Back in the early ‘90s, when The X-Files first came to television, Nick Pope could use the show to explain his job. He had become — much to his own surprise — the British Ministry of Defense’s lead investigator on UFO reports and sightings, a title he toted around between archives and active cases for four years. After that, he went private, and emerged as one of the world’s leading experts on UFO research — which is why Pope is going to have a busy month. The British government is in the midst of declassifying a ton of different MoD documents and Pope has stepped in between his government and the conspiracy minded to talk about what this expansive archive really represents and what “unexplained” occurrences really mean.
“I’m a firm believer we shouldn’t read too much into the ‘unexplained,’” he says. Pope is — if he must be classified — a skeptic.
To understand how Pope came by his informed skepticism and how Britain came by an archive of material on UFOs, it’s important to understand the history of “unexplained” aerial phenomena. Back in the 1950s, after modern aviation finally established a foothold in society, UFO sightings began to seep into the media and the minds of the public. The Roswell incident in 1947 certainly didn’t help to quell suspicions and hysteria. But it wasn’t civilians reporting sightings here and there — it began with air force pilots seeing them and tracking them on radar.
“Clearly there was official interest in anything unidentified in our airspace — though the thinking was that we were more likely to be dealing with Russians than Martians,” Pope tells Inverse.
The U.S. moved forward to investigate the strange lights in the sky (resulting in the start of Project Blue Book in 1952). Not wanting to fall behind, the British began their own UFO investigations as well. Fast forward to the 1991: After six years in other positions at the MoD, Pope was assigned to work on UFO investigations.
“I had no prior interest in the subject and my only exposure to the topic had been watching the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when I was a kid,” he says.
Once he started following up on reports, Pope found there was actually something to them. Most sightings, of course, had pretty conventional explanations — usually ordinary objects or natural events that were simply misidentified. “But every now and then,” he says, “an interesting case came along that gave us pause for thought.” Pope took advantage of his new position by digging into the archive of past reports. He found that there had been some decidedly odd occurrences over the years. “No proof of anything extraterrestrial, but, it wasn’t all swamp gas either,” he says.
Among the strangest and most interesting cases Pope had the pleasure of working was a series of UFO sightings by over a hundred different witnesses — many of them law enforcement and military personnel. Dubbed the Cosford Incident — patrols at the Royal Air Force base at Cosford reported seeing a UFO comprised of two white lights and a faint red glow — the event triggered an investigation and Pope found that there was “no defense significance” to the UFOs sighted and also no reasonable explanation for what people had seen. In his briefing to the head of his division, Pope wrote:
“It seems that an unidentified object of unknown origin was operating in the UK Air Defence Region without being detected on radar; this would appear to be of considerable defence significance, and I recommend that we investigate further, within MoD or with the U.S. authorities.”
In a rare showing of support, Pope’s superior agreed with his conclusion, writing to his superior:
“In summary, there would seem to be some evidence on this occasion that an unidentified object (or objects) of unknown origin was operating over the UK.”
“This is about as close the MoD will ever get to saying that there’s more to UFOs than misidentifications or hoaxes,” Pope says.
Pope was also pretty involved in follow-up investigations concerning the Rendlesham Forest incident — Britain’s most famous UFO story. In December 1980, a series of sightings and a landing by some type of aircraft took place near the twin military bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge. The MoD’s investigations were, in the words of Pope, “inconclusive.” Lord Hill-Norton, a retired 5-star admiral who was a former Chief of the Defense staff and a former chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, said in his assessment that he believed either an unidentified craft landed, or a large number of military witnesses were lying or hallucinating — and either explanation warranted further investigation. To date, the case remains unexplained.
The biggest things Pope says he learned from his time as a UFO investigator: most witnesses are sincere and sane — also, wrong. Pope believe that the key reason “a hell of a lot of people” believe their government is involved with some sort of conspiracy is that the government doesn’t always do a good job being forthright about their actual interest in UFOs, largely for defense reasons.
That’s less true today than it was during the Cold War. The MoD shut down its UFO investigations in 2009 and the mass declassification of 209 files and 52,000 pages of documentation has served as a public confession. Now, there’s a little less than two-dozen files remaining those are expected to be released soon — much to the consternation of UFO truthers, who Pope notes that these groups also believe the intentional release of these files is a ploy to disseminate false information. “We were never going to satisfy these people anyway, so it’s a moot point,” he says.
Together, the documents are a mix of policy information that outlines how the MoD wanted to go about investigating UFO sightings (and some alien abduction claims by individuals), the reports of the sightings themselves, public correspondence files, and details on how the subject was raised and treated in Parliament.
These days, most of the world’s governments have moved out of the UFO business. Pope isn’t sure this is a good idea because governments have access to resources and capabilities private individuals don’t. Radar data is the ultimate example: When Pope needed to find out whether nearby radar installations may have picked up and identified a nearby UFO sighting, all he had to do was pick up the phone and call whomever he needed. Now, pretty much the only civilian move is to make a records request, which Pope says will likely be handled “begrudgingly” by the government.
But perhaps most of all, technology has made it a thousand times easier to actually conduct investigations and reach out to witnesses. People can stay connected even after several years and discuss what they saw.
“Let me put it this way,” says Pope. “If Roswell [occurred] today, what would happen? The answer is, we would have an answer, one way or another.”
Although the paranoia that fueled UFO speculation during the Cold War has waned, interest in aliens and UFOs remains consistently strong. He thinks a healthy skepticism is still the best approach towards dealing with such reports, but he acknowledges that aliens would “of course be more fascinating.” If we do find hard evidence of a UFO with extraterrestrial origins, Pope will be there to participate in the explanation of the unexplainable. He’s not a government agent anymore, but he’s still get his eyes open.