The Empty Cockpit Mystery



In September 1970 Captain William Schaffner, a young USAF pilot serving with the RAF, took off in a Lightning fighter aircraft from RAF Binbrook in North Lincolnshire to intercept an unknown radar contact. He was never seen again. One month later his aircraft was recovered from the North Sea, but although the cockpit was closed and the ejector seat was in place, there was no sign of Captain Schaffner.

The RAF enquiry into the disappearance of Captain Schaffner was conducted in secret, leading some people to suppose that this was part of an attempt to cover up the fact that the radar contact he had been sent to intercept was a UFO and that this had somehow spirited him out of the cockpit. This speculation was given further impetus when in 1992 newspapers published articles which included a transcript of radio calls from Schaffner which seemed to confirm that he had approached a UFO before his disappearance.

Almost fifty years later, it’s much easier to separate fact from conjecture and downright hoax. Something certainly happened to Captain William Schaffner out in the darkness over the North Sea in 1970, but is it possible to deduce precisely what? Let’s have a try.


Just after World War Two, the Royal Air Force and the US Air Force began an Officer Exchange programme where pilots and aircrew from each force would spend a period of time serving with the other. This made good operational sense – the Cold War was becoming a reality and it seemed likely that in any conflict with the Soviet Union the UK and USA would be fighting alongside each other. Having officers who were familiar with the equipment and operational procedures of the other force could only help to make this process work more smoothly.

sch3A Convair F-102 Delta Dagger

One such pilot was Captain William Schaffner, a USAF pilot who had flown two tours on the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger all weather fighter including combat operations in Vietnam and a period as an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) Instructor before being posted as an exchange pilot to the RAF with Number 5 Squadron based at RAF Binbrook in North Lincolnshire. Number 5 Squadron had moved from bases in Germany to Binbrook in 1965 at the same time as it took delivery of the then new Lighting F6 fighter. Binbrook was one of the RAF Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) stations in the UK where pilots and fighter aircraft were kept at operational readiness to scramble aircraft quickly to intercept and identify any unidentified aircraft which approached UK airspace. Most of these scrambles involved intercepting the Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft which regularly flew sorties over the North Sea.

The Lightning aircraft with which 5 Squadron was equipped was designed for precisely this type of mission. The first variant of the English Electric Lightning aircraft entered service with the RAF in late 1959. Although it was moderately successful, early versions were plagued by small fuel tanks and limited range. In 1965 the F6 version was introduced which included a much larger ventral fuel tank, a more efficient wing and an internal cannon (though the F6 retained the ability to carry the Red Top air-to-air missile). The Lightning was designed to fulfill a very particular role within UK air defence. The Lightning design stemmed from an original 1947 Government requirement for a fighter capable of extreme speed and climb to enable it to take-off from UK air bases and climb as quickly as possible to intercept high altitude, fast moving bombers.

sch2XS899, a Lightning F6 of 5 Squadron in the early 1970s. The maple leaf on the tail is the emblem of 5 Squadron.

The result was one of the most powerful fighters of the Cold War period and the fastest British fighter aircraft ever. By the time the F6 version was released, the twin Rolls-Royce engines were capable of propelling the Lightning to Mach 2.27 (around 1,500 mph) and the aircraft could climb at an astonishing initial rate of 50,000 feet per minute. As a very exited twelve year old at my first airshow at RAF Leuchars in Fife in 1970, I watched in open mouthed amazement as a flight of four polished silver Lightnings of (I think) 23 Squadron engaged re-heat as they began their take-off roll. Around half way down the long runway they tucked up their wheels and flew together at around fifty to one hundred feet above the runway. Around two-thirds of the way down the runway, all four rotated and streaked almost vertically up into the sky with a sound that turned my insides to jelly. The commentator (when I was finally able to hear again) noted dryly that the aircraft were at over 12,000 feet as they passed the end of the runway. I saw no reason to doubt it – I had never (and never have since) seen an aircraft that climbed that way. Actually, climb probably isn’t the right word. Airliners climb. Cessnas climb. Lightnings simply disregard the force of gravity. A contemporary recruiting poster for the RAF featured a photograph of a Lightning with the banner: “Want to climb two Everest’s in three minutes?

