Accident English Electric Lightning F6 XS894,
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ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 143819
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Date:Tuesday 8 September 1970
Time:10:00 LT
Type:Silhouette image of generic LTNG model; specific model in this crash may look slightly different    
English Electric Lightning F6
Owner/operator:5 Sqn RAF
Registration: XS894
MSN: 95240
Fatalities:Fatalities: 1 / Occupants: 1
Aircraft damage: Destroyed
Location:North Sea, 5 miles North of Flamborough Head, North Yorkshire -   United Kingdom
Phase: En route
Departure airport:RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire (EGXB)
Destination airport:RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire (EGXB)
Confidence Rating: Information is only available from news, social media or unofficial sources
XS894; C/N 95240 first flown by R.P. Beamont 18-3-66 at BAC Samlesbury. To 5 Squadron, 3-1-67 as 'F'. Crashed into sea 5 miles north of Flamborough Head, 8-9-70. Pilot, Capt William Schaffer (USAF), killed. Hours flown 650 hours 45 minutes

The pilot of the accident aircraft was a USAF exchange officer who had completed 2 tours on the USAF F-102 all weather fighter. He had accumulated 121 hours on the Lightning, of which 18 were at night. He had been declared Limited Combat Ready after only 8 weeks on the squadron; this unusually short period of time was based on his previous operational status as well as his performance thus far on the Lightning. The limitation on his operational status was partially due to the requirement to complete all the stages of the vis-ident profiles; at the time of the accident, he was qualified in 2 of the 3 phases of vis-ident, which meant that he would be capable of carrying out shadowing and shepherding tasks only if he was in visual contact with the target.

The Squadron was participating in a Taceval at RAF Binbrook and the squadron Commander had authorized this pilot to participate, in the belief that he would not be involved in a shadowing or shepherding mission. However, unknown to the station or squadron, the Taceval team had just changed the exercise scenario from normal interceptions to shadowing or shepherding on slow speed low-flying targets. The targets were Shackletons flying at 160kts at the minimum authorized height of 1,500 feet.

After maintaining one hour at cockpit readiness, the pilot was scrambled. While he was taxying, the scramble was cancelled and he returned to the dispersal, ordering fuel only and no turnaround servicing. This was contrary to standing instructions and the engineering officer ordered a full turnaround. The turnaround was delayed and, during this delay, the pilot was warned that he would be scrambled as soon as he was ready. He told the ground crew to expedite the servicing but started his engines and taxied before the servicing was complete. He got airborne at 20:30 hrs.

The pilot climbed to FL 100 and was handed over to Ground Control Interception; he was then given a shadowing task against a 160 knot target at 1,500 feet. At a range of 28 nautical miles, he was told to accelerate to Mach 0.95 in order to expedite the take over from another Lightning. He called that he was in contact with the lights but would have to manoeuvre to slow down; his voice was strained, as though he was being affected by 'g'. His aircraft was seen by the other Lightning pilot; it appeared to be about 2,000 yards astern and 500-1,000 feet above the Shackleton, in a port turn. The Shackleton crew then saw the aircraft, apparently very low. Shortly afterwards, the Lightning pilot failed to acknowledge instructions and emergency procedures were initiated. A search by the Shackleton, and a further air/sea search the following day, failed to detect any trace of the aircraft or pilot.

The wreckage was located nearly 2 months later with surprisingly little damage. The canopy was attached and closed, and there was no sign of the pilot. The aircraft appeared to have struck the sea at a low speed, planed the surface and come to rest comparatively slowly. The ejection seat handle had been pulled to the full extent allowed by the interruptor link in the main gun sear. (The interruptor link ensures that the seat does not fire unless the canopy has gone). The canopy gun sear had been withdrawn but the cartridge had not been struck with sufficient force to fire it (during servicing the firing unit had been incorrectly seated because of damaged screw heads). The canopy had been opened normally, the QRB was undone, as was the PEC, and the PSP lanyard had been released from the life jacket.

