Eject! Eject! It’s the single word that can save you at 500mph… But as this heart-stopping account of a rookie female Harrier pilot reveals, pulling that lever and blasting out of the cockpit can be the moment things really go downhill
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RAF navigator John Nichol’s life was saved by the ejection seat after his RAF Tornado was shot down over the Iraqi desert during the first Gulf War in 1991. He has always been grateful to the amazing technology that let him live, and here, in an extract from his new book, he recounts another, truly astonishing, story of survival thanks to the ejection seat…
For 21-year-old Kate Saunders, it promised to be the best day of her life. A classics undergraduate at Cambridge, she was also a member of the University Air Squadron, which trained potential recruits to the RAF, and had qualified as a pilot on light aircraft.
In September 1991, she was reaching the end of a few weeks of work experience with an RAF squadron and as a treat was offered the chance of flying as a passenger in the rear seat of a two-seater Harrier combat jet, the ‘vertical take-off and landing’ aircraft popularly known as a ‘jump-jet’. She leapt at it.
Back then, women pilots in the RAF were as rare as hen’s teeth. Astonishingly, the restriction banning them from flying had only just been lifted, in 1989. Kate was determined to join those early female aviators in their battle for equality in the skies.
Her pilot was the experienced Ashley Stevenson. Like all fast-jet jockeys, he had his feet on the ground where danger was concerned: ‘You didn’t fly long in the RAF before losing a friend in a flying accident. I remember going to a lot of funerals in the late 1980s. It was just the reality of fast-jet flying.’
He himself had ejected once when the Harrier he was flying blew apart. He parachuted safely to the ground and walked away without a scratch on him.
Kate Saunders was reaching the end of a few weeks of work experience with an RAF squadron and as a treat was offered the chance of flying as a passenger in the rear seat of a two-seater Harrier combat jet
In addition to her broken leg and pelvis and a compression fracture to her spine, Kate had suffered 28 per cent burns to her body, which would require extensive plastic surgery. She would remain in hospital for nearly three months
That was a year before, on a training mission over Denmark. For today’s sortie at RAF Wittering near Peterborough he was piloting an older version of the Harrier, a two-seat trainer.
Before walking out to it, Kate had gone through a stringent medical, been given an emergency briefing about the ejection seat and watched an explanatory video. She was handed a g-suit, helmet, life jacket, flying boots and gloves. ‘Most of it didn’t fit properly,’ she remembers. ‘All the kit had been designed for men.’
It was also a fact that some women were simply too light for the powerful seats designed to eject bulky men, so there was increased risk of serious injury if they had to pull the handle.
But Kate knew none of this as she climbed into the rear seat, excited to be getting airborne in a fast jet.
‘It was the last trip of my stay with the squadron, and I was being given the chance very few were ever offered: flying in a combat jet. I was going to make the most of it.’
She remembered vividly the words of one of the briefing pilots. ‘He said, “If you have to eject and nothing happens, it’s probably because you are a girl and haven’t pulled the handle hard enough, so make sure you really yank it.” It was part in jest and part a warning, which I took to heart.’
Stevenson told her: ‘In an emergency, I will call, “Eject! Eject!” Pull the handle, shut your eyes and go. Don’t ask questions, or you’ll be sitting there on your own.’
Kate eyed the yellow-striped handle between her legs and wondered how strong a yank it would need.
The Harrier took off, and for 45 minutes Stevenson put it through its paces at 250 feet and 500mph.
As they entered the home stretch, heading south past Scarborough and across the Yorkshire Wolds, he asked Kate if she’d like to take the controls. She didn’t hesitate.
Ashley Stevenson and Kate Saunders reunited after the ‘jump jet’ crash
He himself had ejected once when the Harrier he was flying blew apart. He parachuted safely to the ground and walked away without a scratch on him
Stevenson was patched up, his chin stitched back into place, his teeth reset. Six weeks later, once his face had healed enough for him to put on an oxygen mask, he was back in the air
‘She knew how to fly a light aircraft but a combat jet was a very different prospect so I’d shown her the rudiments of how to fly the Harrier,’ explains Stevenson. ‘We were on a long straight leg over unchallenging terrain and I could keep a close eye on everything.’ Kate was thrilled. ‘I was flying a modern combat jet at high speed and low level. Life couldn’t get any better as we chatted about my possible career as a pilot.’
Below her a farmer was on his tractor ploughing a field, followed by flocks of birds.
Suddenly there was an almighty bang and Kate, still piloting the Harrier from the back seat, saw a bright flash and felt a huge thud.
The protective blast screen between the front and rear cockpits prevented her from hearing anything. She yelled out, ‘Ashley, what’s wrong?’ But there was a deathly silence. Although neither of them knew it, a black-headed gull weighing around 9oz had smashed through the Perspex canopy above the front cockpit and into Stevenson’s face, like a cricket ball hitting you at 500mph. It knocked him unconscious, ripped off his oxygen mask and dislodged his helmet.
