A brief history of UFOs: top 10 sightings & timeline

Since the beginning of recorded history humans have recorded mysterious apparitions in the sky. But the birth of the modern UFO era can be traced to 1946-47 when media interest coalesced around the first sighting of ‘flying saucers’. Here, David Clarke provides a timeline of recent UFO history and reveals ten notable sightings from the past century...

On the evening of 13 March thousands of people in Phoenix, Arizona, and surrounding areas see a triangular formation of lights drifting above the city. Fife Symington, the governor of Arizona at the time, was one of the witnesses and he described the UFO as “otherworldly”. This image shows something similar to what was reported at the time. (Photo by Alamy)

UFOs: a brief timeline

1946: In the aftermath of the Second World War sightings are made of flying objects resembling German V2 rockets in Scandinavia and parts of eastern Europe. British intelligence fears the ‘ghost rockets’ are being launched from Russia, but Clement Atlee’s scientific advisor, RV Jones, believes this pre-UFO scare is sparked off by two bright daylight meteors.

Advertisement

1947: As the Cold War begins, the first wave of flying saucer sightings grips the USA and quickly spreads across the world. In September the US Army Air Force launches the first official inquiry, Project Sign, after Lt General Nathan Twining concludes “the phenomenon… is something real and not visionary or fictitious”.

1950: Public fascination with the mystery reaches Britain, with pro-saucer newspaper headlines encouraged by Lord Mountbatten who tells the Sunday Dispatch “maybe it is the Shackletons or Scotts of Venus or Mars who marking their first exploration of Earth”. In response Clement Atlee’s government establishes a secret Ministry of Defence (MoD) committee, the Flying Saucer Working Party, to investigate sightings by military personnel.

1952: After USAF jets are scrambled to investigate UFOs seen on radar over Washington DC, Prime Minister Winston Churchill demands to know “the truth” about flying saucers. He is told the MoD committee had concluded all sightings could be explained as misperceptions of natural phenomena, optical illusions and hoaxes.

1953: As fears of a Cold War nuclear confrontation grow, the CIA asks physicist Dr Bob Robertson to convene a panel of scientists to secretly review the UFO evidence and make recommendations for action. In Britain the Air Ministry sets up its own UFO investigation unit.

1957: The Soviet Union wins the race against the Americans to travel into space with the launch of Sputnik. In Britain UFOs are tracked on radar and Javelin aircraft are scrambled to intercept, sparking questions in the House of Commons, as well as newspaper headlines.

1966: Journalist John Fuller’s book The Interrupted Journey, tells the story reported by a US couple, Betty and Barney Hill, who lost two hours of their lives after a “close encounter” with a brightly lit object in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This was first influential account of an “alien abduction” by UFO occupants.

Barney and Betty Hill were an American couple allegedly abducted by extra-terrestrials, in a rural portion of New Hampshire from September 19 to 20, 1961. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Barney and Betty Hill were an American couple allegedly abducted by extra-terrestrials, in a rural portion of New Hampshire from September 19 to 20, 1961. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

1967: The USAF awards a contract to the University of Colorado to review 12,000 UFO sightings collected by Project Blue Book. During the autumn Britain is gripped by UFO fever, with over 300 sightings reported to the MoD’s new UFO unit, DI55.

1969: As mankind sets foot upon the moon, the US Air Force closes Blue Book after the Colorado University study finds no evidence for extra-terrestrials (ET) or a threat to defence. In Britain the MoD decides to scale down its interest but continues to collect reports.

1978-79: A high-water mark for interest in UFOs is reached with over 750 reports logged by MoD, the largest number so far. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind sparks a new wave of public interest in UFOs and ET life. UFOs are debated at the United Nations and in the House of Lords.

1983: During the summer, mysterious ‘crop circle’ formations appear in the fields of south west England and become the focus of international media attention. In October the News of the World announces “UFO Lands in Suffolk – and that’s official” across its front page with its exclusive story about an incident of unexplained lights in Rendlesham forest, Suffolk, often called Britain’s Roswell.

Newspaper headline reports on a notice sign at Rendlesham UFO trail in Suffolk, where unexplained lights had been spotted. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Newspaper headline reports on a notice sign at Rendlesham UFO trail in Suffolk, where unexplained lights had been spotted. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

2000: The MoD decides to remove Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAPs) (as UFOs are now designated) from DI55’s task list after a three-year study of computerised data concludes they are natural phenomena that pose no threat to the defence of the UK.

