The “damned contraption” that saved 7,694 lives (including my life) | History | News

A Martin Baker Gloster Meteor aircraft performs a live ejection seat test (Photo: John Nicol)

The cocoon-like cockpit of the AW52 prototype was as comfortable for an imposing, square-shouldered John “Jo” Lancaster-designer as sitting behind the wheel of a Formula 1 race car. But the pilot’s seat was far from inviting. On the climb, the 30-year-old veteran bomber captain looked at it warily.

Its rudimentary frame, made of light-alloy tubes and sprayed with British racing green, was nothing like conventional hardware. Two sets of chunky, faux-canvas straps met at oversized buckles and the footrests and thigh guards looked like they belonged in a white-knuckle fairground ride.

The red knob protruding from a rectangular box above the test pilot’s head did nothing to inspire confidence, nor did the telescopic metal tube attached to the back of the seat – the so-called “ejection gun”, inside which were two explosive charges, the reason these new contraptions They were already known, somewhat dismissively, as “blast seats”.

Pilots once used to sit on some sort of bucket seat, whether they had a parachute on their back or perched on one. The standard practice in extreme cases was to roll your plane onto its back, release the harness and fall, and open your parachute when it fell a safe distance.

But with the advent of the airplane age, planes were speeding up, and a manual rescue could be fatal. In just one year, 24 test pilots lost their lives, due to the aircraft not having a complete escape system. Will you succeed?

Read more: Death due to a fight, Stabbed in the toilet, Lots of fish: The strangest death of a British monarch

John Nichol with fellow Bomber Joe Lancaster

John Nichol with fellow Bomber Joe Lancaster (Photo: John Nicol)

The jury was still out on Joe and his contemporaries.

“I knew what she did, but I didn’t have any particularly detailed instructions on her work; it was just there.” It sure looked “extremely dangerous.”

The last thing Joe did before getting into a taxi on the runway at RAF Bateswell in Leicestershire on Monday 30 May 1949, was to remove a small pin from the expelling gun containing the explosive charge.

His ejection seat was now alive. For 20 minutes after takeoff, he performed a series of runs in the AW52 – dubbed a “flying wing” because it has no tail and costs the equivalent of £7.2m today – before climbing in bright sunlight at 5,000 feet to begin the surface dive. Turbulence returned through the clouds at 320 miles per hour.

“The first indication something was wrong was instantaneous—a sudden rush back and forth like a roller coaster.”

The confrontation became increasingly frantic. At 3,000 feet and falling rapidly, Joe’s guts told him that the prototype plane could fall apart at any second. Even if it remained intact, he was afraid that he would lose consciousness and the plane would crash into the ground. “The weird fucking stranger,” as he later described the ejection seat to me, was now his only chance to escape the doomed plane and see his beloved wife, Betty, and their two-year-old son, Graham, again.

After he got rid of the umbrella, he grabbed the handle with both hands and pulled it down in front of his face. One of Britain’s finest pilots was leaping to the brink of oblivion.

James Martin and Valentine Baker.

James Martin and Valentine Baker. (Photo: John Nicol)

The ejection seat of Joe Lancaster’s prototype plane was born out of tragedy. Its inventor, James Martin, the son of a County Down farmer, left school at the age of fifteen and arrived in England in 1919 aged 26 with £10 in his pocket and without qualifications or employment.

He began buying surplus Army trucks, repairing and tuning their engines, and then selling them. In 1928 he moved to a former linoleum factory in Denham, Bucks, and the following year booked flying lessons with World War I hero Valentine Baker. The husband hit it off instantly.

By 1934, the sign at the Dunham plant read: “Martin Baker Aircraft Company”. Martin will design the aircraft, and Baker will be co-designer and test pilot.

Now eight years later, at the RAF Pavilion in Aylesbury, on September 12, 1942, Baker, 54, was preparing to take his latest prototype—the MB3 fighter, which could fly at 400mph—on its second test flight. That morning, Baker’s brow was uncharacteristically furrowed when he turned to Martin and said, “I have a feeling, Jimmy, that something isn’t quite right.”

His hunch proved correct. After sprinting down the runway, the engine died, then suddenly snapped back to life before cutting off again at 50 feet with nowhere to land. Becker disappeared over a line of trees and out of sight. Seconds later, there was a huge explosion. The sight Martin greeted haunted him for the rest of his days.

The MB3 is destroyed and the high-octane fuel is ablaze, its pilot trapped in his cockpit, unable to escape the flames. As the flames died down, Baker’s battered body was recovered from the wreckage. Martin threw himself onto a grassy bank. “Dear Val,” he cried. He will never forget the smell of burnt flesh. The accident almost certainly inspired his greatest invention.

