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