An Account of Experimental UFO Hoaxing

David Simpson and Ken Raine
Magonia 75, July 2001

It was interesting to read Magonia 74’s Editorial Notes about the 1970 Warminster photographic hoax, twenty five years after publication of 'Experimental UFO Hoaxing' in MUFOB New Series 2, and we thought that some background information, plus details of a couple of other UFO hoaxes might be of interest.
As recorded in MUFOB [1] the photographic hoax was designed “…to provide those watching on Cradle Hill with a simple visual stimulus, to introduce photographic evidence inconsistent with the stimulus and to observe the effect this evidence had on subsequent investigation, recording and publicity” – in other words to test the investigators who got involved.

The motivation and plan came after about two years of investigation by members of the Society for the Investigation of UFO Phenomena (SIUFOP), which formed in 1967 at a time when such groups seemed to be forming frequently – due the high level of interest in the subject in the mid-1960s. It all seems very naïve now but the society started with about ten members, with an average age around 19 years. Like most of the other groups at the time, its members were aware of frequent press reports which, if taken literally, meant that there certainly were odd things to be seen in the sky – there could not be smoke without fire we believed.

We set about finding and interviewing witnesses, the first near the South Downs in Sussex. They turned out to be interesting but clearly not the most impressive of observers, with stories that got more elaborate with each telling. Nonetheless we still believed, from the sheer number of sightings being reported, that something really was flying around the skies. So strong was this feeling that we decided to spend a night watching the sky from Chantry Hill, a nearby vantage point on the Downs, with a tripod-mounted camera at the ready. Apart from a few satellites, nothing was seen but we appreciated that statistically it might take more than one night to see something! Undaunted by sub-zero temperatures, four members returned the following evening for a second night of watching. Tired but full of youthful enthusiasm, we drove to the same spot.

A sighting!

SIUFOP Newsletter reported [2]: “No sooner had we reached the top of the hill than the driver pointed excitedly to a point of light a few degrees above the horizon. We all saw it. It was a light of a kind that we had never seen before. It moved slowly upwards, across, then disappeared. Two appeared from behind the horizon in the same place as the first was seen, drifting upwards, across, and then darting a little. Up to six were seen dancing around together in a random pattern changing colour from time to time. Time exposure photographs ranging between 5 and 20 seconds were taken. After an hour and a half or so, the dancing lights appeared less frequently and we had run out of film.

Convinced that the film contained images of world-shattering importance we rushed home in the early hours to develop it but were puzzled and disappointed by what we saw. We were expecting up to six line-traces to have been recorded on each image (lines caused by photographing a moving light with a long time-exposure) but the images all looked roughly the same with no more than two line-traces per frame. The lights were only a fraction of one degree above the visible horizon too, much lower than thought. A week later we were back at Chantry Hill, no longer tired or so fired-up with faculty-dimming enthusiasm, and observed car headlights on a distant hill – a hill that had not been visible in the weather conditions prevailing the week before.

To this day the lights can be seen there; they look so obviously like car headlights it is difficult to believe that tiredness and enthusiasm could have warped our observational skills so much. We had converted the simplest of white lights, moving mostly horizontally, into variously coloured, multiple objects moving vertically. Reasonably good photographs had made analysis possible and were it not for them we would still be retelling stories of the strange lights in the sky; if asked whether they might have been car headlamps we would surely have rejected the possibility.

It wasn’t the only time we fooled ourselves either. At around the same period three members of SIUFOP were walking along a dark, frosty, lane surrounded by trees, illuminated only by moonlight and in an area where umpteen odd lights had been reported. They were heading for an interview with a witness but noticed the silhouette of a tall object through the trees to one side. Fully spooked by the circumstances they thought they had stumbled on a landed machine of some sort. Falling over a fence to get a better look they were alarmed to see a red glow at its base and presumed it was about to take off again. They prepared to retreat in haste, although not before taking a photograph with a flashbulb (it was before electronic flashguns were commonplace). The illumination from the flashbulb was enough to identify a sand-washing machine sitting in a quarry; there was also an inhabited workman’s caravan near its base with red curtains in its windows! The photograph is still amusing.

Earlier Warminster photographs

Undaunted – we presumed that others had not been so easily fooled – in February 1968 a party set off for Warminster where, according to reputation, we stood a better chance of seeing the real thing. There we met none other than Arthur Shuttlewood who showed us his collection of photographs, supposedly of lights in the sky over the local hills. They consisted of white lines wandering across a black background; some were single, some dotted and some showed multiple images of wiggly lines.

