It started in May, when the British government released previously secret UFO files to the National Archives. The files included corroborated reports from reputable sources of UFOs hovering over British cities.
In one amazing incident from 1984, air-traffic controllers described a «brilliant solid ball of light, bright silvery in color» that landed on a runway in front of them then took off in a near vertical climb. These stories appearing in both the national press and on TV caused quite a stir.
What happened next depends on your point of view. In one narrative, worried by their public exposure, the UFOs decided to step up their invasion plans, with the U.K. the center of the attack.
Another point of view has it that once UFOs became newsworthy, UFO stories multiplied. When people saw these reports, things they once dismissed as mundane they now perceived as UFOs. With more sightings publicized, people become more likely to report their own experiences, as they were no longer worried about being labeled as «weird.» It was a self-reinforcing process.
Whatever the reason, by mid-summer, UFO sightings had rocketed (excuse the pun). Malcolm Robinson, the founder member of Strange Phenomena Investigations, told the normally staid Daily Telegraph, «Something very bizarre is happening in the skies over the UK.»
The national press ran stories on a «glowing» disc spotted above the M5 motorway, on fleets of objects hanging in the sky above an army barracks and of a police helicopter chasing a UFO.
In one famous story, a man calls the police to report a mysterious light hovering above his house, only to have the police identify it as the moon when they arrived at the scene.
My hometown, Stevenage, has not been immune. A sighting in August was the first UFO sighting in the town in 32 years. The local Comet reported multiple sightings of between two and seven orange spheres, travelling silently in a parallel course to the local airport’s flight path. One group of 10 people at a barbecue took photos, which also appeared in the paper.
A week later, the paper provided the explanation. Someone had been letting off Chinese lanterns in the town. Chinese lanterns are baby hot air balloons about the size of a dustbin liner. The local airport was not amused. Pointing out that anyone releasing such objects needs to get clearance from the Civil Aviation Authority first. Not everyone I know accepts this explanation; conspiracy and cover-up are suspected. «I believe,» and, «the truth is out there,» they mutter.
Now September has arrived, the new soccer season has started and the UFO reports have died down. With a new cold war looming and the U.K. facing its worst recession in 60 years, we may be looking back with fondness to the summer of 2008, when all we had to worry about was ET stopping by for some barbecue chicken.