Binbrook RAF Incident
Date: September 8, 1970
Location: Brookenby, Lincolnshire, England
A single Lightning Jet Fighter departed from RAF Binbrook located in North Lincolnshire near Grimsby. The ground staff were used to Lightning Fighters being scrambled in a hurry at any time day or night. RAF Binbrook was a front-line fighter station and its aircraft shared QRA duty with other east coast airfields to provide cover should an unknown aircraft appear on radar. The pilot of the jet was Captain William Schaffner of the US Air Force who was on his second tour of duty as an exchange pilot with the Royal Air Force. Schaffner was a well experienced fighter pilot with combat experience in Vietnam he has been stationed at RAF Binbrook for some time and his wife was living on the base with him. The aircraft was an XS894 Lightning F6 of 5 squadron, whose call sign on the night in question was Foxtrot 94. The jet tumbled into the North Sea and disappeared leaving a mystery.
Very early the next morning a recovery effort was made but no trace of Captain Schaffner's plane could be seen. Over one month later the wreckage of the aircraft was found on the seabed by Royal Navy divers however there was no sign of Captain Schaffner.
The events which ultimately led right to the crash of the fighter jet starts at a radar station called Saxa Vord whose task was to spot unknown aircraft approaching the north sea, or the Iceland Gap. The cold war was at its height in 1970 and Russian aircraft made regular trips into the North Atlantic and along the British Coast to test the reaction of fighters. On the night of the crash a radar operator at Saxa Vord picked up the blip of an unknown aircraft over the North sea halfway between the Shetlands and the Alesund in Norway. The craft was monitored for several minutes at a speed of 630 mph at 37,000' in altitude and on a south westerly heading. Saxa Vord noted that the unknown was turning through 30° to head south at this point it increased its speed to 900 MPH and climbed to an altitude of 44,000'.
Radar operators at Saxa Vord sent a scramble message to the ORA flight at the nearest NATO airfield which was RAF Leuchers located on the east coast of Scotland not to far from Dundee. At Leuchers two Lightning intercept aircraft who were prepared for such a message scrambled and within minutes were in the air and heading out over the North Sea after checking the position of their tanker, a Victor K1A, the two fighters were guided north by Saxa Vord but it was then that radar operators on the Shetland Islands saw something on their radar screens which they thought to be impossible. The unknown they had been tracking at speeds and altitudes consistent with modern Russian warplanes, turned through 180° on a north heading and within a couple of seconds vanished off their screens. Later they predicted that for this to be possible the unknowns speed must have been at an astonishing speed of 17,400 mph. Within the hour, the mystery aircraft reappeared several times, approaching from the north and on each occasion the interceptors were sent north to check out the unknown aircraft showing up on radar and again the unknown turned around and vanished from radar screens.
At this point two F4 Phantoms from the US Air Force had been scrambled from an American base at Keflavik, Iceland. They had much more advanced radar than the British Lightning's however when they tried to get close enough to identify the mystery blip, they found they were just as useless as the Lightning's. The alert has reached such an alarming level that the contact was being monitored at the Ballistic Missile Earling Warning System at Fylingdales. The information they were collection was then passed on to the North American Air Defense Command at Cheyenne Mountain and the US Detection and Tracking Centre in Colorado Springs. RAF staff at Fylingdales heard that the Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Omaha, Nebraska was ordering its B-52 bombers into the air. This order could have only come from the very highest level of command and what had started as a ordinary sighting of what was thought to be a Russian aircraft had now been passed on to the White House and President Nixon himself. At around 9:45 p.m. a request was made from a high level within the North American Air Defense thought strike Command's at UK headquarters at High Wycombe, for RAF Binbrook to send Captain Schaffner to join the Lightning's to look for the mysterious craft.