On returning home we successfully replicated the three broad styles of the photographs. One had resembled the dotted lines produced by photographing tumbling earth-orbit rocket casings as they passed overhead, periodically reflecting light downwards. Most others were clearly not satellites but the second style could be closely imitated using a small neon bulb (similar to those sometimes fitted to the back of 13 amp plugs). Waving it in a dark room, in front of an open-shuttered camera, gave just the characteristics [3] seen in the Shuttlewood collection. The third style of photograph could be produced by moving the lamp slowly in front of a mirror, again in a dark room in front of an open-shuttered camera. This produced three wiggly lines ‘flying in perfect formation’. The first and brightest image was that of the lamp seen directly by the camera, the second brightest image was a reflection of the lamp from the aluminised (or silvered) back surface of the mirror, and a much fainter third image was a reflection of the lamp from the mirror’s front glass surface.

We even developed techniques to help analyse other white-line type photographs. Using an optical microdensitometer [4] made it possible to differentiate between gas-discharge lamps, filament lamps, ‘beam chopped’ lamps and also the nature of their power supplies. Unfortunately we were never allowed to borrow any negatives!

Scepticism set in

We had found out how easy it was for us, and presumably anyone else, to be fooled by simple earthly lights, including plenty of non-car-headlight example [5]; we had seen what we were expecting or wanted to see, and did not observe objectively. Few of our interviewees or other investigators, however, seemed to give much credence to the idea that such misperceptions might be commonplace; there was always a let-out “…but he was a trained airline pilot!” or more commonly “…Ah but you haven’t explained this one…”

Attending lectures organised by the British UFO Research Association did nothing to stem our increasing belief that, whilst UFOs had undoubtedly been observed by lots of people, scientific evidence that they were observations of something unearthly appeared to be non-existent. Most ufologists disagreed with this viewpoint, siding instead with the then fashionable Extra Terrestrial Hypothesis, claiming that there was plenty of good evidence to support it if scientists would only snap out of their pre-conceived beliefs and take the evidence seriously. Several SIUFOP members were, or were training to be, scientists and felt that such views could be put to a scientific test – ufologists should be tested for their observational and investigational abilities. We thought that the best way to do this was to give them something to see and then observe how they investigated the sighting; in other words to conduct a hoax with scientific intention.

First hoax

On 15 July 1968 BUFORA held a National Skywatch, with twenty nine watching points across Britain. One was at Pewley Downs in Surrey; it was organised locally by the Surrey Investigation Group on Aerial Phenomena (SIGAP) and SIUFOP ensured they saw something whose origin was certain. Just before midnight a parachute flare was launched about 3 miles from Pewley Downs in the direction of Godalming. The watchers saw it but no one took a photograph – no one even had a camera ready. Therefore, to be sure that there was at least one photograph of it, David Simpson had to get his own camera out and take it.

Unknown to us, George Hughes, of Amateur Photographer, had been a visitor to the skywatch. He reported [6]: “I wanted to see how such groups carry out there investigations, and to what extent photography was being used. Sadly, it wasn’t; or hardly at all.” Richard Beet, secretary of SIGAP, responded indignantly [7], pointing out that “… a photograph of a red object was taken by a skywatch official, Mr David Simpson”, giving him instant promotion.

On inspecting the photograph Geoffrey Doel, of BUFORA, commented that it could be of a firework. At the following BUFORA meeting, however, the National Skywatch organiser, Edgar Hatvany, dropped this suggestion when he elevated the photograph’s status by proudly waving it saying, “Last year we had a sighting, this year a photograph; next year we will have it in the bag!”

One year later

In June 1969 SIUFOP went to Warminster, on BUFORA’s next national skywatch day, equipped with some plastic bags and balloon gas (crude helium). The aim was to launch a number of brightly lit torch bulbs and batteries under a single helium-filled plastic bag from Sack Hill, opposite the watchers on Cradle Hill. Our estimate of the bag’s inflated volume and hence buoyancy were not very accurate, however, and it did not take off until we had removed four of its ten battery/lamp packs [8]. It then rose slowly into the sky, drifting silently with the just perceptible wind, crossing the nearby army range at tree-top height.

Even we were particularly surprised by the stunning brightness and spectacular image of the small bulbs against a clear black sky, even when a mile or more distant. (It was in the days before small quartz halogen bulbs were available and we powered 2.5-volt bulbs with 4.5-volt batteries, making the bulbs very white for a short while.) The watchers on Cradle Hill were even more impressed, and it was generally rated the best sighting ever seen there. A second balloon was launched a while later on the western side of Cradle Hill and it drifted much closer to the watchers than the first balloon. Excitement on the hill was electric and emotional. Telepathic communication was claimed with the light bulb, which was said to be as bright as a searchlight and also to be metallic with portholes.

