The faster airplanes go, the faster we need to get out of them.
If necessity is the mother of invention, combat is its father. Little more than a month after Pearl Harbor, when the United States was belatedly gearing up for war, Germany was already testing jet fighters.
In January 1942, Heinkel company test pilot Helmut Schenk flew an He-280 prototype with four pulse-jet engines. They didn’t provide enough power for takeoff, so the Heinkel was tethered to an He-111 tow plane. Unfortunately, that kicked up so much snow that when Schenk reached 7,900 feet and the bomber crew dropped the heavy towline, it remained frozen to his jet. Flying, let alone landing, was impossible, but luckily Heinkel was also working on another innovation. “I jettisoned the canopy and then pulled the release lever for the seat,” Schenk recalled, “and was thrown clear of the aircraft without coming in contact with it.” A blast of compressed air fired him, seat and all, out of the cockpit. He landed unharmed via parachute, the first man to escape an aircraft using an ejection seat.
Almost since airplanes started flying, people have been figuring the quickest way to get out when they fail. Bungee-cord and compressed-air escape systems date back to the 1910s. By September 1941, the Germans were test-firing dummies from the back seat of a Junkers Ju-87. Early ejection seats had difficulty just clearing the Stuka’s tail fin. As aircraft speed and required ejection power increased, air bottles became impractically heavy; instead the He-162 jet’s seat used a gunpowder cartridge. It’s thought some 60 Luftwaffe pilots ejected during the war, but how many actually survived is unknown.
In Britain, during an emergency landing in a fighter prototype he co-designed with Irish engineer James Martin, test pilot Captain Valentine Baker was unable to bail out in time. Martin took his partner’s death so hard that he repurposed their company toward aircrew escape. In July 1946, Martin-Baker employee Bernard Lynch ejected from the rear cockpit of a Gloster Meteor 3 at 320 mph, and eventually made 30 more successful ejections. “From an engineering point of view,” company spokesman Brian Miller said decades later, “the ejection seat was developed quite quickly, and we were able to soon come up with the velocities and accelerations that we needed to clear an aircraft fin. The problem was that nobody knew what those accelerations would do to a man.”
Early Martin-Baker seats might save your life, but could also end your flight career, as reflected by aviator slogans “Meet Your Maker in a Martin-Baker” and “Martin-Baker Back Breaker.” Within a year, however, the ejection seats were standard equipment in British jets. That saved the life of test pilot Jo Lancaster, who on May 20, 1949, punched out of an Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 flying wing, the first British emergency ejection.
On August 17, 1946, Sergeant Larry Lambert earned the Distinguished Flying Cross by ejecting from a modified Northrop P-61 over Wright Field, Ohio, at 302 mph. American aviation manufacturers all hurried to design ejection seats. Within 10 years, however, aircraft were capable of such speeds that seats could barely keep up. In February 1955, North American Aviation test pilot George F. Smith took a factory-fresh F-100A Super Sabre on a check flight and suffered total hydraulic failure at 37,000 feet. By the time he was down to 6,500 feet, out of control, the “Hun” was doing Mach 1.05. On ejection the wind forces amounted to a 40-G deceleration, knocking Smith unconscious. Though a third of his chute was torn away, it deployed automatically. Smith spent seven months in the hospital, but survived to fly F-100s again.
Counterintuitively, it’s at zero airspeed and altitude that seats require the highest power, because the aircraft is not moving away and parachutes need enough height to open. Rather than relying on gunpowder charges, “zero-zero” seats began using rockets to extend the acceleration and reduce spinal injuries. The first zero-zero test subject was Doddy Hay, whose Martin-Baker seat fired him 300 feet from the ground in 1961. In late 1965, American manufacturer Weber Aircraft produced a zero-zero seat with a rocket motor, gun-deployed parachute and survival kit, including an inflatable raft. U.S. Air Force Reserve Major Jim Hall volunteered as guinea pig, and on firing was subjected to a sustained 14 Gs. Hall landed in a nearby lake, emerging to shrug, “I’ve been kicked in the ass harder than that.”
Pilots have even ejected below zero altitude. In June 1969, on his first night landing during carrier qualifications off Southern California, Lieutenant Russ Pearson brought his Vought A-7 Corsair II aboard USS Constellation off centerline. He caught the no. 3 wire, but on rollout the plane went off the edge of the deck, slipped the wire and plunged into the Pacific. “In the history of Naval Aviation, only a handful of pilots had ever attempted, much less survived, an underwater ejection,” he later wrote. “…There was also the chance I might eject directly into the Connie’s passing steel hull or even worse, into one of her massive propellers.” Fortunately his turned-turtle Corsair fired Pearson downward and, against dense water rather than thin air, not very deep. He surfaced and a rescue helicopter pulled him to safety.
Three days later, that same helicopter was lost at sea with its entire crew, who had no ejection seats. Overhead rotor blades obviously present an impediment to ejection. Russian Kamov attack choppers blow off their blades first, and the Mil Mi-28 has seats that fire sideways. The Soviets never lagged in ejection-seat design. After his MiG-29 ingested a bird at the 1989 Paris Air Show, pilot Anatoly Kvochur’s Zvezda K-36D seat ejected him just 2.5 seconds before impact. At the same show 10 years later, K-36s saved both crewmen of a Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter that pancaked at the bottom of a too-low loop. In both incidents the Russians ejected almost horizontally at extremely low altitudes, yet everybody walked away. A Paris official called the K-36 seat “clearly the best in the world.”