The NATO forces were at full alert because of the mysterious object picked up by radar over the North sea. The object had at first been a normal Russian aircraft out to test the reaction of Allied air forces but the strange craft had began to behave in a way that left radar operators lost for answers. At approximately 10:06 p.m. Captain Schaffner took off from Binbrook's main runway and shot off into the night sky. At this point the mystery now involved five lightning aircraft, two phantoms, three tankers, the president of the United States being informed and a Shakleton being scrambled over the North sea. The mysterious craft was now flying parallel to the East Coast 90 miles each of Whitby at 530 MPH and at an altitude of 6,100' which was a most ideal course for an interception by a Binbrook Lightning. The following is an official transcript of the conversation between Captain Schaffner and the radar station at Staxton Wold:
Foxtrot 94: I have visual contact, repeat visual contact. Over.
Staxton: Can you identify aircraft type?
Foxtrot 94: Negative, nothing recognizable, no clear outlines. There is ... bluish light. Hell that's bright ... very bright.
Staxton: Are your instruments functioning, 94? Check compass. Over.
Foxtrot 94: Affirmative, GCI. I'm alongside it now, maybe 600' off my ... Geeze, that's bright, it hurts my eyes to look at it for more than a few seconds.
Staxton: How close are you now?
Foxtrot 94: About 400', he's still in my three o' clock. Hey wait ... there's something else. It's like a large soccer ball. It's like it's made of glass.
Staxton: Is it part of the object or independent? Over.
Foxtrot 94: It ... no, it's separate from the main body ... the conical shape ... it's at the back end, the sharp end of the shape. It's like bobbing up and down and going from side to side slowly. It maybe the power source. There's no sign of ballistics.
Staxtion: Is there any sign of occupation? Over.
Foxtrot 94: Negative, nothing.
Staxton: Can you assess the rate?
Foxtrot 94: Contact in gentle descent. Am going with it...50'...no about 70' ... it's leveled out again.
Staxton: Is the ball object still with it? Over.
Foxtrot 94: Affirmative. It's not actually connected, maybe a magnetic attraction to the conical shape. There's a haze of light. Ye'ow, it's within heat haze. Wait a second, it's turning, coming straight for me, am taking evasive action, a few...I can hardly
Staxton: 94? Come in 94. Foxtrot 94, are you receiving? Over. Come in 94. Over.
At this point radio controllers at Staxton Wold had guided the Lightning Jet from Binbook to the mysterious craft that had now been causing havoc for radar trackers and RAF Stations for nearly four hours. Just as contacted was lost with Captain Schaffner a radar operator who had been tracking the Jet and the object watched in utter astonishment as the two blips on the radar screen which represented the fighter and the unknown slowly merged together, decelerating rapidly from over 500 MPH until they became completely stationary at an altitude of 6,000' above the North Sea around 140 miles away from Alnwick. Two and a half minutes later the single blip came to a halt and it started to move again, accelerating to 600 mph and climbed to 9,000' heading south back toward Staxton. Shortly after these events the single blip separated back into two, one maintained its southerly heading at between 600 and 630 MPH and descending slowly the other turned through 180° to head north westerly and vanished at a speed that was later calculated at around 20,400 MPH. During all these events a Shackleton MR3, which had been on patrol duty off the Firth of Fourth, was ordered to hold station around Flamborough head. At this point Staxton Wold reestablished contact with Captain Schaffner:
Foxtrot 94: GCI ... are you receiving? Over.
Staxton: Affirmative 94. What is your condition? Over.
Foxtrot 94: Not too good. I can't think what has happened... I feel kinda dizzy... I can see shooting stars.
Staxton: Can you see your instruments? Over.
Foxtrot 94: Affirmative, but er...the compass is useless.
Staxton: Foxtrot 94, turn 043°. Over.
Foxtrot 94: Er ... all directional instruments are out, repeat useless. Over.
Staxton: Roger 94, execute turn right, estimate quarter turn. Over.
Foxtrot 94: Turning now.
Staxton: Come further 94. That's good. Is your altimeter functioning? Over.
Foxtrot 94: Affirmative GCI.
