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.