A Russian Su-24M was shot down over Syria on 24 November by a Turkish F-16C, and the incident has brought about an interest in Russian aircrew escape and survival technology. U.S. and NATO systems have had their stories told over the years from Vietnam with the escapes of Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Dieter Dengler and Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton (BAT 21) to Captain Scott O’Grady over Bosnia, as well as more contemporary survivors from Iraq and Afghanistan. Russian systems however have had little attention with the exception of a few dramatic airshow ejections over the past three decades.
Regardless of nationality, operating modern combat aircraft requires exceptional people with exceptional skills and training. Every nation with an effective air force invests heavily in the selection, care and training of these pilots and aircrew. It is therefore practical and logical that they want to keep them as safe as possible. From a morale standpoint, it is also advantageous for aircrews to know everything that can be done to assure their survival has either been provided or will be. This is no less the case for Russia and in some respects it is merely a continuation of a survival culture that dates back hundreds of years. This by no means is to suggest an aversion to the risks of flying combat aircraft. In this regard, Russians are proven to be quite bold, skilled, and calculating.
At 800 miles per hour, fractions of a second count. Many life-threatening factors are at play in a stricken jet aircraft. A catastrophic failure of the fuselage at speed, along with fire, smoke, system explosions, altitude, high speed tumbling and crashing add to the list. To get clear from this mayhem unharmed fast, clearing the tail, and then stabilized enough to safely open a parachute requires a sophisticated escape system, an ejection seat that senses everything and reacts accordingly. Early escape seats from the 1950s and 60s were brutal to say the least. While saving the pilot’s life, their unregulated escape rockets often compressed spines, broke limbs and thereby ended many a pilot’s career and good health. In some circumstances, they also tumbled causing death and or preventing the parachute from opening–which was also fatal.
At the heart of all modern Russian ejection-seat equipped aircraft is the NPP Zvezda K-36 escape seat in one of several variations. It has an operational envelope that permits a pilot to eject at zero speed/zero altitude, such as sitting on the runway, all the way up to 82,000 feet MSL and Mach 2.5 (1,900MPH). To accomplish this, it has automatic stability control systems and passive limb retrains as well as a progressive boost rocket to control forces exerted on the pilot. It has proven so successful, even the USAF considered it for future fighter aircraft and proceeded with an extensive flight test program in the mid-1990s. More than 12,000 K-36 have been produced and 97% of it’s users have not only survived but were able to return to flight status. This is the highest safety record of any system in the world.