View Full Version : Lightning Engineer Airborne?

31st Jan 2005, 00:13
There is a story, I don't know if its apocryphal or not, that an engineer doing a ground run in a lightning once accidemtly got airborne. Is there any truth in this?

31st Jan 2005, 00:22
True story, try a search in the nostaglia forum mate. It was at Lyneham in the 1960s and the aircraft concerned is in a museum someplace, Duxford?

31st Jan 2005, 00:29
Yes, chap called Walter Holden. CO of 60MU. 22 Jul 66 at Lyneham - Checking a fault in XM135 that only appeared under acceleration for take off...

While testing for the fault, reheat was engaged, and things all went pear-shpaed. Petrol bowser crossing runway ahead, Comet taking off to left, village ahead of him... So pulled back on stick and took off. No canopy and seat pins in place. The new soloist made use of some experience on a Chipmunk and managed to land the Lightning after a couple of attempts.

The story (from which I've taken the above summary) is on pp.272/3 of the first volume of Stewart Scott's history of the Lightning.

Like Gainsey, ISTR a thread on history and nostalgia about this with some more details.

31st Jan 2005, 00:30
Yes it is true!

It happened at Lyneham in July 1964 when Wg Cdr Taffy Holden was checking Lightning F Mk 1 XM135 for an elusive electrical fault. He managed to get both engines stuck in full A/B, took off and roared around Lyneham for 12 min until he managed a shaky landing on the main runway, stopping 100 yd from the end of the RW. Not bad considering his only solo time had been years earlier on piston-engined trainers!

But I understand that he suffered mentally for many years thereafter.

(Posting crossed!)

31st Jan 2005, 00:39
BEagle, you're quite correct. I remember reading about this in, let's call it 'The Bumper Book of Remarkable Stories about Aviation' since I can't for the life of me remember the title. IIRC, Walter Holden said that the Stn Commander told him to take the rest of the day off (or something similar), and to have a slightly longer-than normal weekend (it was a Friday).

While he (Holden) appreciated the kindness, he subsequently considered that heading straight to the bar and going home rather later than normal might have enabled him to rid himself of the memory rather more swiftly. He had nightmares for years afterwards. I'll try and find the book in the purple learning centre library and get the proper details.

31st Jan 2005, 01:23
I believe the airframe XM135 is in the IWM at duxford...

Now... where's that anorak :8


Lafyar Cokov
31st Jan 2005, 01:25
I heard a rumour - and this is the rumour network!! - that the said engineer had expressed an interest in flying the lightning before the incident and may have seen this as his big chance....

Guilty until proven otherwise!!! :o)

31st Jan 2005, 02:58
Story I heard was, apart from no pins, the seat was still in the armament bay.

As the ac still "belonged" to MSU, they installed an orange box type tressel thingy, which riggers could sit on, so not to tread on anything delicate during servicing - hence no canopy - no brake chute etc etc

I think this was a farewell fling

Still, more famous than being towed past handbrake house on a bomb trolley wearing a bowler hat

Wonder if OC Eng at Lossie could pull that one off today - eh?

Pontius Navigator
31st Jan 2005, 09:08
LC and Buoy 15 I can 'confirm' both your 'stories'. Given the other posts about the after effects does cause one to challenge those theories however.

At the time there was no scorn but pure admiration. That he had only Chpmonk experience (fact?) was muted in our thoughts because at the time the RAF had put quite a few engineers and medics through flying training and one operational tour before returning them to branch.

We had an AEO next door, one GA Johns, who we did not believe was a ground eng. Last I heard he had made wing cdr. We naturally assummed that OC Eng had also had some pilot training albeit years before.

31st Jan 2005, 09:54
I hope the guy is still with us and enjoying life. He deserves it!

Just goes to show you that Engineers can do anything (I could be biased here) ;) I've flown a Lightning on Fs2002 successfully how difficult can the real thing be? :O

Lou Scannon
31st Jan 2005, 20:00
I was around at the time.The story was that the MU 'phoned the Transport squadrons asking if they could borrow a pilot for some ground runs. It was only when they got no takers that the MU boss elected to do it himself to avoid any more delays.

The aircraft was reportedly chocked and with grills over the engines and certainly had no hood or operating bang seat. It was an inadvertent selection of reheat on both engines that got the show on the road.

