Murphy's Law: When Ejection Seats Fail

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October 24, 2010:  Three years ago, a navigator in the rear seat of a British Tornado jet fighter died when he fell out of the aircraft. Details of the accident are only now being made public. At the time, the aircraft had just undergone some updates and was undergoing a flight check. Some of the maintenance work involved the ejection seats. But the work on the rear ejection seat left a small (5 cm/two inch) metal part installed incorrectly. This allowed the ejection seat to come lose when the aircraft was momentarily upside down. Part of the ejection system worked, and the canopy came off. But the rockets in the ejection seat did not ignite, and the navigator hit his head on the tail of the aircraft. Worse, the parachute did not deploy from the seat, and the navigator, still strapped in, fell nearly 2,000 meters to his death. The inquest is trying to establish who was at fault for the ejection seat failure. Several people are involved in checking out an ejection seat during and after this maintenance, and there are demands that those responsible for the screw-up be identified.

Ejection seats costs between $200,00-300,000. Most ejection seats weigh about half a ton, and are complex bits of technology. There's a lot that can go wrong, but rarely do you have accidents like this. 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.

The first ejection seat design was developed in Germany, where the seats were first installed in their He 219 night fighters, in 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 the RAF (British Royal Air Force).

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 manufacturers continue to produce good ejection seats for Russian aircraft, and some foreign customers. Over 10,000 aircrew have successfully used ejection seats since World War II. Very few have died in ejection seat related accidents.

 

 


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