The Story Behind an Unbelievable Photograph

1 Nov 13 97 Comments

A reader mailed me this amazing aviation photograph and I knew I wanted to know more. I was surprised at how much I discovered about the photo, which at first glance I thought might be a fake. But the story of who took the photograph and how he managed to get the shot is a good one.

The aircraft is an English Electric Lightning F1. It was designed and created by the English Electric Aviation Company, who’d been contracted to develop a jet bomber at the end of World War II.

Lightning Development

The ER103 design study was sufficiently impressive for English Electric to be awarded the contract for two prototypes and a structural-test airframe. The early prototypes evolved into the Lightning, an aeroplane which was to span the time from when the Spitfire was our primary front-line fighter to the end of the Cold War.

The Lightning was the only British designed and built fighter capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2 to serve with the Royal Air Force.

The aircraft in the photograph was XG332. It was built in 1959, one of 20 pre-production Lightnings. Alan Sinfield took a photograph of XG332 in 1960 at Farnborough:

However, the very last photograph taken of XG332, in 1962, is deservedly the most famous one. How does someone manage to take a photograph like this? Planning, quick wits and a healthy dose of luck.

Jim Meads is the man who took the picture. He was a professional photographer who lived near the airfield, next door to de Havilland test pilot Bob Sowray.

So, the story goes: Bob Sowray mentioned to Jim Meads that he was going to fly the Lightning that day. When Meads took his kids for a walk, he took his camera along, hoping to get a shot of the plane.

His plan was to take a photograph of the children with the airfield in the background as the Lightning came in to land. They found a good view of the final approach path and waited for the Lightning to return.

As it happened, Bob Sowray didn’t fly the Lightning that day. The pilot was George Aird, another test pilot working for De Havilland.

George Aird was involved in the Red Top Air-to-Air Missile programme and seems to have been a well-respected test pilot.

I found this a video of Aird in 1984 preparing and flying a DH Mosquito RS712. It’s one of the few videos I’ve seen that shows as much of the pilot as the plane!

But let’s get back to the story of the photograph on the 19th of September in 1962. That day, George Aird was in the Lightning doing a demonstration flight off of the south coast. He was approaching Hatfield from the north east when he realised there was trouble.

ASN Aircraft accident 13-SEP-1962 English Electric Lightning F1 XG332

Whilst carrying out a demonstration flight, there was a fire in the aircraft’s reheat zone. Un-burnt fuel in the rear fuselage had been ignited by a small crack in the jet pipe and had weakened the tailplane actuator anchorage. This weakened the tailplane control system which failed with the aircraft at 100 feet on final approach.

The aircraft pitched up violently just as Aird was coming up to land. Aird lost control of the aircraft and ejected.

Luckily, because the nose pitched up he had just enough time to eject.

The tractor in the photograph was a Fordson Super Major. If you look closely at the grill, you’ll see it reads D H Goblin, as in the de Havilland Goblin jet engine.

The tractor driver was 15-year-old Mick Sutterby, who spent that summer working on the airfield. He wasn’t posing for the camera. In fact, he was telling the photographer, Jim Mead, to move on, because he shouldn’t be there.

Mead saw the plane coming in and the nose pitch up. Then Aird ejected and Mead says he had just enough time to line up the shot as the Lightning came down nose first.

Here’s an email from Mick Sutterby the tractor driver, sent to John Palmer, which was posted on The Funny Noise.

From: Mick Sutterby
Subject: Re: Lightning aircraft crash at Hatfield
Date: Thu, 19 May 2011 20:16:41 +0100

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 shouldn’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

Meanwhile, George Aird landed on a greenhouse and fell through the roof, breaking both legs as he landed unconscious on the ground. The water from the sprinkler system for the tomatoes woke him. He’s reported to have said that his first thought was that he must be in heaven.

