THE LOSS OF LIGHTNING F6 XS894
The following is edited
from a series of articles which appeared in the Grimsby Evening
Telegraph this year and appears by kind permission of the Assistant
Editor, Mr Pat Otter. Apart from general and repetitive paragraphs, the
story is exactly as published. A number of people wrote letters
commenting on the articles and offering an explanation of the 'mystery'
of the loss of XS894. The Telegraph published those of Furz Lloyd and
myself in abridged form. The relevant text of those letters plus some
further observations follow the Telegraph story. Charles Ross Evening
Telegraph Friday ~ October 1992.
The chain of events which led to the crash of Lightning XS894 from 5 Squadron at RAF Binbrook and the disappearance of its pilot began at 8.17 pm on the night of September 8 1970, in an isolated building on the Shetland Islands. Saxa Vord was one of the chain of radar stations whose task it was to spot unidentified aircraft approaching the North Sea or the sensitive "Iceland gap". Remember, this. was 1970 when the Cold War was at its height and Russian long-range aircraft made regular sorties into the North Atlantic and along the British coast to test the reaction of Nato fighters.
On this particular night, a radar operator at Saxa Vord picked up the blip of an unidentified aircraft over the North Sea halfway between the Shetlands and Alesund in Norway. The contact was monitored for several minutes at a steady speed of 630mph at 37,OOOft, holding altitude and on a south-westerly heading. Then Saxa Vord noted the contact was turning through 30 degrees to head due south. It increased speed to 900mph (Mach 1.25) and climbed to 44,000ft.
Following laid-down procedures, radar controllers at Saxa Vord flashed a scramble message to the Quick Reaction Alert Flight at the nearest NATO airfield, RAF Leuchars on the east coast of Scotland, not far from Dundee. There, two Lightning interceptors, which had been ready on the flight line for just such an alert, were scrambled and within minutes were airborne and heading out over the North Sea. After checking the position of their tanker, a Victor K1A, the two fighters were guided north by Saxa Vord.
So far it was a routine scramble for what was then assumed to be a Russian Bear or Badger. the long-range reconnaissance aircraft used to test the nerves of the Royal Air Force. But it was then that the radar plotters on the Shetland Islands saw something on their screens which they found impossible to believe. The contact they had been tracking at speeds and altitudes consistent with modern Russian warplanes turned through 180 degrees on a due north heading and within seconds disappeared off their screens. Later they calculated that to do this its speed must have been in the region of 17,400mph.
With the contact now gone, the Lightnings were vectored south to rendezvous with the tanker and remained airborne on Combat Air Patrol. During the next hour the mystery contact reappeared several times, approaching from the north. Each time the Lightnings were sent north to intercept, it turned and disappeared again. By now two F4 Phantoms of the US Air Force had been scrambled from the American base at Keflavik in Iceland. They had much more sophisticated radar then the British Lightnings and were able to pick up the mystery contact themselves. But when they; too, tried to get close enough to identify what was by now beginning to cause some alarm to NATO' commanders, they found they were just as impotent as the Lightnings.
The alert had reached such a level that the contact was being monitored by the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at Fylingdales Moor, near Whit by, along with a second BMEWS in Greenland. The information they were collecting was relayed to the North American Air Defence Command at Cheyenne Mountain and the US Detection and Tracking Centre at Colorado Springs. In the meantime,
the cat and mouse game over the North Sea between the Lightnings and Phantoms and the mystery
contact was still going on. Then, at 21.05, after the fighters had made yet another abortive attempt to get close, the contact vanished off the radar screens. The Lightnings were ordered to return to Leuchars while the Phantoms were instructed to carry out a Combat Air Patrol to the east of Iceland. Then, at 21.39, radar controllers picked up at he contact again. This time its speed was decelerating to l,300mph - almost the limit of both .the Lightnings and Phantoms - at a holding altitude of 18,OOOft. It was on a south-westerly heading coming from the direction of the Skagerrak, off the northern tip of Denmark.
