Nick Pope (2007)
Only tangentially SF, but still fascinating, this interview with British UFO expert Nick Pope appeared in Death Ray 09. If you’re into your strange lights in the sky, here’s an account of my own UFO sighting.
Close Encounters of the British Kind
Nick Pope spent three years investigating UFOs for the Ministry of Defence. His conclusion? There’s definitely something going on…
Nick Pope has been called the UK’s Fox Mulder. So his sister wasn’t stolen by aliens, he didn’t have a sceptical red-haired partner and he hasn’t had to fight liver-eating mutants, but he did use to look into UFOs for the MoD. Between 1991 and 1994, Pope appraised new reports and researched many famous cases. As the ultimate little green men movie, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, is out this month, we had a chat with Nick about the reality behind the UFO phenomenon.
The first thing you have to know about Nick Pope, and this is an important point, is that he is no fruitcake. He was assigned to the UFO desk by the MoD, and then moved on to other, more terrestrial concerns, visiting Iraq and Kosovo among other places. Military finance and national security are not jobs you give to random loons, and his books on UFOs are meticulously researched and measured in tone. We’re not implying that other UFO researchers are mad – there’s a lot of serious work going on in this fascinating field – but just for those of you who are sceptical about this kind of thing, he’s not David Icke.
But the fringe of the UFO community, there you do find madmen. You only have to read Pope’s Wikipedia entry to get a whiff of portentousness. “The government’s X-Files are now closed,” the encyclopaedia has Pope ominously saying when he left the MoD, which makes him sound like he’s been spirited away and disappeared like Mulder. He has, quite plainly, not been.
“There are all sorts of bizarre conspiracy theories about me on the net,” he says. “It’s funny, there’s one that suggests that I haven’t really left at all, but I’ve gone into some sort of disinformation role.”
Ah, UFO conspiracy theories. The weaving of a tapestry of narrative from a few tatty threads of rumour, equally dazzling in their complexity and their unlikeliness. Pope has some sympathy for the pedlars of such tales, though he describes their stories as “pretty wild”.
“There’s certainly no cover up in the UK, but I guess if there was I would have been a part of it, so we’re back to the Catch 22 disinformation role. But no, I’ve seen no evidence for that at all, if anything quite the opposite. The MoD is pretty open about the UFOs, there’s an ongoing release of this information. You don’t have take my word for it on these cases, look at their website… You know, the MoD, through Freedom of information, get more requests on UFOs than on anything else – more than on the war in Iraq. It’s bizarre.”
If this is beginning to sound like Pope is dismissive of the subject, far from it. During his time as official government ufologist, he got 200-300 reports a year, about 5% of which were unexplainable, and this convinced him that the truth is out there. What that truth is though, he does not know.
“I can’t rule out an extraterrestrial explanation,” he says. “There’s some intriguing evidence but no proof. There isn’t, certainly so far as I am aware, a smoking gun. Contrary to what the conspiracy theorists think, we don’t have one of these things in a hangar somewhere. I wish we did. But there was always UFO sightings where you’ve got a reliable witness, such as a police officer or a pilot, and you’ve got some tangible piece of supporting evidence, such as a target on the radar, or a photo that the MoD’s technical specialists haven’t been able to explain, so you’re left with well, what are these things? Could they be alien? I don’t know. But myself, and some other colleagues at the MoD, were privately convinced that whatever these things were, there were some important defence, national security and flight safety issues. That’s why I continued to take an active interest in this after I left the UFO job.
“But until we get the mainstream scientific community to engage on this subject, until we get governments and military all around the world to co-ordinate better on this… I mean at the moment some countries still investigate UFOs, some don’t, those that do tend not to share information with the others, so you get a very patchy picture of what’s going on, yet if you could put it all end to end I think you could make a compelling case for something exotic. I mean, these things have been seen by civil and military pilots, and tracked on radar, and filmed, doing speeds and manuevers that go way ahead of anything we’ve got.”