118 Squadron – Personnel 002 George Aird

George landed in a greenhouse sustaining several fractures. The hole where George and the ejection seat went through the glass roof can be seen in the above picture in the near end of the roof of the second greenhouse from the left. They landed in adjoining rows of tomatoes! The damage at the far end of the greenhouse was made by the arrival of the Lightning canopy. The remains of the Lightning can be seen on the left just into the airfield. George was back flying again within six months and on Lightnings a year after the accident.

The photographs taken that day first went to the Ministry of Aviation. Once they were released, Mead sold them to the Daily Mirror.

It was featured as a centre page spread in the newspaper on the 9th October 1962.

Jim Meads is a Mirror reader who was trying to amuse his two children, Paul, 4, and Barry, 3, by taking a picture of them as the Lightning was coming in to land at the De Havilland airfield near their home at Hatefiled, Herts.

The Daily Mirror paid Mead £1,000 for the rights to the photograph: £18,000 by today’s standards. In my opinion, he deserved every penny.

If you found this post interesting, you might like to pick up my “CSI for aviation enthusiasts” series on modern aviation incidents and accidents, Why Planes Crash.


  • That’s an amazing story with great research. The tractor driver would be 23 years old, as he states he was 15 when he came to work there in 1954, and the accident took place in 1962.

        • I recall that as I was working at de Havilland at Hatfield on that day and the news went around the company very quickly.
          All were very relieved when we later heard that the pilot had survived, despite ejecting at very low altitude.

  • Thanks for the mosquito video, it was my dads. Sir William Roberts at strathallan unfortunately I was only seven at the time.

      • Hi Sylvia
        I have pictures of RS712 as I flue with George Aird out of Booker twice including the last flight from there to Benson via Cranfield for fuel and a sorty to Newcastle and St Abbs head
        Fantastic flight with George.

    • Great to watch. Many happy memories of visiting Strathallan as a young boy with my Dad. Fantastic collection of aeroplanes, and it was such a shame to see them go.

    • I met George Aird at your dads Airfield.
      Great days I was only about 14 he arrived in the only other flying Mozzie at the time (since crashed at an air show back in 1996) got chatting too him . I was member of strathallan aircraft society.
      Remember you dad driving you kids in the back of a vintage open top car.

  • Amazing picture indeed, and great back story. Fwiw, I remember seeing this picture in the early 1970s, in the book
    “The Man in the Hot Seat” by Doddy Hay. I don’t quite know the right way to refer to Mr Hay, but he was effectively the test “pilot” (or test-rider, I suppose), for Martin-Baker’s early ejection seats. The picture was captioned something on the lines of, “A reminder of the importance of my work”.

    • I think it belonged to a friends off De Haviland airfield group. The reg number is not recognised on the DVLA search facility which means it is not sorn and no longer exists.

      • Yup, it was to the western end of Hatfield – de Havilland/Hawker Siddley/British Aerospace, which sadly disappeared in the 1990’s. The greenhouses I think were part of what was, or became, Notcutts nursery.

        • Yes kevin pretty sure you are correct “smallford nurseries” i think it was called my dad worked there as a boy with german prisoners of war I believe!! And my grandad further up in to Hatfield at Rolls Royce!!

  • My OH used to fly into that airport. Tells me it was a short grass field with a small ravine at approach end and that quite often there was a wind-sheer so he tended to come in high then dive before rotating to land. I also understand that getting airborne was a matter of 1st brakes on, 2nd full power, 3rd no flaps until rolling 4th brakes off then hope (particularly if there was no headwind helping) that you got airborne. Also is it correct the when the Comet arrived it doesn’t so much as land but more of a crash landing in that its undercarriage gave way because of the necessity to brake very heavily ?

    • The Lightning could not take off from or land on a grass surface. No Comet suffered a collapsed undercarriage there either, according to records I can access.

  • Hi Sylvia,

    Love your blog! Thanks for publishing the Jepp charts. I’ve seen several in my time with them (43 years) but none spring to mind except the Hudson River one, and what they did when I retired! It has a British flavour. I’ll extract it and send you a copy.
    Oh, and you might like to correct the spelling of Hatfield in the lower blue band…
    Happy New Year!

