Rendlesham Forest UFO case
The 3 a.m. fireball – how it all started
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At the same time that the security patrol at Woodbridge East Gate saw bright lights apparently descend silently into Rendlesham Forest early on 1980 December 26, an exceptionally brilliant meteor, termed a fireball by astronomers, was seen over southern England. It is shown that this fireball is most likely what they saw, and that nothing landed in Rendlesham Forest.
British Astronomical Association Meteor Section Newsletter no. 4 dated 1981 February contains a brief report on the fireball that apparently sparked the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident. The BAA report notes that this fireball was seen at 02.50 UT (± 5 minutes) on Boxing Day 1980 by four witnesses, locations not given but seemingly in southern England, all of whom estimated its brightness as comparable to the gibbous (i.e. three-quarter) Moon and of 3 to 4 seconds duration. In that bare information lies the genesis of one of the most celebrated UFO cases of all time.
Brilliant fireballs like this, caused by natural pieces of debris from space burning up in the atmosphere, are a major cause of UFO reports. Although they occur high in the atmosphere they appear to be much lower, and often give the impression that something has plummeted to Earth nearby. They are totally silent. For examples of what such a fireball looks like, see this video, filmed near Perth, Western Australia in 2005 [2.5 MB AVI file] and this one filmed in Sweden in 2009.
Given the coincidence of timing, it seems that the 3 a.m. fireball is what the security guards saw and misinterpreted. (For an example of how a military guard once mistook a bright fireball for a rocket attack, see this page from Tim Printy’s SUNlite newsletter.) So it is important to realize that nothing came down in Rendlesham Forest. Critically, though, the security guards thought that something had come down, so they went out into the forest expecting to find it. Hence they would have been in a state of mind to misinterpret any unknown light.
Did anyone else at Bentwaters or Woodbridge see the 3 a.m. fireball other than the patrol at East Gate? It seems that at least two others did so. The first of these accounts is particularly convincing. It comes from a former security guard at Bentwaters, Richard Bertolino, who was interviewed in 2009 September on a podcast called Earthfiles. To the best of my knowledge, he had never spoken publicly about the case before.
“A very bright falling star”
Bertolino reported that he was on duty on the morning of 1980 December 26 when he and his driver Sergeant Hall saw what he described as “a very bright falling star. It had a blue-green luminescence, sparkle [sic] tail to it.” He said their immediate feeling was that it was close to them and was “falling between the two bases”.
This is a classic description of a fireball. Shortly thereafter Bertolino says he heard someone on the radio yelling “There’s a UFO out here!”. In the interview Bertolino estimates the time as about 1 a.m., but it is clear from the context that what he saw was actually the 3 a.m. fireball seen by the guards at East Gate of Woodbridge. His testimony leaves little doubt that this fireball sparked off the whole UFO chase in the woods. The entire interview with Bertolino can be heard here; his description of the fireball starts at 3 minutes 30 seconds into the podcast.
Later in the same interview Bertolino reports listening to the radio transmissions from Penniston in the forest. His account meshes very well with the witness statements made by the participants, and provides no support for the oft-made claim that significant details were omitted from those statements. Bertolino also recounts that Penniston sketched the object for him in his notebook when they met at the end of their shifts, but makes no mention of being shown any notes or sketches made by Penniston during the event itself. [Note: In his interview, Bertolino wrongly names Steve Longero rather than John Burroughs as one of the three airmen who went into the woods but this is evidently a failure of memory.]
Was Larry Warren a witness?
Another apparent witness of the 3 a.m. fireball, from a location off base, was none other than Larry Warren, whose involvement with events during Col Halt’s expedition to the forest two nights later remains controversial. Unlike much of Warren’s later claims, though, here we have a near-contemporary written statement of what he knew and saw at the time.
On 1981 January 6, a week before Col Halt typed up his now-famous memo, Warren wrote a letter home to his mother, which is reproduced in full in his book with Peter Robbins, Turn Left at East Gate. Warren’s letter starts by referring to the sighting of what is evidently the Cosmos 749 re-entry the previous evening, confirming that the airmen had heard about this through media reports: “Over Europe and England a bunch of lights were seen – Over London one of the lights broke into about twenty smaller lights – and flew in all directions.”
His letter then goes on to report a sighting at 3 a.m. by a security policeman at Bentwaters, and a simultaneous sighting of his own made off-base, both of which seem to coincide with the report by the patrol at Woodbridge’s East Gate of an object apparently descending into the forest.
Below, I have italicized the passages from Larry Warren’s letter that are relevant to the 3 a.m. fireball sighting. As with Bertolino’s testimony, Warren’s hearsay evidence on the activities of Burroughs, Penniston and Cabansag given in the intervening paragraphs is consistent with the statements that these witnesses filed at the time, and again contradicts suggestions that significant details of a close encounter were left out.
“At about three in the morning, a guy I know in D-Flight of Security Police [the same flight at Bentwaters to which Warren was assigned] told me he responded to a falling star outside the Weapons Storage Area...
“Anyway he reported it and then everyone started feeling strange – then a guy on the Backgate at Woodbridge reported a bright light moving through the pine forest. An officer and two sergeants responded but they could not take weapons because they were off base.
“Over the radio they reported seeing a pie-shaped object – about 7 by 8 ft in size. But they said every time they would get near it, it would seem further away all of a sudden. They also said that all the animals in the forest were going nuts.
“Then all of a sudden the light went out – and over the radio they said they didn't like the situation and wanted to go back to base – but they were told to keep on investigating.
“Then they said the thing appeared behind them – it seemed like it was playing games. After 3 and a half miles of following the thing through the countryside and woods – the thing just disappeared in a field. It was only about 10 ft off the ground. This is what a friend of mine said he heard on the radio.
“At that same time, me and five other guys were walking up a dark path about 2 miles from base... cause we couldn't get a ride and we felt like we were being watched and it was strange cause there were no street lights – Then we saw a bright light go right over us about 50 feet up and just fly over a field. It was silent. We first thought it was an A-10 jet. But they scream. So we ran away, because witchcraft and black magic is a big thing in this part of Suffolk and we thought that witches were in the woods. That light just seemed to jump over the trees – Then the next day it turned out that we were in the same place as the U.F.O. so I think we saw it too.” [Ian’s note: In 2008 May Larry told me by email that at the time of the sighting he and his companions were heading back to base from Bromeswell, a village to the west of Bentwaters, and had seen the light in the direction of Woodbridge Base, which was to the south of them, consistent with a fireball over southern England.]
Content last updated: 2013 March.