In March, 2021 a Russian Tu-22M3 bomber was undergoing ground checks and the ejection seats for three of the four crew unexpectedly ejected three air force personnel on board killing them. This happened when the engines were started, as part of a ground test. The ejection seats were not supposed to work that way. The only survivor was the bomber regiment commander, who was in the pilot’s seat, the one seat that does not automatically activate in an emergency. The pilot has to activate his ejection seat manually because it is assumed the aircraft commander would order a crew bailout and then get out himself when it was clear the aircraft could not be saved.
While ejection seat problems are rare, damaging failures and accidents with the Tu-22 are not. This latest problem makes four major mishaps or crashes of Tu-22’s since 2017. Only about ten percent off the 497 Tu-22s built between 1967 and 1997 are still in service and many are grounded for required maintenance. The problem with the Tu-22 is that most were built in the 1980s. after the first ones entered service in 1980. The Tu-22 had plenty of problems during the eleven years after a prototype made its first flight. Development had been underway since the early 1970s. Efforts to upgrade up to 20 percent of the younger Tu-22s ran into lots of problems and delays, and the latest fatal failure of the ejection seat system is but one of many problems with aging tech in the Tu-22s still flyable.
The Tu-22 is the most recent Russian heavy bomber that was produced in large numbers. In 1987 the larger (275 ton), faster Tu-160 was introduced but only 28 production models were completed, some of them after 1991 using unfinished aircraft that were stored when regular production was halted after 1992. Production resumed but at the rate one new Tu-160 every few years. Russia only has 18 Tu-160s in service and about ten new ones on order. Meanwhile Russia is trying to muster the cash and capabilities to design and build a new heavy bomber similar to the American B-2. Given continued problems with shrinking military budgets and keeping the Tu-22s flying a new aircraft is unlikely.
The latest Tu-22 accident is still being investigated. The Tu-22 ejection seats are a Cold War era design and apparently not updated to modern standards. Western warplanes have ejection seats with “zero-zero” capability. That means the seats can be used when the aircraft is on the ground (zero altitude) and not moving (zero speed). Older ejection seats, if used in zero-zero conditions, will not eject occupants high enough for an emergency parachute to deploy and prevent the seat and its occupant, with a combined weight of over two hundred kilograms (440 pounds) from a fatal crashing. The Tu-22 ejection seats are not supposed to work unless the aircraft is moving at a minimum speed of about 125 kilometers an hour. This made the seats useful for ejection during a takeoff that ran into problems.
Russian safety systems for military equipment have always lagged behind the West, and this gap has increased since the Cold War ended in 1991. After that the Russian military budget suffered major reductions throughout the 1990s. This was compounded by generals and admirals trying to keep more high-tech equipment, like bombers, fighters and nuclear subs, in service than the budget could support. In the 1990s the Russian (Soviet Union) armed forces lost 80 percent of its manpower and too many of the most able officers got out for better paying jobs in the new free-market economy, or took advantage of the post-1991 freedom to emigrate. Soviet era defense industries also shrank and those that remained lost many of their best technical people and managers. There was no money for new technology or even maintaining Cold War era stuff. The military high command was unable to cope with all this and much-delayed reforms were imposed on the military from above after 2008.
After the reforms began the air force retired most Tu-22s and tried to implement to upgrade and refurbish about a hundred of the more recently built (since the late 1980s) Tu-22s. That program was scaled back several times because of a shortage of money and heavy use of Tu-22s in Syria after Russian forces entered the civil war there in 2015. All that led to more and more problems with Tu-22s and more were withdrawn from service. The latest ejection seat accident is particularly demoralizing for Tu-22 crews.
The Tu-22 is a 1970s design. It's a 126-ton, twin-engine, swing-wing aircraft with a crew of four including two pilots, a bombardier and a defensive systems operator. Originally it had a 23mm cannon mounted in a tail turret. It normally carries 12 tons of bombs and missiles (including cruise missiles) but can carry 24 tons over shorter distances. Max speed is 2,300 kilometers an hour and combat radius 2,400 kilometers on internal fuel. The Tu-22M was roughly equivalent to the 45-ton American FB-111. Russia wanted to have a new bomber design in service by 2030, to replace the aging but upgraded Tu-22M3Ms. That is not going to happen so the Tu-22M3Ms (the latest upgrade) must receive another refresh before it is retired. The new Russian stealth heavy bomber project is running into problems with its budget and doubts that the aircraft industry can develop the new aircraft on time and in adequate numbers.
Reliability and capability standards have always been critical in the design of ejection seats. Dealing with these problems is a matter of life-or-death and crew morale in general. Since World War II over 10,000 aircrew have successfully used ejection seats, mostly of Western manufacture. Very few have died in ejection seat related accidents but when that does happen it causes consternation among pilots and concern among ejection seat makers. Russian and Chinese made seats have proved to be nearly as reliable as the Western ones. But all ejection seats are vulnerable to age and poor maintenance, which has been found to be the most common cause of ejection seat fatalities. The current Russian accident was an example of that.
Ejection seats costs between $200,000-300,000. Most ejection seat systems (seat and components that remain in the aircraft) weigh up to half a ton and are complex bits of technology. There's a lot that can go wrong but rarely do you have accidents if the seats are maintained properly. Ejection seats became essential as military aircraft became so fast that a pilot could not safely climb out of the cockpit and jump. With the higher speed, there was the danger of hitting the tail. Also, escaping pilots were often injured or stunned and unable to get out quickly enough. Recent improvements include the Zero-Zero capability which is particularly useful for bombers as well as aircraft that operate off aircraft carriers.
The first ejection seat developed in Germany where the seats were first installed in the He 219 night-fighters during 1943. These used compressed air to propel the seat out of the aircraft. A year later rocket-propelled seats were installed in the He-162 jet fighter. By the end of the war, all of Germany's jets were equipped with rocket-propelled ejection seats. While the Swedish firm Saab had also developed a rocket-propelled ejection seat, it was British firm Martin-Baker that jumped in after World War II and created a design that quickly filled the needs of most Western air forces, including portions of the U.S. military.
The U.S. Air Force long insisted on using only American made ejection systems but the U.S. Navy stayed with Martin-Baker because the American ejection seat did not function as well at very low altitudes, where a lot of naval aviators have to eject during carrier operations. Martin-Baker supplies about two-thirds of the ejection seats for Western fighter aircraft. The other major supplier of ejection seats was the Soviet Union. Those Soviet era manufacturers continue to produce good ejection seats for Russian aircraft and some foreign customers. China is becoming a major player in this area, usually exporting Chinese made ejection seats in Chinese made aircraft. There are exceptions. The JF-17 is made in China for Pakistan and Pakistan preferred Martin-Baker to Chinese ejection seats.
The Czech Republic and Romania also manufacture lower end ejection seats. Western manufacturers produce about a thousand seats a year, while Russia and China produce less than half as many, almost all of those seats are for locally made aircraft and most are now coming from Chinese manufacturers.