In 1980, a UFO was tracked on military radar in Rendlesham Forest, England. It landed near two of the most strategically important military bases in NATO, and was approached by military witnesses who touched the hull. This explosive new book tells the full story of this incident, which is set to become better-known than Roswell.
Written by Nick Pope, an international bestselling author and former government UFO investigator, working closely with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, the two officers at the heart of the encounters, Encounter in Rendlesham Forest reveals the first-hand witnesses' full stories for the first time and is supported by numerous formerly-classified documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The inside story of these events and their aftermath will change people's perceptions about UFOs and about the true role played by government, the military and the intelligence agencies.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
JIM PENNISTON, USAF, Ret., served over twenty years active duty in the US Air Force. He is currently a lecturer and presenter on the Rendlesham Forest Incident and other related events.
JOHN BURROUGHS, USAF, Ret., served twenty-seven years in active and reserve duty in the US Air Force. He is currently a lecturer and presenter on the Rendlesham Forest Incident and other related events.
Read an Excerpt
1. GROUND ZERO
In the early hours of December 26, 1980, there’s little outward sign of activity at the twin US Air Force bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge. The bases lie a few hundred yards from each other. Between them lies Rendlesham Forest. The twin bases are much as you’d expect military bases to be—though they hide a secret that would horrify most people in the area, who were blissfully unaware of the bases’ true mission. Bentwaters and Woodbridge lie in the sleepy county of Suffolk, on the cold, exposed coast of the East of England. For most of the young men and women here, it’s their first experience of a foreign country. To soften the blow, the bases have all the comforts of home—a bar, a burger joint, and other stores—they’re like small American towns nestling in the heart of the English countryside.
The events started when Airman First Class John Burroughs spotted strange lights in the forest. Burroughs had been patrolling Woodbridge and was close to the East Gate (sometimes colloquially referred to as the back gate). The lights were due east from that location and were red and blue. The red light was above the blue light and they were flashing on and off. Burroughs altered his supervisor, Staff Sergeant Bud Steffens. Both men watched in amazement as despite being familiar with the area (Burroughs had been based there for seventeen months), they had never seen anything like it before.
Their first thought was that an aircraft might have crashed in the forest. Not one of the A-10s (there was no military flying activity on the night concerned) but perhaps a civilian light aircraft. Their first and most basic instinct, of course, was to investigate and to render assistance if it was needed. Also, there was the question of security. If some unexplained activity was going on so close to the twin bases, was there a threat—actual or potential?
Burroughs unlocked the combination lock on the East Gate and he and Steffens drove out of the gate and a couple of hundred yards or so down to a small public road. There they turned right and drove another ten or twenty yards, before reaching a left-hand turning where a small track led into the forest. At this point, a white light was visible, in addition to the red and blue lights. This white light was particularly odd and at one point appeared to be coming closer to them, down the small track. The color, configuration, and movement of the lights were like no aircraft or vehicle they were familiar with.
Despite the urge to press on, they realized they needed to call in this incident, so drove back to the East Gate, where they phoned in a brief report—using the landline in the guard shack, as opposed to their pocket radios, which were known to be insecure and susceptible to scanners, which could be used to pick up conversations.
Burroughs spoke to the Law Enforcement (LE) duty desk sergeant, Sergeant “Crash” McCabe, and explained what was happening. McCabe wasn’t sure what to make of this and briefly wondered whether some sort of practical joke was being played on him. He asked to speak to Steffens, who confirmed what Burroughs had said was true and that he, too, had witnessed the strange lights. McCabe also suspected that an aircraft crash might have occurred and called through to Central Security Control, passing the problem to Staff Sergeant John Coffey.