We were all surprised and almost shocked by the reaction. A few simple components had provoked what seasoned watchers were describing as the best sighting ever made. What did that suggest about the credibility of the other sightings in one of the world’s most famous UFO hotspots?

Over the next few weeks we revisited Cradle Hill – it was invariably populated on a Saturday evening – to listen to the gossip. One SIUFOP member had been less than discrete soon after the hoax, letting it be known what had happened. Oddly this explanation was not generally accepted; apparently the objects had changed direction against the wind, so they could not have been lights on a balloon! Also, another sighting was made by three people the following evening where “…the object appeared just like those of Saturday night…” raising the question “Why should any UFO-rigging pranksters hang around Cradle Hill area on Sunday, long after BUFORA members had left?” [9]

BUFORA’s Research Bulletin acknowledged the balloon theory [10] and indeed described it accurately but the consensus was against it.

The Warminster Photographs

Thus we designed a new hoax, to be less deniable, and hence the ‘Warminster Photographs’ came about. In summary, during March 1970 a ground-based purple light was shone from the hill opposite Cradle Hill, a colleague appeared to photograph it, a bogus UFO detector sounded and the film was handed to a stranger who agreed to get it developed. The film had been pre-exposed to show frames of airborne UFOs much stranger than the purple light but they also contained enough serious inconsistencies to allow any competent investigator to question their authenticity. The most experienced investigators in the subject, however, repeatedly pronounced the photographs genuine and failed to spot any of the built-in clues.

At a BUFORA meeting some time later David Simpson publicly pointed out that the case was full of anomalies which probably meant it was a hoax. Ivor McKay and John Cleary-Baker, both BUFORA stalwarts, argued otherwise, confidently pointing out that if it had been a hoax the hoaxer would not have made such mistakes; the very presence of the anomalies apparently made it more certain that the case was genuine. A classical heads they win, tails we lose. John Cleary-Baker then launched Project Warminster and unfortunately asked us if we would investigate the Warminster photographs on behalf of his Project. Soon afterwards he sent signed documents giving us all sorts of authorisations; we didn’t do the job very well.

One evening Arthur Shuttlewood was talking to a group of people on Cradle Hill, unaware that we were there; he was moaning about our ‘disbelief’ in the Warminster photographs; “The trouble with this SIUFOP lot is they never come down here to see for themselves” he complained.


It was satisfying to have confirmation of what we suspected was probably going on but it was also disillusioning to find out just how poorly investigations were carried out. We had, after all, started out by presuming that there may be something in the sightings. We repeated the experiments with one or two more UFO hoaxes – repeating experiments is a necessary scientific practice – using kites instead of balloons, and single (hence easier to lift) bulbs that were coated on one side so they would appear to flash irregularly as they rotated in the wind on a suspension thread. Electronic timers were added to delay switch-on until the apparatus was well clear of the ground (to stop the hoaxer being illuminated!) and we became expert at flying kites in the dark.

BBC Nationwide

In the summer of 1972 there was considerable publicity concerning a forthcoming BBC visit to a skywatch on Cradle Hill. We reverted to balloon technology, albeit much smaller ones than the originals, each carrying just one torch bulb. By then we knew that a single over-run bulb was still an impressive sight at a range of one mile or more against a dark sky. But this time we added photographic flashbulbs to the payload, timed to flash after about 2 minutes.

Two balloons were launched, as usual in complete darkness, about 1 minute apart. The weather was perfect – clear and with just the faintest wind blowing – and the balloons carried their winking lights majestically and in tandem across Salisbury plain. We could see across to Cradle Hill and immediately noticed a row of torches, pointing in the direction of the balloons, being flashed on and off. More torches appeared and they were quickly joined by more powerful lights as motorcyclists upended their machines to use the headlamps for even better signalling.

The watchers were thus looking directly at the little points of light in the sky when one of the flashbulbs was triggered. Presuming this to be a response to their signalling they flashed even more enthusiastically and were rewarded when the second flashbulb ignited shortly afterwards.

The BBC interviewed the watchers who again claimed it to be the best sighting they had ever made, some saying that the UFOs had been communicating with their “random yet intelligent” flashings and that the “explosion of light” was in response to the rows of flashing torches and motorbike headlamps.

