LONDON (AP) — U.S. Air Force Maj. Grant Thompson thanked a British photographer the best way he knew how – by ripping the flight patch from his shoulder and handing it to the man whose quick action last week ensured he landed safely after an engine in his F-15E Strike Eagle malfunctioned.

Ian Simpson was standing outside the fence of a Royal Air Force base in eastern England and snapping pictures of fighter aircraft taking off when he spotted a shower of sparks flying from the back of a plane. He and a group of aviation enthusiasts listening to flight control traffic realized the pilot didn’t appear to know there was a problem with the aircraft.

So Simpson, who used to work in the aviation industry, Googled RAF Lakenheath’s phone number and persuaded a switchboard operator to put him through to flight operations at the base, home to the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing.

“I said, ‘Look, something is wrong with the plane, definitely. We’ve got lots of photographs of sparks coming out the back,’’’ Simpson, 56, told The Associated Press.

Word was relayed to the pilot. Asked to take a look, his wingman confirmed damage to one of the engines, the base said. The pilot returned to base, “just to be safe.”

“For most of us here, this was a very rare occurrence that we have not personally witnessed,” the air base said in a statement. “It’s wonderful to know that the Liberty Wing has such a great partnership with the local community – and the courage that Ian displayed was next to none.”


Simpson said he was motivated by the death of another young American pilot whose plane crashed into the North Sea on June 15, 2020.

“I thought someone should call,” he said. “I didn’t want anything like that to happen to another family.’’

On Wednesday, Thompson said thank you by giving Simpson a cap and insignia, and then throwing in the shoulder patch for good measure.

“That was a nice touch,’’ Simpson said.

The base noted Simpson’s actions in a Facebook post that won widespread attention, particularly from Americans grateful for his assistance.

“For me, the most humbling thing has been the families of servicemen who thanked me for doing what I did,’’ he said. “I wasn’t expecting to get so much thanks.’’