  • I have seen an exact copy of this photo except that the photo seems to be the other way round i.e. the plane crashing on the left hand side and the tractor approaching from the left. Anyone any idea why the photo I saw is different?

  • I found this shot on google about a year ago and posted it on de Haviland museum interest site last year. Judging from the aerial shot of the crash site and the proximity of the greenhouses I would say the photo above is the correct orientation. The one you saw Colin was probably a reversed image, a copy of a copy. The image itself together the technology of the day manual shutter speed + manual aperture was a very “lucky” by chance shot. The tractor seems in focus while the aircraft/pilot are only just off. So quite a fast shutter speed and a fairly tight depth of field (Aperture). The crash photo also suggest that the aircraft was no longer moving in any forward motion at any speed so was in a stall prior to impact.

  • Many thanks for the Mossie clip – I think that one was bought by Weeks of USA aircraft museum fame – from what I can gather it was flown to America but has been a static exhibition since landing.

    • Hi Juan, Just browsing this site when I noticed this story and my uncle’s name. My Uncle Bob Sowray is still alive, and well, the last time we connected with him. He is 91 years old! He moved to the U.S. with his family a few decades ago, and currently resides in North Carolina. I have lost touch with him in the past couple of years, because I misplaced his new address, but I have it now. It would be wonderful if you could both connect somehow, again. I do appreciate your comment, thank-you! Please get in touch with me at my email: [email protected], if you would like. I have a few pictures of Uncle Bob, whom his family calls Uncle Rob, (Robert Sowray) Angela M.

      • I am a nurse who cares for Mr Robert Sowray. He is an amazing man. Facinating to actually see photos of what I have heard stories of all these years. He currently resides in Pennsylvania.

  • My father worked at de Havillands (DH) in Hatfield and later for Hawker Siddeley in London, when HS took took over DH. My brothers and I grew up in Popefield Farm, part of the DH complex, only a few hundred yards from where the photograph was taken. We knew the driver of the tractor, Mick Sutterby, well. The accident happened towards the end of the school summer holidays – I went back for my last term at boarding school a week or so later. Tim Rice

    • I think you’ll find Tim Rice is a lyricist of note who worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on some popular musical shows. Sir Tim’s father (and mother) worked for de Havilland post-war.

  • Hi Sylvia. Just browsing for a sharper copy of this great photo and found your great website. I worked at HSA in the early 1970’s in the HS 125 Contracts Department and flew on a few acceptance flights with George Aird when he was a production test pilot. We would collect the aircraft from HSA Chester (Hawarden) and fly out over the St Georges Channel/ Irish Sea for the acceptance trial and then usually fly back to Hawarden, handover the aircraft (I can’t recall ever having any show stopping ‘snags’ but that could be the passage of time !). We would then hitch a ride back in the 125 to Hatfield with the happy customer’s pilot in the left hand seat. George also used to fly the HSA Mosquito ‘HTE’ on occasions – this was usually based at Hatfield in the flight test hangar. Happy days!

    • I worked at HSD Hatfield during the 70’s when the Mossie HTE was taken up for flight trials following extensive refurb. We were treated to a fantastic display of rolls and turns and fast passes along the runway, I believe the pilot was grounded for a month for putting the precious aircraft at risk!
      There is mention of the Lightning being used on Red Top trials. One of my occasional jobs was to get the circuit board negatives prepared for making replacement boards for refurbished Red Top and Fire Streak missiles.

  • Great addition Sylvia – many thanks – did you by remote chance “save” any Mossie shots? If so please share. bet you are very glad they didn’t build a two seater prototype eh lol

  • I met the photographer today whilst we were both waiting for our cars to be serviced. What a character. He showed me this photo amongst many and told me a plethora of tales. It certainly passed the time.

  • My wife’s uncle is Bob Sowray. He retired from flying a good few years ago and the last plane he flew was the DH 125, a plane he was the test pilot on. My wife replied to one of the earlier comments and still awaiting a reply.

