Ejection from Hunter G-BVVC on 1st June 2003 – Craig Penrice
On the afternoon of Sunday the first of June 2003 I had reason to part company with Hunter Mk 6 G-BVVC before I had otherwise intended to.
Previously I had said that a good pilot is defined as one having the same number of take-offs in his log book as landings, that was on recounting the story of my ejection from Lightning XS921 on September 19th 1985. Now that I have 2 more take-offs than landings in my log book, I can add some more wisdom to the tale; having ejected once does not make you exempt from further intervention by the fickle finger of fate.
The flight in question was supposed to be the end of a fine weekend’s flying displays at the Portrush Air Show in Northern Ireland. The jet had been operating out of Blackpool to assist in the overall logistics. Following the display the intention on this day was to fly directly back to Exeter where the jet was normally based before driving back to my home near Warton in Lancashire.
The aircraft had been troubled with some electrical problems, but these were suitably mitigated it was thought. Nothing in this mitigation however could cope with the fact that at 25,000ft over the middle of Wales the engine flamed out. Prior to the flame out the electrical system had packed in completely and the battery had become exhausted leaving me without communications. In anticipation of this happening, ATC had been warned that I might loose the radio and as a result I was following my flight planned route with the intention of a landing at Exeter without radio using visual signals only.
Out of the blue the was a slight shudder felt through the airframe not too dissimilar from the normal IGV (Intake Guide Vane) chatter familiar to all “big engine” Hunter operators. I thought this to be somewhat strange as this shudder was not at the normal RPM where one would expect it; indeed the engine was in essentially steady state cruise conditions. It took some time before the realization dawned that the engine had actually stopped. I guess I had always imagined that when the engine stops in a single engine aircraft it will all go very quiet (like it does on the ground after shutdown). However, the noise level in the cockpit was essentially unaltered. This was due to the fact that the engine was windmilling satisfactorily and predominate noise was from the pressurization system and external wind rush.
Anyway, on acceptance of the fact that the engine had quit and I was now in a brick, the following events unfolded. First off I set course for the general direction of Llanbedr in the hope of a dead stick attempt onto the runway there. It quickly became apparent that I had insufficient altitude to glide that far. I discounted jettison of the external tanks primarily because I could see the banner headlines if they landed in someone’s back garden or worse. I really didn’t want to jeopardize future ex-military jet operations following an outcry about my tanks landing somewhere inappropriate. The same concern was true when it came to planning my exit from the jet – which was slowly beginning to dawn on me as inevitable.
My previous ejection from the Lightning had been a bit of a rushed affair, a control restriction had robbed me of the ability to control my destiny and in a very short time (less than 10 secs) I went from flying along happily to going for the handle. Since that experience I have said many times that I was thankful that I didn’t have a long time to think about things, but here I now was with a long glide running up to an inevitable ejection.
There was very little thought involved with attempts to get the engine going again, I had no electrical power therefore now way to get the flame lit again – its kind of hard to get a jump start for a plummeting brick! My attentions were then focused on the best course of action for me, the jet and the unsuspecting population below. Having determined that Llanbedr was out of the equation I set about making for the coast line in an effort to jump and dump into Cardigan Bay, it looked like this would be possible. I elected to stay with the jet below the recommended height for a premeditated ejection of 9,000 ft for the reasons of potential third party damage I have already mentioned.
As the glide progressed it became clear that it was going to be a very close run thing, but I had the consolation that there was an estuary running along my flight path, just prior to the coast. My personal preference has always been the water landing rather than smacking into the ground, or trees, or buildings. We get dropped into the water twice a year for practice, but we don’t get the same exposure to the risky ground landing.
The time during the glide was taken up with tightening straps and going through in my head the drills, posture and a lot of swearing. Why was this happening to me… again. I think I was really annoyed at the fact I had a lot of time to think about it, but the inevitable was fast becoming a reality.
In the end the final moment came a bit sooner than I expected. I quite suddenly spotted a village coming into view from behind a mountain spur. The village was Borth and it was clear to me that my ejection point at or near the coast was going to leave a pilotless aircraft to make up its mind as to its final resting place in close proximity to the village. As I was currently over the estuary and could see some sparse marshland ahead, that was my subliminal message to go for it. I pulled the seat pan handle. I had descended from 25,000 ft to 2,000ft during the preceding 5 or 6 minutes.
In comparison to my previous experience where I have no recollection from the point of pulling the handle until the time I was sat in the helicopter, this one is in crystal clear Fuji Colour. There was a huge, massive explosion and the most enormous force acting on my behind. There was a pain in my back like I had been hit by a plank of wood. I watched the cockpit disappear from around me and I watched from above as the jet flew on without me, I saw it pitch up steeply and I saw it start to wing over at the apex of its short climb, that was the last I saw of it.
