The Secret Files: Captain Schaffner's Last Flight > [prev ¦1 ¦ 2 ¦ 3]


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

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