By lex, on January 5th, 2004
Are really embarrassing…
I’ve written before about ejection seats and their uses. They can be marvelous things to be seated upon, when the engine noise quits and the lights go dark. The ejection seat is the “final flight control” when all others have either failed or (more likely) when they have worked exactly as designed in inexpert hands. For my own part (and now that I am no longer actively flying, I feel safe writing this without knocking on wood, much) I only ever reached for the yellow and black striped handle there between my legs once. And then only to verify its position. For use just a little later, maybe – like in the next five seconds. And that one occasion was manifestly due to my own buffoonery on a max power, high angle of attack, slow speed rudder reversal. I wasn’t even fighting anyone – I’d just finished a post-maintenance functional check flight, and with fuel to spare decided to find out exactly how quickly I could successfully perform a max power, high angle of attack, slow speed rudder reversal.
As it turned out, I did not discover how quickly I could successfully do that particular maneuver. But what I did discover was exactly how quickly I could do it and violently depart controlled flight. What with all the subsequent sensory overload? The whooping of the sideslip warning tone, the shriek of the angle of attack warning tone, the visual sensation of being on the inside of a washing machine on spin cycle, looking out, all the banging of my helmet against either side of the canopy, and the randomly oscillating positive and negative g-forces, well – those post-stall gyrations we’re pretty darn exciting. Gosh.
I don’t know of many occasions when you are so vividly alive and intellectually engaged as in a violent departure, and considering ejection. There is of course, the overwhelming desire to live. Built in, hard wired nothing you can do about that. There’s also an intense professional desire to recover control of the airplane, and bring it safely home. In a single-seat fighter, all on your own, there’s absolutely no reason anyone should ever have to know about your loss of control. These things happen when you go up against the limits performance envelopes – sometimes you go past them. There’s guys who have and guys who will.
But. It’s not considered a good thing to do very often – you wouldn’t want to make a habit. People might start to wonder.
And – this all assumes you can regain control. Losing the airplane but saving your life through ejection will leave you to answer Difficult Questions at a long green table. An added feature of this particular table will be that, uniquely, the place at which you sit be equipped with neither water glass nor ash tray. The questioners will call into doubt your professionalism, intelligence and skill. Which are all pretty much lying there on the long green table in shards while your interlocutors hold them up to the light, looking for further flaws.
Because you didn’t bring the airplane back, and you’re ordinarily expected to. They’re very expensive, and of course we only have so many. Professional consequences?
Yes – have some.
Oh sure, CNO put the ejection seat there for a reason – maybe a guy might get hit by a surface-to-air missile, or bagged by a MiG. Combat losses are inevitable in combat. A dangerous business – it’s why you get additional pay. Also, sometimes important things break, like flight controls, or fuel boost pumps. Or catch fire – an engine on fire can have very dramatic consequences in a relatively short period of time. It can make that warm, familiar, comfortable cockpit seem suddenly rather cramped and untidy. You could end up looking for a way out. Stepping out for a walk. Taking the Martin-Baker descent.
You know – ejecting.
But along with running a jet out of gas, ham-fisting a perfectly good airplane into an irrecoverable departure or spin is considered very bad form indeed. So I only ever came close to ejecting for that reason once.
I’m not counting the time I ran a TOPGUN A-4F Super Fox out of knots at the top of a loop, trying to find out exactly how much more slowly I could complete that maneuver in the Fox than in my somewhat more sedate and markedly more familiar A-4E. (Turns out that regardless of engine thrust, the airframes stall and depart at the exact same speed. Which I probably could have predicted, had I thought about it for a moment or two longer.) But anyway, as I said, I’m not going to talk about that because as it directly conflicts with my opening discussion about “I only ever once,” I figure it’s not germane. So there.
So like I said, barring some extreme exigency, intentionally ejecting from a perfectly good airplane is professionally, as well as personally, embarrassing.
How much more so, then, is ejecting inadvertently?
More so, I should think. Although it’s never happened to me (stifle the instinct to knock wood), I do know of a few tales of inadvertent ejection that are, I think, educational. So long as by “educational,” you mean, “allows us all to laugh uproariously at someone else’s misfortune and buffoonery.” Because that’s what the word “educational” is commonly taken to mean in fighter aviation. Just so you’re clear on that.
