Bernard Charbonnel won’t forget the day that his wingman notified him that there were flames coming out of his jet’s engine.
An ex-fighter pilot with the French Air Force, flying Jaguars and Mirages, he has some 8,500 flight hours under the belt of his G-suit. Now he’s one of seven elite pilots flying for the Breitling Jet Team, Europe’s only civilian aerobatic team: barrel rolls and looping the loop in his Czech-made two-seater Albatross fighter trainer aircraft, just two metres from his colleagues, at 600mph, is all in a day’s work. But this was not in a day’s work.
“From a mechanical point of view, my turbine failed—and then it exploded,” he says, matter-of-factly. “There’s a big ball bearing linking the crank shaft to the compressor and a pipe inside that broke. I felt some vibrations and could smell burning. A red warning light came on in the cockpit and then came the explosion. My wingman told me there were five-metre flames coming out of the rear of the aircraft and that I had to shut the system down to prevent fuel getting to the flames. So the engine stopped, of course. And this aircraft, well, it only has one engine…”
It’s perhaps in what happens next that the training the Breitling Jet Team flyers undergo really counts. Within two seconds of engine shut-down, Charbo—as he’s nicknamed—had made the decision to eject. From first vibration to ejection was just 40 seconds—during which time Charbo had assessed the mechanical situation, acted on that, made a mental note of his Albatross’s position, speed and altitude, conducted a visual survey of the surrounding countryside to see if there were any options to land the aircraft and, having decided there were not, directed the aircraft away from any population centres below, towards forestry.
Count out 40 seconds—it isn’t long. At the end of this brief interlude, his engine now a mass of flames, he gave a command to his passenger—yes, that day Charbo was carrying one of the crew engineers. “Eject, eject, eject!” He reached down between his legs, grabbed a handle not unalike an inverted stirrup, depressed the safety buttons with his thumbs and pulled.
Had Charbo been flying a different kind of aircraft, he might later have received a tie from Martin-Baker. As one of just two industry-leading makers of ejection seats—the industry has undergone considerable consolidation over recent years, quite aside from the fact that making these £100,000-a-pop safety devices is a complex and expensive business—Martin-Baker sends a tie to anyone who has “been an end user of one of our seats”, as the company’s vice-president of product management Geoff Barnes puts it.
“It’s quite common to be at an air show and someone will come up to us wearing one these ties, dark blue with a little red triangle on it [after the warning tag found on the seats],” he adds. “We welcome them as a member of the family and they typically wear the tie as a badge of pride. And they’re often very grateful too. They’re often there with their family, a family they wouldn’t have had if not for the ejection seat.”
It was Martin-Baker that was largely responsible for developing the ejection seat. Originally an aircraft manufacturer, when Capt Valentine Baker died in an air crash, his business partner Sir James Martin turned his focus to pilot safety, particularly perfecting an idea first mooted by Saab in Sweden and by Heinkel for the Luftwaffe during World War Two.
With the advent of the jet engine towards the end of the war, the future of the fighter was set—but with the speed came the impossibility of simply climbing out of the cockpit before parachuting to the ground. It became necessary to create a system that would automatically explode first the canopy and then the pilot free of the aircraft with enough force that he would be of sufficient height from the ground to use a parachute safely and, more immediately, clear the tail of the aircraft itself. It was hitting a tail-fin, in fact, that knocked unconscious and killed test pilot Douglas Davie when he scrambled out of his ailing Gloster Meteor in 1944, the incident that encouraged the British Air Ministry to begin development of some kind of new escape system. Remarkably, it was a Martin-Baker employee, Bernard Lynch, who in 1945 conducted the first static ejection, and then, the following year, the first mid-flight ejection. These days, sophisticated, sensor-packed dummies are used for the testing.
Use too much force in the ejection, which involves experiencing a pull between 12 and 15G, and that in itself would cause injury. It was a balancing act then and remains so now. In October the first ejection was required from an F-35 Lightning II, Lockheed Martin’s new, super-duper, all-weather stealth fighter.