Coffey called the on-duty flight chief at RAF Woodbridge, Staff Sergeant James (Jim) W. Penniston. Penniston wasn’t briefed on the nature of the situation but was told to proceed with his rider, Airman First Class Edward N. Cabansag, driving to the East Gate with blue lights on to rendezvous with “Police Four” and “Police Five”—the call signs for Burroughs and Steffens. This was highly unusual, and Penniston was somewhat flustered and annoyed that he wasn’t briefed on what to expect but was simply told to rendezvous with Burroughs and Penniston at the East Gate, where he’d be told the nature of the situation. This departure from standard procedure was one of the first indications that this was a highly unusual and sensitive situation. It also raises the possibility that at least some people in the chain of command already knew more about this than they were saying or had been instructed not to give details of the situation over the communications systems. Otherwise, why not simply say to Penniston something along the lines that a patrol was investigating a possible aircraft crash in the forest? Coffey could have been even vaguer and used a phrase such as “possible security situation” or that phrase so beloved by police all around the world, “an incident.” There was no problem in terms of jurisdiction and USAF personnel were certainly allowed to patrol off-base (outside the wire, as it’s called in the military) in a wide range of circumstances.
While there’s some confusion over the exact time, Jim Penniston recalls that it was just after midnight.
Burroughs and Steffens were still waiting at the East Gate when they were joined by Penniston and his driver, Airman First Class Edward Cabansag. They quickly briefed Penniston, and once again the view of the experienced flight chief was that this must have been an aircraft crash. But it was the middle of the night, at Christmas, and there was certainly no military aircraft activity. And while the possibility of a civil aircraft was still being considered, nobody had heard an explosion or any sounds. And that’s when Steffens made an odd remark that caught everyone’s attention:
“It didn’t crash. It landed.”
Despite that disconcerting observation, Penniston felt the aircraft crash theory was still the most likely explanation and with this in mind radioed Central Security Control and asked to speak to the overall flight chief for both bases, Master Sergeant J. D. Chandler.
If all this “A calls B, who then checks with C” procedure seems somewhat labored, especially in a situation where those involved might have been dealing with an aircraft crash, there are three important points to bear in mind. First, while looking at a written account might lead readers to think valuable time was being wasted, most of the actions set out previously are relatively quick and easy ones and—in the case of the telephone calls and radio conversations—take only seconds. Second, the military is a notoriously hierarchical organization where everybody is very rank conscious; in such a culture, clearing a non-routine action with your supervisor, or at the very least informing him or her, is rather more important than it is in most civilian organizations—getting your top cover, as it’s sometimes referred to. Finally, the security police and law enforcement specialisms tend to be very process driven in many respects. Initiative is still encouraged, but a lot of tasks are performed by following a set procedure that’s learned by heart and then constantly tested and reinforced through training.
With the aircraft crash theory in mind, Chandler checked the position with regard to aircraft activity with the control tower at Bentwaters. Somebody in the control tower checked the radar and also placed calls to RAF Bawdsey, RAF Watton, and Heathrow Airport in London. The key piece of information that came back was that a “bogey”—or “bogie”—(defined by the USAF as “a radar or visual air contact whose identity is unknown”) had been tracked around fifteen minutes previously but that the target had been lost when it disappeared from the radar screen directly over the Woodbridge base. Chandler contacted the shift commander and gave Penniston the OK to continue the investigation. Perhaps because he sensed trouble or knew something was amiss, Penniston requested backup. In response to this request, Chandler decided to come out himself.
With the somewhat troubling piece of news about the radar return having been relayed to them, Penniston, Burroughs, and Cabansag drove out into the forest to resume the investigation that Burroughs and Steffens had started shortly beforehand. There is some confusion about why Steffens didn’t go out into the forest. One possibility was that with personnel about to go off-base, weapons needed to be left with someone—though, in fact, weapons can be taken off-base in some circumstances, e.g., where an immediate and serious security threat is perceived. Indeed, there’s a suggestion that some of those who went into the forest didn’t leave their weapons behind, even if they should have!
Penniston, Burroughs, and Cabansag took the same route as had been taken before: they drove the couple of hundred yards or so from the East Gate to the small road that ran through the forest. They turned right, drove for a few yards, then turned left down a small track that led deeper into the forest. These tracks are not proper roads and are very narrow and bumpy. You can’t drive a vehicle—even a sturdy one like a military Jeep—that far down them, so after maybe no more than fifty yards or so the men had to stop the car and proceed on foot.
