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, which reportedly ditched several miles off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire.
Royal Navy divers located the Lightning on the seabed two months later, damaged but otherwise intact. The cockpit was empty. Captain Schaffner was never found, presumed lost at sea. The jet was raised shortly after and returned to RAF Binbrookfor investigation, which some consider slightly unusual because incidents of this nature tended to be examined by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch at Farnborough Airport. UFOlogists cite this apparent discrepancy as a core part of “the conspiracy”, which now begins to permeate the story.
Two versions of the transcript exist detailing the last conversation between Captain Schaffner and controllers at RAF Patrington (above), one favored 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 program in 2002.
It’s unclear how this tragic tale became entwined with rumours of alien visitors. But there are some loose ends that may have helped sensationalise the story. UFO proponents question the validity of the accident investigation and removal of cockpit instruments, and have voiced suspicion over whether the ejection seat was the 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 is strange, however, and has never been fully explained, is what happened to the Lightning wreck after the investigation 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 Basein New Mexico, USA, home of the Nuclear Weapons Center (below). If accurate, this begs the questions: Why? Where is it now? Why claim it was scrapped?
Freedom of Information requests have 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 request also asked for disposal details of an Avro Vulcan that was retired during the early 1980s. For the Vulcan, specific information was forthcoming, including its buyer and the fact that it was scrapped with the nose section saved. But for XS894, the trail again went cold:
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.
The English Electric Lightning, the last all-British jet fighter, is probably the most popular aircraft of its era among UK aviation enthusiasts. A big effort has been made to preserve surviving Lightning airframes and with the exception of XS894, the fate of each one is accounted for. With the Lightnings gone, RAF Binbrook has also closed its gates. What was a front line fighter base just over 20 years ago is now little more than a crumbling military ghost town.
(VIA Urban Ghosts)