Was the flashing light really
the lighthouse?  
    Page 2 of 2


Since the Orford Ness lighthouse was first proposed as the culprit for the flashing UFO seen in Rendlesham Forest, considerable additional evidence has emerged to back up the identification. This evidence refers both to Night One (when the flashing light was first seen by a group of airmen, one of whom has since made various sensational claims) and Night Two, when it was seen by a larger group including the deputy base commander of the joint air force bases at Bentwaters and Woodbridge, Lt Col Charles Halt, who made a real-time tape recording of his sighting.

What follows on this page requires some knowledge of the case to be fully appreciated. However, the main points can be summarized as follows:

  • The testimony of the main eyewitnesses on Night One and of Col Halt onNight Two confirm that the flashing light seen on both nights lay in the direction of the Orford Ness lighthouse.
  • Evidence from the audiotape made by Col Halt on Night Two shows that the light flashed at the same rate as the Orford Ness lighthouse. Later on the tape, Halt described the light as lying ‘clear off to the coast’.
  • Although Col Halt maintains he saw the Orford Ness lighthouse in the southeast, it is actually east of where he stood. Evidently Col. Halt confused it with another flashing light in the southeast, probably the more distant Shipwash lightship.
  • His mistake arose because he was used to seeing the Orford Ness lighthouse in the southeast from his home base of Bentwaters, which lies to the north of Woodbridge.

If you want the details, read on...

Night One

The most telling pieces of evidence from Night One were unearthed by James Easton, a Scottish researcher. Easton found copies of the written statements by the airmen who were involved on that night in the files of an organization in Arizona known as Citizens Against UFO Secrecy (CAUS). These statements were collected by Halt following the incident and formed the basis of paragraph 1 of his memo to the British Ministry of Defence. He later gave copies to CAUS where, ironically, they remained unpublicized for many years.

The chase of a nocturnal light that remains tantalizingly out of reach is a familiar one in UFOlogy, and the airmen’s description of their pursuit of an ever-receding light through an unfamiliar forest in total darkness sounds like a classic example. Once they had reached the far side of the forest they were able to get a better view of what it was they had been following.

One of the witnesses, John Burroughs, said in his statement: ‘We got up to a fense (sic) that separated the trees from the open field and you could see the lights down by a farmer’s house’. [NOTE: Col Halt was to describe the same sight two nights later – see points 8 and 10 on this page.] Burroughs’ statement continues: ‘Once we reached the farmer’s house we could see a beacon going around so we went towards it. We followed it for about 2 miles before we could see it was coming from a lighthouse’. His colleague Ed Cabansag concurred:‘We got to a vantage point where we could determine that what we were chasing was only a beacon light off in the distance.’

Easton also tracked down airman Chris Armold, a USAF security policeman who called out the British police on the first night. To see for himself what the fuss was about, Armold went out to the site with Burroughs. As he told Easton: ‘There was absolutely nothing in the woods. We could see lights in the distance and it appeared unusual as it was a sweeping light.’ He added:‘We did not know about the lighthouse on the coast at the time.’ It’s worth recalling that the local police who were called out also reported that the only lights visible were those from the Orford Ness lighthouse. Hence there can be no doubt that the lighthouse was prominently visible from within the forest on the night in question.

These and other statements from the first-night witnesses seriously contradict the more imaginative accounts offered later, and demolish the oft-made claims that the airmen were so familiar with the lighthouse that they couldn’t possibly have mistaken it.

Night Two

Long before Easton’s investigation, though, the tape recording made by Col Halt on Night Two had been released, and we could hear his own description of the flashing light. I have compiled a transcript of this tape. There are other versions which differ slightly in detail, due to the difficulty of interpreting the spoken words, but I believe this version to be the most accurate available.

All versions agree that, having reached the eastern edge of the forest, Halt estimated the light was ‘two to three hundred yards away’. At this stage Halt looked at the flashing light through a Starscope, which is an image intensifier (night vision scope) used by the military for seeing in the dark; specifically, it seems to have been a first-generation device known as an AN/PVS-2. On the tape he says: ‘It’s like this thing has a hollow centre, a dark centre. It’s a bit like a pupil of an eye looking at you, winking. And the flash is so bright through the starscope that it almost burns your eye.’

More spectacularly, in later interviews Halt has mentioned that ‘molten metal’ appeared to be dripping from the light, but it seems that this effect was illusory. As Halt explained to journalist Salley Rayl in an online interview in May 1997: ‘We went out into the field and tried to find any evidence, such as any burnt spots or anything of that nature. Couldn't find anything.’

