Photographer and aviation enthusiast Ian Simpson has lived in the East Anglia region of England all his life, and one of his favorite things to do is photograph planes at Royal Air Force bases in the area.
But on the morning of July 13, he realized something wasn’t quite right as he watched jets taking off at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, about 70 miles northeast of London. The base is run by the US Air Force and is home to the 48th Fighter Wing, the only US Air Force F-15 fighter wing in Europe.
“This plane took off and just before it got to us … a lot of flames and sparks started coming out the back,” Simpson told CNN.
Simpson, who previously worked for Boeing in designing aircraft traffic control procedures, listened to the radio communications between pilot Maj. Grant Thompson and the base to see if any action would be taken, but to his surprise nobody else seemed to have noticed.
When he heard that the aircraft was set to refuel over the North Sea, Simpson realized the pilot was unaware of possible problems with his aircraft.
“It suddenly dawned on me that they had no idea what was going on,” the 56-year-old plane spotter said. “So at that point, I called the base, by looking on Google for the telephone number.”
The switchboard operator connected him with the flight operations center, who then got in touch with air traffic control and the pilot. After Thompson got his wingman to confirm damage to the right motor of his F15-E Strike Eagle, the pilot safely returned to base.
A week later, the pair met and Thompson thanked Simpson for his intervention, giving the aviation fan a legacy cap and the fighter wing patch that he was wearing that day, removing it from the sleeve of his jumpsuit in what the base called “quite a significant gesture.”
Simpson may not think much of his actions but personnel from 48th Fighter Wing praised his quick thinking.
“The courage that Ian displayed was next to none,” said Capt. Marie Ortiz, media operations chief for the 48th Fighter Wing, which includes Thompson’s 492nd Fighter Squadron. “Just that one phone call speaks volumes for our area and the relationship.”
Ortiz said an incident like this was “a very rare occurrence” and Simpson said he’d never seen anything of the sort in 50 years of watching planes.
“I’ve seen a few incidents where something isn’t working … but when parts of the plane are disintegrating in a shower of sparks, then that’s a bit different,” he said. “When you’ve been around planes long enough, you know when something isn’t right.”