The Story Behind an Unbelievable Photograph

1 Nov 13 45 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.

45 Comments

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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 ?

  • 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 https://www.facebook.com/groups/266008596365/10153243749926366/?notif_t=group_activity 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: royaleblue88@yahoo.com, if you would like. I have a few pictures of Uncle Bob, whom his family calls Uncle Rob, (Robert Sowray) Angela M.

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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 …

  • 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?!

  • 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.

    • 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.

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