrian Meyer.

The date was 15 February 1954. Stephen, who had his camera with him, and his cousin were walking in the vicinity of a hill known as Coniston Old Man when they saw a curious object hovering above the hilltop. Both were excited about it and Stephen managed to get some pictures. They were not very good as, in his hurry, Stephen did not focus the camera very well, but one of his pictures clearly showed the outline of a UFO which conformed remarkably well with similar photographs alleged to have been taken in America.

To quote Rowland again: "Stephan Darbishire is stated by everyone who has met him to be a completely reliable witness, and not the kind of boy who would be likely to make up such a story, just for the sake of the notoriety which would follow."

"In any event, a boy who was clever enough to fake the pictures obtained, would clearly not be the sort of boy whose statements would inspire confidence. The faker (if as young as Stephen Darbishire in 1954) is likely to give himself away when he was interviewed. And all those who met Stephen are agreed that he was a quiet, modest boy, and not at all the type to tell a tall story for the sake of making himself well known."

About the time of the Coniston photograph, an investigator was invited to join a small group of newspapermen and scientists to watch coloured film of UFOs taken from an aircraft that was flying above the clouds to photograph an eclipse of the sun. They sat on an assortment of the office chairs in a darkened upper room in the West End of London, and the film which lasted only a few seconds was flashed on a wall screen.

Stephen Darbishire Coniston UFO
Stephen Darbishire provided this controversial photo in which he claimed to capture the UFO

The film was shown by an official of a Norwegian airline who said it had been shot from one of three Norwegian aircraft on the eclipse flight and that among the passengers were General Jorgenson, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, and members of the Royal Norwegian Astronomical Society. The "saucers" swooped into view above a frothing sea of white cloud 15,000 feet up and sped along the horizon like a pair of silver spotlights, keeping an even distance, one slightly above the other. They moved across the screen in an uptilted manner, then suddenly levelled off and vanished into the distance.

What happened aboard the aircraft at the time was told by Mr Ernest Graham of the Swedish Travel Agency who had been on the flight. The sighting had taken place high above the clouds between Oslo and Stavanger, he said. After filming the eclipse with its fiery corona the scientists were returning to base when someone shouted: "Look!" and pointed out at the brightening horizon. Someone else shouted: "Binoculars! Has anyone brought binoculars?" But nobody had. All the passengers and crew were now peering at the lights on the horizon which appeared as two silver discs. Then Mr Johnny Bjornylf, chief cameraman aboard the plane, swung his camera onto the skyline. The objects were in view for about half a minute, Mr Graham said. They were between fifteen and twenty miles away and appeared to have a metallic glint.

"They must have been of enormous size," he went on, "and seemed to be solid. We could also see a rotary movement as they levelled off and dwindled out of sight. They could not have been reflections on glass because we had the windows out for the cameras and the plane was still in the shadow of the moon. Moreover, they were too firm in outline to be clouds and were too obviously maneuverable.

The UFOs were seen by fifty people who afterwards wrote reports about the sighting but there was no public announcement that anything other than the eclipse had been observed and after the film had been developed the "saucer" sequence was cut out. It was not until eighteen months later that pressmen were allowed to see the "censored" strip.

Nowadays such a precaution against publicity would seem absurd, but it should be remembered that saucers had become rather a touchy subject among orthodox scientists. If they could not laugh at them they preferred to ignore the whole subject. On this occasion, I understand, it was feared that the "saucers" would bring ridicule on a serious scientific expedition. I think, indeed, that this illustrates very strongly the extraordinary stand taken by orthodox science against the UFO phenomena. The Norwegian scientists apparently had no interest in the saucer pictures at all, apart from documenting the sighting. Yet, for all they could have known then, they might have photographed something of far greater importance than the eclipse. If you remember, however, that Lord Dowding, former Air Chief Marshal, and head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, said at the film show in London.

"The objects did not look like anything else except what one imagines flying saucers to look like," he said. "I believe absolutely in the existence of flying saucers."

Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer and a man of great imagination, took, however, a much more doubtful view. "I find it difficult to believe the shots were not taken through a window," he said, "perhaps in the heat of the moment, so that objects were caused by reflections of light from somewhere in the aircraft. There was something on the screen that looked like the outline of a window to me. But there was obviously no deliberate faking." At the time we were slightly more inclined to agree with him. In fact, a fine old argument developed between those convinced they had seen a film of flying saucers and those of us who were convinced that we had seen nothing of the sort. But again, the matter has not been satisfactorily resolved.

Although many hundreds of saucer sightings had been reported from America for more than twenty years, and although there had been "flaps" in Europe, Australia, and Japan, it seemed that the phenomena were making no impact at all on the Soviet Union. And to many people no doubt this was significant. The Russians were far too sensible to concern themselves with nonsense of this sort! So it came as a surprise to learn, not long after the wave of sightings in Britain around October 1967, that they were just as puzzled over UFOs as the rest of the world.

