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Without a Trace: 1970-2016: Without a Trace, #2

Without a Trace: 1970-2016: Without a Trace, #2

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Without a Trace: 1970-2016: Without a Trace, #2

5/5 (1 peringkat)
239 pages
3 hours
May 2, 2019


The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in 2014 is considered the greatest aviation mystery of our time but it does not stand alone. The second volume of Without a Trace begins in 1970, when a military pilot chased a glowing unidentified object only for both to disappear in an instant. How did India manage to misplace five fighter jets? Did the young pilot chasing an inexplicable aircraft over the Australian coast really get abducted by aliens? These questions and more are explored in Without a Trace: 1970-2016. We explore modern mysteries as recent as 2016, with the sudden disappearance of an Antonov An-32 on a routine courier flight, while the aircraft ahead and behind saw nothing. Each case is laid out in rich detail and presented chronologically, with explanations of technology, aviation jargon and cultural aspects involved in each mystery. 

Sylvia Wrigley introduces the crews, innocent bystanders and rescuers in this collection of true stories. Documenting the popular theories from each case, she uses her knowledge and experience as a pilot and an aviation journalist to demystify aviation jargon and narrow down each disappearance to the most likely explanations. The stories range from fighter jets to commercial airliners, all of which have vanished within our lifetimes without a trace.

May 2, 2019

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Without a Trace - Sylvia Wrigley


The Mysterious Truth behind Foxtrot 94


THE 1970S ARE SAID to have been the deadliest decade in aviation history, with 16,766 deaths. This is double the 8,318 deaths in the 2000s, the least deadly so far. The second decade in this millennium is looking less rosy—our excitement over 2017 being the first year with no commercial airline fatalities has been tempered by a rash of fatal accidents in 2018 and the loss of two Boeing 737 MAX passenger aircraft in recent months.

Foxtrot 94 is one of my favourite aviation mysteries, in which a military pilot chases after an unidentified object in the sky before disappearing completely. His aircraft was found undamaged at the bottom of the North Sea, with the canopy shut and no trace of the pilot. A favourite of UFO aficionados, here’s the whole story.

RAF Binbrook is a former Royal Air Force station in north-east Lincolnshire, England. RAF Binbrook was originally a Bomber Command station during World War II. The Royal Air Force No. 12 Squadron was stationed there until 1942, when they moved to RAF Wickenby. After the war, RAF Binbrook hosted the start of the RAF’s transition to jet bombers.

RAF Binbrook also served as the base for the last two RAF squadrons who used the English Electric Lightning, a fantastic aircraft. The Lightning is an all-British Mach 2 fighter aircraft, developed and manufactured by English Electric. It was the RAF’s primary interceptor for over twenty years and pilots described flying it as being saddled to a skyrocket. The aircraft was retired in the late 1980s.

RAF Binbrook closed in the 1990s and was sold off for development, with the control tower demolished in 1995. As of now, most of the accommodation blocks have been demolished except for the married quarters, which form private housing in the new village of Brookenby. The old hangars are now an industrial estate used by private businesses.

In 1970, however, things looked very different. The US and its allies had been at odds with the Soviet Union and its satellite states since the end of the second world war: two superpowers in a political and ideological struggle that showed no sign of resolution.

Soviet aircraft were regularly flying into the North Atlantic to test the reaction from NATO fighters. A little-known radar station called Saxa Vord was a vital part of Britain’s air defence, a front-line unit offering early warnings of Soviet bombers entering UK airspace. RAF Saxa Vord was the most northern military base, situated on the island of Unst in the Shetland Isles. The island of Unst is farther north than Leningrad and on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska.

Google Maps screenshot. Map data: Geobasis-DE/BKG, Google, Inst. Geogr. Nacional. Imagery: Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat

RAF Saxa Vord gets its name from the hill where the station is located: at 935 feet (285 metres) it is the highest hill on the island of Unst. Saxa Vord’s modern claim to fame is that it holds the unofficial British record for highest wind speed: in 1992 the wind was recorded at 197 mph (317 km/h) just before the measuring equipment blew away. The site had been used for highly classified operations since the 1950s, including top-secret radar installations and trials of anti-submarine equipment.

Until recently, the primary source of information about the tragic accident was a series of investigative articles by journalist Pat Otter, who had covered the original search and rescue for local news. This was followed by Alien Investigator, a detailed book by a retired Yorkshire police sergeant who confirmed Pat Otter’s information and used military contacts to further investigate the mysterious disappearance of the pilot from the aircraft discovered in the North Sea.

The sequence of events started in the evening of the 8th of September in 1970. At 20:17, a radar operator at Saxa Vord spotted an unidentified blip flying over the North Sea, between the Shetlands and Norway. This required a response from the RAF station on Quick Reaction Alert.

