Aircraft Ejection-seat Technology

The sameness of the vast King Ranch in southern Texas finally came to an end as we saluted our way through the main gate of the remote Naval Air Station in Kingsville. My friend and pre-flight roommate and I had driven from Pensacola, Fla., and 18 months of pre-flight and then basic training in propellor-driven aircraft to this remote NAS, where we would hopefully complete advanced jet training culminated by receipt of our “Navy Wings of Gold” in another 10 months. We were riding high – our basic flight training grades had earned us the privilege of moving on to jets, and we could hardly wait to get started.

As we followed the sentry’s directions toward the base bachelor officer quarters (BOQ), we were startled by the boom and shock waves of a sudden explosion followed almost immediately by the whine of crash truck sirens. A huge, roiling cloud of dense, black smoke off toward the runways portended something bad. Passing up the BOQ, we joined assorted emergency vehicles heading for the smoke at the end of the duty runway. They were on the inside of the perimeter fence, we were on the outside. As we approached the conflagration, it was clear a swept wing Grumman F-9F “Cougar” had run off the end of the runway, through the fence and off into the roughly gullied desert, probably on takeoff since the intensity of the fire indicated a likely full load of jet fuel.

Apparently the pilot had experienced an engine or control emergency at full takeoff speed, but could neither get airborne nor stop before the end of the runway. He had no choice but to pull off the power and try to ride it out, but the plane broke up and exploded. He “bought the farm,” a phrase that would become all too familiar to us throughout our careers as Navy pilots.

This was in 1958, nearly four decades or so before the development of the ejection seats used by the two Navy FA-18 Super Hornet pilots whose aircraft nearly leveled an apartment complex in Virginia Beach recently. The near miracle of their survival and the survival of all apartment residents is a testament to the progress in ejection-seat development. Unlike the seat in the Kingsville Cougar more than 50 years ago, which required both a minimum forward speed and a minimum altitude to work properly, the seats in the Hornet are commonly known as having a zero/zero capability, i.e. zero forward speed and zero altitude.

The major breakthrough in zero/zero ejection seat technology came with the British-built Martin-Baker ejection seat, which I used in the Chance Vought F-8 Crusader. Before Martin-Baker, most seats were mostly mechanical – a series of pulleys, cables and levers leading up to the equivalent of a small artillery shell exploding the seat and pilot out of the cockpit, where the pilot could safely pull the ripcord on his parachute.

The MB seat worked on a series of small cartridges pushing hot gases through an airtight network of tubes within the seat from function to function. The pilot initiates the ejection sequence by pulling a face curtain down over the front of his helmet (or if “G” forces are holding his hands down, an alternate handle on the front of the seat between his legs). This commences the series of gas-initiated functions in order, from blowing off the heavy plexiglass canopy to igniting the rocket seat motor to inflating a bladder, which pops the pilot and parachute out of the seat once clear of the cockpit. A barometric controller automatically opens the chute if below a set altitude, or delays the opening if above it.

I used a Martin-Baker seat in 1961 flying a Crusader low over the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. The aircraft developed a massive fuel leak. The fuel gauge was going down rapidly and I could see a trail of fuel vapor in my rear views. There was no close runway and the one freeway I could see had too much traffic.

I climbed to just below the overcast, slowed the plane to about 220 knots, trimmed it up to hold wings level, tightened my harness straps and the engine flamed out as expected … quiet! I jerked the face curtain down and … boom! I shot straight up doing a backward somersault in the seat, was conscious of a top view of the plane streaking away beneath me, and the chute opened automatically.

While floating down in silence, I watched the plane glide down and disappear below the top of the pulp pine forest – no fuel, no explosion. I landed gently in a low scrub tree a few yards from the Swanee River and within an hour I was picked up, uninjured, by an Air Force helo.

My ejection from the RA-5C Vigilante over North Vietnam couldn’t have been more different. We were rolling rapidly, nose low, totally out of knots. I yelled to my crewman behind me over the intercom, “Eject, Bob, eject, eject!”

I pulled the face curtain, heard the boom, ejecting Bob two seconds before me … then everything black.

I awoke who knows how much later in the Tonkin Gulf with a broken arm, shattered elbow, dislocated shoulder and knees, burns on the face, but alive – thanks again to the ejection seat and to the parachute rigger who rigged it.

Advances in ejection seat (egress) technology have saved lives far beyond that of just aircrews. Zero/zero capability gives the pilot of a crippled plane more time to proactively guide it away from densely populated areas or buildings, thereby saving more lives.

The Virginia Beach incident, with virtually no loss or serious injury to innocent life, proves this once again.

By the way, the zero/zero system also allows the pilot and crew of a plane that has just taken off from an aircraft carrier to eject if the plane loses power or speed before being catapulted off the bow. So then all they have to worry about after successfully ejecting is being run over by the carrier – no small thing!