  • What a tribute to Google! I found a copy of this famous picture and have always wondered just how it got to be taken. Googling “lightning, photo, tractor” brought this blog up in .006 of a second. Thank you for the story.

  • I remember seeing the photo of the lightning back on the 60’s. I was still at school, and I left school in 1963 so it must have been around the time it happened, but I certainly didn’t read the Mirror or the Mail at that time. My recollection is that it was a sepia photo in the London Illustrated News – is that possible?

    • Hi Peter Stokes
      I was also at boarding school at the time of the e.e. lightning crash and was staggered when I saw the photo in the London Illustrated News. Google has brought back many memories!
      Regards. Bill Beeton Brisbane Oz

  • For some reason today I Googled Hatfield Lightning crash and found this site.
    My late father Pat Larner worked at DH and then HS (in the drawing department and also spells at RR Leavesden for BSP. We lived on the edge of St Albans and with Handley Page at Radlett lived literally under the wings of the greatest names in post-war British aviation.
    In the 1970s during school holidays we would cycle over to Hatfield, go up the track by Notcutt’s Nursery and watch the comings and goings – if lucky that could include Argosy, 125, the preserved Vampire or the Mossie, a Transall or even the Guppy!
    Provided we did not stray onto the field itself (there was no fence) the friendly groundsman would let us stay and we would wave at him if we saw him. I knew about the Lightning crash and once asked him about it and I am sure he said the tractor driver was him! – Mick?
    A treat was IF we had seen the Trident doing circuits and bumps while at school (Beaumont) we would scoot over after lessons to Manor Road and shin up a tree at the other end of the runway (outside the factory) and wait for the beautiful tri-jet to land. It was so close as it passed you could swear you could touch it.
    But my favourite had to be the Victors coming in to Radlett over our house, you could see the oil streaks on the light grey undersides – and the noise!
    Just to end – what is the scaffolding at the edge of the field and seen in the aerial shot?
    Great website

    • … that’s stirringly evocative of great 20 c engineering achievements … RR Merlin engines are mentioned with praise in Dunkirk … snapshots taken from the trees as Tridents and others made their approach would be of great interest …

    • We lived in Chiswell Green just South of St.Albans 1963 -1976 remembering all the various aircraft flying out of HS hatfield going to the displays at Hatfield and the Victor bombers being converted into tankers fly over at zero height from Frogmore. Many friends fathers worked a Handley Page sad day when it finally closed down.

  • I can add that this photo was published in some newspapers in USSR. I remember from my childhood. It happened later of course, early seventies maybe. That was latvian newspaper.

  • I used to go to junior school with Paul Mead (no ‘s’ on the end of his surname by the way), and I vividly remember him bringing that very photograph into class one day, where he proudly explained to the class and our teacher his father’s photographic exploits! Being boys, and with many of us having fathers working at ‘DH’s’, we were totally in awe of Paul! I think he might even have been carried shoulder-high around the playground at lunchtime! I also remember that Paul was very good at aircraft recognition too. Once we all went our different ways to senior schools I unfortunately lost touch with him. I ended up spending my entire working life in the aviation industry…I wonder if Paul did too?!

      • I’d better apologise to Juliet and Nikki about my quoting of “no ‘s’ on the end of Meads”! It just goes to show what damage the intervening 60-ish years does to the brain! As I said earlier, I knew Paul and his brother Barry pretty well back in infants & junior school days. In fact I’d say that Paul and I were in every class together going through those two schools. I do beg your pardon about that – and please apologise to Paul if you ever see him nowadays. In fact, it would be nice to know how he’s doing!

  • My father worked at Hatfield as an avionics engineer. I remember him telling me about this, I never thought I’d see a photograph of it!

  • Dramatic story, the photographer is one lucky duck to have been at the right place, at the right time, with the right tool and the right skills!

