Fea­ture

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tie as a badge of pride. And they’re of­ten very grate­ful too. They’re of­ten there with their fam­ily, a fam­ily they wouldn’t have had if not for the ejec­tion seat.”

It was Martin-Baker that was largely re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing the ejec­tion seat. Orig­i­nally an air­craft man­u­fac­turer, when Capt Valen­tine Baker died in an air crash, his busi­ness part­ner Sir James Martin turned his fo­cus to pi­lot safety, par­tic­u­larly per­fect­ing an idea first mooted by Saab in Swe­den and by Heinkel for the Luft­waffe dur­ing World War Two.

With the ad­vent of the jet en­gine to­wards the end of the war, the fu­ture of the fighter was set—but with the speed came the im­pos­si­bil­ity of sim­ply climb­ing out of the cock­pit be­fore parachut­ing to the ground. It be­came nec­es­sary to cre­ate a sys­tem that would au­to­mat­i­cally ex­plode first the canopy and then the pi­lot free of the air­craft with enough force that he would be of suf­fi­cient height from the ground to use a para­chute safely and, more im­me­di­ately, clear the tail of the air­craft it­self. It was hit­ting a tail-fin, in fact, that knocked un­con­scious and killed test pi­lot Dou­glas Davie when he scram­bled out of his ail­ing Gloster Me­teor in 1944, the in­ci­dent that en­cour­aged the Bri­tish Air Min­istry to be­gin de­vel­op­ment of some kind of new es­cape sys­tem. Re­mark­ably, it was a Martin-Baker em­ployee, Bernard Lynch, who in 1945 con­ducted the first static ejec­tion, and then, the fol­low­ing year, the first mid-flight ejec­tion. Th­ese days, so­phis­ti­cated, sen­sor-packed dum­mies are used for the testing.

Use too much force in the ejec­tion, which in­volves ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pull be­tween 12 and 15G, and that in it­self would cause in­jury. It was a bal­anc­ing act then and re­mains so now. In Oc­to­ber the first ejec­tion was re­quired from an F-35 Light­ning II, Lock­heed Martin’s new, su­per-duper, all-weather stealth fighter.

“And the pi­lot of that air­craft has his tie too,” says Barnes. “We like to talk to the pi­lots who eject be­cause there are lessons to be learned from ev­ery ejec­tion. The fact is that we’re work­ing within a very nar­row band of hu­man en­durance. The aim, af­ter all, is to save the pi­lot. And the pi­lots them­selves have changed dras­ti­cally. Think back to the 1950s and they tended to be tall and pipe thin. Think of pi­lots now, in the US Navy say, and some of them are like quar­ter­backs. The same sys­tem has to eject a 240lb guy or a small woman—peo­ple with dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties, dif­fer­ent bone struc­tures. That’s where the com­pro­mise sits.”

Even with a more con­sis­tent pi­lot physique, the kind of force used with early seats might well lead to back in­juries that more mod­ern seat de­sign—not to men­tion the gov­ern­ments that buy them—would not con­sider ac­cept­able for their ex­pen­sively trained pi­lots. There has also been the need to, for ex­am­ple, pro­tect the neck on ex­it­ing the air­craft, whipped back as it is by the im­pact of wind, and to re­strain the arms and legs to pre­vent what’s known in the in­dus­try as ‘limb flail’, which at high speed in­vari­ably means said flail­ing limbs get bro­ken. And yet, by the same to­ken, should the canopy fail to be jet­ti­soned from the air­craft, “there’s a con­sen­sus that you still wouldn’t want to stay in it”, notes Barnes. “You’d want to punch through that canopy so there is a prag­ma­tism to ejec­tion seat de­sign.”

Hu­man frailty has led the ejec­tion seat busi­ness to con­clude that while the lower end of vi­able ejec­tion pa­ram­e­ters is zero knots and at zero al­ti­tude—which is to say that a pi­lot might, though it’s more dan­ger­ous, eject from a sta­tion­ary air­craft on the run­way, at ‘zero zero’ as the in­dus­try puts it—the up­per end is around 650 knots. Ejec­tion at a speed greater than that means the pi­lot is likely to sus­tain fa­tal wind blast in­juries. Al­ti­tude must be con­sid­ered too. Mod­ern ejec­tion seats might come with a drogue chute that sta­bilises the seat’s post-ejec­tion fall to earth, but which also al­lows the pi­lot to de­scend to an al­ti­tude where hy­pother­mia won’t be an is­sue be­fore the main chute opens. Barnes re­calls a trou­bled Typhoon jet whose pi­lot al­lowed it to un­dergo a rapid and un­con­trolled de­scent for some time be­fore he ejected. “So he was ob­vi­ously a very calm and col­lected pi­lot even in that sit­u­a­tion,” he adds.

This isn’t to say that ejec­tion seat de­sign doesn’t have to ad­vance—but don’t, for in­stance, ex­pect them to be made of the lat­est high-tech ma­te­ri­als. Most com­po­nents in a seat are made of stain­less steel and var­i­ous al­loys—ti­ta­nium has been tri­alled but

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