The Story Behind The Picture

Before ‘photoshop’, many believed that this ‘now’ famous photo was a fake, with many still believing it is so today.

The photograph shows a pilot’s ejection from a jet fighter watched by a tractor driver. According to some sources, including the tractor driver who appears in the picture, the photographer was paid about £1,000 (equal to about £27, 000 at 2020 prices) by The ‘Daily Mirror’ for the photograph.
Many newspapers originally dismissed the photograph as a fake…until the Ministry of Defence (MoD) tried to put a ‘D Notice’ on the photograph banning its publication, which then confirmed that it was indeed real and not a fake!

The Accident

English Electric Lightning XG332 crashed on final approach to Hatfield, whilst involved in the Red Top AAM (Air-to Air Missile) programme, on 13th September 1962.

Whilst carrying out a demonstration flight, there was a fire in the aircraft’s reheat zone. Un-burnt fuel in the rear fuselage had been ignited by a small crack in the jet pipe and had weakened the tailplane actuator anchorage.

This weakened the tailplane control system which failed with the aircraft at 100 feet on final approach.

Fortunately the nose pitched up, giving test pilot George Aird time to eject.


A rare picture of XG332 in 1960 at Farnborough. Built in 1959, it was one of 20 pre-production Lightnings. (Alan Sinfield)

Who Took The Photo?
Jim Meads is the man who took the picture. He was a professional photographer who lived near the airfield where the accident happened. He also lived next door to de Havilland test pilot, Bob Sowray.

Bob Sowray mentioned to Jim Meads that he was going to fly the Lightning that day. When Meads took his kids for a walk, he decided to take his camera along, hoping to get a shot of the aircraft.

His plan was to take a photograph of the children with the airfield in the background as the Lightning came in to land. They found a good view of the final approach path and waited for the Lightning.

But, as it happened, Bob Sowray didn’t fly the Lightning that day. The pilot selected was George Aird, another test pilot involved in the Red Top Air-to Air Missile programme and was a well-respected de Havilland test pilot.

As Aird was coming to land, the aircraft suddenly pitched up very violently, and he reliazed that he had lost control of the aircraft and he ejected.

The tractor in the photograph was a Fordson Super Major. If you look closely at the grill, you’ll see it reads D H Goblin, as in the de Havilland Goblin jet engine.

The tractor driver was 15 year-old Mick Sutterby, who spent that summer working on the airfield. He wasn’t posing for the camera. In fact, he was telling the photographer, Jim Mead, to move on.

Mead saw the plane coming in and the nose pitch up. Then Aird ejected and Mead says he had just enough time to line up the shot as the Lightning came down nose first.

The accident site. The second greenhouse shows the damage caused to the roof where Aird landed after ejecting.

Mick Sutterby said, “I stopped to talk to a chap with a camera who was walking up a ditch to the overshoot. I stopped to tell him that he shouldn’t be here, I heard a roar and turned round and he took the picture! He turned out to be a friend of the pilot and had walked up the ditch to photograph his friend in the Lightning. I saw some bits fly off the plane before it crashed but it was the photographer who told me he had ejected”.

Interestingly, Mike Sutterby recalled that there was not a big explosion when it crashed, just a loud ‘whhooooof’.

Although the picture shows the aircraft nose diving to the ground, it was in fact  slowly rolling over and actually hit the ground upside down nose first.

Meanwhile George Aird landed on a greenhouse and fell through the roof, breaking both legs as he landed unconscious on the ground. The cold water from the greenhouse’s sprinkler system for the tomatoes woke him. He’s reported to have said that his first thought was that he must be in heaven.

Aird broke his legs during the accident, and later recovered to resume his flying career.

All in all, some planning, quick wits and a healthy dose of luck for all involved.

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