Out of the Shadows, 98-102
Flying saucers were the last thing on Michael Swiney's mind when he climbed into the cockpit of an RAF Meteor VII on the afternoon of 21 October 1952. Swiney was a staff instructor based at the RAF's Central Flying School at Little Rissington, Gloucestershire, where his job was to provide tuition to RAF and Navy pilots. Seated behind him was his student for the day, David Crofts, a Royal Navy lieutenant. What began as a run-of-the mill exercise was soon to turn into one of the most dramatic experiences in Swiney's flying career.
In 2001 Swiney recalled how, as the jet punched through a layer of strato-cumulus cloud at 10-12,000 feet:
'I got the fright of my life because there appeared to be, smack in front of the aeroplane, three circular objects. Two of them were on a level keel and one of them was canted at a slight angle. I thought, "God Almighty, this is three chaps coining down on parachutes," and I literally took the stick, or pole as we used to call it, out of [the student's] hand so we didn't tear through these parachutes. He issued some sort of expletive, I don't know what it was, and said, "What on Earth is going on?" and I said, "David, have a look at this!" and he just said, "What's that?"'
What followed mixed shock with calm adherence to procedure in the face of the unknown. According to an account of this incredible incident by the late Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley, the Fleet Air Arm pilot found it so difficult to take in the siglit that he initially believed he was suffering from oxygen failure.7 Meanwhile Swiney, who had taken control, turned the aircraft through a 45-degree turn, still climbing. He explained:
'They were circular and appeared to be stationary. But as we continued to climb they did in fact change position arid to make sure of that we very carefully checked and these things moved across to the right-hand side somewhere. The higher we got, [the more] they lost this circular effect [which appeared] when looking at them from underneath. As they came down to your level they lost the circular effect and took on a ""flat plate" appearance.'
As the Meteor levelled out at 35,000 feet the three strange objects remained clearly visible. They were saucer or plate-shaped, slightly off-white in colour and emitted a fuzzy or iridescent light from their edges. There were no visible signs of propulsion; no portholes, turrets or other tell-tale signs that might have identified them as known aircraft viewed at an unusual angle. Swiney continued:
'I called up air traffic control at Rissington and said I had three unidentified objects fairly close and gave them my course. I had then been fying for about nine years and I had seen many funny reflections, refractions through windscreens and lots of other things, but this was nothing of the sort. By then we were feeling decidedly uneasy because we were not sure what we were looking at. We had been looking around to try and say it was some sort of reflection coming through the window, but every time we looked back they were still there.'
According to Horsley's account, air traffic control (ATC) instructed the Meteor to approach the UFOs and Swiney turned the aircraft towards them, opening up to full power:
'At Mach.8 they gained quite rapidly but when the circular object filled half their windscreen, it suddenly turned on its side "like a plate" (their words) and "climbed away out of sight at great speed.' 10
Meanwhile, on the ground, Rissington had alerted RAF Fighter Command and air traffic control at Gloucester. Simultaneously, defence radar tracked 'an unidentified aircraft' crossing the southwest of England. Two Meteor fighters on 24-hour quick reaction alert (QRA) duty were scrambled from RAF Tangmere in Sussex to intercept.
The Meteors were controlled by the radars at Rudloe Manor in Wiltshire. Controllers there tracked Swiney's Meteor as it closed on the unidentified blip, which suddenly disappeared off the tube at speed estimated as 1,000 mph. The two Meteors followed as the target sped towards the Atlantic, but failed to make contact.
To Swiney and his student the disappearance of the flying objects was equally swift.'It was quite extraordinary,' he recalled. 'The next time I looked away and looked back, they'd gone. Just disappeared.' 11
Abandoning the exercise, Swiney returned to Little Rissington, where he was told he looked as if he had seen a ghost. Senior officers immediately separated the two witnesses, who were led to briefing rooms where they were asked to write a detailed report on their experience. Their reports, along with tracking charts from two ground radar stations, were passed from Fighter Command to the MoD intelligence branch DDI (Tech). Within 12 months of receiving Swiney's report, the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence) delegated to this branch full responsibility for the study of UFO reports made by radar stations and aircrews. 12
Swiney, who was to rise in rank to air commodore, heard nothing further until the mid-1970s, when, during a posting to the MoD, he decided to make some discreet enquiries of his own. At that time, the MoD's standard answer to all public and parliamentary questions was that because UFO sightings had such mundane explanations all files were routinely destroyed at five-yearly intervals. This practice, they said, had been halted in 1967 and as a result the earliest UFO records held by the MoD dated from 1962. Evidently someone was being economical with the truth, because the 1952 statements by Swiney and his/student pilot were still on file with DDI (Tech)!
'I asked to see the report and I was shown the file," Swiney explained. 'It was all there, and I know that it existed in the mid-1970s, but I don't know what has happened to it since.' 13(Figure 13. Entries from the Operational Record Book, RAF Little Rissington (Public Record Office: 29/2310) and personal flying log belonging to Flight Lieutenant Michael Swiney recording sighting of three 'flying saucers' during a training exercise over southwest England, 21 October 1952 (Copyright: M.J.E. Swiney))
Swiney had also kept a copy of his flying log book for 1952, which supported his story (see Figure 13, page 101). Under Exercise 18 an entry read: '(SAUCERS!) 3 "Flying Saucers" sighted at height. Confirmed by G.C.I.' When in 2001 Swiney attempted to obtain a copy of his original report to Air Ministry he was told by the MoD that it had 'most likely' been destroyed. However, research at the PRO revealed an entry in the ORB of the Central Flying School, dated 21 October 1952, which read:
'Flight Lieutenant M. J. E. SWINEY, instructor, and Lieutenant B. CROFTS, R.N., student, sighted three mysterious "saucer shaped objects" travelling at high speed at about 35,000' whilst on a high level navigation exercise, in a Meteor VII. Later, A.T.C.C. Gloucester reported radar plots to confirm this, but Air Ministry discounted any possibility of "extra terrestrial objects". ' 14
The evidence suggests that in addition to the testimony of the two pilots, two separate radars had tracked an UFO and this resulted in the scramble of interceptor aircraft. How could the Air Ministry claim, so quickly after the events, that they had 'discounted any possibility' of extraterrestrial objects? Where are the records of the official investigation into this incident that were evidently seen both by Sir Peter Horsley and by Air Commodore Swiney as recently as the 1970s? If there was nothing to hide, then why was this incident kept secret for half a century?
At some point in the future these questions may be apswered, but in 1952 the OSA ensured that details of this startling incident never reached the public. This level of secrecy allowed DDI (Tech) to continue their investigations, but at that point no formal orders had yet been circulated to RAF stations and personnel outlining the procedure for the reporting of sightings.