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The History of Ejection Systems

Written by Matthew Copes 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EjectionSeats40.jpg

In 1993, just a few hundred meters over RAF Fairford, two Russian MiG-29s collided in front of nearly a quarter million horrified spectators amassed at one of the world’s largest annual military airshows. 

While performing a particularly tricky maneuver in which the aircraft were supposed to pass dangerously close to one another, one or both aviators made slight “miscalculations” that resulted in an epic mid-air crash. 

Both aircraft erupted into fireballs and dropped like stones, but not before pilots Sergey Tresvyatsky and Alexandr Beschastnov ejected.  

Thanks to their ejection seats both men survived, and if some eyewitness accounts are to be believed, despite the traumatic experience they were in such good physical condition that they engaged in a good old-fashioned fistfight as their multi-million dollar planes smoldered on the tarmac. 

Now, the history of ejection systems. 

Background

Flash back more than half a century, and of the thousands of airmen who took part in the Second World War, only 60 actually ejected from aircraft in combat situations. 

Many more managed to free themselves from damaged and unflyable planes, but only the Luftwaffe employed powered ejection seats in a few of their revolutionary jets. 

No British or American aircraft were so equipped, but Allied pilots had relatively high survival rates when they bailed out on their own.

However, unlike their German counterparts who were fired or rocketed from their aircraft strapped to their seats, emergency evacuations for Allied pilots usually went something like this…

After sustaining catastrophic damage and losing control, aviators would unclasp their seatbelts, slide or pop the canopy out of the way and hurl themselves into the rushing wind. 

Most were taught to count to ten before deploying their chutes, but few did. 

Then if their chutes deployed and they weren’t strafed by enemy fighters on the way down, they descended slowly before touching down on land or in the water below.

Though some died in the process, many who’d been flying at speeds approaching 400 miles per hour (645 km/h) at 30,000 (9,150 m) survived not much worse for wear. 

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Early History

Though jet aircraft were still decades away from being produced, work began on the first primitive ejection apparatus in the early 1900s. 

These cumbersome and impractical contraptions used everything from springs and bungee cords to volatile and unreliable propellants to get airmen away from their aircraft. 

None worked particularly well and few were tested in flight, hence most never got past the concept phase. 

However great advances were made in the following decade, many of which came from an English railway engineer, tinkerer and inventor named Everard Calthrop.

Calthrop patented a number of groundbreaking parachute designs after the horror of watching close personal friend Charles Rolls – of Rolls-Royce fame – die in front of a stunned crowd at the Bournemouth International Aviation Meeting in the summer of 1910. 

Ironically, Calthrop’s son survived a similar incident, after which he theorized that pilots who found themselves in similar situations had decent chances of surviving, but only if they had the right parachutes and training.  

To this end, Calthrop patented a revolutionary new ejection device that propelled pilots away from their aircraft using compressed air. 

But though his design was similar to those that’d become standard equipment decades later, it just wasn’t practical or economically feasible, due largely to aircraft design of the day. 

Most military aircraft in the pre-war years were small, underpowered biplanes, in which pilots sat in cramped cockpits between the upper and lower wings. 

In addition, the weight of the newfangled ejection seat meant that performance would go from bad to worse, which would’ve made the aircraft relatively easy pickings for lighter more nimble fighters. 

In the late ‘20s however, Romanian inventor Anastase Dragomir designed the first modern ejection seat. 

Dubbed the “Catapult-able Cockpit”, the design underwent extensive testing, and would ultimately be the foundation on which many modern ejection seats would be based.  

The first production ejection seats were developed by Heinkel and SAAB during the Second World War.  

Like Calthrop’s, they were powered by compressed air, and the first aircraft in which they were installed were Heinkel He 280 prototypes in 1940. 

Two years later, Heinkel test pilot Helmut Schenk became the first aviator to eject in a real-world situation, when his control surfaces iced up at nearly 8,000 feet (2,500 m) during an unpowered test flight. 

Then in 1944 Heinkel He 162s became the first operational jets to get new ejection seats, this time powered by explosive charges akin to giant shotgun shells.  

Some late war twin-engine Dornier Do 335 also had ejection seats, though of those that did none were ever used in combat.  

Meanwhile in Sweden, arms manufacturer Bofors and aerospace conglomerate SAAB were busy collaborating on a new compressed air ejection seat for the SAAB J 21, but the first emergency use wouldn’t take place until 1946 after a mid-air collision during flight testing.

