Is it a
bird? Is it a spaceship?
No, it's a secret US spy plane
The following article was published in “The
Guardian”, 24th June, 2006
· Sightings of flying object over
Britain worried MoD
· Questions threatened to strain
relations with US
James Randerson, science correspondent
It is the stuff of internet conspiracy theorists' dreams.
A top secret, hypersonic, cold war spy plane that was
allegedly flown by the Americans in UK airspace without
the government's permission.
Publicly, the UK government played down newspaper stories
about people who reported seeing UFO-like phenomena.
But documents released under the Freedom of Information
Act suggest the Ministry of Defence took the rumours
much more seriously. Its investigations even threatened
to strain the special relationship. "It does show
that they were concerned that this thing did exist and
the Americans were flying it around willy-nilly over
the UK," said David Clarke, a social scientist
at Sheffield Hallam University, who obtained the documents. "It
certainly suggests that the British government suspected
that they were being kept in the dark."
The United States has never confirmed the existence
of the mysterious aircraft, called Aurora, which was
supposedly designed to sneak at very high speed over
the Soviet Union and take covert snaps of what the enemy
was up to. It was rumoured to be capable of flying at
up to mach 8 and so could reach anywhere on the planet
in less than three hours. In the early 1990s there were
a string of supposed sightings and strange sounds over
Scotland which some bewildered locals attributed to UFOs.
Rumours in the press that Aurora was operating secretly
out of RAF Machrihanish on the tip of Kintyre prompted
Scottish MPs to ask questions in parliament.
Briefing notes given to the then defence secretary Tom
King on March 4 1992 show that civil servants did give
the idea credence. "There is no knowledge in the
MoD of a 'black' programme of this nature, although it
would not surprise the relevant desk officers in the
Air Staff and [Defence Intelligence Staff] if it did
The response suggested to an MP's question was rather
less revealing: "The existence of any such project
(or operation) would be a matter for the US authorities." The
Americans denied everything, but the reports kept coming.
The most credible witness was Chris Gibson, who had
12 years' experience with the Royal Observer Corps and
was an expert on recognising aircraft. He saw a triangular
plane flanked by two US fighters being refuelled in flight
by tanker while he was working on the Galveston Key oilrig
in 1989. The plane was unlike anything he had ever seen. "There
was no precedent for this," he said. "I kind
of sussed out that it was something I shouldn't have
seen." He reported the sighting to Jane's Defence
Weekly in 1992.
On December 22 1992, the air attache to the British
embassy in Washington wrote to the assistant chief of
the Air Staff in London explaining US reaction to renewed
MoD questions prompted by Mr Gibson's sighting. "Secretary
of the Air Force, the Honorable Donald B Rice, was to
say the least incensed by the renewed speculation, and
the implied suggestion that he had lied to Congress by
stating that Aurora did not exist.
"As you will have gathered, the whole affair is
causing considerable irritation within HQ [US Air Force],
and any helpful comments we can make to defuse the situation
would be appreciated."
"The sort of prickly reaction to people not believing
their denials is pretty unusual," said Bill Sweetman,
an expert on top secret US black projects with Jane's
Defence Review. "They generally don't deny things
actually because it generally doesn't hurt them too much
if somebody thinks they have a capability they don't."
A further batch of sightings on March 31 1993 over Devon,
Cornwall, South Wales and Shropshire prompted another
investigation by the MoD. These turned out later to be
a Russian rocket re-entering the atmosphere, but the
MoD investigators at the time suspected Aurora. "There
would seem to be some evidence on this occasion that
an unidentified object (or objects) of unknown origin
was operating over the UK ... If there has been some
activity of US origins which is known to a limited circle
in MoD and is not being acknowledged it is difficult
to investigate further." Mr Sweetman suspects that
by the end of the decade the MoD knew about Aurora. Another
document from 2000 on the MoD's investigations into UFO
sightings -or unidentified aerial phenomena as they prefer
to call them - states that "some UAP reports can
be attributed to covert aircraft programmes".
The section, which discusses other covert US aircraft
such as the SR-71 Blackbird, contains two paragraphs and
two illustrations which were censored before its freedom
of information release last month. Codes next to the
removed material indicate that it was excised in the
interests of international relations. "Certain viewing
angles of these vehicles may be described as
saucer-like," the document says