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‘I quickly realised we were going to have to jump because there was no possibility of landing safely’ - celebration of 50 years since RAF Watton crash

09:43 27 January 2014

50th anniversary of the RAF Watton Gannet plane crash. Pictured are two of the survivors (L) Oboe Jones and John Middleton. Picture: Ian Burt

50th anniversary of the RAF Watton Gannet plane crash. Pictured are two of the survivors (L) Oboe Jones and John Middleton. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2014

They both admit they shouldn’t be alive today.

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Caterpillar honour

The Caterpillar Badge is given to people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. It is a small gold badge with the name of the person inscribed on the back.

The name Caterpillar Club makes reference to the silk threads which made original parachutes.

Membership to the club and the criteria to fulfil for a badge are rigid.

Members must have saved their lives by jumping out of an aircraft with a parachute.

The club was founded by Canadian Leslie Leroy Irvin who made the first premeditated free-fall parachute jump in 1919.

After both the engines failed on the Fairey Gannet they were flying on a training exercise, pilot John Middleton and observer Oboe Jones made the instinctive decision to bail out – jumping 1,000 feet.

They survived the fall thanks to their silk parachutes and instinctive actions.

And now, 50 years later, the pair have reunited to celebrate the anniversary and remember their lucky escape.

Mr Jones, who lives in Litcham, near Dereham, said: “I just crossed my legs and jumped out.

“We could have been ashes and dust. I have had 50 years of life – 100 years between us – which we might not have expected.”

Based at RAF Watton and part of the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Mr Middleton, now 74, and Mr Jones, 75, thought their jamming radars and radios exercise near Newquay was routine. But once one engine went, the crew from 831 squadron knew there was no time for a mayday call and they leapt from the plane.

All three were awarded the Caterpillar badge which honours those who have used a parachute to bail out of a failing aircraft.

Mr Middleton, a former pilot for British Airways, who now lives in Somerset, was responsible for the crew.

He said: “I quickly realised we were going to have to jump because there was no possibility of landing safely.

“Our only chance was to jump – there wasn’t the time to do anything else.

“It was just a case of making the decision and doing it.

“I said ‘bail out, bail out, bail out’, it was instinctive.

“Because it was so close, on January 23 every year I open a bottle of something and think ‘I really shouldn’t be here’.”

The crew, which also had a third man on-board – Lofty Nash – who has since died, believe they are the only crew to have ever bailed out successfully from a Gannet.

The model they were flying was a rare ECM Mk 6.

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