WHEN flames breached the cockpit of Jamie Hull’s two-seater aircraft, just one thought ran through the SAS soldier’s mind: “Keep flying the damned plane.”
The engine was on fire. He could smell his flesh burning.
But for the next 30 seconds, his determination saved his life.
Surrounded by flames, Jamie made a controlled descent of the Liberty XL2 from 1,000ft to roughly 30ft and steered the aircraft over the grass at the edge of the aerodrome runway.
Then he made another decision that was even more extraordinary.
Flying at around 35 miles per hour, Jamie clambered out of the cockpit and, while 15ft from the ground, leapt off the wing.
He told The Sun: “I made a hasty estimate, like you do on the battlefield. The likelihood was the flames would overwhelm me. I thought, ‘Screw that’.
“I opened the canopy door, ripped off the headset, got on to the left wing and jumped off the back of it.”
As an SAS reservist, he had jumped out of numerous planes — but never when he was on fire.
“The landing was a bit sloppy,” Jamie, 45, jokes. “I snapped my knees and feet together and put my hands above my head. But when I landed I popped a collarbone and had multiple facial fractures.”
The impact ruptured his gut and lacerated his liver.
But those were the least of his worries.
He suffered 63 per cent third-degree burns and was about to spend the next two years in hospital.
‘MY LIFE WAS OVER. I WAS STARTING TO GO BLIND’
“I’ve had more plastic surgery than a Hollywood starlet,” he says with a laugh when we chat about his inspiring new memoir, Life On A Thread.
The son of a trucker, Jamie grew up in Leighton Buzzard, Beds, and was on track to end up in prison before he made a conscious decision to turn his life around at 16.
“The fundamental shock for me was when I failed all but one of my GCSEs,” he says.
“I had one C grade, in English, to show for ten years of schooling. I was mortified.
“I was smoking weed, drinking cider and mixing with wrong ’uns. I had been in trouble with the police.
“I realised it was either going to be a life of crime, drugs and possibly jail or I was going to pull my socks up and do my level best to try to get on in the world.”
By the age of 21 he had completed his A-levels, travelled the world, trained as a scuba divemaster leading expeditions and even worked briefly as a quality controller in the Gossard lingerie factory in Leighton Buzzard. Then he signed up for the police.
Three years later he left to study Scandinavian languages before enrolling at Cambridge University’s Officers’ Training Corps, which led to him passing Special Forces selection and joining 21 Special Air Service.
By August 2007 he was 32 years old and “in the prime of his life”, regularly running marathons in under three hours — an incredible time for an amateur runner.
His unit was due to deploy to Afghanistan but he had some time off beforehand, so he decided to fulfil a life-long ambition by learning to fly, at an aerodrome in Florida.
Two weeks into his training, during which time he notched up around 40 hours in the air, he took a solo flight.
Then, as he piloted the plane home, the engine caught fire. By the time he noticed the danger, the flames had engulfed the cockpit and his craft began rapidly descending. Jamie knew he had to act fast.
That is when his extraordinary survival plan came into play. He had only been flying solo for a week.
After he reached ground level and jumped from the rear of the wing and smashed into the grass, his body was still on fire.
He says he thrashed around “like a man possessed” to try to extinguish the flames. Luckily, the ground was soft from recent rain.
Jamie says: “If I had landed on the concrete runway I’d have died.”
He lay in the foetal position and watched between his fingers as his plane hit the ground.
Jamie recalls: “It was about 70ft away, flying nose heavy, left wing down, about 6ft above the ground. I watched it pile in.
“I remember the noise, the crumpling, then a pause. Maybe eight to ten seconds and this almighty BOOM. There were flames 200ft in the air, then it settled into a fireball.”
That was when the effects of his injuries suddenly hit him.
“There was a tsunami of pain. It was indescribable,” he says. Over the following minutes he experienced three overwhelming sensations. First came anger.
I made a hasty estimate, like you do in battle. The likelihood was flames would overwhelm me but I thought, “Screw that” and got on the wing
“I was screaming blue murder, blasphemy, everything. I felt like The Incredible Hulk. I could have fought ten men with that rage,” he says.
Next was crushing despair. “It was the realisation that, ‘Holy s**t, this has happened to me’. My life was over. I was starting to go blind. I was the most crushed man.”
Then came a sensation of relative peace. He says: “It was total resignation, acceptance, calm. ‘What the f*** can I possibly do? I can’t erase history’. I looked at it as a soldier. I thought, ‘I can’t do anything about this’.”
When Jamie reached hospital in Orlando he begged a doctor to knock him out with anaesthetic then finally slipped into unconsciousness.
Six months later he woke up in Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, home to one of the UK’s leading burns units.
A nurse gave him a mirror and he saw his face for the first time.
“It was desperate shock,” he remembers. “My face was still hideously swollen, raw and scarred, no hair and stubs for ears.”
‘IT WAS A TINY SEED OF HOPE’
His parents, who had separated, were at his bedside. His mum, Shirley, had moved into a local B&B with support from Armed Forces charity SSAFA and she helped to nurse him for many months.
He had already received £1.8million worth of intensive care in America, but it would be another two and a half years before his skin had healed and even longer for the mental scars.
Yet his lowest point still lay ahead.
About a year after the crash, while being treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Bucks, he planned to take his own life. “I felt like a mouse on a treadmill, constantly fighting but never getting anywhere,” he says.
“I don’t think there is anything worse for a human body than large-scale third-degree burns. It is so all-consuming and entirely debilitating.
“If I was a boxer they would have stopped it in the 12th, but it was now round 4,127 and I was tired of being in the fight. I’d had enough.”
It was a visit from a vicar that gave him the strength to hold on. “He was an angel,” Jamie says.
“He made me a deal. He said he would take me to Dignitas in Switzerland, where I could end my life, but only if I could hold on for one more month.
At first I was horrified.
A month felt like for-ever. But, miraculously, that week I went for a massive skin-graft op and I started to heal. I started to turn a corner and believe in myself.
“It was a tiny seed of hope and then it grew and I managed to crawl out of that long, dark tunnel.”
So far Jamie has had 62 ops under general anaesthetic and is still having laser treatment on his skin.
But through sheer deter-mination, he has managed to rebuild his life and is always looking for the next challenge.
Jamie has learned to fly hot-air balloons, he leads scuba-diving courses in the Red Sea and, when he is not working as a motivational speaker, he raises thousands of pounds as an ambassador for Forces charity Help For Heroes.
Jamie was in an on-off relationship with a Canadian girlfriend at the time of the crash but it didn’t last his time in hospital.
He is currently single but hopes to settle down and start a family.
He says: “I should probably start thinking about that, but I’m in no hurry.”
So what is his secret to carrying on after such trauma?
“I have learnt to work with the new toolbox,” he says.
“You have got to hold on, have faith, stay hungry, stay focused.”
Fourteen years after that cockpit fire, Jamie says he is stronger than ever — and he is flying at life