I seem to remember it was a Britannia crew (the aircraft not the airline) that was taking off on the main runway when the Lightning hurtled across their bows.

Apparently nothing was said by the pilots until they passed a thousand feet or so when they just looked at each other and said:


The poor engineer Wg Cdr was reputed to be twitchy at every sound of a jet engine after that, even though one rumour was that he did it deliberately.

31st Jan 2005, 22:01
The story was reported in Air Clues in the mid 60's. From memory he was supposed to be sitting in a wicker chair. I don't think any rational guy would take to the air deliberately in a Ligntning without a canopy or bang seat.


Aynayda Pizaqvick
31st Jan 2005, 23:11

What's the matter old boy, did you not believe me?

1st Feb 2005, 00:04
I don't think any rational guy would take to the air deliberately in a Ligntning without a canopy or bang seat.

an engineer doing a ground run in a lightning

I don't think any rational guy would do a ground run in a lightning !!

Dr Illitout
1st Feb 2005, 10:01
As an engineer who does engine runs on a regular basis, I can tell you that at high power settings you are VERY "twitchy"!. Your hand is constabtly on the throttles and your natural urge when anything untoward happens is to snap the throttles back to idle and to ask questions after!.
Now I have not run a Lightning at full bore but I bet I can snap the throttles back quicker that!

Rgds Dr I

1st Feb 2005, 10:36
I think I posted on the previous thread on this topic, but I believe it was 'put down' to the throttle sytem on the (Mk1??) which required catches to be lifted to disengage reheat - should it be engaged. Later Lightnings had a 'sideways rock' throttle path for reheat which was more obvious to use.

Ali Barber
1st Feb 2005, 10:49
The early Frightenings ha d a set of "piano keys" you had to manipulate to disengage the reheat and I understand it was quite fiddly to do. I also heard he missed several approaches to land and eventually opted to try and land downwind as the ensuing fireball then wouldn't go through the overrun into the houses. Great story and most definately true!

1st Feb 2005, 11:31
We have 'done' this on the military forum before, but I can add a little.

Wing Commander 'Taff' Holden ended up at RAF Halton (when it was still No.1 School of Technical Training) and was, I think, OC Basic Studies Wing. As an awed teenager I met him, and heard the story from the horse's mouth. Any ex-Brat from that time (sometime during the 74-78 period) might recall him.

Like many Eng officers of his vintage (commissioned immediately after the war, I imagine) Taff did a pilot training course to 'Wings' standard - which in his day meant Chipmunk and Harvard as I recall.

In addition to no seat, I recall that he had no canopy, no radio and no helmet......

He was a really lovely chap, and I often wonder where he is now.

Biggles Flies Undone
1st Feb 2005, 12:05
There's a bit about it here. (http://www.lightning.org.uk/archive/0303.php)

And what's the story about "the famous RAF Coltishall accident when a Lightning taxied into the crew room"? :ooh:

1st Feb 2005, 19:50
It was in 1968 - and the pilot was an A1 QFI :mad: on a refresher course. He didn't do his after landing checks properly, so left both engines running at idle instead of shutting one down and putting the other to fast idle (to keep the ac power on-line). As the main hydraulic pressure gauge was ac-powered, this meant no hyd indication (!!) and - surprise surprise - he had a services hydraulic failure = no brakes = leave taxyway and attack hangar!
The instructor sitting in the office at the time was a bit startled, and only just got out of the way in time. After the impact, the pilot climbed out and ranalong the roof of the offices on the front of the hangar, leaving the ac with both engines running at full tilt (throttles rammed forward by collision) sucking in masonry and spitting gravel all over the pan.

1st Feb 2005, 23:21
Similar Story

Heartell that during WW2 an airman had his body draped over the tail of a Spitfire to prevent nose over during an engine power check. The pilot, being satisfied, then proceeded to take off with said airman still firmly in place.

On discovering he was accompanied a circuit was completed permitting the distraught airman to step back on to 'terror firma'.

Can someone confirm this one?

1st Feb 2005, 23:47
Said airman was a WAAF and she flew on the tail of the Spitfire Mk 5 currently flown by the BBMF. The pilot did not know she was there but he managed somehow to complete a circuit and land despite her control inputs to the elevator.

2nd Feb 2005, 13:19
To second soddim's comments, the Spitfire was MkVb AB910, and the WAAF in question was LACW Margaret Horton. Not entirely sure whether she is still with us, but I believe I saw a story not very many years ago where Ms Horton was reunited with 'her' Spitfire at BBMF.

