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.

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.


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”.