Two more Lightnings were scrambled from Leuchars, and were ordered to rendezvous with a Victor tanker and then maintain a CAP on a 50-mile east-west front, 200 miles north-east of Aberdeen. As a precaution, two further Lightnings were ordered into the air from. Coltishall in Norfolk and, with another
tanker, to form a CAP 170 miles east of Great Yarmouth. The contact was somewhere between these two lines of supersonic fighters.
While all this was going on, RAF staff at Fylingdales, which was in constant contact with NORAD at Cheyenne Mountain, heard, ominously, that the Strategic Air Command HQ at Omaha, Nebraska, was ordering its B52 bombers into the air. It was on order which could only have come from the highest level. What had started as a routine sighting of .what was believed to be a Russian aircraft had now reached the White House and, presumably, President Richard Nixon.
NORAD was told by officials at the Pentagon that a USAF pilot of great experience was presently on an exchange visit with the RAF and was stationed at Binbrook, the North Lincolnshire fighter base a few miles from Grimsby. Rapid inquiries were made and it was discovered the pilot was on the station and was, by coincidence, "flight available". At around 21.45 a request was made from a very high level within NORAD, through Strike Command's UK headquarters at High Wycombe, for RAF Binbrook to send Capt. William Schafner "if at all possible" to join the QRA Lightnings looking for the mystery contact.
By this time four Lightnings, two Phantoms and three tankers were already airborne and they were joined by a Shackleton MR3 from Kinloss, which was ordered to patrol on a north-south heading at 3,OOOft, 10 miles out from the east coast. Binbrook's QRA Lightnings were being held in reserve, but it was decided to send out a single aircraft from the North Lincolnshire airfield - flown by Capt. Schafner. The Americans wanted one of their own at the sharp end when it came to cornering the mystery contact.
Evening Telegraph Saturday 1Q October . Captain William Schafner was sitting in the crew room of 5 Squadron when the call came from High Wycombe. The room overlooked the apron where a line of silver-finish Lightnings stood, illuminated by the high-intensity sodium lighting. The crew room itself was sparsely furnished with ageing chairs which had seen better days, a bar which dispensed nothing stronger than black Nescafe and walls adorned with plaques and photographs donated by visiting RAF and overseas air force units.
Schafner was still in his flying suit after returning earlier that evening from a training sortie in one of the squadron's aircraft. He is remembered by those at Binbrook as a small, powerfully-built man who loved to fly the single-seat Lightnings, so different from the new generation of sophisticated aircraft then starting to come into service in the USAF. When the call came, Schafner was helped into the remainder of his flying gear by other 5 Squadron air crew, went out through the door, turned right and raced across the apron.
Two Lightnings in the line-up were virtually ready for flight. One, XS894, was in the process of having its fuel tanks topped up and was already connected to a power starter. Schafner climbed the steep ladder, hauled himself into the cockpit, strapped in and started the engines. He waved aside the ground crew, who were expected to help carry out the standard pre-flight checks, ordered the refueling to stop and failed to sign the regulation form signifying he was happy with the aircraft. It was armed with two Red Top air-to-air missiles, one of which was live and the other a dummy, and enough 30mm cannon shells for a six second burst.
One of the men on the ground crew at the time was Brian Mann of Grimsby, who was driving one of the fuel bowsers. He remembers XS894 being refueled at a rate of 150 gallons a minute when suddenly the engines started. "The windows on the tanker almost went in. I panicked, took the hoses off and got out of the way," he was to say later. Mr. Mann remembers Schafner disregarding the ground marshaller, who was the eyes and ears of the pilot on the ground, as he swung the Lightning round. "His actions were unorthodox to say the least," he said.
At 22.06 XS894 blasted off from Binbrook's main runway into the night sky. Those on the ground saw it disappear with a sheet of flame from its twin tail pipes as Schafner used reheat. It turned over the Wolds and the last they saw was its navigation lights heading out towards the North Sea. By now the mystery contact which had led to five Lightnings, two Phantoms, three tankers and a Shackleton being scrambled over the North Sea was being tracked by radar controllers at Staxton Wold, which stands on high ground overlooking Scarborough.
