The Belgian UFO Wave
For two years, some say the Belgian skies were filled with triangular alien UFOs.
by Brian Dunning
September 27, 2016
Beginning at the end of 1989 and continuing well into the 1990s, the skies above Belgium were — if you believe the stories — filled with triangular UFOs. They were chased by fighter planes, followed by gendarmes, and the government openly cooperated with UFO enthusiast groups to investigate the unprecedented visitation. Witnesses numbered in the thousands, and military radar data was publicly produced. Clearly it must have been the largest UFO case in human history; and yet you've probably never heard of it, and the only photograph produced during the year was found to be a hoax. How is that possible? It seems impossible to reconcile an event of such massive proportions with so little notice being taken. Perhaps there is more here to study than just a UFO case.
The fun began on November 29, 1989 when two gendarmes in Eupen, Belgium saw something in the sky. This was described as a perfectly silent large triangular object at low altitude, marked with three bright lights at its corners. It was reported that thirty separate groups of witnesses saw it, plus three separate groups of gendarmes, totaling 143 in all. The peak of the activity came four months later on the night of March 30, 1990 and extending into the wee hours of March 31 when accounts claim that Belgian F-16 fighter planes were scrambled to intercept a number of mysterious objects in the sky. They obtained radar lock on nine occasions, confirmed by ground radar, but the objects made maneuvers at such high speed that the F-16s could not keep up and lost them. The incident was witnessed by 13,500 people on the ground, of whom 2,600 made written statements. The next month a photo of one of the craft was widely published, clearly showing a massive black triangle with bright lights at each corner. An image search for "Belgian UFO" will show it to you right now.
Such an episode can only be described as one of the most mind-boggling and astonishing ever. With little doubt, we cannot be alone in the universe, and advanced aliens are visiting us even now. One could hardly conclude otherwise, especially if one takes as gospel the original report of the November 29 event. The story of the two gendarmes was first reported by a German tabloid, Grenz Echo. The reporter who interviewed the gendarmes was Heinz Godessart, a lifelong believer in alien visitation.
The story quickly came to the attention of a group of Belgian UFO enthusiasts called SOBEPS, the Belgian Society for the Study of Space Phenomena. One of their main guys was a professor of physics named Auguste Meessen, who, like Godessart, had always been convinced that visiting aliens are the inescapable explanation for many UFO reports. Meessen tracked down the two gendarmes and interviewed them himself, and SOBEPS quickly took over as the media's main source of information about UFOs. Meessen and the one other actual scientist who belonged to SOBEPS are virtually the only "experts" ever mentioned in the many Belgian newspaper articles that followed in the subsequent years. Nearly all the information about the Belgian UFO Wave comes from SOBEPS, and so does the version of events that I just related for you.
About a year after these events, SOBEPS released a book titled Vague d'OVNI sur la Belgique, or The Belgian UFO Wave. Meessen was the lead author, and the book remains the primary source for most of today's articles about the Belgian UFO Wave. Make no mistake; they were very clear in their assertion that these were alien spacecraft. Meessen wrote "The only reasonable hypothesis is that of unidentified flying objects... of extraterrestrial origin." The only reasonable hypothesis. Whenever SOBEPS said "UFO" they, unlike many other UFOlogists, unequivocally meant alien spacecraft. They had their conclusion long before they ever heard of this event.
Fortunately a lot of skeptical authors, including some in Belgium and intimately acquainted with the story, have written about it (though their work has not received anything like the attention garnered by the pro-UFO stories). Among them is Dr. Jean-Michel Abrassart, a Belgian psychologist who wrote his PhD thesis on the leading science-based explanation for mass UFO sightings: The Psychosocial Model of the UFO Phenomenon: An Interpretive Framework in Social Sciences. He was kind enough to correspond with me at length about the Belgian UFO Wave. Abrassart summed it up with a popular quote from the noted UFO skeptic Philip Klass, who wrote in his 1986 book UFOs: The Public Deceived:
Once news coverage leads the public to believe that UFOs may be in the vicinity, there are numerous natural and man-made objects which, especially when seen at night, can take on unusual characteristics in the minds of hopeful viewers. Their UFO reports in turn add to the mass excitement, which encourages still more observers to watch for UFOs. This situation feeds upon itself until such time as the media lose interest in the subjects, and then the flap quickly runs out of steam.
You read a story in the paper that a UFO was seen flying over your town a night or two ago. You remember that you saw something you took for a bright star or an airplane, thought nothing of it at the time, but this amazing new story makes you realize that what you saw must have been this UFO. You and I might not necessarily make that connection, but it's perfectly reasonable that a lot of people will; and so they follow the instructions in the newspaper article and send a report to SOBEPS. With so many articles over a period of years in a small country, it's no great surprise that SOBEPS reported they eventually received as many as 2,600 in all. The 143 reports Meessen claims for the original November 29 incident were indeed received, but only after more than a week of aggressive and repeated solicitation in the mass media. It is only much later retellings of the story that wrongly assume all 2,600 were reported as people were watching the F-16s chase the UFOs, or that all 143 initial reports came independently on that first night. All the reports were after the fact, and were only made after prompting and solicitation by SOBEPS and the media.
It was simply a psychosocial phenomenon, which is why there is no evidence and only the one questionable photograph. If 13,500 people did all actually see something that they took for a UFO at the time, I guarantee you that more than just a single photograph would have resulted.
