UK UFO Cases : Phantom Helicopters Over the UK

Phantom Copter Mystery Had Police Baffled

This story isn’t a strict UFO case as such. But then again it could be. Many UFO cases involve a technology just beyond that of the times. These phantom "choppers" were sighted for months before the Berwyn mountains UFO incident just across the Welsh border. They then came to an abrupt halt shortly afterwards.

Back in late 1973 and on into 1974 Northern England was the location for a number of unexplained helicopter sightings that fascinated the public and media. They were almost exclusively in the hours of darkness, often in bad weather and usually over difficult terrain.

This was a time of heightened IRA activity and it was feared that their terrorists were operating illegally in the UK. Furthermore information from convicted IRA terrorists implied that the IRA had acquired a helicopter and were using it to plan a jailbreak, terrorist incident or steal industrial explosives.

In early autumn, at the end of September 1973, security guard Simon Crowe was working late at night. Crowe’s job was to secure high explosives stored in a quarry high on the Peak District moors near Buxton. Residents in the area had reported a helicopter attempting to land inside the quarry and called local police. Crowe was alerted and had access to a Landrover to negotiate the terrain. He was called out twice in the same week but was unable to resolve the mystery.

On the first night he spotted an object hovering roughly fifty feet above the ground and shining a spotlight down into the quarry. However as he approached in the Landrover , it rose slowly and then flew away. On the next occasion, Crowe was not aware of anything until it rose out of the quarry and he saw the lights. It rapidly disappeared in the same direction as before. Crowe stated that although the object had an ability to hover and the sound of rotor-blades were audible he could not verify he had actually seen a helicopter.

Over a dozen reports came into police of helicopters apparently practicing landings in quarries in Derbyshire into the winter of 1973. Two officers were even able to identify a helicopter as a Bell 206A Jet Ranger. Not used by police or military forces in the UK or Ireland at the time (or any time).

The UK Criminal Investigation Department (CID) made numerous enquiries to discover the helicopter owners and reasons for the flights but gained little information. They contacted an experienced RAF helicopter pilot. He explained that night flying in the Derbyshire area would be extremely dangerous due to the terrain in the area and the risk posed by overhead pylons. CID and MI5 became involved as they believed these flights were most certainly of an illegal nature.

Tabloids began to speculate that illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, spies and possibly the man from Milk Tray was piloting these unidentified craft. Sightings continued into early 1974.

In the early hours of Monday, January 14th Cheshire police had kept a helicopter reported to them under observation for some time. Derbyshire police were informed as this mysterious flying machine was thought to be heading into their jurisdiction area. Sure enough a patrol sighted something in the Cat and Fiddle area around dawn.

During the following week stories were published in the press with the still unidentified phenomena seemingly centred around the village of Goostrey, Cheshire (close to Jodrell Bank ). A police patrol searched fields near Jodrell Bank telescope after the chopper appeared to land, but it took off before they could reach it. According to the police the helicopter was only active in the early hours and swooped as low as 100ft, sometimes it used a searchlight to pick out pylons and hillsides. At other times it operated without lights at all.

The Daily Telegraph of January 16th reported a bizarre theory:

“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”.

Before dawn on January 18th Darley Moor, Derbyshire, saw a strange incident. A witness informed police of a single, bright light flying over the Moor. Derbyshire Police declined to speculate as to whether or not there was a connection with the helicopter sightings, but confirmed that an investigation had been set in motion.

Newspapers on January 19th, reported further developments as motorists on the A51 near Duddon, Tarporley, Cheshire witnessed the landing of an ‘unmarked’ helicopter just before 5 pm, the previous evening. A helicopter was seen taking off near a farmhouse . As the helicopter took off a white Ford Escort was seen driving out of the driveway from the farmhouse. The Manchester Evening News explained that the machine belonged to the Ferranti company and had landed near Tarporley on a journey north from London, to drop off a passenger. Sometime after the flap had died down; there were reports of helicopters seen or heard flying at night over the River Mersey, Wirral and Liverpool. These reports were later confirmed as military helicopters, engaged in “various” activities.

There was a military exercise, possibly called “Operation Photoflash”, in late January of 1974 in the Irish Sea and this may be linked to the one of the most mysterious UFO cases in the British Isles that occurred in nearby North Wales on the 23rd January 1974. Supposedly a UFO crash landed in the Berwyn Mountains and there was military involvement to recover a craft and flush out two other submerged craft in the Irish Sea which will be covered later.

By 1974 an espionage theme had developed in the Daily Mirror who described the pilot as having “a devil-may-care “ attitude and the story having all the drama of a James Bond script. Mirror reporter Ed Macauley took a daylight flight in a private Jet Ranger over the High Peak and was told by the ex-Army pilot Alex Parker that getting to fly at night over the terrain either meant the guy was a great pilot or a madman and lucky to get away without having a serious accident.

The scare reached its height in March 1974 nearly 30 sightings had been reported, some corroborated with radar evidence from Air Traffic Control. However the timings of these flights appeared random and did not seem to coincide with criminal activity (other than flying illegally).

The Home Office convened a secret intelligence conference in London attended by Special Branch detectives, MoD representatives and high ranking officers from the Derbyshire and Cheshire police. The delegation reviewed a dossier of 27 reports compiled by the CID and the evidence collected by Air Traffic Control radars. Senior detectives agreed the sightings could not be ignored and the MoD were asked to report back on what facilities they could offer to track and capture the helicopter and its operators. The British military were contacted but refused to support efforts to track down the culprits in what they perceived to be a costly and high risk exercise if they involved their own pilots and equipment.

Click here to view memo to the MoD

The stories in the tabloid media were proving counter-productive as reports started to come in of perfectly legal flights that all had to be checked out. With no drug smuggling, illegal immigration, IRA or foreign espionage activity ever proven the flights ceased and the reports stopped soon afterwards.

The Special Branch file was closed in October 1974 with the comment “the helicopter and pilot were never identified.”

What was it all about?

It has all the hallmarks of a UFO flap and yet the public, police and news media seemed convinced that this had a more terrestrial but certainly not mundane explanation.

No one has ever come forward to reveal any more about something that remains a true mystery to this day.


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