Department of Flying Saucers

Hello? UFO desk? I’m calling to report a…

Lenticular clouds tend to remain stationary; their longevity and their saucer-like appearance sometimes lead to misidentification as otherworldly spacecraft.
Lenticular clouds tend to remain stationary; their longevity and their saucer-like appearance sometimes lead to misidentification as otherworldly spacecraft. NOAA

January 2009. Police in the western French province of Brittany are puzzled by a wave of reports that strange, undulating lights have been drifting across the night sky. They call for a national operative who works out of a small, unmarked office in the southern city of Toulouse. He arrives on the scene swiftly and begins making subtle inquiries, wary as always of spreading panic among the public.

The investigator in this real-life Gallic version of “The X-Files” is Yvan Blanc, a diminutive, balding, 57-year-old engineer who bears a striking resemblance to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Until last year, Blanc was a project manager helping launch the European Space Agency’s Herschel Observatory, a job he thought might cap a three-decade career at the French national space agency CNES. Then he got an unexpected offer: to head up the Group for the Study and Information on Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena, or GEIPAN—the French government’s UFO office.

The first flying saucer sighting is generally credited to a hobbyist pilot in Washington state, who reported seeing a fleet of nine in 1947, and ever since, the vanguard of the cosmic imagination has been occupied by the United States. But the U.S. government closed the book, literally, on official UFO studies in 1969, when outside researchers reviewed 22 years of sightings in the Air Force’s Project Blue Book and found none that could be traced to either the Communist Bloc or extraterrestrials. Not so other countries. Well beyond the 1970s, governments from Uruguay to the U.S.S.R. kept some sort of tabs on unexplained airborne apparitions. The most systematic and long-lasting programs were sponsored by Britain and France.

Beginning in 1959, the U.K. Air Ministry and later Ministry of Defence (MoD) logged more than 11,000 UFO reports—until the MoD finally shuttered its monitoring program in 2009. France started later, establishing GEIPAN’s predecessor in 1977, but still carries on, though the agency’s staff has shrunk from a dozen to just Blanc and a secretary. Both countries published their UFO records recently after decades of secrecy, drawing enormous public interest. GEIPAN posted files online in 2007, and the first day they were up, the Web site crashed. The United Kingdom emptied MoD’s filing cabinets into the National Archives, and over two years or so, the digitized bits have been downloaded two million times. That swamps the archives’ former greatest hit, the Domesday Book, which catalogued taxable property transactions in England after the Norman Conquest.

The new wealth of official information has lent substance to the longstanding debates over how to identify the unidentifiable. The newly declassified document piles have forced the hardest-headed researchers to admit that, strictly speaking, unidentified aerial phenomena do exist. Pilots and other legitimate witnesses have sworn to, and radar at times has confirmed, heavenly anomalies that cannot be readily explained. But the French and British files also confirm that if alien civilizations have probed our planet, they have been pretty darned subtle about it.

One UFO obsessive who resists belief in ETs is David Clarke, a journalism professor at Sheffield Hallam University in the English Midlands whose relentless freedom-of-information requests helped unseal the MoD’s vaults. He now acts as the National Archives’ official expert on the vexing phenomenon. “I’ve been involved in the investigation of UFO reports, firstly as an enthusiast and later during my career as a journalist. I defy anyone to do this for over 20 years and emerge anything other than skeptical,” he exclaims during an interview at a distinctly down-to-Earth pub across the street from the university’s campus.

What the government’s papers prove, Clarke explains, is that garden-variety UFO sightings are heavily driven by banal suggestion. They peaked when Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit British screens in 1978, and again in 1997 with the release of Independence Day. Clarke thinks better-documented visions likely stem from rare weather manifestations such as ball lightning—spheres that can shoot through the sky for minutes at a time—and red sprites, which appear above thunderclouds when lightning flashes beneath.

