Cold War

The Mystery of William Schaffner: The UFO Interceptor

A mysterious flying object, a crashed Lightning interceptor and a missing pilot – during a stormy night in September 1970, Britain’s most plausible UFO abduction incident occurred.

The case concerned an American USAF pilot William Schaffner who was working as an exchange pilot for the Royal Air Force piloting the fast BAC Lightning interceptor.

This was during a particularly tense period of the Cold War where interception squadrons were kept on constant high alert and response times were crucial to stopping a potential Soviet attack.

Schaffner was scrambled to intercept what appeared to be an unidentified object flying up and down the North Sea that was being tracked by British and American radar stations before he mysteriously disappeared.

The wreck of his plane was found on the ocean floor intact and with the canopy closed but with no sign of the pilot. Schaffner’s disappearance was kept a secret for several years, fueling all manner of conspiracy theories and media speculation. It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that Shaffner’s family were finally given answers as to what happened.

Contents

Background

At the height of the Cold War, Britain and other NATO powers were on constant high alert for any approaching Soviet aircraft with RAF pilots kept ready to “scramble” and intercept at any moment.

Both Eastern and Western air forces engaged in a tense cat-and-mouse game where Soviet and Western air forces would record and monitor each other’s response times.

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However, the skies were also menaced by Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs): unusual aircraft types that neither side could identify.

Although logical explanations were revealed as the cause of some cases, from weather balloons, experimental planes or even clouds and weather anomalies, other sightings remained unsolved in the public eye and fueled imaginations.

American, British and Soviet pilots scrambled to intercept mysterious and unidentified aircraft that entered their airspace and if necessary, shoot them down.

William Schaffner

In September 1970, the task of pursuing a UFO fell to an American pilot on an exchange job with the RAF.

Captain William Schaffner was a skilled pilot and a young father from Ohio at 28 years old at the time of his disappearance.

He had served with the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War before being stationed in Britain at RAF Binbook in Lincolnshire as part of No. 5 Squadron.

No. 5 Squadron flew the BAC Lightning aircraft, which had been designed to intercept high-altitude Soviet bombers and was the fastest interceptor jet serving with the RAF at the time. The Lightnings were kept on constant alert as part of the Quick Reaction Alert force should the Cold War heat up into a nuclear war.

The Flight to Oblivion

On the night of the 8th of September 1970, an RAF radar station allegedly picked up an unidentified object in the skies near the British coast.

Its movements were tracked by the early warning station at RAF Fylingdales in Yorkshire and the USAF radar station at Thule Air Base in Greenland. RAF Lightnings and Phantom jets from Binbrook and RAF Leuchars in Scotland were sent to intercept the object.

Radars continued to track the UFO as it appeared to move up and down the English coast before lurking close to Denmark.

Schaffner boarded his Lightning jet as it was being fueled to set off in pursuit of the mysterious object. He was given the callsign Foxtrot 98. More Lightnings and an Avro Shackleton were scrambled to follow the object before returning to base.

The weather that night was rough but the pursuit operation appeared to go well, although the object itself remained a mystery. As the RAF jets returned to base to allow another squadron to set off, it was noticed Schaffner’s Lightning had not returned.

The Avro Shackleton MR3.
An Avro Shackleton was scrambled to assist.

The Shackleton was diverted to search for the Lightning but could not find any evidence of where it had gone.

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The last known communication involving Shaffner had been with the control centre at RAF Patrington which was monitoring the aircraft in pursuit of the object.

The communications appeared routine until Shaffner’s final words giving the bearings of the target, at which point the recorded transcript showed no further radio calls from Shaffner while the control centre tried to reestablish contact without success.

In the early hours of the following day, Shaffner’s family were informed that his plane had vanished over the North Sea while RAF divers, boats and aircraft mounted an extensive search over the choppy waters around Shaffner’s last known location.

The initial search yielded no conclusive results, but a month later on the 7th of October, the Royal Navy ship HMS Kedleston located the Lightning on the sea floor near Flamborough Head off the coast of Yorkshire. A decision was made in December to bring the wreckage to the surface as part of the crash investigation.

Although Shaffner’s final resting place had been found, the discovery of his plane prompted more questions and speculation than it provided answers.

Investigators found the Lightning to be surprisingly intact with only minor damage to the fuselage most likely sustained on impact with the ocean. The canopy was closed but Shaffner’s body was nowhere to be seen.

A UFO Abduction?