YouTube video of the Lightning. Beginning at around 04:30 you can see the phenomenal climb capability of the Lightning in a squadron take-off.

However, all this performance came with several major drawbacks. One was a combination of limited space for fuel tanks coupled with very heavy fuel consumption, especially if re-heat (afterburner) was used. Early versions of the Lightning struggled to stay in the air for much more than thirty minutes if all the available performance was used. Later versions were better, but not much – Lightning pilots learned to keep a close eye on their fuel gauges at all times. The Lightning was also much more technically complex than the aircraft which it replaced. This not only meant that effective servicing became a challenge, but that the workload in the single-seat cockpit could be incredibly high – the Lightning cockpit was euphemistically referred to as “busy” by RAF pilots. In addition, the Lightning was designed for high-speed interception. At high airspeeds it was stable and predictable to fly. At low speed it was a handful. The lack of manoeuvre/combat flaps or slats meant that at low speed, it was all too easy for the Lightning to abruptly assume the flying characteristics of a brick tossed out of a third story window. Low and slow just wasn’t what this aircraft was designed for.

By early September 1970, Captain William Schaffner had been with 5 Squadron for just eight weeks and had completed 121 hours flying the Lightning (though only 18 of these were in the dark). He had been declared “Limited Combat Ready” after this short period with the squadron only due to his extensive previous jet fighter flying experience in the USAF and because he had performed so well in training sorties. Most Lightning pilots required much more experience before they were declared combat ready. The “Limited” part of his rating referred to the fact that he was cleared only for missions where he was in visual contact with a target. He had still to undergo the final part of training which would enable him to intercept a target in darkness or in poor weather using the Lightning’s on-board radar.

sch6Lightning XS894, the aircraft flown by Schaffner on 8th September.

Despite this limitation, on 8th September 1970, Schaffner was assigned as one of the QRA ready pilots at Binbrook. At 18:34 he was ordered to Lightning XS894 and at 19:47 he was ordered to scramble to intercept an unidentified aircraft flying over the North Sea. However, while he was taxiing the scramble was cancelled and he was ordered back to the dispersal area. When he arrived there he ordered his aircraft to be re-fuelled as quickly as possible. At 20:25 Schaffner received a second scramble order and he left the dispersal area in such haste that the metal turnround board and the attached forms were left on the wing of the aircraft (they fell off as he was taxiing out).

sch5Lightning pilots of 5 Squadron scramble at night in the early 1970s.

He took off at 20:30, was directed to initially fly at Flight Level 100 (10,000 feet) and was handed over to the Ground Control Intercept (GCI) controller. Another Lightning from Binbrook was already following the unidentified aircraft and Schaffner’s mission was to replace it and allow it to return to base for refuelling. When he took off, Schaffner knew nothing about the identity of the aircraft he was required to intercept, its course or speed.

Schaffner was vectored towards the unidentified aircraft which was flying outside but close to British air space. As he closed in, he was manoeuvring into position behind it when his aircraft abruptly disappeared from the radar screen of the GCI Controller and he stopped responding to radio messages. An air-sea rescue mission was immediately launched and continued over the following days but there was no sign of Schaffner or the missing Lightning. Almost one month later a Royal Navy minesweeper detected a contact on the seabed in the area in which the aircraft had gone missing. Divers were sent down and reported that the object was the wreck of Lightning XS894 and that they believed that they could see the body of Captain Schaffner in the cockpit. The aircraft was recovered and the canopy was found to be closed (but not latched) and the ejector seat was in place but there was no sign of Captain Schaffner.

sch7The wreck of XS894 is lifted from the sea.

An RAF Aircraft Accident Investigation was undertaken and in June 1972 an Aircraft Accident Report was produced. However, this and all other documents related to the case were classified “Restricted” and were not released to the general public. The case was reported in some local newspapers at the time of the accident but received relatively little coverage despite the mystery of the missing pilot partly due to the reluctance of the RAF to provide much information about the accident or the investigation.

