66 years ago today a pilot ejected from an aeroplane trapped underwater!

The Westland Wyvern was a beast of an aircraft, dwarfing its companions on the decks of the Royal Navy’s carriers in the mid-50s. It is rightly world famous as the first turbo-prop strike fighter and the last fixed wing product from Westlands before they turned to the dark side of aviation. Less well known is another of its claims to fame as the platform for the first underwater ejection.

Wednesday 13 October 1954 was a relatively normal day onboard HMS Albion in the Mediterranean. 813 Naval Air Squadron had recently embarked for the Wyvern’s debut appearance at sea and Lt B D Macfarlane RN lined up his aircraft for take-off. Moments after the flight deck officer gave the signal for launch steam filled the catapult piston and accelerated the aircraft to 70 knots in the space of around hundred and fifty feet. At this point a design flaw that had somehow escaped discovery during the Wyvern’s eight years of development revealed itself.
A pump located on the centreline drew fuel from both wing tanks and then drove it forwards six feet to the 3,500hp Armstrong Siddeley Python turboprop. Unfortunately, the acceleration from the catapult caused the fuel in the supply pipe to move backwards starving the engine at which point it flamed out. Lt Macfarlane disconcertingly found himself just above stalling speed in an aircraft whose engine was running down and with 24,000 tonnes of carrier just over his shoulder. Shockingly the Wyvern made a poor glider, it did however make a passable impression of a brick and started to sink rapidly after it entered the water.

Image credit: https://royal-naval-association-wrexham-branch.org.uk/aircraft-of-the-royal-navy/

Trapped inside and without an air supply Lt Macfarlane fell back on his training, despite it not specifically covering ‘being in an underwater death trap’. First, he jettisoned the canopy and then as the hull of the carrier thundered overhead pulled the ejector seat handle. At which point nothing happened. Remembering a similar situation occurring on the ground training rig he desperately made a second stronger pull on the handle. This triggered the first explosive charge, the expanding gases starting the seat’s movement before a second stronger charge propelled it and its occupant clear of the aircraft. [1]

Westland Wyvern S4, VZ789, on a carrier deck with wings folded. Date:

Half drowned Macfarlane now found himself tumbling in the maelstrom of water under the Albion’s hull. As if that wasn’t enough, he soon realised he was being dragged deeper under the water. Somehow, able to free himself from the tangle of webbing that was his parachute he then discarded his dinghy pack and began to rise agonisingly slowly towards the surface. Staring death in the face for what must have been at least the fifth time that day Macfarlane desperately pulled the toggle that inflated his lifejacket. Moments later he burst out of the water less than two minutes after the Wyvern had staggered off the carrier’s deck.

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Macfarlane was only the 53rd member of the Martin-Baker Club [2] and the first to use one of their seats underwater, a situation that at that time hadn’t been considered by the company in the design. With the confirmation that ejector seats could work submerged the Admiralty began a programme of research to inform future designs. The Wyvern can then add a major contribution to air safety to its list of accomplishments. [3]

[1] The sequential explosions being developed by Martin-Baker to reduce the peak g pilots would experience on the basic early seats.
[2] Consisting of people whose life has been saved by one of the company’s seats. You get a tie.
[3] Since Macfarlane’s escapade there have been at least two other underwater ejections, one USN and one IN.

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Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.

Thank you.

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One comment

  1. James Oakley

    I would like you to add if possible?..my father Richard Oakley..RN service number..lfx895042 was the armourer responsible for loading and fitting the ejector seat on Lt McFarland‘s aircraft

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