“And the pilot of that aircraft has his tie too,” says Barnes. “We like to talk to the pilots who eject because there are lessons to be learned from every ejection. The fact is that we’re working within a very narrow band of human endurance. The aim, after all, is to save the pilot. And the pilots themselves have changed drastically. Think back to the 1950s and they tended to be tall and pipe thin. Think of pilots now, in the US Navy say, and some of them are like quarterbacks. The same system has to eject a 240lb guy or a small woman—people with different physical capabilities, different bond structures. That’s where the compromise sits.”
Even with a more consistent pilot physique, the kind of force used with early seats might well lead to back injuries that more modern seat design—not to mention the governments that buy them—would not consider acceptable for their expensively trained pilots. There has also been the need to, for example, protect the neck on exiting the aircraft, whipped back as it is by the impact of wind, and to restrain the arms and legs to prevent what’s known in the industry as ‘limb flail’, which at high speed invariably means said flailing limbs get broken. And yet, by the same token, should the canopy fail to be jettisoned from the aircraft, “there’s a consensus that you still wouldn’t want to stay in it”, notes Barnes. “You’d want to punch theough that canopy so there is a pragmatism to ejection seat design.”
Human frailty has led the ejection seat business to conclude that while the lower end of viable ejection parameters is zero knots and at zero altitude—which is to say that a pilot might, though it’s more dangerous, eject from a stationary aircraft on the runway, at ‘zero zero’ as the industry puts it—the upper end is around 650 knots. Ejection at a speed greater than that means the pilot is likely to sustain fatal wind blast injuries. Altitude must be considered too. Ejection seats might come with a drone chute that stabilises the seat’s post-ejection fall to earth, but which also allows the pilot to descend to an altitude where hypothermia won’t be an issue before the main chute opens. Barnes recalls a troubled Typhoon jet whose pilot allowed it to undergo a rapid and uncontrolled descent for some time before he ejected. “So he was obviously a very calm and collected pilot even in that situation,” he adds.
This isn’t to say that ejection seat design doesn’t have to advance—but don’t, for instance, expect them to be made of the latest high-tech materials. Most components in a seat are made of stainless steel and various alloys—titanium has been trialled but is pricey and was found to offer negligible benefits, while carbon fibre is lightweight but unserviceable because it’s hard to make an assessment of its structural integrity if it gets damaged. Seats, after all, tend to stay in service for perhaps 40 years. Martin-Baker has had only 7,586 ejections in its 70-year history.
“Seats get bashed and scratched. They’re not pretty when they come out of service. But what’s key to the materials used is the predictability of the ageing of the seat, which is why design approach tends to be cautious,” explains Barnes.
“A seat is inactive for 99.9 percent of its lifetime. It’s why the energetics [the industry term for the explosives that propel the seat out of the aircraft] are likewise designed to be very stable for a very long time—but still work when you need them to.”
Indeed, most advances would seem to come in response to the changing role of the pilot and the technology he or she uses. “The biggest challenge now is providing a comfortable work station for an increasingly busy pilot—and there’s a conflict of interest between providing what is a kind of office chair and a life-saving device,” explains Barnes. “Pilots are trussed up in a lot of equipment now and with some strike aircraft there may be a flight time of eight or nine hours to the target, and then back. So it varies enormously between pilots as to those who want more comfort and those who want more safety.”
Recently one hot topic in combat flying circles has been the issue of inflight urination. For a pilot to unstrap to piss is one option, but getting strapped up again is very difficult. Without the right straps fastened, the ejection seat won’t function for the pilot as it should. So some pilots are staying deliberately dehydrated with a potentially negative effect on their cognition, reaction times and so on.
John Fyfe is director of Air Force Programs for UTC Aerospace, the other major ejection seat manufacturer, based in North Carolina, US, which this year introduced its next-generation ACES 5, one of the world’s most advanced seats to date. He notes how even something as seemingly insignificant as the USAF’s introduction of night vision goggles for its pilots over recent years has had an impact.
