Rescued by a girl on a white horse

The author John Brown in early 1965.
The author John Brown in early 1965.
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In 1964, JOHN BROWN was an Acting Pilot Officer doing his flying training at RAF Acklington, from where he graduated in April 1965. He was involved in an incident which saw him eject over the Borders. Here is the second part of his story.

I do not recall any feeling of relief that I was alive and put my mind to the next danger – being dragged across the ground by a still inflated parachute. I need not have worried because I was not being dragged.

The RAF Acklington graduates in April 1965.

The RAF Acklington graduates in April 1965.

What had happened was that I had completed my backward right manoeuvre into a barbed wire fence in front of a hawthorn hedge. Nicely caught in the wire and thorns, I was able to release my parachute harness and remove the potential dragging hazard.

At some stage, also, I must have finally located the two quick-release fasteners and detached the PSP. I must have stood up unaided, but was aware that all was not well with my right ankle.

Believe it or not, at this point, a girl on a white horse arrived at the scene! Hermione Shields was the daughter of the owners of the land, Crailing Bhan.

Her mother, meantime, thinking that they may still be survivors in the burning wreckage nearby, had pulled a large fire extinguisher from the stables and had set off, across the field, to the crash site. Shortly after Hermione had reached me, two of the farm workers in a Landrover arrived and took me (and I assume my parachute and the wretched PSP) to the nearby farmhouse, Kirkmains. I was greeted by Nancy Cowe, the farmer’s wife, and taken into the front room.

Nancy insisted I put my injured foot on the sofa, made tea and provided a telephone to call Acklington. I got through to the Duty Instructor in the Tower, Flight Lieutenant Tom Gilmore. “Ah Brown,” he said, “you’re on a navex aren’t you!”

I smoked at the time, but had been too obedient to the rules to have gone flying with cigarettes and matches in my flying suit. Nancy was a non-smoker but recalled that she had once given her husband a Rizla cigarette roller but that he had never got the hang of it.

Moments later she returned with the roller, a packet of papers and a wallet of Golden Virginia. I set about rolling myself a cigarette – a skill I had mastered as a young teenager. It was hopeless. I seemed to have lost complete control of my hands and strands of tobacco scattered everywhere.

Shortly afterwards, a yellow Whirlwind helicopter from No 202 Squadron, also based at Acklington, arrived and ferried Phil and myself back to Acklington. The helicopter was equipped with a homing device which could detect the transmissions from the SARAH beacon, which, together with its battery, was stowed in the Mae West.

In a survival situation, it was necessary to unpack the transmitter and activate it. To permit the homing pilot to discriminate between multiple survivors, the transmitter gave out a discreet signal, according to a colour coding. We had both chosen the same colour so, if we had needed to be found, the rescue pilot might have had some difficulty!

I cannot recall how I got to Ashington Hospital, but I was in and out very quickly with a plaster cast on my right ankle. I was returned to Station Sick Quarters and put to bed.

The Senior Medical Officer (SMO), recognising that there may be some interest amongst my fellow course members, said that I may be visited, but only by two or three at a time and only for a short period.

In the event, the whole course arrived, suitably equipped with crates of Amber Ale (a staple of the Mess at the time). This was all very jolly until, some time later, when my visitors had departed, it was necessary to visit the toilet.

Not wishing to alert the Duty Medic to our disregard for the MO’s instructions, I attempted to reach the lavatory unaided. I failed, overturning the bedside trolley in the process. This alerted the medic who provided the necessary support and cleaned up the mess. Nothing was said about the incident, probably because of my, somewhat, celebrity status.

I spent the next few weeks in plaster, unable to fly and engaged in all sorts of interesting things like weeding old files. I hadn’t the slightest idea of the relative importance of documents – which could be shredded and which should be archived – the signature of an Acting Pilot Officer seemed to be good enough, however!

There was an inquiry into the accident and I was interviewed by the president, a Squadron Leader I think. In those days, we would ‘talk through’ the events first and then, formally write in freehand the statement.

I gave my verbatim account of the conversation immediately before ejecting. He listened patiently and then wrote down – ‘my instructor ordered me to prepare to eject and then, shortly afterwards gave the command ‘Eject’ ‘Eject’.’

We visited the Armoury and Survival Equipment bays to thank the airmen who had so diligently serviced the seats and packed the parachutes. One of the face blind handles had been found but the other was missing. Accordingly, another handle had been provided and, in a sort of ‘blind’ tasting, I was invited to choose which handle I wished to retain as a souvenir. I have it to this day and it has a serial number and section and reference – but I have never checked whether it is the real thing.

Shortly after, we received a personal letter from James Martin CBE, managing director and chief designer of the Martin Baker Aircraft Co Ltd and I became Life Member Number 664 of the Martin Baker Tie Club and the Caterpillar Club. By an incredible coincidence the tail number of the Jet Provost was also 664!

I recorded in my log book that I had completed ‘0’ landings during the sortie, but achieved one ‘Martin Baker Let-Down!’

On the morning of November 5, 1964, I attended Ashington Hospital. “Go and have an x-ray and then we will see about taking the plaster off,” I was told by one of the doctors.

So I went and had the plaster taken off and then had the x-ray. I was a bit unsteady but pronounced fit. Shortly after lunch on the same day, I was airborne again in the charge of Flight Lieutenant Spencer in Jet Provost T Mk 4 XR643.

My log book records the duty as circuits and landings, steep and maximum rate turns, low flying, practice forced landings and aerobatics. The only thing I had difficulty with was taxiing because my right ankle was so weak I could not use the right brake to steer the aircraft.

Despite my setback, I was allowed to continue with the rest of the course and, thanks to some superb individual attention from a fantastic bunch of instructors, graduated with the rest of my chums in April 1965.

Although my ankle was as good as new, I had a lot of trouble with my back, having sustained a compression injury to my spine on ejection. Despite this, my instructors expected me to go to Valley for advanced training on the Gnat. The potential danger of a second ejection was never discussed and I can honestly say that it was not a factor in influencing my decision to opt for the multi-engine advanced training at Oakington.

Nevertheless, I cannot help reflecting what might have been my fate if I had opted for the other route. But better the bird in the hand – a 35-year career which never felt like working and with never a dull moment! That’s to be very thankful for and particular thanks to Martin-Baker for affording me the chance.

Forty-nine years on, I finally got round to accepting Sir James’ invitation to visit the factory. This I did on September 30, 2014, 50 years since the accident. I had a very nice nostalgic day and was able to find my name on the wall.

RELATED ARTICLE: The first part of John Brown’s story