The Boscombe Down Incident Remains One Of Military Aviation's Most Intriguing Mysteries
A secret aircraft reportedly crashed during takeoff at RAF Boscombe Down in 1994 sparking what has been an enduring mystery.
As the story goes, on the evening of September 26, 1994, an aircraft was set to take off from Runway 23 at RAF Boscombe Down, a Royal Air Force Base in Wiltshire, England that is tasked with flight testing and weapons development. As the aircraft made its run down the runway, a malfunction caused the crew to abort the takeoff. Soon after, London Air Traffic Control Center, or LATCC, was contacted and notified that the entire runway needed to be closed. What followed was a highly peculiar and swift response that is still wrapped in secrecy. It included the mysterious stricken aircraft being wrapped up and presumably partially disassembled so that it could be flown home to the United States in a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy transport plane. Despite eyewitness testimony, there has never been an official explanation for the strange events at RAF Boscombe Down on that fall night in 1994, but it seems quite clear that some kind of clandestine event did indeed occur.
An Incident At Boscombe Down
RAF Boscombe Down, today known as MoD Boscombe Down, has long been a major locale for military aircraft testing and evaluation in the United Kingdom. Cutting-edge testbeds and recovered foreign tactical jets are just some of the aircraft that have called Boscombe Down home since its construction in 1917. The British Aircraft and Armament Evaluation Establishment (AAEE) began using the base for aircraft experiments in 1939, and in 1994 the site was placed under the control of the Defense Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), Britain’s equivalent to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2001, DERA was split into two parts that became the U.K. Ministry of Defense's Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the private company QinetiQ.
It was during the base's time as part of DERA the mysterious incident occurred. Much of what the public understands about the incident stems from a March 1997 cover story in Air Forces Monthly written by Ren Hoek and Marco Van der Welk that reads like an aviation ghost story.
The story goes like this:
On September 22, 1994, eyewitnesses living near Boscombe Down reported hearing an abnormal noise approaching the base. According to local television news reports the next day, the noise sounded almost like a freight train or a low-frequency rumbling or humming.
A few days later, on the evening of September 26, an unknown aircraft malfunction shut down Runway 23 at RAF Boscombe Down. Eyewitnesses reported that the broken aircraft was quickly covered by a frame and tarpaulins while surrounded by emergency vehicles. While sitting on the runway, the aircraft's rear section was unusually elevated, possibly indicating a nose wheel collapse. Shortly after, the aircraft was pulled into a hangar where it sat behind closed doors for two days.
During this time period, it became clear that a cleanup operation was underway. Witnesses reported seeing U.K. special operations forces at Boscombe Down, and two special operations aircraft reportedly arrived at the base: an Agusta A109 helicopter from the British Army's 8 Flight AAC, a unit that provided covert transport for Special Air Service (SAS) personnel, and a Chinook from the RAF's No. 7 Squadron, a unit tasked with supporting British special operations forces.
According to the two-year investigation conducted by Air Forces Monthly, witnesses reported several unusual aircraft coming in and out of Boscombe Down during this time. A USAF C-12 Huron, used by the DoD for priority air transport throughout Europe, landed in the days following the incident, as did "an apparently unmarked" Boeing 707.
Though the Boeing 707 has not been conclusively identified, there are reports that a particularly shadowy example of one of these aircraft, ostensibly operated by the USAF with the serial number 67-19417 and designated as either an EC-137D or EC-137E, appeared at Exeter Airport, some 80 miles to the southwest of Boscombe Down, a month after the incident. It's not clear whether or not this sighting was directly related, but this aircraft, which was acquired by the U.S. government in 1992 and flew in an effectively unmarked gray-white paint scheme for around a decade, was subsequently linked to clandestine activities and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as well as Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
It's also worth noting that this jet had previously been on the U.S. civil register as N707HL, with the last civilian owner being a company known as E-Systems in Greenville, Texas. E-Systems, which subsequently became a division of Raytheon, already had a long history of working on highly-classified aircraft projects for the U.S. government, including the U.S. military and the CIA, by the early 1990s. Today, 67-19417 is in storage at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, where it is listed as an EC-137D.
