Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A Flock of UFOs

With an upcoming visit to Birmingham SITP from eminent UFOlogist, Nick Pope, I thought I would mention my own memorable sighting of a whole squadron of UFOs from about 10 years ago.

It was around 11pm one early autumn evening and I had gone outside into our garden in the residential suburbs of Rugby when I happened to glance above me into the clear dark starry skies. I was astounded to see way up almost directly above me a group of 6 identical craft with a stunted chevron shape - somewhat like that of a jet fighter, or a space shuttle but with slightly longer wings - speeding along at a remarkable rate. I immediately realised these were no conventional aircraft: they were eerily silent and there were none of the usual lights - instead they just emanated a dim orange glow. I watched them in awe as they flew sinisterly off into the distance, my heart pounding. Could this be the start of a Hollywood-style invasion??

And then the rationality kicked in...

Although I had been immediately convinced I had seen some form of vehicle, there was something about the flight formation that looked familiar. After a few moments it occurred to me it was exactly the same geometry V-formation as formed by a flock of gulls. And with that thought, all my misconceptions came toppling down...

The whole fantasy was seeded by my expectations of what I was likely to see (and perhaps an element of wishful thinking). While it was rather unusual to see gulls flying at that time of night, aircraft were commonplace - indeed the region is one of the busiest sectors of airspace in Britain.

Having locked onto that fallacious conjecture, my visual cognition then distorted all my perceptions to make it fit with its theory. Rather than seeing 40cm long birds flying at 30mph at a height of 40m (barely illuminated by the suburban sodium lighting), my sense of scale - totally deceived by the dim conditions - decided they were 60m long craft, 600m up and travelling at 450mph. The paucity of light fore-shortened the gulls wings and made it impossible to detect any flapping, which is why I didn't immediately recognise them - even as a keen birder! [Gull wingbeats are relative shallow and sedate anyway.]

Once the penny had dropped, it made me realise just how easy it is to be fooled. With my 20+ years of birdwatching experience I'd always considered myself to have well-honed observational skills, so I felt particularly embarrassed for making such an elementary error and for it taking so long to come to my proper senses. And it's funny how it wasn't until after the event, that my rational objectivity took over; while the "UFOs" were passing my sense of excitement seemed actively to suppress a more objective viewpoint...