Losses and Aviation Safety

The story of the most famous ejection from a RAF Lightning interceptor

The RAF Lightning

The Lightning was the Royal Air Force’s first truly supersonic aircraft and its introduction immediately doubled maximum speeds in Fighter Command.

Such a major advance called for a complex aircraft and much development flying was needed before production deliveries began in December 1959 to the Central Fighter Establishment. The first operational squadron received its aircraft six months later.

The Lightning was always identified with the air defence role during its entire twenty-eight years of front-line service. Although always associated with the interception of unidentified aircraft entering United Kingdom air space it nevertheless saw extensive service overseas in the Middle and Far East as well as Germany.

The most famous ejection from a RAF Lightning

The Lightning was also associated with a famous photo of an ejection taken by Jim Meads on Sep. 13, 1962 that you can see as featured image in this post.

Test pilot George Aird – flying a English Electric Lightning F1 – ejected from his English Electric Lightning F1 aircraft at a fantastically low altitude in Hatfield, Hertfordshire 13th September 1962 (Thanks to Daily Mirror Reference MP_0018484.)

As told in the article titled “The story behind a famous photograph of an ejection from a Lightning” appeared in Issue 5 – English Electric Lightning of Aviation Classic, it was published in newspapers all around the world at the time and, as it was so widely seen, it naturally caught the attention of manufacturer Martin-Baker.

At the time Jim lived next door to de Havilland test pilot Bob Sowray in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and on this day both of their wives had gone clothes shopping in London. Bob had mentioned that he was due to fly a Lightning that day, and later Jim’s children asked if they could go to watch the flight. Although Jim was a photographer, he wouldn’t usually take his camera on an outing like this. However, on this occasion he decided he would get a picture of his neighbour flying. The camera he took had just two exposures on it.

Uncontrollable after an engine fire

The spectators found a good vantage point close to the threshold of de Havilland’s Hatfield airfield, and waited for the Lightning to return. As XG332 came in on final approach, at around 200ft high its nose pitched up and the pilot ejected. The Lightning had become uncontrollable after an engine fire had weakened a tailplane actuator.

The wreckage of the Lightning can be seen above just on the airfield short of runway 06 and just beyond the greenhouses in which George landed.

Jim took one photo soon after the ejection, and as can be seen caught the pilot inverted with his parachute still unopened and the Lightning plummeting earthwards close to him. The tractor driver heard the bang of the ejection seat and is seen after quickly turning around to look at what was going on, no doubt very relieved he wasn’t working further over in the field. Jim’s one remaining picture recorded the subsequent plume of thick black smoke after the jet had crashed.

The pilot survived after coming down in a greenhouse full of tomatoes

Fortunately the pilot survived after coming down in a greenhouse full of tomatoes. He suffered multiple breaks of his limbs and cuts from the shower of glass that rained down on him after going through the roof of the greenhouse. However, it hadn’t been Bob Sowray at the controls; he had decided to let fellow test pilot George Aird carry out the flight.

XG332 was one of 20 pre-production Lightnings and first flew on May 29, 1959. It was used throughout its flying life by BAC and de Havilland for Firestreak and Red Top trials, and its crash occurred while it was on latter programme.

George landed in a greenhouse sustaining several fractures. The hole where George and the ejection seat went through the glass roof can be seen in the above picture in the near end of the roof of the second greenhouse from the left. They landed in adjoining rows of tomatoes!

Photo credit: Jim Meads via www.rafjever.org

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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