Esquire (Singapore) - - Port­fo­lio -

An ex-fighter pi­lot with the French Air Force, fly­ing Jaguars and Mi­rages, he has some 8,500 flight hours un­der the belt of his G-suit. Now he’s one of seven elite pi­lots fly­ing for the Bre­itling Jet Team, Europe’s only civil­ian aer­o­batic team: bar­rel rolls and loop­ing the loop in his Czech-made two-seater Al­ba­tross fighter trainer air­craft, just two me­tres from his col­leagues, at 600mph, is all in a day’s work. But this was not in a day’s work.

“From a me­chan­i­cal point of view, my tur­bine failed—and then it ex­ploded,” he says, mat­ter-of-factly. “There’s a big ball bear­ing link­ing the crank shaft to the com­pres­sor and a pipe in­side that broke. I felt some vi­bra­tions and could smell burn­ing. A red warn­ing light came on in the cock­pit and then came the ex­plo­sion. My wing­man told me there were five-me­tre flames com­ing out of the rear of the air­craft and that I had to shut the sys­tem down to pre­vent fuel get­ting to the flames. So the en­gine stopped, of course. And this air­craft, well, it only has one en­gine...” It’s per­haps what hap­pens next that the train­ing the Bre­itling Jet Team fly­ers un­dergo re­ally counts. Within two sec­onds of en­gine shut-down, Charbo—as he’s nick­named—had made the de­ci­sion to eject. From first vi­bra­tion to ejec­tion was just 40 sec­onds—dur­ing which time Charbo had as­sessed the me­chan­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, acted on that, made a men­tal note of his Al­ba­tross’s po­si­tion, speed and al­ti­tude, con­ducted a vis­ual sur­vey of the sur­round­ing coun­try­side to see if there were any op­tions to land the air­craft and, hav­ing de­cided there were not, di­rected the air­craft away from any pop­u­la­tion cen­tres be­low, to­wards forestry.

Count out 40 sec­onds—it isn’t long. At the end of this brief in­ter­lude, his en­gine now a mass of flames, he gave a com­mand to his pas­sen­ger—yes, that day Charbo was car­ry­ing one of the crew en­gi­neers. “Eject, eject, eject!” He reached down be­tween his legs, grabbed a han­dle not un­alike an in­verted stir­rup, de­pressed the safety but­tons with his thumbs and pulled.

Had Charbo been fly­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of air­craft, he might later have re­ceived a tie from Martin-Baker. As one of just two in­dus­try-lead­ing mak­ers of ejec­tion seats—the in­dus­try has un­der­gone con­sid­er­able con­sol­i­da­tion over re­cent years, quite aside from the fact that mak­ing these GBP100,000-a-pop safety de­vices is a com­plex and ex­pen­sive busi­ness—Martin-Baker sends a tie to any­one who has “been an end user of one of our seats”, as the com­pany’s vice-pres­i­dent of prod­uct man­age­ment Ge­off Barnes puts it.

“It’s quite com­mon to be at an air show and some­one will come up to us wear­ing one these ties, dark blue with a lit­tle red tri­an­gle on it [af­ter the warn­ing tag found on the seats],” he adds. “We wel­come them as a mem­ber of the fam­ily and they typ­i­cally wear the


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

is pricey and was found to of­fer neg­li­gi­ble ben­e­fits, while car­bon fi­bre is light­weight but un­ser­vice­able be­cause it’s hard to make an as­sess­ment of its struc­tural in­tegrity if it gets dam­aged. Seats, af­ter all, tend to stay in ser­vice for per­haps 40 years. Martin-Baker ejec­tion seats have saved the lives of 7,590 air­crew so far in its 70year his­tory.

“Seats get bashed and scratched. They’re not pretty when they come out of ser­vice. But what’s key to the ma­te­ri­als used is the pre­dictabil­ity of the age­ing of the seat, which is why de­sign ap­proach tends to be cau­tious,” ex­plains Barnes. “A seat is in­ac­tive for 99.9 per­cent of its life­time. It’s why the en­er­get­ics [the in­dus­try term for the ex­plo­sives that pro­pel the seat out of the air­craft] are like­wise de­signed to be very sta­ble for a very long time—but still work when you need them to.”

