In 1989, British police received frightened calls from people who said they’d seen a UFO flying through the sky. Officers were dispatched to a field outside London, where the craft had supposedly landed. When they arrived, the officers must have been shocked to find what looked like a flying saucer. As they approached it, a door opened, and a silver-clad figure emerged.
The police immediately fled (well, what would you do?) But, as you can probably guess based on the title of this article, the UFO wasn’t really from space.
The flying saucer was an almost unbelievably elaborate April Fools’ Day prank by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, whose love of April 1 is well-documented. (In 2011, he claimed that he bought Pluto to reinstate its status as a planet.)
The flying saucer was actually a hot air balloon shaped like a UFO that was supposed to land in London’s Hyde Park on April 1, but because of wind changes, had stopped in a field in Surrey the day before. Branson was on board, along with the silver-clad person who had startled the bobbies.
Here are more far-out April Fools’ Day pranks.
For a 1967 April Fools' Day prank, Swiss radio stations announced that U.S. astronauts had landed on the moon two years before they actually did.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/GODDARD/LUNAR RECONNAISSANCE ORBITER
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
“Your worst fears that the world will end are confirmed by astronomers of Franklin Institute, Philadelphia,” announced radio station KYW the day before April 1, 1940. “Scientists predict that the world will end at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time tomorrow.”
Obviously, this wasn’t true. The announcement was a publicity stunt thought up by William Castellini, a PR agent for the Franklin Institute, who wanted to publicize an April 1 lecture titled “How Will the World End?” (Hence, the specificity of 3 p.m.)
The end-of-the-world broadcast “was relatively soon after the War of the Worlds panic,” says Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. Although it’s clear that this broadcast upset many listeners—some of whom called newspapers or the police—Boese says it’s hard to know how many people believed that the world was really going to end.
“It might have maybe disturbed people, but how many people actually, really believed it is hard to know,” he says. There’s “always the temptation for the media to play it up as if thousands of people were terrified out of their minds, because that’d make a better story.”
Whether or not the prank fooled many people, Boese says Castellini “did definitely get fired.”Boese says Castellini “did definitely get fired.”
The Real Moon Landing Hoax
People have been saying that the moon landing was a hoax ever since Apollo 11 made it there in 1969. To be clear, the 1969 moon landing was real—but the 1967 moon landing announced by a Swiss radio station was fake.
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That year, on April Fools’ Day, all German-language Swiss radio stations were interrupted with an hour-long, breaking news story saying that U.S. astronauts had just landed on the moon. The announcement was met with excitement by Swiss residents and vacationing Americans.
“It was two years before they really did have a moon landing, so there was an element of credibility, believability to it,” Boese says. “The part about it that should have told people something was wrong was when they said that the moon capsule was going to take off and then be visible re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere” that night.
“People who knew anything about traveling to the moon should know it takes longer than that to get back,” he says. But those who didn’t looked to the sky that night to try to spot the capsule flying back to Earth.
Where’d the Gravity Go?
This last hoax wasn’t just meant to fool people—it was intended to spoof a popular pseudo-scientific theory of the ‘70s.
In their best-selling book The Jupiter Effect, authors John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann claimed that a 1982 planetary alignment would trigger massive, cataclysmic earthquakes. This ludicrous theory upset many scientists—including astronomer Patrick Moore, who decided he’d make fun of Gribbin and Plagemann with an April Fools’ Day joke.
The morning of April 1, 1976, Moore announced on a BBC radio station that at 9:47 am, Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, creating the Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect. These planets would pull at the Earth, temporarily decreasing its gravity. Moore instructed his audience that if they jumped into the air at exactly 9:47, they’d be able to feel it.
When the time came, Moore instructed his listeners to “Jump, now!” Afterwards, many listeners called in to report that they’d floated.
That’s one small step for parody, one giant leap for gullibility.