Perhaps most interestingly, eyewitnesses reported also seeing a Boeing 737/T-43 landing at the base that featured the now-iconic red and white markings associated with aircraft operated by private contractor EG&G. That company famously operated the "Janet Airlines," 737s that shuttle employees to and from the Groom Lake facility and Tonopah Test Range Airport north of Las Vegas, Nevada, as well as other clandestine flight test and aerospace development locales throughout America's southwest. URS Corporation acquired EG&G from The Carlyle Group in 2002 and stopped using the EG&G brand in 2009, morphing it into URS Federal Services.
On September 28, eyewitnesses reportedly got a glimpse of the partially-covered air vehicle when another aircraft was removed from the same hangar in which it was stored. The mystery aircraft was said to have been charcoal grey with inward-canted twin tail fins and featured chines extending from its nose section, not too dissimilar from those found on the SR-71 or the characteristics we see on stealthy aircraft designs, such as the YF-23. The aircraft was reported to be the size of a large fighter jet and its canopy appeared to hinge forward at the front.
The crashed aircraft remained in the hangar at Boscombe Down until a lumbering USAF C-5 Galaxy appeared to fly the wreckage home on September 28, 1994. The C-5's original flight plan had it landing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany until it requested a diversion to Boscombe Down late in its flight.
When the C-5 took off from Boscombe Down days later after being loaded with "an unidentifiable tarpaulin-covered object," its destination was reportedly listed as KPMD, otherwise known as USAF Plant 42 Airport. Plant 42 is home to the most advanced military aircraft manufacturing centers in the world, including Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, as well as sprawling Northrop Grumman and Boeing installations. At that time, two specially modified C-5Cs, serial numbers 68-0213 and 68-0216, were based at Travis Air Force Base in California and frequented Palmdale, mainly for use in support of various space programs and some clandestine aircraft development programs. They lacked an upper passenger compartment and had other modifications allowing them to carry even larger outsized cargo than their standard C-5A stablemates.
In the weeks following the incident, RAF Boscombe Down was visited by a C-20 Gulfstream IV with the U.S. civil registration code N604M reportedly operated by the CIA. The same aircraft made several stops throughout England in early October 1994 under heavy security, including Southampton where Northrop Grumman's facilities in the United Kingdom are situated.
The British Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Defense Department both denied the incident had occurred. David Oliver, former editor of Air Forces Monthly, told The Independent that the magazine had "no doubt that an incident did happen on the day in question and it has never been satisfactorily explained by the authorities" after their two-year investigation. Oliver assured The Independent "that Royal Air Force officers had been among the sources" of their investigation and that "he was sure the report was true."
In 1994, Martin Redmond, a Member of the U.K. Parliament from Don Valley, brought up the incident in that legislative body. The response from Defense Minister Nicholas Soames was that he was "aware of a press report of such an incident," but that "Staff at Boscombe Down have confirmed, however, that there was no crash at the unit on that date or, indeed, so far this year." Soames added that "the only flying which took place that night was the launch of two Royal Navy Sea King helicopters in support of an exercise."
Black Triangles And Black Budgets
In their March 1997 cover story, Air Forces Monthly make the case that the crashed aircraft was the long-rumored, never-confirmed ASTRA (Advanced Stealth Reconnaissance Aircraft), one of the more popular “ghost stories” of black budget aircraft lore. The article claims the ASTRA was produced by Northrop and even includes the alleged USAF serial number of the crashed vehicle, 90-2414. According to Air Forces Monthly, the vehicle was referred to as AV-6 (Air Vehicle Six), and may have been born from research related to the production of the YF-23, the unsuccessful contender for the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program that spawned the F-22.
