Belgian UFO wave of 1989-90

 Over the weekend of November 25-26, 1989, alarmed citizens from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium reported seeing a strange luminous disk circling their homes. Later it turned out that the sightings had been caused by a light show of a disco in Halen (province of Limbourg). The owner had been trying to attract youngsters by projecting a rotating xenon lamp onto the cloud-deck. Despite the fact that a local UFO group had identified the culprit, the light-show continued to spark off UFO reports in the area until December 16th when, after the Belgian Air Force had sent two F-16 fighter planes into the air in an attempt to identify the mysterious disk, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the disco manager to switch off his installation.

THE COMING OF THE TRIANGLES

Meanwhile, another UFO incident had occurred 70 km southeast of Halen. This time the events were to create waves far beyond the borders of the small Belgian state. From 5:24 P.M. until 8:39 P.M. on November 29, 1989, two members of the gendarmerie, driving their patrol car just south of the city of Eupen (the German- speaking part of Belgium), found themselves entangled in a cat and mouse game with an unknown flying object.

The policemen described what they had seen as “a dark solid mass in the shape of an isosceles triangle.” According to their statements, it carried “three blinding white lights in each corner and a pulsating red light in the centre.” In the course of the events, the two men had also spotted “a white ball of light” over the watchtower of the lake of Gileppe with “what looked like beams of red light shooting out in opposite directions” (investigators later found that Venus was probably responsible for this phase of the sightings).

Throughout the three-hour incident, the policemen had been in constant contact with their headquarters in Eupen. Greatly to their relief, the dispatch officer informed them that he too had seen the triangular object and that additional sightings were being reported by patrols in nearby communities. Several witnesses—out of 150 eyewitness accounts that were gathered that night—mentioned a distinct sound that reminded them of a ventilator. One policeman reported that he had also noticed “something at the back of the craft that was turning round, like a turbine.”

SOBEPS COMES INTO PLAY

The next day the story of the Eupen “triangle” was highlighted in the press and on various Belgian television stations. During the first week of December 1989, members of the Société Belge d’Etude des Phénomènes Spatiaux (Belgian Society for the Study of Space Phenomena), Belgian’s largest UFO group, visited the region in search for additional witnesses. It marked the beginning of the group’s monopoly over the events that were to follow.

December 11-12, 1989 was another memorable day for the Belgian UFOlogists. That night numerous people in the regions around the cities of Liège and Namur were baffled by a mysterious illuminated contraption that sailed over their homes. The sightings came to a strange end when, shortly after 2 A.M., a manin Jupille-sur-Meuse, was awakened by a deep, pulsating sound, and saw an egg-shaped object that seemed to be stuck in a spruce-fir. The object carried three bright spotlights underneath and something that looked like a rudder at the back. On the hull there was a logo reminiscent of classic symbols that represent the orbits of electrons. It took a few seconds before it managed to tear itself loose, after which it headed towards the witness, flew over his house, and finally disappeared in the distance. According to the witness, the next day Army officers were searching the area.

On December 21, 1989, the Belgian Minister of Defense issued a statement telling the public that the Army had no idea what was causing the UFO reports. With no convincing explanations coming from the scientific community either, speculation and imagination were given free play, and it did not take long before almost any bright light in the sky was labelled a UFO.

As UFO reports kept pouring in for more than a year and a half, the popularity of SOBEPS increased at an equivalent pace. New volunteer investigators were recruited and interviews with members of the group were published in almost every newspaper and magazine in the country. In two years time, SOBEPS collected approximately 2,000 eye-witness accounts, some 450 of which were investigated. Most of these cases were regarded as unexplained. They are detailed in two large books.

The majority of the sightings occurred within an area of about 200 by 100 kilometers in size. While the first series of reports originated from the Dutch- and German speaking areas in the east of the country, the wave had shifted to the French speaking part of Belgium in a matter of days. To skeptics, this illustrated how socio-cultural factors, such as language, population and the location of UFO investigators, had strongly influenced the reporting process. They further pointed to the lack of experience of some of the new recruits and to the fact that SOBEP’s predisposition to promote an extraterrestrial origin for the events, had diverted the investigators’ attention from looking for down-to-earth explanations.

THE AIR FORCE CLOSES RANKS

Despite the criticism, SOBEPS managed to earn respect from both UFOlogists and non-UFOlogists, including the Belgian Air Force. During the first weeks of the wave, the BAF had been swamped with telephone calls. With an already chockfull agenda on his hands, Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfried Debrouwer, later promoted to Major-General, decided to call in SOBEPS. This marked the beginning of a short but intense relationship which reached its peak during the Easter days of 1990. During this prolonged holiday weekend of April 14-17, a Hawker Siddeley and a Brittan Norman reconnaissance airplane were put at stand-by during a skywatch organized by SOBEPS. The code-name of this historical collaboration was “Operation Identification Ovni.” Military men, civilians, investigators and newsmen took part. The only absentees were the UFOs themselves.