The contact was flying parallel to the east coast 90 miles east of Whitby at 530mph at 6,100ft - an ideal course for an interception by a Binbrook Lightning. What follows next is drawn from what we have been told is the official transcript of the conversation which took place between Schafner and the radar station at Staxton Wold.
Schafner: I have visual contact, repeat visual contact. Over.
Staxton: Can you identify aircraft type?
Schafner: Negative, nothing recognisable, no clear outlines. There is ... bluish light. Hell, that's bright ... very bright.
Staxton: Are your instruments functioning, 94? Check compass. Over
Schafner: 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: How close are you now?
Schafner: About 400ft, he's still in my three o'clock. Hey wait ... there's something else. Its like a large soccer ball ... it's like it's made of glass ..
Staxton: Is it part of the object or independent? Over.
Schafner: It ... no, it's separate from the main body ... the conical shape ... it's at the back end, the sharp end of the shape. Its 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: Is there any sign of occupation? Over.
Schafner:. Negative, nothing.
Staxton: Can you assess the rate ... ?
Schafner: Contact in gentle descent. Am going with it ... 50 ... no about 70ft...it's leveled out again.
Staxton: Is the ball object still with it? Over.
Schafner: 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: 94? Come in 94. Foxtrot 94, are you receiving? Over. Come in 94. Over.
Evening Telegraph Monday 12th October. Just as the controller at Staxton Wold lost contact with Captain Schafner, a radar operator, who had been tracking the Lightning and the mystery object it had intercepted, watched in disbelief. The two blips on the screen, representing the fighter and its quarry, slowly merged into one,' decelerated rapidly from over 500mph until they became stationary 6,000 feet above the North Sea 140 miles out off Alnwick.
What exactly happened inside the ground control centre at Staxton is open to conjecture, but' our I information is that one suggestion was that the two Lightnings then on Combat Air Patrol off the Scottish coast should be sent south immediately. It was over-ruled by the senior fighter controller, who continued to try to re-establish contact with Captain Schafner in Foxtrot 94.
Two and a half minutes after the single blip an the radar screen came ta a halt it started to move again, accelerating rapidly ta 600mph and climbing to 9,OOOft, heading south back towards Staxton. Shortly afterwards the single blip separated into two, .one maintaining its southerly heading somewhat erratically at between 600 and 630mph and descending slowly, the other turning through 180 degrees to head north westerly and vanishing at a speed later calculated to be around 20,400mph.
While all this was going on, a Shackleton MR3, which had been an patrol off the Firth of Forth, was .ordered south to hold station around Flamborough Head. Then Staxton Wold re-established contact with Captain Schafner.
Schafner: GCl... are you receiving? Over.
Staxton: Affirmative 94. Loud and clear. What is your condition? Over.
Schafner: No too good. ! can't think what has happened .... ! feel kinda dizzy ... ! can see shooting stars.
Staxton: Can you see your instruments? Over.
Schafner: Affirmative but, er ... the compass is u/s.
Staxton: Foxtrot 94, turn 043 degrees. Over.
Schafner: Er ...... all directional instruments are out, repeat u/s. Over.
Staxton: Roger 94, execute right turn, estimate quarter turn. Over.
Schafner: Turning now.
Staxton: Came further, 94. That's good. Is your altimeter functioning? Over.
Schafner: Affirmative, GCl.
Staxton: Descend ta 3,500ft. Over.
Schafner: Roger, GCl.
Staxton: What is your fuel state, 94? Over.
Schafner: About thirty per cent, GCl.
Staxton: That's what we calculated. Can you tell us what happened, 94? Over.
Schafner: I don't know. It came in close ... ! shut my eyes ... ! figure I must have blacked out for a few seconds
Staxton: OK 94. Standby.
At this stage the Shackleton arrived over Flamborough Head and began circling before XS894 was vectored into the area by the Staxton controllers.
Schafner: Can you bring me in, GCl? Over.
Staxton: Er ... Hold station, 94. Over
Several minutes then elapsed as Schafner was left to circle the Flamborough area along with the Shackleton. In the meantime, Strike Command HQ at High Wycombe had instructed Staxtan Wold to request Schafner ditch his Lightning off Flamborough. Although he had plenty of fuel to reach either nearby Leconfield .or his home base of Binbrook, it appears the reason fo High Wycombe's decision was a fear that the Lightning had somehow become contaminated during its mystery interception over the North Sea.
