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


originally published in Fortean Times 194 (2005)

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.

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 the North 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.

An 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 the North 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. At 8.17pm on 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.»

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