I’ve never had to eject from an airplane (If fingers could stutter, mine just did. I hesitated mightily on that sentence – the superstitious impulse to knock wood right now is hard to overcome – even though I’m probably out of the ejection seat aircraft business forever).
But I’ve spent a fair amount of time sitting on top of a real e-ticket ride, forty pounds of pull away. The ejection seat is sometimes called “the final flight control” – when everything else fails, you’ve still got that.
The first aircraft I flew for the Navy was the T-34C Turbo Mentor. As a prop airplane, it came with a parachute, but you’d have to bail out the old fashioned way – pull the canopy back and dive at the trailing edge of the wing. Once clear, there was a manual ripcord to pull.
Which reminds me of the joke of the Cajun paratrooper – try to imagine a Cajun accent:
Boudreaux is in the ranks when a man wearing his pants tucked into his boots asks, “Who wants to be a paratroop, tek one step forrad!”
Everybody else takes one step backward, leaving Boudreaux standing out front as a volunteer. He goes through all the ground training about how to execute a PLF (parachute landing fall). On the day of his first jump, the instructor says to him: “When you jump out de aero-plane, you goina count to tree. Den you goina pool your REAP-cord. Den da parachute goina open, and carry you sefly to the groun’, den de peek-up truck goina carry you back to de base.”
Boudreaux asks, “What suppose da parachute don’ open, now?”
The instructor has an answer: “Den you goina pool your auxiliary REAP-cord, da parachute goina open, carry you sefly to the groun’, den da peek-up truck goina bring you back to da base.”
So Boudreaux stands in the door until the light turns green. He jumps out with his eyes closed, counts quickly to “tree,” and pulls his ripcord. Nothing happens. “Well ah be dam!” he says. So he reaches for his auxiliary rip cord and pulls that too. Nothing happens. And now, as he hurtles towards the waiting earth, he says to himself, “Dat lying son a bitches. An’ I bet there’s no peek-up truck down there, neither!”
Bad, I know. I’ve got a million of them. Anyway.
The first ejection seat aircraft I flew was the T-2 Buckeye. It had a seat (a hard seat!), but it wasn’t a “zero-zero” seat, which was considered state of the art. A zero-zero seat would have meant that you could have safely ejected from ground level (at zero altitude) with no rate of climb or descent, and stood a pretty good chance of surviving. But in the T-2, since it had a relatively ineffective canopy jettison mechanism, you had to have 60 knots on the jet to safely eject – otherwise you’d pull a Goose (ala the movie Top Gun) and hit the canopy on the way out.
There was the wreckage of a T-2 in the pond by runway 19-left at NAS Meridian, Mississippi – it had been left there by one of my instructors, years past. This particular gent had ejected from three aircraft, and wrecked one – the last one, there in the pond. It was said of him that he was 80% on his way to becoming a “Black Ace.” since it requires five kills to become a regular “Ace,” and he’d nearly done the same for the other team.
His callsign? “Lucky.”
His first ejection was from an A-4 in Vietnam, after a coming off a bombing run in Hanoi. He’d gotten hammered by some AAA while still at low altitude, and the jet was leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid. His wingman told him, “You’re on fire, eject!” He reached down to pull the handle, then looked outside and saw a knot of NVN shooting up at him with AK-47′s.
“It’s actually not that bad,” he told his wingman.
He kept it flying until he got over the Haiphong harbor, and then as the fire burned through the last of his flight control cables and the wing started to drop uncontrollably, he pulled the handle, and went for a swim. In moments the NVN were rowing out to pick hiim up in sampans, to treat him to an extended stay at the Hanoi Hilton. Fortunately for Lucky, there was an AD-1 Skyraider on RESCAP nearby. The Spad sawed the lead sampan in half with his .50 cals, and the others turned around and paddled back, probably remembering some more pressing engagement ashore.
The next two ejections were engine failures in single-engine jets, including one right off the catapult. He was treated to the gratifying sight of the carrier’s bow pushing his jet underwater, just prior to running over him. He got bumped and scraped the length of the waterline, magically missing the ship’s churning propellors prior to being picked up by a helo.
On his final mishap, his crash, a burly Marine flight student on his first front seat ride immediately stalled the jet on take-off by over-rotating. Lucky rode it in to the pond.
