The Ejection Seat: A Fighter Pilot’s Silent Friend

Imagine this scenario: You are flying the hi-tech fighter jet of your choice.  You are engaged in a dogfight jousting for 3/9 advantage (trying to get and stay behind the other aircraft’s 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock position – i.e. you’re trying to go offensive).  As the noses of both aircraft pitch up higher and higher and you both become slower, both aircraft become less maneuverable.  As you both try to weave across the other’s 6 o’clock you realize your lift vectors are pointed right at each other.  Before you know it you’re max performing your jet to avoid hitting the other aircraft.  Things happen fast in a dogfight and you end up clipping the other jet – and find yourself out of control.

The world spins rapidly around you and you feel a surge of adrenaline as you realize you will have to abandon the aircraft.  You have no choice but to put your faith in the ejection seat and the parachute.  You reach for the ejection handle and in the blink of an eye you are out of your crippled aircraft looking up at a full parachute peacefully lowering you back to the earth.

At least that is the ideal situation.  There are several factors that make ejecting from a fighter dangerous business – but facing those risks is usually better than the alternative.  Several things can go wrong during the ejection sequence.  I want to talk about some of these risks to highlight the fact that an ejection decision is not one to be taken lightly – but when it happens, that decision is usually made in a split second.

The ejection sequence is an elaborate intermingling of aircraft systems and parts.  To safely get out of the jet, the canopy must jettison so as not to impede egress.  There is always the chance that the canopy will stay right where it is, thus ejection seats typically have a canopy piercer that will theoretically break the canopy sufficiently for the seat and pilot to pass through with minimal injury to the pilot.  Several aircraft, such as the Harrier and T-6, use a canopy destruct system consisting of a detonation cord built into the canopy, as the canopy itself does not jettison.

Today’s ejection seats are typically rocket powered as opposed to the older ballistic seats.  (I must say, I never felt quite comfortable knowing I was sitting on a pile of dynamite in the T-37 Tweet during pilot training!)  Modern ejection seats are known as “zero-zero” seats – at zero knots airspeed and at zero altitude AGL you can eject and still get a full parachute.  The older seats required at least some altitude, some airspeed, or a combination of both.  The following video shows testing of the current “zero-zero” seats made by Martin-Baker.

The rocket system of the Advanced Concept Ejection Seat model 2 (ACES II) used in most modern American fighters can reach peak acceleration of 12G’s when departing the aircraft.  It is critical for the pilot to maintain an appropriate body position upon ejection otherwise significant spinal injuries and/or flailing injuries can occur.  This position is usually assumed by bringing the head back against the head rest, tucking the elbows in close to the body, and depending on the aircraft either straightening the legs, or bringing the heels back against the seat.

The altitude and airspeed at which ejection is accomplished will play an important part in determining the outcome of the egress.  At high altitudes and high airspeeds ejection more dangerous.  The following video covers the story of an F-15E pilot who ejected while supersonic.  He explains the injuries he sustained due to such a high-speed ejection – his emotion is understandable as he came very close to death during the ejection.

Ejecting at a high altitude has its own risks, regardless of airspeed.  If the canopy were to open at high altitude the pilot would experience increased opening shock when the canopy inflates lending to additional flailing-type injuries (dislocations, broken bones, torn ligaments, etc.).  Also, emergency oxygen bottles last between 8-20 minutes depending on the charge in the bottle and the altitude at which it is used (the higher the altitude, the shorter the time.)  Hypoxia becomes a deadly player at very high altitudes, as does frostbite from the sub-freezing temperatures.

To offset the risk of a high altitude, high-speed ejection modern ejection seats contain sensors that will determine the ejection conditions and vary the sequence accordingly.  At high altitude and high airspeed, the seat will deploy a drogue chute to slow the pilot’s rate of travel while also delaying the opening of the main chute until the pilot is below 15,000’ where the air is thicker, fall times are lower, and survivability is significantly increased.

In addition to the technological aspects of surviving an ejection, pilots are given thorough training on egress and bailout procedures during initial pilot training, and are required to re-hack their training currency every year.  The training typically consists of an overview of the egress systems as well as practical instruction normally provided by a jump-certified SERE Instructor (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape).  If you happen to encounter any current and qualified pilot of an ejection seat aircraft and ask him or her what the post-ejection checklist is, they will be able to rattle it off to you by heart. (“Canopy, visor, mask, seat-kit, LPUs, 4-line jettison, steer into the wind, prepare for PLF, land!”)

I’ve known several pilots who have safely ejected from their fighter aircraft, and thanks to their ejection systems and training they are alive to tell their tale today.  Ejecting is not something that is taken lightly, and can certainly be quite perilous.  As an old fighter pilot toast goes, “May your landings always equal your takeoffs!”

 By Tally One editor Rob Burgon