Post World War II

As jets replaced piston-engines in aircraft after World War II speeds increased rapidly, but this meant that manual egress would be nearly impossible and probably deadly. 

In the United States, the US Army Air Corps and later the Air Force tinkered with various designs, including some that propelled pilots away from aircraft using powerful springs. 

https://picryl.com/media/lockheed-xf-104-starfighter-ejection-seat-5e8bef

Though relatively simple and lightweight, later powered systems manufactured by Britain’s Martin-Baker company would gain wider acceptance.  

The first ejectee to use Martin-Baker devises was British aviator Bernard Lynch who ejected from a Gloster Meteor Mk III in late July of 1946.

The second was American Airman Larry Lambert on August 17 of the same year, who volunteered to eject from a Northrop P-61B Black Widow night fighter to test the design’s effectiveness.

While the plane was traveling at 300 miles per hour (480 km/h) at 6,000 feet (1,800 m), Lambert experienced instant acceleration to 12 Gs thanks to the 37 mm cartridge that fired under his seat, and when his chute opened as planned he drifted to the ground safely. 

Lambert later opined that he’d lived a thousand years in less than a minute. 

The first emergency ejection seat use occurred in 1949 during a mishap while testing the experimental jet-powered Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 flying wing in Great Britain. 

But as speeds continued to climb, it became necessary to increase the size of the charge to get pilots away from their aircraft more quickly, though in many cases the ejections themselves caused debilitating head, neck and spine injuries. 

As a result, rocket-propelled seats were developed, the first of which was fitted to a Convair F-102 Delta Dagger in the late ‘50s.  

This system worked well because rockets didn’t accelerate as quickly as charges, and therefore pilots weren’t subject to such violent forces. 

Since being introduced on supersonic aircraft, nearly a dozen pilots have ejected at speeds greater than 800 miles per hour (1,287km/h), and the highest recorded ejection in a Martin-Baker seat took place in 1958 when crewmen were expelled from an unflyable Canberra bomber cruising at 57,000 feet (17,400 m). 

Then in 1966 following an accident when attempting to launch a D-21 drone from an SR-71 Blackbird, two American airmen ejected at Mach 3.25 (2,500 mph / 4,020 km/h) at an altitude of 80,000 feet (24,000 m). 

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Operation

Most standard ejection systems operate in two stages. 

First, the canopy is blown apart or jettisoned away from the aircraft intact, after which the seat and occupant are propelled through the opening. 

On some early units this required two distinct actions by the aviator, but both functions were later combined into a single action to simplify the harrowing process, which was often exacerbated by injury, disorientation and damaged components. 

These days the ACES II ejection seat manufactured by Raytheon’s Collins Aerospace Division is used in most American-built fighters and ground attack aircraft like F-15s and A-10s.

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Early ACES II models were only equipped with overhead ejection handles which forced pilots to assume the proper position by manually pulling down a shield to protect his or her head, face and oxygen mask from the resulting blast of air. 

Later models by Collins and other manufacturers added a secondary lower handle which permitted pilots to eject when they couldn’t, or didn’t have time to retract the face shield due to injury or high G-forces. 

But though most ejection systems fire upward, some like the ones on early F-104 Starfighters were equipped with downward tracking seats. 

This was necessary on Starfighters because pilots had increased risk of slamming into the aircraft’s tail, on which the horizontal stabilizers were mounted on top of the vertical stabilizer instead of at its base. 

Obviously, ejecting downward creates a number of problems, the most prominent of which is being rocketed into the ground or flight deck on low-altitude ejections, like those sometimes experienced during takeoffs and landings. 

Similarly, of the six ejection seats on most B-52 Stratofortresses, two fire downward through hatches in the bottom of the fuselage, while the remaining four positions in the upper deck fire upward.

Of course B-52 don’t have canopies like fighters, interceptors and ground attack aircraft. 

On these, the canopies can be blasted away intact or destroyed with a cord of explosives embedded in the canopy itself. 

But aircraft designed for low-altitude applications often have ejection systems that propel crewmen directly through the canopy, because there isn’t sufficient time to wait for the canopy to be ejected first. 

When the ejection sequence is initiated, the charges shatter the canopy fractions of a second before seat launch.  

This system was pioneered for VTOL aircraft that spend much of their time hovering just above the ground or carrier decks. 

