Captain Schaffner's Last Flight

02.04.2016 12:18

originally published in Fortean Times 194 (2005)


At the height of the Cold War NATO forces in Europe were on constant watch for the approach of Soviet aircraft. Virtually every day the Russians tested the efficiency of west’s radars and its ability to respond quickly to intrusions from the East. During the course of this tense 40-year stand-off UFOs were a headache for both sides. At the centre of this cat-and-mouse game were the crews who flew the fighter aircraft whose job it was to intercept unidentified aircraft and, if necessary, shoot them down. Every minute of every day, pairs of RAF crews were cockpit ready at airfields along Britain’s east coast ready to go when the order to “scramble” came.

One dark September night in 1970 Captain William Schaffner, a USAF pilot on exchange duties with the Royal Air Force, was scrambled from RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire to intercept one such intruder. It was to be his last mission and the beginning of a mystery that would not be laid to rest until 2005, when the secret MoD report on the tragedy was finally released at the National Archives.

Schaffner, a 28-year-old father-of-two was an experienced pilot who had seen action in Vietnam. In the early hours of 9 September his wife and young family were told the RAF Lightning he had been flying had crashed into the North Sea. Lifeboats and coastguard rescue spent two days searching the choppy seas but could find no trace of him. And although the wreckage of the plane was eventually recovered from the sea largely intact, Captain Schaffner’s body was never found. The mysterious circumstances of his death would soon become the stuff legends are made of.

An RAF Board of Inquiry was held and a report produced but official secrecy was so endemic that the findings were kept on the secret list. As a result rumours spread about what had happened to Captain Schaffner. The wildest of all suggested he had been spirited from the cockpit of his aircraft as he closed on a UFO above the North Sea. The RAF crews had been purposely kept in the dark about the identity of the aircraft they had been scrambled to intercept. Was it one of theirs or one of ours? Or was it something much stranger? The fact that Schaffner died in tragic circumstances was the only definite fact at the time. But as the years passed it became the lynchpin around rumours and gossip that suggested Schaffner lost his life whilst pursuing a UFO.

The UFO connection came in 1992 when the Grimsby Evening News, published two sensational articles by assistant editor Pat Otter. As a cub reporter in 1970 Otter had covered the fruitless search for the pilot’s body. When the mystery was revived two decades later in a local book the paper received a call from a man claiming to be a member of the original RAF crash investigation team which examined the remains of the Lightning. Otter was later to claim he never believed the man’s story, but felt it was too good not to publish when he came up against a wall of official denials.

Otter’s source – who wished to remain anonymous – claimed there had been a dramatic increase in radar tracking of UFOs over the North Sea during the autumn of 1970 which led the RAF to mount a special operation. At 8.17pm on 8 September radars in the Shetlands tracked an unidentified target above the North Sea and Lightning interceptors were scrambled from RAF Leuchars to engage. But before they could get near the UFO turned sharply, increased its speed to a fantastic 17,400 mph, and vanished from the radar screens. According to the “deep throat” source higher command levels within NATO were now alerted and aircraft from three squadrons were ordered to remain on patrol in case the “thing” returned. It did, and during the course of the night several UFOs were detected. Each time they shot away at high speed before the RAF could approach them.

In his book Alien Investigator, published in 1999, former police sergeant turned UFO detective Tony Dodd took Otter’s story even further. His own sources (again anonymous) claimed that several early warning systems and tracking stations, including RAF Fylingdales in the UK and NORAD HQ at Cheyenne Mountain in the USA were put on full alert and that it was “almost certain” that President Nixon was closely involved. Dodd even claimed that NORAD contacted the RAF specifically to request that Captain Schaffner – on an exchange posting to the RAF - should be scrambled.

