False Alarms

The US BMEWS and Ballistic Missile Defence Systems means that Fylingdales forms a crucial part of a war machine on a hair trigger. If the alarm is set off by any of the number of radar systems that circles the US retaliation would be swift and awesome.

On the night of 24 November, 1961, all communication links went dead between Strategic Air Command (SAC) HQ and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), and so SAC HQ was cut off from the three BMEWS sites. There were two possible explanations – enemy action, or the coincidental failure of all the communication systems, which had independent routes including commercial telephone circuits.

All SAC bases in U.S.A. were alerted and B-52 nuclear bomber crews started their engines. Radio communication was established with a B-52 on airborne alert near Thule. It contacted the BMEWS station by radio and could report that no attack had taken place. The reason for the “coincidental” failure was that the redundant routes for telephone and telegraph between NORAD and SAC HQ all ran through one relay station in Colorado. At that relay station a motor had overheated and caused interruption of all the lines.

In another event, despite the “state of the art” technology installed at Fylingdales, there have been a number of false alarms. In 1979 it was put on full alert in error. Fylingdales uses ‘War Games’ simulation tapes and exercises frequently to ‘test’ its response. A simulation tape, in which the opening move was the launching of a salvo of missiles against B52 bases from a Soviet submarine in the Pacific, was loaded by mistake into NORAD computers. Fylingdales was warned and ‘things got very tense’. But there were no radar targets in the ‘threat azimuth’ (the angles of the horizon at which a Soviet missile would normally be launched to attack Europe or North America). Details of this error are only known because a reporter witnessed the late stages of alert in a Viriginia Air Traffic Control Centre and asked questions.

Other errors have occurred and NORAD have been sent alerts when a flock of geese and (on Oct. 5, 1960) the rising moon (at Thule) were mistaken for incoming missiles – only on last minute checks was the firing of several missiles avoided. In a front page article on April 27th 1998, the Yorkshire Evening Post described how Fylingdales had detected an object “the size of a battleship … flying in a zig-zag pattern at 17,000mph over the North Sea. It then accelerated to 24,000mph and sped off towrds the Atlantic”. Apparently two F-16 fighters scrambled to intercept it were unable to do so. In a second incident, 12 UFOs were supposed to have been seen changing shape in mid-flight. UFO watchers believe the objects may have been experimental military craft and anyway it would make sense to double check the system for bugs before calling out the “Men in Black”.