In our article on the Ghost Planes of Derbyshire, we looked a little at the Howden Moor UFO incident of 1997. It is a case not only surrounded by mystery but a certain predetermined murkiness that achieves nothing more than enticing one’s attention. Perhaps the fact the incident happened during the much anticipated “Hale-Bopp” comet appearance ensured there were more pairs of eyes looking upwards than usual. And what’s more, these eyes by and large knew the difference between a meteor, a comet, and a “nuts-and-bolts” craft.
As well as the connections to the phantom plane sightings are accusations of a monumental cover-up, recovered craft, and alien entities. There is even the possibility, as we will look at in due course, that the extraterrestrial claims have provided a shield against top-secret military tests, themselves a conspiracy. As usual, and very likely by design, there is an abundance of detail, all of which is cloudy, unprecise, and conflicting.
Several UFO researchers would investigate the incident, in particular, Max Burns, who was at the scene within hours. A bulk of the timeline, however, comes from the thorough incident log of the events by South Yorkshire Police. There was a meticulous recording of both the action by the police and the reports themselves. That “something” happened that cold March evening in 1997 is beyond doubt. Just what that “something” might be, however, is up for debate.
Sudden Surge of Reports from Bolsterstone
The normally quiet Ecclesfield Police Station would explode into life shortly after 10 pm on Tuesday, 24th March 1997. Reports of a “small plane” flying extremely low to the ground were coming in one after the other. Most of the calls were from residents of the small village of Bolsterstone which overlooks the Howden Moors from the Sheffield/Peak District border. Most worrying was the detail that this small plane had disappeared over the horizon, followed by a “flash and several plumes of smoke”.
Reports would soon flood the switchboards of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire Police. As these reports grew and continued in consistency, South Yorkshire Police mobilized a forty-strong police response team to investigate, with Fire and Ambulance services put on stand-by. All calls to local airports, civilian and military, yielded no results. No-one had a plane in the air over the moors, and furthermore, their radars picked nothing up either.
South Yorkshire Police’s Chief Inspector, Christine Burbeary was in charge of the search. Rightly convinced by the surge of sightings, and with no cooperation from her opposite number in Derbyshire, she would persist with the search efforts.
West Yorkshire Police would deploy their search helicopter to scour the moors on their side of the county border. Despite circling over the area several times, they would report no signs of any crash or disturbance. Shortly after midnight, an RAF Sea King helicopter would join the search. They would also patrol the grounds from the skies above. A full-scale operation was now underway.
Full-Scale Search Effort
The Sea King itself comes up again later in one of the darker claims of this affair, but the fact it was there at all shows there was reason to believe “something” had taken place. Although it set off from the nearby RAF Leconfield, authorization had to come from RAF Kinloss in Scotland who coordinate air and sea rescue operations. Although they, like other airports, found no radar evidence of a craft, they did find from the British Geological Survey that a “sonic boom” of sorts had taken place around the time of the alleged crash.
By this point, sometime shortly after midnight, the operations were treated as an “air crash” and the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield was put on notice to receive “multiple casualties”. Other emergency responders from various Sheffield districts were making their way to the scene with similar expectations.
An area of fifty square miles was identified as the “search area” – a huge expanse of countryside, on a bitterly cold night, no less. As well as the emergency responders, volunteers from several Peak District mountain rescue teams joined the efforts. In total, over 200 people would take part in a search that would last over fifteen hours. These searches would take place not only in the near pitch black of the late winter’s night but over ground with some of the most treacherous footing, putting the searchers themselves at risk of injury.
Along with the emergency responders and rescue volunteers, were many off-duty officers and the Search and Rescue Dog Association. It would ultimately turn into the county’s largest rescue effort for a small aircraft on record.
Unable to cope with the continued volume of phone reports still coming to the switchboards, the police would set up a specialist phoneline. Reports continued throughout the night.