But not everyone who worked behind the UFO curtain entirely agrees. Nick Pope was a career MoD bureaucrat who from 1991 to 1994 fielded celestial weirdness reports in the Secretariat (Air Staff) office overlooking 10 Downing Street; he passed the juicier ones on to a military intelligence subdivision known as DI55. Some of the reports, he says, forced him to keep an open mind to the possibility of visitors from other worlds, most notably a night in March 1993 when more than 30 separate observers reported an object akin to “two Concordes flying side by side and joined together” flying at a leisurely pace across England for six hours.

“I’m not a fully paid believer in little green men, but some cases do give you pause for thought,” Pope muses during a conversation in a London coffee shop. “Conventional science feels very uncomfortable with UFOs because they involve studying something that is no longer there.” (Clarke argues that the 1993 sightings were simply a Russian rocket reentering Earth’s atmosphere.)

Jean-Jacques Velasco, who for 21 years sat in Blanc’s chair at GEIPAN and its predecessor organizations before leaving in 2004, strays much farther than Pope into green man territory. “Artificial and controlled objects have appeared in our atmosphere without any question,” he concludes. “UFOs are phenomena with a deliberate behavior, often traveling at incredible speeds. If they are artificial probes, they cannot be of terrestrial origin.” Velasco’s working hypothesis, it becomes clear, is that the best-documented UFO reports correlate with nuclear weapons tests in the decades after World War II. Therefore benevolent aliens may be warning mankind against its dangerous folly.

Amid such passions, Yvan Blanc does his best to remain calm and unbiased in his unexpected new specialty. UFO reports still pour in daily either from gendarmes on the beat or a network of 100 volunteer investigators that GEIPAN established in 2008. “Witnesses are emotional. That is the main difficulty,” Blanc observes in labored but precise English. “It is hard to tell what they saw.”

Blanc files away four out of five sightings without leaving CNES’ modernist Toulouse campus by consulting air traffic patterns and the sky chart for the night in question. “What has surprised me most in this job is people’s ignorance of astronomy,” Blanc notes dryly. “It’s amazing how many people think they have seen a UFO when it is just the planet Venus.” (That’s exactly what happened across the Atlantic to a pre-presidential Jimmy Carter, who reported the glow from the second planet to Blue Book investigators in 1973.)

But GEIPAN does classify 23 percent of sightings as “unidentified phenomena,” and last year, about 10 cases were puzzling enough to lure Blanc out of his chair for on-site investigations. GEIPAN works in conjunction with the French air force, civil aviation authorities, the French national police force, and meteorological offices. Most of the UFO reports Blanc receives come from one of these sources. When a report arrives, Blanc consults his extensive advisory board, made up of astronomers, air traffic controllers, and military personnel, and if there is no immediate explanation for a sighting—aircraft being tested, an especially bright planet—Blanc decides whether to launch an investigation.

In the GEIPAN director’s office, a modest wall of fame displays photos of some of these mysteries. All have been solved without recourse to the extraterrestrial. The eerie lights over Brittany turned out to be Chinese lanterns, mini hot-air balloons powered by candles, whose release has become a fad at European rock concerts and the like. A bizarre apparition that looked like a circular light over Marseille proved to be a window reflection after an unusual snowfall in that Mediterranean port. A weird backyard crop circle was traced to a rare microscopic mushroom that burns holes in the ground overnight. A Klingon-ish aircraft seen floating menacingly above the roofs of Paris was simply a large balloon released at a rugby match the same afternoon. And so on.

Yet deeper in the GEIPAN archives, there are mysteries for which Blanc has no explanation. In France’s most famous UFO case, a resident near the southern village of Trans-en-Provence reported in 1981 that an oval craft some eight feet in diameter landed briefly on his land and left abrasions. GEIPAN’s investigation concluded that something had, in fact, been there: A “large-size event had indeed occurred.” And an analysis of surrounding alfalfa plants showed them to have chlorophyll levels inexplicably below normal.

