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Monthly Vignette: 12,000 Feet

By Charles Cartwright

On Sealion Press Forums , we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).

The latest, the 66th Vignette Challenge is on the subject of Superheroes, and can be found HERE.

This vignette came from the 50th challenge, on the theme of Mayday.


There I was at 12,000 feet

17th May 1995, 1332 Zulu (2.32 pm British Summer Time)

202 Squadron (Search and Rescue) RAF Boulmer, Northumberland, UK

The red phone on the desk jangles into life with its brisk ring and all conversation in the operations room stops. The duty corporal snatches it with his left hand while simultaneously picking up the pencil beside it.

“202” is all he says before starting to write on the pad which is also beside the phone, whilst listening to whatever the person on the other end of the line is saying. Less than 10 seconds later, with the phone still cradled in his shoulder, he reaches to his left, flips up a cover, and presses the red button under it.

A klaxon brays harshly across the compound, sparking scenes of organised chaos. Crewmembers sprint from the ready room, going in two different directions. Three run towards the helicopter on the pad outside, joined by technicians running from their own ready room, whilst the fourth enters the ops room to stand impatiently in front of the corporal, waiting for the phone call to end.

“What have we got?” he asks, as the corporal hangs up, finishes writing, tears off the top sheet and hands it to him.

“Ejection over the North Sea, sir. Chute seen, position fifty-four fifty-seven North, zero one zero seven East. Single Hawk, callsign Pirate 72, is on scene but reports not visual with the surface due to low cloud and no comms with the ejectee yet. Pirate 71 is a Mayday, going to Teesside.”

The co-pilot scans the written notes, which match what he’s been told. He frowns.

“This callsign for the ejectee must be wrong. You’ve written Pirate 71, but you just said that’s going to Teesside. Should it be Pirate 73?”

“No sir, that’s what I was told. Pirate 71 is still airborne and Pirate 71 is also the ejectee. I double-checked. Apparently one ejected and the other’s still in the aircraft. The ARCC said they’d explain later, once they knew more themselves.”

The officer looks like he wants to ask more, but there isn’t time. From outside comes the distinctive whine of the rotors spinning up. He puts the paper in his top left pocket, zips it up and dashes out the door. He ducks under the rotors and climbs through the side door of the helo, helped in by one of the technicians, who then retreats to a safe distance.

The whine intensifies as the co-pilot get his helmet on an buckles in. No sooner has he done so than the whine is joined by a dull roar, reaching a deafening level as the aircraft first rises up on its three wheels then lifts from the ground. As it climbs, it banks towards the east, heading out over the coast.

Back in the ops room, the corporal records the airborne time in the log book. “1336. Not bad, Less than four minutes after the call,” he mutters to himself.

The other member of the ops team looks over at him.

“How the hell can one person eject and the other not?” she asks.

He just shrugs. “No bloody idea. Someone’s done something bloody stupid, I reckon. I’ll call the ARCC again later, see if they’ll know more by then.”

He looks over at the other person in the room, who’s been standing quietly the whole time, trying to stay out of the way.

“Bit of excitement for your first visit to us, Padre, eh? Do you want to listen while I call the ARCC back? That’s the Air Rescue Coordination Centre, in case you didn’t know. They manage all the shouts across the UK. Maybe they can tell us how the bloody hell – sorry, I mean how on earth – one person can eject from a plane but not the other.”


Let’s leave the Padre and Corporal and rewind a bit...


Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

17th May 1995, 1328 Zulu (2:28 pm British Summer Time)

Radio transmissions recorded between two British Aerospace Hawk training aircraft, from 100 Squadron RAF, and RAF Control and Reporting Centre Buchan:

«Mayday, mayday, mayday. Pirate seven-one, mayday.»

«Mayday Pirate seven-one, Buchan. Mayday acknowledged, probable contact, squawk seven-seven-hundred, confirm position and height.»

«Buchan, Mayday Pirate 71. Squawk on, alfa bravo kilo east. I’m in the descent to below ten thousand but my passenger is climbing through thirteen.»

«Mayday Pirate 71, Buchan. Say again reference passenger?»

«Buchan, Pirate 71. Um, my passenger ejected. I am not repeat not visual with any chute.»

«Mayday Pirate 71, Buchan. Uhh, copy ejection and no chute seen. Break. Pirate 72, Buchan. Are you visual Pirate 71 or his passenger’s chute?»

«Buchan, Pirate 72, currently visual Pirate 71. Was visual single chute but no longer due to cloud layer below.»

«72, Buchan copies, thanks. D and D informed.»

«Buchan, Pirate 71. Now level nine thousand. Not sure how much damage I’ve got in the cockpit. Request pigeons nearest airfield.»

