The Ministry of Defence post of Secretariat (Air Staff) 2a - otherwise known as the UFO desk - is the perfect job for a prosaic pedant who takes pleasure in pouring cold water on excitement about the paranormal and the unexplained. Perhaps that's the sort of person Nick Pope was when he was assigned to the post five years ago. But he has traversed galaxies since then. "I came in as a sceptic and I came out as a believer," he says today as he launches his book Open Skies, Closed Minds, A Government UFO Expert Speaks Out.
Pope has gone from being the MoD's official "Flying saucers! Don't be silly!" man, to a leading harbinger of the extra-terrestrial threat. He believes in the probable existence of extra-terrestrial life forms and that they visit Earth by stealth in spacecraft whose technology far outstrips our own. He is now being dubbed "the real Fox Mulder" after the raincoated sleuth who investigates unexplained phenomena in the cult TV series The X Files. His book is being billed as the MoD's "real X Files".
When he joined the civil service a decade ago, he naturally assumed that he would be "writing reports and pushing papers around". The job suited him. Everything about Pope is sensible, cautious even, from his dark jacket and moderate tie to the way he speaks. His sentences are all neat and ordered and whatever he says comes out sounding like a well-rehearsed briefing. He also seems quite a shy and private man. The only time he falters is when asked his age. First he says 31, then he says 30.
After a variety of MoD postings, including a stint working on RAF training policy and another at the joint operation centre during the Gulf War, Pope was assigned in 1991 to the UFO desk - a post neither he nor most of his colleagues even knew existed.
Superficially, Pope's life remained unchanged. As before, each morning he filed with thousands of other government bureaucrats into the vast, expressionless MoD building. Hurrying down its labyrinthine corridors Pope would be seated at his desk by 9am. But from one minute past nine through to 5pm, he found himself in what amounted to a parallel universe.
"People came straight through to me on my direct line, so my phone could ring and it could be a member of the public on the other end saying 'I saw a UFO last night.' Indeed that happened on a daily basis," Pope explains. "There was a regular stable of 'interesting' characters who would phone up often, I got to know them all," he says with a reserved smile.
"I took a healthily sceptical attitude to the people phoning in. Ninety- five per cent of all these sightings do have conventional explanations, so it's very important to keep your feet on the ground when investigating cases," but Pope never dismissed any callers. "I interpreted John Major's Citizen Charter in a full and liberal way and felt that if people wanted to talk to me, even if their views were very off-beat, I would give them a fair crack of the whip."
And the more he listened, the more Pope was drawn into what he now calls The UFO Mystery. "I found that I was talking to witnesses who claimed they'd been abducted by aliens ... people who were certainly traumatised by their experience ... and I was having to impound radar tapes from the RAF to see if we could track any of these UFOs."
Pope's scepticism was being gradually eroded by "persuasive" reports, particularly from RAF personnel. The turning point - when he actually started to believe in the existence of intelligent life "out there" - came in 1993. "There was a wave of sightings," he says, a glint appearing in his previously calm eyes. "We were besieged with calls and I carried out a very detailed investigation. We had clear evidence that a structured craft breached the UK air defences. It was seen by dozens of witnesses all over the country. Many of them were police officers and military personnel."
After weeks of exhaustive research, Pope, in his capacity as the Government's UFO expert, reached his carefully considered conclusion. "We checked for aircraft movements, but there was absolutely nothing up at the time. I think it was an extra-terrestrial craft," he declares.
Pope started to talk to leading ufologists and groups such as Contact International and BOFURA. Overcoming their initial hostility and suspicion, Pope cultivated good relations with the UFO lobby and regularly exchanged information on sightings. But Pope found that the more diligently he investigated unexplained sightings, the more uncomfortable his bosses within the MoD became. "I was never actively blocked by my superiors," he writes in his book, "but there were times when things were made difficult for me; times when I was quite deliberately given one-off tasks to divert me from a UFO case."
At this point, the American series, The X Files, started appearing on British TV. By some uncanny doppelganger effect - the sort of phenomenon which would take up a whole X Files episode - Pope seemed to be turning into its lead character, Fox Mulder. Their blandly pleasant looks are not dissimilar. The faintly geekish, earnest manner is familiar. As Pope walked down the corridors of the MoD, people would whistle the programme's haunting theme tune. He even acquired Mulder's nickname, "Spooky". Both Pope and Mulder certainly subscribed to the same motto, The Truth is Out There.
"Yes, I do identify with him," says Pope. "I developed a reputation as a maverick within the ministry as throughout my three-year posting I was increasingly persuaded by the evidence." His promotion out of the UFO job after three years into the financial planning department, is viewed by some ufologists as evidence of a government cover-up.
Pope dismisses such rumours, but admits that a lot of the changes he made on the UFO desk are being "quietly undone" by his successor. Certainly there was a lot of resistance among some of his former bosses to the publication of his book. "I took the view that if the generals could write their books on the Gulf War, then I would write this book. I think the public has a right to know what's going on," says Pope.
Which is what? Sadly, Pope himself has never seen a UFO or had a close encounter ("I live in hope," he grins). Still, he has no conclusive evidence that there is intelligent life in outer space. The real X files contain no revelations. Pope's book, which has had substantial input from a commercial writer and is bound to top the best-seller list, merely recaps all the old paranoid chestnuts, most of them from the United States, the ones from Britain being a bit thin on the ground.
All that Pope really has to tell us is that he, a government official, has made the leap of faith. Encouraged by the sheer volume of unexplained sightings and incidents, he is now a believer. "It is sheer arrogance to believe that we're alone in the universe ... and it seems inconceivable that these craft would be coming here, as I think the evidence is now overwhelming that they do, and that these craft wouldn't interact in some way with us. So I think that a very small percentage of these claims of abductions are true."
Pope hopes that his official background will make people consider the subject with a new seriousness, especially as he believes that extra-terrestrials present a potential security threat which the MoD, to his dismay, is not taking seriously. "My book is as much for the establishment ... senior civil servants and military personnel ... as for anyone," says Pope, valiantly placing national security above the personal risk to himself of complete ridicule. "It serves as a sort of briefing document, and I know for a fact that it is being widely read in the Ministry of Defence."
And who knows, perhaps Pope and the extra-terrestrials will have the last laugh yet.
'Open Skies, Closed Minds' by Nick Pope is published by Simon and Schuster at pounds 14.99.Reuse content