It may well be that the fear was that the aircraft has suffered radiation contamination although some weeks later, when the wreckage was examined at Binbrook, no trace of contamination by anything other than salt water was found.
Staxton: Foxtrot 94. Can you ditch aircraft? Over.
Schafner: She's handling fine. ! can bring her in. Over.
Staxton: Negative, 94. 1 repeat can you ditch aircraft? Over.
Schafner: Yeah ... I guess.
Staxton: Standby 94. Over. Oscar 77. Over.
Shackleton: 77. Over.
Staxton: 94 is ditching. Can you maintain wide circuit? Over.
Shackleton: Affirmative GCI Over
Staxton: Thanks 77. Standby. 94, execute ditching procedure at your discretion. Over.
Schafner: Descending now, GCl. Over.
Between six and seven minutes then elapsed.
Shackleton: He's dawn, GCl. Hell .of a splash ... he's dawn in one piece though. Over.
Staxton: Can you see the pilot yet? Over.
Shackleton: Negative we're going round again, pulling a tight .one.
XS894 in landing configuration (Evening Telegraph)
Two minutes later.
Shackleton: The canopy's up ... she's floating OK ... can't see the pilot. We need a chopper out here, GCI. No, no sign of the pilot. Where the hell is he?
Staxton: You sure he's not in the water, 77? Check your SABRE (sic) receptions Over. (Note; SABRE was the search and rescue beacon carried by all RAF aircrew).
Shackleton: No SABRE yet. No flares, either. Hang on. We're going round again.
Another two minutes elapsed.
Shackleton: GCI Over.
Staxton: Receiving you, 77. Over.
Shackleton: This is odd, GCI She's sinking fast but ... the canopy's closed up again. Over.
Staxton: Can you confirm pilot clear of aircraft? Over.
Shackleton: He's not in it, we' can confirm that. He must be in the water somewhere.
Staxton: Any distress signals or flares yet? Over.
Shackleton: Negative, GCI. Going round again. Over.
Ninety seconds later the crew of the Shackleton were back in contact with Staxton Wold.
Shackleton: She's sunk, GCI. There's a slight wake where she was. Still no sign of the pilot. I say again, GCl, we need a chopper here fast. Over.
Staxton: A Whirlwind's on the way from Leconfield. Are you positive you saw no sign of the pilot? Over.
Shackleton: Nothing GCI The first pass we assumed he was unstrapping. He must have got out as we went round for a second pass ... but why shut the canopy? Over.
Staxton: That's what we were thinking. Maintain patrol 77, he must be there somewhere. Over.
Shackleton: Roger, GCI. Over.
Shortly afterwards, the search and rescue Whirlwind from nearby Leconfield arrived on the scene and began a systematic search of the ditching area. The aircraft were shortly joined by lifeboats from Bridlington, Flamborough and Filey as the weather began to deteriorate. The search continued well into the next day but there were no transmissions from the beacons carried by the aircraft and the official reports say no distress flares were seen.
However, the following day the Evening Telegraph reported flares had been seen about ten miles offshore and the Grimsby trawler Ross Kestrel which was passing through the Flamborough area and had gone to investigate but, even though more flares were seen, she found nothing.
Three weeks later the Evening Telegraph reported that the fuselage of the aircraft had been located on the seabed and noted that the ejector seat was still intact "giving rise to the belief that the body of the pilot is still in the wreckage." On October 7, the Telegraph reported that (divers from HMS Keddleston had inspected the wreckage and said that Captain Schafner's body was still in the cockpit. But that was the start of the biggest mystery of all. When the aircraft was brought to the surface and returned to Binbrook, there was no trace of Captain Schafner. Just an empty cockpit.
Evening Telegraph Tuesday ~ October 1992 When the wreckage of XS894 was finally lifted from the sea bed some five miles off Flamborough Head, it was taken in some secrecy straight to RAF Binbrook. Air crashes in the North Sea in those days were relatively common and much of the wreckage found its way into Grimsby, where often Evening Telegraph photographers were on hand to record the event. But not with XS894.