2nd Feb 2005, 21:49
And AB910 did that circuit at RAF Hibaldstow in Lincs. IIRC Margaret appeared on Whats My Line, where her deed was not guessed by the panelists - Well who would have thought of that happening anyway.

3rd Feb 2005, 00:11
I was at Lyneham when the Lightning incident occured. I believe it was around lunchtime when the troops were walking to lunch. (Tech area at Lyneham was a long way from the Messes).
The incident was notable because the Lightning was going the wrong way around the circuit and made people curious.

28th May 2013, 17:47
Wonderful story :D:D:D:D

28th May 2013, 18:44
More from the man himself here

Oops - accidental lightning pilot - PistonHeads (http://www.pistonheads.com/gassing/topic.asp?t=676440)

28th May 2013, 20:02
With reference to post # 20. True said Lightning taxiing down towards the hangars, because of various problems ( no brake pressure! ) did not quite make the bend in the peritrack. Embedded itself in the corner of the shed. First thing the occupant of the office knew was a 5 foot pitot tube coming through the window. Because it hit the hangar on the left side of the cockpit, the throttles were jammed in idle, unable to shut down. Pilot decided to jump out ,and the lightning began to eat the hangar !! Brick dust and other stuff everywhere. I believe a gallant RR rep disconnected the control to the FCU, thus saving the day. During my 14 years on the Lightning we were always stressing FOD on the taxiways ( little stones etc) as the reason for engine damage, but I guess eating a hangar wall proved us all wrong !!

28th May 2013, 20:32
Wing Commander "Taffy" Holden ENGLISH ELECTRIC LIGHTNING Inadvertent Take Off Incident - YouTube (http://youtu.be/GfeN3FoZYj0)

I knew of this story but this is the first time I really understood the details. The interview here is amazing. "At one point I was below the runway - in a valley. I approached the runway from underneath it". :D:D:D What a truly amazing story and what a gentleman.:ok:

Thanks for sharing the youtube link Old Haltonian

28th May 2013, 20:45
Lightning5, re #29 and #20. All true.
The aircraft hit, entered, the office window near the central hanger-doorway, from which I and three others were just exiting. Rather annoying really as were ready for a staff benefit 2 v 2 in F1 hot rods.
Bang, Dust, Disorientation. First recollection was of a Firestreak nose into the flowerbed, the missile shear pin having ‘sheared’.
Over time, and the event did take some time to resolve, the office was emptied excepting the metal filing cabinet, table and chairs, but bricks and other solids tested the robustness of RR without apparent difficulty.
Said officer ‘Arthur’ exited the cockpit over the nose and onto the hanger offices roof.

The spectator behaviour was interesting; after a quick ‘rubberneck’ there was mass retreat, which reversed after fire crew arrival and inspection. Thence there was a sequence of well-doers with ideas of how to stop the engine. The thrust levers were jammed, electrics isolated, etc, etc; as stated the mechanical fuel controls at the back end were finally disconnected.

As by chance I ‘bumped’ into ‘Arthur’ at the end of my career; well not physically as the unfortunate gentleman had suffered another wall-encounter with a motorcycle, and I was appointed as his temporary replacement to be o/c interesting flying things – of which I took opportunity to fly one (self-authorised first solo).

28th May 2013, 21:22
What with the Lightning story and the pilot (sorry don't have his name to hand)
who flew under London bridge - it paints a picture of a different time and a very different airforce. I wonder could you imagine any of these two incidents happening today and would the consequences be any different to the individuals. I believe the pilot re London bridge was in process of leaving or subsequently left but you know what I mean. I served 18 years having left in 2006 but I don't remember anything as amazing as these stories during my time.

uffington sb
28th May 2013, 21:46
Lightning UNDER London Bridge! That would be pretty low. I think you're referring to the Hunter through Tower Bridge.

Hawker Hunter Tower Bridge incident - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawker_Hunter_Tower_Bridge_incident)

28th May 2013, 23:19
Lightning UNDER London Bridge! That would be pretty low. I think you're referring to the Hunter through Tower Bridge.

