High speed ejection from a Lightning F6 XS921


A good pilot is defined as one who has the same number of take-offs as landings.  Well I guess the events of 19th September 1985 between myself and XS921 contrived to make sure that I will never be able to lay claim to the title of being a good pilot.  The trouble is that once you have managed to accumulate one more take-off than landing in your log book it is nigh on impossible to redress the balance.  Try as I might, I have been unable to come up with a foolproof plan of achieving it.

This article comes, long overdue, in response to a request for Lightning stories for this Lightning Flying Club publication.  This is not the normal Lightning story of 'there I was... short of fuel... etc'

Or 'there l was... gunning the brains out of a blind Phantom crew'.  This article is about one of the times when things did not go quite as planned, but thanks to the wonderful invention of Sir James Martin I am at least in a position to tell the story of how I became one of the nearly 5,000 people he has cast into the realms of 'not-good' pilots.

The day started all very normally, this was my second day back at work following a wonderful 10 days of leave spent in a cottage on the West coast of Scotland opposite Skye.  Well-deserved leave, I might add having just returned from our annual 6-week detachment to Akrotiri, Cyprus for the squadron's APC (Armament Practice Camp).

It was just before 5pm when I took off as number two of a pair of F-6s on our way to undertake our normal bread and butter training sortie of medium level P.Is (Practice Intercepts).  We would each take it in turn to act as Target (bad guy) and Fighter (good guy).  The fighter controller on the ground at RAF Boulmer would vector us apart by about 40 miles then turn us towards each other, the fighter would then have to use his AI 23 radar to first detect the bad guy and then, through some nifty mental gymnastics work out the target heading and altitude before making corrections to his own course to achieve the correct point in space from which to start a turn to end up in a missile firing cone behind the target.

The sortie all went as we had planned it.  We were almost down to recovery fuel and I was acting as the target.  Once the flight leader had completed his turn to end up behind me and was closing to finish his attack I started a gentle turn to the left so that we were heading back more directly to Binbrook.

Things went downhill from here.

Having moved the control column to the left to roll the aircraft into the turn, the aircraft thought it would be a jolly good wheeze if it kept moving the stick of its own accord.  Despite my best efforts the stick continued to move all the way to full deflection left and the aircraft duly did as it was told and kept rolling left.  As the aircraft passed the inverted position the nose started to drop and very quickly I found myself in a near vertical spiral dive (Not a spin).  The ailerons had gone to full deflection (normally they were limited to half deflection with the gear up) so the aircraft was rotating very quickly and as I was going downhill the speed was also increasing rapidly.

At this point I did a number of things, the first was to make a call on the radio in which I said "I've got a very bad control restriction".  At the same time I swapped hands on trying to move the stick and used my right hand to switch off the auto-stabs in the hope that they were the source of my problems. (The auto-stabs effectively had the job of smoothing out the ride for the pilot at high speed around the transonic region, where, if it were not for the auto-stabs the aircraft would exhibit a pronounced nodding tendency).

After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually in the order of 3 seconds, the flight leader came on the radio and asked "is it better now?" I answered "No" - about 4 octaves higher than my normal voice. Immediately after that I ejected, there was no thinking about it or time to prepare, the situation was obvious, the aircraft was rotating rapidly, and going downhill like a train.
I was now in cloud, speed was increasing, my one action that I could think of to make it better had done nothing and answer to the question "is it better?" was quite definitely NO!  So I ejected.

I can remember pulling the lower ejection handle with my left hand while simultaneously throwing my head and shoulders back against the seat with as much force as I could manage and trying to grab my left wrist with my right hand in order to secure it against the wind blast.  As you will see subsequently, this latter action proved somewhat futile.  The next proper recollection that I have is sitting facing backwards on the cabin floor of the Wessex just as the side door was being closed and feeling very very cold, nothing, else, just very cold.  This was about 50 minutes later. I wish I could fully describe how cold I felt, but in all the times I have recounted this story I have never been able to satisfactorily describe the intense, all encompassing cold that I felt then.