In October 1944 James Martin was asked by the Air Ministry to come up with a design for an escape system. And the following January, he had a seat prototype.

Mounted on the rails, in an emergency, after the cockpit cover was jettisoned, an explosive charge would shoot up and out of the aircraft—at least 20 feet in the air, safely away from the aircraft’s tail fin—before the pilot parachuted to the ground. At least in theory. At first they had to test it on a stand on the ground.

Standing back, loaded with sandbags that weigh just over 14 stones, Martin pulls a cable by the length of the cable.

There was a large explosion and its “ejection seat” rapidly shot up the platform’s guide rails. It was the first small step on her amazing journey. But he had no idea how a living spine would be affected. He called for a human volunteer, preferably one that weighed about 14 stone.

Enter Bernard Ignatius Lynch. The tough, husky-voiced Southern Irishman, always known as “Benny,” was an engineer in Martin Baker’s Experimental Aircraft Division and devoted to James Martin, for whom he worked for nearly a decade.

Joe Lancaster was the first pilot out in an emergency

Joe Lancaster was the first pilot out in an emergency (Photo: John Nicol)

Just four days after the sandbag audition, Lynch ditched his work clothes, showing up at the special event in one of his best pinstripe suits, polished black lace-up shoes, and a freshly laundered shirt and tie.

Martin had placed the charge, so it rested four feet eight inches off the ground. Lynch slowly slid back to the floor amid a chorus of cheers. He untied his tie, stood up, adjusted his jacket, and told Martin that he “didn’t suffer any inconvenience.” In the following weeks, news of the groundbreaking invention spread rapidly.

Many were excited to see and test the rig, none more so than a journalist from Airplane magazine. He arrived at Dunham to write an article, and rode No. 14. Pushed 10 feet high, he complained of severe back pain. When Martin called the next day to see if the journalist was okay, he was told, “He’s in the hospital.”

“what why?” “He broke his back.”

Martin could not understand how his system had led to such devastating results. But after another two years of extensive testing, the prototype was ready for in-flight testing. Can he save a human life from an airplane?

After training to jump with a parachute, Penny Lynch trades in his striped suit for a dress suit, and a Biggles-style leather flight helmet, upon his arrival at Martin-Baker Airport in Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, on July 24, 1946.

At 9.15pm he was traveling at about 320 mph at an altitude of 8,000 feet over the airport, piloted by Jack Scott in a two-seater jet, turning on the seat. Almost immediately there was a flash of flame and puffs of smoke as the two cartridges fired in exact succession.

The bench raced the runners at 60 feet per second and shot Lynch into the unknown. “The punch was strong, but not painful,” he recalls. Once he was up 24 feet, he fired an anesthesia pistol that detonated the stabilizing parachute from the top of his seat. So far, so good. The meteorite is gone.

Having freed himself from the seat and activating his parachute, he took in an elegant jumble of the English countryside below. It took 30 seconds in total. Then the airport appeared.

Penny Lynch made a textbook landing. It cemented its place in the history of British aviation. The icing on the cake was a public house a short walk away, where he rewarded himself with a welcome pint on the house.

Now high above Warwickshire, Jo Lancaster faced the prospect of becoming the first pilot ever to use an emergency ejection seat. He grabbed the handle tightly with both hands, and pulled it with all his might in front of his face.

eviction!  eviction!  by John Nicol

eviction! eviction! by John Nicol (Photo: John Nicol)

He came to his senses, freed himself from the flying wing, waved the loose belt from his shoulders and literally fell off the seat. He reached for the rip cord and pulled hard to inflate his parachute. For the first time he felt safe. He successfully catapulted 3,000 feet.

But where was the metal seat? He still falls, and if you hit him, he’s in serious trouble. Out of nowhere, she sped in front of him and disappeared. Earth hastened to meet him. He passed through a fence like a pendulum and collapsed hard, landing shoulder first.

For a while he lay there stunned, trying to make sense of the drama that had engulfed him in the last few minutes. The wind came out of his lungs and he was sure that his shoulder had been broken. He heard a voice calling him. A nearby farmer ran up and helped him collect his umbrella. “He took me to his farm house 100 yards away where his wife was making a cup of tea.”

Using the farmer’s phone, contact his base in Bitteswell. One of his fellow test pilots answered. I simply said, ‘I’m fired.’ So far, the lives of 7,694 aircrews—myself included, during the Gulf War—have been saved by the Martin Baker seat. But Joe Lancaster was the first.

  • Adapted by Matt Nixon. Directed by! eviction! By John Nicol (Simon & Schuster, £20). Visit or call 020 3176 3832 for free UK P&P on orders over £25

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