UFO experts say more should be done to uncover the truth about near misses in the skies after an investigation has revealed dozens of reported close calls between aircraft and mystery objects.

There were five reported incidents in UK airspace in April this year alone.

Passenger plane pilots confirmed sighting an unknown object from the cockpit – two of which were judged to have involved a definite risk of collision.

See the UFO incidents below 

Real life X-Files investigator Nick Pope has described the findings by Newsquest’s Data Investigations Unit as “fascinating and disturbing” and he said the reports made to the UK Airprox Board raise “important defence, national security and air safety issues”.

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Since May 2017, the Board which aims to enhance aircraft safety has reviewed 36 unknown object reports detailing airborne near misses across the country - and nearly a quarter were in the most serious risk category.

Author and journalist Mr Pope, who investigated UFO sightings for the Ministry of Defence in the 1990s, said: “It's clear that pilots and air traffic services personnel are witnessing many near misses in UK airspace.

“The suspension of flying at Gatwick Airport earlier this year leads the media and the public to assume such occurrences involve drones, but applying the UK Airprox Board's own guidelines, many of the reports being attributed to drone activity should more properly be characterized as 'unknown objects'.

“Pilots frequently see things in the skies that they can't identify. The UK Airprox Board has a significant number of such accounts and there are numerous reports in the MoD's UFO files.

“In most cases, sightings turn out to be birds, weather balloons, plastic bags or bin liners, or Chinese lanterns, while some are indeed attributable to drones.

“However, other cases remain unexplained even after thorough investigation, and this is of concern, especially if we're missing a trick by being too quick to blame drones.

“Pilots tend not to be comfortable reporting a 'UFO' sighting, because of the perceived stigma, so it's much easier to talk about 'unusual aircraft', 'unconventional helicopters' or 'drones'.

“However, in April the US Navy issued guidance to its pilots, advising them what to do if they encounter 'unidentified aerial phenomena' - UAP being the recognized military term for what the public term UFOs.

“While the guidance itself remains classified and won't be made public, it's an encouraging sign and I'd like to see something similar in the UK.

“The situation has been under-resourced since the 2009 termination of the MoD's UFO program, and while I'm aware that the MoD continues to study such matters - being careful to avoid using the term 'UFO' - more should be done.

“Having investigated UFOs for the MoD back in the 1990s, I can confirm that whatever the true nature of the phenomenon, it raises important defence, national security and - as we see here - air safety issues.”

The Civil Aviation Authority said it was likely that the vast majority of unknown near miss reports involved drones, model aircraft or balloons but the pilots could not be sure what they had seen. However – it is against the law to fly a drone above 400-ft or near to an airport boundary; and a spokesman for the CAA said if a drone recklessly or negligently endangers an aircraft it is a criminal offence and the operator could face up to five years in prison.

Interestingly - the majority of the most baffling reports reviewed by the UK Airprox Board, which is sponsored and funded by the CAA and the MAA (Military Aviation Authority), involved sightings of unknown objects at thousands of feet off the ground.

In eight out of nine cases, where the Board could not determine the nature of the object witnessed, reports detailed sightings at altitudes ranging from nearly 5,000-ft to 16,000-ft.

Drone pilot Jason Goodlad, who runs Hawk-Eye Vision Ltd in Stourbridge, West Midlands, said it would be a “struggle to get a drone up to 6,000 to 7,000-ft as the battery would die” and he added: “At a really high altitude it’s doubtful it would be a drone.”

The CAA trained drone operator said it would be “really difficult to pin-point at such distances and speeds” what had been seen and he added: “There’s so many things it could be. The sky’s like a motorway – there’s a lot going on up there that we don’t really know about.”

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Among the puzzling near misses investigated by the UK Airprox Board was the sighting of a “small, metal object” at around 17,000-ft by Typhoon fighter pilots flying from Coningsby, Lincolnshire, at 22.40am on January 15, 2019.

The report states: “The object reflected sunlight and appeared to have a linear form. The wingman independently saw the same object as it passed over the leader’s aircraft. The Typhoons were at FL150 (15,000-ft) and reported that the object appeared to be at FL170 (17,000-ft). There were no plots, hits or any other indication on the radar.”

An RAF spokesman said of the incident: “The RAF takes all reported air incidents very seriously, with air safety remaining at the core of all our activity. In this case, the single incident involving a military aircraft was assessed as category C which means there was no risk of collision.”

A high risk incident did, however, occur as the pilot of an Embraer 175 passenger plane approached Glasgow airport at 6.45pm on December 30, 2018.