  • I had a chat with my 98 year old dad Ken Souter at the weekend: he regularly flew a DH Dove out of Hatfield and was holding at the end of the runway prior to take off when the Lightning incident unfolded right in front of him. Ken later moved onto the HS 125 and spent a lot of time flying in and out of Hatfield…he was sad to learn that the place had closed down. Incidentally, whilst in the RAF he was the lead Lancaster pilot in the filming of the Dambusters movie; as a seven year old I was very fortunate to be smuggled aboard his Lancaster for a brief positioning flight from Scampton to Hemswell. Happy days…!

  • Just watched the Last Flight of Vulcan XH558 for second time and just had to look for the photo of the P1 Lighting pilot bailing out. I was an electrical engineering apprentice at DH Hatfield 1961-66 and spent time at Astwick Manor. Thereafter flying in Trident doing LHR “touch and goes” autolands at night, and DH 125 on ARB test flghts to far north and west. Add to that re flying the daytime Trident testing on the Trident functional test ground rig, testing the TSR2 auto throttle on an A/C carrier flight profile, work in the Bluestreak rocket shop, shooting DH farm chickens at Trident wing sections with a big pneumatic gun, watching the Navy Vixen pilots departing, doing their cowboy departures dragging the boom heels along the tarmac. What a privileged schooling for life and work, and so thanks to all the great guys who looked out for us, taught us the good stuff, and right way to do it.
    Stuart Bould, Christchurch, New Zealand.

    • Nice one Stuart, did my time there as well between 65/70 ended up in Tech Services. As you said “thanks” to all the great guys who taught us all that good stuff and the right way to do it. That all seems to missing nowadays. Regards to you from Patagonia Chile. Graham Hornsey, Coyhaique, Region de Aysen, Chile.

    • Wow! That is a once in a lifetime shot for sure. You have to have *everything* right.

      And yes, it might well have been you who brought the above to my attention!

  • I’m wondering why the Lighning (which I worked on at E,E. Preston was being flow by De Havilland rather than the E.E. test pilot Roland Beaumont ?

    • Hawker Siddeley Dynamics, who did the development of the Red Top Missile on that aircraft, had their factory at Hatfield, on the other side of the runway from the production, and flight test dept. of the Trident and HS.146 aircraft, quite near to where George went into the greenhouse! I was there years later, involved in the HS.125-600 Viper engine development, with an office in the flight test hanger, so knew all the pilots quite well. After I’d moved to the USA, I next saw George Aird when he delivered an HS.125 to Atlantic Aviation in Wilmington, Delaware, and having dinner whilst he recounted his experience with that Lightning to the two local Hawker Siddeley aircraft reps. based there.

      • My father was aTest Flight Inspector and cleared the Lightning for flight ( it had had 2 previous fire warnings whilst being flown and had diverted to a fields nearer to its then location) after each of these warnings the aircraft was fully stripped down and investigated and no damage or cause could be found so on this occasion the pilot opted to fly back to Hatfield. Unfortunately this time the warning was for real. My father was exonerated of any blame but it ruined his health and he was never the same again.
        My father was Arthur Chitty and I am John Chitty.

        • Hi John – I’m a journalist working on a video story about this photograph. It’d mean a great deal to connect with you – email, phone, zoom, whatever. My goal is to expand a bit on the tremendous work Sylvia has done and get a sense of how the crash affected each party connection with it, from the pilot to the photographer to others on the ground.

  • I looked at the DVLA site to see if the tractor registration was still “live” it wasn’t which probably means it has gone to the breakers and not a collector. At that time collectors of tractors were few and far between. These days there are thousands keeping them as original of doing a refurbishment – thankfully. Yes I am an aviation enthusiast, also agricultural/tractor as well as traction engine admirer from the heavy horse to modern equipment.. The journey for those developed almost in sync with early aviation however aviation went on to be a commercial success.