Blanc’s second example of unsolved enigma is even stranger: a 1967 incident near Cussac in rural France in which a young brother and sister out herding cows reported four meter-high “devils” levitating into a spacecraft across a field. Asked whether such testimony could be credible coming from children aged 13 and 9, he replies, “We assume that witnesses are telling the truth about what they saw.” In any case, he keeps an artist’s lyrical rendering of the alleged Cussac visitors disappearing into a blazing bright ship next to his own case memorabilia on the wall.

Almost as soon as man learned to fly, he began spotting unidentified flying objects. During World War I, Britons panicked over sightings they believed to be German Zeppelins (see “Fear of Floating,” June/July 2009). World War II pilots regularly reported encounters with silvery balls of light that they called foo-fighters, whose origins were never conclusively explained. But it took the cold war and, later, the dawning of the Space Age, to turn UFOs into a popular obsession, and an object for systematic state scrutiny.

In the early 1950s, the fever spread quickly from the United States to the United Kingdom, reaching even an aging Winston Churchill. “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to?” the prime minister asked his air force chief in a note in the summer of 1952. “What is the truth?”

Churchill was informed that the Air Ministry had in fact convened a top-secret Flying Saucer Working Party two years earlier, which concluded that all the reports amounted to natural phenomena imaginatively interpreted. That assurance was partly revised in September 1952, when a squad of Royal Air Force airmen in Yorkshire reported a strange white-silvery object tailing a Gloster Meteor fighter back to base after maneuvers, then suddenly shooting off to the west at “incredible speed.” The Air Ministry set up a detail in its intelligence branch to keep track of such reports in the future.

The mission of the “UFO desk” was always restricted to watching for military threats. But reports from the public inevitably offered broader theories about unaccountably stealthy alien visitors. Toward these sightings, the ministry adopted a policy of being, as one now-unearthed internal memo put it, “politely unhelpful,” and kept it up for more than half a century. Once locked in dank cabinets, stacks of these bland assurances can now be perused by anyone at the National Archives’ airy research center in the South West London suburb of Kew. “The Department does not dismiss the possibility that intelligent life could exist in outer space,” reads a typical 1978 missive to Mr. T. Butler of the Bradlington Constituency Conservative Association. “But no evidence has reached the MoD to date to suggest that UFOs have extra-terrestrial origins.”

Occasional inquiries from Parliament gave long-suffering UFOcrats the chance to vent a bit. A certain Earl of Clancarty, a true believer who demanded a House of Lords investigation into spacemen incursions that, to his way of thinking, stretched back to at least the Biblical star over Bethlehem, particularly tried MoD’s patience in the late 1970s. “If they have not attacked for the last 2,000 years, it is doubtful whether the earl’s evidence could justify diversion of Defence resources just at present,” ministry spokesman T.M.P. Stevens wrote to another interested peer.

Weird flying stuff was just as fascinating in the Soviet Union. Authorities reacted there too, though typically in a jumbled fashion that their Russian successors have disclosed only in bits and pieces. The extant Soviet UFO trail starts in 1968, when a group of 13 senior air and space engineers worked up the courage to write a letter to No. 2 leader Alexei Kosygin, proposing a committee to study the issue. They learned to their surprise that the Politburo was already on it. “Questions about the nature of so-called flying objects have been considered by an array of competent organizations including the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Defense,” a scientist on Kosygin’s staff wrote back. “There is no necessity to create any sort of special organization.”

Little is known to this day about what the academy and the Soviet military considered. But UFOs were more enthusiastically studied in the late 1970s by Yuri Andropov, longtime head of the KGB and, for a brief term at the end of his life, supreme Soviet leader. Andropov aide Igor Sinitsin recalled approaching his boss gingerly in 1977 with a Western magazine report about a “giant jellyfish” widely witnessed in the skies over the northwest Russian city of Petrozavodsk. Andropov stunned his subordinate by pulling out a UFO dossier that he had been quietly compiling with help from the counter-intelligence directorate. (The jellyfish was later linked to exhaust gases from a secret rocket launch.)

