(Photo: U.S. Navy on Wikipedia)
Your instruments are frozen. You’re losing altitude. It’s inevitable. You’re going to crash. But wait! There’s one more option. The ejector seat!
In a split second decision, you reach for the emergency trigger and deploy it. Within seconds you are violently rocketing into the sky, until the parachute that was simultaneously sent out catches air and rights your seat. Your plane hits the ground in a distant ball of flames, as you gently float to relative safety.
This is the sort of exciting tale most people envision when they think of the ejector seat, but where did this life-saving technology come from?
While several people essentially invented ejection technologies independent of one another, it is widely accepted that the first ejection seat (as they are properly called) was patented in 1916 by a man named Everard Calthrop. He was a railway engineer and innovative inventor who had seen his friend, Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame) die in a biplane crash. This tragedy inspired Calthrop to devise a pilot safety system that would allow airplane pilots to quickly evacuate their doomed craft. His first patent described simple but effective contraption that would, at the pull of a handle, tilt the seat backwards to prime the pilot for ejection. Then, with a blast of compressed air, a parachute (which Calthrop also had a hand in inventing) would deploy and yank the pilot out of the craft to relative safety.
From this simple system, the idea of an onboard system to jettison pilots from their craft was born. However, it was not until World War II that ejection seats as we know them began being standard parts of planes.
It was the Germans who first took to the trend, creating the first production craft to come equipped with an ejection system, the Heinkel 280. Developed in 1940, the turbo-powered jet never went into full production, but the nine of them that were made were outfitted with a seat that would be blown clear of the craft using compressed air. During testing the Heinkel 280’s escape seat even managed to save the life of pilot Helmut Schenk after his instruments froze over. Schenk is now seen as the first person ever to be saved by the use of an ejection seat.
Not long after the Germans started using ejection seats, the trend began to spread. Just a year after the Heinkel debuted, the Swedish SAAB company created an ejector seat technology for one of their planes, and by 1946 the United Kingdom and the United States were working on systems to safely jettison their pilots as well. Soon, compressed air was replaced by gun powder as an accelerant, which was in turn eventually replaced by a chemical accelerant in modern ejector seats. Other safety features such as stabilization rockets and automatically inflating life boats were added. After decades of innovation in the field of ejection systems and pilot safety, the seats themselves are almost as complex as the jets they fly in.
Currently the Martin-Baker Company is the largest creator of ejection seats, having created over 70,000 exploding chairs for 93 air forces around the world, touting themselves as the “World’s Leading Manufacturer of Ejection and Crashworthy Seats.” A former aircraft production company, they turned their focus to ejection technology after a tale similar to Calthrop’s, wherein the titular Baker was killed in a plane crash in 1942, inspiring the titular Martin to devote his company to pilot safety.
Starting with the Mk1 and leading all the way up to the current Mk17, Martin-Baker marks the cutting edge of safely getting pilots out of speeding aircraft as safely as possible. The Mk17 is actually a pretty simple ejection seat with just a chair on blast plate, streamlined for lightweight and training craft. But the Mk16 is a bafflingly advanced creation built for fighter jets. The seat has five different modes that automatically deploy based on the altitude of the craft when the seat is deployed; it features a back-up air supply, a homing beacon, short-burst stabilizing rockets, a life raft, and arm, leg, and neck supports, just to name some of the advanced features. Yet even with all of these bells and whistles, firing one’s self out of a high speed aircraft is still insanely dangerous.
In a modern scenario, when a pilot activates an ejector seat, a few things happen in rapid sequence. First the pilot’s overhead canopy is blown off, then an explosive charge or rocket shoots the chair straight up out of the vessel on a guide rail. Then a group of stabilization rockets briefly fire, pushing the chair even further from the craft and helping keep it from wildly tumbling in the wind. A small guide parachute known as a drogue then deploys that keeps the chair upright. Depending on the altitude (automatically detected by the chair using oxygen sensors) of the ejection, a primary chute may deploy immediately or the chair may freefall for a bit, getting the pilot to a more oxygen rich part of the sky with a bit more haste. Finally, the chair falls away, and with luck, the pilot drifts to safety. Depending on the specific seat other things may happen, but the basics are much the same across the board.
In a 2002 interview with Smithsonian Air and Space, a pilot who only identified himself as Captain IROC described the experience of ejecting from a jet going 600 mph at 15,000 feet, as “the most violent thing I’ve ever felt in my life.” The immense wind speeds and stresses of g forces placed on the pilot rarely leave them unharmed. Before limb stabilization was added, arms and legs would whip in the wind, breaking bones and dislocating joints. Even in advanced ejection seats, 1-in-3 pilots who eject from their planes fracture their spine as they are rocketed out of the plane. Modern ejection seats have a survival rate of over 90%, but it is definitely a last resort.
According to the counter on the Martin-Baker website, their seats have saved 7,480 lives. So while ejecting from an airplane may not be as smooth and cavalier an action as James Bond makes it out to be, it definitely beats the alternative—falling.