This is the story of Wing Commander Walter “Taffy” Holden. An engineer in the Royal Air Force who whilst performing routine maintenance accidentally took off in an English Electric Lightning.
“Taffy” studied mechanical engineering at university thanks to a cadetship through the RAF in 1943. He also did a bit of flying but never intended to be a pilot. He learned on the De Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk and the Harvard (T-6 Texan). But his goal was to work on frontline aircraft.
Achieving what he had set out to do, by 1966 he was in command of the No.33 Maintenance Unit at RAF Lyneham. They worked on all current aircraft at the time, including the English Electric Canberra as well as the Lightning.
Whilst his career for the next 23 or so years remained relatively uneventful, it was not until 1966 that it took a frightening turn.
As the maintenance unit was relatively small, they only had qualified test pilots for Gloster Meteors and Canberras. For Lightning flights, they would need to request a pilot with the relevant certifications to perform the required testing.
The performance of the Lightning was on another level compared to that of other modern jet fighters. It was the first aircraft capable of supercruise – where the supersonic flight can be sustained without the use of an afterburner.
It was not as simple as just knowing how to fly, hence the requirement for certified Lightning test pilots.
Activity at the No.33 unit was winding down as it was due to be disbanded. Holding up the closure was a particular aircraft – XM135. A Lightning F.1 wearing No.74 Tiger Squadron colours that performed duties as display aircraft. This aircraft was the first full-production F.1 and first flew in November 1959.
No test pilots were available after repairs had been made to XM135. However, this was not an issue due to the nature of what needed to be done. Taxiing 30 – 40 metres at a time to test different electrical configurations. The engines would need to be spooled to high RPMs then cut the power and apply the brakes.
At no point did the Lightning need to take to the sky.
Holden volunteered to perform the testing. He would communicate with a vehicle following closely by the side of the aircraft as well as speaking with the tower.
XM135s canopy had been removed and the landing gear locked for testing and naturally, Holden did not require a helmet or radio for performing ground testing.
The very first test went as expected, the engines were pushed to high RPM then back to idle and brakes were applied and the aircraft moved about 35 metres. Only several tests were needed to be performed before the Lightning could be moved back into the hangar.
On the second test, Holden accidentally pushed the throttles past the afterburner gate. Whilst this would not sound like an issue normally, the Lightning required buttons to be pressed behind the throttle to disengage. Coupled with the huge amount of power produced by these engines on full afterburner, XM135 quickly gained speed whilst Holden fumbled with the throttle.
Narrowly he missed a fuel tanker on the runway in front of him and whilst this may sound like a cartoon, Holden crossed the main runway as a de Havilland Comet took off over his head! Quickly the engineer-come-pilot realised that he was about to meet a fiery end and had to act as the tarmac was running out. There was no time to brake so there was only one option left…
He pulled back on the stick.
XM135 lept into the air roaring on full afterburner, canopy missing and gear stuck down. Gathering his thoughts and processing the situation he was now in, Holden disengaged the afterburner. His next priority was to look for the Comet that has just taken off before him but thankfully it was no where to be found.
He was unable to speak with the tower as he did not have a helmet or radio, now on his own and needing to get this plane down.
Due to the high speed, Holden was frantically trying to keep the airfield in sight. Otherwise, all hopes of safely landing were gone. Ejection was not possible due to the ground locks being in place to make sure that ground testing was safe. He had to land it back at Lyneham.
Holden was no stranger to flying, he’d spent many hours in the Chipmunk and Harvard. But this was a totally different beast. Thanks to the aggressively swept wings, the landing speed was much higher than what he was used to.
He circled the main runway and attempted to land in the opposite direction to which he took off. If he crashed, he would avoid the small village at the end of the airfield. On the first two attempts, his speed and atltitude were completely wrong and instead he chose to go around.
Finally on the third attempt, he committed.
Holden was used to flying tail dragging aircraft. This configuration is where a small tail wheel is used at the rear of the aircraft with the main undercarriage towards the middle of the fuselage. The Lightning uses a tricycle style undercarriage. And on his third attempt the nose was pointed far too high.
The tail of XM135 slammed into the runway breaking the cable of the drogue parachute that was used for slowing the Lightning down.
Holden used the brakes to maximum capacity and XM135 came to a halt less than 100 metres before the end of the runway. The entire ordeal lasted 12 minutes but to this engineer it felt like a lifetime.
RAF Lyneham was filled with staff, some RAF, and some civilian contractors. It was impossible to cover this up. News broke and Holden was posted to Italy.
However, word quickly spread not only throughout the UK but also Europe where he was even recognised whilst aboard as the man who accidentally took off in a Lightning!
Naturally, there was an official inquiry. But Holden had not acted against any orders. On top of this, he also managed to save himself and the aircraft. Unbelievably there were no grounds to charge Holden and he remained in the RAF until he retired in the early 80s.
XM135 was repaired and returned to service where she flew (with trained pilots) until 1974 when she was acquired by the Imperial War Museum Duxford. This aircraft remains there today with details of this amazing and completely true story. Holden recalled this event on numerous occasions often met with disbelief. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2016 at the age of 90.