Meet the UK airman who was brave enough to be the first person fired out of the cockpit of a speeding jet at 400mph
When his Tornado jet was shot down in 1991 during the Gulf War by Iraqi forces, 27-year-old RAF navigator John Nichol’s life was saved by the ejection seat that blasted him out of the cockpit. Ever since, Nichol has been grateful for the technology that enabled him to survive. He’s now written a book – serialised in three parts, which started in yesterday’s Daily Mail – about the British genius who invented the ejection seat and the brave men who risked all to test that it worked.
Test pilot John ‘Jo’ Lancaster strode across the ground at RAF Bitteswell in Leicestershire on May 30, 1949, the sun warm on his face and the blustery wind rippling his jet-black hair.
He was heading towards an experimental plane, a prototype jet powered by two Rolls-Royce engines, which it was hoped would be aviation’s biggest leap into the future since the Wright Brothers took to the air. In the era before computer-aided design and the commonplace use of wind tunnels, the only way to discover first-hand whether a new aircraft would fly rather than crash was down to a test pilot taking his life in his hands. There were no pilot manuals or instructions to consult, no checklist to complete, no drills to follow.
It was a case of just climb in and fly. And hope for the best, in the knowledge of how risky a business this was.
In just one year, 24 British test pilots had lost their lives. The most famous, Geoffrey de Havilland Jr, had put his prototype jet into a high-speed dive from 10,000ft over the Thames Estuary only for the spar supporting the wings to crack and the plane to disintegrate. His body was found on mudflats, his neck broken. Though equipped with a parachute, he had not had time to deploy it. Like many of his generation, de Havilland had been killed by a lack of a fully developed aircraft escape system. Which was why, in this new prototype, Lancaster was about to strap himself into one of the world’s first ejection seats.
Test pilot John ‘Jo’ Lancaster (pictured) strode across the ground at RAF Bitteswell in Leicestershire on May 30, 1949, the sun warm on his face and the blustery wind rippling his jet-black hair
Until now, baling out of a plane manually had been a tricky business. Open the cockpit canopy or floor hatch, haul yourself out, jump clear, then pull the ripcord on your parachute. There was always a danger of snagging. And in a plane that was probably in a nose-dive, it all took time. Survival was a lottery – one that, with jets getting faster and faster, could no longer be tolerated. So was this new invention the answer? Jo Lancaster eyed it warily. Its rudimentary frame constructed from alloy tubing was sprayed British racing green and looked nothing like the conventional apparatus he was used to.
There were two sets of chunky canvas straps that met at large buckles. A red handle protruded from a rectangular box directly above his head. Fixed to the back of the seat in line with his spine was a telescopic metal tube; inside this so-called ‘ejection gun’ were two explosive charges. He viewed this ‘curious contraption’ with suspicion bordering on fear. ‘I was very sceptical about the whole damn thing. But I knew the risks of being a test pilot. Like all of us, I thought, it will never happen to me. I will never need to eject.’ He fastened the two sets of straps around his shoulders and thighs, one for his personal parachute and the other to anchor himself in position on the seat itself. In an emergency, the seat – and Jo – could be blasted out of the cockpit together at around 400mph. The integral thigh guards should prevent his legs from hitting metal on exit and being ripped apart.
If the plane got into trouble, his ejection seat should blast him up and away from the cockpit. Once in the open air, he’d then still have to unstrap his harness and push himself out of the metal seat while he was in freefall. Only once the seat had dropped clear could he finally open his own parachute.
That was the theory, but would it work? That was the big question. He taxied on to the runway and took off. Up in the air, he went through all the scheduled tests, carrying out a series of runs, gradually increasing his speed and monitoring the jet’s reactions. He then climbed into bright sunshine at 5,000ft and began a shallow dive.
Suddenly the plane bucked like a rollercoaster, hurling him up and down in his seat. He tried to throttle back. No response. Every rivet, seam and weld was beginning to bend. The plane was out of control, dropping fast, trying to turn itself inside out. His gut told him it could break up at any second and he would die. The new ‘contraption’ he was initially so suspicious of was now his only means of survival. The Earth was careering up to meet him. He had seconds to get out.
In just one year, 24 British test pilots had lost their lives. Pictured: A test ejection from the Martin-Baker company
Though he didn’t know it, Lancaster’s life rested on the genius of inventor-supreme, James Martin, a farmer’s son from County Down, whose forebears had tilled the same 30 acres since the early 18th Century. He arrived in England in 1919 aged 26, with no qualifications, no job, no contacts, and no workshop. Gathering skills as he went along, he began buying army-surplus vehicles, overhauling their engines, then selling them on. Determined, irascible and single-minded, he was virtually a one-man band: draughtsman, experimental engineer, toolmaker, fitter, assembly man and salesman.
Fascinated by aircraft and how they were constructed and powered, he set up an aircraft works in Buckinghamshire together with a pilot friend, Valentine Baker.
In the 1930s, with war on the horizon, Martin designed a new two-seater, single-engine fighter plane, which Baker took on a test fight. Without warning, the engine cut out as it took off and Baker crashed. Martin rushed to the site to see 120 gallons of high-octane fuel blazing like a bush fire, steel panels and tubing melting, and his friend trapped in the cockpit, the flames reducing his body to half its size.
Martin would never forget the stench of burning flesh. He vowed that he would never let the lives of pilots continue to hang by such a slender thread. There had to be some way of improving their odds of escape. He got his chance in 1944 when the Air Ministry asked him to come up with a design for a prototype escape system and he produced his first drawing of an ejection seat. It was revolutionary, based on his assumption that, rather than hurl the pilot out of his seat and free of the plane, the most effective way of ejecting aircrew in an emergency would be to have the seat itself leave the aircraft with the occupant still sitting in it.
And the most efficient way of making that happen was to attach an explosive charge to the seat to shoot it upwards and out of the aircraft, while safely avoiding hitting the tail-fin.
In the era before computer-aided design and the commonplace use of wind tunnels, the only way to discover first-hand whether a new aircraft would fly rather than crash was down to a test pilot taking his life in his hands. Pictured: A cadet-pilot on the Martin-Baker ‘ejection-seat trainer’ on April 2, 1949
How much explosive would be needed and at what angle the seat should be ejected were challenges that a brilliant engineer such as Martin could solve. But he was no medic and he had no idea how much explosive force a human body could withstand. There was no point in saving somebody’s life only to cripple them in the process. Help came to Martin in the shape of a complete human spine, which now sat in his office in a tall glass jar, a gift from a surgeon he’d met. She had extensive experience of the human body’s structure and showed him X-rays of spinal fractures and damaged vertebrae.
She helped him understand how the spine worked and how injuries were caused, but she could not tell him definitively the physical impact of blasting somebody out of an aircraft at high speed. As far as Martin knew, nobody had ever tried it before. The only way to find out was to experiment with the real thing.
First, he tested it on the ground with 200lb of sandbags, equivalent to just over 14st, in place of a person and it worked well. But he still had no idea how a living spine would be affected. When he moved on to experimenting with humans, he quickly found out.
One volunteer broke his back, his vertebrae crushed by the four-times-gravity force on him, sending Martin back to the drawing board to do more research on G, the measure of acceleration due to gravity and the effect it has on the body.
Speeding around a tight bend in a car might result in a 2g force, a rollercoaster might produce 3g to 4g. Most humans could safely withstand around 7g to 9g, but only for a matter of seconds.
John ‘Jo’ Lancaster was one of many airmen who came to the Martin-Baker workshop to try out the prototype seat on the ground. Pictured: Jo Lancaster’s Armstrong Whitworth AW52
At 9g the body feels nine times heavier. Blood rushes to the feet and the heart is unable to pump hard enough to bring this heavier blood back to the brain. Vision narrows to a tunnel and then goes black. A pilot could pass out, lose control and be killed. A very rapid onset of high g-force could also crush internal organs and bones.
But then, from watching films of the trials so far, Martin made a major discovery. It was not the amount of g that was significant, but the speed at which it was imposed. So to reduce this rate of the sudden onset of g, he devised a two-cartridge ejection gun. The first stage would raise the seat smoothly. The second, activated by flame from the first, boosted the seat further, building up the speed to 60 feet per second, the maximum needed for safe ejection.
But the seat was only half the equation. Once it – and the pilot – were safely out of the aircraft, the seat needed to be properly stabilised so the pilot could release himself, fall free and then deploy his personal parachute and descend to safety. The ever-resourceful Martin invented another ‘gun’, which fired once the seat was clear of the aircraft, pulling out a drogue parachute to stabilise the seat.
Modifications made, tests continued and now the volunteer was shot up the rail to a height of over 26ft without mishap.
By March 1945, Martin’s ejection seat was ready for flight tests, with dummies in the pilot’s seat.
The Ministry of Aircraft Production then issued the Martin-Baker company with a £10,000 contract to produce two high-speed pilot ejection units. The war in Europe was over, but the RAF was still losing horrifying numbers of aircraft – more than 1,000 in 1946, with 700 fatalities. The ejection seat could not come soon enough.
Pictured: The founders of the Martin-BakerAircraft Company, James Martin (centre) and Valentine Baker (left)
Over the next three years, there were many more tests. John ‘Jo’ Lancaster was one of many airmen who came to the Martin-Baker workshop to try out the prototype seat on the ground. It gave him a very sore backside, which did not calm his instinctive suspicions about what he termed ‘this bloody dangerous invention’. His one consolation was that he simply couldn’t imagine any circumstances where he would ever need to use it.
And yet now here he was with his life depending on it as the experimental jet he was flying threatened to break up. He could no longer control it and was nearly down to 3,000ft, plunging towards certain death.
He reached forward with his left hand and yanked the toggle to jettison the cockpit canopy. Instantly, it flew away. Simultaneously he reached over his head and felt for the ejection handle. Grabbing it with both hands, he pulled it down in front of his face with all his strength.
There was an enormous explosion and the seat was on the move, travelling fast up its rails. As he and the seat emerged into the slipstream, he felt as if he was in a weird dream. There was some violent tumbling, then another jerk as the drogue parachute fired out to stabilise the seat. The next few seconds were vital. His life now depended on getting out of the seat… fast. He felt gingerly for its release buckle across his chest. ‘I had to be careful not to get the wrong buckle and release my parachute harness instead.’ He pressed and twisted, at the same time wriggling the harness free of his shoulders. Then, tilting forwards, he fell out of the seat.
He was alone and in freefall, with the ground approaching fast. He reached for his parachute’s ripcord and pulled it hard. He felt a massive jerk under each armpit and was wrenched upwards.
His parachute had fully inflated. His only worry now was the seat, separated from him and also falling. If it hit him, he would be a dead man. He craned his neck and out of nowhere it shot past him and disappeared. Now all he had to do was look for somewhere safe to land.
When Lancaster hit the ground that day, he became the first British aviator to eject successfully from an aircraft in an emergency. Pictured: Jo Lancaster with the author John Nichol in October 2017
When Lancaster hit the ground that day, he became the first British aviator to eject successfully from an aircraft in an emergency. History had been made. The technology worked in the real world. Thousands of lives would now be saved.
James Martin was not one to rest on his laurels. That first ejection seat was a pretty basic contraption. His challenge now was to refine it – to make one that would get pilots out of a doomed aircraft even quicker in a fully automated seat, where the ejection seat itself completed all the actions from firing to deploying the pilot’s parachute.
And in that, he would succeed. Jo Lancaster was Martin Baker ejectee number one. Just over four decades later, as 27-year-old Flight Lieutenant John Nichol, I would be ejectee 6,089 after being shot down during combat as navigator in a Tornado jet in the first Gulf War in 1991.
When I recently visited the Martin-Baker Aircraft Company, I saw my name on the wall of 7,681 aviators granted a second chance of life thanks to the company’s incredible devices.
I also met the long-serving worker there who may have packed the parachute on which I descended to Earth – folding 45ft of parachute into a box the size of two six-pint milk cartons. Taj has done the same job at Martin-Baker for 35 years. ‘I carry out my work as perfectly as I can, every single time,’ he told me. ‘What you aircrew do up there is always on my mind.’ It was the Mk 10 seat that saved me – fully automatic, using a cartridge that released gases to operate the harness retraction system, ignite the canopy jettison motors and trigger the initial ejection gun cartridges.
Whereas it had taken half-a-minute for Lancaster to pull the right handles and release various buckles, all while plummeting earthwards, this version could put an ejectee under a fully deployed parachute just over two seconds after firing.
After my Tornado was blown apart in mid-air, a mere 2.5 seconds separated my ejection initiation to automatic parachute deployment. I had to make a conscious decision to pull that handle and eject.
Incredibly, today’s aircrew benefit from a computer-linked system so automated that in certain conditions it will take the decision out of the pilot’s hands and auto-eject them if it considers the flyer faces mortal danger and cannot react quickly enough.
The seat, not the pilot, takes the decision to eject. And in just fractions of a second. The first that the aircrew might know about this is when finding themselves leaving the cockpit.
The whole ejection sequence is now down to just one-and-a half seconds – beyond the imagination of Jo Lancaster and his fellow pioneers.
© John Nichol, 2023
Adapted from Eject! Eject! by John Nichol, to be published by Simon & Schuster on May 25 at £20. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 27/05/23; UK p&p free on orders over £25), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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