Ejection seats have saved many pilots through the decades. But how, exactly, do those ejection seats work, and how do pilots train for their use?

 

Bail Out!

In the early days of aviation, pilots had basically one option to get out of a damaged or disabled aircraft, and that was to jump! Bailing out was the only way to get clear, and you better hope your parachute was strapped on tight. Early ejection seat prototypes used compressed air as the means of forcing the pilot’s seat out. This soon changed to a powder-actuated cartridge design. 

 

Early Ejection Seat

The first operational ejection seats were installed in Germany’s Heinkel He 162 Volksjager, or “People’s Fighter”. The Volksjager was one of Germany’s last-ditch efforts to field more jets for the Luftwaffe near the end of World War II. Constructed mainly of plywood, the Volksjager never entered full production, but the ideas for the ejection seat were sound, and carried into the future. The Volksjager’s ejection seats were used at least four times during service, with two of the four pilots dying in the attempts.

Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger WWII plane
An American soldier guarding a Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger. It is not clear where the picture was taken. The Heinkel He 162 was a German single-engine, jet-powered fighter aircraft fielded by the Luftwaffe in WWII. Designed and built quickly, and made primarily of wood it was nevertheless the fastest of the first generation of Axis and Allied jets. It was called Volksjäger, Salamander or Spatz (“Sparrow”). (Courtesy of Jan B.H.A. Vervloedt/Wikimedia Commons)

With the advent of faster-than-sound travel, safe ejection became a requirement. The ability to “bail-out” goes by the wayside when the jet is traveling at 700+ mph. Enter the rocket-powered ejection seat.

 

Ejection in a Nutshell

All modern ejection seats work in roughly the same way: The pilot pulls the ejection handle; a signal is sent to cartridges, located in the canopy or hatch cover, to blow; body harness and straps around legs tighten, pulling the pilot tight to the seat; catapult system beneath seat initiates; seat is sent up guide rails; rocket motors ignite and seat (and pilot) are thrown clear of the cockpit. Once out, stabilization rockets on the seat fire to keep the seat from gyrating madly.

Once completely clear of the aircraft, another rocket motor actuates, blowing the seat clear of the pilot. At this point, depending on altitude, the drogue chute is deployed to slow and stabilize descent. At lower altitudes, the main chute is deployed. All this occurs in roughly four seconds.

 

Prep to Eject

No one actually wants to have to pull the ejection handle, but anyone who flies equipped aircraft must be trained in the use of ejection seats. Since there is no infinite supply of aircraft (or pilots), training is done on purpose-built rigs. These rigs have seats mounted on rails that guide the seat upward just like the real thing, but fire with less force. Typical ejection from U.S. military aircraft puts 15-20 Gs of force on the pilot, often resulting in spinal injuries. The training rigs operate at around 10 Gs, and seats stay on the rails rather than separating and parachuting. 

 

Prep to NOT Eject

Maintenance personnel who work on ejection-seat-equipped jets are required to have basic training on how the systems operate, where the ejection handles and actuators are located, and how to safe the systems to prevent inadvertent activation. In addition, maintainers must be able to recognize unsafe configurations, and either make changes or notify responsible parties when unsafe conditions are found. No one wants a rocket motor firing beside their head while they change out a part.

A-6 intruder ejection seat mechanism
Close up photos of an ejection seat from an A-6 intruder. (Photo by Max Lonzanida/U.S. Navy)

There are a handful of ejection seat manufacturers in the world. The largest, Martin-Baker, is based in the U.K. and provides over 50 percent of the world’s ejection seats. In the U.S., Collins Aerospace is the manufacturer of choice, though Martin-Baker seats are found in the F-35, F/A-18, and F-14D to name a few. Martin-Baker even sponsors the Ejection Tie Club, which presents aircrew members saved by Martin-Baker seats with a tie, tie pin, patch, and certificate. According to Martin-Baker, their seats have saved over 7,600 lives.

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Ejection, Groundhog-Day-Style

Urban legend has it that a person loses an inch or so of height every time they eject. If so, one man got a lot shorter over his life. Bernard Lynch, a fitter for Martin-Baker, conducted at least 30 test ejections over his lifetime. Lynch volunteered to test the first prototypes on the ground. He continued to volunteer for ejection testing, and became the first man to test a Martin-Baker ejection seat in the air, ejecting from a specially modified Gloster Meteor aircraft.  

B-58 seat ejection
Ejection of a B-58’s capsule. (USAF)

The USAF used slightly different “volunteers” in their testing. In the early 1960s, the Air Force was in need of test subjects for its B-58 Hustler ejection system. The Hustler’s ejection system was unique in that it consisted of three separate pods, one for each crew member. In March 1962, a live black bear named Yogi was sedated and restrained in one of those pods. A human pilot flew the jet to 35,000 feet, and ejected the bear over the Texas desert. Yogi landed fine, and the Air Force continued on, ejecting six bears from the B-58, of which all but one survived. At least until the autopsies…

 

The Importance of Ejection Seats

Even with limited flying during the COVID pandemic, seven U.S. military fighter and trainer jets crashed in 2020. In those crashes, four of the seven crews were saved by their ejection seats. The remaining three went down with their jets, for various reasons. Two of the three were determined to be caused by pilot error due to disorientation or loss of spatial awareness, which caused the crew members to not attempt to eject. The third is still under investigation.

Ejection seats save lives. Without some way to immediately and automatically bail out from a stricken aircraft, significantly more pilots and aircrew members would die every year. In the continuously faster world of military aviation, that extra push to get out may someday save your or a loved one’s life.

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