Boscombe Down Incident: Top Secret Plane Crash or Urban Legend?

mod-boscombe-down (Image: Jonathan Billinger, cc-sa-4.0)

It’s one of the most intriguing tales of modern British aviation history. On September 26, 1994 a mysterious aircraft allegedly crashed at MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, a short distance away from Stonehenge, after experiencing some sort of mechanical malfunction.  But in the decades since, little concrete evidence has surfaced and the facts behind the so-called Boscombe Down Incident remain murky.

The official explanation from the UK Ministry of Defence was that a Panavia Tornado (possibly Tornado GR1 ZA326, below) was forced to make an emergency landing due to a problem with an experimental radar decoy under tow behind the aircraft. Emergency vehicles were on hand to assist if necessary and security was tight due to the sensitive nature of the decoy.

Tornado-ZA326-Bruntingthorpe (Image: Tornado ZA326, reproduced with permission)

But this explanation has been dismissed by some who claim the towed decoy wasn’t secret and that the powers that be have declined to comment on the incident further. Rather, it has been suggested that an altogether more shadowy aircraft crashed that September evening in 1994. If so, it remains classified and unidentified more than 20 years later.

Other commentators, however, maintain that the entire Boscombe Down Incident is little more than an urban legend, pieced together over time from spurious reports that enabled it to take on a life of its own.

Among other things, Boscombe Down was the home of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA, now QinetiQ), responsible for testing cutting edge technologies poised to enter service on current and future military assets. To some this could only serve to validate the classified aircraft claims. To others, it simply helped feed the myth.

The Incident

raf-boscombe-down-wiltshire (Image: Google Maps)

Reports of the Boscombe Down Incident originally appeared in the magazine Air Forces Monthly, and an extensive write-up is featured on the Area 51 research website Dreamland Resort. The incident reportedly involved a top secret aircraft which suffered an undercarriage failure on the evening of September 26, 1994.

The mystery plane, allegedly a US black project aircraft operated by a two-person crew, came to rest at the end of the Down’s long Runway 23. According to alleged eye witness reports, the aircraft, which was surrounded by emergency vehicles and a tight security detail, had suffered a nose wheel collapse on landing. The majority of the airframe was concealed beneath a tarpaulin but its rear section and twin tail fins were visible. Some reports state the fins were canted inwards in the same manner as Lockheed’s Have Blue technology demonstrator.

According to Dreamland Resort, the aircraft was spotted again two days later, this time in a hangar. The occasion was the retirement of DERA’s long serving Buccaneer trials aircraft XV344, known on base as ‘Nightbird’. As the old Buccaneer was rolled out, eye witnesses allegedly saw the mystery jet parked in the front left corner of the hangar. Its nose section was now revealed, sporting a forward hinged canopy and YF-23-like chines.

If these stories are to be believed, the Down soon became a hive of activity. Executive jets supposedly used by the security services arrived on the scene. Meanwhile, a C-5 Galaxy reportedly made an unscheduled visit to collect the stricken craft, which may have been built by Northrop Grumman, and took off bound for Plant 42 at Palmdale, CA (where various classified aircraft have been built over the years).

lockheed-c-5-galaxy (Image: US Air Force, public domain)

Author Dan Zinngrabe addressed the Boscombe Down Incident in a 1997 essay detailing Northrop’s earlier Tactical High Altitude Penetrator (THAP) studies. The paper includes reports of eye witness sightings and alleged crashes of unidentified aircraft in the United States around the same time period. Whether there’s any link between these events and those at Boscombe Down remains unclear, but Zinngrabe’s piece makes for some fascinating reading.

In it he reports that a “source” on the Boscombe Down flight line the day of the crash stated that the aircraft was a “Stealth bomber… of a type similar to the B-2 but about the size of a Tornado”. To date, no aircraft of that configuration has been acknowledged by the US or UK governments.

The source also claimed that the aircraft had twin tails but was unable to corroborate reports of a forward hinged canopy. The individual also reported a “burnt plastic” smell and said that sections of the wings had to be detached from the fuselage and loaded separately into the C-5.

Tellingly, however, Zinngrabe added on another webpage that he had been unable to cross-reference his source and that readers should thus take the story with “a pinch of salt” (not that such disclaimers prevented the mainstream press from linking the Boscombe Down Incident to much hypothesized, perhaps mythical, secret planes).

Urban Legend?

Despite the tantalising evidence supporting a crashed American black project aircraft at the Down in the mid ’90s, many remain skeptical, while others have dismissed the reports as pure fantasy. For some, the Ministry of Defence’s original Tornado explanation is perfectly plausible, while others dismiss the notion that a classified US prototype (if indeed that’s what it was) would operate overseas during its development phase, even though top secret aircraft appear to have transited UK airspace in years gone by.

yf-22-prototype (Image: US Air Force, public domain)

Some aviation forum participants have attributed the Boscombe Down Incident to the Lockheed F-22 Raptor or its earlier YF-22 prototype (above). But this theory is unlikely since the YF-22 last flew in 1992 and the Raptor didn’t make its maiden flight until 1997. Furthermore, despite being highly sensitive, the existence of the Advanced Technology Fighter wasn’t a secret, diminishing the need for a Tornado cover story.

Ultimately, as this thread discusses, it’s likely the entire incident was blown out of proportion following a relatively mundane emergency, which was later connected to several otherwise unrelated events including the arrival of aircraft which weren’t especially unusual at Boscombe Down during the 1990s. Add to that the fact that the Amesbury to Salisbury road was closed in order that the stricken jet could drop onto the threshold of Runway 5 without endangering civilian traffic, and the seeds of myth may have been sown.

yf-23 (Image: US Air Force Museum, public domain; above: unsuccessful YF-23 design)

As one user of the Professional Pilots Rumour Network pointed out: “Also put into the mix was a strange metallic shape seen under [a] tarpaulin that intrigued external observers but was ultimately revealed to be a dummy ship’s flight deck.”

This conclusion vindicates the original UK government assertion, referenced in Dan Zinngrabe’s paper, that “the scaffold-like structure seen after the accident was a helicopter landing platform recently delivered to the base.”

Of course, the world of top secret aircraft and US military black projects is a shadowy one at best, blurred by misinformation and obstructed by rumour and hearsay. Secret Aircraft that may never be revealed to the public have long been buried in shallow graves in the restricted areas of the western desert, many within the boundaries of the test facility at Groom Lake, better known as Area 51.

Keep Reading – Dyson’s Dock: Area 51’s ‘Classified Museum’


About the author: Tom




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