From MUFOB New series 14, Spring 1979
In this report Jenny Randles gives an on the spot account of how the details of a UFO report are misrepresented by investigators, the media and the witnesses themselves
The most surprising thing about writing this article is that I am actually here to do it. Why, you might well ask. The reason is that I live just two miles from the Greater Manchester town of Urmston. That, I am sure, explains everything!
Well, on Friday December 1st, 1978 it seems that the planet Venus – which has (I am reliably informed) a diameter of about 7690 miles – landed in some marsh-meadows in that town. If course I could not possibly have escaped the impact. Sadly, I also have to inform Peter Rogerson that he is no longer with us. He resides in that very town, so is now presumably writing about the meaning of angelic visitations in rather more than theoretical terms!
All of this apart, the story that I am about to relate has considerable importance for the modern-day ufologist. It demonstrates a number of things that can snare him in his search for truth – if he has a mind to that goal, as it seems most prefer the thrill of the chase. If they catch up with the answers too closely it may spoil their fun!
That Friday morning was cold, frosty and very clear. As I sleepily awoke at about 7.00 a.m. I glanced out of a window that faces south and saw a spectacular sight at about 30 degress elevation. My immediate reaction was : “Venus is bright today” and after a few admiring glances, passed it by to return to more mundane pursuits like bacon and eggs.
At 8.15 a.m. precisely I happened to look out of the same window to see if it was still visible. The day had dawned sunny with a cloudless sky, but the pinprick of white light was still there, having moved a little to the west (as expected). At 8.30 I happened to pass the room once again and glanced once more. After a brief search I could still find it. These two times are exact. What is more interesting, even if it is pure coincidence, is that on both occasions I wondered if anyone was mistaking the astronomical wonder for a UFO.
Meanwhile I got on with my days work, until at about 12 noon I received a Mr Alan Babcock of Urmston. I spoke to him for some time as he related his story, and quizzed him on several points. This was despite the fact that I knew what he had seen. A brief account of his report follows:
At 6.00 a.m. his wife Sharon was drying her hair in the bedroom when she noticed a white light in the south (bearing later determined as about 190 degrees). It was so unusually bright and large that she knew it was not a star. Then a ‘vehicle’ detached itself from the ‘star’ and sped to earth. In a few seconds it had landed on the meadows besides the River Mersey, a half mile or so to their south-east. As it fell to earth, a beam of light was shot from star to vehicle, and then back in reciprocation. the ‘vehicle’ itself was of course only seen momentarily in the pitch black, but it looked like a bee-hive with ‘tyres’ around it.
The funny ‘star’ had meanwhile moved, so she called her husband out of bed and told him what had happened. They both watched it for half an hour through the window-glass with a pair of binoculars. It seemed to have a flashing light on top which pulsed every four seconds or so. By now they were convinced it was a UFO – although Alan Babcock claimed he never really believed in them until that moment. They brought Mr Babcock’s brother to watch it before it was decided that Alan Should drive out to find the object that had landed. The time was now between 6.30 and 7.00 am.
It demonstrates a number of things that can snare him in his search for truth – if he has a mind to that goal, as it seems most prefer the thrill of the chase. If they catch up with the answers too closely it may spoil their fun!
Sharon was distressed, but let her husband go. He drove as far as he could and then proceeded on foot, eventually being stopped by the dark surroundings and the nearby river bank. Over to his right he saw some vague lights through bushes on the other side of the river. He stared at them for five or ten minutes despite the bitter cold. All he could really see were lights of different colours (but even five hours after he could not remember which colours), which seemed to be moving around. When I asked if all he saw were lights, he replied: “Well – I think so – there was a kind of vague shape – something like a dome – behind them” After they failed to move he convinced himself they were lights at the Shell oil refinery in nearby Carrington, and returned home in disgust.