In­deed, most ad­vances would seem to come in re­sponse to the chang­ing role of the pi­lot and the tech­nol­ogy he or she uses. “The big­gest chal­lenge now is pro­vid­ing a com­fort­able work sta­tion for an in­creas­ingly busy pi­lot—and there’s a con­flict of in­ter­est be­tween pro­vid­ing what is a kind of of­fice chair and a life­sav­ing de­vice,” ex­plains Barnes. “Pi­lots are trussed up in a lot of equip­ment now and with some strike air­craft there may be a flight time of eight or nine hours to the tar­get, and then back. So it varies enor­mously be­tween pi­lots as to those who want more com­fort and those who want more safety.”

Re­cently one hot topic in com­bat fly­ing cir­cles has been the is­sue of in­flight uri­na­tion. For a pi­lot to un­strap to piss is one op­tion, but get­ting strapped up again is very dif­fi­cult. With­out the right straps fas­tened, the ejec­tion seat won’t func­tion for the pi­lot as it should. So some pi­lots are stay­ing de­lib­er­ately de­hy­drated with a po­ten­tially neg­a­tive ef­fect on their cog­ni­tion, re­ac­tion times and so on.

John Fyfe is di­rec­tor of Air Force Pro­grams for UTC Aerospace, the other ma­jor ejec­tion seat man­u­fac­turer, based in North Carolina, US, which this year in­tro­duced its next-gen­er­a­tion ACES 5, one of the world’s most ad­vanced seats to date. He notes how even some­thing as seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant as the USAF’s in­tro­duc­tion of night vi­sion gog­gles for its pi­lots over re­cent years has had an im­pact.

“Seats were de­signed to al­low you to eject at, say, 400 knots, but not 400 knots wear­ing night vi­sion gog­gles, and it makes a dif­fer­ence,” he says. But, he adds, chang­ing a seat de­sign is nei­ther easy nor cheap, which is why older air­craft are typ­i­cally retro­fit­ted to ac­com­mo­date a new seat de­sign, while a new air­craft de­sign is


typ­i­cally a mat­ter of col­lab­o­rat­ing with seat man­u­fac­tur­ers to en­sure that a seat al­ready in ser­vice will (with a few mod­i­fi­ca­tions per­haps) work for it; or, in­deed, take the much pricier op­tion of de­sign­ing a new seat from scratch, with a full test pro­gramme cost­ing mil­lions. “There was cer­tainly a pe­riod when the [armed] ser­vices just ac­cepted the risk of us­ing this night vi­sion tech­nol­ogy. Cock­pits came with warn­ings that if the pi­lot ejected wear­ing a hel­met-mounted de­vice they were al­most cer­tain to get a se­ri­ous in­jury,” says Fyfe. “And it was a fa­tal in­jury dur­ing an ejec­tion from an F-16 four years ago that was re­ally the im­pe­tus to push the ser­vices to take ac­tion [and amend the seats so ejec­tion with night vi­sion gog­gles was pos­si­ble]. There are sev­eral dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies that could be in­tro­duced and, sure, ejec­tion seats are get­ting bet­ter all the time. But there’s al­ways a cost/ben­e­fit con­sid­er­a­tion. We have a 92 per­cent safety record for any ejec­tion type, so re­ally now it’s about chas­ing that other eight per­cent.”

There are new chute de­signs, for ex­am­ple, fol­low­ing stud­ies re­veal­ing that half of the in­juries sus­tained from ejec­tion were down to the land­ing, rather than get­ting out of the air­craft in one piece. There are con­stant stud­ies into how bet­ter to shift loads into the head­rest that would oth­er­wise go into the pi­lot’s neck. There are pas­sive limb re­straints, which al­low the wear­ing of any kind of flight gear, and mod­u­lar sys­tems that al­low for eas­ier main­te­nance of a seat. But ma­jor de­vel­op­ments are prob­a­bly 10 years down the line. In the mean­time, that eight per­cent win­dow for a bad ejec­tion re­mains.

