In this day and age of technology, how often do you see an image on the internet and immediately say to yourself–“That’s clearly a Photoshop. I can tell from the pixels and from seeing quite a few shops in my time.” This photo is just such an image, and let me just tell you, when I hear that in my head the voice has a British accent, which annoys me. (No, I don’t know why either one of those things happens, and it isn’t really relevant to this tale.) Well, this photo turns out to not be a fake–unless of course it is such an elaborate hoax so as to have fake source web pages. So let’s call it 90% truthiness, and find out more!
The aircraft is a English Electric Lightning F1, made by the De Havilland Aircraft Company, and was being flown by test pilot George Aird on September 13, 1962. He was on approach for an emergency landing due to a fire warning, when the aircraft began to pitch uncontrollably, and he was forced to eject from only about 100 ft. The Lighnting crashed into a field, and the pilot landed in a greenhouse, injured by alive. The fire had burned the anchorage for the tail plane actuator jack causing the loss of elevator control.
How did the photo manage to get snapped just so perfectly, by a fellow named Jim Meads?
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. (aviationclassics.co.uk)
As for the gentleman on the tractor, here is how he recalled the incident:
I followed my father into work at de Havilland, Hatfield in 1954 when I was 15. My father was the foreman in charge of the aerodrome and gardens. My job in the summer was gang-mowing the airfield and at the time of the crash in 1962 the grass had stopped growing and we were trimming round the ‘overshoot’ of the runway with a ‘side-mower’. I stopped to talk to a chap with a camera who was walking up a ditch to the overshoot. I stopped to tell him that he should n’t be here, I heard a roar and turned round and he took the picture! He turned out to be a friend of the pilot and had walked up the ditch to photograph his friend in the Lightning. I saw some bits fly off the plane before it crashed but it was the photographer who told me he had ejected. There was not a big explosion when it crashed, just a loud ‘whhooooof’. I was about 200 yards from the crash scene. I saw men running out of the greenhouses and checking the scene of the crash. The works fire brigade were on the scene within a minute. Somewhere at home I have a picture of it burning. Although the picture shows it nose diving to the ground, in fact it was slowly turning over and it hit the ground upside down nose first. I was later told that if the pilot had ejected a split second later he would have ejected himself into the ground. I was very lucky. If I had known he was coming into land, I would have been positioned near the ILS (Instrument Landing System) aerial which was only 20 yards or so from the crash site! I believe the photographer had his photo restricted by the Air Ministry for – I think – about 3 months because the plane was secret. He then took it to the Daily Mail who said it was a fake. The photo was eventually published by the Daily Mirror. From there it went round the world, and I remember seeing a copy in the RAF museum at Hendon. I recollect the photographer usually photographed hunting scenes for magazines like The Field. I recollect that the pilot broke his legs but really was very lucky. I hope this is interesting. All from memory!
Best wishes, Mick Sutterby. (eyemead.com)
Images from rafjever.org.