Salley "A.J.S" Rayl interviewed Jim Penniston for MSN’s “Project Watchfire” in 1997
Salley "A.J.S" Rayl A.J.S. Rayl is an author, investigative journalist, and creative writer who has contributed to Planetary Society publications since 2002. She produced the monthly Mars Exploration Rovers Update from 2004 to 2019.
Her work has also appeared in Air & Space, Astronomy, Discover, OMNI, Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, the Los Angeles Times, The Scientist, USAToday.com, and Wired, among others, as well as in medical and science journals, ranging from Applied Neurology to The Planetary Report.
Salley, as longtime friends and colleagues know her, has also authored and co-authored books, including Beatles ’64: A Hard Day’s Night in America (Doubleday, 1989), a unique collaboration with photojournalist Curt Gunter, deemed by Rolling Stones one of the “essential 11 books” on The Beatles, and The Commissioning of USS Minnesota SSN-783, co-author (Lifetouch, 2013). She has also authored special event publications, such as Nobel Conference journals (1996-’99, 2000-’09); Lindbergh, the official international publication celebrating the 75thanniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s pioneering solo Transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (Primarius Promotion, 2002); and contributed to others, including Give Peace A Chance: Music and the Struggle for Peace (Chicago Review Press, 1983); and NASA 50 (2008).
“There is some confusion about the date. There are two duty rosters, both of which are dated December 26th, but it was either that night, the 26th, or the 27th. I reported for work as usual, and at about 6 pm, I prepared for guard mount. The men reported in to Bentwaters around 7 pm.
“From Bentwaters, we transported over to RAF Woodbridge in a metro on the back road. It was just business as usual. Since it was just after the Christmas holiday, we expected it to be a slow, quiet night.
“About 12:02 am – I remember that distinctly – I was dispatched to the East Gate, which was sometimes referred to as the back gate at Woodbridge. There, I was told to contact Police 2, which was Airman First Class John Burroughs and Staff Sgt. Bud Steffans, and that I would be briefed when I got there.
“Upon arriving at the East Gate, Staff Sgt. Steffans told me that there was a problem out in the woods. I gazed about 300 meters into the distance and saw what appeared to be a fire. My first impression was that we had an aircraft down. I saw orange, red, and bluish types of glowing light, pretty standard with aircraft crashes. I asked Staff Sgt. Steffans if he had heard it go down. He told me there had been no sound, that it didn’t crash, that it had landed. I discounted that and, after assessing in my own mind what to do, decided we should call it in to our superiors at Bentwaters’ Center for Security Control.
“I went to the gate shack, phoned in, and spoke with Master Sergeant J.D. Chandler, who was the on-duty flight chief for both bases. He asked me to stand by while he contacted the Control Tower at Bentwaters and also at Woodbridge. While I was talking with Chandler, the security controller was making contact with Bentwaters Control Tower, and they, in turn, were in contact with Heathrow Airport’s Control Tower in London and RAF Bawdsey Eastern Radar in East Anglia. I was told they reported a bogie about three miles out from Bentwaters but had lost contact with it 15 minutes previously. The confirmation that triangulated the radar sighting was RAF Bawdsey. It had been over Woodbridge, they told me, when it dropped from radar imaging.
“I was still pretty sure it was an aircraft downing at that point and asked Master Sgt. Chandler for permission to investigate. Master Sgt. Chandler contacted the shift commander’s office, and within a minute or so I got the go-ahead to proceed off base with two other security policemen. We were told to leave our weapons behind, so as to not violate the Status Forces Agreement with the British. I and Airman First Class John Burroughs and Ed Cabansag, also an Airman First Class, got into our Jeep and proceeded out the East Gate, then down a logging road adjacent to the perimeter. It got too rocky, so we had to dismount the vehicle.
“Our radios — the standard Motorola type — were experiencing a dampening effect common with atmospheric conditions. Basically they were breaking up and I was not able to send or recover full transmissions. At that point, I decided to station Airman Cabansag there as a radio link, so he stayed by the Jeep to serve as a communications relay. Airman Burroughs and I then headed on foot toward the tree line, approximately 50 meters away, beyond which was a clearing — which is where the activity, the lights were coming from.”
“As we started getting closer, it was apparent that it was not an aircraft downing or a crash. We weren’t sure what it was at that point, so we radioed that information back to Airman Cabansag, who radioed it back to CSC. We had no outside contact with our IBRs, with the exception of Airman Cabansag, and he was, by this point, beginning to break up on the transmissions himself.
