My grandpas story:
I remember my ejection experience as clearly now as when it happened just over 50 years ago (October 1970). I was a pilot on No 1(F) Squadron based at RAF Wittering near Stamford in Lincolnshire. My squadron had recently been equipped with the new Harrier VTOL fighter/ground attack aircraft (sometimes known as the 'jump-jet' because of its ability to hover and takeoff and land vertically).
On this occasion we were operating out of RAF Ouston, a disused WW2 airfield near Newcastle, practicing for off-base deployments. I took off, leading a pair of aircraft to carry out a live weapons training exercise at Tain Range on the Dornoch Firth in Scotland. We were armed with 281b practice bombs and 30mm cannon. The sortie was going normally and after completing our mission we left the range to return to Ouston.
I radioed the control tower and they cleared us to make an approach for a conventional landing on the runway. As I was leading, I carried out a circuit at around 1000 ft with my wing man a short distance behind me. (He had a good view of the incident). I turned onto finals and commenced my approach. At this stage my speed was around 170 knots and I lowered the landing gear, deployed some flap and rotated the nozzles to reduce speed for landing. As I descended through about 700 ft, with just over two minutes to go before landing, the engine, without warning, suddenly shut down (or 'flamed out' as we would have called it).
My initial instinct was to check my fuel state (it wouldn't have helped but that might have been one explanation for the sudden loss of power) at the same time I operated the relight button on the throttle. The aircraft was now descending more rapidly and I made a quick radio call (Mayday, Mayday, I've flamed out, I may have to eject'). I was still desperately trying to relight the engine but to no avail and the ground was coming up very fast (the Harrier has the gliding characteristics of a brick, as we used to say!) I can remember very clearly that the trees I was going towards were now looking very close indeed and it was only then that I decided to eject.
I don't know why I left it so late; even if the engine had started it wouldn't have been possible, at that late stage, to recover the situation. I was now certain I'd left it too late but I grabbed the ejection seat handle and pulled .. The Harrier GRI had a rocket assisted ejection seat which, when activated, fires the seat (plus pilot) out of the aircraft PRESENTEO TO with an explosive charge. A split second later the rocket ignites, firing the seat up to a height of 400 feet in less than half a second. Just before the seat leaves the aircraft, a small strip of plastic explosive shatters the cockpit perspex canopy rather than the seat breaking through an intact canopy, which would normally be the case. I was fortunate in that the aircraft I was flying had only just been delivered and was one of only two on the Squadron which had this device.
My immediate memory on pulling the handle was a huge kick in the backside as the seat was banged out of the aircraft. At the same time I was aware of going up through something like confetti, but which was, in fact, hundreds of pieces of perspex as the canopy exploded. I was now aware of tumbling through the air until suddenly it stopped, as the drogue chute deployed to stabilize the seat and then allow the main parachute to open.
At this stage I remember looking upwards (which was towards the ground as I was inverted) and saw a huge swathe of orange fire as the Harrier struck the ground. (I had been in that aeroplane approximately one second earlier!) I didn't bother to look up and check whether the parachute had deployed properly (as most people tend to do) because I suddenly realised that I was going to survive, which is a feeling quite difficult to describe. I didn't have long in the chute but I managed to unclip and lower my PSP (personal survival pack, which contains, among other things, your dinghy; useful if ejecting over water.)
I hit the ground hard going backwards and with a wind gusting to 30 knots; the sort of conditions which might well have caused a broken leg but not if you were as relaxed as me - I was alive! I lay on the ground, cautiously examining arms and legs to see if they were still there and was pleased to see that all seemed well and that the chute had collapsed on landing rather than dragging me along the ground in the strong wind. I stood up, unbuckled myself from the chute, and surveyed the scene. I was in a large grassy field with my aircraft blazing furiously a hundred feet or so away, belching out black smoke into the autumn sky. The whole aircraft was on fire; the metal skin round the cockpit was white hot.
A lady, the farmer's wife, I discovered later, was cautiously approaching. Her face was ashen and she was very shaken. As she got close to where I was standing she managed to ask, in a quavering voice, 'Would you like a cup of tea?'
Epilogue: This was the first ejection from a Harrier in RAF service. The engine failure was found to have been caused by a worn bearing in the engine gear box which powered the main fuel pump. I ejected at about 100ft above ground level and the aircraft crashed 1.1 seconds later. I received minor neck injuries due to whiplash during the initial part of the ejection sequence but I was flying again two weeks later. I never did get that cup of tea but I did sink quite a few beers with the guys when I got back from the hospital!
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