Unidentified flying objects, said Soviet Weekly, published in London, were now so firmly established as a problem that an international effort was needed to solve it. Nor, it appeared, was this the newspaper's own view. The opinion was that of Professor Felix Ziegal of Moscow's Institute of Aviation.

Professor Felix Ziegel

"It is not ruled out," he was quoted as saying, "that the solution could lead to some radical re-thinking..." which for a Russian spokesman was tantamount to going out on a limb. But in justification of the remark, the newspaper added that a committee of scientists and other specialists had been established to make a systematic study of two hundred sighting reports. A preliminary analysis had, in fact, already been made and had led the committee to feel that the matter deserved thorough investigation. The Soviet Union, it was disclosed, had even had its quota of sightings during the summer of 1967, only instead of flying crosses, catherine wheels, and aerial cigars, the Russians had seen glowing crescents in the sky. Reports of these had come not only from private individuals but from the Mountain Astronomical Station near Kislovodsk and an astronomical observatory in Kazan.

"The most characteristic type of UFO," said Soviet Weekly, "is a luminous orange-coloured crescent with a diameter of fifteen to twenty feet of arc, flying with its outward bend first. Its surface is reported as only a little less luminous than that of the moon. The horns of the crescent throw out jets, sometimes with sparks. The outer contour of the crescent is sharp and the inner contour blurred and wavy."

Sometimes, it was stated, the crescent was seen moving ahead of a bright flaming disc. At other times it was preceded and flanked by what looked like first-magnitude stars, which kept a constant distance from it. Kazan astronomers, who had observed crescents from two points simultaneously had estimated that the diameter of some of the crescent-shaped UFOs was between five hundred and six hundred metres and had judged their speed to be five kilometres a second.

"Assuming that the crescent is a shock wave," said Soviet Weekly, "the UFOs must fly at altitudes of between thirty and sixty-five miles. Such objects could not have been made by man. They are definitely not sputniks or space rockets." Among other sightings which, it was understood, the Soviet committee was looking into, was one reported by V.I. Duginov, director of the Kersov Hydro-meteorological School who claimed to have seen, while waiting at a bus stop, along with fifty other people, a glowing disc about one-third the sun's diameter travelling slowly eastwards. Yet another report had come from Latvian astronomers Robert Vitolniek, Jan Melderis, and Esmerelda Vitolniek who were studying cloud formations from an observatory at Ogra on 26 July 1965. In the gathering dusk, they had spotted an unusually bright star slowly moving westwards. With the help of binoculars, they had been able to examine it in more detail and had observed that it had the shape of a disc thickened in the middle like a lens and with a "ball" at the central point. In addition, there were three other balls revolving around the perimeter. The astronomers reckoned the disc was one hundred metres across. They had watched it for nearly twenty minutes, after which the balls appeared to take off from the disc and disappear while the disc itself dwindled until it also was lost to sight. The Soviet UFO reports also included one from the navigator of an aircraft of Russia's polar aviation service dating back to 1956. The navigator, V.I. Akkuratov, had reported seeing a UFO over Greenland, rapidly closing in on the aircraft from the port side. This again had resembled a lens - with wavy, pulsating edges. "To avoid collision with it," Akkuratov had said, "we dived back into the clouds. After forty minutes of flight in the direction of Medvezhi Island, the clouds suddenly receded and as we got into clear sky we noticed again the same flying object to port. We changed course sharply and began to approach it. In response, the UFO also changed course and flew parallel to us at a speed equal to our own."

After nearly twenty minutes the UFO had suddenly shot ahead of the aircraft and disappeared into the blue. The aircraft crew had noticed neither superstructure nor portholes on the disc to indicate that it was piloted. "There was neither a gas jet nor a vapour trail," added Akkuratov, "and the speed of its departure was so great that the whole phenomenon seemed something supernatural." According to Professor Ziegel, said Soviet Weekly, the UFO phenomenon was real and could not be identified with known natural phenomenon - with, for example, the anomalous optical phenomena in the earth's atmosphere. He had stated: "Quite a number of UFOs have been observed over the USSR, and it is noteworthy that the UFO forms observed here fit into the classification of these objects accepted in the West, in the USA in particular.

"It is safe to claim that the UFO problem has assumed a global character and therefore calls for global research. International scientific co-operation in the solution of this problem would long have become a reality, had not sensationalism and irresponsible anti-scientific assertions about "flying saucers" interfered with it. "I have profound respect for the efforts of such well-known American scientists as Professors Hynek and McDonald who are vigorously and with good reason trying to attract the attention of America's scientific public to the UFO problem. Unfortunately, certain scientists, both in the Soviet Union and in the United States, deny the very existence of the problem instead of helping to solve it."

Now you have learnt about the historical UFO sightings, make sure you look at the article about The Westall UFO: Military Jets, A Science Teacher, Hundreds Of Pupils And The "Men In Black"


Thanks for subscribing!