Death Ray can concur, or at least I can, as I’ve had my very own UFO experience, watching lights in the sky perform amazing acrobatic feats – impossible for planes and helicopters – before zipping off into space like shooting stars falling upwards. Pope listens as I describe it to him.
“That’s a maneuvre that I’ve heard many times from a number of witnesses, including military personnel, so that is interesting. As you’d expect black projects aren’t something that I can discuss, but yeah, while obviously at any time there are prototype aircraft and UAVs being test flown, things that you won’t see at the Farnborough airshow for ten years, I think it’s safe to say that a) we haven’t got anything that can do that, and b) that you simply don’t test fly those sort of things in areas where people would see them.”
Pope’s recently made a foray into the realms of SF, writing two books – Operation Thunderchild, and Operation Lightning Strike. “Basically, alien invasion, what would really happen?” Pope drew on his knowledge of British defence to write the books, meaning that they were the only SF novels ever that had to be cleared by the MoD. However, his own involvement in the fictional side of things highlights how complex the relationship between SF and ufology is. He quotes some stats. “In 1976, the MoD got 200 UFO reports, in 1977 [the years Close Encounters was released] it got 435, and in 1978, 750.”
This increase in sightings makes it mighty easy to see films like Close Encounters as making ufology more difficult. Not only does it encourage wonder-filled audience to watch the skies for twinkly lights, but also because Spielberg researched his film very carefully, and highlighted the similarities between many people’s experiences. This presented a handily pre-packaged “contact story” to a very wide audience
“You could say that about any SF movie,” Pope counters. “We’ve seen a whole range of UFOs and aliens, everything from ET through to Aliens, from cuddly and cute through to a nightmare from hell. There’s a really complicated relationship between SF and the UFO subject. Sceptics will say that SF influences ufology, and that people take things that they’ve seen in these movies and incorporate them into their own narrative. Actually, I think it happens in reverse. Series like Dark Skies, The X-Files is the classic, people like Chris Carter, when they researched the X-Files, went out into the UFO community and said ‘Hey, what is it that people see, what is it that people experience?’. Stephen Spielberg used J Allen Hynek, the scientific consultant on Project Blue Book, the US Air Force’s own UFO project, as a consultant on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even the name comes from their classification system.
“Some people think that that counts against the subject, that it must all be science fiction, but in my experience people were reluctant to report UFO sightings, they didn’t know who to contact, or were afraid that they’d be ridiculed. For a major Hollywood movie to cover this in a sympathetic way, it created a receptive environment, they were encouraged to come forward. That, I’m convinced, is why reports shot up as they did.”
Whether SF muddies the waters or not, Pope’s seen plenty of evidence for there being something out there, and cites two of the most compelling cases he has looked into. The first is the Rendlesham Forest incident in 1980. This is one of the most famous UFO incidents in the world, and is often dubbed “Britain’s Roswell”. It’s so well known that the Forestry Commission have set up a UFO trail there!
“On that occassion a UFO actually landed,” explains Pope. “The defence intelligence staff assessed the radiation reading taken from the site as significantly higher than background, and some of the military witnesses got close enough to this craft to see strange symbols on the side of it, I mean one of them touched this thing. And the witnesses included the deputy base commander. I reopened the investigation into that, that was fascinating.
“The most interesting on my watch was a case from 1993, where a UFO flew over two military bases, at Cosford and Shawbury. There were about 60 witnesses in all, including RAF police officers and a meteorological officer, who describes a vast, triangular craft midway in size between a C130 Hercules and a Boeing 747 – pretty big! One said that this thing was firing a narrow beam of light down at the ground, it was emitting a low frequency humming sound, and interestingly, rather like your own sighting, he said it came slowly toward the base, and then shot off towards the horizon. And this was a guy with eight years experience in the air force, who saw fast jets and military helicopters on a regular basis, he said this was many, many times faster, that he’d never seen anything like that before in his life. It was cases like that that convinced me that there’s something more to this than just aircraft lights and weather balloons.”