When he confronted his wife with this account he realised several things. Firstly that the lights were not in the direction where she saw the object land, and secondly that the star was still in the sky, but not over where the lights had been. Sharon also pointed out that Carrington was west, and he was facing east (although he admitted that obtaining the exact bearings of were he was would be difficult.
With the star still there and looking like a “giant spider’s web” of light revolving around a central point, they called the police. At 8.00 a.m. with the day dawning two officers arrived. For thirty minutes, until the light faded in the brightening sky, they watched the star through binoculars. The police were positive that it was something odd, said Mr Babcock, and gave him a number to report the UFO officially. He did so, and was told that there had been several other calls to corroborate this, but they had no idea what it was. He then called the Manchester Evening News who decided to interview him and his wife within minutes. Finally, he had rung Granada TV who put him onto me, and also said they were considering interviewing him.
So I was faced with this story around 1.00 p.m.. I knew very well the bright star was the one I had seen, and found it interesting that Babcock had referred specifically to two times (8.15 a.m. and 8.30 a.m., when the police viewed the ‘UFO’) when I had also been looking on, and wondering!
My astronomical knowledge is rudimentary and I was not positive it was Venus that I had seen, although all the indications pointed that way. So I left the matter in abeyance and meanwhile tried the ‘official number’ and police station that Mt babcock had contacted.
The official number, as I had suspected, was Manchester Airport. I spoke at length to the Air Traffic Supervisor, who was most helpful. He explained that they had only one other report that day, over Stockport, and that there had been an aircraft in the vicinity that could probably explain it. Mr Babcock’s light they had not thought to be of any significance, and did not report it to the Ministry of Defence at West Drayton. The Supervisor totally refuted Mr Babcock’s claim that there had been several ‘corroborative’ sightings. The police also informed me that they had no other reports, and that the officers concerned thought the whole thing a waste of time. They regarded the light as a light. One said, “It could have been anything – probably a star or a satellite or something”. Both these sources accepted as very plausible my explanation that it was Venus.
My next port of call was the Manchester Evening News. They were abrupt and somewhat rude. Their basic approach was ‘we don’t want to know about any mundane explantions’. When i would not confirm that their precious sighting was a flying saucer, or even a UFO, the terminated the conversation.
At 5.00 p.m. the evening paper arrived. It contained a major splash on the sighting – quite unusual for the MEN (Manchester Evening News). Headed “MYSTERY IN THE SKY SCARES HOUSEWIFE”, it contained pictures of the Babcocks, and a large drawing of the ‘beehive’, plus white blob of light. The whole tone was that a UFO had landed in Urmston. The quotes from both the airport and the police totally contradicted what I had been told. In other parts they had been taken out of context to make it appear they were pronouncing the light a UFO.
Shortly after the paper reached the newsstands I spoke to Bill Skellon, an investigator for the DIGAP group, who also lived near Urmston. I had no intention of going any further with this report myself, but thought it might be interesting to see how the case developed, so when Bill said he was going to see the witnesses, I raised no objection. He set to work planning a full scale investigation.
That evening Peter Rogerson rang me to ask what I knew. I told him, and he had of course suspected that there was a mundane explanation of that sort.
On Saturday, Sunday and Monday investigations by DIGAP continued. They interviewed the witnesses several times and went to the scene on Urmston Meadows to look for samples, radiation, etc. Still nobody seemed to be looking for a natural explanation, although David Tarry, the DIGAP investigator who did most of the work on the case, was by Monday suspecting something mundane for the ‘landed object’ seen by the witness. In fact he felt that a farmer’s tractor lights might be to blame, a view subsequently echoed by Bill Skellon. At that moment I put David in the picture on the Venus situation.
The press had not been idle over the weekend. The MEN carried a follow-up piece on the Saturday, saying tht more people had seen the ‘spaceship’. Then one chap, unbelievably from the Natural Science Phenomena Society or something, drew parallels between the US Mars Lander and the UFO, which he proposed had landed in the Mersey to take soil samples! All of this totally omitted any reference to the obvious solution to the mystery, which I had offered on Friday afternoon, and which anyone with any sense should have suspected from learning about a 2½ hour encounter with a mostly stationary light.