The wreckage was taken to Binbrook for study and an investigation was launched by an RAF Board of Inquiry.

Usually, any inquiries into a crash involving a British aircraft or accidents within UK airspace would have been handled by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Farnborough, but due to the top secrecy of the incident and the RAF wanting to keep prying eyes away during the Cold War, the investigation and inquiry were held behind closed doors.

At this point, curious speculation turned into frantic questioning followed by media gossip, dark rumours and conspiracy theories: where was Shaffner’s body, what was the object he had been chasing, was it the Russians, had he been zapped or abducted from his cockpit by a UFO he was pursuing?

Although it was understandable that the RAF wanted to hold an investigation in secret, even the wildest conspiracy theories began to seem plausible due to the bizarre nature of the incident and the inquiry keeping their findings away from the public and Shaffner’s family.

The UFO rumours intensified two decades later in October 1992 following a series of articles published in The Grimsby Telegraph by journalist Pat Otter under the title “The Riddle of Foxtrot 94.”

As a junior reporter, Otter had covered the crash at the time when it happened and then claimed to have unearthed new evidence surrounding Shaffner’s disappearance in the 1990s. Otter stated he had received a phone call from a man claiming to have served as part of the RAF’s investigation team after a book was published by a local historian on the affair.

Although Otter claimed to have found the man’s evidence far-fetched and quoted him anonymously, the story seemed too juicy not to publish and Otter began to cite several sources from within the RAF who claimed to have evidence on the matter.

Otter’s unnamed sources said that the RAF had noticed an increase in unidentified objects flying over the North Sea, particularly around Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Scunthorpe, Hull, the Humber and up to Flamborough – coastal areas where Shaffner’s squadron was active.

The report also quoted an RAF pilot who said on the night of Shaffner’s crash, he had seen what looked like a flying cone and a transparent sphere that flew around his Lightning jet and caused the electrical equipment in the plane to malfunction.

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The object had flown away at around 17,400 miles per hour according to the pilot and continued to outmanoeuvre him whenever he got close.

NATO then ordered RAF pilots to remain on patrol in the area in case the object returned. During the night, several UFOs were allegedly spotted but all flew away before any RAF pilot could get a good view.

By 1994, more newspapers had picked up on stories of the alleged UFO sightings and Otter’s articles were endorsed by various UFO spotting groups and the stories began to spread across emerging internet forums dedicated to UFO sightings and conspiracy theories.

The Truth Comes Out

In 2002, Shaffner’s sons Mike and Glenn made a public appeal for the British Ministry of Defense to declassify files on the incident and reveal what really happened that night.

In 2008, the National Archives in London eventually released several classified documents and photographs detailing the incident which had been housed in their UFO department, including the final recorded transcript between Shaffner and the control centre at RAF Patrington which was published on the BBC News website.

The transcript did not mention a UFO, just references to an aircraft Shaffner had been tailing and reports of his speed and vectoring.

The inquiry findings gave Shaffner’s family peace of mind but were certainly less fantastical than press speculation and web conspiracies had believed. It was determined that the closed position of the cockpit canopy was likely the consequence of hydraulic fluid compressing in cold water at the bottom of the sea.

The investigators also found Shaffner’s Lightning had disappeared off the radar while flying at a low altitude in the darkness above a stormy sea, and that Shaffner could have crashed due to spatial disorientation, a view supported by his sons.

Around the same time, a retired RAF Squadron Leader came forward and said he had been at the controls of the Shackleton which had flown that night, and that the mystery object Shaffner had been chasing was in fact the Shackleton, not an alien spacecraft.

According to the Squadron Leader, the Shackleton was not in pursuit of a UFO but being flown as part of a top-secret TACEVAL (tactical evaluation exercises) designed to test the response times of interceptor aircraft at NATO bases.

During these exercises, RAF and NATO planes would be sent up to intentionally cause a blip on radar screens and their crew would monitor how quickly a NATO interceptor could track and reach them.

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The exercise in question that night had been done to simulate a Soviet aircraft defecting to Britain. The Squadron Leader concluded his testimony by stating two Lightnings, one of which was Shaffner’s, had approached his plane and made several passes before flying off again.

The Shackleton crew assumed Shaffner had returned to base until they received a radio call explaining he had gone missing and asked that they lead the search and rescue response.

Although the release of the inquiry findings has offered an explanation as to what happened, UFO enthusiasts continue to point to what they see as gaps in the story and believe there is more than what the inquiry states.

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