Captain Schaffner’s last flight

originally published in Fortean Times 194 (2005) – see also UFO files 3

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.

Screengrab from BBC North’s Inside Out webpage covering the September 2002 programme on the Schaffner incident (Credit: BBC)

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 theNorth 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.

A 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 theNorth 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. At8.17pmon 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 ofWhitbyand 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 theYorkshirecoast. 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 the UFO enigma. 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 mysteries rarely support the status they have achieved among UFOlogists. For the RAF Board of Inquiry report into the death of Captain Schaffner, finally declassified by the MoD in 2003, 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 theNorth 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 theNorth 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 theUKairspace 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.

Photos of Lightning XS894 from RAF Board of Inquiry report (credit: BBC)

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 theNorth 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.


Early in 2009 Captain Schaffner’s youngest son Michael contacted me after reading my account. He wrote:

I wanted to say how refreshing it is to find a UFO researcher who apparently takes time to do ‘research’ rather than just regurgitate unproven allegations from anonymous sources…I first discovered the UFO story that developed around my father’s death in 2000. Needless to say, my family and I were shocked. Not once in the 30 years since my father’s death had we any thought that it was anything more than a tragic accident. In 2002, I worked with Ian Cundall and the BBC (Leeds) to get the MoD to release the RAF’s accident inquiry report that had been held top secret for over 30 years. We were very relieved to find that this reported matched what we had been told from the outset. I guess what shocked me the most is that not one person who had written about my father or his accident had ever attempted to contact any of his family.”

Update 2017:

Retired RAF Lightning pilot Richard Pike has published his own account of this incident in his excellent book The Lightning Boys (Grub Street, 2011) available here.

Pike recalls how it occurred shortly after he moved to RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire, to take command of 5 Squadron.  A NATO team had arrived on station without warning, and had declared a state of ‘war’ as was standard practice during the Cold War.

His account on pgs 93-94 of what happened corroborates the findings of the BOI and the BBC’s investigation. The key section reads:

“… He was handed over to ground radar … as he reached 10,000 feet and instructed to accelerate to 0.95 Mach (around 600 knots). He was told to descend in order to intercept and shadow a low-level target that was, at that stage, twenty-eight miles from his position. He was not told that the target’s airspeed was a mere 160 knots. He … was heard to call ‘contact’ when he had picked up the target on his airborne radar…. A moment or two later he said that he had to ‘manoevre to lose speed’. Shortly after this call the crew of the target, a Shackleton aircraft, reported that the Lightning’s lights had gone out. The Lightning had hit the sea about 200 yards behind the Shackleton.”

Pike goes on to describe how he later comforted Shaffner’s wife who, long after her return to the USA, continued to believe he was alive and would be found. Unfortunately, after the aircraft was retrieved and the press reported the cockpit was empty, ‘local UFO enthusiasts linked the incident to alleged sightings of bright lights and spacecraft and claimed that Bill had been abducted by aliens.’ The growing body of rumour simply added to the family’s distress.

‘The sad truth was that Bill Schaffner had fallen foul of the dangers of low-level work in the dark,’ Pike concludes. Enough said.

13 Responses to Captain Schaffner’s last flight

  1. Steve Hambleton says:

    I am slightly disturbed by the fact that the RAF would let Lightening jets fly around with unserviced ejector seats thus putting at risk very valuable pilots and hardware.Ejector seats are very reliable and rigorously tested, so am surprised this should fail.I wonder why the Sackleton aircraft was lit up with lights as it was trying to evade the interceptor jets.I also wonder if the hydraulics on the canopy would degrade so quickly as to allow it to close in such a short time.Lastly I have watched lots of plane crash footage and am amazed that a jet could not break up at speed on a notorios choppy sea even if it did apparentely skim the surface.I also think the Americans would have liked to have their own man in that role to give first hand accounts about anything unusual he encountered to them .I hope I don’t sound over the top but I just find it puzzling and too convenient the way it has been explained.Do professional pilots go tearing down runways without signing proper safety checks and leave these forms to blow onto the ground? Unconvinced !
    Steve Hambleton

    • Steve, it’s very easy to feel ‘unconvinced’ based upon a superficial knowledge of the incident. It wasn’t explained away ‘conveniently’, far from it. There was a very thorough Board of Inquiry investigation by the RAF in 1972. I’m probably one of the few people who have bothered to go through the case file, which can be seen by anyone who can be bothered to travel to The National Archives at Kew and order it up. It contains over a thousand pages of witness statements, maps, plans, photographs of the wreckage and the faulty firing pin, absolutely every aspect of the accident is covered and thoroughly accounted for. So whatever you think, if you are sufficiently interested you should go and check out the primary documentation before drawing premature conclusions. In this case the truth is really out there – in the BOI file. Don’t believe anything else you have read about the Schaffner case, most of it is bullshit. The facts are in the file.

      • Gerard Kelly says:

        Hi, stumbled on this site by chance today. I was on the same Lightning Conversion Course as Bill Schaffner in late 1969/early 1970. I met him on day 1 at the Ground School where he passed around cigars to celebrate birth of a child. I don’t recall if it was a boy or girl but imagine it was a son judging by posts below.
        After the conversion training we went to our respective squadrons and I didn’t see Bill again.
        I do of course recall the accident; I also have a clear recollection of the BoI findings which detailed a tragic but truly logical train of events.
        I have a recall from my aging brain that Bill’s bone dome (flying helmet) washed up onto the shore in Holland or Belgium some time later. An internet trawl, so hardly research, does not reveal mention of this anywhere but I thought it worthy of mention..

