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September 2005, Archive Story

EJECTION - A LIGHTNING DETECTIVE STORY

In these times of falling accident statistics (touch wood) it is worth noting that the number of people who can talk about accidents from first hand experience has also reduced. Those who have had such an experience may have received a 'Conversation Piece' (hopefully written in green ink); mine is hung in the downstairs loo at home. I don't normally talk about it because 'Did I ever tell you about my prang on the Lightning' has the same effect in the crew room as the question 'Who wants a night stop to Machrihanish?' Joking apart, my experience tells me that most people who have been in those situations very rarely open up in a conversation unless invited to do so. This is the story behind my conversation piece.

It was three years ago in our crew room that somebody asked if anybody there had jumped out: it became apparent that approximately 6 out of the 15 present could answer in the affirmative. Yes, it was an OCU, so the average experience/age was higher than most squadrons, but it surprised us all at the time. This will hopefully become even rarer in years to come and so, after avoiding the flight safety payback for just so long, I felt it might be time to share a few thoughts and memories with people who may have yet to dwell on these matters.

My considerations on the subject of ejection before the event generally centred around whether I would have the courage/fear or trust/conviction ever to come home without the aeroplane. Of course, choice in life is something we all like to believe we have. In these days of command ejection, you may as a navigator have no choice; but you should always consider whether you might one day trust your pilot all the way into the statistics. My belief is that navigators should have a healthy disrespect for all pilots with whom they fly; this should not be malicious but constructive, since even the most able craftsman or woman knows that when pride ('I've got to get this heap of s... home') takes over, judgement goes out of the window.

Anyway, get on with it you say. My experience occurred in the days before command ejection in air defence. However, I was to fly with this pilot for at least four weeks and, over a beer, we had decided that the best chance for both of us to survive an ejection situation was for him just to go. There wouldn't be any need to wonder if he really meant it, or indeed to confirm that you hadn't misheard. The testing time arrived with abruptness, I believe it was only 59 seconds after the first 'Cor, bloody hell, what was that?'

Suddenly I was in cold wet mist when the pilot shot up the rails. At the same time my hands pulled hard on the bottom handle which I had already located some seconds before. Despite my best efforts, I remember head-butting my own knees and then blacking out. It was all quiet when I was snapped into consciousness by the main chute opening and the drills took over. I was on autopilot all the way to the trees, and they weren't very far below. So, I had done it, a crumpled but essentially unhurt lump in the woods. I think, in retrospect, I could have flown home on the adrenaline; certainly for the first night in an Army hospital I'm sure nobody understood what I was babbling on about.

Of course this was just the beginning of a long period of adjustment. Yes I'd done it, I'd had to do it, I could have died! The Board of Inquiry arrived at my bedside, bible in hand. It wasn't fun but I have decided since that I will never regret attending any 'Board of Inquiry'. The doctors arrived some days later with their paperwork. What was broken? What was crushed? Where was the bit found? 'Oh no, we can skip the rest.' Three weeks bed-rest gives a chap a lot of thinking time. I slowly tired of retelling the tale to Board and friends alike; 'Let me go home', I thought, 'back to normal, the way it was before.' My family were a great support and I can now assure them that by the law of averages I should not have to put them through it all again.

It didn't stop me questioning my motivation. I didn't want to stop flying - that never crossed my mind - but the effect my job had on certain other people came into focus. Would you be prepared to argue your case; I, thank goodness, was relatively unscathed. The after-effects are slow to fade: there are ghosts to lay, going flying again, flying with that pilot again and then facing your first post ejection emergency; will you live up to your expectations? As suggested in my first paragraph, this has been written with the aim of stimulating some thought or maybe discussion on ejection decisions. Like all variables in aviation, the more thinking that can be done on the ground the better. The abort brief is not just some QFI's idea of pleasing prose, it has been thought out by experienced people but, of course, only applies to take-off.