According to both Otter and Dodd, Schaffner took off in Lightning XS-894 not long after he had returned from a training mission. The UFO was now being tracked on radar about ninety miles east of Whitby and Schaffner was quickly vectored onto it. The information about what happened next was taken from a transcript provided by the RAF “source” that purported to be describing the actual interchange between Schaffner and the radar controller at RAF Patrington on the Yorkshire coast. According to the transcript, Schaffner could see a bluish conical shape which was so bright he could hardly look at it. This UFO was accompanied by an object resembling a large glass football.

As Schaffner closed in, describing the object before him, he suddenly exclaimed:

“Wait a second, its turning…coming straight for me….am taking evasive action….”

At that point the controller lost contact and Schaffner’s radar plot merged with that of the UFO for a while before losing altitude and disappearing from the scope. Schaffner’s plane was found one month later on the bed of the North Sea with the cockpit still closed. There was no sign of the pilot’s body.

This is a literally fantastic case and one with massive political implications if any of it is true. It was also an event that resonated with other stories concerning mysterious “vanishings” that have become part of Fortean mythology. The death or disappearance of military pilots as a result of hostile action by UFOs has a long pedigree in the literature of the subject. The vanishing of Flight 19 off the Florida Keys and within the Bermuda Triangle in 1945 was used to striking effect by Steven Spielberg at the opening of his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind that was supposedly based on true-life UFO incidents. The UFO connection with this “mystery” has since been thoroughly debunked but there are other stories that have contributed to the body of belief and rumour. They include the death of USAF pilot Thomas Mantell whose aircraft crashed during an abortive chase of a ‘flying saucer’ over Kentucky in 1948, and the mysterious disappearance of pilot Frederick Valentich and his Cessna aircraft following a UFO encounter over the Bass Straight, Australia, in 1978.

But when examined closely the facts behind many of these classic UFO mysteries rarely support the status they have achieved in legend and belief. For the RAF Board of Inquiry report into the death of Captain Schaffner, finally declassified by the MoD last year, provides a far less sensational version of the events. It reveals how the UFO link with the case is the product of poor investigation and wishful thinking rather than hard fact. Pat Otter’s story, enthusiastically endorsed by Flying Saucer Review and Tony Dodd, exciting though it sounds, has no evidence to support it other than the fact that Captain Schaffner did exist and was killed in an aircraft accident in the North Sea.

The factual information now available at The National Archives tells a completely different story. Firstly, the basis of the claims – that an operation was underway to intercept UFOs – does not stand up to scrutiny. The Operations Record Books of the RAF alert squadrons are now open and show there were no “live scrambles” to intercept UFOs during the week in which Schaffner died. However, there were many real scrambles later that month to intercept Russian bears (Tu-142 Tupolev aircraft) shadowing a NATO exercise in the North Sea. Is this the source of some of the rumours?

The Air Accident Report produced by the RAF Board of Inquiry in June 1972 reveals that Schaffner was taking part in a TACEVAL (Tactical Evaluation) exercise on the night he died. The exercise was one of many dummy-runs planned by Fighter Command to test the responses of its front-line pilots. By definition aircrew would be purposefully kept in the dark as to whether their target was friend or foe. The object of this specific exercise was initially to locate and intercept an unknown. By definition it was a UFO until it was identified. The report reveals that Schaffner’s “UFO” was in fact an RAF Shackleton which “entered the UK airspace during daylight and remained on station through dusk and into darkness,” a time period which matches the timeline of events.

During the night Lightning pilots from 5 Squadron at Binbrook were scrambled one by one to identify, intercept and shadow the intruder. According to the investigation report Schaffner’s initial orders were cancelled as he taxied down the runway and he was ordered back to dispersal. Regulations stated that his Lightning should have been given a full service before rejoining the action but despite his experience, and while under pressure, Schaffner broke the rules and called off his ground crew. When scramble orders came again minutes later, he failed to sign his aircraft’s servicing certificate which fell onto the runway as the Lightning took off on its last fateful mission at 2025 Zulu hours on 8 September 1970.

