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Pictures from the Heritage Archives

On Thursday of next week, the 30th May 2024 it will be seventy five years since the first use of an ejection seat in a practical application.

The aircraft involved was the experimental Armstrong Whitworth AW52 flying wing, pictured above. Test pilot, ‘Jo’ Lancaster had received orders to take the aircraft for a flight to establish limiting speed, which was the next stage in the progressive part of testing.

To quote his own words.                                                                                                                                              

Resuming flight tests with an increased limiting speed. I forget the exact figure, but it was close to 350 mph. I was detailed for familiarisation flights and to investigate behaviour up to the revised limit.

There were lofty cumulous clouds about, and quite a lot of turbulence.  At about 5,000 feet and in a shallow dive, I had reached, to the best of my recollection, about 350 mph when the oscillation pitch set in. My estimate was that it was again about two cycles/sec, but the amplitude built up almost instantaneously to become of such extreme violence as to incapacitate me both physically and mentally. I recall, too, that is was accompanied by a very loud noise, which at the time seemed to suggest structural failure was imminent. In my very confused state I decided to eject.

Although Martin baker was a pioneer in the field, the company's Mk1 ejection seat was still in the early stages of development. Unlike the sophisticated automatic seats of today, it was necessary for the pilot to release his seat harness after ejection and fall clear of the seat before pulling his parachute ripcord. When I ejected it was the first time a British seat had been used in an genuine emergency, although a handful of very brave chaps had made a number of live ejections 'in cold blood' in the course of development. The AW52 has an observer's position directly behind the pilot, but it was not fitted with an ejection seat. This introduced the possibility of a dreadful dilemma for the pilot. I am so grateful that I was alone.

Jo landed safely in a field behind the Cuttle Inn, Long Itchington though rather too close to the Grand Union Canal for comfort. Apart from bruises to his knees he apparently came through the landing unscathed, however later X-rays revealed back damage. It is worth noting that ‘Jo’ Lancaster D.F.C. went on to log at least 11,000 flying hours flying some 150 different types of aircraft, and that he made aviation history by becoming the first pilot of the now around 8,000 who have been saved by Martin-Baker seats.

It would be wrong of us if we failed to recognise the concern, relentless experimentation and testing carried out by James Martin and his team. Fitter,  Benny Lynch exceeded what could be expected of him by volunteering to be the first human to attempt the first ejection up a specially built tower, and then to eject himself from the rear cockpit of a Meteor jet plane at 320mph from an altitude of 8,000 feet, making a perfect landing. He went on to make a further 16 test ejections.

Such dedication and engineering skill culminating in the first life saved, that

of ‘Jo’ Lancaster, must mark a very special day in the history of aviation.


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