Some interesting things are worth a mention at this point.  This was a Thursday; on the Monday of the same week the entire fleet of Binbrook Lightnings had had a modification embodied to the Ejection seat such that the PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) would be activated during the normal ejection sequence at the point when man-seat separation occurs, rather than having to be manually operated.  This was considered to be a great improvement if the pilot were incapacitated the beacon would still be operative. In addition, with the beacon transmitting from 10,000 ft its range could be increased and transmission was more immediate than previously.  The PLB was stowed in a pocket in the life jacket we wore all the time and auto-activation was achieved by means of a sticker strap incorporated into the existing lanyard, which attached the dinghy pack to the life jacket. As man separated from the seat the lanyard pulled taught and a cam rotated the power switch of the beacon to ON.

The only drawback of this arrangement comes under the heading of "old dogs and new tricks".  Previously there had been no big deal when getting out of the aircraft if you stood up having not disconnected the dinghy lanyard; you simply felt a tug (and a bit of a fool), which reminded you to undo it.  The same was not now the case, all the above was true except in addition the PLB was set off and a transmission was going out on the distress frequency, until you scrabbled around and managed to extricate the beacon from its pocket and switch it off.  This in turn resulted in three things: some work for the safety equipment fitters who had to rebuild the jacket. The rescue system initiating a scramble for the nearest helicopter unit until they had obtained confirmation through the ATC network that the beacon they had observed near Binbrook was in fact an inadvertent activation; and much embarrassment for the individual pilot concerned.

In my case, the rescue helicopter unit at Leconfield were in the process of walking out to their aircraft for the umpteenth time in the week, cursing those idiots at Binbrook who were incapable of extracting themselves from an aircraft without alerting the safety coordination system.  However, it soon became apparent that the signal from this PLB was much stronger than previously experienced, and by the time the rescue crew were in the aircraft and in radio contact with their control centre they were getting the message that this was a real scramble; this probably saved me about 5-7 minutes, time that would become invaluable.

I mentioned earlier that this was my second day back at work following some family leave, which I had booked following the squadron's annual detachment to Cyprus.  It was mid September and pleasantly mild.  The average temperature in the North Sea was around 13*C, this was about as warm as it ever gets.  Our rule book stipulated that when the sea temperature over the area of operation was less than 10*C we were to wear an immersion suit, in practice this meant that about 8 months of the year all the air defence squadrons in the UK were flying in bulky, immersion suits.  This temperature cut-off was not just an arbitrary figure; it was based on medical study and experiment to measure body core temperature decay over time in different ambient conditions.  This was then compared with expected rescue times and a realistic figure for survivability versus cockpit comfort was established.  This figure of 10*C was based on a reasonably healthy individual having been ejected from an aircraft, immersed in water before climbing into his dinghy, and waiting for about an hour for rescue.  Sure, he would be cold, but nowhere near " life threateningly" cold hypothermic.

So here was I, flying around on this lovely autumnal afternoon in my flying suit, under which I was wearing thin cotton long johns, T-shirt and green roll neck shirt. I was a reasonably healthy individual who had been ejected from an aircraft and immersed in water and that was about as far as it went, and that was why I was feeling so incredibly cold sitting on the floor of the helicopter. I had been in the water without an immersion suit for almost an hour.

Another interesting thing had happened in addition to the PLB implementation that had contributed to speed up my rescue.  A Nimrod was on its way back from the Baltic en route to Kinloss and on hearing my beacon going off diverted to the scene of the search.  With their more powerful and sensitive homing equipment and their speed they were able to locate me before the Wessex was half way to me.  The Nimrod then dropped a large beacon in the water beside me that allowed the Wessex to come directly to me instead of having to enter its normal search pattern based on homing to locate by PLB.  Again, this probably saved another very valuable 5-10 minutes.

In addition to this, my flight leader added his part to the search in a little amusing way.  After our conversation just prior to my ejection having had no reply to his subsequent transmissions and on hearing my PLB going off, he immediately dived down to below the cloud to a height of about 2,000 ft.  As he broke out of the cloud he saw what he described as a huge water eruption.  He then spent the rest of his fuel orbiting around this area looking in the water for me.  However what he failed to realize was that I was still above him floating down on my parachute.  The parachute is set to deploy automatically as the seat descends through 10,000 ft and it takes about 15 minutes to float the rest of the way down to the surface. I often wonder what would have happened if we had passed close to each other or even if he had impaled me during his search for me which would have made interesting reading in the accident report.

