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Christmas lights: The inside story of one of the world's most notorious UFO sightings

Three decades on, TheJournal.ie talks to the man at the centre of the Rendlesham Forest incident, Christmas 1980.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk. Source: Fimb via Flickr

CHUCK HALT WANTED to go to Iceland in 1980.

He was on a stellar career path in the US Air Force, since he joined after college in 1962.

The Lieutenant Colonel from the suburbs of Pittsburgh had helped get American prisoners out of North Vietnam, was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and worked at the Pentagon for four years.

In 1980, three jobs came up, he recalls, speaking to TheJournal.ie by phone from his home in Virginia.

They included US Commander in Iceland, and Deputy Base Commander at RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk. He chose Iceland, he got Suffolk.

And in the early hours of St Stephens Day, 35 years ago, he was thrust into the centre of what would become one of the most mysterious, controversial episodes in UK and American military history – “Britain’s Roswell”, the Rendlesham Forest Incident.

‘It’s like the pupil of an eye looking at you, winking’

unsolvedlights A recreation of one of the lights seen by Colonel Halt and his team. Source: Unsolved Mysteries/NBC

At around 3am on Christmas night, 1980, two Air Force police officers were on patrol around the perimeter of RAF Bentwaters, which along with RAF Woodbridge forms “twin” UK-US bases on the edge of the 1,400-acre Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk.

According to a later report by Halt, they “saw unusual lights outside the back gate at RAF Woodbridge.”

The two men, joined by another, went into the woods to investigate.

The individuals reported seeing a strange glowing object in the forest. The object was described as being metallic in appearance and triangular in shape, approximately two to three metres across the base, and approximately two metres high.
It illuminated the entire forest with a white light. The object itself had a pulsing red light on top and a bank of blue lights underneath. The object was hovering or on legs.
As the patrolmen approached the object, it manoeuvred through the trees and disappeared. At this time, the animals on a nearby farm went into a frenzy.

The following day, according to Halt, a team went out with Geiger counters to measure radioactivity in the forest, and claimed to find significant damage to trees.

They also claim to have found three equidistant circular “landing marks.”

On the night of 27 December, the base’s Christmas party was interrupted by one of the patrolmen shouting “It’s back!”

This time, Deputy Base Commander Halt went out to the woods himself, to investigate.

He brought Geiger counters, a piece of lighting equipment called a “star scope”, a photographer, a small group of the men under his command, and crucially – a tape recorder.

The 18-minute voice recording was made over a period of hours that night, and contains some extraordinary observations:

Source: miffiokunTV2/YouTube

While performing a methodical search of the woods and investigating marks on trees and indentations on the ground, the group was suddenly struck by a light on the horizon, as Halt recounts in the recording.

We’re about 150 to 200 yards from the site. Everything else is just deathly calm. There is no doubt about it, there’s some type of strange, flashing red light ahead.
It’s coming this way. It is definitely coming this way. Pieces of it are shooting off, there is no doubt about it. This is weird.

The red light that exploded “like fireworks” was replaced by “three star-like objects”, two to Halt’s north, and one to his south.

It looks like an eye winking at you, it’s still moving from side to side, and when we put the star scope on it, it sort of has a hollow centre, right, a dark centre.
It’s like the pupil of an eye looking at you, winking. And the flash is so bright to the starscope that it almost burns your eye.

The night culminated in what Halt called an “unreal” close encounter.

3.05: We see strange, strobe-like flashes to the…almost sporadic, but there’s definitely something there, some kind of phenomena.
Hey, here he comes from the south, he’s coming toward us now. Now we’re observing what appears to be a beam coming down to the ground. This is unreal.

‘Burn it. Your life, and mine, will never be the same.’

haltunsolved Chuck Halt in his famous appearance on Unsolved Mysteries. Source: Unsolved Mysteries/NBC

There are hundreds of UFO reports in Britain every year. In 2009 alone, the year the UK government got rid of its UFO hotline, there were 640 separate reports up to the end of November – 13 a week.

In one email, a teaching assistant from Dorset claims a fireball the size of a football flew through her kitchen window and landed in a plastic bag full of crisp packets.

Two others, reporting flying objects in Kent and North Yorkshire, began “I am a bit embarrassed about reporting this,” and “Can’t believe I am writing this…”

All the reports, however, are met with the same coldly-worded response from the Royal Air Force:

Unless there is evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom from an external source, and to date no UFO report has revealed such evidence, we do not attempt to identify the precise nature of each sighting reported to us.
The MoD does not have any expertise or role in respect of ‘UFO/flying saucer’ matters or the question of the existence or otherwise of extraterrestrial life forms, about which it remains totally open-minded.
I should add that, to date, the MoD knows of no evidence which substantiates the existence of these alleged phenomena.

What makes the Rendlesham Forest incident stand out from thousands of other UFO reports in the ensuing three decades, is the involvement and documentation of on-duty US military, including a serving Air Force Lt Colonel.