The ‘silent explosion’

They began to walk across fields towards the light but found it was farther off than they had estimated. In recent interviews and talks, Halt has said that the light ‘exploded’ and broke into pieces. Oddly, this spectacular event is not described on his tape made at the time. All he said then was: ‘We’ve passed the farmer’s house and are crossing the next field and now we have multiple sightings of up to five lights’. Evidently what had really happened was that Halt had lost sight of the lighthouse as he moved downhill from the forest edge towards the farmhouse. His attention was then caught by other lights – either celestial objects or the red lights on the radio masts at Orford Ness. Unfortunately we do not have a sufficiently good description of these five lights to decide what they were.

At this point on the tape we discover that the original light had not broken up at all. Halt says: ‘We’re at the far side of the second farmer’s field and made sighting again about 110 degrees. This looks like it’s clear off to the coast. It’s right on the horizon.’ Just where you would expect to find a lighthouse, of course.

The compass bearings

Several times Halt estimated that the bearing to the light was about 110 degrees (he only ever described the compass bearings as approximate). In fact, allowing for the deviation of magnetic north from true north on that date, the actual bearing of the Orford Ness lighthouse seen from the forest would have been 99 degrees. An error of some 11 degrees does not seem bad for a reading on an intermittent light made at night. Apparently the readings were not made by Halt himself, who says he was not carrying a compass, but one of his team. We don’t know whether this person was carrying other equipment that might have deflected the compass reading. [Note:I have never seen any reference to the type of compass used but it was presumably a standard military lensatic compass, the operation of which is described here. These should not be used near metal or electrical equipment. They must also be held steady and level for accuracy, and Halt’s team were on the move much of the time.] Those who deny that whatHalt saw was the lighthouse have to explain why he did not report seeing two bright flashing lights in the same line of sight.

Halt’s tape also contains an important clue to the flash rate of the light, as first noted by Phil Klass. On the tape, we can hear an unidentified airman call out: ‘There it is again...there it is.’ The interval is 5 seconds, the same rate at which the Orford Ness lighthouse flashes.

James Easton found further useful information in an online interview Col. Halt gave to Salley Rayl on the Microsoft Network in 1997 May. In answer to a question about the lighthouse, Halt said:

The lighthouse was visible the whole time...it was readily apparent, and it was 30 to 40 degrees off to our right. And if you were standing in the forest where we stood at the supposed landing site, or whatever you want to call it, you can see the farmer's house directly in front of us and the lighthouse was, like I say, 30 to 35 degrees off to the right and the object was close to the farmer's house.

This statement reaffirms what he had told the same interviewer for Omni magazine three years earlier: ‘We knew the Orford Ness lighthouse beacon beamed from the southeast.’

Unfortunately for Col Halt, as seen from where he was standing in the forest the Orford Ness lighthouse does not lie in the southeast. It lies virtually due east, the direction he was facing. A glance at a map, or at the photographs on the preceding page, makes this clear.

Summing up

Why, then, did Halt think the lighthouse was in the southeast? The reason is surprisingly straightforward. Halt’s quarters and office were not at Woodbridge but at neighbouring Bentwaters, 2 miles to the north. From here, the Orford Ness lighthouse does indeed appear in the southeast.

This is perhaps the crux of the whole misidentification issue. Halt was conditioned to seeing the lighthouse in the southeast, so when he saw a flashing light virtually due east he did not think of Orford Ness. Halt’s own words (‘the lighthouse was...30 to 35 degrees off to the right...We knew the Orford Ness lighthouse beacon beamed from the southeast’) undermine his claim that he recognized the Orford Ness lighthouse on the night of the sighting and make it more likely, rather than less, that he mistook it for a UFO.

If Halt and his men saw a second light off to the right, this must have been something other than the Orford Ness lighthouse. Most likely it was the Shipwash lightship (now replaced by a buoy), which is more distant and hence fainter. Halt’s tape does confirm that a second light was seen to the right of the main flashing light, although no compass bearing is given and it receives only passing mention. Oddly enough, at no stage does anyone on the tape mention seeing a lighthouse, even though the Orford lighthouse is, by its very nature, the most obvious nocturnal reference point for miles around.

Footnote: A change of story

Following a visit to the site with a TV crew, Halt has finally realized that the lighthouse is not 30 or so degrees off to the right from where he was standing, as he had claimed for so long, but almost in line with the farmhouse in front of him, as my photographs show. So he has now changed his story. What he now says is that the flashing UFO was to the left of the farmhouse and, moreover, that its light was reflecting off the farmhouse windows – a new detail we have not previously heard (see this YouTube clip from a talk he gave in 2009 October).

Unfortunately, this revised position does not match his compass bearing of 110 degrees, which places the flashing UFO firmly to the right of the farmhouse. So Halt’s change of story, an obvious attempt to avoid admitting that his UFO lay in the same direction as the lighthouse, introduces a glaring contradiction with the position of the flashing light he reported at the time.

« Return to Page 1 of The Flashing Light

Content last revised: 2021 March.

© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved.