Issue 5 - English Electric Lightning: Eject! Eject!
By: Web Editor
The story behind a famous photograph of an ejection from a Lightning. - The photograph opposite was taken by Jim Meads on 13 September 1962. 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.
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.
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.
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 29 May 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.
With many thanks to Jim Meads for kindly supplying original prints of the images.