It was concluded that the difficult task, carried out in rushed circumstances, combined with a lack of training in this profile, led to the pilot failing to monitor his height while slowing down. He had inadvertently flown into the sea but had attempted to recover the situation by selecting reheat; this was ineffective with the tail skimming the water. He attempted to eject, but this was unsuccessful due to the canopy failing to jettison. He then manually abandoned the aircraft, but was never found. He was, therefore, presumed to have drowned during or after his escape.

An RAF Shackleton reconnaissance aircraft was in the area and a search and Rescue Whirlwind helicopter was scrambled from Leconfield. The Shackleton crew saw the Lightning ditch into the sea and on its next pass they saw that the Lightning was intact, floating and with its canopy up but they couldn't see the pilot. On the next pass they reported the canopy being closed and that the lightning was sinking but there was still no sign of a pilot or a distress signal.

The Whirlwind helicopter searched the area and was later joined by lifeboats but they found nothing. The weather worsened but the search continued well into the next day but no pilot was found or even the automatic transmissions from beacons that are carried by the pilot and the aircraft.

Three weeks later the aircraft was located by Royal Navy divers who said that Captain Schaffner's body was still in the cockpit. However when the aircraft was brought to the surface and returned to Binbrook there was no trace of a body. The ejection seat was also intact and hadn't been used. Some of the aircraft's instruments were also missing and the investigation team were promised that they would be returned but they never were. The investigation team at Binbrook were told that nothing useful had been discovered and that their job was over. They were also told not to discuss the incident with anyone for reasons of national security.

The fact that the canopy of Lightning XS894 was closed when the aircraft was recovered had led to a large number of "conspiracy theories" that the pilot was "abducted by a UFO". It is notable that the file on the incident at the National Archives at Kew (File DEFE24/1972 - see link #2) is closed for 90 years until 1 January 2085, and is indexed as "Alleged UFO incident: crash of Lightning F.6, 8 September 1970"

However, FOI (Freedom of Information) requests by the BBC and members of the public in 2002 (see links #4, #5, #14 and #15) disclosed the following from official files:

1. It was not a UFO but a slow moving Shackleton recconaissance aircraft that the Captain was trying to intercept on an exercise
2. Its crew had lost radio contact. Then, by the light of a flare, they’d seen the aircraft in the water.
3. The Captain had simply flown too low trying to get beneath his target and hit the sea.
4. Captain Schaffner had not been properly trained to carry out the exercise he had been asked to undertake.
5. When he tried to bail out, his ejector seat failed to operate.


2. National Archives (PRO Kew) File DEFE 24/1972:
3. National Archives (PRO Kew) File AIR 2/19174:
5. BBC TV 'Inside Out' (BBC Yorkshire & Lincolnshire) Monday 16th September, 2002:
20. Photo of wreckage at Binbrook in 1970:


Lightning XS894/F as RAF Binbrook in April 1968: The Aviation Photo Company: Lightning (English Electric) &emdash; RAF 5 Squadron English Electric Lightning F.6 XS894/F (1968) Avro Vulcan B2 XH561 of No 50 Squadron, RAF Cottesmore wing, leads in 'Vic' formation four English Electric Lightning F.6s XS922 and XS894, XS903 and XR726 of No 5 Squadron, RAF Binbrook, during a flight of April 1968, to mark the disbanding of Fighter and Bomber Commands and the formation of RAF Strike Command THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969 THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969 © IWM (RAF-T 8095)

Revision history:

17-Feb-2012 17:34 Dr. John Smith Added
15-Mar-2012 21:27 Dr. John Smith Updated [Embed code]
25-Sep-2012 02:36 Nepa Updated [Operator, Source, Embed code, Narrative]
09-Jun-2013 00:31 Dr. John Smith Updated [Departure airport, Source, Narrative]
09-Mar-2021 17:12 Anon. Updated [Narrative]
09-Mar-2021 17:13 harro Updated [Narrative]
15-Mar-2021 17:44 Anon. Updated [Narrative]
13-Jul-2022 23:52 Dr. John Smith Updated [Location, Destination airport, Source, Embed code, Narrative, Category]
13-Jul-2022 23:53 Dr. John Smith Updated [Narrative]
13-Jul-2022 23:56 Dr. John Smith Updated [Source]

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