2005: Britain’s Freedom of Information Act comes into force, allowing public access to the MoD’s UFO archive. Responding to growing public interest, its UFO files are digitised and transferred to the National Archives where they are released online. They can be viewed and downloaded here

2009: Following the financial crash, Gordon Brown’s government closes the UFO desk and its telephone answerphone, after the MoD decides there is “no defence benefit in…recording, collating, analysing or investigating UFO sightings”.

2017: The New York Times reveals the US Department of Defense (DoD) allocated $22 million (£16 million) to establish a new Pentagon UFO investigation unit that ran from 2007–12.

2020: After fresh media interest and the release of UAP footage captured by US Navy pilots, the Pentagon announces a UAP TaskForce led by US Naval Intelligence.

2021: Under the Coronavirus Bill is signed off by President Trump, congress asks the US intelligence agencies to produce a report by June on what it calls ‘Advanced Aerial Threats’.


Top 10 UFO sightings – from the past century to the modern day

1947: Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of nine mysterious objects from his light aircraft on 24 June over the Cascades, a mountain range in Washington, USA, launches the mystery of “flying saucers”. Two weeks later a rancher near Roswell, New Mexico, tells the local sheriff that he has found the wreckage of a saucer on a remote part of his desert property.

News report showing Jesse Marcel, head intelligence officer, who initially investigated and recovered some of the debris from the Roswell UFO site 1947. In mid-1947, a United States Air Force balloon crashed at a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Following wide initial interest in the crashed 'flying disc', the US military stated that it was merely a conventional weather balloon. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
News report showing Jesse Marcel, head intelligence officer, who initially investigated and recovered some of the debris from the Roswell UFO site 1947. In mid-1947, a United States Air Force balloon crashed at a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Following wide initial interest in the crashed ‘flying disc’, the US military stated that it was merely a conventional weather balloon. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

1952: During a NATO exercise a group of airmen at RAF Topcliffe in North Yorkshire, England watches a “flying saucer” pursuing a Meteor jet. Their report remains unexplained and leads the RAF to take UFOs seriously.

1956: On the evening of 13 August, USAF radars detect UFOs circling nuclear-armed Cold War bases at Bentwaters and Lakenheath in Suffolk, England that hosted the CIA’s secret U2 spyplane. When the target shows up on British radar, the RAF scrambles Venom jet aircraft to intercept but the aircrew fail to find any evidence of an intruder.

1974: Late on 23 January a huge explosion rocks the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales, whilst many people across the UK report brilliant, coloured lights in the sky. The bang was later proven to be caused by an earth tremor and the streaking lights were meteors, but some UFOlogists continue to believe the event was caused by a UFO crash-landing covered up by the British government.

1978:  On New Year’s Eve, news of a colour film showing brilliant UFOs circling an Argosy aircraft flying between Wellington to Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand makes news headlines across the world. Further evidence is provided by air traffic controllers who reported unusual targets on their radars.

1980: On Boxing Day a USAF security patrol at RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk see lights in the sky falling into Rendlesham Forest. On pursuing the lights two of the men report seeing a landed object in the forest that left traces in the trees and on the ground. Two nights later a senior officer, Lt Col Charles Halt, reports similar lights and makes an official report to the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). The story becomes a cause celebre for UFOlogy after Halt’s memo is published by the News of the World two years later.

1989–90: As the fall of the Berlin Wall marks the end of the Cold War, sightings of mysterious black triangular UFOs are widely reported across Belgium. On one occasion F-16 fighters are sent to investigate and detect fast-moving targets on their radars.

1997. On the evening of 13 March thousands of people in Phoenix, Arizona, and surrounding areas see a triangular formation of lights drifting above the city. Fife Symington, the governor of Arizona at the time, was one of the witnesses and he described the UFO as “otherworldly”.

2004: For two weeks in November, radars on the cruiser USS Princeton (part of the USS Nimitz carrier group exercising in the Pacific Ocean off the Californian coast) detect mysterious Unidentified Aerial Phenomenons (UAPs) on radar. Crews of US Navy F-18 Super-Hornets are sent to investigate the radar targets and report close encounters with a ‘Tic-Tac’ shaped object that rises from the ocean and disappears at tremendous speed.

2014–15. During a second UAP flap on Atlantic coast, US Navy crews attached to USS Theodore Roosevelt report small drone-like UAPs that move at hypersonic speeds. After several close shaves the US Navy issues guidelines and sets up its own UAP Task Force.

Advertisement

Dr David Clarke is associate professor in the Department of Media Arts and Communications at Sheffield Hallam University and co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Legend (CCL). From 2008-13 he was consultant for the The National Archives UFO project and is the author of How UFOs Conquered the World: the history of a modern myth (Aurum Press 2015). He tweets as @shuclarke and his website is http://www.drdavidclarke.co.uk