But even that single photograph turns out to be emblematic of the quality of all the evidence that characterized the Belgian UFO Wave. In 2011, a guy named Patrick Maréchal invited Belgian reporters to his home to show them what he and some buddies had done at work one day when the media hype had been at its peak. They took a sheet of styrofoam, cut it into a triangle, painted it black, embedded a flashlight in each corner, then hung it from a string. Maréchal still had tons of photos that they'd taken trying to get that one that was just right, and that fooled the world.
What about the original September 29 incident? It turns out that the version SOBEPS reported is different than what the gendarmes actually said. For one thing, they never said it was silent, but that it made a low noise. Other witnesses later said it sounded like a motor. One said it had a stick coming out one end with a turbine on it. Investigator Renaud Leclet wrote a lengthy article going into great detail and concluded that it was almost certainly a Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter in the area. The majority of the gendarmes' report concerned a single stationary white light above Lake Gileppe, that just happened to be exactly where the planet Venus would have been in the sky from where they were observing.
So let's look at the most dramatic of all the events, the chase by the F-16s. Informally on alert from all the UFO reports in the media, two fighter planes from Beauvechain Air Base were sent up when a number of reports from local gendarmes came in, saying that odd lights were in the sky that looked like stars but changed color. Controllers on the ground advised the pilots where to go based on sporadic radar contacts. The pilots also got intermittent contact with objects, but they appeared and disappeared and moved up and down too fast, including going underground. The pilots never saw anything at all. SOBEPS reported that they obtained radar lock on targets nine times; but the Belgian military only reported three such locks, and upon analyzing the data, all three radar locks were on each other. The other contacts were all found to be the result of a well-known atmospheric interference called Bragg scattering. Bragg scattering is described:
In airspace surveillance radars this effect becomes more disturbing. Random sequences of inhomogeneities in the air density can produce so-called Clear-Air-Echos. These are referred to as "angels" and may cause false alarms.
In other words, we need not stampede to alien spacecraft being the only reasonable hypothesis, as did Meessen. Belgium's Chief of Operations, Colonel Wilfried De Brouwer, summarized the night by saying "The technical evidence was insufficient to conclude that abnormal air activities took place during that evening."
An officer on base, a Major Lambrechts, wrote a chronological journal that can be found online; and a detailed study was written by Officer Cadet Gilmard of the Belgian Royal Military Academy under the direction of Maj. Salmon of the Electronic Warfare Center. The Gilmard-Salmon report is classified, and no skeptical researchers were ever able to obtain a copy. But we do know that it found angel echoes to be the only interesting thing in the air that night, because Meessen included bits from it in his second edition of SOBEPS' book.
And this is where the story got weird. According to anecdotal claims made by skeptical researchers who say they spoke with government scientists who were involved, a deal was struck. The government would agree not to release the Gilmard-Salmon report publicly if Meessen would retract the claims he made in SOBEPS' first book. Meessen was given a copy of the classified report. Soon afterward, SOBEPS published their second edition, UFO Wave over Belgium 2, in which Meessen reported figuring out (on his own) that the radar reports were false angel signals, and that the Gilmard-Salmon report backed up his findings.
We don't know for sure whether such a deal was struck, or why it would be; but we also needn't conclude that it must have been the government's way of suppressing Meessen's discovery that aliens were visiting. The government, almost certainly, never had any intention of releasing a classified document. I suggest that their providing one copy discreetly to Meessen may have been nothing more than professional courtesy. Meessen was a professor of physics at Belgium's largest French speaking university. He was professionally acquainted with the government scientists for whom the Gilmard-Salmon report was written. They saw their colleague publishing ridiculous nonsense, and shared their informed findings with him. Academics share their work with one another all the time.
There were certainly many other sightings and reports over the course of about two years, but none as dramatic as these I've just covered. And, in my opinion, these best cases are not very dramatic at all. I'd love to think there was something interesting and undiscovered in the skies above Belgium, but despite the ideologues' best efforts to weave a narrative proving just that, I just can't find a compelling reason to suspect it might be true.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Belgian UFO Wave." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
27 Sep 2016. Web.
22 Apr 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4538>
References & Further Reading
Abrassart, J. Le modèle sociopsychologique du phénomène OVNI: Un cadre conceptuel interprétatif en sciences humaines. Louvain-la-Neuve: Université Catholique de Louvain, 2016. 121-139.
Editors. "Le mystère du célèbre OVNI des années 90 élucidé: Une supercherie." Faits divers. RTL Info, 26 Jul. 2011. Web. 24 Sep. 2016. <http://www.rtl.be/info/belgique/faits-divers/le-mystere-du-celebre-ovni-des-annees-90-elucide-une-supercherie--240323.aspx>
Editors. "March 30-31, 1990: The Belgium F-16 UFO Chase." SUNlite. 1 May 2012, Volume 4, Number 3: 5-9.
Hallet, M. "The So-Called Belgian Ufo Wave – A Critical View." UFOs. SkepticReport, 1 May 2005. Web. 23 Sep. 2016. <http://www.skepticreport.com/sr/?p=162>
Klass, P. UFOs: The Public Deceived. New York: Prometheus Books, 1986. 304.
Lambrechts, Maj. Report concerning the observation of UFOs in the night from March 30 to March 31, 1990. Brussels: Belgian Air Component, 1990.
Leclet, R. The Belgian UFO Wave of 1989-1992: A Neglected Hypothesis. Moselle: CNEGU, 2008.
Van Utrecht, W. "Triangles Over Belgium." Research. Celestia, 1 May 2007. Web. 23 Sep. 2016. <http://www.caelestia.be/article05.html>
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