It was also common practice for wrecked aircraft to be taken to the MoD's Crash Investigation Branch at Farnborough where detailed examinations were carried out in an attempt to find the cause of accidents. But this didn't happen with XS894. Instead the remains of the aircraft, which was in remarkably good condition, were taken straight to Binbrook where it was placed behind what appears to have been a series of shutters in the far corner of a hangar .
A team from Farnborough arrived one wet winter's day at Binbrook in the belief that they were about to start a detailed investigation which, in turn, would lead to the preparation of a report on the incident to the Ministry of Defence, the report being used as the basis for an eventual inquiry into the loss of Lightning XS894. But they were in for a surprise. They were astonished to find many of the cockpit instruments missing. These included the E2B compass, voltmeter, standby direction indicator, standby inverter indicator and the complete auxiliary warning panel from the starboard side of the cockpit below the voltmeter.
This was a serious breach of regulations and, although the investigation team was promised the instruments would be returned shortly, they never were. The investigators found there was a revolting fusty smell in the cockpit while the whole aircraft still had a slimy feel to it following its month long immersion in the North Sea. The ejector seat also seemed to be 'wrong' and there was a suspicion later among the investigators that it was not the one fitted to the aircraft when XS894 took off from Binbrook on its final flight. They were even given an assurance by the OC of 5 Squadron that the seat had not been tampered with. But some of the investigators were not convinced.
Interestingly, an Evening Telegraph reader, who was serving at Binbrook at the time, told us in 1988 that he recalled seeing an official report on the crash which suggested that the seat was faulty and this was why Captain Schafner failed to eject. Brian McConnell, a former sergeant at Binbrook, said the cartridge on the seat had failed to fire because of faulty installation. However, this is very much at odds with the eye-witness account of the Shackleton crew who saw the canopy raised. Had any attempt been made to fire it, it would have been blown off. It also seems to conflict with the account we have been given of the order from Staxton Wold to Captain Schafner to ditch his aircraft rather than attempt to return to Binbrook or land at Leconfield, only a few minutes flying time from Flamborough. And, remember, Schafner has told his ground controllers that XS894 was still handling "fine" and he had plenty of fuel left.
During the few hours the investigators were allowed to examine the aircraft, they themselves were constantly supervised by five civilians, two of them Americans. At the end of the day the investigation team was told curtly that as nothing useful had been discovered, their job was over. The following day they were all called into the main office at Farnborough and told in no uncertain terms they were not to discuss any aspect of the ditching of XS894, even with their own families. The reason given was simple - national security.
And that's where the trail of the mystery of XS894 goes cold. Well, almost. There is just one further item of information available. On the night of September 8 1970, a couple and their daughter were walking their dog along the coastal path at Alnmouth Bay, Northumberland - almost opposite the point over the North Sea. where Schafner made his interception - when they saw and heard something strange.
"We had been walking for maybe ten minutes when we heard a very high pitched humming noise", they later said in a statement to MoD personnel. "The dog kept cocking her head to one side and growling. It seemed impossible to tell from which direction the noise was coming, it seemed everywhere. It lasted for maybe ten to fifteen seconds. About five minutes later the eastern sky lit up rather like sheet lightning, only it took about ten seconds to die down again. Over the following three minutes this happened many times, but the 'lightning' was only visible for a second or two at a time. It appeared very similar to the Northern Lights. The whole spectacle was completely silent. After two or three minutes there was another flare-up of 'sheet lightning' which lasted about the same time as the first. This was followed by that awful shrill sensation, only this time it was worse. You could actually feel your ears ringing."
The family called in at the local police station to report what they had seen and heard. Their's was one of many similar reports that night to both the police and the RAF at nearby Boulmer. The time and the location fit in exactly with events going on 60 miles south at Staxton Wold and they could have been watching some kind of natural phenomena. Or there could be another explanation. What do you think?
