Attrition: Rare Ejection Seat Failure

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October 7, 2022: The U.S. Air Force suffered a rare ejection seat failure in June 2020 in which the seat successfully ejected but the parachute did not deploy and the pilot died on impact. The widow received a copy of the accident report that described how several substandard components were found in the ejection seat but the portion of the report that explained what was done about that was in the portion of the report that was not made public. The air force refused to tell the window what the “not made public” data was and the window sued. In such cases the military cannot be sued but if civilian suppliers are involved, they can be sued.

There are suppliers providing components or assembly of larger components and ultimately the completed ejection seat. There are inspections at every stage of assembly and that has resulted in a growing number of instances where counterfeit parts of components were discovered. Some bad parts are not deliberate counterfeits but items from authorized manufacturers that were allowed to be delivered even though they were not reliable. Air Force personnel may have been negligent as well. In these cases, there is always the temptation to declare such subjects as classified and then quietly try to prevent future instances without getting a lot of bad publicity. The widow claims she was stonewalled about what really happened and the lawsuit is about determining what really happened and if it required a security clearance to know about it. American military pilots have had a remarkable safety record over the last few decades, with fewer and fewer pilots lost to accidents. In most cases the flight recorder settles any disputes over what happened. In this case the flight recorder showed that the pilot tried to eject and that worked. Once out of the aircraft, the election seat failed to deploy the parachute and there was no flight recorder for that, just the largely intact wreckage of the ejection seat the pilot died in. The Aces II ejection seat is a third-generation ejection seat with an excellent reliability record. The seat technology has been kept current as the seat first entered service in the 1970s. The Aces II seat is also used in the F-15, F-16, F-22, F-117, A-10, B-1 and B-2. Over 10,000 have been produced by several manufacturers and the current one is a subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies. Nearly 5,000 Aces II seats are still in use.

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. Several ejection seat failures in Russian aircraft during the current Ukraine war were due to poor maintenance.

Ejection seats cost 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.

 


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