As they advanced into the forest with—as Cabansag described it—“extreme caution,” all three men could see the strange lights. Cabansag described them as being “blue, red, white, and yellow.”
Though not formally classified as such, the event clearly was now being treated as a potential security situation. While the only theory that had been discussed so far was that this was a potential crash of a light aircraft, the facts simply didn’t add up. And by this time, none of those involved thought this was what they were dealing with: the obvious proof of this is that nobody had called for an ambulance (or even a first-aid kit!) or called out the fire brigade. Another clue was Cabansag’s admission that they proceeded with “extreme caution”—hardly the actions of a patrol engaged on an urgent search-and-rescue mission.
By this time, the backup they’d requested had arrived. This consisted of Master Sergeant Chandler (whom Penniston had spoken to earlier) in another vehicle. There’s confusion about who arrived first. Chandler says that when he arrived Penniston, Burroughs, and Cabansag “had entered the wooded area just beyond the clearing at the access road,” while Cabansag said that Chandler was already “on the scene.” Such inconsistencies may seem minor, but they’re indicative of something wider, because while four men were in the forest that night, all came back with different memories of what happened next.
At about this time, all four men’s radios began to malfunction. Or rather—given the small chance that four separate radios would simultaneously malfunction—something began to interfere with communications, which seemed only to be working over a short distance. To deal with this, the four men adopted a low-tech solution and set up a radio relay. In other words, Chandler stayed with the parked vehicles and from there was able to relay messages between the men who went deeper into the forest and his colleagues back on the base, in Central Security Control. Cabansag went forward, but when he and Chandler could hardly hear each other he, too, stopped, leaving only John Burroughs and Jim Penniston to push forward to try to find the source of the lights.
Burroughs and Penniston soon realized there was something seriously wrong. The air was filled with static electricity and the hairs on their arms and on the backs of their necks were standing on end. It was difficult to walk properly and they described the experience as being akin to wading through deep water. All the time, the lights were ahead of them, getting brighter and more clearly defined as they ventured deeper into the forest, closer to whatever was out there.
Up ahead was a small clearing, brightly illuminated. They had reached their goal. Suddenly, as they approached, there was a silent explosion of light. They instinctively hit the ground, fearing they’d be hit by debris from the bright flash of light. Penniston, seeing no apparent harm from the immense flash of light, stood up, and what came clearly into view was clearly nothing to do with an aircraft crash.
Penniston looked to his right and saw Burroughs engulfed in a huge beam of light, which appeared to be coming from above. The light encompassed Burroughs. Then Penniston saw that what had first appeared to be a sphere of light in front of him had dissipated and now had the appearance of a craft of some sort.
Staggered, Penniston took stock of the situation. In the clearing was a small, metallic craft. It was about three meters high and maybe three meters across at the base. The craft was roughly triangular in shape and appeared to be either hovering just above the ground or perhaps resting on legs at each edge of the object, as if it was on a tripod, like a lunar landing module (only with three legs and not four). It had a bank of blue lights on its side and a bright white light on the top. There was no sound whatsoever.
As Penniston approached the object he saw strange symbols on the side. They were unlike anything he’d seen before, and the nearest match he could come up with was ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Penniston had the presence of mind to take a number of photographs and sketch both the craft and the symbols in his police notebook.
Finally, Penniston plucked up the courage to touch the object. It felt hard and smooth. This, combined with the look of the hull, close-up, made him think of a smooth, opaque black glass. He then moved to touch the symbols. He recalls the sensation thus: “The skin of the craft was smooth to touch. Almost like running your hand over glass. Void of seams or imperfections, until I ran my fingers over the symbols. The symbols were nothing like the rest of the craft, they were rough, like running my fingers over sandpaper.”
As Penniston touched the symbols, the white light on top of the craft flared up and became so intense that Penniston was fear struck and temporarily blinded by what was before him. Penniston removed his hand from the craft, and as soon as he did so the light dimmed and the sense of panic receded.
