Test pilot George Aird ejected from his Lightning F1 aircraft, 1962

This is the story behind the famous photo of test pilot George Aird ejected from his Lightning F1 fighter plane. This photo was taken by Jim Meads on 13 September 1962.

It was published in newspapers around the world at the time and many thought it was fake until the Defense Ministry tried to place a "D notice" on the picture banning its publication, which confirmed that it was was actually real and not fake.

The plane in the picture was XG332. It was produced in 1959, one of 20 pre-production Lightnings. The Lightning was the only British designed and built fighter aircraft capable of speeds exceeding Mach 2 to serve with the Royal Air Force. A unique feature of the Lightning's design is the vertical, staggered configuration of its two Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet engines within the fuselage.

The Lightning was initially designed and developed as an interceptor to protect V bomber airfields from attack by future nuclear-armed supersonic Soviet bombers.

What is the story behind this incredible picture?
Jim Meads, the man who took the picture, was a professional photographer who lived near Hatfield airfield, next to de Havilland test pilot Bob Sorey. On this day both of his wives went shopping in London and Bob told his neighbor that he was going to blow up the electricity that day.

When Meads took his kids to watch the flight, he took his camera with him hoping to get a shot of the plane. His plan was to take a picture of the children with the airfield in the background as lightning struck the ground. He got a good view of the final approach path and waited for the power to return.

As it happened, Bob Sorey didn't blow up the lightning that day. The pilot was George Aird, another test pilot working for de Havilland. George Aird was involved in the Red Top air-to-air missile program and appears to have been a respected test pilot.

As the XG332 Lightning F1 came on final approach, at about 200 feet high (61 m) its nose lifted and the pilot ejected. Power was uncontrollable after the tailplane actuator weakened after the engine caught fire.

Jim Mead took a picture shortly after the ejection, and as can be seen, the pilot was caught upside down with his parachute still not open and lightning falling close to him.

The tractor driver heard the explosion of the ejection seat and turned sharply to see what was happening. The driver was 15-year-old Mick Sutterby, who had spent that summer working at the airfield. He was not posing for the camera. In fact, he was telling photographer Jim Mead to move on, because he shouldn't be there.

Fortunately, pilot George Aird survived after coming down from the roof of the greenhouse, breaking both his leg and right thigh. He was knocked unconscious by the impact of the landing and was awakened by jets of cold water from the greenhouse's sprinkler system. He later recovered to resume his flying career.

The photographs taken that day first went to the Ministry of Aviation. After being released, Mead sold them to the Daily Mirror. The Daily Mirror paid Mead £1,000 for the rights to the picture: £20,000 by today's standards.

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