«71, Buchan. Teesside two five five, ninety-two.»

«71 en route Teeside.»

«Buchan copies. Will inform Teesside. Break. 72, state intentions.»

«Buchan, 72, stand by. 71, do you require support?»

«72, 71, negative. Request you conduct search for dinghy if able.»

«71, 72. Wilco. Buchan, 72 descending.»

«72, Buchan copies. Suggest you also squawk 7700.»

«Standby... squawk on.»

«Pirate 71, Buchan. Teeside are expecting you.»

«Buchan, 71 copies. Thanks.»

«Buchan, 72 unable visual on dinghy. Eight eights cloud from 3000 down to at least 500 feet. I’m not rated for IMC at low level, so unable lower.»

«72, Buchan. Copy no visual on dinghy. From D and D, Rescue 71 scrambled from Boulmer, expected airborne in next few minutes.»

«72 copies. Climbing to 4000. Will maintain position until Rescue 71 arrives.»

«Buchan, listening out.»


Let’s re-wind a bit more...


17th May 1995, 1211 Zulu (1.11 pm British Summer Time)

100 Squadron, Royal Air Force Leeming, North Yorkshire.

“Are you sure you want to do this? You look a bit nervous,” asked the technician as he handed the tousle-headed man his helmet.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure. I can’t write a column about the future of the RAF without having flown in an RAF jet, can I?”

“Loads of others do,” the technician muttered to himself, leading the way out to the aircraft, glistening in the weak sunlight just breaking through the rainclouds.

Up close, the plane looked much bigger than the visitor had anticipated. He’d unconsciously been expecting something the size of the Spitfires in the Battle of Britain film. This was much bigger. He swallowed nervously as he climbed up the ladder and looked down into the rear cockpit. It somehow managed to be quite big and very cramped simultaneously and he struggled to get in without standing on any of the multiple switches and control panels. With the help of the technician on the other side – a rather pretty woman, he noted – he finally managed to get himself seated. She leaned in and started strapping him into the seat.

Why did I agree to do this?” he thought to himself. He grunted involuntarily as the technician tightened the straps – again. He really wanted to ask if they could be loosened a bit, but he didn’t want to appear weak in front of the girl. He thought back to the rather grainy safety video he’d been forced to watch this morning, just after he was measured and weighed. There had been something about being strapped in to the seat and the survival kit separately but he hadn’t really been paying proper attention. “There was definitely something wrong with those scales, too,” he thought. “I’m not that heavy.”

“That’s you done.” The voice of the technician broke into his thoughts. “You remember how to use the intercom switch on the mask okay?”

“Yes, yes,” he replied impatiently, thinking: “I’m an Oxford graduate, for God’s sake. This isn’t rocket science.”

Looking forward, he saw that the pilot was also seated. The canopy was pushed down and locked into place, the ladders were taken away and he saw one of the men, in his blue overall, giving a thumbs up signal.

“All okay back there?” He jumped – or would have, if he hadn’t been so tightly strapped in – as the pilot’s voice sounded in his ears. He fumbled with the mask.

“Uh, yeah, fine, good,” he managed to say into the built-in microphone, still trying to get the bloody thing fastened across his face.

“Okay. We just need to start the engine, then we’ll taxi out and take off.”

1241 Zulu (1:41 pm British Summer Time)

Internal communication system, Hawk aircraft callsign Pirate 71:


“You okay back there?”

“Uhh, yeah. Just didn’t, uhh, expect the take-off to be, uhh, so fast. It caught me by, uhh, surprise a bit.”

“Keep your head up, look at the horizon, like we talked about this morning. If you start to feel sick, get a sick bag out. You do NOT want to be sick all over the cockpit.”

“Uhh, yeah, okay...”

1301 Zulu (2:01 pm British Summer Time)

Radio transmissions:

«Buchan, Pirate 71 and 72 entering alfa bravo kilo. Ready for first split.»

«Pirate 71, Buchan. Confirm first target?»

«Buchan, 72 is first target.»

«Buchan copies. 71, port two niner zero; 72, starboard east.»

«71 coming port two niner zero.»

«71 turning east.»

1318 Zulu (2:18 pm British Summer Time)


White-faced, he raised his head again, trying to look out the window like the pilot had said, definitely not looking down into the sick bag he held in his shaking hands. He managed to seal it shut and then get it into the large pocket on the lower leg of his flight suit without spilling it. For some reason he felt inordinately proud of himself for that: still capable of hand-eye coordination even when he’d just retched his guts up – again.

He reached up to run his hand through his hair, forgetting for the umpteenth time that the helmet was in the way, so all he did was bang his hand on the visor. He realised that the pilot was saying something to him.

