June 13

And so, another book on UFOs. Have we not yet reached the saturation point? Rehearsed all the possible pros and cons?

Nick Pope, the primary author of “Encounter in Rendlesham Forest,” insists that this case is different: It’s definitive. He’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean the book is without its charms, offering, perhaps, an answer to the question: Why more flying-saucer books?

The Rendlesham Forest incident — known in UFO circles as Britain’s Roswell — occurred in the days (and nights) after Christmas in 1980 in a wooded area of England between two military bases then occupied by the U.S. Air Force. Pope recounts the events briefly, covering the narrative in the first 90 pages. According to him, his co-authors, John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, both then with the Air Force, investigated mysterious lights in the forest. Burroughs was on patrol and had seen blue and red flashing lights. He and a superior drove out through the gate and saw a white light, too, which seemed to advance on them. They returned to the base.

Just after midnight, Penniston joined the two men, and they drove out again. Initially, they thought a small plane might have crashed. Instead, they and a few others who joined them came across something else altogether. In a small clearing, “there was a silent explosion of light.” In its aftermath, they could see “a small, metallic craft,” about nine feet high and nine feet across. “The craft was roughly triangular in shape” and either hovered or rested on a tripod. It was decorated with blue and white lights as well as heiroglyphic-like markings. Penniston approached the thing and touched it, and then it sped off at an “impossible” speed.

When the lights returned two nights later, deputy base commander Lt. Col. Charles Halt and a team that included Burroughs investigated. They didn’t see a craft, but Halt found what he thought was the original landing site and noted that nearby trees had been abraded. Measurements suggested that the radiation level was higher than that of the surroundings. Subsequently, the witnesses were debriefed by other members of the U.S. government, reports were sent up the chain of command, and British officials investigated but were unimpressed by what they saw.

‘Encounter in Rendlesham Forest: The Inside Story of the World's Best-Documented UFO Incident’ by Nick Pope, John Burroughs, and Jim Penniston. (Thomas Dunne)

The story leaked out over the coming years, becoming more urgent after the principals retired from the military and spoke more freely. Burroughs and Penniston both developed health problems that they traced back to those events in late December 1980 and the radiation to which they were exposed. The Department of Veterans Affairs, though, has seemed to block access to their medical records.

Hard evidence in support of the story is lacking. The gauge used to measure the radiation had settings too coarse to detect the small changes attributed to it — a shortcoming that Pope notes only evasively. There is no record of an unidentified craft being sighted by area radar. Penniston took photographs of the craft, but the film could not be developed. Halt made an audio tape of his investigation, but it is unremarkable. Pope gives no citations, so there is no way to know the provenance of the reports and memos he discusses.

Instead there are unwarranted conclusions and a welter of unrelated anecdotes. Most of one chapter is written by Burroughs and Penniston’s lawyer, who gives a cursory summary of attempts to obtain their medical records. The failure to release them provides all the evidence Pope needs to say that the documents must be classified. There is no conclusion as to what occurred on those winter nights almost 34 years ago. Penniston and Burroughs are of the opinion that a government is behind the event, using talk of UFOs as a cover. Halt thinks the craft came from outer space. Pope is more coy but seems to favor the extraterrestrial hypothesis.

The witnesses, military personnel though they were, turn out to be untrustworthy. The quotations in the book attributed to Halt show him to be something of a crank, insisting that in the debriefings witnesses were “subjected to mind control efforts using drugs and hypnosis by British and American authorities.” Penniston’s story has changed dramatically over the years; he now says that he spent 45 minutes in close communion with the craft and that, when he touched it, a binary code was downloaded directly into his brain. He remembered the transmission only after hypnosis.

Despite all these (very large) holes, the Rendlesham tale remains popular among those interested in UFOs — as Pope’s book shows, with repeated references to television documentaries and magazine stories. Which raises the question: Why?

“Encounter in Rendlesham Forest” is full of paranoia about the government — not all of it, or even most of it, unwarranted. Pope refers to the Iraq war (with its missing WMDs), drone strikes and NSA spying. He also reasonably worries that the U.S. government may be subcontracting the study of UFOs to private enterprise, thus shielding it from Freedom of Information Act requests.

Indeed, much of the story turns on Freedom of Information Act requests and how they made the investigation of the Rendlesham events possible by the Americans (the Brits not so much, at least until they had similar laws). Which points to why these stories fascinate so.

Governments are so large, and the handles we have on them so small, so slippery, that it is impossible to control the leviathan we have created. Pope himself worked for the British government — in a section investigating UFOs — and felt frustrated at his inability to turn others on to the importance of this matter. If even those inside the government cannot control it, what hope those who are only its subjects? Stories about flying saucers allow readers to contemplate these issues on a vast scale. Roswell, after all, occurred in 1947, but it didn’t become a cause celebre until after Watergate.

Carl Jung once famously said that stories about UFOs were a new myth — about lights in the sky. That’s not the whole story, not anymore. Flying saucers are also myths about the mightiness of the expanding state.

Joshua Blu Buhs is the author of “Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend.”


The Inside Story of the World’s Best-Documented UFO incident

By Nick Pope with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 311 pp. $25.99