On 1 May 1957, Lockheed test pilot Jack "Suitcase" Simpson took off from an air base in Palmdale, California, on what was supposed to be a routine test flight of a new jet fighter.
It wasn't long before the flight took a turn for the worse.
Simpson was testing a prototype of the Lockheed F-104 "Starfighter", the first US jet fighter capable of flying at more than twice the speed of sound. It was at the furthest limits of aircraft design at the time.
After flying to 30,000ft, a malfunction with the ailerons (the hinged back sections of the wing which help a plane turn) caused Simpson's Starfighter to pitch straight down and tumble wildly, high above the ground. Simpson knew he had to get out quickly and pulled the ejector seat handle at 27,000ft (8.1km).
"I can still remember the powerful, full force of rushing air, pinning me to my seat – like going downhill in the front seat of a mile high roller coaster," Simpson recounted to Flight Journal in an interview in 1998. "Only this blast was instantaneous; it hit me at about 450mph (725km/h)."
Simpson's parachute opened safely and he survived the mishap with little more than bumps and bruises. But what's remarkable about his ejection is that he wasn't spat out of the aircraft through the Starfighter cockpit canopy, but through the floor. The young test pilot is one of a handful who successfully escaped a doomed plane on an ejector seat which fired down, not up.
As military aviation developed during World War Two, the increasing speed of aircraft had created a dramatic problem – it was much more difficult to escape them if something went wrong.
Older, slower aircraft were much easier for a parachute-equipped pilot to jump out of, but a fighter plane travelling 450mph (724km/h) or more created almost insurmountable problems – the plane would be moving so quickly that a pilot wouldn't have time to clear the tail.
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It was another design by Lockheed – the twin-engined P-38 "Lightning" fighter – which had helped spur the development of the ejector seat during World War Two. The P-38 had a novel design, with the two engines housed in long booms connecting to the tail and a small central section housing the pilot and armament. The two rail rudders at the rear of the plane were connected by a thick horizontal tail plane. This made the P-38 very difficult to escape if it was damaged. The pilot's manual tried to gloss over this with a series of step-by-step guides to successfully exit a damaged P-38, perhaps forgetting that a pilot might be coming under fire at the time.
"The gyrations that a pilot had to do to get out of a P-38 in an emergency situation were almost laughable," says Alex Spencer, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. "You know, get out, get on the wing, slide down and make sure you're away from the airplane. While the plane's moving around, and you don't know what it's going to do once you get out of it."
The F-104’s high tail was a danger to upward-firing seats (Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)
As jet fighters replaced propellor-driven ones, a safe way to escape a plane at high speeds became even more pressing, especially once aircraft broke the speed of sound.
The first ejector seats basically followed a similar pattern – an explosive charge would break the canopy above the pilot, and explosive rockets would launch the seat and pilot clear of the aircraft. In a conventional aircraft design, this worked well. But the early jet age saw a great deal of experimentation and novel design, as engineers had to adapt to new aerodynamic challenges beyond the sound barrier. This led to several early jet designs featuring a "T-tail", with the tail planes placed higher up on the tail fin, which can reduce drag and improve airflow over the tail's moving surfaces. One of the first jet fighters to enter service, the RAF's Gloster Meteor, had just such a configuration. It was also one of the first aircraft to feature an ejector seat, but didn't fly fast enough for its tail to be an issue.
That soon changed.
Testing these seats required live crew, in the absence of sophisticated test dummies
"If you look at the aircraft that had the downward-ejecting seats… the engineers don't have many options for getting the crew out of them," says Spencer. "It's not the ideal situation – at all – but it's probably the only option they had to save the crew in an emergency situation."
In the 1950s, aircraft such as the F-104 and the US Air Force's B-47 bomber tail planes meant designers now had think outside the conventional ejection box. In the B-47's case, the crew of three were housed in two pressurised pods inside the aircraft. The pilot and co-plot ejected normally, but the navigator, housed in the pod much closer to the tail, had to eject downwards.
Testing these seats required live crew, in the absence of sophisticated test dummies. The first aviator to test the downward seat was Colonel Arthur Henderson of the US Air Force in October 1953, who later recounted the historic plunge in a 1955 article for the magazine Popular Mechanics. "'Swish' is the easiest way of describing the sensation of downward ejection from an airplane," he wrote. "There is no jolt, nor is there the sickening feeling one experiences rapidly descending elevators. You're sitting there relaxed and then, instantly, when you fire the seat you're gone. A kaleidoscopic scene of colour unfolds before your eyes. There is no blackout or redout, but merely a few moments of confusion. By the time you can move your head to look at the belt, the seat is gone. You are free-falling through emptiness…"
Before engineers were able to fit more powerful seats, the first versions of the F-104 had to have a seat which fired through the cockpit floor (Credit: Lockheed Martin)
Henderson had been strapped into his seat with shoulder harness and seatbelt before take-off. "I could do nothing for about 30 minutes but sit over the open hatch and be with God and my thoughts."
Henderson's first ejection proceeded perfectly, the colonel landing in the water of Chochawtachee Bay in Florida. Later tests – there were seven in all – found that if aircrew held on to the d-ring to fire the seat at speeds higher than 440mph (708km/h), the windspeed caused their arms to flail around, and two suffered arm fractures.
