People who subscribe to alternative views of history, or for that matter anything generally thought of as “paranormal”, are often regarded as gullible or stupid. In fact the human mind and senses are highly fallible, and without critical thinking skills literally anyone can end up “drinking the kool-aid“. Teachers, academics, presidents, the CIA and British Intelligence have all bought into baseless ideas that are no more valid than the bloke down the pub who swears that dogs can’t look up, yet seem to make perfect sense to them at the time.
And the rest of us in turn, because of our respect and admiration for authority figures and professional people in general, are more likely to sit up and take notice. But this is fallacious reasoning, and to argue that something contrary to established knowledge might be genuine solely on this basis is to appeal to false authority. We should be just as sceptical about claims made by authority figures, and this does not require that we belittle their recognised achievements in their respective fields.
Flight into the Future!
With this in mind, let me relate the story of Air Marshal Sir Robert Victor Goddard, Royal Air Force. With a distinguished military career and a knighthood behind him, it will have come as a surprise to many in 1951 when he claimed in a Saturday Evening Post newspaper article to have physically travelled through time. He reprised the tale in his 1975 book “Flight Towards Reality” and it has occasionally resurfaced ever since. The story goes that in 1935, his Hawker Hart light bomber encountered a storm somewhere above an abandoned RAF airfield near Edinburgh, later re-activated as Drem. Goddard saw yellow-painted aircraft and a modern monoplane; neither of which were then in RAF service. The mechanics he could see were wearing blue coveralls instead of the RAF brown de rigeur in 1935. The dilapidated buildings had been renovated and more constructed. The implication of these apparent discrepancies is that Goddard had been propelled forward in time by around four year, as by 1939 the airfield would have been populated with the yellow-painted Hawker Harts (by now relegated to training duties) and Airspeed Oxford monoplanes of 13 Flying Training School.
This, like many paranormal claims, is rather difficult to explain if taken on face value. We have no idea how closely this version of events corresponds with what actually happened that day, and not because of any deceit on Goddard’s part. Without doubt he believed what he was writing; it was completely real to him, and he lived through the events in question. Why even question the word of an honourable military professional? Well, like all of us, he was fallible, and his impeccable credentials did not qualify or prepare him to deal with paranormal experiences. In addition, the stakes here are high, and so must our standard of evidence be. If what’s described really happened, it has earth-shattering implications for the way we understand the universe. No evidence of time-travel, nor even a theoretical basis for it has been found.
Unfortunately, no corroborating reports were made of a swirling vortex appearing in the Firth of Forth, and no physical evidence generated. We have only Goddard’s anecdotal account to go on, and I have to note that this was written sixteen and then forty years after the fact (the article, then the book). The possible (but more boring) explanations are myriad; he may have misremembered the year of the incident or aspects of what he saw on the ground at the time. Both seem unlikely for a trained military pilot, but the post hoc construction or modification of memories is a very real issue for psychologists and oral historians. Rather more likely, given the elapsed time between incident and report is that he misinterpreted what he saw on the ground.
The three Avro 504N trainers Goddard specifies had ironically been replaced in RAF service by 1935; 13 FTS certainly didn’t operate them, yellow or no. The other aircraft, the “high-tech” monoplane, was a configuration as old as the biplane. Flight testing of the new breed, including the famous Hawker Hurricane was underway that very year. Goddard later supposed that he saw a Miles Magister trainer, which first flew in 1937, but the first Miles monoplane was airborne in 1933. Nonetheless, it is admittedly unlikely that any of these aircraft, anachronistic or not, could have been parked at Gullane/Drem in 1935; though not “completely useless as an airfield” as one source puts it, it was essentially disused.
A Rational Explanation
My own offered scenario is that after the blind-flying and violent manoeuvring brought on by he storm, Goddard was seriously disorientated and ended up above a completely different aerodrome. Air navigation in the 1930s was still achieved by dead reckoning; map and compass, and required that landmarks were a) visible, and b) correctly identified. Otherwise one could very quickly end up way off course. If Goddard wasn’t over Drem, where was he? The most likely candidate for me is Renfrew Aerodrome, then home to the Scottish Flying Club. Not only did the club make use of Avro 504s, but other civil aircraft were regular visitors. Many of these would have been brightly coloured, and monoplanes were in common use. In fact an antecedent of the Magister Goddard thought he saw was photographed at Renfrew that very year. From the air they would have been indistinguishable. And as maintenance staff were civilians, the objection to prematurely blue RAF overalls would no longer apply. Although Renfrew is on the wrong side of the country (70 miles away from Drem), such a deviation in course is far from impossible in a 400-mile cross-country journey like Goddard’s. Though somewhat unlikely in ordinary circumstances, I would venture that this version of events is nonetheless rather more likely than the physics-defying mid-air appearance of a door into the future.Because of the credibility lent to Goddard’s story by his service history and status, it continues to be occasionally and uncritically reported, most recently in a wholly credulous article in the Scottish local magazine “East Lothian Life”. The events even made it onto the big screen in a 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave and Denholm Elliott, and just might have inspired the fantastically poor 1980s time-travel film, “The Final Countdown“. (Worth a look to see F-14 Tomcat jets dogfighting with Second World War aeroplanes).
A bonus ghost story…
After leaving the RAF and writing about his hair-raising flight, Goddard went on to be a noted figure in the UFO community, coining the term “Ufology“. He’s also supposed to have taken a photograph of a ghost. Given the obvious similarity to the chap next to him save for the service cap, the most likely explanation for this is a simple double exposure on a relatively primitive camera. Having realised he was not wearing his cap (the “ghost” is bare-headed), he replaced his cap after the photographer had already opened his shutter and before the plate was fully exposed (several seconds). The effect was fully understood, and used to create amusing images.
What can we learn from the experiences of people like Goddard? That even the most intelligent, professional, reliable, capable and rational people can in the right circumstances lapse into magical thinking. By learning about critical thought and scepticism we can strive to avoid this, whatever our professional and personal backgrounds.