Anyone who has been following the UFO phenomenon for any length of time knows that fakes and hoaxes sort of go with the territory. People hoax UFOs for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes it is to fool everyone, at other times it is to prove a point, and still on other occasions it is to gain some bit of fame or money, or simply just for the simple reason of seeing what will happen. Whatever the reasons may be, it sometimes seems that for every person who manages to capture what they truly believe to potentially be an authentic photo or video of unexplained phenomena, there is another trying to fake it all, making it sometimes very hard to figure out where the possibly real ends and the hoaxes and fakery begin. There has been a plethora of UFO hoaxes pulled off over the years, but perhaps none is as epic or downright shameless as the time billionaire Richard Branson managed to trick a whole country into thinking it was being invaded by aliens.
The whole bizarre fiasco revolves around one Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson, a famous British business magnate, investor, author and philanthropist, who founded the all encompassing Virgin group, which includes Virgin records, Virgin Airlines, the spaceflight corporation Virgin Galactic, and who has his hand in around 400 different companies across the range in everything from retail, music and transport, to land, air, sea and space travel, and has appeared on the Time 100 Most Influential People in The World list. He’s kind of a big deal, but yet boys will be boys, and he has also become rather well-known for a whole load of pranks and jokes that are as stellar as anyone could hope those of a billionaire could be. One of these was the time he spooked a large portion of the population with an elaborate, bonksers UFO gag that in retrospect could have very well gotten him killed.
Branson has gained quite a bit of notoriety for his prankish nature, and nowhere else can this be felt as strongly as his storied and epic April Fool’s Day pranks. He has over the years come out with bogus claims of a mobile phone for lefties, a gym for animals, a claim in which he said that trained ferrets were helping to lay cables for the enterprise, that he had designed a vehicle that could penetrate into the depths of volcanoes, announcements of glass bottomed planes, and even a prank in which he proclaimed he had successfully bought the planet Pluto. Branson has become well-known for being an incorrigible jokester with his elaborate April Fool’s pranks, but perhaps non other compares to the one he pulled off back in 1989, in which he seems to have really outdone himself.
He came up with a grand scheme referred to as “Project Wedgewood,” in which Branson commissioned Don Cameron, of hot air balloon manufacturer Cameron Balloons Limited, to create an immense, very realistic looking UFO complete with elaborate flashing strobe lights and an automated sliding door. Branson then boarded the balloon and took off on March 31 along with a dwarf dressed in an alien costume and a whole bunch of dry ice for effect. The idea was to fly the balloon over to London’s Hyde Park and have it land there on April Fool’s Day, April 1st, after which the costumed dwarf would descend through a special sliding door amidst a cloud of dry ice smoke for the “Gotcha!” moment, hilarity ensuing. It was all meant to be good fun, but it would quickly spiral out of control past Branson’s wildest expectations. As they floated over the English landscape along London’s M25 highway towards the destination, it became obvious that there were people stopping their cars and plenty of frightened bystanders gawking and pointing up at the sky at them, with Branson later saying, “We could see every single vehicle grinding to a halt and hundreds of people looking up at the UFO flying over them. It was great fun watching their reactions.”
Good fun for them, perhaps, but for the people who were seeing this all it was a different story. Indeed, everyone who saw the balloon took it to be a genuine UFO, and in no time at all there was footage being shown on the news, police and TV and radio stations inundated with calls from concerned witnesses, and residents working themselves up into a mass panic over an alien invasion. It was rapidly launching itself into a media sensation, everyone seriously took this to be an actual alien spaceship, and since Branson had only told a very small cabal of people what he had been up to on the top secret prank there was no one to tell anyone otherwise. It was all so realistic and people were so panicked that the police and military began mobilizing to intercept and deal with what they truly believed to be the real deal and an actual alien threat. What had started off as an innocent prank was quickly escalating into a perceived national emergency, but Branson and his dwarf friend were oblivious to all of this, not at all aware of the true gravity or danger of the situation. They were up there gleefully giggling at the reactions like some schoolkids when a serious situation was brewing beneath them and they were coming close to being shot down.
Adding to the escalating situation was that the unfavorable wind conditions at the time were blowing them off course, forcing them to make an emergency landing in a remote field in Surrey a day early. Police tracked the balloon, still believing it to be an actual UFO and planning intercept it at the field. As the balloon came down, it did so surrounded by police cars and with military one the way. Despite this, Branson, who still did not really realize just how seriously everyone believed this was a real UFO or how dire it had become, went ahead with the rest of the prank, having the door open to disgorge a cloud of mist and the silver-clad dwarf to really drive the realism home, much to the horror of police, who took it to be a real alien and made to retreat. One of the very armed police officers at the scene would say say “I have never been so scared in 20 years of being a policeman,” and Branson himself would later say of the whole, surreal scene:
The police surrounded us and then sent one lone policeman with his truncheon across the field to greet the alien. The UFO’s door opened very slowly, with tonnes of dry ice billowing from it. A dwarf that we had carried on board, dressed in an ET outfit, walked down the platform towards the bobby. He promptly turned and ran in the opposite direction! The police initially didn’t see the funny side of it and threatened to arrest us for wasting their time. But they soon joined in the general merriment of it.
It’s interesting to note that other than perhaps some police purchases of new underwear there were no real repercussions to any of this, and one can imagine that such a hoax in this day and age would at least have led to some arrests and charges. At the end of the day, Branson and his little dwarf friend probably had a good laugh over it and discussed the prank over drinks, but for many of those who had been terrified it was a different story. It just goes to show what you can get away with when you are stinking rich, and it also shows that some elaborate hoaxes can be pulled off by those with the will and resources to carry them out. While Richard Branson continues to pull off his childish and amusing Aprils Fool's stunts, there is perhaps no other that fully compares to this in terms of the sheer panic and impact it had, and it would seem that Branson is probably quite proud of that.