Dangerous Flying Zone
Despite the hours of searching, on foot and through the air, no injured people were discovered. In fact, there didn’t appear to be even an indication of a crash at all. However, despite this, at 7 am on the morning of the 25th March, the RAF would set up a ten-mile radius “Dangerous Flying Zone”. This would prevent any aircraft, including news helicopters, from entering the airspace over the believed crash site. Although this is standard procedure for a crashed craft, many raised an eyebrow that it should be done when following seven hours of searching the “official” signs were no crash had taken place.
The effects of this no-fly zone were quite significant. Manchester Airport, for example, had to “stack” their planes for several hours at increasingly high altitudes until the restrictions ended later that evening.
By the end of the second day, came the announcement that no crash had happened and there were no casualties. A further announcement would state the incident was nothing more than a sonic boom. Chief Inspector Burbeary would defend her actions of the search stating, “My concern was that we could have about eight people from a crashed aircraft lying on the moor seriously injured. It was an exceedingly cold night and we had to find them straight away.”
It is hard to argue with Burbeary’s assessment of the situation. Aside from the multiple reports, there was the British Geological Survey suggesting a sonic-boom-type of event. Some began to suspect Burbeary was hung out to dry by those above her. Furthermore, this suggested there was something to cover up. When South Yorkshire Police labeled the incident officially “unexplained” several eyebrows would rise. Even senior police officers believed there was still information to come in relation to the event.
Just Rumors? Or Conspiracy?
Various rumors began to swirl around the small village communities and the wider Sheffield and Derbyshire regions. Reports would surface of visits from “Men In Black”, as well as “burnt scorched” areas of land, apparently covered over on the moors themselves. Other rumors would speak of “low-lying trucks” removing covered over objects out from the moors, as well persistent surveillance from unmarked black helicopters.
One particular gritty rumor spread that workers from Yorkshire Water witnessed several black “body bags” that were taken onboard a Sea King helicopter. They were then transferred to a waiting vehicle resembling an ambulance. There was even talk that these workers were threatened and warned “not to talk” about things they might have seen. While these accounts are most likely laced with adage and sensationalism, it is also most likely there are certain truths within them.
An explanation for the “body-bag” incident was the moving of mountain rescue equipment and the “ambulance” was, in reality, a mountain rescue vehicle. The equipment was on it’s way to the mountain rescue headquarters at Hepshaw Farm. While this is very likely, and there are apparent witnesses to back up this claim, to some it was simply more evidence of something to hide. After all, if there was a cover-up, then there would be an explanation ready for public consumption.
One of those who suspected such a cover-up was UFO researcher, Max Burns, who would not only study the incident and the report logs of the police, but would also speak to many of the witnesses himself.
Many Reports From The Public
Many of the reports that evening makes interesting reading, some of which come in several hours before the “explosion” on the moors. For example, a West Yorkshire resident, Bryan Haslam, was traveling from Sheffield train station at 7:40 pm. As he was approaching Barnsley he witnessed “a triangle-shaped object with lights all around it!”
Just short of two hours later at 9:30 pm a radio journalist for Hallam FM Radio sat in his car overlooking the Peak District. He was there to report on the Hale-Bopp Comet. Suddenly he could hear “a loud humming noise” over his vehicle. It would last only seconds before fading away. However, seconds later, it returned, hovering slightly longer before moving on.
Although it isn’t her real name, “Emma Maidenhead” would recall two military jets passing low over her house. She heard a “humming noise” and went to her bedroom window. There she saw “a triangle with its corners cut off” flying over the street below. She would recall it having “pink lights on the front and blue lights all around it!”
Emma would report her sighting directly to Burns. The pair of them then ventured out towards Derbyshire. A police patrol would stop the pair near to the Ladybower Dam. Each would later state they could see several “helicopters” searching the moors.
Just after 10 pm, and 81-year old pensioner would report a “cigar-shaped object” over the moors that “glowed brightly”. She claimed it was heading towards the nearby Strines Inn. From then, the reports would increase dramatically and continue well into the following day. While the reports would vary as to exactly “what” people saw, all would report “something low-flying”.
Regular Drugs Drops?