The first two are closely linked – As a community, we’d been flying the FA-18 for the better part of ten years, and tens of thousands of hours, before a couple poor guys discovered (within the course of maybe one week of each other) that it was possible to get the ejection seat handle tangled up with the weapons select switch on the flight control stick. Both events occurred after a routine flight, and safe landing when the pilots “aero braked.” This means essentially pulling the stick full aft once the jet is safely below flying speed on the landing rollout, which serves to put both massive stabilators up into the slipstream where they act as speed-brakes. It helps to dissipate kinetic energy, so you get to taxi speed quicker.
Now, as it turns out, if your seat was at exactly the right height, and the ejection seat handle was just a little forward of its normal position, the afore mentioned weapons control switch could snag on the ejection handle.
The result being that, just at the moment when the pilot had safely slowed to taxi speed and released the stick to it’s neutral position, the returning stick would pull the ejection handle out of its stow position, thereby initiating ejection: The canopy would blow, leg and shoulder restraints would fire to haul the pilot aft, and pretty much before he could assimilate any of those facts, he’d be floating gracefully down to earth in a parachute, blown downwind, aft of his still taxiing, now sadly unattended, fighter.
Amazing that this could happen after 10 years of flying the jet, with no one else ever even noticing the potential. More amazing still that it could happen twice in a week’s time. But there you have it.
The next story isn’t quite as funny – a guy was climbing out his jet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier after a mission, and got his O2 mask hose tangled up in the ejection handle. Bad enough – worse still was that he hadn’t safed the seat before unstrapping, a definite no-no. Not realizing what the hose was caught on, and standing half-in and half-out of the jet, he looked down and gave the O2 hose a quick jerk, thereby getting a face full of hard hitting, fast moving, rocket motor-propelled SJU-7 ejection seat.
Um, yeah: Ouch. Big time.
He survived though, even flew again.
And the final tale maybe doesn’t fit under this title, but you’re going to read it anyway, just because I think it’s funny. Which probably reveals more about me than I really want to tell, but anyway.
An Air Force F-16 pilot is returning in his Viper from a long cross country when the cumulative effects of the night’s festivities and his morning coffee resulted in a bladder over-pressure light. Now, this particular light is nowhere on the annunciator panel in the cockpit, and yet every aviator is aware of its existence. Anyway, in order to ease the over-pressure, our hero unstrapped his lap restraints, and cast them to the side with casual abandon. From within the bowels of his g-suit pocket, he came up with a piddle pack, with which to store the excess fluid. Unzipping his flight suit to gain access to the appropriate equipment for the task, he found to his dismay that he couldn’t quite come up with a favorable angle to successfully complete the mission. What to do?
Undaunted, our hero reached over to his seat height adjust switch in order to elevate the ejection seat just a bit – in combination with his legs bracing him against the rudder panels, the pilot calculated the critical equipment angle could be attained. This could be difficult for the best of us, and even more so for Air Force pilots, who as a class, aren’t noted for a super-abundance of useable slack in their equipment.
Alas! The aforementioned lap restraints, so casually cast aside in mission preparation, became stuck between the ejection seat bucket and the F-16′s sidestick controller. As our hero raised the seat, the pressure of the lap restraint upon the sidestick caused the jet to snap out of autopilot, and into a series of high-speed, exceptionally disorienting rolls. Dropping the task at hand in favor of higher priority tasking, our hero struggled manfully (but fruitlessly) to regain control of the jet, now descending from high altitude, and starting to pick up an alarming amount of airspeed.
Further delay would put our man out of successful ejection limits for airspeed. As no other solution came to mind (he didn’t note the wedged lap restraint against the sidestick in all the snap rolls), our man made the only choice he could, faced with this catastrophic loss of control – he reached down between his legs (not, alas, to stow his wedding tackle) and pulled the ejection handle.
That he survived is certain. Whether he ever flew again, is unknown, as is the status of the wind-flailed wedding tackle.
But even lacking these details, the story was, for the rest of us, educational.