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Rocket man

He blasted his way out of planes.

Vice Marshal Peter Howard, who has died aged 81, tested the world's first rocket-powered ejection seat. The ejector seats had been invented by two British engineers, Martin and Baker. These worked well when the plane was at normal flying altitude, but when something went wrong at low altitude, just before landing or after take-off, the seats did not work because the parachute did not have time to open.

Martin and Baker decided to deploy a rocket to throw the chair high into the air. Reginald Turnill explains,

Howard started as one of a group of young doctors who risked their lives to make the high-speed jets of the postwar years safe to fly. I was at Chalgrove airfield, Gloucestershire, in 1962 with senior British and American officers to watch the 36-year-old squadron leader eject himself from the rear seat of a Meteor fighter at 300mph and an altitude of only 250ft. Although cartridge-powered ejection seats, made by the firm of Martin-Baker, had already saved more than 500 lives, some pilots had suffered crippling spinal injuries as a result of the G-force. The rocket-powered seat was to reduce that from 22G to 15G.

We feared the worst as he hit the ground and lay still. But before James Martin (later knighted) of Martin-Baker, driving fast across the airfield, could reach him, he scrambled up. "It felt fine. There's nothing to it at all really," he told me, complaining that his worst fear during descent was that he would land on Martin's speeding car.

Was he getting danger money? Good gracious, no. It was the occupational hazard of a doctor's life. In the years since, 90 countries have installed the seat in their planes, including the US navy. It has enabled more than 7,000 ejecting airmen to survive, and still earns Martin-Baker £150m a year in exports.

A humorous humanist, Howard made many other contributions to flight and space missions.

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