A plucky escape

 

Bob Thompson, 56, is chief test pilot for the Martin-Baker Aircraft Co, the leading manufacturer of ejection seats. He lives in Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, with his wife, Susan, and has three sons. Their youngest, William, 26, is a Navy helicopter pilot.

 

Bob says: In 1971, when I was a flying instructor at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire, I was out with a student, practising take-offs and landings in a Jet Provost. It was a reasonable day, thunder in the distance, the odd heavy shower. And, unknown to us, there was a pigeon fancier from Huddersfield who had just taken his birds out for some exercise. Just as we got airborne, so did 20-odd racing pigeons. There was a horrible grinding noise as some of them went down the air intake of the engine. Jet engines can absorb some of these birds, but not as many as that. This little jet engine was losing thrust and wouldn’t make the plane climb.  There was nowhere to land. The runway was behind us, there were married quarters to the left, the A 1 to the right and I had to aim between the two, eject and let the plane crash in open farmland. And you don’t have a lot of  time to work that out.

It’s very tempting, but the captain doesn’t go first. I ordered the student to eject at 300ft. There’s half a second’s delay before the canopy clears the plane. And that half-second is an awfully long time. You’re thinking, ‘For God’s sake, hurry up!’ By that time the plane had changed position and was now going down quite fast. I ejected at l00ft, the minimum height to eject safely. The parachute opened just before I bit the ground. Hard. And one of Her Majesty’s aeroplanes self-parked about a third of a mile away in the middle of a field.

I landed in a cabbage field. It was deadly quiet. I could hear a skylark and the roll of  thunder in the distance. I was just lying there, thinking, ‘God, I’m alive,’ and relishing the smell of wet cabbage leaves.

The next thing I was aware of was a Yorkshire farmer standing next to me — and I was dying for a fag. He was roughly shaven with a flat cap and a piece of string tying up his jacket He leaned over me and said, ‘Are you okay?’ I said, ‘Yes, but have you got a cigarette?’ He patted himself all over, then reached in his pocket and pulled out this old, gnarled, bitten pipe. ‘You can suck on this, if you like,’ he said. I looked at this and thought, ‘No. I don’t think so.’ Then the farmer turned and walked away. I never saw him again. I’ve often wondered if it was a dream.

It seemed an inordinate length of time before an officer, who was driving home and saw the accident, legged it across the field. It felt like an hour; it was probably a minute. I knew I mustn’t move, just pulled the parachute over myself to keep warm. When the officer reached me, he was up to his ankles in mud and I was worried about his uniform getting so dirty. At last a Land Rover ambulance arrived.

I was in hospital for four or five weeks, but I was flying three months later. People would ask, ‘Are you going to find it traumatic?’ Not a bit of it. I was raring to go. I look on it that I’ve had a second chance.