I'd like to introduce the hero of our tale in a little more depth (showing not telling): In his own write - John Macrae-Hall:
In December 1956, Hunters of the Hawker variety made their appearance at Pembrey. These were the Mkl, the first of long line of variants of latter-day fame and much loved by everyone who flew them. They became a legend. I very often did the early morning "weather check". To the west lay the Royal Navy at Brawdy with their Sea Hawks. The west also was where the weather generally came from. So it followed, we met!
First morning it was a lone Sea Hawk, dispatched with ease. I took some good tine camera footage of it squarely in the gun sight. By way of a gesture to our Naval brethren I sent them the film. A few days later they put up a section of two Sea Hawks to greet me. The Hunter dealt with them with almost contemptuous ease. The Navy did not give up easily, on my next foray the following day a flight of four lay in wait at 30,000ft. However I spotted them, well below me, from my "perch" at 45,000. A few "Yo Yo's" later I managed to capture each one on film. Tiy as they might, the Hunter, with its superior performance, eluded them. The photographic evidence was duly dispatched.
The following weekend I journeyed down to Solva to see Babs. In the Ship Inn I overheard two Naval gentlemen discussing the offending Hunter. Obviously I had caused some considerable distress and misgivings in their ranks! One of the local gentlemen, also listened to their dialogue and piped up "If you want to know who had you, talk to that Bloke over there", pointing at me) as he spoke! They sallied over and several drinks later we called a truce. The locals of Solva were joy-filled as the Legend of the Naval defeat rapidly spread, amply embellished with great Celtic hyperbole, fervour and enormous glee.
In those early days of the Hunter, in common with most aircraft, it had some imperfections. One such problem I can remember well. Two Hunters, elsewhere, had lost their Canopies shortly after takeoff. On both occasions the aircraft had crashed and the pilots, who had not ejected, were killed. The "Bubble" cockpit canopy slid To and Fro on rails attached to the Fuselage by 4 catches, one forward and one rear, on each side. The rear catches could only be checked for correct locking by standing on the entry ladder and peering behind the ejector seat. This was an item on the pre-flight check and was carried out religiously by all pilots.
On the 24th April 1956 the Wingco, "Ching" Coulthard led a practice formation aerobatic sortie in practice for an Air Display. Jock Colston was number two and I was number three. Very shortly after takeoff, at about 400 ft and accelerating through 350kts, my canopy parted company. I was struck by assorted debris and recollect little of the events that followed. It seems that I slid under the formation toward Jock who had seen it all, then my aircraft started down toward the sea below. Jock apparently was yelling, "Pull up Johnny! !" and I did so as the aircraft almost became a seaplane. Somehow I staggered back to the Airfield and landed and taxied back to the flight line where a crowd of rescuer's awaited. My "Bone Dome" (manufactured by Cromwell & Co. whom I wrote to later with thanks) had sustained severe damage and I only sustained a bit of a scalp wound needing a few stitches. However, scalp wounds bleed profusely and I had leaked quite a lot. The slipstream had spread it around effectively. I was later told that the poor Airman, who mounted the ladder to assist me, took one look at my face, fainted and fell off the ladder, breaking his arm in the process! I woke up in sick quarters the next day!
Determined to discover the reason for the accident and aware that the two previous losses had been attributed to "Pilot Error" I went out onto the beach below the take off flight path and actually found the detached canopy right hand rail.
The Hawker Field representative was "Mac" McKay. He removed the right hand rear catch from the Aircraft and discovered that with a hard tap it would release. Furthermore, the latch had some free movement on the rail pin. One taxied the Hunter with the canopy open. On a bumpy taxiway, with high-pressure tires, the aircraft shook considerably and the rear catches could unlatch. Of course the pilot had no way of seeing them at this stage. As one lined up for take off, the canopy was closed and the take off commenced. After lift off the undercarriage was retracted and the cockpit pressurized. As airspeed increased, aerodynamic lifting on the canopy took effect. This, combined with the pressurization build up, blew the canopy away from the released latch, shattering the canopy and hitting the pilot in the process. To this point no one had survived to tell the tale and the deceased Pilots were blamed for the accidents. As a result of my incident a modification took place. The front and rear latches were joined by a rod. Some of the covering panelling cut away, exposing part of the front latches. Suitable red and yellow markings were painted on. This effectively took care of the problem.
TOMORROW -- The Proposal and The Wedding -- Stay tuned!