Howden Moor: Roswell Meets Peak Practice

David Clarke
Magonia 70, March 2000

“This pattern … with a discredited case being tenaciously supported by an increasingly convoluted set of claims and counter claims has already been well-established in the Fortean world… If the following for such cases continues… it is likely that it is the needs of the audience rather than any persuasive arguments in the cases that keeps them alive…” – Neil Nixon [1]

Part One: Secret Truth, Myth and Madness
■ Part Two: A Summary of the Known Facts
■ Part Three: Fantasy and Fact: A Howden Moor Checklist

Part One: Secret Truth, Myth and Madness

The folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, in his classic study of `new’ urban legends, The Choking Doberman, refers to what he calls ‘The Secret Truth’ as a primary theme in modern conspiracy theories. It would, if revealed, cause panic among the population in a manner similar to that which is claimed to have followed the transmission of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. Brunvand includes what he calls the most dramatic of the ‘suppressed truth’ stories in his collection under the title ‘the landed Martians.’

This is the seminal claim that a wrecked flying saucer was recovered by the US military at Roswell, New Mexico in July 1947. The ‘landed Martians’ were the bodies of the craft’s humanoid pilots which were subsequently shipped to a super-secret hangar in an isolated desert region of the USA. Those involved in the operation were ‘sworn to secrecy or lied to about the nature of their mission.’ Brunvand realised he was tiptoeing into dangerous territory when he dismissed the ‘evidence’ invoked as proof of the Roswell crash, adding: “I expect that I’ll get some angry mail for suggesting that this might be an area of modern legend” [2]. Hence the folklorist ventures into areas of faith and belief which at the turn of the second Millennium are defended with almost fundamentalist zeal.

As Curtis Peebles observed in his analysis of black project crash sites [3] the rapidly multiplying versions of the Roswell Incident cannot be regarded as evidence of a real historical event involving the recovery of an alien craft and bodies. Instead they should be viewed as an evolving narrative, a myth in the making. One of the dictionary definitions of ‘myth’ is that of a commonly held belief which is fundamentally untrue, or without foundation. Ufological myths are particularly tenacious creatures in the age of the World Wide Web and have a tendency to survive and reproduce themselves like a computer virus. Every day new rumours are transmitted, copied and moulded within the subculture of ufology. Once belief in a mythical event is established, others will seek to replicate its existence elsewhere.

In Britain, a collection of proto-’crashed saucer’ stories dating back to the time of the ‘foo fighters’ were produced by Nick Redfern in the third volume of his UFO trilogy, Cosmic Crashes, in 1999 [4]. Before this title appeared believers in Britain lacked any suitable claims which could be compared with the more detailed ‘crash-retrievals’ reported from the USA. The British Isles are distinctly lacking in the isolated desert regions favoured as the setting for some of the American ‘pickled alien’ stories. As a result a desperate search has been ongoing to identify a contender for status as ‘the British Roswell.’

A number of the incidents listed by Redfern are certainly based upon ‘real’ events, but as Andy Robert’s detailed investigation of the Berwyn Mountains case has demonstrated, their core can invariably be shown to have originated in events of a mundane nature. In this case an earth tremor which coincided with a spectacular display of fireball meteors triggered a police search of a Welsh mountain. The lights of the patrol as they met a group of ‘lampers’ produced an eyewitness account which became the basis of a ‘crashed UFO rumour’ twenty years later [5]. Following in the great tradition of Roswell ‘anomalous incidents’ are now being resurrected as ‘UFO crashes’ thirty or forty years after they occurred, a time lag which allows memory to fog and gives imagination and exaggeration a fertile breeding ground.

As fertile seeds reproducing themselves within the subject, Redfern’s sample will soon become incorporated into the evolving UFO mythology. They will become ‘classic cases’ formed in the image of the ‘landed Martians’ but tailored specifically for the needs of a British audience eager for homespun versions of the ‘dark side’ theories of abduction, back engineering and secret deals between aliens and the Government. As part of this process we should expect the developing stories to absorb the newer beliefs circulated on the World Wide Web by the more fanatical elements of today’s conspiracy mongers. These include the elements added to the developing mythology during the course of last decade: the fashionable ‘Flying Triangles’ and their pilots, the sinister greys with their agenda of animal mutilation and human abduction. The more advanced and psychologically disturbed the storytellers become, the more we hear about implants, crossbreeding and the spreading of ME, AIDS and other horrendous viruses among the alien’s alleged victims.

