On September 8, 1970, 28-year-old American exchange pilot Captain William Schaffner scrambled from RAF Binbrook to intercept an unidentified aircraft threatening UK airspace. The flight – a training exercise – sadly ended with the pilot’s death after his aircraft struck the North Sea. The English Electric Lightning fighter plane, serial number XS894, was later discovered on the seabed remarkably intact. But in a murky tale clouded by conspiracy theory, the fate of the wrecked aircraft once the accident investigation was concluded remains a mystery.
On that fateful night, radar operators at RAF Saxa Vord on the Shetland Islands tracked an unidentified aircraft approaching the UK – a tactic commonly employed by Soviet bombers testing British response times during the Cold War. An Avro Shackleton posed as the enemy aircraft for the exercise, known as a Taceval (tactical evaluation). Captain Schaffner, call sign Foxtrot 94, was vectored to intercept the target. But controllers lost contact with the Lightning when the aircraft struck the sea several miles off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire.
(Images: Ministry of Defence via BBC)
Royal Navy divers located the Lightning on the seabed two months later, damaged but still in one piece. The cockpit was empty. Captain Schaffner was never found, presumed lost at sea. The jet was raised shortly after and returned to RAF Binbrook for investigation, a fact that has been used by some to push the conspiracy angle, arguing that the wreck should have been examined at Farnborough Airport’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch. But as other accidents have demonstrated, returning the plane to its home base was not particularly unusual.
Two versions of the transcript supposedly exist detailing the last conversation between Captain Schaffner and controllers at RAF Patrington (above), one favoured by UFOlogists, which speaks of a pulsating ball of light that disorientates the pilot. The second is the official report, which outlines the tragic details of that night in 1970. Classified for more than 30 years, the report was brought to light by the BBC’s Inside Out programme in 2002.
It’s unclear how this tragic tale became entwined with rumours of alien visitors. UFO proponents have long questioned the validity of the accident investigation and removal of cockpit instruments, voicing suspicion about whether the ejection seat was the same one fitted when the jet crashed. But most discrepancies can be explained by Binbrook’s proximity to the crash site, strict security in place during the Cold War and the need to fully examine various instrumentation.
What does remain unclear, however, is what happened to the wreck once the crash investigation had been concluded. Officially it was scrapped on site at Binbrook – not unusual following a training accident – but there is no record of its disposal or whom it was scrapped by. Adding to the mystery is a claim that it was transported to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, USA, home of the Nuclear Weapons Center (below).
(Image: Google Maps UK)
Freedom of Information requests turned up nothing. The Ministry of Defence said no record of the aircraft’s disposal could be found, nor could any photographs, despite those shown above. One response stated:
English Electric Lightning XS894 was deemed fit only for scrapping on 10 September, 1970, which action was approved on 30 September, 1970. We have no details on where the airframe went, who actually scrapped it, or when.
Again, this in itself isn’t particularly unusual. A similar request for details regarding the fate of Tornado ADV prototype ZA254 revealed that the aircraft had been sold as scrap to GD Metals in 2004. It was assumed that the Tornado had been broken up that year at RAF Coningsby, but no record of whether this had actually taken place could be found. Clearly, the mystery seems more an issue off accurate record keeping than a decades old cover-up and conspiracy.