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‘One minute I was enjoying an RAF training exercise, the next I was facing extinction’

Former RAF Pilot Officer Ian Christie-Miller pictured at his home in Sussex in November
Former RAF Pilot Officer Ian Christie-Miller pictured at his home in Sussex in November - Christopher Pledger

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” Pilot Officer Ian Christie-Miller, then 21-years-old, spoke urgently into the radio using the international distress signal used when an aircraft or its occupants require immediate assistance.

Coolly, with calm control in a crisis which went on to define his entire career, Christie-Miller added his unique aircraft call sign, location, nature of emergency, and actions or intended actions – protocol drummed into all RAF pilots. But he had every right to panic. Due to an engine fire, he was flying with no power – in effect, gliding – and the stakes were very high indeed.

It had all happened so quickly. A few seconds earlier he had been cruising at 29,000 feet, exhilarated to be flying above the curve of the world on a beautiful autumn day on October 18 1963. The silvery wing of his Gnat training aircraft glinted in the sun and the roar of the jet engine had been steady.

“I was excited to be flying solo on the last day of my advanced flying training and felt really confident,” says Christie-Miller, now 81, and living in active retirement with his wife, Judy, a stone’s throw from Glyndebourne in East Sussex. “One minute I was enjoying a navigation exercise, and the next I was facing the possibility of extinction.”

When the warning light had gone off, showing a fire in the single jet engine, he had followed protocol and turned the engine off.

He didn’t have to wait long before the radio crackled into life on the emergency frequency 243 Megahertz as operators on the ground acknowledged his “mayday” call. Now it was up to him, with help from the team in the northern operations room, to get the aircraft down safely from a height greater than that of Mount Everest.

Ian Christie-Miller is pictured at the centre of this photograph in his aircraft
Former RAF pilot Ian Christie-Miller, pictured at the centre in his aircraft

Fortunately, Christie-Miller had time to think. He was close to the stratosphere, but 10 minutes earlier he had been flying just a few hundred feet over East Anglia – perfectly controlling his plane as he eyeballed startled residents and roaming sheep.

On his way back home to RAF Valley, he had soared up where the air was thinner and the jet aircraft used less fuel. “Suddenly, I remember an alarm bell went off and a red warning light started flashing.” It was a fire warning, telling him that the engine was alight.

The aircraft itself showed no signs of being in trouble, but Christie-Miller knew what to do – always trust the instruments. “I immediately shut down the engine and set off the fire extinguishers.” He would find out later at the accident inquiry there had been no fire. Instead, the warning system had malfunctioned, potentially a fatal error since the engine was rendered inoperable by the fire retardant.

With no power or usable hydraulic system which powered the flaps on the wings and the all flying tail, he had no choice but to point the nose down and keep enough speed to prevent the plane from stalling until he could land. Many of the instruments were useless – the altimeter, which shows height, froze at 29,000 feet, and the direction indicator was unserviceable. He would have to use his 20:20 vision and all his skills honed by three years of intensive training at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire to get his feet back on the ground safely.

“It was probably no longer than five minutes from the time I shut off the engine to the time I landed, but everything seemed to happen in slow motion,” remembers Christie-Miller, thoughtfully knitting his long fingers together. He insists that he never felt frightened, although he was incredibly focused.

He remains as unflappable today as he was all those years ago – a fact attested to by his wife of 56 years, Judy, who is busy pouring the tea into pretty mugs. “I didn’t say a prayer or think of my parents or anything like that. I just concentrated hard on what I needed to do.” In fact, his mother, when alerted later, fainted.

Christie-Miller in his RAF uniform
Christie-Miller in his RAF uniform

He still has a handwritten letter from Squadron Leader V Vesely, DFC, AFC, dated 24 March 1965, who was in the operations room during the incident which reads: “If I may take this opportunity, I would like to say how much we all admired your calm efficiency and your most excellent R/T. In spite of your great difficulties, you behaved like a very experienced captain. I often quote your emergency as one of the best conducted maydays we have ever had.”

