After the sighting, Hughes – who was identified as Sam, after a character designed by Stanley Holloway, the actor and comedian – was nicknamed ‘Saucer Sam’ by colleagues, who painted a cartoon of a flying saucer on his jet
It is one of the most tantalising ever official accounts of an encounter with a UFO – deemed so credible it even convinced the government minister who investigated it.
Now, for the first time, the sighting of a flying saucer by an RAF fighter pilot and the subsequent high degree inquiry it prompted can be exposed.
The sighting occurred in 30 July 1952, when Flight Sergeant Roland Hughes was on a coaching flight over West Germany in a de Havilland Vampire FB9.
As he was returning to base, he reported currently being intercepted by a “gleaming silver, metallic disc” which flew alongside his aircraft just before speeding off. The mystery object was also detected by RAF radars on the ground, which recorded it travelling at speeds far in excess of any recognized aircraft.
Hughes reported the sighting to his senior officers who sent him to see Duncan Sandys, the then aviation minister, to short him personally.
Following the meeting, Sandys went on to tell senior civil servants he was convinced by the airman’s story.
The UFO sighting is not only one of the most comprehensive by a serving member of the armed forces but also shows how seriously this kind of reports were taken by the authorities. British governments have historically downplayed the suggestion that this kind of sightings have been investigated.
The existence of the sighting has emerged in papers released by the Churchill Archive, at Cambridge University. The centre includes the papers of Sir Winston Churchill, as well as Sandys, who married the former prime minister’s daughter, Diana.
In one document – written a handful of days after the interview with the 23-year-old Hughes – Sandys tells the government’s chief scientist, Lord Cherwell, about the meeting and states that he identified the airman’s account and the supporting evidence from radar “convincing”.
The sighting came shortly after a number of comparable “flying saucer” reports from US airmen and Sandys added: “I have no doubt at all that (Hughes) saw a phenomenon equivalent to that described by many observers in the United States.”
Lord Cherwell had dismissed the US sightings as “mass psychology”, but in his memo Sandys will take him to task for this mindset and helps make clear his place on the existence of UFOs.
The minister, who was later promoted to Defence Secretary, went on: “Right up until some satisfactory scientific explanation can be presented, it would be most unwise to accept with out further question the view that ‘flying saucers’ can be dismissed as ‘a mild form of hysteria’.” Sandys also wrote that there was “ample evidence of some unfamiliar and unexplained phenomenon”.
The documents are among thousands released by the archive in latest years.
Brian Hughes, 45, a Ministry of Defence civil servant based at Bovington Camp, in Dorset, said: “We knew about the sighting in the family when we were growing up but my father didn’t talk about it a lot. We learned about it more from prompting him.
“He was very matter-of-fact about what he saw, just describing the details. He never did any research into UFO or flying saucers and didn’t have any interest in the supernatural of science fiction.
“If it was someone other than my father who had told this story, I would be sceptical. He once said to me ‘People think you’re mad if you say you’ve seen a flying saucer – I’ve only ever seen one once; I’ve never seen one since.’”
Dr Clarke, who is sceptic on UFO issues, said: “There is absolutely no doubt that something was seen by Hughes. He is not making this up. But the only honest position to take is that we don’t know what it was. But there could be some sort of scientific explanation, before you start jumping to conclusions about alien visitors.”