The Starfighter's configuration was especially problematic – in order to reach its maximum speed, the fighter resembled a rocket more than an aircraft. To cut drag, the leading edges of the short, stubby wings and tailplanes were so sharp they could cut paper. Ground crew had to fit protective caps while servicing them to avoid injury. Lockheed decided that a downwards escape route was necessary.
The aircraft suffered so many fatal crashes that crews nicknamed it "Man Eater"
The down-firing seats on the early versions of the B-47 and F-104 had one major problem, however. While they prevented crew colliding with the aircraft tail, they needed a minimum height below the aircraft of at least 500ft (150m). Aircrew would have been aware that the seats were less than ideal for take-off and landing – the times when aircraft accidents are most common. In the F-104's case, upward firing seats became an absolute necessity as from the 1960s, many Nato air forces used it as a low-level fighter – with some training at heights below 100ft (30m).
While most downward-firing seats have been replaced, there is one aircraft that will soldier on with them perhaps until the middle of this century. The US Air Force's Boeing B-52 "Stratofortress" bomber, which first entered service in the 1950s, features downwards-firing seats for the navigator and radar navigator. This is not so much because of the aircraft's tail (the tailplanes are set low down and the B-52 is relatively slow) but because the two crew members sit on a lower deck, beneath the other crew.
In the Soviet Union, the supersonic Tupolev Tu-22 "Blinder" bomber was another design which necessitated downward firing seats, thanks to its two massive engines mounted on the tail. The Tupolev's seats were even more restrictive than the US models, and could not be used lower than 1,000ft (300m). This was particularly sobering for "Blinder" crews because the bomber had dangerously high landing speeds and took great physical effort to control, making it very susceptible to landing accidents. The aircraft suffered so many fatal crashes that crews nicknamed it "Man Eater" – its unconventional ejection seat set-up might have been partly to blame.
The Stratojet’s downward-firing seat could only be used if the aircraft was above 1,000ft (300m) (Credit: Museum of Flight/Corbus/ Getty Images)
As ejector seat technology improved, the seats made by the likes of Martin-Baker became more powerful and able to clear aircraft in plenty of time. Downward-firing seats were no longer needed. But there were still incidents where conventional seats failed. One of the most infamous involved Kara Hultgreen, the US Navy's first female fighter pilot. In 1994, Hultgreen's F-14 Tomcat stalled as she was approaching the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. The aircraft flipped over just as she ejected, with the seat firing straight into the water. She was killed instantly.
A few years before, the world had been shown a solution to such tragedies. In 1989, Soviet test pilot Anatoly Kvochur carried out a much-anticipated aerial display at the Paris Air Show in a new MiG-29 fighter, still something of a mystery in the West. Towards the end of its display, a bird was sucked into one of its engines, causing it to roll towards the ground. Kvochur stayed with the aircraft as long as possible to ensure it missed the huge crowd. He ejected less than three seconds before the MiG crashed into the ground, with the plane's cockpit pointed downwards toward the ground. Despite landing less than 100ft (30m) from the MiG's burning wreckage, Kvochur suffered little more than a cut from his oxygen mask.
Then when they saw the seat come out and shoot straight up by the rockets changing the thrust vectors, boy that made a huge difference - Alex Spencer
The crash took place in front of TV cameras and even today his safe ejection seems little less than miraculous. His remarkable escape was thanks to a special ejector seat the Soviets had devised for its new fighter planes. Fitted with an auto gyro system, the Zvezda K-36 had a system of rockets which would fire the seat clear of the ground, whichever direction it was pointed.
"And then when it happened, everybody witnessed this autocorrection take place and the pilot survived. At that point they didn't even know the Soviets had this capability," says Spencer.
The Tu-22 was one Soviet aircraft which also used downward-firing seats; these may have contributed to its poor reputation among crews (Credit: Wojtek Laski/Getty Images)
"It shocked the crowed when it happened, from the angle the pilot got out of that plane at, with the ejection seats at that time it would have shot him almost straight down into the ground. Then when they saw the seat come out and shoot straight up by the rockets changing the thrust vectors, boy that made a huge difference. Western engineers didn't even know that the Soviets had such technology, and they got to work very quickly to have that on our own seats.
"I would have liked to have been in the meeting room at Martin-Baker the day after, when they figured out how they were going to try and keep up with that."
Martin-Baker's own seats now employ similar technology, and jet pilots no longer have to worry about whether a downward-fitting seat has enough height to operate properly.
Attack helicopters are flying so low that by the time you make the decision to eject and move to take action, you're probably dead anyway – Roger Connor
But spare a thought for helicopter pilots. Though aircraft designers have dreamed of similar escape systems for rotary craft, only two helicopters made by the Russian company Kamov currently carry ejector seats. The Ka-50 and 52 attack helicopters feature explosive bolts which release the rotor blades before the seats fire, thus avoiding any risk of collision.
It's not something US helicopter makers are likely to copy, however, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum curator Roger Connor tells BBC Future. "Attack helicopters are flying so low that by the time you make the decision to eject and move to take action, you're probably dead anyway, so why add the weight, complexity, vulnerability, cost of an escape system that's almost never likely to be used."
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