Losing height rapidly, he could see the green edged fields of North Wales coming starkly into view and he considered his options. The ground team were directing him towards RAF Hawarden, a large airfield some distance from his position, but he was losing distance fast and knew he couldn’t make it that far. Instead, he saw a smaller airfield below which seemed to be empty.

Using a copy book pattern for a forced landing, he manually lowered the undercarriage and then manoeuvred the plane into a tight arc, losing height all the time so that he was 5,000ft into the turn and 3,000ft as he straightened out. At just 800ft, his heart dropped because he saw power cables stretched across the unused runway.

At this point, many pilots would have opted to use the ejector seat and take their chances outside the cockpit, but Christie-Miller still thought he could land the aircraft.

“I took a deep breath and just dropped enough height to fly under the wires. The next moment, at a speed of around 180 knots, his wheels touched the runway only 100 yards from the threshold and he released the drag-chute, a kind of braking parachute. It was a textbook landing but bad luck intervened again. “I was braking as hard as I could, but the crosswind caused the aircraft to veer across the runway.

“The right wing ploughed into some telegraph poles along the side of the runway and the plane hit an unused static water tank before ploughing nose down into the turf. I don’t remember much after that,” he recalls.

In fact, the impact had almost severed his left leg and badly injured his right, which were both jammed into the ground along with the thin metal fuselage.

RAF pilot Christie-Miller was left with screws in his right leg after the accident
RAF pilot Christie-Miller was left with screws in his right leg after the accident - Christopher Pledger

Christie-Miller credits a Wales Gas Board worker, Geraint Williams, with his survival. Williams, who had been working nearby and had seen the plane come down, arrived in minutes in his Land Rover armed only with a shovel, a pen knife and his bare hands. Despite the very real risk that the plane could explode, he helped to get Christie-Miller out of the plane and stayed with him until help could arrive.

Just before falling unconscious, Christie-Miller apparently told Williams not to press the ejector seat button – that would have almost certainly killed both of them as it would have fired off like a shot gun with his body strapped inside.

The RAF’s official safety magazine, Air Clues, later concluded: “Taking the bright view, I suppose the aircraft could have burst into flames, but didn’t. The ejector seat could have gone off, but didn’t.”

Recovery was a long and painful process for Christie-Miller, who was taken to Chester Royal Infirmary with his left leg almost totally disconnected from the knee – at one point he was told they might have to amputate it but it was saved after multiple operations. He was left with a shortened left leg and screws in his right leg.

But within 18 months, and after periods at the rehabilitation centre, Headley Court, he was back flying again. Sadly, he was not able to be a fighter pilot because his ankles were too stiff to work the delicate foot controls, but he was a successful Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter pilot. After training at RAF Valley, his first SAR tour was in Northumberland and the second was in Norfolk.

“It was a gift actually to be able to save those who were in grave danger,” says Christie-Miller, who never forgot how close he came to losing his life. “On many occasions, as we winched fishermen up from sinking vessels or walkers with broken bones up from cliff faces, I thought, ‘That could have been me’.”

Ian Christie-Miller at his home in Sussex
Ian Christie-Miller at his home in Sussex - Christopher Pledger

Now the proud father of two grown up children, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter, Christie-Miller says he owes Williams a great deal. The pair recently met up again – the first time they had seen each other for 60 years, and it was a moving occasion as the men reminisced.

Christie-Miller later studied theology culminating with a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and worked as a school teacher and writer. He concludes: “I’m indebted to Williams for his bravery in saving me, and also to the RAF Benevolent Fund for supporting my family and me afterwards.”

He was invalided out of the RAF in 1977, at the age of 35, when his old injuries made it impossible for him to meet the fitness requirements. “We had no home after I had to leave married quarters and we were in a very vulnerable situation with uncertain finances and two small children to care for.”

The RAF Benevolent Fund contributed towards housing costs and helped with funding the education of the children. “The support was a bedrock to us – it helped stabilise our situation and for that we are all so grateful.”


The RAF Benevolent Fund is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Go Beyond, Race Against Dementia and Marie Curie. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2023appeal or call 0151 284 1927

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