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How watching his business partner die in plane crash drove Co Down man to invent the ejection seat

Should a new statue to the man, whose invention has saved the lives of 7,500 aircrew in the past 70 years, be erected in his home town of Crossgar? Ivan Little recalls his remarkable life

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An ejector seat

An ejector seat

Sir James Martin

Sir James Martin

Sir James Martin's friend the pilot Capt Valentine Baker killed during an MB3 test flight

Sir James Martin's friend the pilot Capt Valentine Baker killed during an MB3 test flight

Ivan Little beside the plaque honouring Sir James Martin in Crossgar

Ivan Little beside the plaque honouring Sir James Martin in Crossgar

James Martin’s sons John (left) and James beside a bust of their famous father

James Martin’s sons John (left) and James beside a bust of their famous father

James Martin (in the fedora) visiting the Philadelphia Navy Yard in August 1946 where the Martin-Baker test rig had been trialled

James Martin (in the fedora) visiting the Philadelphia Navy Yard in August 1946 where the Martin-Baker test rig had been trialled

Benny Lynch

Benny Lynch

James martin

James martin

/

An ejector seat

Tucked away out of sight of the thousands of commuting motorists who thunder or trundle through Crossgar every day stands an anything but imposing memorial to one of the village's most famous sons whose invention has saved thousands of lives around the world.

The plaque in honour of engineering mastermind Sir James Martin is easier to miss than it is to find on its small stone plinth in Crossgar's square behind the Main Street.

Critics say the commemoration to this remarkable visionary is hardly commensurate with Sir James' towering achievements as the pioneering inventor of the aircraft ejection seat.

Admittedly, a nearby housing development has been named Martin Court and a bank once printed a £100 note with his face on it but some local people have said that a statue of Sir James in Crossgar would be a more fitting tribute.

Coincidentally, a statue of the inventor has just been unveiled in England. The life-size bronze was commissioned for the headquarters at Higher Denham near Heathrow airport of the aviation firm that Sir James founded in 1929 and which has grown into a major global concern having sold 70,000 ejection seats to customers in 90 countries worldwide for 56 different airframes.

The inventor's 75-year-old son John who is still running the company with his twin brother James and other relatives, says he would welcome fresh recognition for his father in Crossgar.

"But it's not really up to us," says John. "My father was very proud of his roots in Co Down but we wouldn't like to be presumptuous and ask the people of Crossgar if they would like a statue of him. But we could get another statue cast if it was wanted."

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James Martin was born in September 1893 and lived on a 30-acre farm at Glasswater Road but even though his father Thomas died when his only son was just two years old, he showed an early fascination with, and aptitude for, engineering.

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Sir James Martin

Sir James Martin

Sir James Martin

 

Young James lived in a household of women - his mother, grandmother, sister and aunt - and relatives say that he was pampered but that didn't stop him showing flair as an inventor in a workshop on the farm where he repaired other farmers' machinery and designed and built his own bicycle and a kerosene lamp.

One of his earliest heroes was another far-sighted Ulsterman, Harry Ferguson, who not only developed the agricultural tractor but also got his own aeroplane off the ground.

A teenage James used to visit the Ferguson HQ in Belfast and watched the construction of a low wing monoplane. He saw its first flight in Newcastle, Co Down in 1910.

He once said: "I remember seeing Harry Ferguson in his aeroplane in the grounds of the Slieve Donard Hotel where he used to run it up."

The Ferguson factor gave James Martin a taste for the high life of aviation.

He left school at the age of 14, and several years later his mother Sarah took him for an interview at Queen's University Belfast where it was suggested that academia wasn't for the teenager.

James didn't disagree. He later said: "I had always got the notion that I wanted to design things and not to be employed by anyone. It was always my policy that I must have a place of my own, to be free to work on my own inventions and develop them."

James constructed a car as well as his own small engines and dynamos.

"It was obvious that my father was better left to his own inventive devices," says John, but his father's ambition was so boundless that he knew Northern Ireland was too restrictive for him and in August 1919, at the age of 26, he moved to Acton in west London, not far from where his sister Jane lived.

At the height of tensions in Ireland over Home Rule, James had been an interested onlooker but nothing more. He hadn't been a member of the Orange Order and hadn't joined the Ulster Volunteer Force, saying he couldn't reconcile the organisations with the teachings of God.

Friends said James, a teetotaller who didn't enjoy social gatherings, had been driven on by a highly principled code of Christian morals, but somewhat remarkably for a man brought up a Presbyterian he wasn't a churchgoer in England preferring to follow his own religious path.

James told his worried family in Co Down that he trusted in a higher power to look after him.