Quick Reaction Alert is the 24-hour Royal Air Force air defence maintained by NATO. A Quick Reaction Alert response is to scramble fighter aircraft to investigate an airspace infringement. RAF stations on Quick Reaction Alert have pilots on duty who are fully dressed and waiting in the Aircrew Ready Room, which is always situated next to the hangars housing interceptor aircraft. The duty shift is about twenty hours. Each pilot is on shift once or twice a month. There are currently two Quick Reaction Alert RAF stations: RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth with two Eurofighter Typhoons loaded and ready to go.

At the time, the Quick Action Alert stations were RAF Coningsby and RAF Binbrook. A 28-year-old American pilot named William Schaffner was on duty at RAF Binbrook.

Captain William Schaffner was a pilot in the United States Air Force stationed in England as an American exchange pilot, flying Lightnings with 5 Squadron out of RAF Binbrook. The Lightning was XS894 and in some references the aircraft was referred to as call sign Foxtrot 94.

The radar operator at Saxa Vord reported the unidentified target, and RAF Leuchars, on the east coast of Scotland, immediately scrambled two English Electric Lightnings. Three radar stations tracked the target: RAF Fylingdales in the North York Moors in England, the US Air Force radar station at Thule Air Base in Greenland and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, Colorado in the US.

The two Lightnings returned to base at the same time as two American F4 Phantoms with more sophisticated radar equipment were scrambled from Keflavik in Iceland to patrol the area. However, the target had been lost. Tensions were high as US and UK military waited.

It was an hour later, at 21:30, when radar operators picked up another unidentified target, almost certainly the same target again, this time heading south-west over the north end of Denmark. Again, two Lightning interceptors were scrambled from RAF Leuchars to patrol north-east of Aberdeen. Another two Lightnings were scrambled from RAF Coltishall.

RAF Staxton Wold in North Yorkshire picked up the unidentified target, which was now flying east of Whitby, parallel to the English coast.

Captain Schaffner was pacing in the Aircrew Ready Room, waiting for his orders to intercept. The Lightning was armed with two Red Top air-to-air missiles.

Finally, the call came. Schaffner boarded the aircraft while they were still filling the fuel tanks. At 22:06, he took off from RAF Binbrook in Lightning XS894. By now, the radar target had held military attention for over four hours.

In 1992, an unofficial transcript of Captain Schaffner speaking to the radar station at RAF Staxton Wold in North Yorkshire was published by the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, which claimed to have got it from a retired investigator from the crash investigation team. In the transcript, Schaffner tells the radar operator that he had made visual contact with the target.

Can you identify the aircraft type?

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

Schaffner pulled up closer to the unidentified object and described it as a conical shape, so bright that it hurt his eyes to look at it.

The radar operator had two blips on his radar screen, one representing the Lightning and the other representing the unidentified aircraft. How close are you now?

About 400 feet. He’s still in my three o’clock. Hey wait, there’s something else. It’s like a large soccer ball . . . It’s like made of glass.

The unidentified aircraft went into a gentle descent and Schaffner continued to follow. He confirmed that the ball object was still with it. It’s not actually connected . . . maybe magnetic attraction to the conical shape. There’s a haze of light yellow . . . it’s within that haze. Wait a second, it’s turning. Coming straight for me. I’m taking evasive action . . . a few . . . I can hardly . . .

The radar operator saw the two blips merge into one. The single blip slowed, coming to a halt around 140 miles from the coast, and then disappeared.

And that was the last anyone knew.

The transcript, never confirmed by official sources, was chilling.

Records show an official inquiry into the crash but the results weren’t made public. When Captain Schaffner’s sons asked for further information, desperate to know how their father had disappeared, they were told that all the reports on the crash had been shredded.

The lack of official information along with the supposed transcript published in the news combined into a perfect storm. Many concluded that the secrecy was a question of international security. Captain Schaffner had been chasing an unknown entity from another world, which had then abducted him when he got too close, dropping his empty aircraft into the North Sea. The story became the best-documented British example of interactions with an unknown extraterrestrial object and probable alien abduction.

BBC News features Yorkshire’s famous UFO story

It wasn’t until 2002, over thirty years after the incident, that the Ministry of Defence succumbed to pressure from the British Broadcasting Corporation to release the classified documents relating to the accident. This included a copy of the inquiry report, the actual transcript of the Captain’s final conversation with ground controllers and photographs showing the Lightning’s empty cockpit.

The first revelation from the Ministry of Defence report is that the radar target wasn’t unknown at all. It was British. The radar operators were tracking a slow-moving Shackleton, a long-range maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft used by the Royal Air Force. According to the Ministry of Defence, there was never an incursion of British airspace. Instead, it was an exercise to practice shadowing low-flying targets at night.

In that case, why the secrecy? Why not publish the details on the spot instead of letting rumours gather traction? The answer is disturbing: the Ministry of Defence may have wanted the incident to remain secret to hide the results of the inquiry, which showed that Captain Schaffner had not been properly trained to carry out the exercise he’d been asked to undertake.