All this changed between 9th and 13th October 1992 when a series of five sensational articles on the disappearance of Captain Schaffner and XS894 appeared in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph newspaper with titles such as “Cat and mouse with a 17,400 mph Radar blip” and “Shroud of secrecy on XS894”. These were written by Pat Otter, the Assistant Editor of the newspaper. On October 22nd and 23rd two further double page articles written by Otter appeared in the Evening telegraph’s sister paper, the Hull Daily Mail under the heading “At last, the sensational true story behind the ditching of Lightning Foxtrot 94 in September 1970.”

sch9Grimsby Evening Telegraph, 9th October 1992

The articles contained a number of astonishing claims, including that the unidentified object Schaffner was sent to intercept was travelling at over 17,000 mph while being tracked by radar. However, the most notable claim was that Schaffner had been refused permission to return to Binbrook after intercepting the unknown object and was instead ordered to ditch his Lightning in the sea. All this was supported by what was claimed to be an “official transcript” of radio communications between Schaffner and the CGI Controller at RAF Staxton Wold during his flight. This included the following conversation as Schaffner made initial contact with the unidentified aircraft (Schaffner’s aircraft is referred to as “Foxtrot 94” throughout):

Schaffner: I have visual contact, repeat visual contact. Over.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Can you identify aircraft type?

Schaffner: Negative, nothing recognisable, no clear outlines. There is … bluish light. Hell, that’s bright … very bright.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Are your instruments functioning, 94? Check compass. Over.

Schaffner: Affirmative, GCl. I’m alongside it now, maybe 600ft off my … It’s a conical Shape. Jeeze, that’s bright, it hurts my eyes to look at it for more than a few seconds.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: How close are you now?

Schaffner: About 400ft, 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 Wold GCI Controller: Is it part of the object or independent? Over.

Schaffner: 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 may be the power source. There’s no sign of ballistics.
Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Is there any sign of occupation? Over.

Schaffner:  Negative, nothing.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Can you assess the rate … ?

Schaffner: Contact in gentle descent. Am going with it … 50 … no about 70ft…it’s levelled out again.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Is the ball object still with it? Over.

Schaffner: 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 that haze. Wait a second, its turning … coming straight for· me … shit … am taking evasive action … a few … I can hardl…

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: 94? Come in 94. Foxtrot 94, are you receiving? Over. Come in 94. Over.

The article went on to explain that the radar plots for Schaffner’s Lightning and the unidentified aircraft were seen to merge for two and a half minutes at this point, during which time Schaffner could not be contacted by radio. Then the two blips separated once more and Schaffner made radio contact.

Schaffner: GCI… are you receiving? Over.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Affirmative 94. Loud and clear. What is your condition? Over.

Schaffner: Not too good. I can’t think what has happened … I feel kinda dizzy … I can see shooting stars.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Can you tell us what happened, 94? Over.

Schaffner: I don’t know. It came in close … I shut my eyes … I figure I must have blacked out for a few seconds. Can you bring me in, GCl? Over.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Er … Hold station, 94. Can you ditch aircraft? Over.

Schaffner: She’s handling fine. I can bring her in. Over.

Staxton Wold GCI Controller: Negative, 94. I repeat, can you ditch aircraft? Over.

Schaffner: Yeah … I guess.

This was utterly sensational stuff. Here was evidence not only of a close encounter with a UFO but also the possibility that the aircraft and pilot had somehow been taken over for a short time and that the pilot was not allowed to return to base in his aircraft but was instead ordered to ditch in the sea. A number of other newspapers took up the story (though rather more cautiously than the two which had originally published it). UFO enthusiasts began to push the author of the articles, Pat Otter, to reveal his sources. He explained that his information had come from a person who had been a member of the original RAF crash investigation team which examined the remains of the crashed Lightning but who wished to remain anonymous.

sch8Grimsby Evening Telegraph, 13th October 1992

However, there were a number of aspects of the articles and the purported “official transcript” of radio communications which invited doubt. For example, throughout the articles (including headlines and the radio transcript) the pilot is referred to as “Captain Schafer”, not “Schaffner.” The transcript also contains a number of doubtful elements: In the 1970s, British fighter call-signs never included the numbers “8” or “9”, so “Foxtrot 94” cannot be a genuine Lightning call-sign. The level of detail given to Schaffner by the CGI controller was much greater than would have been available using the radar equipment of the period. In addition, RAF Standard Operating Procedure for the period required radar controllers and pilots to give distances to close targets in yards, but in the transcript these are given in feet and at one point Schaffner is asked about his fuel state and replies “About 30%” – this is meaningless and should have been given as the actual amount of fuel remaining (i.e. “Fifteen hundred pounds per side.”). It’s also notable that other terms are either not used (for example, “Roger” is standard military radio terminology to indicate that a message has been received and understood – read any genuine transcript of military communications and it will be peppered with the use of this term, but it appears just three times in the whole of this alleged official transcript) and other inappropriate terms are used (for example, the CGI controller says “Come in” when he wants Schaffner to respond to a radio call but while this term may be used in movies, it is never used in this sense in military radio calls).

