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Since First Successfully Used 75 Years Ago, Ejection Seats Have Saved Thousands

The faster an airplane is moving, the harder it is to get out of: that’s why ejection seats are so important

The Heinkel He-280, the world's first jet fighter, was developed in Nazi Germany during World War II. (San Diego Air & Space Museum/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Ejection seats have been a running gag in tons of movies. But they’ve also saved literally thousands of lives.

First successfully used on this day in 1942, the seats work by violently throwing a pilot or co-pilot clear of a plane that can be moving at speeds of 2200 miles per hour. This prevents them from striking part of the plane on their attempt to exit, or injuring themselves while trying to use their body strength to manipulate parts of the airplane at inhumanly high speeds.

Today, ejection seats have about a greater than 90 percent success rate. That’s a contrast from the 1940s, when the success rate was about 40 percent. But both of those figures are better than when pilots had to simply “bail out” and take their chances at 30,000 feet or higher, writes Paul Marks for the BBC.

Marks describes what happened to one test pilot who died because he didn’t have one: “As he tried to bail out, Davie’s left arm was severed trying to open the canopy — possibly due to it snapping shut in the windblast. Astonishingly, he still managed to get out — only to be critically injured, or knocked unconscious, by the aircraft’s tailplane as he tried to leap clear. Unable to open his parachute he plummeted to the ground,” he writes.  

Douglas Davie’s 1943 death underlined the importance of developing the ejection seat for Britain’s air forces, he writes. But on the other side of the ongoing world war, the first successful use of an ejection seat in an emergency had already happened more than a year earlier.

Test pilot Helmut Schenk was testing a new jet fighter, writes Tony Long for Wired, when his plane iced up. “He jettisoned his canopy and activated the seat,” writes Long. “Powered by compressed gas, the seat catapulted him clear of the aircraft.”

It was Germany that had produced the world’s first operational jet fighter, he writes, so it makes some sense that they would have led the way on creating an emergency exit strategy that worked at jet-fighter speeds.

By the autumn of 1944, writes Marks, “the British Air Ministry was receiving bizarre reports of sightings of German pilots ‘being fired into the sky’ from crashing German jets.” Both Britain and the U.S. successfully developed their own ejection seats after the end of the war.

In the earlier days of airplane travel, the ejection seat wasn’t really necessary, writes aerospace historian Christopher T. Carey on his blog. “In most cases, if a pilot found himself in trouble in the 20s, it was relatively easy to simply disengage the seat harness and jump over the side of the machine so that the parachute could be employed for safe descent,” he writes. That changed as aircrafts became more sophisticated.

Here’s how ejection seats work now, from Mary Collins at Air & Space Magazine: the pilot pulls their ejection seat handle, which sends an electric pulse signaling the hatch to unlock. Then sensors figure out how far away to fling the ejection seat and pilot.

“Manufacturers have spent decades perfecting all the steps necessary for a fully automatic ejection,” she writes. “A hole blows open overhead. The wind surges in. The pilot can feel the chemical cartridge ignite under his seat, which activates a catapult that pushes his seat up a rail. One-tenth of a second after yanking the handle, he’s out of there.”

After the pilot gets clear, a rocket system stabilizes the seat and a parachute opens. The technology still isn’t without risk, reports Marks: 25 to 30 percent of ejectees suffer back problems from the explosive force.

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