Surviving an Unscheduled Flight
On February 14, 1945, Margaret Horton, an member of the Royal Air Force’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), was assigned a familiar job: sit on the horizontal stabilizer of a Spitfire to help hold the tail down while it taxied on a windy day. Flight Lt. Neill Cox was piloting the aircraft and was familiar with the normal drill for this procedure. Typically the tail-sitter would grab the aircraft’s elevator move it up and down a couple of times before the pilot turned onto the runway, signaling that she was getting off the plane.
When Margaret gave the signal, she saw the pilot make a casual gesture out of the cockpit that interpreted to mean, “Hang on, don’t go yet.” It wasn’t until she felt the plane move forward under full throttle that Margaret realized she missed her chance to get off safely. As the Spitfire accelerated down the runway, Margaret quickly flopped across the tail cone, where she was held in place by the vertical fin, her legs to the right and her torso to the left. Another WAAF who’d seen what was happening dashed off to tell a flight sergeant, who ran to the control tower.
The tower instructed Cox to return for an immediate landing, but no explanation was given. Cox knew something was wrong because of the sluggish response of the controls and the apparent-tail heaviness, but from his vantage point, he was unable to see anything that could be causing the problem.
Once safely back on the ground, Margaret ended up being reprimanded for taking an unofficial flight, and she was charged for her beret, which was lost during the incident.