  • As a young boy I lived in one of three houses in line with the runway at Hatfield and watched many flights of de Havilland aircraft including the maiden flight of the Comet. I ended my aviation career as a Chief Technician on “Treble One” Lightings. I knew Jim Meads in Essendon (just up from Hatfield) where we played village cricket together during 1954-56. I was a young 14 year old and Jim was the big hitting club captain. I have read with great interest the blogs and wish all contributors a Peaceful New Year for 2018. I still have a great love of bits of metal that hurtle at great speed across our skies.
    Ken Pegden

  • Incredible moment in bridging history by the instruments of agriculture and national defense.

  • George Aird is my father in law. An amazing character, with more than 50 types on his licence. Did you know he flew with the Black Arrows, deputy leader, when in the RAF ? Remember the 22 Hunters loop ? After the accident he became a test pilot, then a commercial pilot, then flew warbirds. Delivered a couple of mosquitos to the USA. He is in his 90’s now. I love hearing the stories of his career. Despite the reports, George said the Lightning pitched up after he saw a fire warning from the dry area in the tail. There should not have been anything to burn, but fuel had leaked. He thought he could put it down, but having pitched up, he said it stalled and, seeing the ground approaching, he decided to get out. He received an award from Martin Baker for being one of the first 100 people to be saved by the ejection seat. He did not (unlike the photographer) receive any compensation from the subsequent publicity !!

  • My father Jean Louis Bouet was working for De Havilland at the time of this crash. His sales region being the Middle East and worked alongside Henry Rice. He married my mother Mary Wray in 1956 who’s uncles Richard Clarkson and Charles Clement Walker were both Engineering Directors at DH and a massive influence on the design and construction of the Mossie. By pure coincidence I am also very familiar with the infamous Jim Mead through the hunting community, I have a book of his called ‘They will always meet at Eleven’. This is truly wonderful article and one I came across on the web after my mum told me last week that Dad worked with Henry Rice!

  • I was an apprentice at de Havilland Propellors at the time of the accident and remember it very well.
    I also remember Bob Sowray very well. When taking off he used to fly over the canteen, making the cutlery and crockery jump all over the place. He was also renown for his heavy landings, wearing out the tyres mush quicker than the other pilots.
    One day,having landed his aircraft was being towed into the hanger when one of the ground crew noticed a crack in the undercarriage fork, similar to motorcycle front forks, when this was pointed out to Bob, the colour drained from his face. Happy days,

  • Like Dud, I was an DH Propellers apprentice (we became friends during this time). I was working – I think a tea break!, on the Blue Streak towers and witnessed George ejecting. Dud was quite right about Bob’s landings, the difference being that George being exRAF tended to glide in to land, As an apprentice I worked in the Flight Trials photographic section in Hanger no 2 (and later out of my apprenticeship) and often acted as batman for Bob and George when they taxied out or came in. The two Lightnings (pre-prod) were used for development work on Firesteak and Redtop missiles. These aircraft were replaced with two Mk 2 Sea Vixens used for development work on the t/v guided missile Martel

    These were great times working at Hatfield in to the closing era of DH at Hatfield. It is great to hear that Bob and George are still alive – I hope still

  • Very interested in the now famous “tractor” shot for publication. Any chance you’d know where I might contact someone about it?

    • According to my notes, the image is Daily Mirror Reference MP_0018484 so if you contact them with that reference number, hopefully you can find out about licensing.

  • Love the story, and at that time I was also an Apprentice working in the sheet metal shop, the old MRO workshop, and i remember the day well as we all ran outside when we heard the lightening go down there was a large group of apprentices in those days and it didn’t take much for us all to be so inquisitive, not really knowing what had happened until the Boss Mr Charlie Church and my supervisor (Eddie Odwier) and i am sure that is spelt wrong! came running out trying to get us all back to work !!!
    I would love to hear from any old apprentices that may still be around from that period
    regards Allan Mackay

  • Were those green house really in the flight path for landing – not ideal for the ejected pilot – reminiscent of the BB sequence when the pilot parachuted in a garden lol

  • I met the photographer today near his home. He still carries the photo in his wallet. The original. Lovely humble chap who told me he survied a dc10 crash at 300mph whilst photographing that day. He is 88 today. Happy Birthday Jim

