Warbird Alley
Technical / Pilot Article

The Biggest Decision
Ejection Considerations for Warbird Pilots

By Buck Wyndham
Editor-in-Chief, WarbirdAlley.com

Anyone who has flown an ejection seat-equipped airplane or worn a parachute has, at one time or another, contemplated their actual use. For military aviators whose airplanes are owned by the government, the decision to "give it back to the taxpayers" by ejecting or bailing out is certainly not easy, but military jet-jocks are taught from Day One that the airplane is expendable, and they are not. Consequently, most military pilots would have absolutely no problem pulling the handles if things got bad, knowing full well there would be little second-guessing from their superiors, and there would probably be few, if any, negative career repercussions.

After talking with several fellow warbird operators about their philosophy regarding the use of the ejection seats and/or parachutes in their jets, I've found wildly different opinions. I suppose that in the end, this is an area of aviation opinion that's impossible to standardize and regulate, and rightly so. But allow me to share a few opinions that have come from many years of flying with a rocket seat strapped to my backside.

First (and I'll be blunt), if you skimp on either your equipment, training or personal preparation, you should be prepared to pay a huge price for your frugality and laziness. There are all sorts of scenarios and situations that might result in you having to leave your airplane, including midair collisions, structural failures, engine failures over inhospitable terrain (or even hospitable terrain, in some airplanes), critical system failures, in-flight fires, certain landing gear malfunctions, spatial disorientation, physiological factors, and even poor weather. Any of these factors can result in your demise if you don’t have a way out. It should go without saying that your equipment must be well maintained, and you must know how to use it correctly.

The most critical factor in the operation of your egress system, whether it’s a high-powered, automatic seat or a totally-manual bailout procedure, is your decision to use it. No one likes to think about abandoning an airplane they might have worked long and hard to acquire, maintain, and train in. But sometimes, there are no alternatives. History shows that the decision to get out is often made quickly, and as a result of a catastrophic event. Regardless of the particular situation, you must be extraordinarily decisive about getting out, and your decision must be based on a pre-determined set of criteria. That criteria is determined by the capabilities of your system, and by the personal minimums you set — the "padding" you build for yourself, so to speak.

For example, many current Air Force and Navy fighters have two "desired-minimum" altitudes established for ejection: Approximately 2,000 feet AGL if the airplane is controllable, and 10,000 feet AGL if it’s out of control. These minimums allow enough time for the ejection system to operate and the parachute to open, and for the pilot to be able to correct any parachute malfunctions and steer himself away from hazards on the ground. The 2000-foot minimum assumes a wings-level attitude and a minimal descent rate. Remember that these numbers are for a modern, rocket-equipped ejection seat, not a manual bailout. Is a manual bailout possible below 2,000 feet AGL? Yes, but every foot lower means a slight decrease in the survival rate.

A critical, but often overlooked, factor in a successful ejection or bailout is your descent rate vs. your altitude. The historic rate of successful ejections decreases dramatically if the airplane is near the ground and descending. An upward vector, no matter how you get it, will greatly increase your chances of surviving — even at very low altitudes. This is true for all airplanes and all egress systems. Altitude and/or an upward vector are life.

Other factors in a successful egress vary from aircraft to aircraft, and space doesn't allow me to begin addressing the variations in systems and capabilities. It’s your job, as a responsible operator, to know what your particular system can and can’t do. Find experts and learn from them. Also, ask yourself some tough questions. Decide exactly which situations would cause you to leave the airplane, and which wouldn't. Be creative. What if you blew a tire on takeoff and found yourself heading off the runway at high speed toward the trees? What’s the slowest airspeed possible for a safe ground ejection? What if you experienced a total loss of thrust on a half-mile final? Would you make it to the runway? If so, could your airplane even be landed? (Some airplanes, with hydraulic flight controls powered by engine-driven pumps, become instant falling bricks when the pumps stop turning.) Below what altitude in the base turn are you out of the ejection/bailout envelope? How do you jettison the canopy? How do you open your parachute manually? (Have you sat in the cockpit and practiced reaching for your D-ring lately?)

Ask yourself some questions, research the answers, then set limits and stick to them. As a pilot of a warbird, you must absolutely know when it’s time to leave, and how to do it if the need arises. Right now, while you’re on the ground, is the time to think about ejection/bailout decisions, and to develop some personal minimums. If you're aloft and your situation deteriorates to a certain level, you've got the rest of your life to think about what to do.

This article originally appeared in the CJAA's "Classic Jet Journal" in 1999. It is reprinted here courtesy of the author. Photos courtesy of NASA.

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