When it goes wrong, it’s typ­i­cally less a ques­tion of a seat not work­ing so much as the ejec­tion hap­pen­ing out­side of the pa­ram­e­ters in which to­day’s seats can op­er­ate. “If a pi­lot ejects at 700 knots the air pres­sure alone will crush his body, never mind the seat,” says Fyfe. All the same, de­mands on the likes of Martin-Baker and UTC Aerospace keep grow­ing, and not least for the men and women brave enough to fly the air­craft which these com­pa­nies fit their seats into.”

“Pi­lots would like to be very con­fi­dent, no mat­ter what gear they’re wear­ing, that when they eject within the lim­its of the seat they’ll not only live but they’ll fly again within the next day or two,” says John Hamp­ton, se­nior man­ager for in­te­ri­ors in UTC’s mil­i­tary seat­ing en­gi­neer­ing de­part­ment. “The mea­sure of the ef­fec­tive­ness of a seat is now not a suc­cess­ful ejec­tion, but whether the pi­lot is able to walk away when he lands. That’s re­ally want we’re shoot­ing for.”

Thank­fully, that was the case for Charbo and his en­gi­neer fol­low­ing their ejec­tion over the Nether­lands six years ago. Per­versely per­haps, Charbo claims to have en­joyed his rare ex­pe­ri­ence. “Strangely, the adren­a­line in your sys­tem makes you feel very strong and it sharp­ens your per­cep­tions. All the time the plane is de­scend­ing very rapidly, al­though the sen­sa­tion is less of you go­ing down, as the ground com­ing up to you, and fast,” he says.

“Of course, you’re still sur­prised it’s all hap­pen­ing, be­cause for all of your train­ing you never ex­pect it to ac­tu­ally hap­pen,” he adds. “But you’re so busy with cer­tain things you need to do that you don’t have time to think about your sit­u­a­tion. You’re too busy to be scared. It’s odd how you go from this speed and com­mo­tion and noise to float­ing in com­plete calm and si­lence in the three sec­onds it takes to eject. You go from in­tense stress to this in­tense aware­ness that you’re alive. And in that three sec­onds I heard ev­ery­thing, saw ev­ery­thing, smelled ev­ery­thing—it was a movie in slow-mo. I’ve only had that ex­pe­ri­ence once be­fore, when I was in a car crash.”

As Charbo de­scended, he watched his Al­ba­tross air­craft, com­pletely ver­ti­cal, plough into a field—a great re­lief to him “be­cause the very worst thing for a pi­lot is to see his plane land in a crowd,” he adds. Soon af­ter, more gen­tly, he landed too, in the mid­dle of a corn field, the crop three me­tres high around him. An in­di­ca­tion of just how col­lected he was, he im­me­di­ately penned a brief re­port on the air­craft’s con­di­tion at the time of the prob­lem. He was fly­ing the next day. And for the next 10 days or so he was, metaphor­i­cally and, in a way, lit­er­ally, on cloud nine.

“I just had this in­cred­i­ble feel­ing of hap­pi­ness. I just felt so good. I had none of the usual aches and pains. I felt like I was in per­fect con­di­tion. Of course, again it’s just the adren­a­line still in your sys­tem,” says Charbo, bring­ing mere sen­sa­tion back to hard re­al­ity, as per­haps only a fighter pi­lot who views ejec­tion much like a Sun­day stroll might. “And yet, I wish that feel­ing had stayed with me.”

Be­low: the US16E ejec­tion seat for the F-35 JSF be­ing tested at Martin-Baker’s high-speed test track fa­cil­ity.

Above: the Mk16 light­weightseat is de­signed to ac­com­mo­date a very widesize and weight range.

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