Screen Memories

Peter Brookesmith
Magonia 50, September 1994

The alleged sighting of a 'mystery missile' over Kent coast in April 1991 seems to be acquiring minor mythic status. It was given a fairly detailed treatment in Timothy Good's UFO Report 1992 [1]; Good's account was based on reports in the Sunday Times (5 May 1991), the Independent and The Times (both 6 May 1991). The 'case' cropped up again in Jenny Rand1es' The Paranormal Year 1993 [2] as a way of shoehoming in some more recent near-misses between aircraft and UFOs.
In passing, Randles remarks that for a time the story was 'hushed up'. But of course, naturally. With this extra bit of spice the tale could well start making regular appearances in the histories. It shouldn't.

To begin with it shows what hopeless bullshit-detectors both Fleet Street hacks and soi-disant ufologists have. Assuming that Good's references are his only sources, it's clear that neither the hacks nor he too any time to think about what the report really means. And therefore, it would seem, no one else has either, since Randles, who usuai1y proffers qualifications to dodgy claims when she knows about them, retails it apparently uncritically, (This is surprising, and a pity, for one who in the same book very neatly puts the kybosh on the 'Williamsport Triangle' sighting.) In the second place, thus, it shows how unreliable second and third-hand UFO reports can be. Yet this is about the stage at which (as in these two books) they reach Joe Public - who perhaps believes them - and cryptocurmudgeons like me, beneath whose smiling face and genial banter lies the b1ackest of hearts.

Visually Challenged

This is what Good's report says in essence: At 2100 hrs on 21 April 1991, Captain Achille Zaghetti, flying an Alitalia McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 at 6700 metres altitude en route from Milan to London over Lydd, Kent, saw a missile, light brown in colour and 3 metres long, flying in the opposite direction 300 metres above the airliner. Simultaneously [sic], a faint radar image was detected 16 kilometres behind the aircraft at London Air Traffic Control Centre, West Drayton.

I'll come back to that tricky work 'simultaneously'. But if one infers (as I think it is reasonable) that London ATC reported this image simultaneously with the pilot ending his report of his sighting, and if one assumes the image to be the 'missile', then one can make some not too unreasonable further assumptions to calculate the speed of the UFO.

An airliner crossing the Kent coast for London at 6700 metres has already begun its descent to its destination. Its speed is very unlikely to exceed 650 km/h; around 550 km/h is more likely. If we assume this latter was the plane's speed, and reckon it would take at least 30 seconds for the pilot to react to his sighting, get on the horn, and get a reading from London ATC radar, then it's obvious that in that 30 seconds the plane has travelled nearly 4.6 km and the UFO a little over 11.4 km. This gives us the UFO's speed as 1368 km/h. Likewise it gives a speed of separation, and combi.ned speed of approach of 1918 km/h. For the sake of the argument I am going to round this down to 1900 km/h and up to 530 m/sec.

Capt. Zaghetti estimated that the UFO was 3m. long and 300 metres above his plane. If this means what common sense would suggest, the UFO was flying at 7000 metres altitude. Side on, a missile 3 metres long and 300 metres away would appear to the pilot the same size as a slim 10-mm strip of paper pasted on his windscreen. I will call this the apparent size (not very scientific, but I hope it is more understandable that subtended angles, etc.).

If two objects, one 3 metres across, are approaching each other at a combined speed of 530 m/sec and are flying parallel courses 300 metres apart (and this is being kind, as we'll see), then it's simple to calculate that when they are 4 seconds flying time apart, the 3-metre wide object has an apparent width of only l.4 mm; at 3 seconds, 1.85 mm; at 2 seconds (just over a kilometre apart), 2.7 mm, and at one second, 4.92 mm. A second later it's whizzed overhead and out of sight.

This is a very small object to notice, track, and estimate its size and distance is such a short time. Capt. Zaghetti did even better: he managed to see its colour! However, the apparent length of a missile as opposed to a cube or sphere would actually be considerably smaller if it were flying on a parallel track to the plane, because of foreshortening, whose effect increases dramatically with distance. (Even if I could remember the trigonometry, I don't have my book of tables, but someone else might like to work out what I'm calling the apparent size at the distances given).

And there are other problems. Zagherti's field of view was probably no more that 45 degrees from the horizontal. This gives him even less time to observe the UFO close up as it would have gone out of sight when it was within about 300 metres of the plane. And what reference points did he have in the sky by which to judge the size and distance of such a thing? It could have been much smaller than 3 metres, and much nearer (a bird? a toy balloon? a liberated shirt?) or much bigger (you name it) and much further away. And then suppose the missile was travelling parallel to the horizon, while the plane was (as it was) descending. That will distort estimates of size, altitude and speed even more.
Missile with snowflakes

Here are some other bits of chopped logic. Good offers us some inconclusive chatter about target drones and whether or not,this object was such a one. Good's logic, which devotees of his continuing saga about Dreamland etc will know is not his strongest point, leads him to say: "This would seem to be the explanation, since the incident occurred almost directly above Lydd Ranges". The nonsense in that ought to be obvious. And, besides, Lydd (as Good actually admits) is a small-arms range. If Good had ever had to know the difference between a puttee and an entrenching tool, he'd know how hard it is to get anything larger than a section support weapon on to such premises, let alone fire it. Good is also unaware of how bureaucratic the military is about firings of any kind. This is largely because they are very mean and don't like spending money on ammunition.

