Aircraft safety has come a long way over the last century. One great contributor was the ejection seat, but where did it come from?
As innovations go, the ejection seat is a pretty wacky idea. If you had never heard of one before, strapping rocket motors to a chair and have it blast out of the top of an aircraft in flight at 600mph doesn't exactly sound like the most sensible option. Despite this, ejection seat technology has gone on to save thousands of lives. Here's how they came about.
The incredible photo of pilot George Aird ejecting from his stricken English Electric Lightning F1
As with the jet engine, the first operational ejector seat came from the Luftwaffe. Although patents for early concepts of ejection seats were filed as early as WW1, it was the Germans who were among the first to actively explore this area of aviation safety as early as the 1930s. During WW2, many German experimental aircraft were fitted with some kind of Heinkel-manufactured escape system.
The Heinkel He 219 was the first operational combat aircraft to be fitted with ejection seats
Spring powered systems were used at first. In a few instances, these devices were used in combat. Allied pilots reported seeing their shot-down opponents catapulted from their burning planes.
A Me 163 Komet is hit and bursts into flames
Compressed air systems were later used. These were cumbersome devices with lots of heavy plumbing which didn't always work. The Heinkel He-280 was fitted with an early ejection seat of this type. Soon, other jet aircraft being developed by the Royal Air Force were also being produced that would necessitate advanced escape systems. As the age of the jet fighter dawned, the ejection seat came with it.
The Heinkel He 280
A series of accidents during 1944 and 1945 made the British consider building escape mechanisms into their aircraft. At this time, fighter aircraft were approaching speeds in excess of 500mph in level flight. At these velocities, it was near impossible to bail out in a conventional manner. Inspiration from captured Luftwaffe planes along with some pre-war research helped to develop systems for the Gloster Meteor among other new jet aircraft.
One key player in this development was the company Martin-Baker. Starting as a manufacturer of airplanes, the company shifted their focus to escape systems following the death of Captain Valentine Baker, one of the founders of the company. He had been killed while testing a Martin-Baker prototype aircraft called the M.B.3. Since then, Martin Baker ejection seats have saved 7,545 lives since the first test in 1946.
Tests involved strapping a 'volunteer' to a rig which fired them up into the air along a metal rail. This was initially carried out to find the limits of human endurance. Results showed that an average human pilot could withstand up to 20-Gs over a 0.1 second period. You wouldn't want to have your lunch before climbing aboard this thing!
Further tests involved dummies being launched out of aircraft. It was quickly realized that the pilot would be in danger of severing their feet if they remained on the rudder pedals. It was also necessary for the pilot to bring their arms close into their bodies when launching through the top of the cockpit.
First flown in 1943, the Meteor is still used to this day in tests by Martin-Baker.
To get around one of these problems, as well as making sure that the user's body was upright with the head back on the seat rest, Martin Baker developed a 'face curtain'. This was the activation point of the seat. To eject, a pilot would raise their arms above their head, keep their elbows in and pull down the fabric. The next thing they knew, they would be several hundred feet higher up with, most probably, a slightly compressed spine.
Today, ejection seats have come a very long way. Over the years, zero-zero escape systems came into service which helped to save the pilot at zero altitudes and zero airspeed. Gone were the days where the user would have to pull back or jettison the canopy separately. In all, the ejection seat remains an important step forward in aircraft safety that has gone on to save countless lives and push aviation onwards and upwards.
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Article by James Whomsley
Editor of FliteTest.com
YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/projectairaviation