“I said, can you hear me? Are you okay back there?”

“Uh, yeah, yes, I’m okay. Okay now, thanks.”

“Well, okay then... Please tell me you got a sick bag out in time?”

“Uh, yeah, I did, yeah,” he managed to croak, all the while thinking: “Why am I talking like a pleb? I’m educated and intelligent – a graduate of Eton and Oxford should be able to manage more than just ‘yeah’.

“Good. Now, please turn off your mic when you don’t need to speak – I don’t need to hear your grunting every time we manoeuvre and I certainly don’t need to hear you throwing up.”

“Uh, okay, yeah, right, sorry,” he said, fumbling with the switch and finally managing to turn it off. “Hell, I hope no-one at work ever gets to hear about this.”

1327 Zulu (2:27 pm British Summer Time)

He had his eyes tight shut as the plane straightened up from another stomach-churning turn. Somehow having them closed seemed to help. He heard the pilot talking to the control centre and tried to concentrate on that, even though he had no idea what either of them were talking about.

«Buchan, Pirate 71 steady zero one five, level seven thousand.»

«71, Buchan, what height for next run?»

«Buchan, 71. 12 thousand.»

«Clear climb 12 thousand.»

He risked opening his eyes slightly. They were just entering some cloud. Then the nose of the plane came up, they started climbing and he snapped his eyes shut again.

A moment later, the whole aircraft seemed to jump slightly. He opened his eyes as they flew out the top of the cloud into brilliant sunshine. He screwed his eyes half-shut and looked around, trying to ignore his stomach which was telling him, again, that it wasn’t feeling well. As he looked forward, he realised that he couldn’t see the pilot in front. He groped frantically for the intercom switch.

“Hello, hello? Are you there?”

No answer. The aircraft started to roll to the right and desecend; his stomach gave another lurch. Quickly taking off his mask and putting one hand in front of his mouth, he reached down with the other to grab another sick bag. As he picked it up, he banged his wrist on the yellow and black handle between his legs.

The ejection handle.

Trying desperately not to be sick again, he looked forward. Still no sign of the pilot. What should he do? He tried to shout, but just succeeded in retching again. And now they were in the clouds again. He couldn’t even guess which way up they were, but with the way his stomach was feeling, he was sure they were diving rapidly downwards.

Oh, the hell with this. I’m not going to die in a plane crash,” he thought.

He reached for the handle.

He pulled.

Three things happened all at once.

The canopy above him exploded.

The straps on his arms and legs tightened completely, forcing him into the seat.

And he saw the pilot straighten up in front of him.

The the rocket under the seat blew it, and him, out of the aircraft and he lost consciousness.




17th May 1995, 1411 Zulu (3:11 pm British Summer Time)

The winch operator lets the winch out slowly as the big yellow helicopter holds its position above the man in the water, clearly visible in his bright orange lifejacket. The winchman, a fully-trained paramedic, splashes into the water and begins swimming towards the man, only about 10 yards away. On reaching him, he quickly checks him over, then attaches the sling on the winch and signals his colleague watching from above.

As the winch operator takes up the slack, the two men rise slowly towards him. Less than a minute goes by before he’s helping the winchman to get the soaking wet man into the back of the helo, as the pilot tips the aircraft forward and starts flying back towards land, aiming for Newcastle hospital.


Some months later…


25th October 1995

Excerpts from the report by the Air Accident Investigation Branch into the inadvertent ejection from British Aerospace Hawk T1 XX261 on 17 May 95.

...As the ejection seat has not yet been found, there is no evidence to contradict Mr J██████’s statement that it fired without any input from him. However, there is also no evidence that he did not, in fact, manually initiate the ejection…

…we note that the manufacturer has offered a substantial reward to anyone who can find the ejection seat… …this gives weight to the manufacturer’s claim that it is impossible for the seat to fire ‘accidentally’…

…the members of the board here formally record their disappointment with Mr J██████’s decision to publish his story in The Spectator prior to publication of this report, noting that much of his version of events contradicts both physical evidence from the aircraft and statements from other persons involved…

…flights in Hawk aircraft fitted with this mark of ejector seat may re-commence immediately….




Believe it or not, this is based on a true story. There really was someone who ejected from an aircraft leaving the pilot behind. He really did claim that the ejection seat just went off and there really was (and still is) a reward from the manufacturer if it’s found.

However, dates, names and locations have been changed in this story, to protect the (?) innocent.

Comment on this article Here.

Charles Cartwright is a contributor to the anthology Ten Years Later, a book to raise money for the reconstruction of Ukraine, with all proceeds from that book going to that cause. I'm sure I speak for many when I saw I hope to see more published work from Charles Cartwright.


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