XS894., slung from the bows of the recovery vessel Kinless, probably in Bridlington Bay, after it had been hauled to the surface some two months after it crashed on September 8 1970. The air brakes are extended, indicating that the pilot was flying extremely slowly when he hit the sea.
Letters in reply
I read with some interest the story about the loss of Lightning XS894 which appeared in your columns recently. A 'story' is exactly what it is - indeed, a 'ripping yarn' might be a more appropriate title - for the facts as depicted are far from the truth of what actually happened to XS894 that night. Although this is a personal letter, I am an Executive Member of the Lightning Association whose Secretary will be writing to you separately expressing their concern .. I shall confine my remarks to my knowledge of procedures and the crash itself.
I was an operational Lightning pilot at the time and on the night of September 8 1970 RAP Binbrook were participating in a Tactical Evaluation, a peacetime assessment of a unit's wartime effectiveness. As part of this exercise, 5 Squadron's USAP Exchange Officer was airborne on a routine 'shadowing' sortie, following a Shackleton which was acting as a low, slow 'QRA-type' target. At night, or in poor weather conditions, this involved flying the Lightning as slow as was practically possible whilst maintaining radar contact. The procedure was to fly a series of 'S-turns', weaving behind the target in an attempt to keep the radar blip on the screen. The Lightning's monopulse radar had a particularly poor performance at low level, and flying very low and slow whilst maintaining radar contact at night was a very demanding exercise. In his attempt to remain behind the target and keep good contact, the pilot tragically hit the sea.
XS894 impacted right wing slightly low. The pilot survived the crash and vacated the cockpit prior to the aircraft Sinking. It would have been almost impossible for him to extricate himself and his life raft from the aircraft in this situation. Evidence from the recovered wreckage suggested that he unstrapped and stepped over the side. A cold North Sea at night without protection from the elements afforded by the life raft would have presented him with little hope of survival at the best of times. Denied the aids contained in the dinghy and the time already taken to get out of the cockpit would have meant that his hopes of maintaining consciousness and activating his SARBE (not SABRE as it was described in your text) with numb fingers were virtually nil.
The recovery of the wreckage and the subsequent Board of Inquiry were subject to no more 'secrecy' than any other accident, of which, sadly, there were many at the time. I have personal experience of similar investigations , both as a member of a Board and as a witness. The usual procedure was, and still is, to publish initial and subsequent findings as the Board progresses. The wreckage of XS894 was displayed openly at Binbrook and photographed without restriction once the investigation was complete. The result of the Inquiry was published routinely in RAF Flight Safety magazines and leaflets and all the events surrounding the crash could be explained logically. This includes the cockpit being shut when the aircraft was recovered, which is easily explained by the loss of hydraulic pressure to the canopy jack.
This accident was an unfortunate error of judgment which cost an American pilot his life, not some stranger than fiction tale about UFOs, American presidential involvement and the drama of deliberately ditching a Lightning. As an aside, may I say that in over twenty-five years of flying fighters in both the RAF and in the USAF on exchange duties, I never heard of any unusual activity involving UFOs. Perhaps more importantly, other than routine security classification, I have no knowledge of any facts surrounding a military accident which have been deliberately suppressed or distorted to protect errors of skill or judgment on the part of those involved.
You recently ran a series of articles which purported to take a detailed look at the events leading up to the loss of XS894, a Lightning F6 which crashed in the North Sea during the night of September 8 1970. I am writing to you on behalf of the Lightning Association to comment on the facts as described in the text. We are not aware of any QRA activity that night. Such operations were, and still are, classified and any detailed account would contravene the Official Secrets Act. We are aware that Binbrook was taking part in a type of exercise which could explain most of the RAF activity described in
your text, but there are several errors contained therein which support our thoughts and challenge its authenticity.
In 1970, 'fighter call signs did not include the numbers 8 or 9. These may have been used for other classes of aircraft but never a Lightning, so the call sign Foxtrot 94 could not have existed. The text mentions the involvement of RAF Coltishall, which was a Conversion Unit whose pilots were not qualified for QRA and normally did not fly at night. Lightnings were never scrambled in pairs for QRA sorties, although a second aircraft might be scrambled to relieve the first on its recovery to base for refueling. Because of the immediacy of QRA sorties, a tanker would not have been routinely airborne in support of QRA operations.
