Stationed at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, England, Capt. Bill Schaffner was well-liked among his peers. He was appointed to the ranks of 5 Squadron. When he moved to England, he brought his family; wife Linda, children David, Glennon, and baby Michael.
The Squadron was assigned to patrol the air over the North Sea for the ever-present danger of the USSR during the Cold War. If alerted to an object seen coming close to their territorial waters, they would need to shadow them, warn them off, or shoot them down if necessary.
On that day, they were assigned training. For the entire day, Lightnings zoomed off to look for this imaginary threat, returning to refuel and take off again. Schaffner wasn’t scrambled until the evening. By then, the weather had started to worsen. He climbed to 10,000ft over the North Sea as he searched for the dangerous radar alert. He checked back in with the RAF radar station 3 minutes and 5 seconds later to be told he was to shadow another plane to pretend it was a Russian threat. He was told to shadow and shepherd the ‘enemy’ plane, which he had practiced but had not been cleared to perform yet.
Darkness was approaching and at that point, he had only 18 hours of night flying experience in a Lightning. The speed of the ‘enemy’ Shackleton place was 185mph, and the slowest that his Lightning could go in that operation would’ve been 230mph. This most likely would have tested his flight skills. Flying at night makes it very difficult to see the horizon, which meant that the water and the sky would blend together.
His task was suddenly changed to intercept the Shackleton and escort it back to RAF Binbrook. Schaffner dropped to 5,000 feet and was told to increase his speed to 0.95 Mach (728mph) toward the ‘enemy,’ flying about 28 nautical miles away. At 9.42, just 12 minutes after he had blasted off from RAF Binbrook, he got another set of instructions. “If target aircraft approaches within three miles of the UK coastline, it is to be directed to land at Waddington (another RAF base in Lincolnshire).”
He never responded.
The flight controller began to panic as they could no longer see Schaffner on the radar. Radio calls were blasted out, but he still did not respond.
RAF pilot Chris Coville flew toward Schaffner’s last known location to look for his missing friend, but he could not find him or his craft. “Something terrible had happened to Bill. It was obvious that he had crashed into the sea. But there was still hope.”
The RAF sent a lifeboat and an RAF Marine Branch rescue vessel to search for the missing Schaffner. Coville said, “If he had ejected and triggered his survival beacon it would transmit a signal to allow rescuers to home in on him,” but the rescue crew detected no beeps.
The RAF had the unfortunate task of delivering the terrible news to Bill Schaffner’s wife, Linda. She recalls an RAF doctor arriving with a box of Valium to calm her, “I was in total shock. I was told Bill was probably dead. But what did probably mean? How could they know? I stayed up most of the night, hoping, praying that they would find him. Every time I heard a noise outside, I rushed to the window to see if it was him.”
No sign of Bill or his craft could be found.
Until one month later.
A minesweeper was scanning the North Sea when a large object pinged off their radar five miles northeast of Flamborough Head, lying in mud on the seabed, about 100 feet from the surface. They sent down a diver, who came back and identified it as Schaffner’s missing craft, but the diver relayed something strange, ‘Cockpit closed—looking in now. It’s empty. No sign of the pilot.’
Once it was hauled to the surface, it was confirmed that the top canopy was closed, but the cockpit was vacant; the ejection seat was still inside. The altimeter was frozen with the craft’s speed upon impact– 180mph.
The mystery lived on until 1999, when their youngest son, Mike, aged 29, decided to start seeking answers. He could only locate an official report stating his father’s missing date and time. One day, he was browsing online and stumbled upon an article regarding his father.
“About ten pages into my search, I saw the words 8 September 1970 and RAF Binbrook. It was the date my dad died and his base. I was astonished.” Once he opened the link, up popped a 1992 article in the Grimsby Telegraph — ‘The Riddle of Foxtrot 94’.
The article stated, “a young USAF pilot, Captain Bill Schaffner, had been scrambled in his Lightning, along with six RAF fighters from other bases, three tankers, and a Shackleton early warning aircraft to intercept a ‘mystery contact.’” This was referring to an unidentified flying object — a UFO.
Even more articles were gathered by independent ‘UFO Hunters.’ One article even contained what it claimed was an official transcript of Bill’s final radio calls with his flight controllers.
“I have visual contact, repeat visual contact. I’m alongside it now, maybe 600 feet. It’s a conical shape. Jeez, that’s bright. It hurts my eyes to look at it for more than a few seconds.”
The article then claimed Schaffner now saw an object “the size of a large football, like it’s made of glass, bobbing up and down at the back end of the mystery craft. It’s not connected. Maybe a magnetic attraction. Could be the power source. It’s within a haze of yellow light. There’s no sign of ballistics.”
Suddenly, he radioed in, panicking, “It’s turning, coming straight for me, am taking evasive action.” His radio then went silent.
Mike and his brothers tried to contact people within the US Air Force who could answer their questions. The reply was immediate and direct, “This is utter hokum. It’s just a bunch of made-up junk.”
After the shock wore off, Mike agreed. “Clearly, it was utter rubbish, but the fact that there was so much information out there about my dad spurred me on to investigate more.” He and his brother were also angered by the stories of doing their distinguished and decorated father a gross disservice. “My dad was a pilot. I was horrified his name was linked to this UFO nonsense.”
But one rather large mystery still remained. “None of us could understand why the ejection seat was still in his jet, but my father was not. It became my mission to establish what had happened to him that night.”
Years passed when, one day, the BBC reached out to them. They stated that they were looking into Bill Schaffner’s death and trying to pressure the British Ministry of Defence to release information from the accident report. The MoD claimed they did not have the information that it was most likely destroyed, but they eventually found it. It had the actual transcript of their father’s last radio messages. This transcript made the ‘UFO’ transcript appear false. It claimed Bill’s death was entirely an accident.
The mystery remained about why he had not ejected.
“Crashing into the sea at 180mph would probably have resulted in severe injuries,” Chris Coville says. “He had tried to eject at some point and failed. But he had then clearly unstrapped from his ejection seat, managed to open the cockpit canopy and struggle out as the jet initially floated on the water.”
So why was the jet later discovered with the canopy sealed shut? Didn’t that point to some outside interference, whether alien or a Cold War enemy? No. After Schaffner had escaped from his cockpit, the aircraft began to sink deep into the sea, and the increasing water pressure forced the canopy shut again as it continued to descend.
According to Coville, there was only one answer to his friend’s disappearance. “Incapacitated and without his survival dinghy, Bill almost certainly drowned in the cold North Sea. It was sheer bad luck that several elements combined on that fateful night to take him to his death.”
I am no flight expert, nor do I have any flight experience. For those of you out there with more insight, what do you think of this? Is it just one big coincidence wrapped in a tragedy, or do you think something else happened to Bill Schaffner?