Staxton: Descend to 3,500'. Over.
Foxtrot 94: Roger GCI.
Staxton: What's your fuel state 94? Over.
Foxtrot 94: About 30% GCI.
Staxton: That's what we calculated. Can you tell us what happened 94? Over.
Foxtrot 94: I don't know. It came in close ... I shut my eyes ... I figure I must've blacked out for a few seconds.
Staxton: OK 94. Standby.
At this stage the Shackleton arrived over Flamborough Head and began circling before XS894 was vectored into the area by the Staxton controllers.
Foxtrot 94: Can you bring me in GCI? Over.
Staxton: Er... Hold Station, 94. Over.
Several minutes passed as Schaffner was left to circle the Flamborough area along with the Shackleton. In the meantime, Strike Command at Hight Wycombe had instructed Staxton Wold to request Schaffner to ditch his Lightning off Flamborough. Although the Captain had plenty of fuel to reach either Leconfield or his home base of Binbrook, it appears the reason for the decision to ditch was fear that the Lightning had somehow become contaminated during the mysterious events above the North Sea however a few weeks after the crash when the wreckage was recovered and examined there was no trace of any kind of contamination.
Two minutes later.
Shackleton: The canopy's up ... she's floating OK ... can't see the pilot. We need a chopper out here, GCI. No, no sign of the pilot. Where the hell...
Staxton: You sure he's not in the water, 77. Check your SARBE receptions. Over.
Shackleton: No SARBE yet. No flares either. Hang on. We're going round again.
Another two minutes elapsed.
Staxton: Receiving you 77. Over.
Shackleton: This is odd, GCI. She's sinking fast but ... the canopy's closed up again. Over.
Staxton: Can you confirm pilot clear of aircraft? Over.
Shackleton: He's not in it, we can confirm that. He must be in the water somewhere.
Staxton: Any distress signals or flares yet? Over.
Shackleton: Negative GCI. Going round again. Over.
Ninety seconds later the crew of the Shackleton were back in contact with Staxton Wold.
Shackleton: She's sunk GCI. There's a slight wake where she was. Still no sign of the pilot. I say again GCI, we need a chopper here fast. Over.
Staxton: A Whirlwind's on its way from Leconfield. Are you positive you saw no sign of the pilot?. Over.
Shackleton: Nothing GCI. The first pass we assumed he was unstrapping. He must have got out as we went round for a second pass, but why shut the canopy? Over.
Staxton: That's what we were thinking. Maintain patrol 77, he must be there somewhere. Over.
Shackleton: Roger GCI. Over.
Shortly after the search and rescue Whirlwind from nearby Loconfield arrived on the scene and began a systematic search of the crash site the aircraft was then joined by the lifeboats from Bridlington, Flamborough and Filey as the weather began to deteriorate. The search continued well into the next day but there was no transmissions from the beacons carried by the pilot on board the aircraft the official reports of this incident say no distress flares were seen. On October 7th divers from HMS Keddleston had examined the wreckage and said that Captain Schaffners body was still in the cockpit but the biggest mystery is that when the aircraft was brought to the surface and returned to Binbrook there was no trace of the Captain just an empty cockpit. When the wreck was finally lifted from the sea five miles away from Flamborough Head it was taken secretly directly to RAF Binbrook.
Strangely enough many of the cockpits instruments were missing these included B2B compass, voltmeter, standby direction indicator, standby inverters indicator and the complete auxiliary warning panel from the starboard side of the cockpit below the voltmeter. This was a massive breach of regulations and thought the Ministry of Defense crash investigation team was promised the instruments would be returned they never were. The ejector seat also seemed to be wrong and there was suspicion later among the investigators that it was not the one fitted to the aircraft when it took off from Binbrook on its final flight. They were even given assurance by the commanding officer of the 5 squadron that the seat had not been tampered with but some of the investigators were not at all convinced.
After the investigators job was over they were told not to discuss anything of the event with there families because of national security.