The alleged ASTRA is only one of a number of shadowy aircraft which are claimed to have been developed around the same time period. For instance, many rumors and small pieces of disparate, unsubstantiated evidence suggest, when viewed just the right way, the existence of an extremely high-speed, manned aerial surveillance platform. The name largely attributed to this mythical aircraft, Aurora, derives from a few misinterpreted line items in Air Force budget documents throughout the 1980s that actually belonged to what would become the Advanced Technology Bomber and then the B-2.
Sightings of unknown black, triangular aircraft are often attributed to Aurora, ASTRA, or similar apocryphal programs. Several high-profile sightings throughout the 1990s fueled speculation that the United States was operating just such a classified reconnaissance aircraft. In one of these sightings, a trained former member of the Royal Observer Corps reported witnessing a black triangular aircraft refueling from a KC-135 over the North Sea while being escorted by two F-111 Aardvark combat jets.
There has never been hard proof of such a high-speed reconnaissance aircraft's existence, especially one in an operational state that would have been flying around the globe on missions at the time. Additionally, by that time, a then still secret revolution in aerial reconnaissance had already occurred, making snapshots in time collected by high-speed aircraft less attractive than using stealth technology to persist over an enemy's territory sucking up intelligence for hours on end. Also, significant improvements in spy satellites made the high-speed and also hugely expensive airborne reconnaissance proposition far less attractive than it once was.
That brings us to the so-called TR-3A "Black Manta" subsonic stealthy tactical reconnaissance aircraft. There were also large numbers of sightings of a broader triangular shape aircraft during this period, especially over Europe, which led to a UFO buzz. Popular Mechanics even ran a cover story in December 1991 exploring the idea of the rumored TR-3A. Of all the possible classified aircraft of the era, our own Editor In Chief Tyler Rogoway believes such a subsonic, penetrating, tactical reconnaissance aircraft, potentially with secondary electronic attack capabilities, possibly did exist in very small numbers during this time period. This aircraft would have served as a missing link of sorts that would have bridged the persistent and penetrating reconnaissance revelations made by then Northrop's top-secret Tacit Blue demonstrator and unmanned penetrating reconnaissance aircraft concepts that began to emerge in the late 1990s, culminating in at least one operational type, the RQ-170 Sentinel. You can read more about the potential existence of this 'missing link' of a ghost plane here.
There was also a lot of work being done around the time regarding small and stealthy tactical special operations transport aircraft, with some notional designs seemingly quite similar to the aircraft described. Such a capability would likely be quite attractive to the Ministry of Defense, which could have prompted a joint program between the two countries. This would have occurred after stealth was proven over Iraq during Desert Storm via the F-117. The U.K. passed on being part of the F-117 program when it was still in the realm of top-secret classification. You can read about the stealth special operations tactical transport aircraft saga in our two-part series on the mystery surrounding it linked here and here.
The public curiosity over the alleged 'black' aircraft grew to the point that then-Secretary of the Air Force Donald B. Rice issued a statement in December 1992, calling ideas of such an aircraft nothing but "fantasy.” A USAF spokesperson added that the Air Force has “looked into all such sightings, as we have for U.F.O. reports, and we cannot explain them. No Air Force aircraft were operating at the times and places of the alleged sightings." That same year, the Federation of American Scientists, or FAS, also concluded that at least the Aurora was nothing but a ghost story. The U.K. press reported several similar sightings, strange engine noises, and deflections by Parliament throughout the same period, although none of these was ever confirmed to be related to any black aircraft. One could easily argue that actually admitting to a clandestine aircraft with a sensitive role defeats the point and denials are hardly unheard of in this regard.
There is also the possibility that the crashed aircraft at RAF Boscombe was something else altogether. Boscombe was involved in evaluation of aircraft from ‘threat’ nations around this post Cold War timeframe. According to The War Zone's Thomas Newdick, it's possible that the aircraft was a captured or recovered foreign-made design being evaluated or tested against Western-made aircraft.
