The purpose of the ejection seat is simple: to lift the pilot straight out of the aircraft to a safe distance, then deploy a parachute to allow the pilot to land safely on the ground.
Ejection seats can save lives.
Nevertheless, ejecting is a dangerous business.
‘Very dangerous. As a salty Navy pilot once told me, “If you have to eject, first put your neck into the position you want it to be in for the rest of your life.” Not far from the truth,’ says David Tussey, former US Navy A-7E Corsair II pilot on Quora.
‘Very few ejections are “controlled”, that is the pilot sees it coming and slows the aircraft to a stable airspeed at 1 “G”, at a moderate altitude, and initiates ejection. That’s the exception.
‘The more general case is that the pilot ejects immediately when something has gone very, very wrong. It’s a near split-second decision, often accompanied by an unstable flight path, high G forces, and other non-helpful conditions.’
The pilot who ejected three times from the A-7
‘I flew with a Navy pilot who had three ejections from the A-7E aircraft. I was with him on two of them. Here’s the situation for each:
- Following a touch & go on the aircraft carrier during qualifications, the horizontal stabilizer separates from the aircraft as the aircraft climbs from the flight deck. The airplane immediately pitches violently forcing a low, slow, but unstable ejection. The pilot broke his neck in several places and wore the “halo” metal frame to stabilize his head and neck for a year. He was returned to flight status, remarkably.
- During carrier qualifications onboard the USS Lexington off the coast of Pensacola, FL, the catapult shot malfunctions and sends the aircraft off the end of the carrier at about 70 knots, well below the programmed end speed. (The malfunction was later traced to a catapult operator who was violating safety procedures by using a pair of vise grip pliers to override a safety valve. He forgot to remove them before the cat shot.) Pilot ejected immediately off the front of the carrier, and remarkably landed back upon the flight deck on the catapult track. Pilot suffered steam burns from the catapult and had a collapsed lung. Pilot was airlifted to Navy Hospital Pensacola and recovered in a few days. Returned to flight status.
- During routine carrier operations in the North Arabian Sea, pilot was performing a surface search mission tracking commercial and military ships in the area (a common mission). At an altitude of about 1000′, the engine began experiencing compressions stalls which could not be immediately cleared. Compression stall procedures call for shutting the engine down and restarting, clearly not an option at this altitude. Pilot initiated ejection and luckily was nearby another Navy ship which affected a relatively quick recovery. Pilot suffered superficial bruises and muscle sprains. Returned to flight status.
‘Other ejections I’ve witnessed in and around the carrier, the survival odds are not good.’
Photo credit: PH2 Moore/ U.S. Navy