Hawker Hunter Tower Bridge incident - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawker_Hunter_Tower_Bridge_incident)

That's the one "Tower Bridge" yep I guess it would have been a submarine had it been London Bridge:eek:

Thanks uffington.:ok:

29th May 2013, 00:23
On joining the RAF in 1970, everyone heard stories of an engineer accidentally taking off sat on a wicker chair/ Orange box, but it's well documented that Wing Commander Holden was sat in an ejector seat, with the pins in.

A bit like the stories of Camel spiders injecting anaesthetic into people when asleep & chewing their lips off.

I used to be the unofficial 'Spider & snake' catcher when in the Middle East, often retrieving them from peoples offices. Stories grow on people & I've seen grown men backed into a corner, looking bloody terrified.

Camel spiders have no glands to produce any anaesthetic, they just don't do it, but stories gets so ingrained into peoples thinking, they just react with horror.

Stephanie xx

29th May 2013, 08:03
Engineers getting airbourne ... then there is ...

H for Hancock - Test Pilot

27th Jun 2014, 02:36
The most remarkable thing about Wg/Cdr Holden's incident was that it was successfully kept out of the Press until years later when the story was cold.

Of course the rumours started circulating in the RAF at once, they reached RAF Shawbury over the weekend.

I was an Instructor at the ATC School at the time, we rang Lyneham ATC from our Common Room mid Monday morning, but they had been sworn to secrecy and we could get nothing out of them.

I have a full account of the rumour as it came to us, recorded on an old Floppy Disc, and will put it in here if I can find it. It is incredible how quickly the "send three and fourpence" effect sets in, even two or three days after the event the story is garbled out of all recognition.

27th Jun 2014, 06:04
Coffman - gold.

27th Jun 2014, 06:18
There was also a rumour around that time that he had done some simulator on the Lighting.

27th Jun 2014, 06:22
The Lightning Engineer (Taffy Holden) and Tower Bridge (Al Pollock) stories are both included with their permission in "Out of the Blue", a collection of similar RAF tales sold by the Help for Heroes and the RAF Benevolent Fund. If you buy directly from either of those all the money goes to them - buy it on Amazon and only half gets to the folk who need it.
Follow on book, "Out of the Blue Too" will be available before Christmas

27th Jun 2014, 20:01
Thanks for the "gen" VictorSR, I have book one, and await publication of book two with interest.


27th Jun 2014, 21:40
Smudge - 100 more stories - we'll release it in October. Same price - this time for all 3 service benevolent funds.

30th Jun 2014, 23:56
This connects with my #38 (27th June). It happened, I'm told in July '66. I first recorded it (from memory) on floppy disc in '98. Last year I was loaned one of the books mentioned here (not sure which one, but it was a sort of anthology of: "I Learned about Flying from Thats" from the "horse's mouth" (as it were). And I believe Wing Cdr Holden has told the true story here.

This is an account (as nearly I can remember) of the rumour of the affair that we heard in Shawbury in '66 (so nearly 50 years ago). Naturally it is at variance with the facts. I reproduce my Floppy Disc verbatim.


The Tale of the Lyneham "Lightning"
(or Le Pilote malgré lui - sorry, Molière !)

Lyneham, in Wiltshire, is now a passenger airfield for RAF aircraft coming in from overseas. But some years ago it housed a Maintenance Unit for English Electric "Lightnings", a big twin-jet interceptor of the sixties.

On a warm summer Saturday morning, this Unit was working overtime. A Lightning had developed a fault with its wheel brakes, and it was important to get it "back on its feet" ASAP. At last the mechanics straightened their backs, put their tools back in the boxes and wiped their hands: the snag had been fixed. But it still had to have a brake test to make sure. For that they needed a pilot - nobody else is allowed to move an RAF aircraft under its own power.

But all the pilots were doing their Saturday morning duty - in town, pushing a supermarket trolley. The Wing Commander (Tech) had an idea. He would (on his own responsibility) do the brake test himself. This was not as silly as it sounds. Technically, he knew as much or more about the aircraft systems than most of his pilots. And he had flying experience, too.

Some years before, the RAF had the idea of giving a few selected ground officers (notably doctors, but also some Technical), a shortened flying course, not to Wings standard, but about 80 hours, which is quite useful. This was to give them a better understanding of "how the other half lives". The Wing Commander had done one of these Courses, but that was far from qualifying him to fly a Lightning.