One of these new stories, although not listed by Redfern, has played a pivotal role in the export of the US-based ‘crashed saucer’ mythology. It has been the subject of heated and vociferous exchanges on newsgroups which have divided ufologists into two camps with fundamentally different approaches to the interpretation of fact and evidence. Cleverly packaged and marketed upon the Internet by its creator Max Burns, it is a claim which has led to schism in British ufology of seismic proportions. The case has highlighted the fundamental dichotomy which exists today between the ‘scientific’ and ‘belief-driven’ approaches to the study of UFOs and illustrated the lengths to which the latter arc prepared to go to promote claims which are, as the dictionary defines myth. ‘untrue …or without foundation.’

Max Burns and ‘the Sheffield incident’

“…I believe the British Government are test flying a 30-50ft triangle around the Northwest of England – probably built with recovered ET technology. These [sic] larger triangular craft are I believe without doubt extra terrestrial in origin. As well as that I will go so far as to say that these triangles are being flown and controlled by the beings known as the Greys’…” – Max Burns [5]

Max Burns appeared suddenly on the British UFO scene during the mid-90s, claiming a long interest in the subject which stemmed from a childhood ‘abduction’ experience. At this time he worked as a disc jockey in South Yorkshire night-clubs and spent his spare time communicating with fellow ‘abductees’ and believers via the rapidly expanding UFO subculture on the Internet. Burns quickly endeared himself to those subscribing to the more paranoid and extreme belief systems with his investigation of what he began to call ‘the Sheffield incident’ and links he claimed to have discovered between symptoms suffered by ‘abductees’ and chronic fatigue syndrome or ME.

Unlike many of the other Walter Mitty characters who are temporary attracted to the ufological stage Burns had the confidence to pursue his arguments to the bitter end, even after it became apparent that the weight of evidence was stacked overwhelmingly against him. His answer to critics who questioned his evidence and conclusions was simple: anyone who disagreed was part of the ‘cover up’ or was working for the Security Services. At one stage his plausible and garrulous manner was enough to persuade even cautious members of the UFO community, including the council of the ailing BUFORA, that he had a case to answer.
Late on the night of 24 March 1997 Burns had been alerted to an event on the Peak District moors west of Sheffield which was to become the turning point of his career in ufology and would ultimately prove to be his nemesis. What he was later to proclaim as ‘Britain’s answer to the Roswell UFO crash’ could have been lifted straight from a plot in The X-Files or one of the trashy satellite TV UFO ‘documentaries.’ The so-called ‘Sheffield incident’ – a misnomer as the events actually occurred above Howden Moor – appeared to have all the ingredients necessary for myth making: callers jamming police switchboards to report an unidentified aircraft on a collision course with the hills, military jets skimming rooftops, strange aerial explosions, a massive search operation which found nothing, claims that a cover-up was underway and the run-of-the-mill denials by the authorities.

The facts of the case and the fantasies which have been spun from its meagre strands are summarised elsewhere. It is sufficient to say that the original events stemmed from what South Yorkshire Police concluded were ‘a combination of circumstances that would lead people to believe a plane might have crashed.’ [6] These circumstances involved the sightings of a low-flying light aircraft which coincided with reports of an anomalous aerial explosion or sonic boom created by a military aircraft. At no stage were UFOs ever seriously considered by the authorities as having played a role in these events, although a covert military exercise was certainly suspected as a possible explanation by a number of senior police officers. Mysteries, however mundane, leave a vacuum which is easily filled by the imaginations of UFO believers. When news of the mystery reached the media, the region soon became the focus of attention from assorted ‘investigators’ who immediately cried out: ‘Cover-up!