During this time I was aware of the various seat mechanisms operating and being jerked around like a rag doll as the drogue and then the main chute left me hanging. This was accompanied with a feeling that my legs had swollen to enormous size and the pain in my back was now excruciating. I did what I could manage of my parachute descent drills and managed to reason that as I could still wiggle my toes the pain in my back could not be that serious. I was aware that the water below me was rushing up at quite an alarming rate, it was at about this time I realized that I was still attached to the seat, man seat separation had not occurred. I was able to release the appropriate harness and the seat fell away I could not have been at more than 300 ft when this happened. I will return to this fact a bit later.
Just prior to hitting the water I took a deep breath and closed my eyes and placed my hands in position to release the parachute harness on water entry. I next recall being desperate to release my breath, but not being aware that I had floated back to the surface. I opened my eyes to find that I was in all of 8 inches of water. I had hit the water as the tide was out and all my best intentions of a soft landing were gone in an instant. I was dragged for a short distance before I released the parachute harness.
It was a lovely warm afternoon. The pain in my back was awful, but if I lay still it was bearable. I could not move my legs, but I could once again wiggle my toes, I could therefore believe it was not a broken back – but it was. I was able to remove my helmet at after some time managed to get myself into a position that was “comfortable”. I was now lying on a sandbank with the water receding, the sun was shining, my back was broken and I was about a mile from the nearest shoreline. I got out my Oakleys and even got out my mobile phone. I had the intention of calling my wife to let her know I had banged out (again) but was alive – luckily the phone was soaked and did not work. I could do nothing but wait to be rescued. I could here sirens from various directions around the shoreline, I had no worry that I would be rescued, I had no place to go and no way of getting there.
It was about 45 mins before the first person arrived on scene. A man out walking had seen the jet and my ejection and had waded, swam and walked from the shore over to me. We established that he could do nothing on his own but he did have some water which was a gratefully received. Next on the scene was an off duty policeman who had called the emergency services before he too had made his way to me. Shortly thereafter I could hear the sounds of a boat repeatedly getting grounded on the sandbanks as the estuary continued to drain, this was the RNLI from Borth making their way to me. Very soon the sky was filled with choppers and the RAF Valley and Chivenor aircraft arrived on scene closely followed by the North Wales Police helicopter. Quite soon there was a fairly large group of people on the sandbank to keep me company and get me to hospital. As you would expect the professionalism of this bunch and in particular the winchman was exceptional and I was strapped to a back board and winched into the helicopter and on my way.
Without going into vast reams of medical details about the days, weeks and months that followed, the force of the ejection resulted in a burst fracture of one of my vertebrae. The fragments of bone embedded themselves into my spinal chord. The result of this was to effectively paralyze me from the waist down. The spine was fixed by the introduction of yet more metalwork in the form of a supporting cage around the burst vertebrae. I have been able to regain the use of my legs but am still devoid of feeling and function below the waist. My days of flying bang seat equipped aircraft are over, but I guess it was time to grow up and find a proper job. As those of us who fly know all too well, it could have been worse. I’m still here to tell the tale.
Returning to the fact that I found myself still attached to the seat at a late stage of the descent and the apparent failure to achieve man-seat separation this was investigated. This appears to have been a result of my tightening of the lap straps possibly a little over-zealously. The mechanism worked as advertised and released the lugs in the seat pan, but the tension from the straps acting at 90 degrees to the release direction has resulted in a geometric lock being set up. This was only released when I was able to activate the QRF and the seat dropped away.
The AAIB said this accident was a salient reminder to those operating old aircraft that any snags which are being carried must be carefully considered and that my injuries may have been lessened if I had elected to use the face screen handle instead of the seat pan handle. This, they suppose, would have given me a better posture. An interesting observation, most modern seats have only a seat pan handle. I presume the move away from “bang” seats to “rocket” seats has resulted in a transition from good posture afforded by the face screen handle against the more rapid access of the seat pan handle. With gentler (relative term only) rides from rocket seats the importance of posture has diminished in favour of more rapid egress. I never even contemplated the face screen handle as an option. My routine training has always been to use the seat pan handle.
I have many people to be thankful to in getting me from there to here. The rescue services, the surgeons, nurses and physiotherapists who helped to patch me together physically. My friends and work mates who helped keep my spirits up. But most of all to my wife and family who once again I am forever indebted to, without their love and support this would have been far, far worse than it already was.
© Craig Penrice, 9 August 2004. Full rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article is strictly prohibited without the prior consent of the author.
AAIB report for the above accident is here: http://www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_avsafety/documents/page/dft_avsafety_028723.hcsp