The aircraft in the photograph was XG332. It was built in 1959, one of 20 pre-production Lightnings. Alan Sinfield took a photograph of XG332 in 1960 at Farnborough:
However, the very last photograph taken of XG332, in 1962, is deservedly the most famous one. How does someone manage to take a photograph like this? Planning, quick wits and a healthy dose of luck.
Jim Meads is the man who took the picture. He was a professional photographer who lived near the airfield, next door to de Havilland test pilot Bob Sowray.
So, the story goes: Bob Sowray mentioned to Jim Meads that he was going to fly the Lightning that day. When Meads took his kids for a walk, he took his camera along, hoping to get a shot of the plane.
His plan was to take a photograph of the children with the airfield in the background as the Lightning came in to land. They found a good view of the final approach path and waited for the Lightning to return.
As it happened, Bob Sowray didn’t fly the Lightning that day. The pilot was George Aird, another test pilot working for De Havilland.
Whilst carrying out a demonstration flight, there was a fire in the aircraft’s reheat zone. Unburnt fuel in the rear fuselage had been ignited by a small crack in the jet pipe and had weakened the tailplane actuator anchorage. This weakened the tailplane control system which failed with the aircraft at 100 feet on final approach.
The aircraft pitched up violently just as Aird was coming up to land. Aird lost control of the aircraft and ejected.
Luckily, because the nose pitched up he had just enough time to eject.
The tractor in the photograph was a Fordson Super Major. If you look closely at the grill, you’ll see it reads D H Goblin, as in the de Havilland Goblin jet engine.
The tractor driver was 15-year-old Mick Sutterby, who spent that summer working on the airfield. He wasn’t posing for the camera. In fact, he was telling the photographer, Jim Mead, to move on, because he shouldn’t be there.
Mead saw the plane coming in and the nose pitch up. Then Aird ejected and Mead says he had just enough time to line up the shot as the Lightning came down nose first.
Meanwhile, George Aird landed on a greenhouse and fell through the roof, breaking both legs as he landed unconscious on the ground. The water from the sprinkler system for the tomatoes woke him. He’s reported to have said that his first thought was that he must be in heaven.