When I was found in the water there was evidence that I had done a number of things despite having no memory from pulling the handle to sitting looking out the door of the rescue helicopter. I had inflated my life Jacket, undone the parachute harness, removed my oxygen mask and for some reason taken off my gloves. I had partially managed to separate myself from the dinghy pack that forms the seat portion while in the aircraft, this is normally dropped on a lanyard during the parachute descent by undoing two clips, one on each side, that rest around the small of the back when you are hanging in the chute.  Because of my injuries (more about them later) I was not able to undo one of the clips.  This meant that I was still connected to the parachute through my lanyard to my dinghy pack and in turn to the harness, effectively I had the biggest sea anchor you have ever seen.  With the exception of removing the gloves all the things I had done were part of the taught descent drills, which we were required to practice on a regular basis.

The medical theory is that despite having no memory of these events I was actually conscious at least for the initial part after leaving the aircraft, but as I got colder and colder the brain is very clever and it blacks out the bits it does not like to save you the nasty memories.  During my recovery the doctors offered the suggestion that hypnosis would probably be able to rekindle these memories for me - I declined their offer!

Meanwhile, back in the helicopter, apart from feeling very, very cold I felt that my arm was a bit sore and my leg was a bit achy too, nothing agonising, just a bit uncomfortable. I had an overwhelming sensation that this was a very bad dream, one you know you are sure to wake up from soon but until then it was still very realistic.  The trouble was that no matter how much I wanted to, I simply could not wake up from this dream.

My injuries were quite significant and almost entirely due to the high speed at which I ejected. I had started the turn at 27,000 ft doing Mach 0.8 (eight tenths of the local speed of sound, which at that height equates to about 350 mph of real wind).  Post crash simulation showed that by the time I left the aircraft I was doing about 0.95 at 18,000 ft, or more importantly in excess of 500 mph of wind blast.

My right arm had flailed and been broken against the elbow joint as it smashed against the ejection seat.  Similarly my left knee had been pushed outwards by the control column as the seat left the aircraft, this allowed it also to be flailed and broken against the joint outwards rather than forwards. I received some significant grazing burns to my neck from being thrown around as the parachute harness deployed.  My face looked like I was the Michelin man, all puffed up and swollen, the whites of my eyes were totally red.  Finally, I had dislocated my left index finger, the theory is that I just would not let go of the ejection seat handle, but its 300 lbs finally won.

When Binbrook got the message that I had ejected, the Boss and his wife went round to break the news to my wife, they waited until they had received a message from the helicopter that I was on board, cold but alive, no word of how alive I was.  My wife knew as soon as she saw the Boss and his wife climbing out of the car that I had had an accident.  She spent the next hour, until I got carried off the helicopter remembering the incident of a wife in a similar position who went to meet her "injured" husband only to find out shortly afterwards that he was in fact dead.  Needless to say she appreciated my wink to her as I was carried off the chopper.

Once I was in the medical centre at Binbrook they started to determine the extent of my injuries and started the process of warming me up again, they soon realized that the broken elbow and knee would require orthopaedic surgery, but the acute hypothermia needed arresting before I would be stable and able to be moved.  Later that evening I was airlifted to the RAF Hospital at Ely, Cambridgeshire.  The Sea King helicopter that flew me, my wife and a medical team to Ely had been scrambled just after the Wessex from Leconfield, the Wessex does not have the capability to perform a night hover rescue with no lighting on the surface, the Sea King does.  The Rescue Coordination Centre had scrambled the Sea King as a precaution in case the Wessex had been unable to locate me before darkness fell.  Thankfully he Wessex and Nimrod combination got to me in time.