After the story was broadcast, on BBC Nationwide, we owned up and were subsequently given a studio interview alongside ufologist Rex Dutta. We showed examples of the plastic bags and torch bulbs etcetera but he refused to believe that he had been hoaxed and the BBC therefore asked us to stage a re-enactment. This we did the following weekend, albeit in rather poorer weather conditions. On seeing the balloon-suspended lights for a second time Rex Dutta declared them to be nothing like the lights of the previous week. “These were obviously lights on a silly little balloon that did not and could not replicate the complex flying pattern seen the week before”. He had been investigating these things for 19 years and “any fool could identify a balloon when they saw one”.


Our experiences and hoaxes of 30 years ago were very interesting, stimulating and disillusioning at the same time but they also demonstrated to us something useful as well – that human beings tend to see what they want, or expect, to see. Very simple stimuli had provoked an astonishing range of entirely imagined attributes including shapes, sizes, colours, motions and other false effects which tended to grow in order to stop a particular belief being disproved. Most disappointing of all was the low calibre of the investigations being undertaken, partly due to a lack of technical knowledge, no desire to be rigorous and a marked tendency to select only those bits of evidence that most suited a particular belief.

Science and scientists

At the time, UFO sightings were argued to be evidence of extraterrestrial visitations (and still are in some parts of the world). Science and scientists, we were repeatedly told, should be more open minded and look into this possibility. What seemed to be constantly bypassed though was an appreciation of what constitutes a scientific claim. To demonstrate that a scientific conclusion is valid, testable evidence has to be provided and the quality and repeatability of the evidence required is related to the significance of the conclusion being drawn. To conclude that UFOs represent evidence of extraterrestrial visitations is a very significant claim and this requires correspondingly high quality, rigorous and testable data as evidence. But instead we had (and have) a loose array of unrepeatable sightings which, when scaled against the observational uncertainties and investigative confusion clearly demonstrated by hoaxes, come nowhere near to providing adequate evidence.

It is often pointed out that maybe 90% of UFO sightings are explainable if an investigator looks hard enough but that science should concentrate on the unexplained remainder. This is a false argument; the fact that they remain unexplained does not make them better evidence. The point was well illustrated by Alan Hendry [11] in his UFO Handbook. He had good statistical data to show that, apart from them remaining unidentified, there was nothing about the unidentified cases to differentiate them from the identified ones; they had just the same mixture of characteristics.

Non-UFO hoaxes

We were aware that our hoaxes were illustrating the characteristics of an existing subject and in the mid 1970s thought that it would be interesting to measure just how easy it might be to create an alternative self-sustaining myth, perhaps triggered by a few pump-priming hoaxes. A while later crop circle stories took hold and again we were confronted with strangely illogical statements like “this circle is too accurate to be a hoax” from the investigators. Just like ufologists they argued that hoaxers (who appeared to be able to replicate any circle on demand) merely got in the way of serious investigations. We were certainly accused of being involved but can say that we did not think up the idea or participate at all!


Hoaxes have been a useful tool for testing observational skills and the investigational abilities of ufologists. They have clearly illustrated that humans see what they want to see and that the quality of UFO investigations is generally very poor indeed.

Notes and References
  1. Simpson, David; Experimental UFO Hoaxing, MUFOB New Series 2, March 1976
  2. Simpson, David; SIUFOP Newsletter, 1, March 1968
  3. The intensity of the light from such gas discharge lamps increases and decreases in time with the alternating mains voltage powering them – essentially going on and off 100 times per second. The human eye cannot see this cycling but if the lamp’s image is moved quickly across a photographic emulsion it is easily recorded. A tell-tale characteristic of this technique is the ‘bunching’ together of the recorded dots as the arm of the waver changes direction from left to right; the slower the arm movement the closer together the dots become. This bunching was certainly evident in Arthur Shuttlewood’s photographs.
  4. Densitomer: an instrument which allowed the optical density of negatives to be measured by scanning a narrow beam of light across them.
  5. Including searchlights from a film studio reflecting on clouds, aeroplanes at sunset, being in a car ‘followed’ by the moon, and even a spider’s web unusually illuminated by the sun.
  6. Hughes, George; Are Ghost Pictures Real?, Amateur Photographer, 136, 31, 24 July 1968
  7. Beet, Richard; Reader write: Investigating UFOs, Amateur Photographer, 136, 34, 21 August 1968
  8. The six remaining lamps were suspended close to each other and from a distance appeared to be a single source of light.
  9. Arthur Shuttlewood; Root Out These Stupid Hoaxers, BUFORA Journal, 2, 12, Summer 1970
  10. John Cleary-Baker; Editorial comment, BUFORA Journal, 2, 12, Summer 1970
  11. Hendry, Alan; UFO Handbook, New York, Doubleday, 1979