He often recounted the story of how he arrived in London with just £10 in his pocket and his first years were a constant struggle before he eventually moved in with Jane and her husband Edwin Burrell.

James persisted however with his engineering dreams despite his lack of resources which didn't preclude him from indulging in acts of Christian charity. It's recalled that at one point he gave away £25 of the only £30 he had to his name to a man who was even worse off than him.

Nothing, it seemed, could hold James back from the pursuit of his aviation aspirations.

Five years after moving to England, he set up the Martin Aircraft Works and the first plane was built, the MB1.

He was joined by a partner, a pilot called Captain Valentine Baker who'd been James's flying instructor, and they designed fighter planes for the RAF the MB2 and the MB3 for their new Martin-Baker company.

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Sir James Martin's friend the pilot Capt Valentine Baker killed during an MB3 test flight

Sir James Martin's friend the pilot Capt Valentine Baker killed during an MB3 test flight

Sir James Martin's friend the pilot Capt Valentine Baker killed during an MB3 test flight

 

However, tragedy struck as Baker tried to make an emergency landing in the prototype of the MB3. The plane's wing clipped a tree and Baker was killed in the crash in 1942.

A devastated James Martin who'd watched in horror responded to the loss of his friend by devoting more and more of his time to exploring new methods of saving pilots' lives, but his development of the MB4 and MB5 aircraft continued apace and he also invented gun mountings and cable cutters to thwart barrage balloons.

However, after many RAF fighters were unable to escape from their cockpits during the Battle of Britain because their canopies wouldn't open, James was invited by the Ministry of Aircraft Aviation to intensify his quest to devise a way out for the airmen.

"And eventually the ejection seat arrived," says John Martin who adds that the Germans and the Swedes were also attempting to develop ejection seats.

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James martin

James martin

James martin

 

After using dummies to test the seats, the next problem - and it was a big one - was trying to find someone prepared to take on the daunting challenge of a real-life test, a leap into the unknown in every sense of the word.

The man who stepped forward was Benny Lynch from the Republic who'd been working in the Martin-Baker factory as a fitter.

The first static test took place in January 1945 and 18 months later came the first mid-air ejection from a specially modified Meteor 3 fighter jet at 320mph and 8,000ft.

John Martin acknowledges that health and safety concerns would make tests like Lynch's impossible in the modern aviation world but everything worked perfectly for the southern Irishman who went on to make a further 30 ejections, often at air-shows.

Impressed RAF officials placed an order for the seats, however, John Martin says the most significant breakthrough came as the US Navy decided to fit the Martin-Baker ejection devices, despite the emergence of companies in their own country who were operating in the same area of aviation safety.

"They are still our number one customer," says John, who recalls how his father was a voracious reader of his Bible, especially on a Sunday morning when he would also cook bacon and eggs for the family.

"He didn't go to church but he used to give money in his later life to several Presbyterian congregations in Northern Ireland and one here in England where he had a great rapport with the Ulster-born cleric the Reverend Ernest Corr," says John, who adds that his father had a deep love for Northern Ireland, even though he had left it behind.

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Ivan Little beside the plaque honouring Sir James Martin in Crossgar

Ivan Little beside the plaque honouring Sir James Martin in Crossgar

Ivan Little beside the plaque honouring Sir James Martin in Crossgar

 

One of the highlights of his life was the awarding of an honorary doctorate by Queen's University on which he had once turned his back.

The Martin-Baker firm still provide a substantial scholarship every year at the university and the Martins still own the family farm in Co Down.

In 1971, the company acquired a base in Northern Ireland, at the old RAF station at Langford Lodge where they operate a 6,200ft rocket-sled track for carrying out tests on their ejection seats.

The company employs almost 1,000 people in the UK and they also have a factory in Pennsylvania and are involved in joint ventures in France, Italy and Australia

John says his father's philosophy is still an influence on the firm today.

He adds: "I think it's something that we try to follow. And it's a simple one - to do what is right for our customers."

It's estimated that 7,500 air crew members owe their lives to the ejection seats and Martin-Baker run what they call the Ejection Tie Club for them.

Even though he received a knighthood and a raft of other honours from the aviation industry, Sir James Martin shunned publicity and his biographer, his niece Sarah Sharman, says he would never have countenanced a book about him in his lifetime.

He died in January 1981, five years after he had resisted moves by the Labour government to nationalise the company.

In the biography, Sharman wrote of how Sir James, who she said was 'disparaging about politicians', met the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson and told him that he should buy a large number of Martin-Baker ejection seats, adding: "if you fitted them to some of the useless people you have at No.10 and the building door next door and fired them out through the roof you could then make a clean start".


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