Among these early visitors was Max Burns, who seized upon the mystery explosions as a key part of his developing theory which sought to explain what really happened that night. In the short-lived newstand magazine Alien Encounters Burns posed the following question to readers in the summer of 1997: ‘Could this have been the UFO making a crash landing, or a Tornado crashing after being attacked by the UFO?” [7] Soon evidence was being collected to fit the theory: where this didn’t exist it was invented. Testimony and facts which did not support the UFO hypothesis were simply ignored, as passive consumers of the story on the Internet would not feel it was necessary to question Burn’s belief-driven version of events. By 1998 Burns felt confident enough to conclude the case was “one of the biggest UFO incidents in recent years involving a huge Flying Triangle … and evidence of a conspiracy on behalf of the civilian and military authorities to hide the facts from the public …” [8] In summary the ‘Sheffield incident’ had become the Secret Truth resurrected in a new form, suitable for a modern, unquestioning audience.

Burn’s claims did not involve the standard scenario of a crashed ET craft recovered by a covert military operation. Crashed ‘flying saucers’ and their Michael Rennie-like occupants were a thing of the past in ’90s UFO lore. In the increasingly convoluted logic employed to ‘sell’ the case, it was argued that a more fashionable triangular ET craft had been pursued across the Pennines by military fighter aircraft, which were either escorting the aliens or had been diverted from an ongoing exercise to intercept the intruder. A key element of the case were the sonic booms recorded by the British Geological Survey. They suddenly became the ‘evidence’ Burns was looking for. Following his logic, during the encounter at least one of the pursuing Tornado jets was ‘completely destroyed’ or captured as a result of hostile action by the pilots of the ‘triangle’ “because of the use of EM weapons while being in close proximity of the Triangle.” [9]

The ‘lost Tornado’ story has a long pedigree in the history of ufology and science fiction. Indeed, one of the strongest motifs in the UFO crash mythology is the belief which can be summarised as ‘one of ours was lost chasing one of theirs.’ Ever since the tragic death of US pilot Thomas Mantell during the pursuit of a ‘flying saucer’ over Kentucky in 1948 (which turned out to be a high altitude Skyhook balloon) there have been frequent claims of hostile mid-air encounters between the military and ET [10]. The Mantell case and a similar incident involving the loss of a Lightning over the North Sea in 1970 have recently been resurrected by ‘alien investigator’ Tony Dodd in a sensational and breathless account of his attempts to ‘blow the lid’ on the UFO cover-up. In 1987 attempts were made to link the crash of a Harrier jump-jet in the Atlantic with the mystery ‘crop circles’ over which the pilot allegedly flew before disaster struck [11].

The same kind of motifs can be traced in science fiction genre, from the era of War of the Worlds to the gung-ho battles between US pilots and hostile alien invaders depicted in the ’90s blockbuster Independence Day. Coincidentally, Burn’s claims about the ‘Sheffield incident’ appeared in the same year that the BBC screened the low-budget science fiction drama Invasion Earth which ironically began with a dogfight between an RAF Tornado and a UFO along the British coastline.

One of the elements of Brunvand’s ‘Crashed Martian’ folk legend concerns the setting of the alleged UFO crash in an isolated desert region, away from prying eyes. This tradition has also been developed effectively in science fiction films and programmes, in particular The X-Files, and has filtered down into UFO mythology. In the ‘Sheffield incident’ the covert operation took place above one of the few regions of Britain which might actually be termed a ‘desert.’ The High Peak District of northern Derbyshire was an ideal substitute for the arid regions of New Mexico. The story continued the tradition of a covert recovery operation in a remote area where acres of moor hid the ‘the secret truth’ from the public. In this case it was easy for Burns to depict the Dark Peak, above which the ‘incident’ took place, as being miles away from human habitation.


Although conditions can be treacherous for those who venture into the mountains unprepared, the Peak District is in fact the most popular National Park in Britain with a staggering 20 million visitors in 1999. Readers of Burn’s case on the Internet will not easily appreciate that the area where the ‘Tornado crash’ supposedly took place is actually within walking distance of Sheffield city centre. The moors themselves, although lonely, are little more than 40 square miles in total area and cannot be described as ‘remote’ in the US sense of the word. Throughout the year the Derwent Valley is thronged with tourists, walkers and climbers who enjoy exploring every inch of the Dark Peak moors, which are sandwiched between two of the most heavily populated conurbations in the north of England. In addition, the region lies directly beneath an international air corridor used by airliners using Manchester’s Ringway airport, and is regularly used for low-flying practice by a number of military airfields.