Good quotes an MoD spokesman saying their drones fly at about 400 mph (i.e. about 600 km/h); and Good, albeit surreptitiously as well as in the face of evidence, favours the 'rogue missile' explanation. Unless it took Zaghetti an implausibly long time to raise London ATC, at this speed the radar image they had could not possibly be of such a drone. At 640 km/h it would have taken just over 64 seconds to cover 11.4 km.

No one seems to have picked up the startling fact that any object flashing by at 1368 km/h a mere 300 metres away would make a bloody loud bang because of the atmospheric effect of its supersonic speed loud enough to be heard inside the aircraft (after all you can hear artillery shells going overhead from inside a moving bus) and probably on the ground as well. No one mentions a sonic boom at all. Perhaps your ufologists thought that we'd all be sidetracked by notions of inter-dimensional shape-shifting superior technology ("This is a UFO report, you fool!") and forget that they were siding with a mundane, prosaic missile. More probably, they didn't think very hard about what they were saying at all.

Screen Memories

Now, as for the radar. I've already made some assumptions about the radar echo, but in reality the information Good gives is virtually useless. What can be said (although our intrepid reporters don't bother to reassure us skeptics on this) is that the L-band radar used by ATC certainly could pick up such a missile unless it were very slim indeed: the wavelength is about 300 mm, plenty short enough to bounce of an object ten times as long.

The first thing to pick at, like a nit, in Good's version is that word 'simultaneously'. It is a prime sign of lousy reporting. If Capt. Zaghetti saw the UFO 300 metres above him literally at the same time as London ATC picked up a radar echo 16 km behind him, then we are dealing with two separate events. And then the case falls and flattens its pointy little head as a radar/visual that's plain enough.

We're not toid (did anyone ask?) for how long London ATC had this image on screen, or what it's route was. There's no security reason why anyone should not be allowed to see the radar tapes of the event at West Drayton. there may be bureaucratic panic at the thought of letting the plebs in, but even hat can be overcome with patience and determination. No one seems to have reviewed the radar tapes. I apologise if they have but if they have why don't Good and Randles report it, and what they saw? Do the tapes record the UFO approaching the Alitalia flight and shooting past it? If they don't there not much chance of telling if it was the same UFO Zaghetti saw.  

If ufologists can make such a pig's ear of reporting a minor case like this, what grounds do we have for trusting their accounts when it comes to the real biggies? 

Even the tapes can't tell us what altitude the UFO was at, except in the unlikely event that it was putting out its own IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) signal which in civil airliners encodes the aircraft's altitude. And if London ATC picked it up, why didn't the Alitalia MD-80 have it on its own screens, close as it supposedly was? No one says. Because no one asked. We may have a visual UFO, but until someone does ask the right questions and does look at the ATC tapes, we don't have even the makings, as reported, of a radar-visual. But we do have some pretty incompetent reporters. And, because they are not applying any critical thought to what they read and repeat, they do not only their readers, but also themselves as promoters of one kind of UFO belief-system or other, a disservice. Another way to describe their ineptitude is to say: they don't even know how to protect themselves from skeptics. If ufologists can make such a pig's ear of reporting a minor case like this, what grounds do we have for trusting their accounts when it comes to the real biggies?

Don't confuse me with the facts

If skeptics are the idle, feckless, chair-bound characters demonized by the Thirty Nine Articles of the Ufological Church of St Ananias and the Cosmic Martyrs, then I must admit to being one. I was welded into an armchair' at the age of nine and I leave my drawing-room only with the greatest reluctance, usually under threat of some exquisite torture, such as having my collection of '61 Latour and '59 d'Yquem summarily donated to Oxfam. If ufologists did their work properly and wrote their accounts clearly, one might be persuaded sometimes to drag oneself from the jauteuil and draw the damascene aside momentarily to glimpse the night sky, despite risking accusations of vulgarity (one would never do it in front of the servants).

What am I on about? Well, take Randles' account of the Kent sighting. It is a masterpiece of opacity, lack of detail and incipient confusion:

'The Kent missile was tracked briefly by radar at Heathrow airport but whilst attempts were made (and abandoned) to prove it was a rogue missile launch from a military unit the story was hushed up. Indeed, news of the story only emerged when the crew talked about it back in Italy some weeks later and the Ministry of Defence in London had to candidly admit that it was labelled "a UFO". The Civil Aviation Authority have since confirmed that this diagnosis still applies' [3] This summary does not answer the following questions:
  1. Who was trying to prove the rogue missile hypothesis?
  2. Why were the attempts abandoned (I wonder)?
  3. How do you "hush up" a story that hasn't broken?
  4. What evidence is there for an attempted 'cover up'?
  5. When did ufologists get involved?
  6. What exactly did the MoD and the CAA call 'a UFO' the radar returns, Capt. Zaghetti's alleged sighting, or both?
  7. What were the weather conditions, visibility, etc at the altitude of the aircraft?
Randles gives the impression here that an investigation, by persons unknown, was going on before the crew blew the gaffe in Italy. Good gives the impression that fearless journalists besieged the MoD only after this. Why this divergence in accounts? What really happened?