Ian Ridpath, an astronomy writer and BBC journalist who has covered the Rendlesham Forest incident since the beginning, explained its appeal in an email to TheJournal.ie:

This case was materially different from others because of the quality and number of the witnesses.
Also, it was a highly unusual sighting since it described a flashing light low to the ground, whereas most are up in the sky.
Hence it was clear that a simple celestial solution was not possible for that part of the sighting.

One thing added more credibility to the case for an extraterrestrial explanation than anything else – Chuck Halt’s memo and his voice.

UFO reports, the ones that can’t be quickly dismissed as shooting stars or hot-air balloons, normally consist of a cluster of sightings by members of the public.

People walking their dogs, or a couple on their way home from the pub, and at best they’re accompanied by very blurry, amateur photographs, or wholly ambiguous video.

But here was an official memo, on US Air Force letterhead, written by a serving Lt Colonel, and addressed to the UK Ministry of Defence, and an 18-minute real-time recording of his observations.

haltmemo Source: UK National Archives

The tape was released in later years, unbeknownst to Halt, by someone he says “thought it was funny.”

After that, it all hit the fan if you know what I mean.

The document remained secret for more than two years, before a Freedom of Information request saw it published.

“My memo was never intended to go public,” he tells TheJournal.ie.

A copy found its way to Third Air Force, and somebody talked, and it got released.
I did everything I could to keep it from being released, because the then Commander was a friend of mine, and he called me and said ‘I’m going to release it,’ and my comment to him was, ‘Please, don’t. Burn it. Your life, and mine, will never be the same.’

And then, on Sunday 2 October 1983, the News of the World did this:

notw Source: News of the World/Ian Ridpath

The memo, it turns out, had been released just a few months earlier, to a group called CAUS (Citizens Against UFO Secrecy), who filed a Freedom of Information request in the US.

The source of the rest of the story was later revealed to have been Larry Warren, a former Air Force police officer who has himself become a controversial figure over the past 35 years.

Among many other claims, Warren says a Major General walked up to the spacecraft, touched it, and communicated with aliens in the woods.

Halt is adamant about that and other stories told in Left at the East Gate – the account of the incident written by Warren and Peter Robbins in 1997, telling TheJournal.ie:

It’s garbage. It should be classified as fiction, it’s so far off base.

(We asked Warren and Robbins to respond to this, but they didn’t).

In fact, what forced Chuck Halt to break his official silence after 11 years, was what he calls the “tremendous amount of disinformation” circulating about the events of Christmas night, 1980.

I still didn’t say much publicly until people started putting out all kinds of garbage and nonsense…
So much disinformation out there and people bugging me about what happened – I finally decided, it’s time to tell the truth.

Halt also claims that, after many years of allegedly being lied to, he found out that “some of the young Airmen involved were hypnotised and drugged.”

So in 1991, he retired as a Colonel in the US Air Force after 29 years of service, and went on Unsolved Mysteries, then close to the height of its popularity, and attracting 15 million viewers across America.

The man who had wanted to be in Iceland during Christmas 1980, who pleaded with his superior to burn his memo, who stayed quiet for more than a decade, went primetime.

And, to borrow an expression, he wasn’t alone.

hillnorton Baron Peter Hill-Norton, in later years. Source: Sirius Disclosure via YouTube

In recent decades, Halt has been joined by a wave of UFO believers whose positions of authority and responsibility (if not their claims) have given the movement more of what it most sorely lacks – credibility.

Among them are Ed Mitchell, former NASA astronaut and one of 12 humans to have walked on the moon, Paul Hellyer, former Canadian Defence Minister, Nick Pope, who worked on “aerial phenomena” at the UK Defence Ministry, before becoming a journalist, and Peter Hill-Norton, a former British five-star Navy Admiral and Chief of the Defence Staff.

As a member of the House of Lords, Baron Hill-Norton was perhaps the leading voice of Ufology within the British establishment.

He regularly asked parliamentary questions and wrote hundreds of letters to a series of ministers, challenging the state’s refusal to investigate or comment on alleged UFO sightings.

The official position of successive UK governments is, in short, that investigating sightings simply in order to debunk them, isn’t worth it.

We believe that rational explanations, such as aircraft lights or natural phenomena, could be found for [the sightings] if resources were diverted for this purpose, but it is not the function of the MoD to provide this kind of aerial identification service.
It would be an inappropriate use of defence resources if we were to do so.

In explaining why they shut down the UFO hotline in 2009, the MoD said:

…In over fifty years, no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat to the United Kingdom…There is no Defence benefit in such investigation.

Peter Hill-Norton, however, persistently challenged the somewhat circular logic of this position, and used the Rendlesham Forest incident as a prime example.

In 1997, he wrote to Junior Defence Minister John Gilbert.

hillnortonexcerpt Source: UK National Archives

British authorities may have closed the book on the events of December 1980, but others have made their own efforts to find a rational explanation.