To overcome these credibility problems Burns had to devise a scenario where he could claim that the police and civilian search and rescue teams had been directed away from the scene of the secret operation which he believes was launched to remove evidence of the Tornado crash. The sighting of ‘a military Land Rover’ and the activities of the ‘Aero Space Intelligence’ were invoked as evidence of the presence of a covert military retrieval team in the area that night. The AIS, according to Burns, ‘look like the CID’ and ‘drive twin-aerial cars during their missions to silence witnesses [12].

The `Tornado pilot’

The most ludicrous evidence of all was that provided by a young man who had been a passenger in a minibus which had been flagged down by a mysterious stranger on a deserted stretch of the A57 Snake Pass near the Ladybower reservoir. The stranger, clearly described as being ‘Asian’ or `Pakistani’ in appearance, smelled strongly of diesel or petrol fumes. He asked for a lift into Sheffield, but this was declined because the bus was full. The witness reported this ‘suspicious’ incident to the police and thought no more of it until he was contacted by Max Burns, who by now was desperate for a ‘breakthrough’ to shore up his collapsing theory. Burns – posing as `a journalist’ – could not believe his luck when the young man, who had since joined the RAF as a trainee night engineer, told how he was now certain the ‘diesel or petrol’ he had detected that night was actually ‘aviation fuel.’

Within hours the shocked engineer found himself being questioned by a reporter from the News of the World to whom Burns had tried to sell his story. He immediately realised his words had been taken out of context to promote a sensational UFO fantasy and demanded the story be dropped for fear of the effect it could have upon his reputation and his new job. It was too late now, for Burns had the initial conversation on tape and armed with this evidence and the subsequent retraction, now had the ‘proof’ he was looking for that a witness had been forced through fear or coercion to retract his statement. Here was clear evidence of the ‘cover-up’ he had suspected all along, for if the story was nonsense why go to all this trouble to stop the witness talking?

In his Sheffield Incident Burns uses this yarn to confidently proclaim that the mysterious stranger was “without doubt the co-pilot of the Tornado jet, who was soaked in aviation fuel and was making his way to the nearest metropolis to alert the military.” Having parachuted from the stricken aircraft, the crewman had walked four miles to the reservoir viaduct before trying to thumb a ride with a passing bus. Not surprisingly, even members of the pro-ETH camp found this claim particularly hard to swallow. Nick Pope summarised the conclusion shared by many when he wrote: “It’s ridiculous to suggest this has anything to do with the RAF, on the basis that a pilot from a downed jet would always stay at the crash site, waiting for the inevitable military search and rescue operation. He’d be wearing a distinctive green flying suit that even a layman would realise was military issue.” [131

The identity of the stranger was in fact already known to the Peak Park Ranger office and to Derbyshire Police, if only Burns had cared to ask. The report was investigated by the force as a possible suicide attempt and patently had nothing whatever to do with a 'crashed Tornado,' except in the imagination of a UFO buff.

Burns was forced to admit he had never spoken to any member of the highly experienced search and rescue teams and had no basis upon which to cast doubt upon their search and rescue skills which save dozens of lives every year

In truth, if any military cover-up had been in evidence it would have been obvious to the 141 members of the civilian Mountain Rescue Service who spent more than 15 hours in freezing cold temperatures combing the moors for signs of an air disaster. They found nothing, and saw no one. So confident of his theory was Max Burns that he did not feel it necessary even to contact the MRS Commander Mike France to enquire if any evidence existed to support his theory. Questioned on the role of the Mountain Rescue teams on a live Internet debate on the case, Burns claimed they were 'not in the area of the crash' and had been 'sent off on a wild goose chase by the Government authorities.' [14] Earlier he was forced to admit he had never spoken to any member of the highly experienced search and rescue teams and had no basis upon which to cast doubt upon their search and rescue skills which save dozens of lives every year.