Unarmed with the information these accounts don't provide, I would hazard a guess that the crew safe from men in black in Italy (give or take the permanent fancy dress party at the Vatican) knew about the radar UFO, knew the return was consistent with a very small object, and decided to put someone on, just fer the crack, like.

How can I be so bold? Because I have one last reason for suspecting that there may not even have been much of a visual sighting, let alone a half-baked radar-visual, in this instance. the Sun set at about 2000 BST on 21 April 1991 (as it does on most 21 Aprils), Even at 6700 metres altitude, that makes for a pretty thick gloaming by 2100. Yet Capt. Zaghetti saw a tiny object in the near-dark, identified its colour, and estimated its size and distance, and... Oh, come on Captain, fly me to the moon.

I know you've got it in you!

  1. Good, Timothy, The UFO Report 1992, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1991, pp 148-9
  2. Randles, Jenny. The Paranormal Year 1993 Edition, Robert Hale, 1993, pp 15
  3. Randles, Jenny. op. cit.

Jenny Randles responded to this article in the following issue, Magonia 51, February 1995:

I refer to Peter Brookesmith's article in Magonia 50 regarding the April 1991 mid-air encounter of a UFO with an Alitalia jet over Kent. Much as I hate having to constantly reply to Brookesmith's incessant whinging about my work (this must be the fourth time within a year), I guess it is necessary that your readers see his allegations in proper context.

Firstly, what Brookesmith fails to tell your readers is that my book The Paranormal Year was a general review of 1993 - as is clearly implied by the title. The UFO chapter covers many events in relatively few pages and did not have the room to provide a full-length analysis of one particular sighting. Brookesmith infers that it should, and assumes that because I did not devote a dozen pages to this case that no proper investigation was carried out.
More seriously he fails to report my discussion in the same chapter of several other similar British encounters which occurred that same summer and my objective assessment of allegations that they were small objects - quite possibly escaped toy balloons. It is hard to avoid the feeling that to mention my discussion of this in your magazine would have negated the point of Brookesmith's article - that I credulously turn a case into a classic, while he - champion sceptic - reveals the truth. But this assumption as to his motives hardly makes your actions fair, especially as your heading literally accuses me of having an idle mind. [The introductory heading to the article was the first paragraph of Peter Brookesmith's own text; my apologies if the layout did not make this clear. JR]

Regardless of what your article states, I was BUFORA's director of investigations at this time and investigations were carried out. BUFORA has published some of its work in UFO Times and I featured fuller reports in Northern UFO News, nos. 149 and 155. Brookesmith evidently thinks this a useless parochial journal of no interest (given his quote about it in Fortean Times - for which even that magazine's own editors felt sufficiently guilty to publish a retraction of his remarks). So no doubt Brookesmith can be forgiven for not actually reading our full work on this case before writing of our incompetence. However that does not excuse him from inferring that no such work was done - nor does it avoid the fact that Magonia editors read Northern UFO News, twenty years old this year, having published near on 170 issues and read literally all over the world; hardly a fledgling news-sheet. So what gives here? Why have you allowed such misinformation to be published in your pages?

For the record, after the sighting occurred the report was made by the pilot in the usual way to Air Staff 2A at the MoD and LATCC at West Drayton. Immediate investigations began here and by the CAA's air miss divisions. During this time, whilst attempts were made to establish is the objects were a rogue missile launch, the MoD and CAA decided not to go public with the story: i.e. they 'hushed it up'. Meanwhile Captain Zaghetti talked of it in Italy and the story hit the wires. The MoD were then put on the spot by journalists and admitted they had no solution to offer, the sighting was in their words a UFO. Eventually we managed to get hold of Zaghetti's written report to the MoD and confirmation from the MoD and CAA that they had not resolved the case, but acceptance that in their view it was not a missile. Nothing more about the radar return was made public, beyond what is in Zaghetti's report - which is what I cite in my comments on the case.

I would be interested to know in what way the above facts differ from my presentation of the story or indeed my other writings about it elsewhere? I ask this as you infer what I say may be in error. I would be even more interested to know why you have completely ignored my discussion (again in both sources) of the toy balloon solution making perfectly clear to my readers in the process that press accounts in some cases inferred that these encountered objects were large when clearly they were not? Indeed I await with considerable interest your explanation for printing Brookesmith's article, in effect defaming my competence, when you very evidently made no attempt to verify its factual accuracy for yourself and even compounded his allegations through your 'idle mind' sub-heading. [See note above. JR]

I trust that you will reply by return (after you check out what I say for yourself) advising to the effect that you take these points on board, will set them completely right for your readers in issue 51. If so, we can leave it at that. All I ask is that you be honest about this matter - which, patently, so far your coverage has been anything but.

Peter Brookesmith replied to Jenny Randles' comments HERE