To conclude this tale, the accident investigation were never able to locate the exact component that would rove their theory of what caused the control column to move on its own to full left.  In fact they found no ore than a couple of skips worth of bits.  They were able to reproduce the symptoms I had experienced with an aircraft in the hangar.  Two hydraulic Jacks mounted on the ailerons themselves power each aileron, each jack has a port to each side of the aileron that is to move it up or down.  When a control is demanded in one direction, there is an open circuit that slowly drives the jack assembly back to a neutral, closed position.  In this way any demand from the pilot in the opposite direction to that originally demanded will immediately result in a jack force being available to move the aileron.  However if in the short period when the open circuit is catching up something falls into the gap the system sees that as a continuing demand for more aileron to roll the aircraft.  What baffled the engineers before they tried it in the hangar was how could one jack overpower the three other unaffected jacks, the answer comes from the fact that the one affected Jack is in the process of supplying a demand whereas the others are merely in a follow-up mode.

This was not a new accident cause that had just ' been discovered, similar accidents had happened on a Jaguar and a Buccaneer and possibly others, it was just an accident cause that was quite well forgotten.  The only way to prevent it would have been to encase the aileron PFCUs (Powered Flying Control Units) in some form of shroud to prevent any loose articles from getting into them. So what was this loose article and where had it come from?  The answer is nobody knows, the last recorded work on the PFCUs themselves was quite some time before the accident and they were able to identify many migration routes from all over the aircraft to the PFCUs so it proved impossible to positively determine the direct cause.

An interesting precursor to this story occurred when we were in the line hut checking the aircraft Form 700, when the flight leader asked if I would mind if we swapped aircraft.  We had been allocated aircraft with tail codes BL and BA, BA (XS921) was the Boss's allocated aircraft but BL was his aircraft, and as this was his last week on the squadron (before being posted to RAF Valley, and subsequently the Red Arrows) he wanted to fly 'his' jet as much as possible. I had no objection to swapping, so we made at quick call to the ops desk so that they could note the change in authorization sheets that we had signed to record the proposed details of the sortie.  It was not until weeks after the accident as some physiotherapist was torturing me that I suddenly remembered this event. I quickly asked for a telephone and tracked my illustrious leader down at RAF Valley.  When I told him what I had just remembered there was a very sheepish silence and shuffling of feet at the other end and "err, urn, well I had hoped you wouldn't remember that". I wasn't fussed, but whenever I get the chance I make sure I tell everyone about his embarrassment.  There have been several instances since then when I have been asked to swap aircraft, my answer since that day has always been an unequivocal NO!

My return to flying took the best part of a year; I needed 10 nuts, bolts and screws to fix my knee and 13 to fix my elbow.  That operation took seven hours to complete, I was not operated on until a week after the crash, as I was so cold and weakened from the hypothermia.  In that time, despite happily eating all the hospital food they brought me I lost 26 lbs in weight; such was the drain on my metabolism warming me up again.  The medical verdict after this was that had it happened ten years earlier I would almost certainly have had to loose my arm, the damage was so severe to the elbow joint.  Sadly, I was not out of the woods just yet. I had not been able to raise my wrist or stretch my fingers since the accident; the doctors hoped that this was due to pressure on the responsible nerve from the broken bones that would recover once the bones had been arranged back into their correct positions.  It turned out that the nerve had in fact been severed and would never recover on its own. I had to have a nerve transplant to fix the damaged one.  Some nerve fibre responsible for the sensation in my inner arm was removed and inserted to replace the damaged portion of the Radial nerve.  Recovery from this type of damage is a slow process, with the nerve having to re-grow down its sheath and reconnect with the muscles that have been unused and atrophied for some time.

It was a long battle to get back into the cockpit, many hurdles had to be jumped through to prove that I was safe and able to operate one of Her Majesty's Aircraft once again.  Some of my determination to do this came through overhearing two doctors discussing my condition and saying something to the effect of "...he'll never fly again..." In addition to a great deal of physical support and encouragement from everyone on the squadron, I would have been at a complete loss if it were not for the love, devotion and attention that my wife expended during my recovery and beyond, for this I will be forever grateful.


(C) Craig Penrice. Full rights reserved.

Used by permission of the author.

Read about Craig's other ejection here