Burns has repeatedly accused the Ministry of Defence of organising a massive cover-up of the ‘Sheffield incident.’ He claims they have changed their story at least four times in relation to the part played by the military aircraft reported over the Peak shortly before the alarm was raised. In March 1998 and on my behalf, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, Helen Jackson, quizzed the MOD in a series of written Parliamentary questions relating to the role of the military in the events {15}. They admitted somewhat reluctantly that a ‘pre-booked training exercise’ did indeed take place above the Peak District on the night in question, with photo reconnaissance aircraft flying as low as 250 feet above the Derbyshire hills. Throughout this saga, the MOD have consistently denied the ‘incident was triggered by jets being scrambled from a front-line fighter base to intercept a UFO. There is no evidence to suggest their statements – provided in response to direct questions in the Houses of Parliament – are anything thing but correct. [16]
In point of fact the RAF regularly use the northern Peaks as a practice ground for low-flying training for its pilots which intensifies significantly during the build up to conflicts such as the Gulf Crisis. This is in fact a tradition which dates back to the use of the Derwent Dam and Ladybower reservoir by the famous 617 ‘Dambusters’ squadron during the preparation for their attack on the German Ruhr in 1943. Since that time the Dark Peak east of Manchester has become a graveyard for more than fifty planes and their crews who have fallen foul of the unpredictable weather which prevails above this part of the hills. The tragic loss of these aircraft have added to the reputation of the Dark Peak among pilots and rumours have spread concerning a ‘ghost plane’ which has been seen skimming the surface of the reservoir and dams [17].

Sightings of the `ghost flier’ have triggered a series of fruitless searches by police and the mountain rescue service, the latest as recently as the summer of 1999. One Peak Park ranger has revealed how the service receives up to four reports of ‘crashing aircraft’ from visitors to the region on average every year. This information places the 1997 incident into context as one of many ‘false alarms’ caused by low-flying aircraft in this part of the Peak. Rangers and search personnel have become so accustomed to these alarms that they have begun to realise how many of the reports are based upon sightings of real aircraft, both military and civilian, observed under unusual conditions. Visitors unfamiliar with the Peak District often fall victim to an optical illusion whereby aircraft in their landing approach to Manchester appear to be at a dangerously low altitude as a result of the height above sea level of the observer. From the evidence available, there is no reason to suggest that the events of that spring evening in 1997 cannot be explained through a combination of misperception, misidentification and plain wishful thinking on behalf of the UFO myth-makers.


Fact, common sense and logic are unlikely to halt the development of the Howden Moor mystery into a fully fledged cause celebre of the ‘Roswell’ tradition. Facts and close scrutiny of the evidence may have solved the case to the satisfaction of the majority, but as with Roswell the ‘story’ will continue to live on in mythology. Simply because bizarre claims cannot be disproved, they must therefore have some basis in reality as part of the twisted logic employed by Max Burns and his apologists.

No amount of testimony or evidence will convince those who have made it their mission to defend the preposterous claim that human life was lost as a result of a hostile attack by UFO occupants.

Even if it were possible to account for the safety of each and every Tornado aircraft and its crew in service with the RAF and NATO, it would always be claimed that the ‘loss’ had been cleverly erased from official records by the nefarious agents of the omnipresent cover-up. Already the signs of madness have surfaced among promoters of Max Burns’ theory with the appearance of ever more bizarre beliefs, including claims that drinking water levels ‘fell dramatically’ in the Ladybower reservoir following the appearance of the ‘Flying Triangle’ or that a secret portal to another dimension lies hidden beneath the reservoir complex! The standpoint of believers cannot fail but to lead along a path on which madness and paranoia lurk around every corner. No final conclusion will ever be accepted except one bound up with conspiracy, cover-up and the elusive ‘secret truth.’

Unfortunately, there can be no real conclusion to the Howden Moors ‘crash’; no clean ending which will allow the case to be tied up and neatly filed away. That is, of course, unless Max Burns and his followers can come up with hard physical proof that a Tornado was shot down by a UFO. I predict this will never happen. The carcass of facts surrounding this case has now been picked clean by legions of believers in the literal truth of UFOs and the case now lives on, Jackanory-like, in the tellings and re-tellings of people who have chosen never to concern themselves with the primary and secondary sources of information. They have chosen which pieces of information and whose research best suits their beliefs and prejudices and are blind to the realities of the case. Worse still, I and other rational researchers associated with the case have been demonised as ‘agents of the Government’ in an attempt to divert attention from the truth at the heart of the matter.

The Howden Moors case has, like the Roswell Incident, a life of its own within ufology. All we can do now is chart its trajectory across the ufological landscape, smile sagely and wonder at the capacity of humans to create such a fanciful edifice from so very little.