  • I worked at Hatfield and by chance happened to be on the airfield when the Lightning crashed and I saw the episode from distant approach to impact. Afterwards I was interviewed by a pair of RAF officers on the Propeller Company’s premises and recounted, with the aid of a scale model, exactly what I saw. They asked whether I had seen any smoke during the approach but the aircraft was too far away to see any such detail.
    By an extraordinary coincidence I found myself 40 years later sitting next to George Aird, whom I had never previously met, at John Cunningham’s Memorial Service in St. Clement Danes Church. He explained that a rear fuselage fire warning had occurred. A fire in this area, unless extinguished, is likely to result in damage to the tailplane’s hydraulic controls and an uncommanded nose full up or down movement. Aird had hoped to land the Lightning, which was instrumented for guided missile trials, before this happened. He was lucky to survive such an ejection, too low for his seat to separate and his parachute to open..

  • What a great post.
    I too, was an apprentice at DH Propellers, or Hawker Siddeley Dynamics as it became known after the government mandated merging of aircraft companies in the 1960’s.
    George Aird’s remarkable accident, was a few months before I started my apprenticeship. During my first year at Astwick Manor training school, a man was seen peddling the ‘Puffin’ man-powered aircraft rig in the apprentice training school workshop at lunch times. It was rumoured that this was the pilot George Aird rehabilitating his leg muscles.
    The training school workshop, (now a luxury Condo) had previously been located at Salisbury Hall (Mosquito birthplace) as a Hauser glider hangar but was moved to Astwick for use as the company apprentice training school.
    After my year at Astwick Manor, my first department at the Manor Road DH factory, was the Flight Test Hangar working with engineers on the Red Top Missile programme. As a young apprentice, I was mesmerized one day, to see George Aird walk across the apron toward me from the pilot hut and toward the company Sea Vixen for his first flight after the accident and rehabilitation. A second pilot was walking with George, I think his name was ‘Mac’ McCowan(?) To every ground crew member’s amazement, George climbed the ladder to the off-set pilot cockpit and Mac took the ladder to the navigator position in the side of the fuselage. This was hero worship stuff for a 17 yr old to witness. I was instantly a fan of Mr Aird and held him in high regard.
    Many years later after emigrating to Canada, I was describing the Lightning crash to a college who worked at DeHavilland Canada. I sketched the photo as I had seen it in the Daily Mirror, complete with Lightning nose down only 100-150 ft in the air, George Aird ejecting sideways, still in his seat with only the rogue chute being deployed and in centre frame, a farmer turned in the seat of this tractor, watching the whole event unravel. A perfect composition!
    My colleague looked at me sideways. I could tell he wasn’t buying the story, so to save my reputation, I wrote to the Daily Mirror in Holborn circus, London and purchased a black and white glossy copy of the photo for 7/6d. My friend was stunned when I showed it to him. As for myself, I am glad that I have a copy of that famous photo and a boyhood memory to go with it, of a great pilot, walking to the 110 Sea Vixen for his first post accident flight, on which I was privileged to be an apprentice ground crew member.
    If you are still alive and well George, I wish you well and hope that the remaining years of your life, are a little less exciting!

    • Hi Rog – I think that the warden of the apprentice hostel when you were there at Astwick Manor was my Dad, Sid Knight. I was still a final year apprentice then and would have been living in the Manor. I remember the PuffinI’ve added a comment to the main thread as I actually witnessed the crash as I stood outside the flight test hangar. Best regards.

      • Michael did your mother also work in manor and they both ran it together , I’m thinking late 70,s / early 80,s

  • DH Mosquito RS712. I am fairly sure that I used to watch this Mossie together with a good number of others fly past my bedroom window as a schoolboy in the late 50s. I lived in Honition Clyst, next door to Exeter Airport. The Mossies were operated by No3 CAACU at that time. Sometimes there would be up 3 returning in formation from Support Duties. As an aviation enthusiast from a very young age, I felt privileged and extremely lucky. A CCF friend even managed an unofficial ride in one down to Plymouth and back. Would not have been allowed today.

