The Engineer Who Accidentally Took Off in a Military Jet Without Knowing How To Fly It

On July 22, 1966, Walter “Taffy” Holden, an engineer in command of No. 33 Maintenance Unit RAF with limited experience flying small-engine trainer aircraft, inadvertently engaged the afterburner of a Mach 2.0-capable British fighter aircraft during ground testing. Unable to disengage the afterburner, Holden shot down the runway, narrowly missing a crossing fuel tanker and a commercial airliner taking off, before taking off himself. Flying without a helmet or canopy, the ejection seat disabled and the landing fear 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 touched down. The aircraft was returned to service. An investigation found that the cause of the incident was an electrical fault. Holden was sent to Italy on leave when the news broke to avoid being bombarded by the press. He remained in RAF service and retired in the late 1970s. The aircraft was ultimately acquired by the Imperial War Museum Duxford, where it remains on display today.