After some time, and to Penniston’s utter amazement, the craft lifted slowly off the ground. Again, everything seemed to move in slow motion, with the craft taking two or three minutes to rise up above the trees around the edge of the small clearing. All the time, even with the object rising above the ground, there was no noise. Because the clearing was small and the trees were dense, at times the object seemed as if it had to maneuver through the trees. Finally, when it had cleared the trees, it accelerated away in an instant. Penniston, methodical and professional in the face of everything, wrote the following observation in his police notebook: “Speed—impossible.”
Burroughs has few coherent memories of what happened after the explosion of light. After he threw himself to the ground, he recalls seeing a red, oval, sun-like object in the clearing but does not recall the craft. For him, the time from hitting the ground until seeing the UFO depart seemed like a few seconds, whereas for Jim the inspection of the craft took many minutes. Even today, this is troubling for Penniston:
I entered the bubble field (the area immediately around the craft) first; John was over to my right about ten feet and a couple feet back. The silence was then the most prominent part of it; the area or field seemed dead; the air: no sound; no rustling of air or wind; no distant sounds, no animals or nothing—a dead silence. A strong static on clothes, hair and skin—being pulled toward the light. Then dissipated—I was alone. And from John’s perspective, he has no memory. John is standing still and motionless. I yelled at him, of course. No reaction; he does not move. He, of course, cannot hear me and I then turn and focus on the craft and the matter of security for the bases. It has been always the case that John does not have a memory of this. But when we were being debriefed and writing statements in Colonel Halt’s office, less than 72 hours after the first night, John in his statement (which was hand written) has the drawing of the craft he saw with me. This has always made me wonder about John’s memory. Why could he do this within 72 hours and today has no memory? Definitely food for thought!
Food for thought indeed. Especially when combined with one cryptic comment Burroughs made when pressed on where he was while Jim examined the craft and why their memories are so different at this point: “The only possibility is that I was in the light when he was doing his examination.”
Penniston and Burroughs—still in a state of considerable shock—attempted to relocate the UFO and had a number of further sightings of strange lights on the horizon. At one point the object was so close they thought it was going to land again. But it didn’t and the UFO eventually departed to the east, out over the coast.
Still confused and disorientated, they eventually decided to make their way back out of the forest. As they did so, they passed back through the small clearing where they’d had their encounter. Still trying to process what had happened to them, they looked around. Perhaps if they found nothing, they’d somehow convince themselves that it had been some sort of shared hallucination.
It was not to be. In the very center of the clearing, on the hard, frozen ground, were three indentations. They were recent. Something heavy—probably weighing several tons, judging by the hardness of the ground and the depth of the indentations—had clearly been resting there. When they looked more closely, they saw that if they drew an imaginary line between the three indentations the shape formed would be a near-perfect equilateral triangle.
As further confirmation, they noticed that branches had been snapped off the trees around the edge of the clearing, where the object had smashed its way in from above and then done the same on its way out. It would sound absurd, were it not for the fact that this was precisely what Penniston had just witnessed.
They left the clearing and rendezvoused with Cabansag, Chandler, and six other security force members, before making their way back to RAF Bentwaters, the main operating base. When they arrived back, they found that they’d been gone much longer than they realized. This, coupled with the fact that they’d been out of radio contact, had caused near panic in certain quarters. Indeed, a search party had been on the point of going out to look for them. Penniston tried to convince himself that adrenaline would explain the time discrepancy, but their watches told a different story. He explains: “I suppose anything is possible with this time discrepancy. I believe it is more than likely that within the affected area around the craft there was a distortion of some kind, which based on the missing time from our watches indicates this, by them running forty-five minutes slow. We were definitely affected by this phenomenon in a physical way, including the machinery we wore (watches).”
Burroughs confirms both the “missing time” and the exact figure: “The fact is our watches were behind and the shift commander said we were missing for 45 min.”
There were some formalities to go through. Weapons had to be returned and signed for and a hurried debriefing—the first of many—was carried out. Though they didn’t realize it at the time, dozens of other military personnel at the twin bases had seen the strange lights and had been watching from a number of vantage points, including the control tower at Bentwaters. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to Penniston and Burroughs, but for them the immediate aftermath of their encounter was a blur. They just wanted to get off-duty, go back to their beds, sleep, and forget. They soon got their wish, but if they thought their ordeal was over, they were sadly mistaken. It had only just begun.