The report states: “When passing about 600-ft he saw an object pass between three and 10-ft from the aircraft, at the same level. He couldn’t tell was the object was, it was lit up in various places and was more horizontally long than it was vertically.”

The Board was unable to identify the object, but it determined there had been a definite risk of collision and “providence had played a major part in the incident”.

The report did not say which airline was involved but the type of aircraft is among those operated by Flybe.

Other UFO reports

  • In another high risk of collision incident the Captain of a Boeing 757 business jet preparing for approach at Gatwick in busy airspace at nearly 4,800-ft reported “a fairly large, irregular shaped, dark black object pass down the left side at the same level, within 200-ft of the aircraft”.

The Board gave the incident a risk rating of B – just below the most serious – and it determined “safety had been much reduced below the norm”. It is not known how many were on board but B757s can carry around 200 passengers.

  • In dark skies in Manchester at 6.10pm on February 1, 2018, the pilot of an Airbus A321 was descending through 10,000-ft when he caught sight of a “greyish thin-profiled ‘something’ which passed very close at the same level down the left-hand side at great speed”.

The report states: “His initial reaction was that he had seen an internal reflection in his glasses or the windshield, but it was immediately apparent the First Officer and another person on the flight deck had also seen it. None had a clear view because it was in the landing-light beam for a split second. The pilot noted that having seen balloons in flight before, this object did not fit that profile.”

It is not known which airline was involved but the A321 is among the planes operated by Thomas Cook Airlines and can carry up to 200 people.

  • On July 5, 2018, at 9.30am, the pilot of a BE90, a small propeller aircraft usually used for charter flights, saw “a rectangle or elliptical object pass 500-1000-ft below” while cruising at 16,000-ft about 10 nautical miles north of Birmingham. The report states: “He estimated it to be 50-100cm long, although he only saw it for about two seconds before it passed underneath the aircraft. It was either hovering or travelling in the opposite direction, there was no time to take any avoiding action.”

The incident was described as one where safety had been reduced but the Board determined there had been no risk of collision.

Newsquest’s Data Investigations Unit tried to obtain reports into near misses between UFOs and UK aircraft from the CAA, but an FOI request was refused.

The CAA said under EU regulations the information was exempt from disclosure and it would only be made available to those involved in aviation safety.

Journalist, author and university lecturer Dr David Clarke, from the Centre for Contemporary Legend at Sheffield Hallam University – who has written extensively on UFOs, said: “Until 2015 you could obtain summaries of MORs (Mandatory Occurrence Reports) from the CAA - some of which relate to UFOs - but it seems they decided to restrict access to these, citing a piece of European legislation to justify the change in policy.

Southend Standard: Dr David Clarke - pic courtesy of Sheffield Hallam UniversityDr David Clarke - pic courtesy of Sheffield Hallam University

“I feel this is scandalous and a blow against open access to information - especially as journalists and academics are excluded.

“I wondered at the time if the change was linked to the growing menace from drones. “Drones are effectively UFOs as the events at Gatwick last Christmas demonstrate.”

He believes most near miss reports are likely balloons or drones, but he said: “If you’re in an aircraft, you see them for such a tiny space of time, it’s virtually impossible to know what you have seen.”

Not convinced the sightings are of intergalactic spacecraft, he added: “Things that are unexplained are likely to be natural phenomenon – not aliens from other planets.”

“I’ve not seen any evidence,” he said. But he was quick to add: “That’s not to say those reports are of no interest. Some of the incidents sound very familiar to the stories I collected from the MoD/CAA files during my work for The National Archives 2008-13. Someone should be sitting down and collating it and looking for information for flight safety and for scientific purposes. There’s a lot that could be learned if we got away from the ridicule.”

The Ministry of Defence said it welcomes all recommendations made in air proximity reports and does whatever it can to prevent similar incidents from happening again. A spokesman added: “No flying is without risk, nevertheless, millions of military and civilian flights are made in UK airspace each year with only a very small number of air proximity reports being made which rarely identify the aircraft were in danger. The low number of these incidents highlight the professionalism of commercial, military and private aviators.”

Paranormal and UFO researcher David Taylor, from Halesowen, West Midlands, who is a member of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), said: “The majority of all anomalous reports – I would say around 95 per cent - are explainable in rational terms, either with known phenomena such as misidentification, drones, birds, military tests etc and currently little understood phenomena such as ball lightning, earthquake lights etc.

“However, this isn't to say all reported anomalies are easily explainable, and we must resist the temptation to dismiss them all out of hand.”