Books written by Ray Sullivan

Monday, 16 June 2014

Flying Saucery

As a sometime Sci-Fi author I should be grateful for the concept of flying saucers - every fictional genre needs its own consistent back story. As a general rule I've tended to create my own back stories and so far have managed to avoid both little green men (I'm colour blind, so it wouldn't make sense anyway) and I've definitely avoided flying saucers. In fact my forays into how we could potentially be visited by aliens has included travel on the back of a comet and bacterial infection from space via meteorites.  Interestingly both concepts have been mooted in the serious scientific press in the years since I wrote about them, but of course I'm naturally selective about which ideas to remind you all of.

I have a strange position on flaying saucers, UFOs and alien visitors. The science fact part of me understands the rational, science based limitations on travel between adjacent star systems which, if you factor in the general theory of relativity makes the likelihood of us being visited highly unlikely.  Probably as unlikely as me winning the National Lottery, in fact.  However, despite the appalling odds and my mathematics degree I still find myself buying the ticket, in part because half of what I pay goes to good causes and anyway, someone wins most weeks.

But the bit that really skews my views is that I saw and reported a UFO sighting when I was a teenager. I couldn't explain what I saw back then, can't now, so I'm pulled between my memories and my logic.  It was October 1970 or maybe 1971.  I was walking with two friends across a field towards Ewloe Castle - the same Tudor edifice that I described in Skin - and the time was just before 8 PM.  There was a flash of sheet lightning without an accompanying crash of thunder.  We all saw the flash and I noted the time.  Three minutes later, chatting away like only teenagers do, there was another flash.  Irrationally I decided to see if there would be another flash three minutes hence, so was the only one of the three looking towards the sky when the third and final flash took place, at about the three minute mark.  Directly in my line of sight, illuminated for a fraction of a second, were three egg shapes in a sort of vee formation. The sky was rendered milky white by the lightning flash and the three egg shapes were marginally whiter.  A fraction of a second later the sky was dark again, the shapes were nowhere to be seen and my friends were still looking at the ground avoiding stepping in something mucky while I was trying to get their attention.

Anyway, I drew a picture when I got home and wrote a letter to the Ministry of Defence who replied some time later to state that there was no aircraft activity recorded in that area at that time.  They were adamant that I hadn't seen anything and as I've gotten older, I've tended to believe them.  I certainly haven't experienced anything like it since.  Yet my memory has remained remarkably consistent over the years.

I hadn't given this event a thought for some time, not even when writing my science fiction stories, but tonight I stumbled over the origin of the term 'flying saucer'.  It's an interesting tale because the phrase has embedded itself into the culture of science fiction and the whole UFO scene.  It seems that one of the earliest reports of flying craft was reported in 1947 when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold observed craft scooting across his path while flying.  When he landed he gave a potted report to friends at his local airport and took off to carry out a flying job.  By the time he returned the press had descended on the airport and he undertook a number of interviews.  Now it seems that Kenneth was highly consistent in his accounts of what he believed he saw and he has been keen to emphasis he never coined the phrase 'flying saucers'. He did, apparently, state that the erratic movement of the craft he saw was akin to saucers being skimmed across a pond.  Somewhere along the way a reporter, maybe an editor, changed that to 'flying saucers' and the phrase stuck.  Importantly many of the subsequent sightings of UFOs included the assertion that they were flying saucers.  Perhaps we see what we are conditioned to expect? Maybe the reporter's misquote was fortuitous.

Kenneth was convinced he saw something that day and reported four more sightings in the following years.  I haven't, maybe I'm too busy watching where I'm stepping, perhaps I'm too keen to stay indoors after dark, or might I be worried that I'll see something unexplainable for a second time, something that contradicts my science sensible head.  Because if there one thing I believe in less than flying saucers, it's coincidences.

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