Burroughs and Penniston were, it should be said, skeptical about UFOs. In a sense, they still are, despite everything. Penniston set out his views this way:
My thoughts are simply that 99 percent of all so-called UFO sightings can be explained by people with a knowledgeable background or aerial training to reporting such things for exactly what they are. Their UFO is an observation of the following type of possibilities: as a manmade object, star/planetary body, or other natural occurring phenomena, all completely identifiable by a trained observer. There are also people who seem to have some physiological issues which are in my opinion manifested exponentially when they see things they can’t explain. I feel it is a natural state for those with tainted objectivity within their thinking and can have easily have occurred with other sightings. With that entirely aside with the 99 percent, this leaves the remaining one percent. It is this percent I believe is the truly unknown—a conclusion I made after I left the forest that night. This is the very reason I am troubled by the events of December 26, 1980. I went into the forest with what I just said being the case. Then I left the forest with the “One Percent Factor” raining all over me. I had no answers for what clearly created conditions, effects and the presence of an unknown craft with technology that cannot be replicated even today. So how does this all play? Simply, one percent of UFO sightings are unknown.
Burroughs is more succinct, though his dismissive remarks about UFOs betray, perhaps, a sense of unease alongside his skepticism: “I never spent any time thinking about any of that. The only feeling I ever had was I hoped I never had to walk a mile in their shoes.”
Penniston went on to sum up the transformative nature of the experience like this: “What I once believed is no more and what I’ve witnessed defies all that I have ever imagined. I am truly in awe over the whole incident and no-one can fully understand the magnitude of such an event unless you were there.”
For jurisdictional and legal reasons, it was important that the American military notified the British authorities that they were going off-base. The usual way in which this was done was by notifying the local police. This action had been taken at about 4:00 am by Airman First Class Chris Armold on the LE desk. In a message to Suffolk Police he wrote: “We have a sighting of some unusual lights in the sky, have sent some unarmed troops to investigate, we are terming it as a U.F.O. at present.”
Two police officers responded and briefly searched the area. They found nothing, though their inquiries revealed the fact that strange lights had been witnessed over large parts of southern England earlier in the night.
A later entry in the Suffolk Police log provides the first known documentary evidence showing that a landing had taken place. This intriguing log entry reads as follows: “We have had a call from the L.E. at Bentwaters in reference to the U.F.O. reported last night. We have found a place where a craft of some sort seems to have landed.”
One of the other central figures in this story is the Deputy Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles I. Halt. Halt was a thorough and careful man. He had wide-ranging responsibilities for security, policing, law enforcement, and a large number of administrative functions at the twin bases. Halt also liked to “walk the ground.” That’s to say, he often took an in-depth look at some of the areas for which he had responsibility. Sometimes, for example, he’d sit with the fire department personnel, talk to the cooks, or ride with the cops on patrol. Some officers wouldn’t have gotten that close to the enlisted men and women under their command (many officers are more detached and keep a “professional distance” from those under their command) and some of these more junior personnel were pretty nervous about being so closely scrutinized by one of the most senior officers at the twin bases. Halt, however, felt that if he was to do his job properly, he needed to get down into the weeds and understand every aspect of what was going on. He regarded it as the best way to get what the military call ground truth—not what people tell you is going on but what’s actually going on. Burroughs acknowledges this trait but was not keen on it, clearly feeling a little “over-supervised”: “He was high speed; would ride around with LE to get a feel of what was going on at the base. He rode with me a couple of times, always was getting in our way.”
Penniston clearly had great respect for Halt:
Colonel Halt is what I call “An Enlisted man’s Colonel”; he valued the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) that he commanded. He valued their knowledge, skills, assessments, opinions, judgments and the people themselves, as a valuable and key part of the United States Air Force mission. Colonel Halt is an officer who truly believes you are only as good as people you command. From Major Command evaluations to local evaluations, the Colonel believes it was the NCO corps that made it all happen. Then his conduct in regards to the Rendlesham Forest Incident, well, he was only following orders, and he stretched those orders as far as he could without jeopardizing his career.
