In Merseyside UFO Bulletin, volume 6, number 2, August 1973, Peter Rogerson wrote:
UFOs AND CONTEMPORARY PANICS
A few weeks ago, in a collection of clippings on UFO events, loaned to me by Nigel Watson, I discovered a very revealing little news item from the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph of May 2, 1972:
SEARCH FOR MYSTERY AIRCRAFT IN N. LINCS
Illegal Immigrans Suspected.
Lincolnshire police were alerted to be on the look out for illegal immigrants during the early hours of this morning after an unidentified light aircraft was believed to have landed somewhere between Laceby and Barnoldby-Le-Beck. The aircraft was picked up on the radar screen at RAF Waddington shortly before midnight last night. A few minutes later it went off the radar screen between Barnoldby and Laceby. The police were notified and a number of patrol cars diverted to the area to search for the mystery plane. Within 25 minutes every farm and possible landing strip in the area had been checked, but-police drew a blank. A spokesman said: “If an aircraft were to land, it would need at least a reasonably flat meadow and landing lights, but so far we have found nothing.”
Today the police and RAF experts are studying a report on last night’s sighting, and are checking at other radar stations along the coast to see if they picked up any light aircraft activity in the Humber during the night. The police spokesman added: “If the plane did not actually land, but just went under Waddington’s radar screen, it must have been picked up in an adjoining areas. We are not letting this matter rest.”
It is clear that all that was picked up on the radar were some anomalous blips. There was no evoidence to suggest that these blips were produced by a light aircraft, and certainly no reason to suppose that they were proof that illegal immigrants were being smuggled into the country.
What is very striking is the way in which explanations of random anomalies undergo fashions. A few years ago such an echo would have been eagerly interpreted as an extraterrestrial spaceships now it is illegal immigrants. Neither explanation could possibly be justified on the evidence available.
One of the most terrifying things that people can be confronted with is the randoms disturbing event. Faced with one or many such events, there is a general tendency among people to try to fit them into a convenient pattern. Any pattern, however irrational and capricious is better than no pattern at all. Therefore there is a great impetus to see ‘meanings’ behind world events, to hold, for example, that disturbing social change is generated by malevolent conspiracies or to see portents and archetypes in random lights in the sky.
In his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics the sociologist Stanley Cohen discusses the sort of ‘frame of reference’ by which random events are ‘patternised’. The example he chooses is that of the Mods and Rockers panic of 1964, and he points out that a number of quite unrelated events were incorporated into the Mods and Rockers mythology. For example a perfectly ‘ordinary’ climbing accident was headlined in one paper ‘Death of a Mod’. It was also very difficult for people to accept that the outbreaks were examples of random, spontaneous violence. This led to the development of fantastic rumours to the effect that teenage disturbances were being planned at some secret headquarters, or were being fomented by Russian secret agents.
Similar situations develop in the so-called flap areas, where all sorts of minor, random events which under normal conditions would not be noticed, are interpreted as part of the dominant ‘frame of reference’ which in this case is the UFO phenomenon. Within one flap in the North West of England, investigated by a UFO researcher with whom I am acquainted, a variety of random events, such as the disappearance of a dog, were seen as part of the UFO ‘happenings’. In extreme examples such as Warminster, almost any kind of odd random event is seen in terms of the ‘Thing’, and added to the chronicle of the myth.
However the UFO frame of reference is a relatively weak one, still, in popular consciousness, and is easily replaced by other and more immediate threats. The fear of illegal immigrants is clearly a more powerful ‘folk devil’ than any little green man from Mars, and as such his machinations can be seen behind a variety of phenomena often regarded as ufological. For example, some time last year a motorist reported that he had seen, at night, a helicopter land, a car drive up, and several illegal immigrants get out and enter the car. He claimed he could clearly see that the driver of the car was a Pakistani. Unfortunately, he could not possibly have seen the scene in the amount of detail he gave, at that time of night. Indeed the whole story possessed just that air of ‘mystery’ many UFO stories have.
Later, in MUFOB volume 6, number 4, John Harney reported on a new outbreak of phantom aircraft:
THE PHANTOM HELICOPTERS
Reports in national and local newspapers about a mysterious helicopter making night flights around parts of North West England seen to have been sparked off by incidents involving Cheshire and Derbyshire police in the early hours of Monday 14 January. Cheshire police had a report of a helicopter and were said to have “kept it under observation for some time”. Derbyshire police were informed when the mysterious machine was thought to be heading their way. They are said to have sighted it in the Cat and Fiddle area around dawn.
During the week following 14 January numerous similar reports were published in the press. The phenomena seemed to be centred around the village of Goostrey, Cheshire (near Jodrell Bank). By 22 January, however, the national newspapers had dropped the subject.In spite of police spokesmen and others insisting that the helicopter was real, and reports that the sightings were being investigated at a high level by the Special Branch, it was obvious quite early on that there was no real helicopter behind most of the reports, as they bore all the characteristics of a typical UFO flap.
An obvious clue to the imaginary nature of the helicopter was the vague and inconsistent nature of the published reports. It was said for instances that the machine was seen only at night, yet reports insisted that the helicopter carried no identification markings. Fantastic theories were put forward to suggest reasons for an unidentified, night-flying helicopter.
The Daily Telegraph of 16 January reporteds
“Yesterday more theories flourished about the phantom helicopter. It has already been linked with sheep rustlings smuggling, illegal immigrants and IRA gun and bomb squads. Now it is thought that it might be a ‘home-made helicopter’ which the owner, unable to obtain an air worthiness certificates is flying, and dangerously so – at night or, it is suggested it might be a modern – and wealthy – lover who finds it the most convenient way to reach his mistress or girlfriend”.
However, an item in the Daily Mail on 21 January reported the increasing doubts by senior police officers as to the helicopter’s reality. It also reports “Professor John Cohen, head of the psychology department at Manchester University, said that the first reports of the phantom may have started a rash of them, It is contagious, he said. ‘Plant an idea and you get a kind of visual epidemic’”.
Newspapers on 19 January, reported a further developments motorists on the A51 near Duddon, Tarporley, Cheshire witnessed the landing of an ‘unmarked’ helicopter just before 5 p.m, on 18 January. Nearby was a farmhouse with a white Ford Escort parked in the driveway. As the helicopter took off the car drove out of the driveway. Unlike many of the other reports this one turned out to be a sighting of a real helicopter. The Manchester Evening News (19 January) reported that the machine belonged to the Ferranti company and had landed near Tarporley on a journey north from London, to drop off a passenger.Some time after the flap had died down, there were reports of helicopters seen or heard flying at night in the Merseyside area. These reports were confirmed when they were identified as military helicopters, engaged on various activities. Apparently military helicopters do quite a bit of night-flying, in contrast with civil helicopters, which rarely do so.
To sum up, a fairly typical UFO flap, with a few real helicopters thrown in to confuse matters still further.