Fighter controllers would have been unable to afford the target details as described in your article and the function of BMEWS would not have involved them in any way. BMEWS is involved in the tracking of ICBM missiles on launch and has no connection whatsoever with fighter operations. To suggest that NORAD was kept informed and that Presidential action was instigated as a direct response to the alleged events and to then suggest that Captain Schafner was especially selected is ludicrous. NORAD is the US National Air Defence System; it has no connection with operations over the North Sea, which is a UK/NATO responsibility. The scenario is equivalent to the British Prime Minister being asked for assistance because a pair of Cuban MiGs have overflown the tip of Florida.
The dialogue in the alleged official transcript does not bear close examination. Terminology quoted strays far from reality and if, indeed, it was true, the source document would also be classified. To analyse every exchange reported between the pilot and the fighter controllers would require a far longer letter, but a couple of examples will suffice. For instance, all distances on close radar contact would be given in yards, never in feet and a pilot would give his fuel state as 'twelve hundreds per side', never 'about 30%'. There was absolutely no ditching procedure laid down for the Lightning. A pilot in trouble would head for a safe area and height if he still had control of the aircraft and then eject. Finally, in a night sortie over the North Sea the alleged detailed visual description by the Shackleton crew would simply be impossible.
The retrieval of XS894 followed the usual pattern of being recovered to the base from which it was lost and it was common practice to put the remains in a corner of a hangar. The Board of Inquiry would have included at least one American representative and the civilians mentioned would almost certainly have been experts from Farnborough.
Unlike the author of your article and the people he quotes, we have no access to any official reports. However, our membership includes many ex-RAF and currently serving members who were involved with Lightnings at Binbrook. None of them to whom we have spoken have any recollection other than XS894 being lost in a tragic accident where the pilot lost concentration flying a difficult radar exercise at low level over the sea.
Charles M Ross
Other than people who, twenty-two years later, remembered seeing strange things in the sky that night, the only other letter which added to the sum of knowledge about the accident was from Mike Streten, who was at one time Chief Interceptor Weapons Instructor on Lightnings and in the early 1980s served as CO of 5(F) Squadron at Binbrook. On the night of the loss of XS894, he was night. flying with 23 Sqn, based at Leuchars. He reported the following. "The Shackleton was an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft from 8 Sqn based at Lossiemouth. A crew member reported that he had last seen the navigation lights of the Lightning passing to the rear of and below the Shackleton. Immediately following the pilot's failure to acknowledge radio transmissions from both the Shackleton and the controlling radar at Patrington, an initial air/sea search was initiated. No trace of the aircraft was found until two months later when a Royal Navy minesweeper found it virtually intact on the bottom of the sea.
When XS894 took off that night, it was carrying two dummy acquisition missiles, not one live' Red Top. During a TACEVAL exercise, all missions would start following a scramble call, either by telebrief connected to the local radar station or via a radio call to the aircraft. Anyone able to listen in to such transmissions would think that World War Three had started. Spurious information relating to raids in other sectors would be broadcast to 'flesh out' events in the local sector and thereby make the atmosphere before scramble more realistic. In consequence, the reported events off Saxa Vord, the Leuchars QRA aircraft and the involvement of the Phantoms from Keflavik being deployed against a UFO is mere conjecture."
Mike also makes the very valid point that the possibility of a Lightning pilot hiking off without a full load of fuel is fantasy. The aircraft was always short on fuel even before engine start! Furthermore. the likelihood of a Lightning pilot actually obeying an order to ditch a perfectly serviceable aircraft at night in the North Sea rather than recover to base or at worst, eject. is even less believable than the UFO theory.
It may be that the real key to the whole story is contained in the observation of the Shackleton crew member that the Lightning was flying below him. The rules covering this type of exercise in 1970 were that the target should not fly below 300ft and the fighter should not fly below 500ft. This meant that the interceptor would always have the problem of distinguishing the target on radar against the clutter caused by the sea and the pilot would have the extra workload. in an already highly loaded situation. of increasing and decreasing the gain on his screen to focus on the Shackleton. On the other hand. if the fighter dropped below the level of the target aircraft and looked up. the radar picture would be free from clutter and the target easily seen.
