The Backstory Of A Famous Photograph Of An Ejection From A RAF Lightning Interceptor

The Backstory Of A Famous Photograph Of An Ejection From A RAF Lightning Interceptor
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Jim Meads took the main image in this story on September 13, 1962. It was widely circulated in newspapers worldwide at the time. Because it was so widely seen, it naturally piqued the interest of manufacturer Martin-Baker.

Jim lived next door to de Havilland test pilot Bob Sowray in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, at the time, and both of their wives had gone clothes shopping in London on this day. Bob had mentioned that he would fly a Lightning that day, and Jim’s children later asked if they could watch. Even though Jim was a photographer, he wouldn’t usually bring his camera on a trip like this. However, he decided to photograph his neighbor flying on this particular occasion. He only had two exposures on the camera he borrowed.

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Test pilot George Aird 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.) Photo credits: Jim Meads

The spectators found a good vantage point near the Hatfield airfield’s threshold and waited for the Lightning to return. When XG332 was about 200 feet above the ground on final approach, its nose pitched up, and the pilot ejected. After an engine fire weakened a tailplane actuator, the Lightning had become uncontrollable.

Jim captured the pilot inverted with his parachute still unopened and the Lightning plummeting earthwards close to him in one photo taken shortly after the ejection. When the tractor driver heard the ejection seat bang, he quickly turned around to see what was going on, no doubt relieved that he wasn’t working any further out in the field. The plume of thick black smoke that erupted after the plane crash was captured by Jim’s lone remaining picture.

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The Lightning’s wreckage is visible above, just off runway 06 and beyond the greenhouses where George landed. Photo credits: Jim Meads

Fortunately, the pilot survived after collapsing in a tomato-filled greenhouse. He suffered multiple limb breaks and cuts due to the shower of glass that rained down on him after he went through the greenhouse’s roof. However, it wasn’t Bob Sowray at the controls; he had decided to delegate the flight to fellow test pilot George Aird.

XG332 was one of 20 pre-production Lightning that took to the skies on May 29, 1959. It was used for Firestreak and Red Top trials by BAC and de Havilland throughout its flying life. Its crash occurred while it was on the latter program.

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George landed in a greenhouse and suffered multiple fractures. In the above image, the hole where George and the ejection seat went through the glass roof can be seen near the end of the roof of the second greenhouse from the left. They landed in tomato rows next to each other. Photo credits: Jim Meads
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