“We entered the tree line and moved in about 20 more meters. There was an object sitting in a clearing. It was emitting mostly white light at that point, very bright. Both Burroughs and I had to squint when we looked at it. I found it very strange that there was no sound coming from the object, but the animals around us were in a frenzy. We had wildlife running by us, and lots of birds. Outside that noise, however, there was no other.
“That was when I decided to have Burroughs stay there as a radio link. He did not seem calm. He didn’t acknowledge what I was saying, but I thought he understood. I was more concerned at that moment with what was going on in front of me.
“As I continued on into the woods, I started seeing the outline of the object itself. The lights that had just been a blur from 300 meters away were now definite, distinct colors — light blue, yellow, and red — and they were pulsating. Looking at the silhouette of the object, I realized it was not a conventional aircraft, meaning that it was not one that was already published in Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. It was no aircraft I had ever seen, and it wasn’t one that I knew any prototype of.
“I had my notebook and camera while I was out there, so I began taking notes. This is what I wrote:
Triangular in shape. The top portion is producing mainly white light, which encompasses most of the upper section of the craft. A small amount of white light peers out the bottom. At the left side center is a bluish light, and on the other side, red. The lights seem to be molded as part of the exterior of the structure, smooth, slowly fading into the rest of the outside of the structure, gradually molding into the fabric of the craft.
“As I was taking notes, I also memorized what was in front of me for what seemed like hours, but was in fact only minutes. Finally, I unleashed my camera-case cover and brought the camera up to focus. The air was electric. It made my hair and skin feel as if I were surrounded by static electricity or some type of energy. I began snapping photo after photo. It was still eerily quiet.
“I got to within 10 feet of the craft and the clearing where it sat. I estimated it to be about three meters tall and about three meters wide at the base. No landing gear was apparent, but it seemed like she was on fixed legs. I moved a little closer. I had already taken all 36 pictures on my roll of film. I walked around the craft, and finally, I walked right up to the craft. I noticed the fabric of the shell was more like a smooth, opaque, black glass. The bluish lights went from black to gray to blue. I was pretty much confused at that point. I kept trying to put this in some kind of frame of reference, trying to find some logical explanation as to what this was and what was going on. It was dead silent. No animals were even making noise anymore.
“On the smooth exterior shell there was writing of some kind, but I couldn’t quite distinguish it, so I moved up to it. It was three-inch lettering, rather symbols that stretched for the length of two feet, maybe a little more. I touched the symbols, and I could feel the shapes as if they were inscribed or etched or engraved, like a diamond cut on glass.
“At that point, I backed away from the craft, because the light was starting to get brighter. Still, there was no sound. There was no physical contact with any kind of life form, but there did seem to be a life presence. It was mechanical, this ship, and it seemed to be under intelligent control.
“The next thing I knew, I was standing about 20 feet away from the craft with Burroughs, who I thought I had left back near the tree line. The craft moved up off the ground, about three feet, still with absolutely no sound. It started to move slowly, weaving back through the trees at a very slow pace, maybe a half a foot per second. It took about a couple of minutes for it to maneuver itself back to a distance of about 100 to 150 feet, then it rose up just over the trees, about 200 feet high. There was a momentary pause — and then literally with the blink of an eye it was gone. All with no sound. That still boggles my mind.
“We thought it had left, but then both Airman Burroughs and I saw the same array of colored lights maybe a half mile away. So we pursued it, trying to follow its course as best we could on foot. We only got about 300 yards into the woods before we turned around. We still had no radio contact, which I thought was strange. We weren’t even getting squelch. We went back to the clearing. There, Airman Burroughs noticed the impression, the indentations in the ground. We found three of them, all triangular in shape, each about three meters apart. Then I decided we should head back.”
“When we arrived at CSC, we ran into Sgt. Chandler and two or three other security people. They had had negative contact with us for almost three hours, and they had been concerned. I remember saying to Sgt. Chandler, `You’re not going to believe tonight.’ He said, `Yeah? If it has anything to do with what I saw a little while ago, I would believe you.’
“Airman Burroughs and I were then instructed to report to the shift commander’s office. The assistant operations officer was there to debrief us. As we stood at attention in his office, he spoke to us in a very steady, calm voice. He said, `Can you gentlemen explain to me what happened out there tonight?’ So we explained, very briefly. We didn’t tell him any specifics about the symbols or the design of the craft.
“After a very long pause, and very calmly, while he was tapping his pencil on the table, he said, `Gentlemen, what you say you experienced tonight is no longer able to be reported through Air Force channels.’ He then gave us something of a history lesson on Project Blue Book and that it was terminated in 1969. Basically, he told us that there was no official way to report this up. Then he said, `Some things are best left unsaid.’ He asked us to keep quiet about it, to forget it happened.
