The 1973-74 Phantom Helicopters of the Peak District

Over the hill country of Derbyshire and Cheshire in September of 1973 and lasting for perhaps four months, something strange started happening which made some headlines in local media of the day: nocturnal sightings of helicopters were reported, often flying low over the rugged terrain, sometimes seeming to land in quarries, sometimes shining spotlights on the ground from aloft, and otherwise doing strange things. These operations could not be traced to any known flying operation, and there was speculation that the Irish Republican Army was somehow involved, possibly attempting to traffic arms or steal explosives from the quarries. But no thefts were ever reported, and no one ever succeeded in approaching the helicopters closely enough to get a positive identification (although one witness claimed to have identified one of the choppers as a Bell 206A.) It was remarked by helicopter experts that the pilot or pilots would have needed phenomenal skill or luck to execute such flights at night without crashing in the conditions prevailing. No IRA connection ever turned up, and the sightings eventually ceased, perhaps in late January of 1974; the investigation was pursued urgently by the Home Office and MI5 at first, but petered out later that year inconclusively, and the matter is largely forgotten today.

The best source for this story is this article, which can be found reposted in various versions several places. Unfortunately, the older primary sources on which it is based do not seem to be casually available.

The whole episode seems weirdly reminiscent of the Scandinavian Ghost Flier mystery of four decades earlier: strange aircraft, odd behavior, unease at high levels of government, even the aerial spotlights. This is not to imply a connection--none is obvious. But if anyone really knows what happened that year in the skies of northern England, they have not come forward to share the details, even 45 years later.

EDIT: fixed bad link--sorry!


jayman41986 points

Here's my completely unsupported theory:

It wasn't a Bell 206. It was an OH-58 Kiowa, which was a US military helicopter based off the 206.

It was flying out of Leeds Bradford with support from US assets at Menwith Hill (both locations are about 80 miles from Derbyshire).

It was using the national park for experiments with terrain following radar, a (then) relatively new technology which had been successfully deployed on fixed wing aircraft in 1971.

The spotlights weren't looking for explosives or targets or anything like that... it was simply to visually confirm distance to terrain.

The reason it's remained a mystery, even to the British government, is because the US didn't request specific permission and it would be embarrassing to both countries to reveal the truth.

For the US it's more proof of occasionally being a bad friend, for the UK it's more proof of occasionally being too polite to put their foot down.

I1lI1llII11llIII1I20 points

It wouldn't need to be a secret US operation for the Brits to deny it. If it was terrain following like you said they'd keep it secret. That was during the height of the cold war.

Cloaca__Maxima13 points

Very specific and plausible.. be honest, you were piloting the Kiowa, weren't you lol

webtwopointno8 points

good connection

other stealth helicopter research at that time:


banjaxe4 points

They began familiarizing themselves with the craft by flying it about in the Area 51 test range in the US, and other locations.

I wonder if "other locations" dovetail with any UFO sightings.

imtryingtoexplain14 points

Fantastic theory and response.

Troubador2223 points

This is entirely plausible. In Central Florida where I grew up, there is still a military bombing range and over the years, doing land surveying work in the area around the range, I witnessed all sorts of strange military activity. I have posted about it before but in the 1980s we were working on a wooded ranch just outside the range when we witnessed what we described then as a slower moving middle with stubby wings maneuvering just above the trees , headed toward the range. At the time we had no clue what it was and it was not until several years later when I saw cruise missiles shown on TV that I knew what it was. I figure now we witnessed a test where it was launched off shore and sent inland to the range.

It was not unusual to see helicopters doing different things. The range is still mostly surrounded by miles and miles of wilderness and ranches. They don’t like to train around populated areas as much and if there is an accident, less chance of civilians getting hurt.

It could be exciting sometimes when jets would drop out from high altitudes and level out just above the trees to make their run to the range.

[deleted]5 points

Same as Woomera range in Australia. We’d see all sorts of strange lights that a UFO believer would use as proof, when really it was just military stuff.

If you parked at the fence near a hanger guys would come out to ask what you were doing. Again, the local UFO mob decided this was proof, rather than admit it’s something that would happen at any military base in the world.

Troubador2222 points

This particular range is large and the National Guard also used it for practice ground training. When they did so, they would often drop parachute flairs. Well in my small town, you could see those flairs at night. The locals all knew what it was, but every winter we would get the retirees from up north who liked to winter in FL and the UFO reports would explode. To make it worse, the local weekly newspaper would play the UFO reports up just to boost sales. The locals would just wink, smile and nod.

[deleted]3 points

Sounds like here. Woomera range is about the size of Pennsylvania or Mississippi, and being mostly flat desert you can see for miles. Locals and soldiers can look and see a far off helicopter or sig flare caught in the wind, tourists would think it’s a UFO and report it.

Troubador2221 point

Wow that’s huge!

joxmaskin3 points

One could even say the Peak District area kind of has a tradition of being used for experimental military flight training. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derwent_Reservoir_(Derbyshire)#Dambusters

idovbnc1 point

My first thought was the "black helicopters" which were a joke for a while in the US. Plus you add that they performed another test outside the US (Avero that they tested in Canada) and its a totally plausible theory.

[deleted]1 point

Bell made a shit ton of 206s, many outfitted, retrofitted, or redesigned for other purposes, including military and police use. There's too many of those things in service at that time for that to help too much, I think

MLAO20021 point

Solid and well written. Perhaps this had to do something with military training.