His visor had splintered and his chin sliced open. His bottom teeth had been smashed sideways and a flap of skin now hung down over his jaw. He was incredibly lucky to have survived the initial impact of the bird. But both he and Kate now faced further mortal danger. ‘What the hell’s happening?’ Kate shouted again. Still no reply from the front cockpit. In the pit of her stomach, she knew they were in serious trouble. From where she sat, it looked like the pilot had slumped forward in his seat, but she couldn’t be sure. Maybe he was preparing to take back control?
Still flying, she yelled to get his attention, unaware that his microphone and headphones no longer functioned. She shouted louder, but the blast screen muffled her cries. She had no idea what to do.
‘Everything was unfolding in mere fractions of a second. I decided I shouldn’t be fighting him if he was trying to take control of the jet,’ she says. ‘So I deliberately let go of the control column.’ Within seconds, Stevenson began to come around. Hearing Kate’s muffled yells, he sensed her fear, ‘but I was semi-conscious, disorientated, blinded, doubled over, my head resting on my left leg. The buffeting from the airstream blasting through the gaping hole in the shattered canopy added to my confusion. Unable to see, I had no idea if the jet was steady, going up, or descending rapidly towards the ground.’ Training and gut instinct kicked in as he tried to work out how long they had before hitting the ground.
He asked himself: ‘Can I fly the aircraft? No. I can’t see anything. Can Kate fly it? All she needs to do is get it away from the ground and hold a safe height and altitude until I can fully regain my senses. She had control before impact, but she hasn’t the experience or skills to take command of the situation, or to land.’
He realised he was going to have to ditch. But because the plane was an older model of Harrier and not fitted with a Command Eject system whereby the pilot ejecting would automatically trigger eject for the occupant of the rear seat, that meant she would have to pull her own handle.
Meteor pilot Ron Guthrie in the cockpit prior to taking off on the day he was shot down during the Korean War
RAF Apprentices In Training. Boys seeking a career in Britain’s jet and rocket-age Air Force can get a thorough training in technical trades at the RAF Apprentices School, Halton
Rodolfo Castro Fox, who was seriouslyinjured when his ejection seat failed to fire properly in August 1981
‘But how can I tell her to eject when I have no mask or microphone, and my mouth is severely damaged?
‘The only way is for me to eject, and hope to God she takes the hint and follows.
‘But what if she doesn’t? What if she crashes with the jet? But if I don’t pull the handle she’ll die anyway, as will I, so what’s the point of not giving it a go?’ He reached down and pulled the handle.
Four seconds had passed since the impact with the bird and Kate saw the pilot’s ejection seat rise in front of her. The rockets flamed and then it disappeared above her. She straightened her back, shut her eyes and yanked the ejection handle upwards for all she was worth. ‘There was a huge whoosh and I was moving upwards. That’s the last thing I remember.’
Two seconds later, the now empty Harrier hit the ground, exploding and disintegrating. Its remaining fuel ignited, torching 40 acres of corn stubble.
Floating down, Stevenson was unconscious again, knocked out by the thrust of the ejection seat, and was only brought round by the parachute opening. The ground was only feet away and he hit it with a monumental thump, which knocked him out for the third time.
When he came to he saw he was just 50 yards short of the aircraft’s crash point. A wall of flame from the burning field stretched several hundred yards in front of him. He hauled himself groggily upright, flying suit dripping with blood, a huge gash on his chin. ‘I could lift the skin up like a cat flap.’
Kate had ejected from the Harrier just 90 feet from the ground, so close that there was not enough time or height for her parachute to fully open. She should not have survived, but incredibly the blast wave caused as the Harrier crashed and exploded had helped inflate her parachute and break her fall.
But she had landed in the blaze created by the crashing Harrier. The fireball had just saved her life, now it threatened to burn her to death.
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When she recovered consciousness, she was horrified to see that the fireball had set her parachute alight and molten droplets of its artificial material were scorching her forearms. ‘One of my legs looked as though it wasn’t attached to me any more.’ She had open fractures to her right leg, a compression fracture of her spine and a fractured pelvis.
Somehow, she managed to sit up. ‘I was in an inferno, surrounded by flames and grey smoke.’ The ground beneath her was on fire and the back of her legs and buttocks were burning. The paper maps tucked into the front-leg pocket of her g-suit burst into flames. Her flying boots were melting. Her nylon life jacket was on fire and as the flames reached the nape of her neck she began screaming.
But immobilised by so many fractures, evasive action was impossible.
She started to panic, but then took herself to task. ‘Come on, Kate. You have to deal with this. Now!’
She explains: ‘I tried to beat out the fire on my body with my hands.’ Her life jacket was now melting onto her back and she struggled to unclip it.
‘I held a hand in front of my face and watched as my skin melted, burning through to the bone. I now realised I couldn’t save myself.’
