How a RAF Ground Engineer Accidentally Took Off in a Fighter Jet

And flew for 12 minutes.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The photo credit line may appear like thisAlan Wilson/Wikimedia

It's a popular tale as it makes for a good story. You likely have heard it before: the Royal Air Force (RAF) ground technician who accidentally took off in an English Electric Lightning after a mistake took place on a standard ground engine run.

Let's take the story from the beginning, shall we?

On 22 July 1966, Walter "Taffy" Holden, an engineer in command of No. 33 Maintenance Unit RAF, was conducting a routine ground engine run, according to Fighter Jets World. Holden, who had studied mechanical engineering, had limited experience flying small single-engine trainer aircraft.

He had, however, learned to fly on the de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane and had qualified for RAF pilot wings after training on the Harvard. Still, he was not prepared for what was about to happen on that day in 1966.

While doing his job routinely, he inadvertently engaged the afterburner of a Mach 2.0-capable English Electric Lightning. He quickly tried to disengage the afterburner, but nothing could be done: the afterburner remained active.

In actuality, disengaging the afterburner would have required pushing the gate keys behind the throttle, but Holden, being so inexperienced in operating planes, did not know this.

Holden then found himself running down the runway, almost striking a crossing fuel bowser and a de Havilland Comet, before taking off. He ended up being airborne without a helmet or canopy, and what's worse, the ejection seat was disabled and the landing gear was locked down, leaving Holden no choice but to attempt a landing.

It took Holden three landing attempts to finally succeed. Holden would later recall that the landing speed for the Lightning was 150 knots in his third successful try. In total, Holden was airborne for 12 minutes.

The story ended well perhaps because Holden had some experience flying but it easily could have taken a turn for the worst. The story serves as a warning to ground engineers to always be careful during their work.

If you want to hear another entertaining aviation story, check out this video on a rogue UK pilot who flew under London's Tower Bridge for the first and final time.

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