Louis A. Strange was a British Pilot who would lead aerial forces in World War I and World War II, eventually rising to the rank of wing commander and earning top British awards like the Distinguished Service Order and Officer of the Order of the British Empire, which is lucky, because he almost died as a young pilot when he fell out of his plane and was left hanging from the machine gun.
It happened during World War I when the young pilot became a pioneer by being one of the first pilots to strap a machine gun to his plane in 1914 (he might have even been the first allied pilot to do so). But early aviation machine guns were literally just machine guns designed for the trenches, and they didn’t always lend themselves well to aerial combat.
In 1915, Strange was flying his Martinsyde S.1 scout plane with a machine gun mounted when he spotted a German observer and began trading fire with it. Strange quickly ran through the ammo in his weapon’s drum and attempted to reload it, but the drum was jammed on the weapon.
He attempted to pry it off to no avail, and finally stood up to get better leverage on the drum. He was attempting to keep the plane steady in the process, but made some mistake. The plane flipped upside down, and Strange slipped out of his seat and found himself dangling from the machine gun, high in the air.
In John F. Ross’s Enduring Courage, Strange is quoted as saying:
Only a few seconds previously, I had been cursing because I could not get that drum off, but now I prayed fervently that it would stay on forever.
But that wasn’t the only problem for Strange. His plane’s engine wasn’t designed to run upside down with no pilot at the controls, and so the engine quickly shut off.
So he was dangling by a faulty machine gun drum from a slowly crashing airplane in an active combat zone. But he kept a cool head, watching for where he might crash while also attempting to get his feet back into the cockpit. He managed to hook an ankle on the plane and then get a leg on the stick and flip the plane back over.
He fell back into the plane, which was welcome, but he also fell too hard and fast, crashing through his seat in a way that jammed the stick, making it impossible for him to steer, a big problem since he was still heading for the ground. And then the engine turned back on, speeding his descent.
He had to shove the remnants of the seat out of the way, but was then able to move the stick and raise the plane’s nose, gaining altitude with little room to spare over the trees. He headed back for home and slept for 12 hours.
But, as mentioned before, the survival of Strange would prove to be a great boon to Britain. He had previously earned one award for valor in World War I, and he would go on to earn three high medals over the rest of World War I and II.