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Canberra WT207; Lathkill Dale, then and now
9 April 1958. Both crew members ejected safely and – according to Cunningham – set a new record for the highest emergency ejection up to that point, when their Canberra jet bomber exploded at 56,000ft above the village of Monyash in Derbyshire. The port wing came to rest here in Lathkill Dale, spinning down, according to one eye witness, in much the same way as a sycamore seed falling from a tree.
The crew, Flight Lieutenant John Peter de Salis (pilot) and Flying Officer Patrick Lowe (navigator) were testing an experimental Double Scorpion rocket motor positioned in the bomb bay and designed to take the bomber higher than its jet engines could manage alone. On its descent, Fl Lt de Salis turned the rocket motor back on in order to use up its remaining fuel, whereupon it blew up.
Both crew were able to eject from the aircraft which was disintegrating around them, but were injured, Flying Officer Lowe suffering frostbite while Flight Lieutenant de Salis’ parachute didn’t open properly causing him to spin wildly all the way down.
To put baling out at 56,000 ft into perspective, Everest is just over 29,000 ft high, while most airliners cruise at between 30,000 and 40,000 feet.
EDIT MARCH 2014
Regarding the crew;
Please see the comments below from Flt Lt de Salis’ son and from F/O Lowe’s daughter.
J Peter de Salis died in 2005
Pat Lowe died in 2014
Mr Lowe’s daughter has kindly provided link with her father’s account (click here) of this incident, which also has a photo of the man himself. It’s well worth a read, get it from the horse’s mouth rather than my account! Love this quote; “…the aircraft pitched nose down violently and the right wing dropped, there was an explosive decompression and the cockpit filled with dust. With the savoir faire of the typical RAF Flying Officer I thought it was high time I wasn’t there and went fairly rapidly through the ejection procedure, I am bound to say without reference to the pilot.”
Photo below courtesy of the son of Fl Lt de Salis. It is from a newspaper report which comments on how the two men were very experienced aviators and were specifically chosen for this operation. On the left is the pilot, Fl Lt John P F de Salis of Hythe near Sothampton, and at right is F/O Patrick H G Lowe of Potters Bar, London.
Also kindly provided by the pilot’s son are these copies from an American magazine “Coronet” from 1958
Photo of a Canberra on Martin Jordan’s stream. Martin has pointed out – after I had copied his photo to illustrate this story but without realising its historical significance – that this Canberra he photographed at Duxford (WK163) took part in the same rocket tests, setting a world altitude record of 70,310 feet on 28 August 1957.
(original b&w photo Â© Crown Copyright)