  2. jeff b says:

    why was the canopy on intact and no ejector seat?

  3. neilf92 says:

    re S Hambleton,
    The canopy did not necessarily close “as the plane sank” . The hydraulic pressure would decay over a longer period of time , probably not till the a/c was resting on the bottom. This was a normal occurence . We had to use the external hydraulic hand pump to boost the pressure to raise the canopy after an a/c had been sat idle for an hour or two. As long as the pilot was able to exit as in this case , then the question of when it actually shut is of no consequence .

    Lightnings were very sturdy aircraft . I’ve seen one lose power on take off , just after wheels up , sink back down onto the runway , scrape the belly fuel tank off in a banner of sparks and flame and come to a halt pretty much intact , pilot unharmed ( but white faced for a bit !). I think the airframe was returned to BAC and returned as a later mark of Lightning F2A.
    So an airframe would quite easily survive a shallow angle low speed impact with water with the minimal damage seen in this case.

  4. gari says:

    What hit me about this story was the unintended consequences of some buffoon inventing some alien abduction hypothesis to explain the loss…brought into mind the families of the Twin Towers event who must get troubled by constant buffoonery about it being an inside job/false flag operation.

    I can’t imagine the horror and emotion of Schaffner’s children first growing up without their dad, not knowing how he died, and then finding out that he was an alien abductee…all I can say is be thankful the MOD didn’t shred all the documents…

    I do think that the secrecy of post WW2 and the Cold War era has actually provided the oxygen for much of the alien hypothesis explanation for UFOs, doubtless it was also a useful tool to help cover any secret projects the military had in the west, but with the lack of information the psychotic will always think that something is being hidden away, and ‘ordinary’ explanations like national security and not letting the Reds know what we’re up to, wouldn’t sooth the paranoid mind, when seeking the exotic…

  5. Mick Taylor says:

    Why the 30 years of waiting before releasing the accident file. I am open minded, but just an accident and keeping the family in the dark for so long was unacceptable.
    The Mod and it, s masters do lie, cover up and get economical with the truth you have done your research but they have had 30 years to get it out in the open in a way they want.

    • Why 30 years of waiting to release the accident file?
      Well because until recently we in the UK had what was known as ‘the 30 year rule’ that meant government files on ANY subject were not released until 30 years after they were closed. Anyone who watches or reads the news regularly would be aware of this.
      There’s no great mystery about why documents are retained for 30 years. That’s why we are only getting to see Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers from 1984-85 in 2015! If every document was released to the public immediately it would be impossible for anyone to get anything useful achieved in government. Think about it.

  6. Tim Bowler says:

    Hi David, at last a UFO researcher who is interested in doing proper research. Thank you. Most of the time we just want ‘something’ to be out there, and we all like a rattlingly good yarn.
    The mundane and in this case tragic realities of life aren’t enough for some.
    best wishes Tim

  7. Colin Pomeroy says:

    as I was one of the pilots on the 120 Squadron Shackleton Mk III WR981 which was the target aircraft for the ill-fated flight of Captain William Schaffner in XS894 on the evening of Tuesday 8th September 1970.

    Our briefing for the sortie was to conduct a routine maritime surveillance sortie in The Skagerrak and Kattegat area, then at dusk to switch the IFF to standby, but keep the navigation lights ‘on’, and proceed down the North Sea at 1,500 feet to a holding position between Spurn Head and Flamborough Head. We in the maritime world had yet to undergo the rigours of Taceval and, in fact knew very little about it. Neither Taceval nor Binbrook had been mentioned in our sortie brief, the Form Green.

    The weather was in actually quite fine, very dark, but with no low cloud and excellent visibility, and soon after reaching our allotted area we were intercepted by the first Lightning, which on each pass approached us from astern and then flew close by our aircraft on the starboard, showing just a flashing white light atop its fuselage, which always appeared to go out as the fighter turned abruptly to starboard and flew away. It was obviously being masked by the fuselage. After about 4 passes this aircraft departed and a second one appeared astern of us, as reported by the observer in the tail lookout position. The flashing white light of this aircraft was just seen this once and when it ‘went out’ we all thought that this was because it had flown off to starboard as had the first aircraft.

    However, this time the light didn’t reappear and we assumed that this was because the Lightning had departed for its base – which at that time we didn’t even know was RAF Binbrook. Then a few minutes later our 243 MHz guard receiver burst in to life “Shackleton aircraft off the Humber this is Uxbridge Centre on guard frequency. Do you read?” We did and I selected 243 on the main UHF and checked in with Uxbridge. “The Lightning aircraft exercising with you has disappeared from radar. Request you carry out a search in your immediate area”. The navigators worked out where we had been when the interceptor was last plotted and we commenced a close datum search, now using the SAR call sign Playmate 51 and soon joined by the Bridlington Lifeboat and the duty launch from No 1104 Marine Craft Unit, also Bridlington based.

    Any stories about UFOs, etc are real myth and tales of us seeing the aircraft hit the water, dangerous low flying are also untrue. It was completely dark.

  8. dee says:

    I believe this to be a true account of this accident, I would like to know what happened to flt pilot luitnt Eric leyden who was killed 2 months later, like shaffners family his family were never given a reason,I am his neice. Dee

  9. rafmuseumiain says:

    My father, Bill Duncan, was the AEO on Shackleton WR981 that night. He didn’t see anything at all, but distinctly remembers one of the AEOps. exclaiming that the aircraft’s lights had ‘gone out’, presumably on impact.
    A tragic accident, of which there were many at the time.

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