In the U.S., female aviators presented another challenge for designers, who had to compensate for their lighter weight to avoid faster, more dangerous accelerations. But the one danger they can’t overcome is a handle pulled too late. In October 1994, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Linda Heid, coincidentally the second female naval aviator to eject, witnessed the service’s first female fighter pilot, Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, lose airflow to her Grumman F-14’s left engine intake on final approach to the carrier Abraham Lincoln. “Horrified, I watched her aircraft lose altitude and start rolling to the left,” Heid remembered. “The landing signal officers screamed, ‘Power, power, power!’ and then yelled for the crew to eject.” Hultgreen’s backseat radar intercept officer, Lieutenant Matthew Klemish, got out, but .4 seconds later the Tomcat had rolled past 90 degrees, and Hultgreen’s seat fired her down into the sea, killing her.
When ejection seats fail, they fail big. In July 1991, on a routine hop over the Indian Ocean, Grumman KA-6D navigator/bombardier Lieutenant Keith Gallagher’s seat inadvertently misfired, launching him partially through the canopy. Only his parachute, streaming back to wrap around the aircraft tail, kept his semi-conscious body from flailing in the wind or dying by impalement on the jagged canopy during landing. Post-incident analysis revealed the seat’s 28-year-old firing mechanism had fatigued. Since then, every Navy seat goes through routine, scheduled inspection.
Today the American third-generation Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES) II seat is battery-powered, computer controlled and so smart that it knows altitude, attitude and airspeed when fired. It can tailor drogue and main chute deployment to compensate for those factors, even when the aircraft is flying inverted at just 140 feet and when the occupant is unconscious. In May 1994, McDonnell Douglas F-15C pilot Captain John Counsell blacked out during a simulated dogfight over the Gulf of Mexico and regained consciousness to find his Eagle diving through 10,000 feet at Mach 1.14. “I had to make one decision—to pull the handle,” he said. “After that, 13 automatic functions had to work perfectly for me to live, and they did.” At that speed, windblast strikes with a force of more than 1,500 pounds per square foot. It broke Counsell’s left leg in five places, tore three ligaments in his left knee, folded his right leg over his shoulder (tearing three more ligaments), broke his left arm and both broke and dislocated his left shoulder, but the ACES dropped him in the water alive, where he was picked up two hours later.
In April 1995, Captain Brian “Noodle” Udell and back-seat weapons systems officer Captain Dennis White were flying one of four F-15E Strike Eagles in simulated night-combat training 65 miles out over the Atlantic. A malfunctioning head-up display indicated they were in a 60-degree turn, 10 degrees nose-down, passing though 24,000 feet at 400 knots. Udell found out too late that they were actually at 10,000 feet, headed straight down at nearly the speed of sound. The pair fired their ACES II seats at 3,000 feet, doing almost 800 mph. Udell was knocked unconscious, his right knee and left arm dislocated and left ankle broken. After a long night in the water, four surgeries and six steel screws in each leg, he returned to flight status 10 months after his crash. He was lucky: The windblast killed White instantly.
Supersonic planes are easier to design than supersonic ejection systems. The three-seat Mach 2 B-58 Hustler used individual, enclosed escape capsules to protect its occupants. Its replacement, the General Dynamics F-111, was to have ejected the entire cockpit, but such systems were so complicated, expensive and heavy that they were discarded.
Ejection seats have saved lives right up to the very edge of space. On April 16, 1975, Captain Jon T. Little was knocked out while ejecting from a Lockheed U-2R spyplane over the Pacific at 65,000 feet and 470 mph. Unconscious, he fell 50,000 feet before his parachute automatically deployed. “I pulled the eject handle,” he recalled, “and the next thing I remember I was in the water.”
On January 25, 1966, Lockheed test pilot Bill Weaver and backseater Jim Zwayer suffered a flameout in their SR-71’s right engine and immediately lost control. “I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 ft. were very good,” Weaver said. “…I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only 2-3 sec. Still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces. The SR-71 then literally disintegrated around us. From that point, I was just along for the ride.”
Weaver’s pressure suit inflated, preventing his blood from boiling and the wind from tearing him apart. Because of the thin atmosphere at its operating altitude, a Blackbird flying faster than 2,000 mph encounters wind force equivalent to about 460 mph down below, but the air is also too thin to prevent a parachutist from spinning or tumbling so fast as to suffer injury. With Weaver unconscious, his Lockheed RQ201 seat automatically deployed a drogue chute to prevent spin, and popped the main chute at 15,000 feet just as Weaver came around. Unfortunately, Zwayer died of a broken neck during the aircraft breakup.
Test pilot Bill Park pushed it to the very edge of height, speed and luck, as the only man to eject from the Blackbird twice. In July 1964, after a Mach 3 test flight, his controls locked up on approach to Groom Lake. Park punched out only 200 feet up in a 45-degree bank. Two years later, he and backseater Ray Torick were attempting to release a top-mounted D-21 drone at Mach 3.2 when it pitched down and broke their Blackbird in half. G-forces within the tumbling nose section pinned Park and Torick in their seats, unable even to reach their ejection handles, until it slowed in lower, thicker air, where they punched out safely and landed in the Pacific. Tragically, Torick’s pressure suit took in water and he drowned.
But that wasn’t his seat’s fault. Today Martin-Baker alone counts more than 7,500 lives saved by their ejection seats, including over 3,300 Americans. (The company’s Ejection Tie Club is limited to aviators saved by its seats; members worldwide receive a distinctive tie, tiepin, cloth patch, certificate and membership card.) Yet the ejection seat, which arguably made jet combat possible, may eventually end up a footnote in aviation history. If the drone revolution does away with onboard aircrews, what they sat on will become a museum curiosity.
For further reading, frequent contributor Don Hollway recommends: Eject!, by Bill Tuttle; Punching Out, edited by James Cross; and ejectionsite.com.
This feature originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!