THE EVIDENCE

On July 11, 1990, De Brouwer held a remarkable press-conference at the NATO headquarters at Evere, Brussels. In the presence of a considerable press crowd he acknowledged that, on the night of March 30-31, 1990, two F-16 fighters had been scrambled to identify a number of inexplicable lights reported by a group of gendarmes. Although the pilots never had visual contact with anything unusual, one of them had managed to videotape the jet’s radar display. Analysis of the tape by scientists, military experts and skeptics revealed that the freakish radar returns had been caused by an unusual meteorological condition in combination with a malfunction of the radar’s electronics. The lights that had been seen just prior to the scramble were identified as bright stars and planets.
Coincidentally, only minutes after the F-16s had returned to base, a man in Brussels managed to capture “the flying triangle” on video. The images, shown on television in many countries, depict the well-known configuration of three white lights and a pulsating red light in the center. SOBEPS investigators later found that the witness had filmed an airliner preparing to land at Zaventem airfield.

As in any modern UFO flap, several videos turned up, the majority of which showed not only aircraft lights but also bright stars or planets. In one instance the reflection of sunlight in distant windows was taken for a low hovering UFO. In another, it was a group of streetlamps that fooled the witnesses. Various reports were generated by imperfections in the autofocus system of early generation camcorders. Many of these early systems have problems focussing on a small point of light. This often resulted in optical oddities that can transform a bright star into a large—sometimes metallic looking—disk.

One of the rare photographic documents that defied explanation was a color slide taken in early April 1990 by a young man from Petit-Rechain, not far from the city of Liège. The photo depicts a black triangle silhouetted against a dark bluish background. There are white blobs of light in each corner and a fourth light, surrounded by a reddish aura, in the center. While co-workers of SOBEPS claim that these lights were probably plasma jets that are part of the object’s propulsion system, skeptics point to glaring contradictions in the testimonies of the two witnesses and to the absence of background details in the picture (making it impossible to verify the object’s actual size and distance).Markedly absent during the Belgian wave were reports of electromagnetic effects. As for traces on ground and vegetation, only four such cases were recorded for the 1989-1991 period. None of which constituted the slightest proof of any unusual event.

IN SEARCH OF EXPLANATIONS

Although many cases could be classified as misinterpretations, a considerable percentage remained puzzling, namely those incidents in which independent witnesses reported seeing a similar, unidentified object at close range, during the same night, and within a well-defined area. Three such peak days stand out: November 29, 1989, December 11-12, 1989 and March 12, 1991.

Teleguided spherical balloon equipped with three spotlights. Some investigators suggested that a similar construction may have been responsible for at least some of the Belgian sightings.

Researchers skeptical of an extraterrestrial interpretation argued that the objects described reminded them of ultra light motorized aircraft. This hypothesis was supported by a rumor that an Air Force pilot had flown a home-built ULM without the permission of his superiors.

Others suspected that the Air Force was flying state-of-the-art experimental aircraft, presumably of U.S. design, and was taking advantage of the UFO excitement to draw public attention away from these secret test flights. The revolutionary concept of the first generation stealth planes still sparked the imagination in 1989-1990 and the newest trends in aviation design were also being reflected in the UFO descriptions. Skeptics scrutinized aviation magazines for the latest news on obscure Black Projects. After all, the much reported configuration of three white lights and a red flashing light was consistent with standard lighting configuration for aircraft. What they failed to take into account was that these presumed wonder planes were supposed to be fast aircraft, not capable of hovering close to the ground, making sharp turns and producing no down-draft, but only a soft humming sound, as was described in the best-documented cases.

Several investigators, troubled by these unusual flight characteristics, sought salvation in the blimp hypothesis, pointing to the “accident” with the blimp-type object in Jupille-sur-Meuse and to the November 29 sightings. With regard to the latter they pointed out that, earlier that same day, several independent witnesses had spotted, in broad daylight, an oval- or cigar-shaped object traveling slowly south of the lake of Gileppe. Moreover, they discovered that teleguided blimps, equipped with bright spotlights and a camera, had indeed been tested in Belgium in late 1989. The owner of these craft turned out to be an eccentric Hungarian who rented his contraptions for publicity purposes and was hoping to gather a few orders from the military as well. It appeared that he had actually contacted not only Major-General De Brouwer, but also the country’s intelligence services, claiming that he himself had single-handedly started the Belgian UFO wave and that he would be willing to prove this in exchange for a big amount of money.Both the Air Force and the intelligence services gave little credence to the story and turned the offer down. Surprisingly, the inventor later denied having ever flown his radio-controlled balloons outdoors, causing even more confusion. In the end, the only thing that remained certain was that the Belgian UFOs were an important factor in transforming the traditional nuts-and-bolts image of the flying saucer into a new high-tech UFO that pops up almost exclusively at night, looks like a dark, angular structure and carries a panoply of multicolored lights.

Written by —WIM VAN UTRECHT

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