Unknown to Captain Schaffner his fate was already sealed. The TACEVAL team had changed their exercise scenario from the straightforward interception he had trained for to the shadowing or shepherding of a low-speed target. Although Schaffner was experienced at interceptions he had little training to prepare him for this potentially hazardous exercise in darkness. After he located the target, his last contact with ground control was timed at 2045. The accident file contains the actual transcript of his conversation with ground controllers which contains the following lines describing the ‘UFO’:

Capt Schaffner: Contact with a set of lights in that area
Fighter Controller: Say again.
Capt Schaffner: Set of lights in that area – closing.

The pilot then explains he will have to “do some manoeuvring to slow her down a little bit” and controllers warn him to “keep a sharp look out.” As he does contact is lost and the final moments contain the controller’s desperate calls on radio:

Fighter Controller: 45 Patrington you are dark on me this time – check target’s heading and your own over.
C45 Patrington do you read over.
Do you read – over. Do you read – over. Nothing heard.

In their testimony to the inquiry, the Lightning pilot who had completed the previous interception and the crew of the Shackleton saw Schaffner flying dangerous low below them in a port turn, after which contact was lost. This is the moment the board of inquiry concluded his aircraft hit the North Sea.

Two months after the incident Schaffner’s Lightning was discovered lying on the sea bed five miles off Flamborough Head, virtually intact and with the canopy closed. It appeared the aircraft had struck the sea at low speed and planed along the surface before sinking. But the mystery increased when the aircraft was recovered and examined at Farnborough. Investigators found the canopy was closed but empty – and there no trace of the pilot. But the clues which explained the mystery lay inside the cockpit.

The accident report reveals that the Lightning’s ejector seat mechanism had not been properly serviced and had failed to fire when Schaffner struck it. He had no option but to open the canopy manually as he battled to escape from the sinking aircraft. He succeeded but during the darkness and panic became separated from his emergency life support equipment. Free but helpless he drowned in the freezing sea water. As the aircraft sank the cockpit closed as the hydraulic pressure decayed.

Captain Schaffner’s wife was never told the full findings of the inquiry and afterwards she remarried and settled in Chicago. The pilot’s sons, Glenn and Mike, tried for years to discover the truth but were told the MoD file on the crash had been “shredded.” Their anguish increased when they came across the fantastic and partly bogus UFO version of the story which has spread across the Internet in the wake of the newspaper stories.

But in 2002 a team of journalists from BBC North’s Inside Out obtained access to the classified documents on the crash that had been on the secret list for 32 years. They included photographs of the Lightning jet after its recovery from the North Sea, a copy of the inquiry report and the transcript of their father’s final conversation with ground controllers. As we have seen, this differed drastically from the “fake” transcript given to the journalist Pat Otter by the mysterious “accident investigator.”

Unsurprisingly, Tony Dodd could not accept the case which featured in his book was now explained because of his belief in a deep cover-up by the authorities. He told the BBC: “I don’t think that we will ever get to the bottom of what happened because the RAF would never accept that a UFO could be involved.”

This particular UFO legend seems to have arisen entirely as a result of UFOlogists believing rumour anonymous sources in preference to official ones. But official secrecy gave ammunition to the conspiracy theorists by keeping the facts of the case shrouded in unnecessary mystery for decades. Some people will continue to believe that the official sources are part of the cover-up and that Schaffner died whilst pursuing a UFO. If true, this would mean the MoD along with dozens of individuals involved in the investigation and Schaffner’s own colleagues have openly lied in their testimony to the inquiry. If this is the case then those lies will be exposed sooner or later.

Some genuine mysteries do remain and the most puzzling relates to the source of Otter’s original story which made the connection with UFOs and alien abductions. Who was the anonymous source and what was his motivation for seeding a bogus story into the UFO rumour mill? While this question may never be answered, this case serves to demonstrate how layer upon layer of UFOlogical folklore can become easily and uncritically attached to the most mundane of incidents.


Further reading & links:
BBC Inside Out investigation:
Tony Dodd, Alien Investigator: The Case files of Britain’s leading UFO detective (London: Headline, 1999)

Copyright David Clarke 2005