Notes and References:
  1. Neil Nixon, ‘They’re not all lunatics on the fringe,’ Fortean Studies 6 (London: John Brown Publishing, 1999).
  2. Jan Harold Brunvand, The Choking Doberman and other ‘new’ Urban Legends (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984).
  3. Curtis Peebles, ‘The Hunting of Zel,’ Magonia 69 (December 1999).
  4. Nick Redfern, Cosmic Crashes (London: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
  5. Max Burns, ‘The Sheffield Incident, A Flying Triangle Incident’ (Internet posting, PUFORI website, 1998).
  6. South Yorkshire Police Major Incident log, collated in David Clarke and Martin Jeffrey, The Howden Moor Incident (Independent UFO Network, 1999).
  7. Max Burns, ‘Crash and Burns: Did a UFO crash outside Sheffield?’ Alien Encounters, summer 1997.
  8. Burns, ‘The Sheffield Incident,’ op. cit.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Tony Dodd, Alien Investigator (London: Headline, 1999).
  11. Jenny Randles and Paul Fuller, Crop Circles: A Mystery Solved (London: Robert Hale, 1993).
  12. Burns, ‘The Sheffield Incident.’ The twin-aerial car spotted by Burns belonged to another investigator, Martin Jeffrey.
  13. Personal communication from Nick Pope, May 1999.
  14. Max Burns on ‘Visitations’ live Internet discussion of the case, June 6, 1998.
  15. Hansard, written questions, March 23, 1998; MOD written answers, March 25 and April 7, 1998.
  16. Statement by MOD spokesman reproduced in David Clarke, ‘The Howden Moor Incident,’ in The UFOs that Never Were, ed. Clarke, Randles & Roberts (London House, 2000).
  17. David Clarke, Supernatural Peak District (London: Robert Hale, 2000).

The Howden Moor Incident: A Summary of the Known Facts

Emergency services were alerted shortly after 10pm on 24 March 1997 when reports are made to police that a low flying aircraft had crashed into an area of the High Peak moors near Sheffield. Two gamekeepers report hearing a loud aerial explosion at roughly the same time. Police and seven volunteer teams from the Peak District Mountain Rescue Organisation (PDMRO) organise a thorough search of more than 40 square miles of moor centred upon the Howden Reservoir. The operation begins at 11 pm and is called off at 2pm on 25 March.

The search was joined by a police helicopter at 11pm and a Sea King from RAF Leconfield. An Air Exclusion Zone is authorised by the CAA covering a 30 mile radius from the Howden Reservoir to enable the search to continue unhindered. Directed from the ground by the PDMRO, the helicopters use heat-seeking equipment specially designed to detect traces of a fire or body heat. No trace of any crash or wreckage is found. The Sea King returns to base at 2pm on 25 March. It represented the single military asset involved in the search operation.

200 personnel were involved in the ground operation, including civilian volunteers, search and rescue dog teams and police. During the latter stages the moors are visited by dozens of passers-by and camera crews from local TV and radio stations.

As a result of appeals on radio and in the local Press, the police receive more than 40 reports of low flying aircraft from a wide area. Two reports describe what appear to be ‘unidentified flying objects’. One of these describes a triangular-shaped object spotted from a moving train three hours before and almost thirty miles away from the search zone.

South Yorkshire Police conclude the incident was sparked by a series of unconnected events. These included a low flying aircraft and an aerial explosion which led people to believe a plane had crashed. Checks with civil airports found no reports of aircraft missing. The RAF stated that no military aircraft were operating in the area. The identity of the aircraft which triggered the reports remains unknown.

The British Geological Survey recorded a sonic boom in the Sheffield area on two seismographs and one low-frequency microphone at 10.06 pm on 24 March 1997. Checks reveal a second boom was recorded in the same region at 9.52 pm. The BGS conclude the readings are characteristic of the traces left behind in the wake of a military aircraft breaking the sound barrier. Supersonic flights over land are prohibited by the Military Flying Regulations.