These anomalies led a number of people to conclude that the claimed radio transcript was a hoax which used just sufficient RAF terminology to sound convincing to the layman but did not stand up to detailed analysis. When this was combined with some very odd features in the articles ( to give one small example, pilots of other aircraft in the area are described as watching and reporting on the ditching of Schaffner’s aircraft despite the fact that it was completely dark at the time), many people came to believe that the story was fiction.

sch10Tony Dodd

However, in 1999 an ex-Police Sergeant turned UFO investigator called Tony Dodd published Alien Investigator, a book detailing a number of cases with which he had been involved. In this book, Dodd not only confirmed Pat Otter’s original story, he provided new and even more outrageous information. Dodd explained that there had been several previous sightings of very fast moving UFOs over the North Sea in the Summer of 1970 and that events on the evening of the 8th September were of such concern that not only the UK air defence system but the NORAD network in the US were put on high alert. His sources (also anonymous) explained that the White House and even president Nixon had not only been aware of the incident, they had insisted that Schaffner was the pilot sent to intercept the unknown object.

The fact that Dodd’s book not only confirmed but expanded upon the original articles sparked massive interest about the Schaffner incident in the world of UFO hunters including enthusiastic support by Flying Saucer Review, the single most influential publication in the field. The case also began to be widely quoted on websites as providing proof that UFOs not only existed, but that they were known to the military.

One of the outcomes of this was that the family of William Schaffner became aware for the first time of claims that a UFO had been involved in the loss of Lightning XS894. Concerned, the family began to lobby the RAF to release official documents relating to the accident and they were supported in this by investigative journalists from the BBC. In 2003 the RAF finally released the restricted Air Accident Report and other supporting documents relating to the Schaffner incident. These provided a very different version of what happened on 8th September.

sch11A Tupolev Tu-142 “Bear”

A NATO air and naval exercise had been taking place in the North Sea in August/September 1970. In 1968 the Soviet Navy had adopted the Tupolev Tu-142 Maritime reconnaissance and attack aircraft (NATO Codename “Bear”). One of the notable features of this giant turboprop aircraft is its ability to fly for very long periods and relatively slowly. These abilities were used in 1970 to allow aircraft of this type to shadow the NATO forces taking part in the exercise. On September 8th it was decided that the RAF should undertake a Tactical Evaluation (TacEval) exercise to practise intercepting low and slow moving targets. It seems reasonable to deduce that this was in response to the appearance of Bear aircraft over the North Sea and was intended to discover whether RAF fighters designed to intercept high flying, fast moving targets could also deal with this very different form of threat. RAF pilots and ground controllers were not aware that they were taking part in an exercise – part of the purpose of a TacEval was to estimate the readiness of the RAF for war and for this reason these exercises were not notified ahead of time.

During the afternoon of 8th September RAF Avro Shackleton MkIII WR981, a turboprop maritime reconnaissance aircraft with similar performance characteristics to the Soviet Bear, was conducting a routine maritime surveillance sortie in the Skagerrak and Kattegat area. At dusk the aircraft was instructed to turn off its IFF beacon (an electronic device which allows instant recognition by friendly radar systems) but to leave on its navigation lights and to fly at 1,500 feet and 160 knots to a holding position in the North Sea between Spurn Head and Flamborough Head. This was the unknown aircraft picked up by UK Air Defence radar.

sch12An RAF Avro Shackleton

A Lightning from Binbrook (Mission 52) had already been scrambled and was shadowing the Shackleton when Schaffner was scrambled. The documents released by the RAF in 2003 also included a transcript and tape of radio communications between Schaffner, the CGI Controller at RAF Patrington and Mission 52. An excerpt is given below:

Capt. Schaffner: Mission 45 airborne at one zero zero.

