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When our former chief test pilot Craig Penrice looks up and sees a replica of the historic English Electric Lightning stood outside one of our Lancashire sites, it is always an especially poignant moment.

For the aircraft, which represents the proud heritage of our company’s engineering and manufacturing expertise, has played an astonishing role in his professional life.

There are not many pilots – little more than 160 in fact – who can say they have ejected from an aircraft twice.

But Craig, who grew up in Glasgow and lived in the Lancashire area for many years, is one of that elite group. And the first date – September 19, 1985, as he flew the English Electric Lightning F Mk6 XS 921, over the freezing North Sea off the East Yorkshire coast - is one which shall forever remain ingrained in his memory.

The English Electric Lightning in flight

Today, an exact replica of the very same aircraft stands as a ‘gate guardian’ at Samlesbury, Lancashire – the site where it was built. For Craig, who was then a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF, it is a reminder which always brings that day flooding back.

“The sortie had gone according to plan,” he explains. “It was time to come home and, as I tried to bank left, the stick took a life of its own and, as I let go of it, instead of going back to the middle, it took itself to the full left position.

After trying to cut off the hydraulics to the controls and the computerised inputs, he was left with no choice but to pull the handle. The next thing he remembers is waking up on a rescue helicopter – an hour and a quarter later.

Medics believe it was the onset of hypothermia which caused his body to effectively block everything out – yet remarkably, even with a badly broken arm and leg, there is evidence that he still performed a number of tasks, including inflating his life jacket  and switching on his radio.

“That was just the ingrained training kicking in,” he adds. “From the moment I pulled the handle, I have no recollection.”

Craig Penrice with the English Electric Lightning replica

Craig, who now lives in Gloucestershire but still has family in the Lancashire area, was initially told he would never fly again. But, aged 26, he was determined to prove medics wrong. The damage to his arm meant he had to fly with a metal splint, but his tenacity ensured he did find his way back into the cockpit.

He continued to pilot the English Electric until the end of its life in 1987. He also flew BAE Systems’ advanced military trainer, Hawk, as well the F-15 for the US Air Force and did his Test Pilot training with the US Navy.

He then began to work on development of the Typhoon at BAE Systems and, in 1996, was the first RAF pilot to fly the fighter – which is now the world’s most advanced swing-role combat aircraft.

But in 2003, he was making his way home from an air display at Port Rush, Northern Ireland, when the electrics and engine on the Hunter Mk6 he was flying failed – and he was forced to eject again. He had taken off from Blackpool Airport, Lancashire to the show and was making his way back to Exeter when he was forced to eject around Cardigan Bay.

He was hailed a hero for ensuring he expertly guided the aircraft away from homes and built up areas, but this time he was left with a broken back which required a long rehabilitation - and his flying career was over.

He returned to work in the US for a period, after finding it difficult to continue working on Typhoon without being able to fly it, although he did return to BAE Systems Warton site to take on the role of Aircraft Advisor with the Typhoon Business Development team.

The Lightning replica being installed

In February this year an exact replica of the XS 921 he was piloting in 1985 was lifted into place at Samlesbury. Craig says he feels proud and honoured to have been part of the aircraft’s history.

“Having flown the English Electric Lightning, I am pleased to see it represented,” he said. “I will always have a strong and lasting connection to BAE Systems, but this representation gives that a particular and pleasing focal point.

“The English Electric Lightning has a special place in Samlesbury’s history – and in mine.

“It captures everything that is good about the English Electric and our heritage. BAE Systems embraces its heritage – and it is something which should be celebrated. We need to make the most of it, I believe.”