English Electric Canberra WT207; Lathkill Dale, then and now

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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.
IWM Duxford 226a

(original b&w photo © Crown Copyright)

35 comments on “English Electric Canberra WT207; Lathkill Dale, then and now
  1. nondesigner59 says:

    Great work.!!
    Cheers.

  2. cgullz says:

    WOW! that is insane!
    ‘experimental’ has GOT to add a few extra 0,000’s to the salary!
    crazy height to eject from – the air would be so thin, amazing that they lived. fantastic tale Ian, great shot, cool work!

  3. Keartona says:

    I must have been past this site countless times.

  4. Ian D B says:

    Thanks guys. One report says the air temperature they were exposed to was -57°C, and the effects of that sudden change in air pressure must have been horrendous.

  5. rob of rochdale says:

    Flippin’ amazing stuff Ian!

  6. cgullz says:

    btw – have you heard of Felix’s attempt to make the highest jump?:

    ngadventure.typepad.com/blog/2010/09/felix-baumgartner-pr…

  7. Tech Owl says:

    What an experience – and what a contradiction between the debris and the surrounding landscape

  8. Nate Parker Photography says:

    it’s the spinning wildly all the way down part that must have been hideous!

  9. amyrey says:

    Super idea to merge "then and now". Nightmare tale.

  10. gastephen says:

    That looks like quite a large section – amazing that it survived intact.

    ~ Graham ~
    Drop by my photostream!

  11. Hotpix [LRPS] Hanx for 1.5M Views says:

    Nice idea Ian presenting it like that!

    Seen in my contacts photostream……{.?.}

    Tone
    Hotpix http://www.hotpix.org.uk

    365-259 Macro Detail Of Pink Tulip Anthers and Stigma

    Walk a year in my shoes, share 100 ipod trax with me, see whats up my street or visit my world beyond the red.

  12. mickb6265 says:

    ian,this is amazing to see,again..the canberra wing is eerie but survived..the wk163 canberra is one of the aircaft to be explored at airbase,coventry..i was having a good look in through the crew hatch,last week…they have a 2nd one next to it..wk163 has the crews names still on it..plus a detail of the record..

  13. mick cooke says:

    brilliant ian

  14. pasujoba says:

    Thats terrific Ian , its not there now then 🙂
    Looks a decent spot too very attractive area .

  15. C J Paul (chris) says:

    man a live just gone cold. great job ian brilliant shot of the wing……
    top info…

  16. :: Lazy Moose :: says:

    Incredible stories and pictures. I bet they felt like the loneliest men in the world right at that moment. Terrifying.

  17. andyholmfirth says:

    WOw that is a long way to fall ! Really like the effect of placing that ghostly wing in there.

  18. aviateam says:

    My father was commanding WT207 as part of the RAF test programme for double scorpion application to the H bomb programme being carried out on Christmas Island in the Pacific. I recall the descent took 15 minutes, with free-fall to around 10,000 feet.

    The spinning was likely caused by impact with debris on ejection – luckily neither Dad or the seat was damaged by the assumed impact. He landed near Monyash wearing a full space pressure suit and was initially found by a local farmer who had heard the explosion some time before. Back in 1958 this was like finding a live Apollo astronaut in your field – I have often wondered how the farmer felt that day!

    In his log book for this flight he simply states ‘pressurisation – ejected’, factual and very under stated for the world’s highest ejection.

    Dad was a graduate of Empire Test Pilot’s school, the world’s first test pilot school, and was involved in many fascinating cold war test programmes. He continued to fly in the RAF after this event until about 1968 and then joined British Caledonian as a Captain in 1968. He retired in the late 1980s and sadly died in 2005 after 45 years flying around 100 different aircraft types.

  19. Ian D B says:

    Aviateam, thank you very much indeed for these details and memories. Can you imagine what the farmer must’ve thought upon finding him in his field! Your Father must’ve felt very ill upon landing, but equally very relieved to have made it down. That understated log is very British – it shows something of the mettle of the man.

    Thank you too for the additional notes about his career. My first ever flight was in the late 80’s, with British Caledonian, Manchester to Rome….

    Always good to hear from relatives, thank you again for taking the time and effort to share this with us.

    Ian

  20. IANLAYZELLUK says:

    WOW.

  21. Never Was An Arrow II says:

    ☆☆☆☆☆ SUPERB FIVE STAR Creative!