“That mentality, that mindset and thought process, also caused the security controller to delete it from the blotter and retype the blotter entry with a minimal description, something to the effect of `Investigated aircraft crash off base’ and three or four brief sentences following. Also, an Air Force Form 1569, an accident and complaint report, was filled out. Later, I learned that that was what stimulated Lt. Col. Halt, when he reviewed the blotter the next morning and after hearing about what really had happened, to insist something about it be put into the blotter.
“After the debriefing, Airman Burroughs and I were put on authorized break for six days, so we drove home to Ipswich. I dropped Airman Burroughs off, then went home, changed clothes, and drove back to Woodbridge. But first I stopped by a friend’s place in Ipswich, who was a contractor and painter, who gave me some plaster. Then, I went back out to the forest and the clearing where the three indentations left by the craft we had seen were.
“I poured plaster into the impressions left in the ground by the craft and waited about 40 minutes. Then I pulled them up and put them in the back of my car, just as Maj. Ed Drurry, the Deputy Security Police Commander, and the assistant operations officer showed up. They asked me what I was doing. I told them I was just looking around. They told me they wanted to do the same.
“I didn’t tell them about making the casts, because I didn’t think it would be prudent. Later I found out that the deputy base commander, then-Lieutenant Colonel Halt, had also visited the site later that same day and noticed that there were traces of plaster around the impressions, the indentations, and later, much later, I finally admitted to him what I had done. I needed something for myself, something to prove to me that this had really happened, really physically happened.
“The interesting thing about the impressions, or something worthy of note, anyway, is that the ground temperature at the time was such that our vehicles didn’t even make impressions on the ground because it was so cold or frozen, so whatever the craft was, it had to be heavy.
“I had dropped my film off at the base lab for developing, but I never got them back. I never saw them. I was just told that they didn’t turn out. I didn’t understand that but was not in a position to push the issue. The cameras we carried in our vehicles were good ones, used to photograph people on the perimeter. We were under a high terrorist threat at the time with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), another terrorist group known as Black September, and some others, so we used them frequently as part of our patrol.”
“Two days later, there was another, second encounter. I did not go out on that night. Lt. Col. Halt was sent out to investigate.
“In the days following all this, I spoke off and on with Airman Burroughs. He was really agitated about this whole thing, really upset about it. I was still more perplexed than anything at this point.
“After that incident, however, I was directed to report to OSI [Office of Special Investigations] at 0900 in the morning. I met with a couple of agents, whom I had known because they had an office on the base. They debriefed me for about an hour and a half about the incident. It was an oral debriefing where I basically just told them what had happened, and they seemed quite content with the information that I provided them at the time. They seemed to have no problem with the fact that I had seen a craft. And, of course, there was no evidence, hard evidence, or so they thought. I did not tell them at this point that I had approached the craft, touched the craft, but I did tell them about the photos I had taken. But all this was, in their minds, I think, another unconfirmed UFO sighting, though the term `UFO’ was not used — by them or me. I think they felt assured at this point that containment was going to be maintained and that there was not going to be a problem. Damage control was at a minimum, and I think they felt that at that point they had met their objective.
“During the first week in January, about a week or so later, we had a pass-on that was given at guard mount to brief our people to ignore any type of activity that was going to be happening on the perimeter of Woodbridge. Apparently, or at least as we were told, there was a special team that was going to be ot there doing some electronics work. They weren’t wearing uniforms but civilian clothes. Now it was perfectly normal to receive pass-ons, but this situation was different because these guys weren’t wearing military uniforms. It was later rumored that it was a U.S. team sent in as a containment study team. But I do not know that for a fact.
“In the meantime, Lt. Col. Halt issued his memorandum to the British Ministry of Defense. I do not find it odd that he didn’t get any response, for the simple reason that there was no official way of reporting this kind of thing and so there was no official way for anyone to react to the up channeling of information. And quite frankly, I don’t think anyone suspected or expected the deputy base commander to shoot off a memo to MoD+. I think OSI thought the information was contained, because no written report had been taken up through U.S. channels and the debriefings were all taken care of.”
“It was a difficult time after the incident. For years afterward, I would hear the stories within military circles and I never commented on it in any way at all. Nor did I ever speak to any UFO researchers or members of the media. Still, I noted with some disconcertment all of the untruths being discussed, especially in the media starting in the mid-eighties after the Halt memo was released through the Freedom of Information Act. I read accounts quoting people who claimed to be primary witnesses — and they weren’t — saying certain events happened, which they didn’t.
