Saturday, 21 March 2009


The files also contain some intriguing papers relating to the death of USAF pilot Captain William Schaffner (pictured right) during an exercise with the RAF in 1970. Some UFO conspiracy theorists, led by the retired police sergeant Tony Dodd in his book Alien Investigator, have tried to link this tragic incident with UFOs and Government cover-ups. The truth, as always, is much less sensational if depressingly familiar.

The basic facts are these: In September 1970 Schaffner, then a 28-year-old USAF exchange pilot married with a young family, was stationed at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, on England’s east coast. He died on the evening of 8 September when the RAF Lightning he was flying ditched in the North Sea during a low-level practice interception exercise. His body was never found.

In 1992 the Grimsby Evening Telegraph resurrected the mystery, making sensational claims concerning UFOs, aliens and a cover-up by the Ministry of Defence. The paper published a serial investigation quoting an anonymous informant who claimed Schaffner’s plane was scrambled as part of an operation to intercept UFOs tracked on NATO radars.

The paper’s main source provided what appeared to be a transcript of the pilot’s final exchange with his ground controller. This made dramatic reading. It purported to describe events as he approached the UFO, after which all contact was lost. Shortly afterwards RAF personnel involved in the event wrote to the paper pointing out discrepancies in the transcript. This eventually identified it as a clever fake. The person responsible has never been identified and his motive in constructing such a complex hoax remains unclear.

Ever since the story reappeared in 1992 it has been recycled by UFO enthusiasts and inevitably ended up posted on the internet. Some of the more credulous used it as further evidence to support their conspiracy beliefs. Few have thought it necessary to check the facts. Inevitably, these stories were seen and read by Schaffner’s sons, now in their 30s and living in the Chicago area.

As a result of the stifling culture of official secrecy that pervaded all military activities during the Cold War, Schaffner’s widow had never been given a full account of the events that led to her husband’s death. What was the pilot’s family to make of the bizarre and sensational claim that their father met his death as part of a secret war between aliens and earthlings, as alleged on the internet?

Copies of the newspaper stories and correspondence from the public can be found in DEFE 31/181/1: 210-268, 181-197.  The files also contain a summary of the original RAF Board of Inquiry report into the fatal crash completed in 1972. This report was classified as “restricted” and could not be released in 1992 when the UFO claims first emerged. But a full copy can be seen at DEFE 31/181/1:240-246 and, after the intervention of the BBC, the MoD finally provided Schaffner’s sons with a copy. The inquiry report contains no mention of UFOs. It concludes the pilot’s death was a tragic accident that occurred whilst the Lightning was shadowing a RAF Shackleton during a tactical exercise to test Britain’s air defences.  The whole story was subject to a detailed re-investigation by the BBC North Inside Out programme in 2003 which conclusively debunked any UFO connection to the original incident. This can be followed on the Inside Out page here.

Interested readers are also advised to read the detailed article I wrote for Fortean Times during 2005, which is available via my webpage here.

Early in 2009 Captain Schaffner’s youngest son Michael contacted me after reading my account. He said: 

“I wanted to say how refreshing it is to find a UFO researcher who apparently takes time to do ‘research’ rather than just regurgitate unproven allegations from anonymous sources...I first discovered the UFO story that developed around my father’s death in 2000. Needless to say, my family and I were shocked. Not once in the 30 years since my father’s death had we any thought that it was anything more than a tragic accident. In 2002, I worked with Ian Cundall and the BBC (Leeds) to get the MoD to release the RAF’s accident inquiry report that had been held top secret for over 30 years. We were very relieved to find that this reported matched what we had been told from the outset. I guess what shocked me the most is that not one person who had written about my father or his accident had ever attempted to contact any of his family.”

There is a lesson here: conspiracy theories should have a public health warning attached to them. The truth isn’t always out there, folks.

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