One year after the events the Ministry of Defence admit in a Parliamentary reply to MP Helen Jackson that a low flying exercise involving military aircraft DID take place above the Peak District on the night of 24 March, but was completed by 9.35 pm, 30 minutes before the ‘incident’ which sparked the search operation. The planes involved in the exercise were Tornado GRIa photo reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Marham in Norfolk. The Ministry of Defence state in parliament and in correspondence that no reports of UFOs were received from military or civilian sources on 24-25 March. Reports received by South Yorkshire Police were classified as low flying aircraft as this was undoubtedly what they were!

An RAF Police investigation was launched into the cause of the sonic booms. A statement by Air Staff 2(A) at Whitehall said that officers “concentrated their enquiries on whether a military aircraft had been in the area concerned at the date in question. Once they had established that military activity was not involved they made no further enquiries to determine what might have caused the noise”. The MOD said it was “satisfied that on the date in question, there was no threat to the UK Air Defence Region from hostile military activity”.

Fantasy and Fact: A Howden Moor Checklist

Max Burns’ case is centred upon the claim that a Tornado fighter aircraft was ‘lost’ with the death of at least one of its crew members during an encounter with an extraterrestrial spaceship over Sheffield and the Peak District on the night of 24 March 1997. Two years after what Burns has called the Sheffield incident he has not produced one single piece of evidence to support his theory. The ‘evidence’ mustered in support of the UFO claims is summarised below, with the facts in italics following each significant point:

There were five witness to ‘an enormous triangle’ over Sheffield and the Peak District. Three of these saw the triangle either being escorted or intercepted by six military jets. The triangle had been flying low to avoid radar detection.
  • Only two witnesses described seeing a triangle and just one of these reported the observation to the police. This related to a sighting from a moving train more than two hours before the events which sparked the search operation, almost 30 miles away from the scene! The second sighting also took place many miles from the search zone, and the witness is a close female friend of Max Burns. Her observation clearly related to the flight path of low-flying military aircraft.
A further six witnesses saw a ‘glowing orange’ UFO, military jets and ‘unmarked helicopters’. One pensioner who said she observed a cigar-shaped object really saw, according to Burns, the triangle from the side so that it would appear cigar-shaped.
  • RAF jets were involved in a low-flying exercise above the Peak District between 7pm and 9.35pm which accounted for the majority of the sightings before 10pm. An unidentified light aircraft was operating in the Sheffield area between 9.45 and 10.30pm, sparking the later sightings reported to the police as a plane crashing into the moors. Two search helicopters were flying sorties above the ‘crash’ zone from 11pm and would appear unmarked when seen in darkness!
The first air explosion (at 9.52pm) was not a sonic boom at all according to Burns. In reality it was the Tornado jet exploding as a result of hostile action by the crew of the Flying Triangle. The second boom, at 10.06pm was the UFO escaping from the area (14 minutes later?)
  • The British Geological Survey and aviation experts conclude that the recordings made that night are the characteristic ‘N-waves’ produced by a military aircraft smashing through the sound barrier (760 mph/1,220 kph at sea level). A senior seismologist gave his opinion the pressure wave was caused by an aircraft, probably a military aircraft, reaching supersonic speed possibly while performing a mid-air turn
The stricken Tornado jet crashed into the moors north of the Howden Reservoir or plunged into one of the nine reservoirs Northwest of the Ladybower Viaduct near the A57 Snake Pass road.
  • No trace of a wrecked aircraft was found either by the extensive ground search or from the air with the use of sophisticated heat-seeking equipment specially designed to locate fire and body heat from above. A Tornado jet would have left an enormous crater and burning debris scattered across a wide radius of the crash which could not have been missed. Teams of workers from Yorkshire Water checked the reservoirs but found no signs of the telltale wreck-age or oil slick which would have sparked a major drinking water pollution alert.
The co-pilot of the Tornado bailed out seconds before the destruction of his aircraft. Having parachuted onto the moors he walked three miles to the Ladybower viaduct whilst soaked in highly flammable aviation fuel. He was spotted at 11 pm by passengers in a minibus thumbing a lift ‘to the nearest metropolis to alert the military’.
  • This was the most bizarre theory used by Burns to support his claims. The incident it related to had in fact no connection at all with the ‘aircrash’ mystery. The man reported by the occupants of the minibus was an Asian motorist covered in petrol or diesel fuel, a fact confirmed by Peak Park and police officers. The case was investigated as a possible suicide attempt.
A radar operator with the Royal Signals at RAF Linton-upon-Ouse (North Yorkshire) told a friend early on the morning of 25 March that he had tracked a UFO on his screen over the Peak District for a ten minute period beginning at 9.55pm the previous night. Later he was warned not to discuss the case “as if I do I will be in breach of my national security oath”.
  • Operationally RAF Linton was closed on the night of 24 March. In any event, the base radar has a limited radius within the immediate area and is used as part of the training of rookie pilots in Tucano aircraft. No one has spoken to the mysterious radar operator other than a friend of a friend of Max Burns.
The Ministry of Defence made an announcement to the media that a Bolide meteor exploding in the atmosphere caused the sonic boom and was also responsible for all the reports of the crashed plane.
  • The MOD have never made any statement to this effect. Their position remains that the reports of the low-flying aircraft were a matter for the police and that the cause of the sonic booms remains a mystery.
The seven Mountain Rescue Teams were ordered to search a zone four miles from the area where the explosion was heard, and it wasn’t until 9am on 25 March that four men were sent to search Strines Moor, near the ‘crash zone’. According to Burns, the search teams were not in the area of the crash ‘and I don’t think they know any-thing.’ In summary, he claims the rescue teams were deliberately misled while a covert military team removed the wreckage of the Tornado jet from under their very noses.
  • Burns has never spoken to any of the PDMRO [Peak District Mountain Rescue] commanders to ascertain the facts and has used unreliable testimony from the wife of a gamekeeper who played no part in the operation. The highly experienced team of volunteers from the PDMRO were placed in charge of the search operation by police at midnight on 24 March and it was they who directed officers and helicopter crews from that point onwards, based upon triangulated sight-lines provided by the initial eyewitnesses. The commander, Mike France, said an extremely thorough search of the 40-50 square mile zone, including Strines Moor, was completed without any evidence of a crash being found. None of the mountain rescue personnel, police, fire fighters or media who were present saw any evidence of military activity other than the presence of the RAF Sea King which they had requested for assistance in the search.
An enormous cover-up was launched following the incident, designed to confuse the issue with ‘cover-stories’ (drug runners, ghost planes, Bolide meteors), a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign to discredit Burns himself and a D-Notice to prevent the Press from discussing the case.
  • The case has been discussed extensively in local newspapers, in TV documentaries on BBC 1 and Granada TV and on the Internet. No evidence has emerged to support the claim that a Tornado jet was lost, or that UFOs were ever involved in the incident.
Key witnesses in the case have been forced to retract their testimony or have changed their statements as a result of threats from MI5 and their agents, including the author of this article.
  • Witnesses have not changed their testimony, but have been deliberately misquoted by Burns and his supporters. One witness who Burns claimed had seen ‘a huge triangular object’ hovering over the moors denied ever having made such a statement when approached by two other independent investigators. Another ‘uncorroborated source’ named as having seen the RAF Sea King pulling body bags from a reservoir was never interviewed by Burns. This man denied having ever having made the claim. A third witness told investigators: “UFOs were never mentioned until Max came to the pub and started asking us about it.”
Max Burns was ‘set up’ with drugs planted by the Security Forces or M15 because of ‘what he knew’ about the Sheffield incident.
  • Burns was found guilty of possession and supply of Class B drugs by the majority verdict of a jury at the end of a four day trial at Sheffield Crown Court in September 1999. Burns did not use the claim that he was set up by M15 in his defence during the trial, but a former friend of the DJ told the jury Burns was ‘obsessed’ with UFOs and aliens.


■Max Burns, The Sheffield Incident: A Flying Triangle Incident. Internet posting, PUFORI website, 1998. Live Internet discussion featuring Max Burns on `Visitations’, 6 June 1998.
■Lecture by Max Burns to BUFORA in London, June 1999. David Clarke, ‘The Aircrash that Never Was’ UFO Magazine, spring 1998.
■David Clarke and Martin Jeffrey, The Howden Moor Incident, (Independent UFO Network, 1999).
■David Clarke, Jenny Randles & Andy Roberts, The UFOs that Never Were (London House, 2000); chapter 2, ‘The Howden Moor Incident‘.