Defense News reported that delivery dates for the next jet trainer aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet are expected to be delayed. The T-7A Red Hawk apparently has ejection seat problems.
While it’s true that Boeing, with appropriate prodding from the US Air Force, was able to improve the escape system of the T-7A that’s set to retire the T-38 Talon jet trainer, the technology isn’t perfect yet.
But perhaps looking for perfection in design and engineering is the wrong way to go. So, in the wake of the Air Force procuring new Boeing trainers with less-than-perfect escape systems, let’s take a tour down memory lane and look at some of the worst jet trainer accidents, not to relive the pain but to remind us that more than the speed in production, ensuring these jets have superior ejection seats is a prime concern.
Fatal F-16 Crash – June 2020
Perhaps the most recent incident was the crash that killed F-16 pilot 1st Lt. David Schmitz on June 30, 2020. It was the result of a multitude of errors, accidents, and poor decisions, including a flawed risk assessment that neglected to account for his level of experience for the mission that night, his damaged landing gear, and an improper recommendation from the control tower to attempt a cable arrest while landing with his busted gear.
Despite this, Schmitz could have had a chance to survive if not for one fatal flaw: when he attempted to bail out as his landing was going horribly wrong, his ejection seat catastrophically malfunctioned.
The ejection seat in Schmitz’s case launched 130 feet into the air but his parachute did not deploy. About seven seconds later, Schmitz, still in his seatbelt, crashed to the earth, meeting his death on impact.
In the months after the disaster, the Air Force conducted an official investigation and discovered that the electronics inside the seat had been poorly constructed, with scratches, uneven sanding, and other flaws.
This sparked concerns at the Air Force Research Laboratory, which prompted a detailed examination to determine whether the parts were fake. It’s not clear if that question has ever been answered.
Publicity Photo Formation Flight Crash
On June 8, 1966, a Lockheed F-104N Starfighter, N813NA, piloted by NASA Chief Research Test Pilot Joseph A. Walker, got caught in the wingtip vortex of a North American Aviation XB-70A-2 Valkyrie, 62-0207, the second prototype Mach 3+ strategic bomber, while the aircraft was in a publicity photo formation flight.
The Starfighter approached the Valkyrie and crossed her. After the two aircraft met, the F-104 detonated, ripping off the Valkyrie’s vertical fins.
Before inverting itself, the Valkyrie flew straight and level for 16 seconds. Alvin S. White, the B-70’s pilot, managed to eject despite being seriously hurt. Joe Walker and United States Air Force Major Carl S. Cross, the co-pilot of a B-70, failed to eject and died in the accident.
Reports said Cross had waited too long to eject. Later, it was discovered that the seat retraction cylinder’s diaphragm had ruptured due to tremendous stresses generated by the G forces of the aircraft’s spin.
English Electric Lightning MK T5 Ejection Seat Failure
On November 14, 2009, the ejection seat of Dave Stock, of Hermanus, failed during a solo flight in an English Electric Lightning MK T5 aircraft during a show at the annual Overberg Air Show in Bredasdorp. Numerous horrified onlookers witnessed the plane crash to the ground.
Stock encountered a hydraulic failure around halfway through the aerobatics demonstration. The chassis broke down, and as the situation worsened, Stock announced that he was going to eject. This never happened though.
According to the accident report made by the SA Civil Aviation Authority:
Stock’s last words as recorded on the transcript were, “Ejection seat failure, ejection seat failure, tell her I love her very much.”
There are many others whose mishaps did not attract media attention or a public outcry, and whose stories were lost in the sea of related accidents. And while two of the latter stories didn’t happen during a mission or training, it’s clear that well-functioning ejections seats spell the difference between life and death.
The good news is that the US Air Force routinely grounds fleets with ejection seat problems. The F-35 is one of those with incredibly flawed ejection systems, as Defense News has pointed out. The bad news is that, although the problems have been addressed, they remain unresolved.