John Oliver Lancaster – a little about the first pilot to use a British ejector seat in an emergency and his Rolex watch


THERE ARE OVER 700 RECORDS listed in IWM Collections’ ‘Post War British Aircraft’ photographs online.

Many are fighters and bombers that first flew in the Second World War – Avro Lancasters, Handley-Page Halifaxes and De Havilland Mosquitos.

Others are the first prototypes of aircraft that would replace them.

Yet more are transport aircraft – some designed to carry paying passengers glamorous destinations as opposed to troops to the far corners of the Empire.

There are trainers, gliders, helicopters, seaplanes and flying boats.

There are aircraft that sit nose up sniffing the air and ones that stand level with the ground, pointing at the horizon. There are jets and propeller-powered designs.

Some are strange insect-like concoctions – almost the doodlings of bored schoolboys done while their teacher explains the finer points of the Latin grammer or the formation of igneous rock strata.

And there are the deltas and tail-less aircraft and the ‘flying wings’.

Unlike the others they will never number in their hundreds or even tens. For they are purely for research.

One of these was the Armstrong Whitworth AW 52, designed to examine laminar flow (1) – the smooth and efficient passage of air over the wings – and as well as the concept of a tail-less aircraft, that is an aircraft which is without a separate fuselage – not just a tail assembly. (2) 

VIEWS OF THE Rolls-Royce Nene powered Armstrong Whitworth AW 52 (TS363).
A second aircraft (TS368) was powered by less powerful Rolls-Royce Derwent engines.
All images copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue references:
Main image – ATP 14842B (Original source –
Top right – ATP 14842D (Original source –
Bottom right –  ATP 14842C (Original source –

By May 1943 aerodynamic calculations had proved the concept so an unpowered glider was built in March 1944 and made its first flight a year later, being towed aloft by a ‘tug’ aircraft. A series of flights followed with the glider being towed to a height of around 20,000 feet (just over 6,000 meters). (3)

From there the decision was made to produce a jet-powered version. This had a wingspan of 90 feet (27.4 metres). The first of two aircraft was complete at the end of 1946 but didn’t start flying until 13 November 1947.

Flying continued into 1948 and a second aircraft – this time with less powerful Rolls-Royce Derwent engines – took to the air 1 September 1948.

Considerable interest was shown by both the technical press and the general public – this being a time when British people took a great interest in aviation matters.

On 30 May 1949 Armstrong Whitworth test pilot John Oliver Lancaster was flying the first aircraft when – in a 320 mph (515 kph) dive – he experienced problems with the control surfaces.

A former apprentice with Armstrong Whitworth, Lancaster had served in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War flying some 54 sorties before becoming a test pilot with a number of aviation firms, finally returning to Armstrong Whitworth. (4)

The plane increasingly started vibrating and wouldn’t respond to the controls. So violently did the aircraft shake that he thought it would break up.

Having pushed the dive correction buttons and wrestled with the controls to no effect he knew he had no choice.

He pulled the hood-jettison knob in front of him – and then made British aviation history by becoming the first British pilot to eject from an aircraft.

Using the what the company calls a pre-Mark 1 Martin Baker ejection seat he ejected over Southam in Warwickshire. (5)

Lancaster shot clear of his aircraft and in doing so became the first of 69 airmen to be saved by this manually operated early ejector seat. (6) The seat sent him some 24 feet skyward before a parachute opened on, enabling the pilot to undo his seat straps and free himself before opening his own  parachute.  (7)

After pulling the ripcord on his parachute landed  – badly bruised – but otherwise safe in a field. (8)

Afterwards the Martin Baker company presented their first user with an engraved gold Rolex watch to mark the occasion.  In 1975 the watch was stolen and thought lost for ever – or at least until 2014 when it turned up in New York.

Descendants of one of the firm’s founders – the Martin family – decided to purchase the watch and return it to Mr Lancaster. He in turn suggested that the watch be sold and the funds used to support the upkeep of the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London, England.

Martin-Baker then bought the watch for a third time allowing Mr Lancaster to donate the money he received to the Memorial. (9) 

The watch is now in the Martin-Baker company museum.

John Lancaster celebrated turned 100 years old on 4 February 2019. (10) 


A little background information

  • The first working ejection seat was developed for the Luftwaffe with the first successful ejection being made on January 14 1942. (11)Helmut Schenk ejected from a Heinkel He 280 jet he was testing. The type of seat he used was installed in a variety of Luftwaffe aircraft. (12)
  • Martin Baker was originally an aircraft manufacturer until Valentine Baker (the co-founder of the company with James Martin) was killed testing one of the company’s aircraft in 1942. Deeply affected by his friend’s death James decided to dedicate the company’s future to aircrew safety. (13)
  • Much of the initial testing of the seats was done by Bernard Ignatius Lynch a fitter at the factory. (14)
  • For his pioneering work he was awarded British Empire Medal on 1948. (15)
  • To date 7595 lives have been saved in the seventy years since John Lancaster left his stricken plane over Warwickshire. (16)
  • Martin-Baker still presents watches to aircrew who have used the company’s seats to eject from a stricken aircraft. (17) (18) 


 (1) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(2) – retrieved 16 February 2019. The rest of the article is available on the following PDFs. – retrieved 16 February 2019 – retrieved 16 February 2019 – retrieved 16 February 2019 – retrieved 16 February 2019

(3) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(4) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(5) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(6) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(7) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(8) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(9) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(10) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(11) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(12)  – retrieved 16 February 2019

(13) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(14) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(15) – retrieved 16 February 2019

(16) – retrieved 16 February 2019

 (17) – retrieved 16 February 2019

 (18) – retrieved 16 February 2019