She started screaming louder. ‘Help me! I’m dying.’ Stevenson came to her rescue, hobbling through a wall of fire, unable to see through the smoke but aiming towards the sound of her screams. Ignoring his own pain, he forced himself to move faster. Finally he saw her, only 15 feet away. ‘She was sitting upright on the ground, lightly slapping the flames licking at the back of her neck, as if lethargically shooing flies on a hot summer’s day. Her whole body was burning, her hands, her neck, her back and legs . . . all on fire.’
Kate saw him coming and, perversely, all she could think of to say was: ‘You didn’t say Eject! Eject!’ — which was ‘a bit ungrateful, as he was putting his own life at risk to help me’.
Her nylon g-suit was melting on to her legs and eight-inch flames were consuming her life jacket. Stevenson threw himself on top of her to try to smother them, then did his best to beat them out.
‘In the end, the life jacket more or less disintegrated and I managed to tear it clear of her,’ he says. ‘Skin from her back came away too. Her hands looked like molten plastic.’ Kate’s pain was now close to unbearable. ‘I’m burning,’ she screamed.
Somehow he found the strength to grab her around her waist and drag her away.
Her broken leg and burned backside bounced and scraped across the ground, prompting further agonised screams. ‘Leave me here,’ she whimpered. ‘It’s hurting so much. I just want it to be over.’ Stevenson knew it wasn’t an option. Battling against the smoke, the searing heat, the stabbing pains in his heel from the landing and close to exhaustion, he had to stop three times to rest, each time picking her up again and dragging her on.
Guy Gruters photographed during his time as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war
Bernard Lynch ready for one of the firstairborne ejection seat tests in 194
Jo Lancaster, the first pilot to eject using a Martin-Baker seat in 1949
Lance Sijan, who died as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, at the USAF Academy in the early 1960s
And then help appeared in the shape of a small van. A decorator had been painting the exterior of a house a few miles away and saw the Harrier crash. He told the owners to dial 999, then sped towards the smoke.
Stevenson lifted Kate onto the bonnet and the driver reversed away as police and fire service arrived on the scene, followed by an RAF Search And Rescue helicopter, which flew them both to Hull City football ground, from where an ambulance took them to hospital.
In addition to her broken leg and pelvis and a compression fracture to her spine, Kate had suffered 28 per cent burns to her body, which would require extensive plastic surgery. She would remain in hospital for nearly three months.
Stevenson was patched up, his chin stitched back into place, his teeth reset. Six weeks later, once his face had healed enough for him to put on an oxygen mask, he was back in the air.
He was a regular visitor to Kate’s hospital bedside. The first time he saw her, he had to hide his shock. She was bandaged head to foot and unable to move or feed herself. A third of her body had been severely burned. She had a metal plate in her shattered leg and her pelvis was broken in two places. He blamed himself. ‘Driving home, I was often in bits, and I had to park up so I could cry. I had feelings of guilt. I still do. She had nearly died and I was the pilot and senior officer. I was responsible.’
After ten weeks, Kate was released, barely able to walk and unable to sit with any comfort, or bend her knees. More operations and grafts followed but she eventually completed her degree and joined the RAF to start the pilot training she had always dreamed of.
Sadly, her injuries meant she could not continue. Following a medical discharge, she switched to teaching as a career and is now a trained counsellor and 53-year-old mother of two. ‘I think my own experiences of ejecting, facing death and being badly injured have helped me relate to other people who encounter difficult circumstances in their lives,’ she says.
There are reminders of her ordeal all over her body. Her back is still very badly scarred, along with her backside, ankles and arms.
‘If I went to a party you wouldn’t see me in a sleeveless dress or a T-shirt. I always covered up. I still wish I didn’t have to choose clothes that completely cover my arms and legs. I’d love to wear a short skirt or a strapless dress. But I can’t.’
But she is philosophical. ‘Bad things happen in life and sometimes we are tested by the circumstances we are thrust into. I’d rather not have ejected, been badly injured, badly burned, but I was. And when we are tested, we begin to learn what we are made of.’
She acknowledges a huge debt to Ashley Stevenson. ‘I simply would not be alive if he had not been ready to risk his own life to save mine. I was probably outside the survivable parameters when I ejected, but I’m alive today because of that ejection seat.’
For his part, Stevenson — in his mind’s eye — still sees Kate trapped in the flames, her hands and back burning. Relating the story to friends he still breaks down in tears, sobbing his heart out. Now 64 and a management consultant, he received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct for rescuing Kate.
He is far from alone in discovering that the post-ejection experience could be as traumatic as the event itself. (In the same way that I still remember ejecting from a Tornado combat jet over Iraq 32 years ago during the first Gulf War, being captured, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured before finally being released.)
‘The ejection seat had saved Kate’s life and mine,’ Stevenson says. ‘We were both so lucky to survive the whole incident; the bird strike, the ejection, the inferno. In spite of all the suffering, we are just lucky to be alive.’
Adapted from Eject! Eject! by John Nichol, to be published by Simon & Schuster on May 25 at £20. © John Nichol 2023. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 27/05/23; UK P&P free on orders over £25), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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