A former RAF fighter pilot who became a Church of England minister was lucky to survive a visit to the Yorkshire Dales. After an air crash and nearly dying, he still holds the record for the lowest and fastest ejection from an aeroplane at speed. Philip Sedgwick met him

SETTING off from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire in a group of four Phantom fighter-bombers, pilot Ian Ferguson expected Tuesday, January 7, 1986, to be a routine training day.

The two-man crews soon made the 45 minute journey to the Yorkshire Dales, where they selected the area above Buckden Pike and West Burton for a game of attack and defence with Flight-Lieutenant Ian Ferguson and his navigator Steve Williams becoming part of the attacking force.

Ian remembers: "As I closed the gap on one of the other aircraft – we had to be within a mile-and-a-quarter to 'launch' our missiles and get an infra-red signature – we would have been travelling at 600 miles-an-hour and we were only 250 feet above the ground, which is the lowest allowed."

But then, the aircraft begin to lurch violently.

Ian recalls: “The nose dropped although I hadn’t done anything. I needed try to get up to 10,000 feet to control it properly.”

As he gently touched the controls, the aircraft reacted by pitching up and down to an angle of 45 degrees, creating a massive 8G force. Inside the cockpit, Ian’s head was pushed down onto his knees. All he could only see through the canopy was mountains and rocks – not the sky that should have been there.

Ian, an experienced pilot, knew in that split second the aircraft was doomed. He pulled the ejection lever with one hand, but kept the other on the throttle, so the plane was still travelling forwards at 600mph but now it was accelerating upwards as well, from nought to 60mph in just three seconds.

Ian distinctly remembers the moment: “I saw my body come out of the aircraft and the Phantom with its 38 foot wingspan pass under me.

“The next thing it exploded into the mountainside and turned into a fireball. I didn't see Steve my navigator eject.

“Then, after all the noise, it suddenly became quiet and my parachute opened – but only for seconds."

As he fell through the air, he says he felt very calm and not unduly alarmed, but was wondering if he was going to survive...

Then he hit the ground.

He knew straightaway that he was still alive, but that he had problems – a broken arm, a broken leg, and a billowing parachute to which he was still attached and which canopy was dragging him across the snow-covered ground.

In that moment, Ian, a devout Christian, implored God to give him sufficient strength to detach himself from his parachute and emergency pack, and, after a brief struggle, they parted company enabling him to slide to a crumbled stop.

There he sat on a Wensleydale mountain, all alone in the snow – except for his burning aeroplane. He was unable to move because of his injuries. He was unsure his rescue beacon had activated. He had no idea if Steve, his navigator, had somehow managed to escape the flaming wreckage.

So he loudly sang out a hymn: “Be Bold and Be Strong”.

Above him, his colleagues were circling, looking down on the scene of devastation, certain that no one could have survived.

It took about an hour for the rescue crew to locate him. “They told me I looked great and they were taking me to Catterick Garrison Hospital," he remembers. "And I replied: ‘That’s good as I used to run a Sunday school there’.”

They also located the navigator who was lower down the slope who was alive but not quite so fortunate. His parachute had burned so that it had not functioned properly, and it needed a second helicopter from RAF Leuchars in Scotland to extricate him.

The pair were initially treated at the Catterick hospital where one of his first visitors was a family friend, Keith Hall from Richmond. He recalls the touching moment when the two lucky survivors were wheeled into the corridor so they could see each other for the first time since their brush with death at 250ft.

The inquiry into the accident exonerated Ian. Mechanical failure was to blame. Nine months later, he was back in the cockpit. His first foray, at the insistence of his instructor, was over West Burton. After making seven passes over the crash site, his instructor concluded he was stable and thus able to resume full-time flying.

Steve the navigator recalled nothing of the accident and its aftermath, and he too made a full recovery and continued his RAF career.

Later converting to Tornadoes, Ian became an instructor and was given the responsibility of flight safety training – which suggests that the RAF has a strange sense of humour.

When he left the RAF, he was ordained and spent years five years as a minister in Blackburn, latterly as chaplin to 25,000 medical patients. Recently retired, he is now writing his autobiography in which West Burton looks likely to feature. He still keeps in touch with Steve, whose wife Liz was nurse at Northallerton whom he met while stationed at RAF Leeming.

The crash made the front page of The Northern Echo and a more sedate middle page of the D&S Times. Much of the accompanied comment related to the dangers of low-level flying.

The crash site at Walden was quickly cleared by the RAF, although much to the amusement of the locals, the trucks often became stuck in the mud on West Burton village green.

Looking back at his extraordinary escape, Ian says: “It was not my time to go. God performs miracles and can make things go his way.

“I can't explain how we survived other than someone was looking after us that day, and Steve survived because he was prayed back to recovery. I was never worried as my life was in God’s hands.”