Anyone with a passion for aviation will have heard the tale of the Royal Air Force ground technician who accidentally took off in an English Electric Lightning after an error on what was supposed to be a ground engine run.
On 22 July 1966 Walter “Taffy” Holden, an engineer in command of No. 33 Maintenance Unit RAF with limited experience flying small single-engine trainer aircraft, inadvertently engaged the afterburner of a Mach 2.0-capable English Electric Lightning during ground testing.
Unable to disengage the afterburner, Holden ran down the runway, narrowly missing a crossing fuel bowser and a de Havilland Comet taking off, before taking off himself.
Flying without a helmet or canopy, the ejection seat disabled, and the landing gear locked down, Holden aborted his first two landing attempts.
He landed on his third approach, striking the runway with the aircraft’s tail as he adopted in his flare the attitude of a taildragger aircraft. The aircraft returned to service and after flying for 1343 hours, XM135 was acquired in 1974 by the Imperial War Museum Duxford, where it is on display.
The electrical fault was determined to be caused by wires left in place from a deleted ground test button for the standby inverter, which shorted into the UHF radio which moved on its trunnions during the takeoff run.
The inadvertent flight was impossible to hide from the press since the base was filled with civilian contractors. Holden was sent to Italy on leave when the news broke; however, he was recognized there as well.
An inquiry confirmed that Holden had not acted against any orders in the Flight Order Book (though these orders were subsequently amended) and that Holden had saved himself and the plane.
According to Holden, in a review before Air Marshal Kenneth Porter, he was asked whether he agreed that “With the limited flying experience I had, the test would have been better left to an experienced and current Lightning test pilot”, which he answered in the affirmative, following which Porter related some of his own unfortunate flying incidents. Holden remained in RAF service and retired in the late 1970s / early 1980s.
Holden died in 2016, aged 90.