Did the pilot lose his radar contact and dip below the level of the Shackleton to give himself a better chance of reacquiring the target? We shall obviously never know. However, it is a fact that. following this and two similar accidents which all occurred around the same time, the minimum altitudes allowed in this type of exercise were changed to 1500ft for the target and 2000ft for the fighter.
There is one small extra fact which may help to understand how a Lightning could hit the sea and not break up immediately. I was talking to a client in the surgery shortly after the articles were published in the Evening Telegraph and we discussed this point. He was an ex-pilot who had flown Vampires and he told me that it was commonly believed that. if you were unable to get out of a disabled jet and had to ditch in the sea at relatively high speeds. the best chance of surviving was to go in as flat as possible but with one wing slightly low. The theory was to catch the water and start the aircraft skimming across the surface like a flat stone. losing momentum without breaking up or sinking too quickly and thereby allowing the pilot to escape. In other words. almost certainly the sequence of events which saved the structure of XS894 to become the centre of so much ill-informed speculation today. If anyone has any other information which could add to what we know about this tragic accident. please write to me at Binbrook.
Archive Index and Descriptions of the Lightning
| Archive Home |
| 2/03 | 3/03 | 4/03 | 5/03 | 6/03 | 7/03 | 8/03 | 9/03 | 10/03 | 11/03 | 12/03 |
| 1/04 | 2/04 | 3/04 | 4/04 | 5/04 | 6/04 | 7/04 | 8/04 | 9/04 | 10/04 | 11/04 | 12/04 |
| 1/05 | 2/05 | 3/05 | 4/05 | 5/05 | 6/05 | 7&8/05 | 9/05 | 6/11| 9/11 | 12/11 |6/12
2/03 - Northern Quick Reaction Alert Force - 'The Bear Hunt'
3/03 - Days of Thunder, Memories of a Line Chief, 5 Squadron Lightnings, 1967- 68
4/03 - The Loss of XM990
5/03 - How Not to Handle Recovery on Minimums!
6/03 - It Wouldn't Work for You Any More, Rudolf
7/03 - LIGHTNING v F-15
8/03 - Handle-Handling - Seat-Pan versus Face-Blind
9/03 - The Lightning Room or The Perils of Impulse Buying
10/03 - The Final Flight of XP693 and XR773 – In the UK!
11/03 - Foxbat Target
12/03 - Lightning v Santa - The Ultimate Confrontation
1/04 - Putting the Boot In - ‘Charlie’ Chan's Ejection from XR763
2/04 - Operation Corrugate - Quest for a Q-Shed
3/03/04 - The Last of the Lightning Pilots
4/04 - 'TEST PILOTS' by Wolfgang Späte
5/04 - The Revenge of the Swedes - A ‘Gripen’ Tale of Binbrook
6/04 - Transcript of the Cockpit Voice Recordings During the Loss of XR769
7/04 - The Lightning Pilot's Ten Commandments
8/04 - Memories of 111 Sqn & The Wattisham Lightning Song
9/04 - Ah Yes, I Remember it Well - LIGHTNING v MIRAGE 2000
10/04 - Lightning vs Concorde
11/04 - The Guinness Book of Lightning
12/04 - Tiger or Pussycat? - The English Electric Lightning
1/05 - T.4 Flying Display
2/05 - P.1 Supersonic Testing at Warton
3/05 - Big Bad Dog
4/05 - A Taceval Tale
5/05 - NATO Tiger Meet - Leuchars 1966
6/05 - Do Not Panic
7&8/05 - Letter from America – Bill Beardsley's Story
9/05 - EJECTION - A Lightning Detective Story
6/11 - Joe Dickerson's Memories of Lightnings at Coltishall
9/11 - 11 Sqdn Lightnings Visit 1st All Weather Fighter Wing of Beauvechain, Belgium in 1979
12/11 - An Unplanned Overnight Stop
6/12 - The Loss of Lightning F6 XS894