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.

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The KM-36 ejection seat like those in the downed Russian Su-24M.

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.

The automatic sequence for a modern ejection is generally as follows: As the pilot chooses to eject, he sits upright, elbows tucked in, feet back, and pulls the handle, usually located between his knees.  The cockpit canopy is blown free as the seat’s rocket ignites. Some aircraft have det cord to blow a hole in the canopy instead. The rocket within the seat propels it up a track and away from the aircraft. If there is more than one crewman, it will be directed away from the other seats exiting the aircraft. The seat has sensors to control tumbling and correct for angle by directing the rocket accordingly. An on board oxygen supply feeds the pilot as they freefall below 12,000 feet and safe breathing level. Once the seat and pilot are stable and reach a preset altitude, the pilot is automatically released from the seat along with his liferaft/survival kit which was stored under the seat and is tethered to his parachute harness. His parachute deploys in a progressive manner as to reduce the chance of high speed injury.

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The Russian Federation is not only the largest nation in the world, it’s undeveloped wilderness areas which include Siberia exceed the size of Canada- the second largest country in the world.  Speckled throughout this vastness live a hardy mix of cultures adapted to harsh climates and separated by distances that are mind-boggling, to say the least. The seasonal and minimal road and water systems provide only a fractional means of access. The rest is pure wilderness. Protecting this 3.5 million square miles is the Russian Aerospace Forces.  It is therefore a fact that within its own borders, Russian aircrews fly over more remote forest, tundra, mountains, desert, jungle, plains, and water than any other aircrews.  Accordingly, stand a greater chance of finding themselves in a wilderness survival situation than any other–even without the threat of Turkish F-16s.

It is a reality they take seriously. There is no mindset of “Oh, it will never happen to me.”  They take a pragmatic approach that includes extensive training which exceeds most other countries, specialized flight clothing, and a carefully outfitted NAZ “Portable Emergency Kit”.

There is nothing new about aircraft survival kits; they have been carried since the very beginning of aviation and even the criteria remains relatively the same. You have a certain amount of weight and space to dedicate to gear and it must be able to handle the temperatures, forces and vibrations associated with aircraft or ejection seats.  The contents themselves vary due to expected environment, but can best be divided into fulfilling five needs: Protection, Direction/location, Sustenance, Signal, and Medical. In a survival situation, the crew would have their clothing and parachute to utilize as well whatever their location offers.  Russian kits offer nothing astonishing or super high-tech, but what is included has been carefully chosen and developed over many years–under all types of condition. It is also worth noting most of these exact components are used by cosmonauts flying in the Soyuz capsules, and they as well undergo extensive training for just such an event.

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Protection includes the environment as well as threats. Russian kits include a one-man liferaft which on land can be used as a lean-to or bed in an igloo. Being international orange in color, it also makes a good signal device. Weather-proof matches and fire starters are an important addition. A very handy multipurpose machete aids in shelter and fire building, and can be used for pounding shelter stakes. It can also be used for signaling with its bright Nickel finish. A pocket knife and wire saw are included and have obvious uses. The parachute can be used to construct a hammock, shelter, bed, wind barrier and backpack. All Russian flight suits have an internal holster for a Makarov PM pistol and extra magazine. The survival kit has an additional 16 rounds of ammo. Pistols are not always issued but offer protection in the wild from wolves and unfriendly bipeds.  Sunglasses in arctic conditions are crucial and thereby included.

Direction/Location would be mission map, lensatic compass, and handheld GPS receiver. Russia has it’s own GPS system, GLONASS, and when combined with GPS, the accuracy can be as little as two meters. Systems using both are growing in popularity and in fact your smart phone might be one.

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Sustenance is provided by canned meats, candy, sugar, biscuits, canteen and a water desalination kit. Parachute fabric can be used to construct a water filter system. The wire saw can be used for building snares as can para cord stripped to it’s inner fibers. Nylon line from the really decent fishing kit can be used for snares, too.  A sturdy pole cut with the machete and the rest is in the fishing kit including lures. Two of the larger aluminum storage containers are designed to join to form a frying pan for the catch of the day.

There is nothing a pilot wants more than to be rescued as quickly as possible, so great emphasis is placed on signaling under all circumstances. As mentioned, fire starting needs are met along with the flashy machete. For additional daylight signaling, a signal mirror, orange smoke flares, and pen flares that can be spotted up to 15 miles away.  At night, the pen flare visual range is 20 miles. Also for night, a handheld flare works well. If at sea, an orange dye marker is opened to stain a large area of water.

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Pencil flares included in the Russian aircrew survival kit.

The penlight could be considered a signal device, too.  A very nicely designed emergency radio is included. While very basic in function, it is dependable and has some interesting features such as a large remote battery which permits it to be kept warm under clothing while still available for use. The antenna is a clever segmented design with a central cable. When the cable is snapped taunt, the antenna become rigid for use. Otherwise, it can be bundled into a pocket without damage. An accessory cable allows the radio to connect to the flight helmet earphones and microphone in the oxygen mask. This is useful in really poor weather. It transmits and receives voice on the two international distress frequencies and transmits beeper on those two as well. Finally, a pilot can use his Makarov for signaling.

The medical kit could be considered lacking by Western standards. It includes only a very minimal amount of wound care supply with no tape at all. Paracord would be expected to be used for a tourniquet and parachute material for outer wound dressing and slings.  Pills include Caffeine, Sulfide, water purification and Aspirin. Two Morphine syrettes and Mosquito repellent complete the kit.

An included manual has basic survival and medical information. Depending upon the operational area, an interesting pair of folding snowshoes can be stored in the kit in place of two flat 1.5 litre water containers. Overall, all components are of a high quality and function well.

Although one member of the Russian Su-24M crew was gunned down as he floated to earth, the second crewman was able to evade and survive until a Russian rescue team was able to come get him. The aircrew flight equipment aboard the “Fencer” worked exactly as designed.