Tuesday morning was the first to be clear again, and a quick glance at the southern sky at about 7.00 a.m. revealed our ‘UFO’. By now my colleague Peter Warrington, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, had checked out the position of Venus, and there was virtually no room for doubt that the cause of the main part of the Friday morning sighting was that planet.
On Tuesday evening David Tarry rang me to say that Granada Television wanted him to appear to talk about ‘the UFO’, and news had by now filtered to other parts of the country, via press agencies. Being a relative newcomer to the subject Tarry had declined the TV interview. When Granada then came to me I took the opportunity, without revealing, until I had got to the studios, what I planned to say. That evening they presented a short filmed report on the events, interviewing Mr and Mrs Babcock at the Urmston site. The influence of the investigators, to whom they referred on air, was noticable.
“Oh, yes”, said Mrs Babcock. “Several UFO investigators from the group have been to see us and were very interested. They showed us pictures of UFOs and we picked out which one it was”. They went on to talk, now in much more graphic terms, about the ‘object’ on the ground. Five hours after the events, when they rang me, it was just a set of lights. Bill Skellon, the investigator who had shown the UFO sketches says that the TV made it seem they had led the witnesses, but in fact they showed their drawings after the Babcocks described their sightings. It seems the landed object was now most like an Adamski Scout-Ship! Sharon had by now turned her two brief flashes of light into “beams of solid light”.
I have no desire to criticise the DIGAP investigators, I am sure they acted with honestly objective intentions. The point is, however, that they clearly had deeply affected the witness’s story, and it was now much more bizarre. At this point DIGAP have not yet published their final report, so it would be unfair of me to comment on their methodology; yet it seems odd to me that they should not look for the rational before exploring the irrational. This seems to be a failing of far too many UFO investigators, and perhaps a prime reason why we have so much apparently puzzling data.
It seems odd to me that investigators should not look for the rational before exploring the irrational. This seems to be a failing of far too many UFO investigators, and perhaps a prime reason why we have so much apparently puzzling data.
I did appear on Granada Television on the Wednesday and made my point by suggesting that viewers look for themselves at what the Babcocks had seen. At the same time I made no comment at all about the ‘beehive’ or the landed ‘object’ involved in the sighting. Considering my early involvement in the case it seemed clear to me that most if not all of the strange aspects of the case were attributable to the cold and unusually clear atmosphere distorting Venus at its most brilliant. No doubt frost on the window-pane, abberations in the binoculars or even sleep in the eyes of Mrs Babcock during the first two minutes of the observation were all contributory factors towards what was rapidly becoming a ‘classic’ landing.
It now seems that Mrs Babcock remembers some youths returning from the meadows, near where her husband saw the ‘landed’ object. This was around 9.00 p.m. on the Thursday night. It seems there was an ‘eerie’ sensation around the place and horses and cows grazing on the meadows were ‘acting up a bit’. Now we are getting associated effects intermixed with what is turning into a close encounter! One wonders what would have happened if the invetigators had found the remains of an illicit bonfire on the meadows. Would we have physical traces too?
In fact there is still more to add. Granada (tongue-in-cheek, we hope) announced that a certain UFO investigator – they named no names, so I cannot imagine who – connected the sighting with the mysterious disappearance of seven cats from the vicinity!
As a UFO investigator who comes across all sorts of strange encounters, most of much greater importance than this, I find it sad and horrifying that this whole thing can have been exploited out of all proportion. To most of the general public this is typical of UFO sightings and typical of UFO investigators. There is truth and untruth in that viewpoint. Yet here we see the genesis of a classic case, which I hope through MUFOB will remain classic no more to those few who care, the serious UFO reporters who know there is something strange behind some of the reports, although we may not agree among ourselves what precisely this is.
For those few, Friday December 1st, 1978 was a sad, but all too typical day.