Ian Ridpath, the BBC journalist who went to Rendlesham Forest in 1983, and has returned many times since, offers a number of natural and prosaic possible causes for the “unexplained lights” that Chuck Halt wrote about.

In essence, he has argued that:

  • Some of the lights were the result of an “exceptionally brilliant meteor” seen by others in southern England on Christmas night
  • The “landing marks” were not cleanly cut or equidistant, but rather just the result of rabbit diggings
  • The radiation levels measured weren’t actually peculiarly high.

One of the most extraordinary claims surrounding the incident was that of Jim Penniston, one of the three men who went into the woods on Christmas night.

Soon afterwards, he drew a set of sketches of the craft, on the request of Base Commander Ted Conrad.

penniston_sketch Source: UFOEvidence.org

Under hypnosis in 1994, he claimed to have touched the spacecraft, which was adorned with elaborate coded hieroglyphics, and telepathically downloaded a data set in binary code.

UFO Symbols Source: Hyper.net

He also said he had encountered beings who were not extraterrestrial, but rather human time travellers from the future.

Ridpath points to a Sci-Fi channel movie called Official Denial, which was released in November 1993.

It features a landing on an Air Force base, an abduction, and, just like Penniston’s hypnosis, culminates in the revelation, “They are us.”

If he saw the film, Penniston’s “memory” could have been heavily influenced by it, but even if he didn’t, a wide range of scientific studies have established that false memories can readily be created or even implanted during hypnosis.

As for the lights seen on 27 December, when Halt brought his team out to the woods, Ridpath found a startlingly simple explanation for this almost as soon as he arrived in 1983, and talked to a local woodsman named Vincent Thurkettle.

Once Vince the forester had alerted me to the existence of the lighthouse in the same line of sight as the flashing UFO, I expected the case to die rapidly.
Neither of us expected that it would grow into a celebrated classic.

As shown in the map below, the Orford Ness Lighthouse, on the Suffolk coast, shines in the direction of the farmhouse close to where Halt reported seeing a “beam”, and on to the purported landing site on the edge of Rendlesham Forest.

rendleshammap Source: Google Maps

Aftermath

A lot has changed over the past 35 years. The twin bases at Bentwaters and Woodbridge are shut down, replaced by a military museum and Bentwaters Park – a filming location used in the making of episodes of Top Gear, as well as the Hollywood blockbuster Furious 6.

The UK Forestry Commission, which owns Rendlesham Forest, now operates a UFO walking trail there.

“To help your children round the UFO Trail, why not look for the strange symbols on the posts and decode the message with help from our Alien Trail Leaflet”, reads the website.

Rendlesham Forest Source: Draco2008

Peter Hill-Norton died in 2004, but at least one member of the Lords appears to have shown an interest in the Rendlesham Incident, in his stead.

In July, former Conservative party PR man, and Telegraph newspaper executive Baron Guy Black posed a parliamentary question about unexplained radar sightings in the area of the twin bases in December 1980.

The flood of enquiries about that winter may have slowed somewhat, but they’re still coming, and could undergo a resurgence in the next few months.

Earlier this year, the UK Defence Ministry announced that its 18 remaining UFO files – some of which concern Rendlesham – would be released to the National Archives by “late 2015 or early 2016.”

halt2015 Chuck Halt, speaking in 2015. Source: BBC

As for Chuck Halt, now 75 years of age and recently “completely retired,” he is still as adamant as ever, if not more so.

He returned to Suffolk this summer, and tells TheJournal.ie he plans to release a new book on Rendlesham in the spring of 2016, which he says will reveal new and startling evidence on the incident.

In a sworn affidavit five years ago, he famously doubled down on his claims:

I believe the objects that I saw at close quarter were extraterrestrial in origin and that the security services of both the United States and the United Kingdom have attempted – both then and now – to subvert the significance of what occurred at Rendlesham Forest and RAF Bentwaters by the use of well-practised methods of disinformation.

His persistent claims were met sternly by retired Colonel Ted Conrad, the base commander at Bentwaters, who told David Clarke that his former colleague “should be ashamed.”

Col Halt can believe as he wishes. I’ve already disputed to some degree what he reported.
However, he should be ashamed and embarrassed by his allegation that his country and England both conspired to deceive their citizens over this issue. He knows better.

Looking back over the case he has reported and followed and documented for 32 years, journalist Ian Ridpath sounds almost disappointed.

I recall thinking when I started my investigation that if this case failed to pan out then I could never, ever take a UFO case seriously again.
It didn’t, and I haven’t.

Chuck Halt, however, has a message for the skeptics out there.

I was a non-believer, I never really gave it a second thought before the incident.
But I’ve got so much material from so many people, and talked to very credible people, people that do not want their names used, that are in very influential positions, including some that are as high in the government as you can get.
I can tell you, we are not alone. I can guarantee you that.

Read: CIA papers reveal that Area 51 does exist>

Read: The Irish government were briefed on flying saucers in 1950>

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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