UFOs: typically only ever spotted by drunks, oddballs, Robbie Williams and Shaun Ryder, and especially in the woods.
If anyone truly has the answer to whether the truth is out there, it should be Nick Pope. He spent three years getting paid by the government to study UFO reports and is now a consultant on films including The X Files.
A real-life Mulder, Pope was a regular civil servant in the Ministry of Defence when, in 1991, he was transferred to the vague-sounding Air Staff (Secretariat) department.
He was later named head of the British government’s UFO Project. What Pope saw during his years as a MoD UFO investigator turned him from, in his words, a “total sceptic” to someone who was convinced aliens were a reality.
Pope is currently helping the MoD sift through around 2,000 previously-secret UFO files that will soon be released to the public, possibly as early as this month.
“Once a case is marked ‘Not explained’ it sits there on file, with no resource to investigate further”
Now, he reveals the Catch-22 irony at the heart of his old job.
Pope was paid to investigate what couldn’t be explained. But when UFO sightings couldn’t be accounted for by Chinese lanterns and the like the files were marked ‘unexplained’. (They were therefore the cases that merited in-depth investigation.) Yet – and here’s the Catch-22 – if any cases were marked ‘unexplained’ the government refused to investigate them any further. So, the real-life X Files are left to gather dust. Earnest, bespectacled, suited and with short greying hair, Pope appears every inch the typical civil servant.
Even after he found fame within UFO circles after he published his first book Open Skies Closed Minds in 1996, Pope carried on working for the MoD for another 10 years.
Pope studied around 250 UFO reports a year for the British government and continues to get dozens of emails a week from people giving accounts of alien sightings.
Most can be very quickly dismissed as aeroplane lights, Chinese lanterns, weather balloons, weird clouds and so on. Once a year on average, however, something comes along the coolly rational Pope can’t explain.
Of the previously classified documents he is analysing before they are released he told Loaded, “There’s no definitive ‘smoking gun’ case in any of those files that will say, ‘On 24th March 1993, an alien spaceship visited Devon’. What some of those files might say is, ‘We don’t know what it was’.”
Careful not to say he definitely believes we’ve been visited by aliens the 50-year-old added the biggest frustration with working for the MoD is they would lose interest once a case was marked ‘unexplained’. “My remit only went into explaining away the majority of UFO sightings,” he said. “If a case couldn’t be explained, it would simply be marked as ‘Not explained’. In other words, the government could say what a UFO wasn’t, but not what it was. Once a case is marked ‘Not explained’, it just sits there on file, with no resource to investigate further what it might be.”
The most infamous UFO case in Britain was in December 1980, when craft were spotted by US Air Force staff in Rendlesham Forest, near their base in Suffolk.
“MoD colleagues would regularly whistle The X Files theme at me in work”
Lt Col Charles Halt, the commander in charge of the base, insisted he and his soldiers saw a hovering UFO that shot into the sky whenever they got near it, in what sounds like an extra-terrestrial version of playing chicken. Freakishly high radiation was measured near the sightings.
“That’s a textbook case of the MoD not being able or willing to investigate,” said Pope, who wrote a book on the incident called Encounter In Rendlesham Forest. “Nobody knows what that craft seen by very credible witnesses was. It’s simply ‘Not explained’.”
The MoD said at the time the craft was “Not a threat to national security” – a claim scoffed at by Pope. “That’s what everyone who did my job was told to say,” he laughed. “Whenever a case couldn’t be explained, we’d just say it ‘wasn’t a threat to national security’. I had one Secretary of State for Defence phone me to quiz me about UFOs. He said, ‘Look, tell me what’s really in those files, and don’t give me any of that, “Not a threat to national security” nonsense’. Even cabinet ministers don’t believe the official line!”
By the time Pope was appointed to the Air Staff (Secretariat) department around 15 people had previously investigated UFOs for the MoD.
Each recruit spent three years in the role, the standard length of an MoD post, before being transferred. Once Pope left in 1994, others continued to do the job until MoD-wide budget cuts in 2009 led to the post being scrapped.
“We’d meet up for drinks and exchange notes about cases,” said Pope about his occasional reunions with the other former X Files investigators. “Broadly speaking, most people who did that job had the same experience as me: we’d go in as sceptics but leave thinking, ‘I’m not saying we’ve definitely been visited by aliens, but there’s no regular explanation for some of this stuff’. The problem in the UFO community is that many people are at either end of the spectrum: they’re either too determined to prove UFOs exist or too determined to rubbish their existence. I’m somewhere in between.”
Pope, who now lives in California, admitted going public and writing books about his experiences was frowned upon by some of his MoD bosses.
“It was made fairly clear that writing books about my job wasn’t quite the done thing,” he said. “Colleagues would regularly whistle The X Files theme at me in work.”
If aliens have visited us, why don’t they do it more publicly and show up in Trafalgar Square saying, “Take me to your leader”?
Choosing his words carefully, Pope responded, “If extra-terrestrials have the technology to visit us, it must be so much more advanced than anything we have that they’d have no interest in interacting with us. We’d have nothing to teach them. It would be easier, safer and more scientifically sensible for them to simply observe from a distance.”
Although his MoD job made Pope more accepting about UFOs, he insisted he remains sceptical about other conspiracy theories.
“Through my work with UFOs, I’ve studied a lot of conspiracies,” he said. “I’ve not seen a shred of evidence to back up any of the standard ones about the moon landings being faked, the assassination of JFK or 9/11.
“That said, when I was at the MoD, a couple of very experienced and credible MoD police officers told me they’d seen ghosts at the main MoD building in Whitehall.”