One theory not often explored is that the incident could very well have been a private plane carrying illegal drugs. According to many people local to the area, “drug drops” are relatively common over the moors. And furthermore, locals see low flying aircraft more than people think.
The landlord at the Strines Inn (where the cigar-object was heading towards), Stan Stanish, for example, was one who subscribed to this theory. He would claim that while “something definitely flew over here” it was his belief, and many others, that “it could have been a drugs drop!” He went on to state he didn’t hear an explosion of any kind.
His thoughts were similar to Peak National Park Ranger, Brian Jones. He would state that he saw “no reason not to think it was an illicit drug run” as no other aircraft would have reason to fly at such low altitude. He also cited his three decades worth of experience and that such “drug runs” had happened over the region many times before. The “flash” or “explosion” could very well be a firework-type-beacon to announce to those waiting that the “cargo” has arrived. This would explain a lack of wreckage, for example.
He also went on to state that reports of low-flying aircraft result in search-and-rescue teams deploying several times a year. If this is true, which it undoubtedly is, why on this occasion was there such an over-reaction? Both in terms of the rescue teams themselves and the reports from the public?
While the drugs-drop theory would certainly explain the low-flying aircraft, it wouldn’t explain the several reports of an explosion. Nor would it explain the presence of military jets. Unless, of course, they were there purely by coincidence.
One inconsistency is that of the apparent admission that the incident was the result of a sonic boom from a military jet. If this was the case, then why were South Yorkshire Police not informed of this at the time? In fact, if this is true, then they were not only not informed ahead of time, but the RAF would deny such an exercise following initial inquiries by the police. Does this then suggest a covert military operation? Veteran police inspector, Jack Clarkson certainly believes so.
He would state the sheer volume of reports from the public was enough in itself to instigate a search. He would then go on to say quite clearly that he believed the incident to “have been caused by a low-flying aircraft which belonged to the RAF!” Clarkson would also move the blame for the perceived wasted hours in searching to the RAF. This could have been avoided by them placing just “one phone call to us”.
He would state further, in response to the quick arrival of the Sea King and how there was no “urgency” in the unit. Furthermore, that “you have to reach your own conclusions” from such actions. He would state “if it was a ‘real’ plane crash there would have been a lot more fuss”. Clarkson would conclude, in his opinion that “it was a military aircraft or an experimental aircraft of some description!”
Fellow officer, PC Mick Hague would make similar assertions of the RAF. He would allude that their knowledge could have prevented such a search. He would state how he “had plenty of time to reflect on that night”. And that he is certain “that people saw something”. Hague is also equally certain that “a lot of people” were looking for something that wasn’t there.
The RAF would eventually admit that military planes were active over South Yorkshire that evening. They would, however, initially deny the “sonic boom” was down to their activities. Nor would they admit that one of their vehicles crashed. If it was a clandestine operation, whether training or live, although they would not reveal the details, they would have informed the police of at least their presence.
Although many are critical and even skeptical of Max Burns, these RAF denials almost inadvertently strengthen his case. Burns believes the military scrambled Jets to intercept a UFO that evening. Furthermore, a battle ensued, resulting in a crash of one of the vehicles, most likely one of the RAF Jets.
For example, Burns claims to have confirmation of a radar sighting from an “insider” at RAF Linton-upon-Ouse. According to Burns, this operator confirmed to him a sighting of an unknown craft at 9;55 pm, which remained for ten minutes before suddenly disappearing. In response, RAF Linton-upon-Ouse would state that their radar facility was not operational that evening. And even if it were, its capability is not enough to be able to track an object over one-hundred-miles away.
Was it an extraterrestrial craft that crashed somewhere on the Howden Moors? The wreckage and possibly the crew retrieved in secrecy while search-teams looked in areas away from the actual crash site? Or might the “low-flying craft” be the result of a test flight of a Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV)? The whole area of the Peak District is still in use for military testing.
It all still begs the question of the need for absolute secrecy that appeared to envelop this case.
Check out the video below. It features the aforementioned, Max Burns, speaking about the encounter in more detail.