A UFO about Topcliffe?

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Whilst most UFO reports can demonstrably be accounted for through mundane causes, a minority of them appear to defy conventional explanations.

One such case is an incident which took place at Topcliffe in England in the 50s.


Flight Lieutenant Kilburn wrote a report on it.

„Sir, I have the honour to report the following incident which I witnessed on Friday, 19th September, 1952. I was standing with four other aircrew personnel of No. 269 Squadron watching a Meteor fighter gradually descending. The Meteor was at approximately 5000 feet and approaching from the east. [Flight Officer R.N.] Paris suddenly noticed a white object in the sky at a height between ten and twenty thousand feet some five miles astern of the Meteor. The object was silver in colour and circular in shape, it appeared to be travelling at a much slower speed than the Meteor but was on a similar course. It maintained the slow forward speed for a few seconds before commencing to descend, swinging in a pendular motion during descent similar to a falling sycamore leaf…After a few seconds, the object stopped its pendulous motion and its descent and began to rotate about its own axis
Suddenly it accelerated at an incredible speed towards the west turning onto a south-easterly heading before disappearing. All this occurred in a matter of fifteen to twenty seconds. The movements of the object were not identifiable with anything I have seen in the air and the rate of acceleration was unbelievable.“

What conventional explanations can be  envisaged here?

Obviously, the object wasn’t some bird or meteorite.

A plane?

I first thought of a plane or helicopter which was misidentified by the men. But how plausible is this?


While the sighting may have lasted more than 20 s, it seems safe to assume it lasted at most 2 minutes.


The circular shape and colour could possibly have been optical illusions.

Pendular motion

Yet what caused the observers to see the object swaying back and forth like a falling leave?

It seems dubious that a plane could move in a way similar to such a falling sycamore leave.

Even if it circled while descending, it doesn’t seem plausible this would give that impression to the experienced soldiers.

How did the plane stop and disappear?

Why did the men perceive that the putative plane or helicopter stopped, rotated around its axis for a few seconds before flying away at an amazing speed?

(The velocity of the object was likened to that of a shooting star in the press).

The change of direction of the plane (towards the West and then the south east) makes it likely it didn’t merely disappear in an unmentioned nearby cloud and that they were truly able to appreciate its speed.

The very short duration of the observation doesn’t seem to allow for such a fantastic acceleration while the „plane“ (let alone the helicopter) changed its course.

And if the soldiers perceived the plane as being immobile because it slowed down after ending the descent, this makes the sudden fantastic acceleration all the more incomprehensible.

Who in the hell was the pilot?

And who might have been the pilot and what were his motives? Given the behaviour of the „plane“ at such high heights and its performance , it seems far-fetched he was just a private individual like you and me having fun (back in the 50s). Equally implausible is the possibility that a Russian spy uselessly engaged in such manoeuvres. And if this was a British pilot of the RAF, we might wonder why nobody set the minds of the public straight. An intelligence agent wrote:

…In some RAF field, there was some sort of demonstration to which high officials of the RAF in London had been invited. During the show, a ‘perfect flying saucer’ was seen by these officials as well as RAF pilots. So many people saw it that many articles appeared in the public press. This is distressing to [Dr] Jones because he realises that the creation of the correction of public opinion is a part of his responsibilities.“

A weather balloon?

We could conceive of a weather balloon slowly advancing and, with a stretch of imagination, descending while zigzagging because of the wind. But that wouldn’t account for the very fast acceleration of the object after its having been apparently immobile for a few second.  The fact that it changed its direction from the west to the south-east shows that its flying away wasn’t an illusion due to its bursting.

False memories?

We might also consider the possibility that the men saw a normal plane changing its direction but misremembered crucial aspects of the sighting. Kilburn described his experience on the next day to a newspaper and probably wrote the official report shortly thereafter. In the absence of very precise leading questions, it doesn’t seem plausible at all that such false memories might emerge.


What if this all boiled down to hallucinations? This can never be disproved but we generally don’t consider it likely if the person is describing a coherent phenomenon (as is the case here). What is more, it is strange that the other witnesses would have failed to correct him or that we heard nothing about their disagreement.


As the sighting reportedly lasted less than a minute, we have few facts at our disposal.

But the combination of what we do know appears to rule out the best conventional explanations coming to mind. Trying to use them feels like fitting a square into a circle during a logic test.

This conclusion is tentative. I’d certainly be glad if a more knowledgeable reader can think of a good conventional explanation making sense of that peculiar sighting although I doubt it’s possible.

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