Patrington GCI Controller: 52 is with the target at this time shadowing and your task will be to take over from 52.

Capt. Schaffner: Roger.

Patrington GCI Controller: Buster! Buster! Target range 28. (Note: “Buster” is RAF terminology for “at maximum speed”)

Capt. Schaffner: Roger, Buster.

Patrington GCI Controller: 45 make speed decimal 95 over.

Capt. Schaffner: 45. Roger? That’s pretty fast.

Patrington GCI Controller: Roger 45, make it a speed commensurate with your endurance then, that target range 10 at this moment. I think we’ve got enough to catch up at this speed, he’s only 160 kts.

Capt. Schaffner: Roger.

Aircraft 52: 52 will be leaving the target in about 2 minutes.

Capt. Schaffner: Contact with a set of lights in that area.

Patrington GCI Controller: 45 call when in firm contact with target then we can commence recovery for 52.

Capt. Schaffner: Roger 45 – I’m slowing down I’ll be weaving… 45 has contact with 2 aircraft.

Patrington GCI Controller: That’s affirmative, 52 is with the target as well.

Capt. Schaffner: Roger, hang on one I’m going to have to do some manoeuvring to slow down her a little bit. As soon as I get all this speed burned off 52 is clear to depart.

Aircraft 52: 52 Roger. I know you know but do remember about the flaps down.

Capt. Schaffner: I got ’em down Babe.

Patrington GCI Controller: 45 you’re in a clutter area of mine at the moment – keep a sharp look out please.

Capt. Schaffner: Roger, I’m watching ‘em.

Patrington GCI Controller: 45 Patrington be advised you’re dark to me at this time.

Patrington GCI Controller: 45 Patrington nothing heard.

Patrington GCI Controller: C45 C45 Patrington do you read over?

There was no further radio contact with Captain Schaffner. This transcript is a lot less dramatic than the previously quoted “official” transcript, but it is notable that all the terminology used is consistent in terminology and content with what we would expect and there is nothing here that is anomalous or missing. The RAF Accident Report went on to describe XS894 when it was recovered. The condition of the aircraft indicated that it had struck the water in a tail-down attitude, at low speed and at a low speed of descent. The canopy was closed but not latched. The flaps and airbrakes were extended and the throttles were set in the “re-heat” (maximum power) position. A more detailed examination revealed that the pilot appeared to have tried to eject, but that this was unsuccessful because the canopy gun cartridge which should have jettisoned the canopy had been incorrectly installed and failed to fire.

sch13Though the quality of this photograph is poor, it shows the wreck of XS894 being lifted by crane. The deployed flaps and air brakes can clearly be seen.

The conclusion of the accident report was that Captain Schaffner had inadvertently allowed the tail of the Lightning to touch the surface of the sea while decelerating in an attempt to get behind the slow moving Shackleton. He had then selected re-heat in an attempt to lift the aircraft off, but this had failed and the aircraft began to plane on the surface of the sea. Schaffner then attempted to eject, but this failed because of the faulty fitting of the canopy firing unit. When the aircraft came to rest on the surface of the sea, Schaffner opened the canopy (even with the engine stopped there would have been sufficient hydraulic pressure in the system to open the canopy), released his harness and radio leads and stepped over the side. Although Schaffner was wearing a life jacket, the life raft and SARBE locator beacon fitted to the Lighting were designed to be deployed during an ejection and he would not have had time to manually release either. Sadly, it seems that Schaffner almost certainly drowned in the cold waters of the North Sea sometime during the night of 8th/9th September. Lightning XS894 was relatively undamaged and sank to the bottom of the sea where it settled in an upright position. What little hydraulic pressure was left in the system gradually bled off in the month before the aircraft was recovered, allowing the canopy to close.

For most people, the accident report seemed entirely plausible. However, there were still some who felt that all the documents released by the RAF in 2003 were simply an attempt to cover up a UFO encounter in 1970.


