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Johnny Squier: Veteran of Battle of Britain - Test Pilot

18 March 1920 - 20 January 2006

Johnny Squier, who has died aged 85, pulled off what The Daily Telegraph described as 'one of the most remarkable escapes from an aircraft' when he was forced to eject from his Lightning fighter in 1959.

Squier, a senior test pilot with the English Electric Company based at Warton, in Lancashire, took off in the prototype two-seat version of the supersonic Lightning on October 1.

Flying eight miles high, he was in radio contact with ground control and was being tracked on radar when the operator saw the blip of his aircraft disappear from his screen 15 miles off Bees Head, Cumberland - a sailor saw an aircraft crash into the Irish Sea at the same time. A full-scale air and sea search was launched, but this was hampered by low cloud, very poor visibility and a 20-ft swell.

Squier had been flying at more than 1,000 mph when the aircraft suffered structural failure, and he was forced to abandon the Lightning; using the Martin Baker ejector seat, he was the first British pilot to eject at more than the speed of sound.

He landed in the sea and scrambled aboard his dinghy to await rescue. But the widespread search, hampered by the bad weather, failed to find him, and as night fell the air search was called off until first light. This also proved fruitless, and it was feared that he had not survived.

Squier's dinghy had drifted north and, after 30 hours, it came ashore near Garlieston, Wigtownshire. He was seen stumbling from the craft by the housekeeper of Galloway School, who immediately sought medical assistance.

He was transferred to a hospital in Stranraer suffering from exposure and a compression fracture of the spine; but considering his amazing ordeal, which resulted in a slight deafness and bloodshot eyes, his injuries were not extensive.

Inevitably, Squier became the centre of attraction for the RAF's aviation medicine doctors, who were anxious to learn of his experiences. Squier merely remarked: 'I am all right except for earache and aching all over.'

The Daily Telegraph commented that 'his endurance after such an ordeal, during the long period of drifting in the water, was quite phenomenal. There is hope for mankind so long as it contains such men.'

It took Squier a few months to recover fully, but by the following May he was cleared to fly again and he resumed his post as chief production test pilot.

John William Copous Squier was born on March 18 1920 at Chelmsford and educated by a private tutor, since his parents felt he was a delicate child. Anxious to prove them wrong, he drove the farm tractor as a boy, worked in the local garage and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in early 1939 to train as a pilot.

With just three weeks' experience flying the Spitfire, Squier was posted at the end of July 1940 to No 64 Squadron at Kenley, Surrey, at the height of the Battle of Britain. He was shot down on August 8, crash-landing with serious injuries to his face and arm. He was treated by Archie McIndoe, the pioneer of plastic surgery.

Within six months Squier returned to flying duties with No 64, and in March 1941 he specialised in test flying. He was later commissioned, and for the rest of the war served at numerous RAF units as a production test pilot. He left the service in August 1946 as a flight lieutenant and immediately joined the English Electric Aircraft Company as a test pilot.

Squier became the senior test pilot at English Electric's secondary airfield at Salmesbury, near Preston. He and his wife had bought a cottage on the edge of the airfield, and on one occasion he was forced to crash-land a Vampire, which ended up in his back garden. From 1950 he was heavily involved in the testing of the RAF's first jet bomber, the Canberra. After the initial flights of the P1 supersonic fighter, later called the Lightning, Squier joined the test pilot team led by Roly Beaumont.

Squier continued as a test pilot until 1968, when he joined the engineering development team of the British Aircraft Corporation, which had been formed by amalgamating a number of individual aircraft companies, including English Electric. He specialised in cockpit escape systems, an activity that many noted was entirely appropriate.

Following his own escape he had worked closely with James Martin, whose ejector seat had saved his life, and they established a close working relationship that lasted many years. He worked on the design of escape systems for the TSR2, the revolutionary bomber for the RAF that was later cancelled by a Labour government. After working on the very successful Anglo-French Jaguar fighter-bomber, he retired in December 1983.

In 1965 Squier was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air. He was unable to attend the investiture since he had made a commitment to deliver a West German Air Force Canberra to an airfield near Munich. Colleagues noted that the time of the delivery flight coincided with the annual Munich Bierfest.

Squier served for many years as a magistrate with the Preston bench and became a long-serving chairman before retiring when he reached 70. He was an excellent mechanic, and an accomplished handyman and electrician.

Johnny Squier, who died on January 30, married Margaret 'Lucky' Strike, a WAAF officer, in June 1944. She died in 1970, and he married, secondly, Joyce Young, who survives him with two daughters from his first marriage.

Addendum by Aircrew Remembered 12 December 2019:

In a 2019 podcast from Wings Over New Zealand, a fellow test pilot of Squier's tells a different version. Since he was a close colleague of Squier at the time we must assume he got his version direct from Squier himself.

Squier says he was hurtling along at the limit of the Lightning's performance envelope when suddenly the entire plane disintegrated around him and he found himself travelling supersonically still strapped into his ejection seat but without a plane. With great presence of mind he was able to work out how to manually engage the seat's normally automatic sequence of chute deployment and separation from the pilot when speed had slowed sufficiently. This makes the account even more remarkable.

This is a film taken of Squier during his treatment.



Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 13 March 2021, 10:33