A hard lesson in landing
Squadron Leader Rhys Williams, 43, is a test pilot tutor at the Empire Test Pilots’ School at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. He is married to Kath, a nurse, and has two sons, Iwan, 17, and Lewis, 14.
Rhys says: In 1998 I was flying a Hunter T7 training aircraft built in 1954. 1 had a civilian with me as crew: Stan Ralph, who used to be an RAF navigator. We had a problem with the throttle, which meant we had to come back for an emergency landing. The last thing anybody wants is to have to eject The only time you do it is to save your life, so, up to that point, you make every effort to control the situation.
Until about three seconds before I told Stan to eject, I was pretty hopeful of getting the aircraft onto the ground. But the important point is recognizing when it would be prudent to leave. We bounced on the runway a couple of times and at that point I made the decision.
I tried to get us 30 feet or so of height to get clear of the runway — still way below the minimum height for ejection, but as much as I could manage. I looked across at Stan and caught his eye. I wanted to make sure he did actually take the hint; I said to Stan, ‘Eject’ and he just did it. There was a huge pop —not a bang as the canopy came off and caught the airflow. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Stan’s left knee rise up and disappear out of view.
At that point my right hand was already on my handle. (It’s between your legs, in a vulnerable area.) I pulled. You only fly up to 120 feet and you get there in less than half a second. You’re aware of the drive beneath you as you accelerate up and out. Your posture is hugely important: you brace your back as straight as you can, and thrust your shoulders back. And you mustn’t look down, or there’s a possibility of severing your neck.
Unfortunately, I hit the runway at a 45 degree angle, then I was dragged on to grass.
Stan landed on grass. I’d broken my left leg, just above the ankle inside my boot, which really hurt. I’d also broken my right ankle. For the best part of a minute, I just couldn’t breathe. I thought, ‘This is a bit disappointing. We’ve got out, but I’m not going to survive.’
Your senses are hugely aimed up: you can hear birds, smell the grass; I could hear a fireman running towards me from behind. He threw himself on to the ground to look me in the face. He asked me twice if I was okay. Foolishly, I gave him a thumbs up and he shouted, ‘Yeah, he’s okay!’ and ran off. ‘Oh, dear,’ I thought ‘I still can’t breathe and now I’m on my own again.’ But very shortly after the medics arrived.
Stan actually stood up and came across, which isn’t a good idea. I damaged my spine; he had two cracked vertebrae and damaged discs. The plane was wrecked; there was a cockpit fire, and if we’d been in it, we couldn’t have survived. The day we ejected was the day of our staff-student cricket match, a nuisance, because I was supposed to be batting. Three months later, I was airborne again, If it’s your profession, you just want to get back in the air.