Think about a whole sortie; what are your limits going to be? Don't take your nav, or follow your pilot, beyond the limits you set between you. Communicate and co-operate. All multi-seat cockpits should be run on the trust which can be gained by knowing how much, and what, to expect of each other. The only time I really think about my ejection nowadays is when the Flight Commander is passing more work my way which needs doing yesterday and 'Where are those stats we needed this morning?' I find setting priorities in life can be a little easier. Thank you, Martin-Baker.

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This story is a typical one from the excellent Air Clues flight safety series and it immediately got me thinking. The interest here lies in the apparent fact from the first paragraph that it occurred in a Lightning. However, there are numerous references to being a navigator and trusting your pilot. Nevertheless, navigators converting to pilots is not unknown (Ian Black being a well-known example). The question was, 'If it is a Lightning, which one?'

With the help of my trusty friend, Dr Watson (sorry, Stewart Scott), I set out to track down the aircraft. Thanks to Stewart's encyclopaedic knowledge of Lightnings, we were soon able to narrow things down. What we knew was that the aircraft had two seats and was probably with an OCU, there was apparently a noise before the crash which made the crew sit up, the aircraft crashed 59 seconds after the onset of the emergency, it was cold and wet and over trees at low level, and the occupants survived. The pilot ejected first and the co-pilot followed after pulling on the bottom handle, although he (the co-pilot) spent 3 weeks in bed rest.

Firstly, the aircraft had to be a T.4 as, of the three T.5 crashes, XM966 did not enter service and crashed over the Irish Sea following fin failure, the two test pilots ejecting safely. XS453 and XS455 both crashed over the North Sea, so all these are eliminated. Of the T4 crashes, XL628 (the prototype P.11) also crashed over the Irish Sea after a fin failure, test pilot Johnny Squier ejecting safely. That story has been told in depth in a previous issue of the Review. XM974 and XM988 crashed over the North Sea and therefore cannot be our Lightning.

This leaves three possible candidates. XM990 was based with 226 OCU and crashed at South Walsham, Norfolk on 19 September 1970 after suffering control rod failure during the Battle of Britain Air Show. However, on this occasion, the co-pilot, who was not a qualified pilot and was just along for the ride, ejected first, the captain ejecting after he had ensured the safety of his passenger. In consequence, this cannot be the aircraft in the article.

XM968 crashed near Gütersloh on 24 February 1977. The aircraft suffered a hydraulic failure and the pilot was able to fly round for about ten minutes after the failure in an attempt to lower the undercarriage main legs. So, the ejection did not take place less than a minute after the emergency was declared. The pilot ejected first and the co-pilot, being a Harrier pilot, went for the bottom handle and followed. Being a very tall man, in the ejection he badly damaged his back, so he may well have had three weeks bed rest as a result. OK, the pilot ejected first, but the co-pilot had only gone along for the ride because it was a nice day and Harrier flying had been programmed for the afternoon. There was no intent to fly together for four weeks. So, although there are several similarities, we have to rule out XM968.

Finally, we come to XM971, which crashed near Tunstead, near Coltishall on 2 January 1967. January may well have been wet and cold. XM971 was with 226 OCU and the accident happened on the climb-out, a couple of minutes or so after take-off, when the radome collapsed and debris entered the air intake. There was a very expensive noise and Terry Carlton, who was on a dual radar sortie with a pupil, assumed control, throttled back and commenced a recovery to Coltishall. On a high down-wind leg, he applied throttle to check his descent, but found that he had no power. The student ejected first (according to Wg Cdr MJE Swiney, in Gordon Moulds' excellent book, 'Lightning Conversion Units, 1960-1987') and Terry went out at about 800 ft. Both were recovered by the resident SAR flight of 202 Sqn, and Wg Cdr Swiney interestingly goes on to say that 'Terry (at least) was quickly quaffing champagne in the bar following a quick MOT at SSQ.' The 'at least' could well mean that the student had not got off quite so lightly.

So, was it a Lightning? Well, XM971 comes tantalisingly close but we have the major stumbling block that the pilot apparently ejected after the student. I really don't know - do you?

Charles Ross

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