Let’s start with the theory that Scahffner was trying to intercept a UFO and was either forced to ditch following this or that he was somehow abducted by the UFO. This theory originates entirely from Pat Otter’s articles in newspapers in 1992 and Tony Dodd’s book in 1999. There is no substance to either. There are so many errors in the “official transcript” quoted in the newspaper articles that it doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory examination. Pat Otter later admitted that he had never believed the information from his anonymous source, but felt that he “had to print the story”. The information in Tony Dodd’s book is also suspect. A moment’s rational thought will show the impossibility of the contention that the President of the USA ordered Schaffner to be the pilot to intercept the unidentified aircraft. This would have required the object to be detected by RAF radar, reported back up the chain of command to the highest levels and then a decision taken to make a report to the USAF or direct to the White House. Where the President would have to make a decision to order the RAF (over which he had no authority) to allocate a particular American pilot to the task of interception. And then Schaffner would have to be briefed and would have had to prepare himself and an aircraft for flight. This is so full of internal contradictions that it’s just silly. To take only one example, an object travelling at 17,000 mph would have been half-way back to Venus (or wherever it was supposed to have come from) by the time all this could have been done.

sch14Pat Otter

The problem with the newspaper articles and the later book is that both are based on information from anonymous sources unsupported by independent evidence. Pat Otter’s articles were a cynical attempt to produce a sensational newspaper story that Otter himself didn’t believe to be true. Tony Dodd seemed to have genuinely believed that the story was true, but a great deal of the evidence he used to support this comes from Otter’s spurious articles. We shouldn’t disbelieve something just because it seems strange, but we must examine the evidence carefully to see if it holds up. There simply is no hard evidence here at all. And yet this case, often quoting information from the original newspaper articles, has entered the canon of UFO lore and still appears in books and on websites as evidence for the existence of UFOs.

sch15Letter from RAF Kinloss to Air Ministry regarding XS894 which was included in documents released by the RAF in 2005.

There is no doubt that the reticence of the RAF to discuss this case fuelled the suspicions of those who believed that a UFO was being covered up. This reticence is clear in formerly classified documents released by the RAF in 2003 which include a letter from RAF Kinloss to the Air Ministry following a request in November 1992 from Strange Phenomena Investigations for information about the incident. The letter asks the ministry to respond directly to the information request and concludes: “Sorry to pass the buck, but this one could be messy if handled incorrectly.” Just what does this mean? And why could a response to a request for information about this case be “messy”?


I don’t believe that there is really a mystery here at all. I think we can be absolutely certain about what happened to Captain Schaffner on the night of 8th September. Given his relative inexperience and level of training, Schaffner should never have been involved in such a demanding mission. However, the focus of the TacEval was changed at the last minute to involve a low level interception of a slow moving target. Schaffner had been assigned as QRA pilot at Binbrook most probably on the assumption that, if he was involved in a scramble at all, he would be required to intercept a high flying, fast moving target, something at which the Lightning excelled. No-one at Binbrook was aware that a TacEval was in progress or what its purpose was.

sch4The cramped and rather crowded cockpit of a Lightning F6. The small, rectangular screen at upper right is the air interception radar display.

So it was that Captain Schaffner found himself flying XS894 in the dark and over the sea with no visual cues as to his altitude. As he approached the unknown contact he was flying at low level and so slowly that he was at the very edge of the Lightning’s safe operating envelope where literally a moment’s inattention could lead to his losing control or hitting the sea. Just flying the Lightning in these circumstances would require absolute concentration but Schaffner was also required to communicate with Aircraft 52 and Partington GCI and attempt to operate the Lightning’s clumsy monopulse radar system to keep the target aircraft on his tiny radar screen. The workload involved would have been challenging even for a very experienced Lightning pilot. For the partly trained and relatively inexperienced Schaffner it was simply too much and XS894 hit the sea. If his ejector seat had worked and Schaffner had found himself in the water with a life raft and a locator beacon, there is a possibility that he might have survived. Without either, he stood no chance at all in the cold, choppy waters of the North Sea.

The reporting in 1992 by Pat Otter in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and the Hull Daily Mail went beyond sloppy reporting – it was willfully misleading. In a 1992 internal RAF memo which was released in 2005 along with a summary of the accident report, an RAF officer wonders whether “Perhaps Pat Otter should take up writing science fiction?” Otter’s own admission that he didn’t believe his anonymous source make it clear that he already had by the time that he wrote these articles. Which makes it even more disappointing that so many seemingly sensible people and publications ignored the errors and internal contradictions in what he had written and subsequently used this as the basis to construct a whole edifice of UFO theory which has its foundations on nothing more than shifting sand. There is simply no evidence of any form of UFO involvement in this mystery.