Though generally manually operated, some systems like the one on the Soviet’s Yak-38 VTOL fighter employ ejection seats that can be automatically activated by the onboard computer, if it senses that the aircraft is about to become uncontrollable and/or crash.  

On some aircraft, ejection seats are fitted with hardened steel shell teeth that strike and shatter the canopy as the seat and its occupant are fired upward. 

Other aircraft over the years like B-58 Hustlers and B-70 Valkyries incorporated ejection capsules, in which pilots and crew members were enclosed in individual armored shells prior to ejection, largely because these aircraft flew extremely high and fast, which meant that without them survival would be unlikely.  

By comparison, the General Dynamics’ F-111 used cabin ejection, where both side-by-side seats were ejected together in a single 3,000-pound (1,360 kg) capsule.

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Likewise, some Rockwell B-1 bomber prototypes incorporated fully enclosed capsules for all four crewmembers that were about the size of a typical pickup truck and could land safely on both land and at sea.  

In large multi-person systems like these, multiple rockets and parachutes are used, and prior to landing large air bladders are inflated to reduce impact related injuries. 

AERCAP

As losses mounted during the conflict in Vietnam, the US Navy and Air Force became concerned about pilots ejecting over hostile territory. 

Of those that did, many were captured and/or killed. 

In addition, the cost in men and machines to recover those that had evaded detection were staggering, and many more aircraft and servicemen were lost in botched rescue attempts. 

In the late ‘60s the two services attempted to remedy the situation by jointly funding a whacky program known as Aerial Escape and Rescue Capability, or AERCAP.

With this revolutionary but farfetched system, ejection seats would act as mini-aircraft that would be able to fly airmen out of harm’s way until they could be picked up. 

Three companies submitted designs in response to the initial RFP, of which one incorporated a small gyrocopter, while another relied on semi-rigid wings that unfurled after ejection, after which flight was powered by a jet engine originally intended for use on early drones.   

Not surprisingly, the winged, powered prototypes resembled time travel machines from early 20th century sci-fi movies. 

In addition, development costs were high, operable production units seemed highly unlikely, and the contraptions were so bulky and cumbersome that stuffing them into narrow fighter fuselages just wasn’t practical, and with the end of the Vietnam War the project was quietly dropped. 

Zero-Zero Ejection Systems

Though building ejection systems for high-speed, high-altitude aircraft has always been a priority, during the ‘60s more emphasis was placed on producing units capable of operating in zero-zero applications as well. 

This capability – which stands for zero altitude and zero airspeed – was developed to help aircrews escape during emergencies in which their aircraft hadn’t yet left the ground, or were flying at low speed and altitude. 

Thus, prior to the introduction of zero-zero units, ejections could only be performed above minimum altitudes and airspeeds. 

Zero-zero systems generally use a combination of charges and rockets as propellants, after which additional charges deploy the parachute. 

One of the most successful zero-zero systems of all time is the Martin-Baker H-7, which has been used in a variety of aircraft including F-4 Phantoms. 

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With nearly 11,000 built, H-7s are among the world’s most mass produced ejection systems as well. 

They can be deployed at more than 50,000 feet (15,250 m), at speeds approaching 700 miles per hour (1,125 km/h), and in zero-zero emergencies. 

Martin-Baker claims that this model alone has saved over 2,400 lives, and of those manufactured about 1,500 are still in service. 

Currently an additional 5,500 of the company’s MK10 seats are in use, and according to the company’s website they’ve saved an additional 800 lives. 

Helicopters and Airliners

There’s an old joke in aviation circles that ejecting from helicopters isn’t a big deal, it’s passing through the rotors where things get dicey. 

That said, most helicopters don’t have ejection seats for this very reason, but Russia’s Kamov Ka-50 is one notable exception. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kamov_Ka-50_Black_Shark,_Russia_-_Air_Force_AN1870450.jpg

When the scout and attack helicopter entered service in 1995 it was the first and only machine of its kind to incorporate an ejection seat. 

The system itself is similar to those found on traditional fixed-wing aircraft, but before the pilot is ejected the rotors are blown off by explosive bolts, clearing the way for safe egress. 

Likewise, the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 “Concorde” was the only commercial airliner ever fitted with ejection seats, though it’s worth noting that they were only available for crewmembers and not passengers. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RIAN_archive_566221_Tu-144_passenger_airliner_(cropped).jpg

But though the system had merit, it was scrapped on all but a few aircraft, perhaps because ejecting from an aircraft full of hapless air travelers about to meet their makers is in really bad taste. 

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