But there was nobody to say him nay. He cleared a "brake test" with Air Traffic Control (Lyneham was a "Master Airfield", open 24/7. The Tower would be manned, although the rest of the Station worked 8-5, M/F). ATC was quite used to brake tests: they involved high speed runs down the main runway. But there were no air movements "on the board". No flying was involved, so they didn't want a pilot's name. The Brake Test was cleared.

Our man got a good deep cushion for his ejector seat (pins left in), and he wouldn't need a parachute. And of course he didn't have a helmet, so no radio contact. But ATC knew all about him, they could always give him a red "Aldis" (or, in extremis, a red "Verey") to clear off if they wanted him out of the way.

He fired-up the aircraft, moved gingerly out to the runway and lined up. Now the idea was to open up to full normal power, get it up to about 100 knots, close throttles, clap the anchors full-on and see how far it needed to stop the thing.

How it happened was a mystery even to him. Somehow he lost control over the power, the engines went into reheat. Before he managed to get a grip on them again, he was far too fast and too far down the runway to avoid running off the end. There was only one thing for it. He put the reheat back on, and eased the stick back. He was flying.

The indignant Controller was on the phone at once. Who the Hell was this ? The shaken MU staff had no idea what had happened. And they were not the only Seekers after Enlightenment. Who dat man ? The Station Commander had been mowing his lawn. He knew there was no flying scheduled that day. He (and just about everybody else on the Station who could possibly be interested) was jamming the ATC switchboard. The Lightning thundered helplessly round the airfield like a shark circling its prey. Cars came screeching up to the Tower, which soon filled up with a mob in a state of full-blown panic.

The Wing Commander's action must be assumed to be deliberate. But why ? One fanciful suggestion: he was a Russian agent, about to defect to the East and stealing one of our finest aircraft for them to try out. If so, he was making a pretty poor fist of it - he didn't seem to be getting very far. Might he have gone mad ? Was he bent on suicide - to end like a Viking chief, floating out to sea on his burning longboat ? Stranger things had happened, and would again. All this was no help with the main question: What on earth do we do next ?

The Germans put in a nutshell; "Nun war guter rat teuer" - (Now good advice was at a premium !) It was a case of "quot homines, tot sententiae (everyone had his own idea). But the only practicable suggestion by far was - "All together now ! Repeat after me: "Our Father ...."

In the Lightning, the hapless Wing Commander was reviewing his options. He didn't have many. He couldn't bale out - he had no parachute. He had no radio, he couldn't ask for advice. He could either stay up till he ran out of fuel (which would't take long), and perish. Or try to put the thing down on the grass wheels-up. Or (slimmest chance of all) land on the runway.

In for a penny, in for a pound. The wheels had been down all the time, that was one worry less. He knew how to operate the flaps and airbrakes. And he was a pilot, after all. He knew the landing speed. He'd have a stab at it.
It was too much to expect him to bring it off first time. Or the second, or the third, or the fourth. If they had been "having kittens" in the Tower before he started, it was nothing to compare with the mass hysteria there now, each time he came round for yet another unsuccessful attempt. People aged visibly. The Controller took full Crash Action. Fire Crew and Ambulance turned out and licked their lips. Business was coming their way.

Some Samaritan had told the Wing Commander's wife, so that OMQ was hardly a place of joy and merriment. The Lord heard her prayers. He got it down on the seventh attempt - and they had fixed the brakes, after all; for he managed to stop on the tarmac. The sighs of relief in the Tower almost lifted the roof off. Then they all slumped like pricked balloons, tottered down to their cars, and back to the Mess for a stiff gin (or two).

Now what ? The Station Commander's first instinct was to clap the chap in irons. But wait a minute. No harm had been done. The Lightning hadn't even been scratched. Just think of the unwelcome publicity there'd be if the Press got hold of this ! The Air Council would not be amused. The RAF would be a national laughing stock.

Could they possibly keep the story from getting out ? They decided to try. All personnel were sworn to secrecy, with drastic threats to any "whistleblower". Besides, people had a genuine regard for the good name of their Station. They kept their mouths shut.

In the RAF, the rumour started spreading at once. Over the weekend, it reached Shawbury by a process of osmosis. From the ATC School, we rang Lyneham Tower on the Monday afternoon, but they were tight-lipped, we could get nothing out of them - but they didn't deny it. The Press didn't get hold of it until years later, when the news was cold.

And the Wing Commander ? I don't think he made Group Captain - but he certainly had a good story to tell his grandchildren !