The lack of objective reporting of this story didn’t end with Pat Otter and Tony Dodd. It’s probably worth spending four minutes of your life watching this YouTube video where author and “respected military historian” Bruce Barrymore Halpenny visits the now abandoned RAF Binbrook to explain the story of the loss of XS894. Mr Halpenny has a convincingly deadpan delivery, but if you have been paying attention you’ll notice that almost everything that’s said in this video is complete bollocks. I can’t muster the enthusiasm to detail every gaffe (which includes quoting extensively from Pat Otter’s newspaper articles as if these are true), so I’ll just highlight a couple of my favourites: “Because of the design of the Lightning, ditching has to take place at sea.” Er, in an aviation context, the word “ditch” means to make an emergency landing on water. It’s nothing whatever to do with design and anyway, where the hell else would you ditch a Lightning? On a ping-pong table? And “It’s impossible for it (the ejector seat) not to have fired.” Except that it is very possible. An interlock was fitted to prevent the Lightning ejector seat from firing if the canopy was still in place (because that would kill the pilot). We know from the accident report that the canopy cartridge unit was improperly seated in XS894 so that it didn’t fire which in turn prevented the firing of the ejection seat. It’s probably safe to assume that everything said in this video is spurious, wrong or just plain silly. This is precisely the level of cruddy, poorly researched, half-arsed reporting that gave rise to the whole Schaffner/UFO nonsense in the first place. If Mr Halpenny really is a respected military historian, he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

What actually happened on the 8th September 1970 was a tragic accident in which the RAF killed an American pilot by sending him out in a very demanding single seat aircraft in which he had limited experience and for which he was only partly trained.  They did this over the sea, in the dark, without a working ejector seat and on a mission profile for which the aircraft was fundamentally unsuited. None of this was intentional or willful – like most accidents the loss of XS849 was the result of a chain of separate issues, but in the circumstances it’s completely unsurprising that the RAF didn’t want to talk about the loss of XS894 for reasons have nothing at all to do with covering up the presence of aliens or UFOs.

sch16William Schaffner during flight training with the USAF

I think we can safely say that the Empty Cockpit Mystery is solved. The question of why so many people continue to believe nonsensical UFO theories about this case based on nothing more than a few unsubstantiated and spurious newspaper articles is not solved. But perhaps that’s a whole separate mystery?


Lightning XS894 – Still a UFO Mystery

Article on the aptly named “The Truth Hides” website. Featuring “facts” taken almost completely from the original newspaper articles by Pat Otter, including misspelling “Schaffner” as “Schafer” throughout. The truth certainly remains well hidden in this article which is sadly typical of many which can be found on UFO websites.

Captain Schaffner’s last flight

Comprehensive, detailed and sensible article on the loss of XS894 written by Dr David Clarke and which originally appeared in the Fortean Times.

Alien Investigator: Case Files of Britain’s Leading UFO Detective, 1999, by Tony Dodd

A book about Tony Dodd’s work investigating UFOs in the UK. The blurb explains that Dodd is not only Britain’s leading UFO detective (out of a fairly small field, one would assume) but has “tackled top-secret government cover-ups, survived threats to his life and established telepathic communication with the aliens”. Contains a fair amount about the loss of XS894 which seems to me to be mainly based on anonymous, unverifiable sources, Pat Otter’s  newspaper articles and unsupported speculation. But then, I’m not in telepathic communication with the aliens so what do I know?


2 thoughts on “The Empty Cockpit Mystery

  1. I think the real question here, and one that I don’t think has been or ever will be explained, is why the cockpit was closed, yet the pilot’s body was never found. What do you think?


    • The canopy was down,, but it wasn’t latched closed. The theory suggested, which I think sounds plausible, is that the cockpit was opened by the pilot as the aircraft was being ditched. He then left the cockpit and the aircraft sank with the cockpit open. It came to rest on the seabed upright. On the Lightening, the canopy is held open by hydraulic pressure. Over time, a slow release of pressure in the hydraulic system allowed the cockpit to gradually sink down until it was in the position in which it was found.


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