“Seats were designed to allow you to eject at, say, 400 knots, but not 400 knots wearing night vision goggles, and it makes a difference,” he says.
But, he adds, changing a seat design is neither easy nor cheap, which is why older aircraft are typically retrofitted to accommodate a new seat design, while a new aircraft design is typically a matter of collaborating with seat manufacturers to ensure that a seat already in service will (with a few modifications perhaps) work for it; or, indeed, take the much pricier option of designing a new seat from scratch, with a full test programme costing millions.
“There was certainly a period when the [armed] services just accepted the risk of using this night vision technology. Cockpits came with warnings that if the pilot ejected wearing a helmet-mounted device they were almost certain to get a serious injury,” says Fyfe. “And it was a fatal injury during an ejection from an F-16 four years ago that was really the impetus to push the services to take action [and amend the seats so ejection with night vision goggles was possible]. There are several different technologies that could be introduced and, sure, ejection seats are getting better all the time. But there’s always a cost/benefit consideration. We have a 92 percent safety record for any ejection type, so really now it’s about chasing that other eight percent.”
There are new chute designs, for example, following studies revealing that half of the injuries sustained from ejection were down to the landing, rather than getting out of the aircraft in one piece. There are constant studies into how better to shift loads into the headrest that would otherwise go into the pilot’s neck. There are passive limb restraints, which allow the wearing of any kind of flight gear, and modular systems that allow for easier maintenance of a seat. But major developments are probably 10 years down the line. In the meantime, that eight percent window for a bad ejection remains.
When it goes wrong, it’s typically less a question of a seat not working so much as the ejection happening outside of the parameters in which today’s seats can operate. “If a pilot ejects at 700 knots the air pressure alone will crush his body, never mind the seat,” says Fyfe. All the same, demands on the likes of Martin-Baker and UTC Aerospace keep growing, and not least for the men and women brave enough to fly the aircraft which these companies fit their seats into.”
“Pilots would like to be very confident, no matter what gear they’re wearing, that when they eject within the limits of the seat they’ll not only live but they’ll fly again within the next day or two,” says John Hampton, senior manager for interiors in UTC’s military seating engineering department.
“The measure of the effectiveness of a seat is now not a successful ejection, but whether the pilot is able to walk away when he lands. That’s really want we’re shooting for.”
Thankfully, that was the case for Charbo and his engineer following their ejection over the Netherlands six years ago. Perversely perhaps, Charbo claims to have enjoyed his rare experience. “Strangely, the adrenaline in your system makes you feel very strong and it sharpens your perceptions. All the time the plane is descending very rapidly, although the sensation is less of you going down, as the ground coming up to you, and fast,” he says.
“Of course, you’re still surprised it’s all happening, because for all of your training you never expect it to actually happen,” he adds. “But you’re so busy with certain things you need to do that you don’t have time to think about your situation. You’re too busy to be scared. It’s odd how you go from this speed and commotion and noise to floating in complete calm and silence in the three seconds it takes to eject. You go from intense stress to this intense awareness that you’re alive. And in that three seconds I heard everything, saw everything, smelled everything—it was a movie in slow-mo. I’ve only had that experience once before, when I was in a car crash.”
As Charbo descended, he watched his Albatross aircraft, completely vertical, plough into a field—a great relief to him “because the very worst thing for a pilot is to see his plane land in a crowd,” he adds. Soon after, more gently, he landed too, in the middle of a corn field, the crop three metres high around him. An indication of just how collected he was, he immediately penned a brief report on the aircraft’s condition at the time of the problem. He was flying the next day. And for the next 10 days or so he was, metaphorically and, in a way, literally, on cloud nine.
“I just had this incredible feeling of happiness. I just felt so good. I had none of the usual aches and pains. I felt like I was in perfect condition. Of course, again it’s just the adrenaline still in your system,” says Charbo, bringing mere sensation back to hard reality, as perhaps only a fighter pilot who views ejection much like a Sunday stroll might. “And yet, I wish that feeling had stayed with me.”
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