Later, the mishap board would ask him, “Why didn’t you eject?”
His answer? “I just got tired of it.”
The first real seat I rode on was in the TA-4J. It was a good seat, by all accounts. I never had to use it.
The FA-18′s was even better in a lot of ways, although the canopy itself was rather small. Punch out of the FA-18, and you’d hit the ground at -40 feet per second, which is roughly equivalent to jumping off a two-story building.
When you pull the yellow and black striped handle there between your legs, things happen pretty rapidly. Within 0.3 seconds, the canopy blows off, fired by rockets. Once it’s clear (barely) a catapult starts you up the seat rail, and a rocket motor takes over, clearing you from the tails. In the meantime, a ballistic inertia reel fires, pulling your shoulders and legs back against the seat, to minimize flail injuries. Depending on altitude at the time of ejection, a drogue gun fires a small stabilization chute which aligns the seat to the air mass, and helps to decelerate the seat. When you get below about 12,000 feet, the main parachute opens, pulled out by it’s own mini-chute. Then you get opening shock.
At low altitude, from ejection handle pull to swinging in your chute takes 1.3 seconds.
Roughly half of people who eject get knocked out when the chute opens. The other half can’t be sure.
If you eject from high altitude, you’ll free-fall in the seat for what I’m told feels like forever. There’s an altimeter in the seat, to ensure the chute doesn’t open too soon. There are at least three reasons why you don’t want a chute to open right away at altitude: 1) You’d freeze to death on the way down, 2) If you didn’t freeze, you’d probably suffocate after the oxygen in your seat pan ran out, and 3) The thinness of the air at altitude means you’re falling pretty quickly in absolute terms – the opening shock might tear your legs and arms off.
These are all bad things, for those of you keeping score at home.
The seat in the F-16 was probably the most high-tech I ever sat in. There were air data sensors by the head box to help the seat “decide” when to open the chute.
Interesting side note: The Russians make ejection seats that are far superior to those in US fighters.
Follow the link to a series of photos. Understand that an American pilot in an American jet would have been killed in this scenario. Say, “hmm” to yourself.
By the way, they’re really good at rocket motors too.
The most low-tech seat?
The F-5E Tiger II. A real Rube Goldberg contraption. Every time a new technology or safety feature had been developed, it was simply pasted on to the existing design.
We had a “zero-delay” lanyard that hooked to the rip cord handle, or “D-Ring,” on take-off. It was attached to a bungee cord for low, slow ejections. The idea was that if you punched out in that situation, the bungee cord would stretch out until you’d cleared the tail, and then it would pull the D-Ring for you, opening the chute.
Once you had any speed at all on the jet, or any altitude, it was considered very important to detach the zero-delay lanyard. Because at 600 knots, or 30,000 feet, you didn’t want the chute to open immediately after you cleared the tail. At 600 knots, they’d find your torso in the parachute harness, and nothing else. See previous discussion why you wouldn’t want to float down from 30,000 feet, no matter how fast you’d been going.
Other ejection seat trivia: The AV-8B Harrier, which the Marine Corps flies, has an explosive train, or “det cord,” woven into the canopy. When you pull the handle, the canopy doesn’t blow, it blows up. And then you go through it. I guess this is because the damn thing hovers, and you’d like to avoid striking the canopy on your way out.
In the old A-6 Intruder the canopy didn’t blow either – it moved front to back on rails. If you chose to eject, you could choose to blow the canopy back first, prior to pulling the handle. Hardly anyone ever did – the concern being that if the canopy got stuck half-way back, you’d hit the metal canopy bow, and potentially leave important parts of yourself behind.
Most A-6 crews chose to go through the canopy, using the ejection seat to break the plexiglas. Which I bet was fun.
Another interesting feature (for a two-seat airplane, only one of which seats had access to the actual controls), the ejection seats were completely independent – a pilot could eject and leave his (non-pilot) bombardier behind. I don’t know that this ever actually happened, but I do no of one case in which the bombardier was partially ejected, but the rocket motor didn’t fire – he got stuck there in the wind blast, until his pilot landed the jet on the aircraft carrier.
Which I think we can all agree, sucked for him.
But he survived just fine, and has his own sea story to tell.
Do I have more, like this?
Will I share them with you now?
I will not.
Enough for now, don’t you think?