The RAF’s Board of Enquiry report from June 1972 stated that a Tactical Evaluation exercise (TACEVAL) was taking place that night, with RAF Shackletons simulating defecting Soviet aircraft that intended to land in the UK. The point of the exercise was to test the responses of front-line pilots, who only knew that their object was to locate and intercept an unknown radar target.

At the time, Captain Schaffner had flown a total of 121 hours on the Lightning, of which only 18 were at night. He was declared Limited Combat Ready after only eight weeks with 5 Squadron, an unusually short time. He had not yet completed his training. Specifically, he was weak on shadowing and shepherding and only considered safe to do so if he had visual contact with the target.

His squadron commander who authorised Captain Schaffner to take part had believed that the exercise that night would not include shadowing or shepherding at all, which is why he was happy that the pilot was competent to take part. It was planned as a locate-and-intercept exercise; however at some point that night it was changed and the pilots were asked to shadow and shepherd the slow low-flying targets.

The Shackletons were flying 160 knots (185 mph or 300 km/h, fast for a car but slow for a fighter jet) at just 1,500 feet over the sea.

The man on duty in the Flying Clothing section issued Captain Schaffner with his helmet and oxygen mask on that night and recalled that Captain Schaffner did not want to take his anti-g suit, used to stop the pilot from blacking out during the high-g turns. He was impatient to get going.

Schaffner spent an hour in the crew room in a state of cockpit readiness before finally receiving his orders to scramble. As he was taxiing the Lightning, the scramble was cancelled. He returned, asking for fuel only and no turnaround servicing, but the engineering officer overruled him and ordered a full turnaround. During the delay, Captain Schaffner heard that he would be scrambled again as soon as he was ready. He started his engines and taxied before the servicing was complete and was airborne at 20:30.

He climbed to Flight Level 100 (10,000 feet) where he was told to join another Lightning which was shadowing an unknown target, one of the Shackletons. At 28 nautical miles from the target, he was asked to accelerate to Mach .95 (612 knots or 705 mph or 1,135 km/h—fast by anyone’s standards) so that he could take over from the other Lightning. A moment later, at 2,000 feet above the water, he reported in a strained voice that he was visual with the lights of the target but needed to manoeuvre to slow down. There’s no mention of a bluish light in the transcript released by the RAF, just the description of a set of lights.

The controller tells him to keep a sharp lookout.

The Other Lightning: Target still at 1,500 feet heading 255.

Captain Schaffner: I’m slowing down I’ll be weaving and then I’ve got 2 one white and one red flashing.

Controller: I’m beginning to lose you on the R/T [radio] now say again.

Schaffner reported contact with two aircraft, which the controller confirmed was the target (the Shackleton) and the other Lightning shadowing it. Schaffner said that as soon as he got the speed burned off, the other Lightning was clear to depart.

The other pilot said that he saw Schaffner at about 2,000 yards astern and about 500 to 1,000 feet above the Shackleton, turning to the left. The Shackleton crew then saw Schaffner and said that the Lightning was flying very low.

Too low.

Schaffner, completely focused on losing speed so he could shadow the slow-moving target, lost sight of his altitude. Following procedures for a shadowing manoeuvre whilst flying low and slow with two targets to track, with radio communication issues too boot, was simply too many different things happening at once for a low-hours pilot who had just been declared Limited Combat Ready. With only eighteen hours of night flight, the confusion of the false scramble and interrupted turnaround combined with his lack of training created a level of pressure which was bound to end up in a mistake. This was exactly why he would normally not have been invited to participate in a shadowing exercise at night.

The controller told Schaffner that the target’s estimated range from the coast was five miles and if the target came within three miles of the coast, it was to be intercepted to RAF Binbrook. This added time pressure to the already stressful situation. Schaffner acknowledged the instruction. The controller then called again with a new instruction: if the target aircraft approached to within three miles of the UK coastline, it was to be directed to land at Waddington rather than RAF Binbrook.

This time, Captain Schaffner did not respond. The controller continued to call, as did the other flight crew active in the area at the time, but they never heard another word from Schaffner. The Shackleton broke off the exercise to search the area. At first light, aircraft and ship joined in the search and rescue operation but they found no sign of the aircraft or the pilot.

One of the controllers working that night was willing to share his recollections. I have altered his text slightly, expanding the acronyms and shortenings.

I well remember this one. I was at Patrington on my first tour, and was on position beside the guy controlling the Lightning in question. It was a lousy night, stormy, driving rain, low cloud and high winds. We had all been called in because of the Tactical Evaluation. My Flight Commander [controller] was controlling the Lightning that crashed. The Shackleton target came in low, heading due West . . . The Lightning was

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  • (5/5)
    The title is a bit of a misnomer - the planes may have disappeared for a while, but they were often found again or sometimes just the pilot was found again. The interest is in the story behind the disappearance, of unusual things that happened before and after the disappearance, creating truly interesting mysteries. Ms. Wrigley puts it all together in sufficient but not overwhelming detail to maximize the readability.