The 3 a.m. fireball –
how it all started


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.

The fireball

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.

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 the 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 following account 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.]

Content last revised: 2020 December

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved