The ‘curious rattling contraption’ that has saved 7,694 lives (together with mine) | Historical past | Information


Considered one of Martin-Baker’s Gloster Meteor jets carries out a stay ejection seat take a look at (Picture: John Nichol)

The cocoon-like cockpit of the AW52 prototype jet was comfortable for a person of John “Jo” Lancaster’s imposing, square-shouldered construct – like being behind the wheel of a Formulation 1 ­racing automobile. However the pilot’s seat was removed from inviting. Climbing in, the 30-year-old Bomber Command veteran eyed it warily.

Its rudimentary body, constructed from mild alloy tubing and sprayed British racing inexperienced, was nothing like typical equipment. There have been two units of chunky, fawn-­colored canvas straps assembly at giant buckles and its footrests and thigh guards appeared to belong on a white-knuckle fairground experience.

The pink deal with protruding from an oblong field above the take a look at pilot’s head did nothing to encourage confidence, nor did the telescopic steel tube fastened to the again of the seat – the so-called “ejection gun”, inside which have been two explosive costs, the rationale these unusual new gadgets have been already recognized, considerably dismissively, as “bang seats”.

Pilots had beforehand been accustomed to sitting on some model of bucket seat, both sporting a parachute on their again, or sitting on one. Normal apply in extremis was to roll your plane onto its again, launch the harness and fall out, opening your parachute whenever you’d fallen a secure distance.

However with the appearance of the jet age, plane have been getting quicker, and bailing out manually might show deadly. In a single yr alone, 24 take a look at pilots had misplaced their lives, many due to an absence of a fully-developed plane escape ­system. Wouldn’t it work?

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John Nichol with fellow ejectee Jo Lancaster

John Nichol with fellow ejectee Jo Lancaster (Picture: John Nichol)

The jury was nonetheless ­ out so far as Jo and his contemporaries ­ have been involved.

“I knew what it did, however hadn’t had any notably detailed directions on its operation; it was simply there,” he recalled. It definitely appeared “bloody harmful”.

The very last thing Jo did earlier than taxiing onto the runway at RAF Bitteswell in Leicestershire on Monday Might 30, 1949, was to take away a small pin from the ejection gun containing the explosive cost.

His ejection seat was now stay. For the subsequent 20 minutes after taking off, he carried out a sequence of runs within the AW52 – dubbed the “Flying Wing” as a result of it had no tail and value the equal of £7.2million at the moment – earlier than climbing into vibrant sunshine at 5,000 toes to start a ­shallow dive. Coming again by way of the clouds at 320mph, the turbulence elevated.

“The primary indication one thing was incorrect was instantaneous – a sudden bucking fore and aft like a rollercoaster.”

The bucking grew to become more and more frenetic. At 3,000 toes and dropping quick, Jo’s intestine instructed him the prototype jet might break up at any second. Even when it did keep intact, he feared he could be knocked unconscious and the jet would plough into the bottom. The “curious rattling contraption”, as he later described the ejection seat to me, was now his solely probability of escaping the doomed plane and seeing his beloved spouse Betty and their two-year-old son, Graham, once more.

Having ditched the cover, he grabbed the deal with with each arms and pulled it down in entrance of his face. Considered one of Britain’s greatest aviators was rocketing in the direction of the sting of oblivion.

James Martin and Valentine Baker.

James Martin and Valentine Baker. (Picture: John Nichol)

The ejection seat carried by Jo Lancaster’s prototype jet had been born of tragedy. Its inventor, James Martin, a farmer’s son from County Down, had left college at 15 and arrived in England in 1919 aged 26 with £10 in his pocket and no {qualifications} or job.

He started shopping for surplus military vehicles, overhauling and modifying their engines, then promoting them on. In 1928, he moved right into a ­former linoleum manufacturing unit in Denham, Bucks, and the next yr booked flying classes with First World Conflict flying ace Valentine Baker. The pair hit it off immediately.

By 1934, the signal on the Denham manufacturing unit learn: “The Martin-Baker Plane Firm”. Martin would design the plane, Baker could be co-designer and take a look at pilot.

Now eight years later, at RAF Wing in Aylesbury, on September 12, 1942, Baker, 54, was making ready to take their newest prototype – the MB3 fighter, which might fly at 400mph – for its second take a look at flight. That morning, Baker’s forehead was uncharacteristically furrowed as he turned to Martin and stated: “I’ve a sense, Jimmy, that one thing shouldn’t be fairly proper.”

His hunch was proved appropriate. Having ­hurtled down the runway, the engine died, then out of the blue roared again into life earlier than reducing out once more at 50 toes with no room to land. Baker disappeared over a line of bushes and out of sight. Seconds later there was an enormous explosion. The sight that greeted Martin would hang-out him for the remainder of his days.

The MB3 had been destroyed and high-octane gasoline was blazing, its pilot trapped in his cockpit, unable to flee the flames. Because the flames subsided, Baker’s damaged physique was pried from the wreckage. Martin flung himself down onto a grass financial institution. “My pricey Val,” he sobbed. He would always remember the stench of burning flesh. The incident virtually definitely impressed his biggest invention.

In October 1944, the Air Ministry requested James Martin to provide you with a design for an escape system. And the next January, he had a prototype seat.

It was fitted to rails and, in an emergency, after ditching the cockpit hood, an explosive cost would shoot it upwards and out of the plane – no less than 20 toes into the air, safely away from the plane’s tail fin – earlier than the pilot parachuted to the bottom. At the very least in idea. First they needed to take a look at it on a rig on the bottom.

Standing again, his prototype loaded with sandbags weighing simply over 14 stone, Martin pulled on a size of cable.

There was a considerable explosion and his “ejection seat” shot quickly up the rig’s information rails. It was the primary small step in what could be its exceptional journey. However he had no concept how a dwelling backbone could be affected. He referred to as for a human volunteer, ideally one weighing round 14 stone.

Enter Bernard Ignatius Lynch. The burly, husky-voiced southern Irishman, recognized at all times as “Benny”, was an engineering fitter in Martin-Baker’s experimental plane division and dedicated to James Martin, for whom he had labored for almost a decade.

Jo Lancaster was the first pilot to eject in an emergency

Jo Lancaster was the primary pilot to eject in an emergency (Picture: John Nichol)

Simply 4 days after the sandbag take a look at, Lynch forged apart his work overalls, showing for this particular occasion in certainly one of his greatest pinstripe fits, polished black lace-up boots, and a freshly laundered shirt and tie.

Martin had set the cost so he got here to relaxation solely 4 toes eight inches from the bottom. Lynch slid slowly again right down to earth to a refrain of cheers. He unstrapped, stood up, adjusted his jacket, and knowledgeable Martin he had “suffered no discomfort”. Within the following weeks, information of the pioneering invention unfold quick.

Many have been desperate to see the rig and try it out, and none extra so than a journalist from Aeroplane journal. He arrived at Denham to jot down an article, and took experience quantity 14. Propelled to a peak of 10 toes, he complained of extreme again ache. When Martin referred to as the subsequent day to search out out if the journalist was okay, he was instructed: “He’s in hospital.”

“What? Why?” “He’s damaged his again.”

Martin couldn’t perceive how his system had produced such devastating outcomes. However after two extra years of intensive testing, the prototype was prepared for in-flight testing. May it save the lifetime of a human being from ­an plane?

After parachute coaching, Benny Lynch swapped his ­pinstripe swimsuit for overalls, and a Biggles-style leather-based flying helmet, as he arrived on the Martin-Baker airfield at Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, on July 24, 1946.

At 9.15pm, travelling at round 320mph at 8,000 toes over the airfield, piloted by Jack Scott in a two-seater Meteor jet, he triggered the seat. Virtually instantaneously there was a flash of flame and a puff of smoke as the 2 cartridges fired completely in sequence.

The seat raced up its runners at 60 toes a second and shot Lynch into the unknown. “The punch was highly effective however not painful,” he recalled. As soon as he had risen 24 toes, a drogue gun fired, blasting the stabilising parachute out from the highest of his seat. To date, so good. The Meteor was gone.

Having launched himself from the seat and activated his ­parachute, he took within the neat patchwork of rural England beneath him. ­It had taken 30 seconds in all. After which the airfield got here into view.

Benny Lynch made a textbook touchdown. He had cemented his place in British aviation historical past. The icing on the cake was a public home inside simple strolling distance, the place he rewarded himself with a ­welcome-home pint.

Now excessive above Warwickshire, Jo Lancaster confronted the prospect of changing into the primary ever pilot to make use of an ejection seat in an emergency. Grabbing the deal with firmly with each arms, he pulled it down in entrance of his face with all his energy.

Eject! Eject! by John Nichol

Eject! Eject! by John Nichol (Picture: John Nichol)

He got here to his senses freed from the Flying Wing, wriggled the harness freed from his shoulders and actually fell out of the seat. He reached for the ripcord and pulled it arduous to inflate his parachute. For the primary time, he felt secure. He had ejected efficiently at 3,000 toes.

However the place was the steel seat? Nonetheless falling and, if it hit him, he could be in deep trouble. Out of nowhere it shot previous him and disappeared. The bottom raced as much as meet him. He went by way of a hedge like a pendulum and crumpled down arduous, touchdown shoulder first.

For some time he lay there shocked, attempting to make sense of the drama that had engulfed him for the previous couple of minutes. The wind had been knocked out of his lungs and he was certain he had damaged his shoulder. He heard a voice calling to him. A close-by farmer ran up and helped him collect up his parachute. “He took me to his farmhouse 100 yards away the place his spouse produced a cup of tea.”

Utilizing the farmer’s cellphone, he referred to as his base at Bitteswell. Considered one of his fellow take a look at pilots answered. “I merely stated, ‘I’ve ejected’.”To this point, the lives of seven,694 aircrew – together with my very own, in the course of the Gulf Conflict – have been saved by a Martin-Baker ejection seat. However Jo Lancaster’s was the primary.

  • Tailored by Matt Nixson from Eject! Eject! by John Nichol (Simon & Schuster, £20). Go to or name 020 3176 3832 without spending a dime UK P&P on orders over £25

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