On Tuesday, 13 February 2001, at about 6pm, a call was made to the emergency services to report the crash of a small aircraft on Benaughlin Mountain, near Kinawley in County Fermanagh.
Soon, police officers and soldiers were deployed in the area, while a helicopter fitted with heat-seeking equipment searched from the air.
However, nothing was found, and the police were able to establish that all local aircraft were accounted for. The search was called off at 10pm.
The general consensus amongst the emergency services was that the call had been a hoax.
But other’s came forward: people, from both sides of the border, who believed they had seen a plane crash. “I saw a dot at the front and a trail of smoke leading down an angle towards, the mountain. I know what I saw,” said one witness in Kinawley.
And a garda officer in County Cavan said: “A couple has reported seeing something burning in the sky, travelling south in the direction of Kinawley on Tuesday night.”
There was also a report that Erne Hospital in Enniskillen had been put on standby after being notified that there were two passengers on board the plane.
The additional witnesses gave the authorities cause to consider whether they’d been hasty in calling off the search. And so, the search was resumed on Wednesday, 14 February.
But Dr Bill Napier, an astronomer at the Armagh Observatory, was quite confident that the witnesses had seen a meteorite. “It is quite common for people who see a brilliant shooting star to think it has just disappeared behind a hill or something,” he said. “The thing might be 100 miles up. It’s a simple illusion. These things will cross the sky quickly and to the uninitiated they look like some sort of falling aircraft.”
However, Dr Napier was hedging his bets. He also said that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that the witnesses had indeed seen a falling aircraft.
On Friday, 16 February, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the Northern Ireland police force at the time) announced that the search had been called off. No aircraft had been found.
And that was that.
However, ten years earlier, in the same area, there were reports – again from both sides of the border – that a missile had been fired. Witnesses heard an explosion and saw two vapour trails in the sky.
At the time, an army spokesman confirmed that there had been an explosion, and that army helicopters had been operating in the area, but he denied that a missile had been fired.
No further information was given at the time.
The Irish News, 14, 15 & 17 February 2001
Belfast Telegraph (online edition), 14 & 18 February 2001