"Eastern Bloc combat aircraft and helicopters from mainly former East Germany and Hungary are almost certain to have passed through here," Newdick says. "It would explain the level of secrecy since this stuff was all highly classified. A lot of the time the presence of these aircraft in the UK is only confirmed through records of transfers in Germany and, in other cases, where the aircraft ended up on ranges or in UK museums."
The War Zone’s own Joseph Trevithick has pursued multiple Freedom of Information requests to the USAF, the CIA, and the U.K. Ministry of Defense in relation to the Boscombe Down incident. The most noteworthy response he says he's received so far is a statement in which a CIA spokesperson did not refuse to confirm or deny that any such incident had occurred at all, but instead pointed him to the USAF. “We believe your request as written would more likely fall under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense,” Allison Fong, Information and Privacy Coordinator at the CIA, wrote in response to a Freedom of Information Act request Trevithick submitted regarding Boscombe Down.
The Air Force Safety Center responded to an identical FOIA request by stating it had no information about any incident that involved one of the service’s aircraft at Boscombe Down in 1994. Air Force Materiel Command and the U.K. Ministry of Defense have yet to respond to identical requests.
The War Zone contributor and former editor of Combat Aircraft Monthly Jamie Hunter has looked into the RAF Boscombe Down incident on his own, too. He says he has yet to find evidence other than accounts that corroborate the fact that a C-5 Galaxy did, in fact, land at RAF Boscombe on the alleged date. "I remember seeing a flight plan for the C-5, which was due to fly into Boscombe Down," Hunter told The War Zone, "but I didn’t actually see it on the ground."
The War Zone also spoke with author and consultant Nick Cook, who at the time was aviation editor at Jane’s Defense Weekly and was the first to break the Boscombe Down story in The Sunday Telegraph. While Cook is confident that the incident happened the way it has been described, to this day he remains unsure about what the craft may have been:
"My former editor, who had some good sources in the RAF and MoD, was contacted to see what he might know about what happened at Boscombe Down. He contacted me, and to be honest, it sounded really fanciful when I heard it. Something crashed on the runway, special forces went into action around the site and shut it down. I said I’d look into it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I contacted a few sources and sure enough, after a few calls, I was fairly satisfied something had happened. They shut down the main highway, the A303, that runs into Boscombe Down.
The cover story didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The main cover story was that a Tornado had been testing a towed decoy, which had gotten stuck on its roller and wouldn’t retract. The cover story about a towed decoy was familiar because the RAF had been testing towed decoys for Tornados and it was quite secret. So if you’re going to cover up something secret and do it well, its best to do it authentically with another secret. So a decoy makes sense. But it was patently a cover story.
I definitely think something happened. The C-5 definitely came into Boscombe Down. I didn’t talk to the witnesses directly but I read enough witness testimony to say they saw something with a tarpaulin on it on the runway. It had to have been American or have had some American lineage in it in order for the C-5 to have turned up. There were quite a few rumors of joint black programs between the U.S. and the U.K. at the time. There was a lot of the Aurora stuff knocking around at the time but I don’t think it was Aurora. It sounded smaller, tactical, deployable, F-117-like. That sort of size. Certainly, something happened. What it was, I have no idea."
Evaluating the Boscombe Down incident nearly 30 years later is clearly a difficult proposition. Whatever the case is, the evidence available about the incident suggests that something sensitive occurred at Boscombe Down on that fall evening back in 1994, but the culprit of the incident remains a mystery to this day. Still, it may be that the incident at the testing base was the closest the public has come to being exposed to a true and still classified 'black' jet of the era, whatever its origins.
The War Zone continues to pursue its investigation into the events at RAF Boscombe Down. We will follow up if we finally get a major break in the case.
Author's note: Thanks to Joerg of Dreamlandresort.com for also taking the time to talk to us about his knowledge of this event.
Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com