  • Given that Mick Sutterby was 15 years old in both 1954 and 1962, I find his ability to time travel more interesting than the picture.

  • The mandatory ejection for fire warning in the Lightning was well justified. In the mid-60’s a Lightning pilot at Tengah, Singapore died when he tried to land after getting a fire warning while in the circuit. In 1970, at Cranwell on Engineer Officer Maintenance Engineering training, I was part of a team which pulled the engines out of a retired Lightning that had recently arrived. We were amazed to see that most stringers in the rear fuselage , which formed an angle with the skin, were pretty much full of some flammable fluid – fuel or hydraulic oil. No wonder the damn things burn.

  • Very interesting – I stumbled on this by accident! I actually saw the crash!
    I went to the boys grammar school in Brampton Road St Albans ( now Veralum School) and our school playing fields were in Sandpit Lane – I believe they still are but have been partially built on. These playing fields backed onto Beaumont School playing fields which in turn backed onto the outer area of the De Haviland Aerodrome.
    One afternoon when we were playing rugby we stopped to watch this English Electric Lightning fighter jet flying at a low level when suddenly there was a burst of smoke and flame from the aircraft and it disappeared behind a tree line followed by a muffled explosion and a pall of black smoke. As the aircraft was built by English Electric us teenage schoolboys joked it must have been spying on De Haviland and the guys at De Haviland had shot it down!

  • I just found this page as I was scrolling some other stuff and I recall the moment very clearly. I was a Student Apprentice working at that time in Flight Test Instrumentation Lab and was just about to enter the building and saw the Lightning approach (from the SW by the way, not the NE). The plane suddenly reared up and I had the horrifying sight of it suspended over the end of the runway and then fall to earth. From my position I couldn’t see George Aird eject and thought the worst.
    Some of the flight test guys went straight down there in a van, alongside the emergency vehicles and some 30 minutes later I was relieved to hear that George was injured but alive and lying amongst the tomatoes.
    It was one of those unforgettable moments in life, leaving the image of the Lightning suspended for a few moments in mid-air forever imprinted in my brain.

  • I meet Mr Jimmy Meade in the late 50’s in Bexley Heath i found he was good company and would like to know if he and his wife are in good health i would like to be able to talk to him again if that is possible if it is not just to know if he is well many thanks Geoff

  • Fascinating article which I came across purely by chance on Facebook.
    I was an apprentice craft fitter at Astwick Manor for BAe in 1989 which I cycled to from Potters Bar when I lived there.
    Really enjoyed hearing more about the history of the site, especially from former apprentices.
    This has brought back many memories for me, I remember my time there with fondness and really value the engineering skills I learnt there.
    Some of my favourite memories are riding an ancient V-twin Royal Enfield sidecar outfit around the site and nearly crashing it into a lamp post, racing a fellow apprentice on our motorbikes on the airfield perimeter road, smuggling my mate onto the site in my VW camper and exploring the unused areas of the site prior to it’s closing in the mid ’90’s- happy days.

  • I forgot to add my memory of seeing a Lightning in flight!
    I was on a family holiday in the Isle of Wight as a young boy in the early/ mid 80’s on Bembridge beach and a Lightning flew over before going into a vertical climb almost directly overhead, the noise and spectacle was awesome to behold.

  • Had the pleasure of meeting George yesterday when he visited the Hooton Park Hangars Museum on the wirral …..

  • I first saw this photo on the front cover of ‘Amateur Photographer’ in the early ’60s. I was working at London Airport at the time but later transferred to Hurn Airport to work in ATC and the ATC Experimental Unit. I actually lived in Bure Lane just alongside the DH (Airspeed Division) runway at Christchurch and witnessed the Hornet, Sea Hornet, Vampire, Venom, Sea Venom and Sea Vixen production lines as well as that beautiful-looking aircraft, the Airspeed Ambassador.

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