“I think the fact that that memo was discovered and released was a complete oversight. In fact, when the word got out, I think it surprised the federal government and a lot of people within the U.S. Air Force. That has got to be the last thing they expected. Especially on this case. They thought damage control was complete. They had effectively contained the situation, they thought. Then comes this memo on official USAF stationery and signed by the deputy base commander, and it reads like something out of a science-fiction novel. It caught the Air Force with its pants down, and they didn’t know how to react. It was definitely an embarrassment for the U.S. government because, in effect, it showed that they had basically been lying about never investigating anything having to do with the UFO phenomenon. Which is, of course, ridiculous. UFOs are not all that uncommon; it’s just that we called them bogies and always came up with a prosaic answer as to their identities before. But this caught them in a lie. That and the fact that it happened outside of a NATO installation just did not make the Air Force look very good.
“I was extremely upset by the memo’s release, because the story being leaked as a result included my name and I was being tied into it. I had been assured by my senior officers at Bentwaters that at no time would my name or whatever be used or released outside official U.S. channels. Of course, they hadn’t released it, but the next thing I know, it’s being covered on CNN and Unsolved Mysteries and in books and magazines. Fortunately, I was still in the service and managed to duck them all. But I was confused. I thought — and I had been told — that this was a top secret incident. And now all this.
“I had no interest in anything like this before 1980. I always thought that anybody who had seen strange lights or claimed to have seen UFOs in the sky was crazy. I am a logical person. Even to this day, I am still trying to rationalize from previous experience what that craft was, what happened. But there it is: I mean, I am standing out in the clearing in the middle of the forest and there is this craft, clearly triangular in shape, looking like nothing I have ever seen or ever heard about, and it doesn’t make any sound, and it’s got lights, and I walk around it and take pictures of it and I even touch it, and nobody, no country, is claiming it. I am 99 percent certain of one thing and that is, this craft was definitely not of USAF origin or at least not that I know of, and nobody I know has ever heard anything about a craft like this then or now. And what other country might have such a craft that has those capabilities of maneuvering in tight conditions in the middle of a forest and all with no sound? That disturbed me then, and it disturbs me now.”
“Following my assignment/tour of duty at Bentwaters, in 1984, I was reassigned to Grissom Air Force Base in Indiana. My family and I acquired housing on the base, and there I found, quite by accident, a listening device — a bug, if you will — inside our base house, inside the living room wall, near the phone jack. I took it out and had someone I trusted look at it. That person told me that it had a range of 3,000 feet. That really disturbed me. And I did have some harassing phone calls. But that was alleviated by changing our phone number. I really don’t know what to think about that device. And I cannot even be positive it hadn’t been there from before, long before our arrival for another purpose, another person having nothing to do with me. But that seems, somehow, unlikely. Considering that Burroughs has been continually harassed and that his place has been broken into and the only things missing were a video documentation of the incident and his files on Bentwaters. Each of us, including Halt, have had our mail tampered with — things opened, resealed obviously, and communiques delayed for weeks. Sure, it could be the post office, but the number of times it has happened and that it’s happened to each of us with some consistency makes me question if it’s all just a coincidence. We now take certain precautions when we communicate.
“My own feeling is that this is all just a part of damage control. We were all in a position at the time of being trained observers, credible witnesses, who were backed by physical documentation and evidence — all of which you just cannot discount. In most of these so-called UFO encounters, there is absolutely no evidence and the witnesses are or can be made to be not credible. The fact that we could be believed has the Air Force worried. At least that’s all I can think. What else could it be?”
“In a conversation with Colonel Halt in 1990 [he was now a full Colonel], I asked him about the top secret status of all this in light of what had happened. He told me then that there was nothing classified about any of this. The Air Force, you see, has always had this sort of policy that, `Yeah, you can talk about this incident or that incident because technically it isn’t classified, not officially classified, but — it’s not a good idea.’ That was always the way it had been given to me. So I never talked to anybody about this. However, others have, including some who don’t know what they’re talking about because they weren’t out there. There’s a lot of truth to be told here, and that’s all anybody wants to hear is the facts. To sensationalize it, well . . . that’s pointless. It’s pretty sensational in and of itself what happened.
“For starters, this is one of the most witnessed and best documented UFO encounters ever, observed from a distance by some 80 people on the first night and an additional 30 on the second night — all of whom were trained observers. This was our profession — to be observing situations that might occur. We were on the alert. Our senses were ready. Out there, we were trained to be sponges, absorbing everything we saw or heard and documenting it with notes and mentally. Then there was my camera and the photographs I took, which have to be somewhere. There were radio transmissions that were heard and a tape of the deputy base commander’s investigation, which is circulating out there. Then again, this was an unknown, and there’s a lot of fear about the unknown.
“At this point, I don’t think I have broken any confidentiality oaths with the Department of Defense or the federal government. I would not do that or anything that would jeopardize the security of our country.”