From that year forward, the KGB kept tabs on the more spectacular airborne mysteries reported across the Soviet Union. In 1984, Soviet pilots in two fighters and an attack helicopter chased and fired on an intruding UFO from along the Caspian Sea border. One report has the unknown craft taking evasive action—diving to 320 feet to thwart the jets, then ascending beyond the helicopter’s range—but eventually retreating out to sea.

This and other sightings were reportedly collected in a so-called Blue Folder (not to be confused with the Blue Book), which after the Soviet collapse in 1991 was entrusted to Pavel Popovich, a cosmonaut-turned-UFO-enthusiast. He, in turn, drip-fed files to a wider audience over the next dozen years. (Popovich died last September; it’s not clear what became of the collection of reports in his possession.)

Yuri Andropov did not live long enough for glasnost to compel him to share his thoughts on the Blue Folder’s contents. But his top deputy and successor at the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, remained unimpressed. “The Party Central Committee and Council of Ministers asked me more than once to confirm or deny rumors about unexplained events, especially UFOs and ‘abominable snow men,’ ” he told the Russian newspaper Komsomoslkaya Pravda in 2005. “The conclusion was always fruits of the imagination. Fear has big eyes.”

State-sponsored UFO studies peaked worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s, as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Reagan Revolution ratcheted up East-West tensions, and Close Encounters and Star Wars stirred the global imagination. Latin America showed particular enthusiasm.

On May 19, 1986, Brazil had its Night of the UFOs, with five fighters scrambling to chase mystery lights across the country’s southwest for two and a half hours. The air force minister went on TV the next morning to order a full investigation. Declassified only last year, this Brazilian report found: “The phenomenon is solid and reflects intelligence by its capacity to follow and sustain distance from the observers, as well as to fly in formation.”

In the peaceful 1990s, military services in the West found it increasingly hard to justify the reporting of mystery craft. By 1991, when Nick Pope came to the United Kingdom’s UFO desk, resources had shrunk to about one half of one mid-level official’s time, namely his.

After the 1993 serial sightings of “two Concordes joined together,” popularly known in Britain as the Cosford Incident, Pope and his unnamed counterpart at DI55 began quietly lobbying for a fresh look at UFOs. He got his wish for an MoD review of the files that had piled up over the decades, but the results disappointed him.

The study, circulated in 2000, was titled the Condign Report. It started open-mindedly enough—“That [UFOs] exist is indisputable”—but then lowered the rationalist boom. The vast U.K. archives contained no evidence of “incursions by air objects of any intelligent (extraterrestrial or foreign) origin,” nor any “artefacts of unknown or unexplained origin.” Whatever was out there, in short, it looked like no threat to Her Majesty’s security. MoD UFOlogists spent much of the following decade first fending off and then acceding to freedom-of-information requests, finally closing down altogether last December.

That left only the unassuming Yvan Blanc to carry on, as planet Earth’s de facto arbiter of the mysteries mankind just cannot leave alone. The ex-satellite engineer does seem a bit dazed during an hour-long talk on a mild Toulouse winter afternoon, not by evidence of distant civilizations but by the abrupt change in his own life after a quiet career.

Long a cog on the intricate machinery of multi-year space projects, Blanc has become a reluctant minor celebrity in France. “You can’t stay for long in this job because it is hard to be in the public eye and maintain neutrality,” he says. An aerospace team player, Blanc feels doomed to intellectual loneliness, despite a GEIPAN advisory board that ranges from generals to psychologists, and his 100 eager citizen-investigators. “The very small number of scientists interested in this field are laughed at by other scientists,” he observes calmly. “And of course we are attacked by the UFO community.”

Yet the unlikely Man in Black is plainly having fun too. He betrays the slightest hint of swagger referring to the “professional investigation techniques” he deploys on witnesses, and obvious pride when he ends the interview with a tour of the case illustrations on his wall. Outside CNES’ gates it seems like an ordinary afternoon in an ordinary city, with ordinary explanations for any object that might happen to fly overhead. But you never know for sure. At least that’s what Yvan Blanc says.

Craig Mellow is a freelance journalist in New York who reports frequently from Europe.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.