  22. crusader752 says:

    Great composite and info.
    Incredible story Ian and something almost out of Dan-Dare if it wasn’t true. Must have been like baling out of Concorde and to suffer such a descent just shows us what men (and women) were made of back then. The Canberra was one of our amazing success stories – sold in great numbers including the USA where she was licence built as the Martin B-57. Wonderful too, in having one of the crew’s relatives put their unique comment on here.
    Marvellous and I’m sorry I haven’t found this before 🙂

  23. M.J.O'BRIEN says:

    HAS ANYONE GOT INFO ON A CANBERRA BOMBER ARIES V FROM RAF MAMBY THAT GOT INTO DIFFICULTIES OVER THE NORTH SEA. IT WAS BELIEVED THE CREWW EJECTED AT NEARLY 70,000 FT AND THEY LANDED SAFELY IN DERBYSHIRE

  24. 'Four mile smile' says:

    Pat Lowe qualified as a civil air traffic controller and worked at the London Air Traffic Control Centre, West Drayton until he retired. Sadly he died on the 13th February 2014.

    • Ian D B says:

      Thanks for adding that. Interesting to read of his career, sad to hear of his death. Both crew no longer with us.

  25. SarahWells says:

    Hi, I’m one of Pat Lowe’s daughters. Lovely image, and interesting to read all the comments.

    Sadly, my father passed away in February this year. At his funeral, we read from his account of this accident and I thought I should share that with you.

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Yu2V3IZz87ai73_VNB35FmgJGixgPhPMLKwFYkMm9lU/pub

    That document includes a picture of him taken around this time, in his flying suit.

    My father was in the RAF until 1964, taking part in the Christmas Island bomb tests and the development of in-flight refuelling – he was one of the first air crew to fly non stop from the UK to Australia. He then became an Air Traffic Controller – another high stress job where you need to make the right decisions quickly! He loved this, staying on past retirement.

    • Ian D B says:

      Sarah, thank you very much for your comment and for adding his recollection of the accident. Thank you also for giving us more detail of his career. They were something else those jet aviation pioneers, heroes all! It’s very good to hear from you but I was saddened to read of his death a few days ago.

      I will add something in the main text about your comment and the account and the photo of your Dad.

      Best wishes,

      Ian

  26. aviateam says:

    Dear Sarah,

    I am one of Peter de Salis’ sons and I am sad to hear of Pat’s recent passing; my thoughts are with you and your family.

    I grew up with your father’s name in family discussions and I am sad not to have ever met him.

    In the spring of 1958 our fathers wrote the following letter to Sir James Martin:

    ”Dear Sir,

    On 9th April 1958 we had the experience of ejecting from a Canberra from 56,000 feet using the Martin-Baker fully modified seats.

    We should both like to express our most heartfelt thanks to you, and all those who made and proved the seats so reliable. We are both quite certain that , if all the automatics had not worked perfectly, you would not now be reading this letter.

    We hope that in the near future we will both be able to visit you and to thank you personally.

    At the moment we are having a pleasant rest at Halton with no serious injuries.

    Thank you very much.

    P.H.G Lowe
    Flying Officer
    J.P.F. de Salis
    Flight Lieutenant”

    Never was a thank you so understated. It is thanks to the dedication of James Martin and Valentine Baker that you and I were born and are here today.

    • SarahWells says:

      Thank you for sharing that letter. My father likewise talked about Peter de Salis.

      Generally though, he was quite reticent about discussing his achievements in the RAF – I only discovered he’d taken part in the Christmas Island bomb tests when I was 16 and there was a news item about them!

      My father was given the ejection seat canisters mounted on a wooden plaque to commemorate the escape.

      Regards,
      Sarah

  27. Ian D B says:

    Aviateam thank you very much for this and for adding that letter to this record. I have often heard air crew (US airmen especially) express their gratitude and appreciation of British made ejection seats.

    Ian

  28. Ian D B says:

    7439? Never thought it would be that many. That’s a lot of lives saved!

  29. Dave Jackson says:

    Interesting to read the above. I am one of the team of engineers who look after Canberra WK163 at Coventry. I wrote a book on the history of the aircraft and covered the Scorpion programme amongst the aircrafts other trial history back in 2006.

  30. Tony Cutress says:

    I was the Flight Engineer for Peter DeSalis when he was a Shackleton MK.3 captain on no. 206 Squadron St Mawgan from 1963 to the time that 206 Sqn. Moved to RAF Kinloss, I had great respect for Peter, like me, he did everything ‘by the book’ & all his crew knew where they stood with him. His ‘Crew 2’ on 206 was my first crew after qualifying & I went with him in March-April 1964 to Cyprus to patrol between Cyprus & Turkey during the First threatened Invasion of Cyprus for 12hr patrols at 2000ft – boring – if any of his family would like to contact me – it would be greatly appreciated – I am 80 next year & tend to relive all these experiences – as one does when older – would not have missed flying with him for all the world.

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