The famous photograph of test pilot George Aird jumping from his Lightning F1 fighter plane has a fascinating backstory described here. In 1962, on September 13th, Jim Meads took the photograph.
When it was first released, it was printed in newspapers worldwide, and many people believed it to be fake. However, when the Ministry of Defence attempted to prevent its distribution by placing a “D Notice” on the image, it was revealed to be a real photograph.
Photographed was XG332, the airplane. Of the 20 pre-production Lightning manufactured in 1959, this one was made. The Lightning was the only fighter capable of exceeding Mach 2 that was conceived and produced in Britain and used by the Royal Air Force. The two Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet engines mounted inside the fuselage of the Lightning are arranged vertically and staggered, which is a distinctive design element.
Test pilot George Aird ejected from his English Electric Lightning F1 aircraft at a very low altitude in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. September 13, 1962
A nuclear-armed supersonic Soviet bomber attack on the V bomber airfields was one of the original goals of Lightning’s development and design.
Why did this incredible snapshot come to be?
A professional photographer named Jim Meads, who lives next door to De Havilland test pilot Bob Sowray and close to the Hatfield airfield, took a photograph. Both of their spouses had gone shopping in London that day, and Bob had told his neighbor that he was scheduled to fly a Lightning that day.
Meads brought his kids to see the flight and brought his camera in the hopes of capturing a picture of the aircraft. He wanted to capture the moment the Lightning touched down by photographing the kids with the airstrip in the background. They positioned themselves for an excellent view of the final approach course and awaited the Lightning’s return.
The Lightning was not flown that day by Bob Sowray, as it turned out. Another test pilot employed by De Havilland, George Aird, was the pilot. George Aird, a Red Top Air-to-Air Missile program participant who appears to have been a reputable test pilot, was involved.
The wreckage of the Lightning can be seen above just on the airfield short of the runway and just beyond the greenhouses in which George landed.
XG332 Lightning F1’s nose pitched up, and the pilot evacuated as it approached the landing area on final approach at the height of around 200 feet (61 meters). As a result of an engine fire weakening a tailplane actuator, the Lightning had become unmanageable.
The pilot is seen inverted with his parachute still closed in Jim Mead’s photo taken shortly after the ejection, which also shows the Lightning descending towards the ground next to the pilot.
Following a fast spin to the side to investigate what happened after hearing the ejection seat crash, the tractor driver can be seen. Mick Sutterby, 15, was the driver; he had been employed on the airfield that summer. He wasn’t staging a photo for the audience. In actuality, he was requesting Jim Mead, the photographer, leave the area since he had no business being there.
George Aird, the pilot, fortunately, survived despite breaking both legs and the right thigh when he fell through the greenhouse roof. The shock of the fall knocked him out cold, but the sprinkler system in the greenhouse’s greenhouse roused him. Later on, he was well enough to pick up flying again.
First, the Ministry of Aviation received the pictures that were shot that day. Mead offered them for sale to the Daily Mirror when they were made available. Mead received £1,000 from The Daily Mirror, or £20,000 in today’s money, for the rights to the image.
The hole where George and the ejection seat went through the glass roof can be seen in the above picture at the near end of the roof of the second greenhouse from the left.
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