The morning after the UFO encounter, at about 5:00 am, Halt came on duty and headed for the LE desk. There was some chatter and laughter, which abruptly stopped as he entered the room.
“What’s going on?” Halt asked.
“Penniston and Burroughs were out last night chasing UFOs, sir,” Sergeant McCabe replied.
McCabe was writing up the LE blotters—the logs on which anything significant that occurred on the shift were recorded. The purpose of these logs was twofold—they were a useful part of the handover process to the next duty shift and they also provided a source of raw data that was invaluable if a question was raised later, when memories had faded.
“Put it in the blotter,” Halt ordered.
It later transpired that accounts of what had happened were written up not just in the Law Enforcement blotters but also in the Security blotters and that an Air Force Form 1569 (Incident/Complaint Report) was completed by the security controllers at Central Security Control.
Everyone was sensitive about using the loaded term “UFO,” so Halt suggested using a vague phrase such as “unexplained lights” and maybe making reference to the theory concerning a possible light aircraft crash. Halt was to use the same phrase, “unexplained lights,” later, when reporting the incident formally to the British government, via the Ministry of Defence (MoD). So already, just hours after the incident, the matter was being played down. But perhaps more sinister forces were at work. Later that day, Halt became aware that the encounter Penniston and Burroughs had had was something far more tangible than a mere “lights in the sky” UFO sighting. Halt moved quickly to review not just the LE blotter (which he’d instructed be written up in vague terms) but also the Security blotter, which was likely to have the best and most accurate contemporaneous account of what actually took place.
Halt’s plan was frustrated. Somehow, somebody had removed both blotters and the incident report, with nobody on duty being able to explain how. Staff Sergeant Coffey recalls “my Blotter was pulled and classified SECRET by the Base Commander [Colonel Ted Conrad].” Penniston offers this view of the situation:
The removal and classifying of the security blotters (AF Forms 53) and AF Forms 1569s (Incident and Complaint Report) were part of the containment process initiated by others, outside the Base Command. Colonel Halt unknowingly asked the Desk Sergeant to include the first night’s information that they had already omitted on the morning after. I think it disturbed him when he became aware the security blotters and 1569s had already been classified and pulled. With the removal of the blotters and 1569s, [without Halt’s knowledge] it was much easier to put out a cover/containment story about the nights in question.
Burroughs takes a more conspiratorial view here and offers a view on where the material was sent: “That, along with all the other missing documents, shows that this incident was classified early on. Also, there is no way they just disappeared. My guess is they were sent to Germany [HQ United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE)] and that the State Department got a copy too.”
The blotters were never found, so right from the very outset we have not just a spectacular UFO encounter but also strong evidence of a conspiracy. Standard procedures were being ignored and evidence was somehow being removed from right under the noses of people for whom security was a way of life. It’s difficult to see how the blotters and the incident report could have been spirited away without one of the key players being involved in some way. The alternative—that outsiders were somehow able to access the secure area and remove the material without attracting attention—is even more difficult to believe. Either way, this set the tone for what was to follow and led to a climate of suspicion and fear, with working relationships and friendships being stretched to the breaking point.
Copyright © 2014 by Nick Pope
Table of ContentsIntroduction 00
Chapter 1: Ground Zero 00
Chapter 2: The Morning After 00
Chapter 3: Into The Darkness 00
Chapter 4: It's Coming This Way 00
Chapter 5: Charles Halt Over The Years 00
Chapter 6: The Most Important Bases In NATO 00
Chapter 7: Debriefing The Witnesses 00
Chapter 8: The Brits Are Coming 00
Chapter 9: Skeptical Theories 00
Chapter 10: Exotic Theories 00
Chapter 11: The Story Gets Out 00
Chapter 12: Rendlesham Rumors 00
Chapter 13: No Defense Significance? 00
Chapter 14: Project Condign 00
Chapter 15: Beyond Rendlesham 00
Chapter 16: Other Voices 00
Chapter 17: The Search For Answers 00
Chapter 18: The Rendlesham Message 00
Chapter 19: Final Thoughts From John Burroughs 00
And Jim Penniston
Selected Documents and Images 00