The first ejection seats were developed independently during World War II by Heinkel and SAAB. Early models were powered by compressed air and the first aircraft to be fitted with such a system was the Heinkel He 280 prototype jet-engined fighter in 1940.
They were were imperfect – pilots broke the arms and legs, split head and tore the inside of the air flow. Literally every improvement in ejection seats paid for someone’s life and health: Fixing clamps for hands, feet and head, catapulting through the glass canopy, etc.
The purpose of an ejection seat is pilot survival. The pilot typically experiences an acceleration of about 12–14 g (117–137 m/s2). Western seats usually impose lighter loads on the pilots; 1960s-70s era Soviet technology often goes up to 20–22 g (with SM-1 and KM-1 gunbarrel-type ejection seats). Compression fractures of vertebrae are a recurrent side effect of ejection.
The “standard” ejection system operates in two stages. First, the entire canopy or hatch above the aviator is opened, shattered, or jettisoned, and the seat and occupant are launched through the opening. In most earlier aircraft this required two separate actions by the aviator, while later egress system designs, such as the Advanced
Concept Ejection Seat model 2 (ACES II), perform both functions as a single action.
The ACES II ejection seat is used in most American-built fighters. The A-10 uses connected firing handles that activate both the canopy jettison systems, followed by the seat ejection. The F-15 has the same connected system as the A-10 seat. Both handles accomplish the same task, so pulling either one suffices. The F-16 has only one handle located between the pilot’s knees, since the cockpit is too narrow for side-mounted handles.
Non-standard egress systems include Downward Track (used for some crew positions in bomber aircraft, including the B-52 Stratofortress), Canopy Destruct (CD) and Through-Canopy Penetration (TCP), Drag Extraction, Encapsulated Seat, and even Crew Capsule.
A zero-zero ejection seat is designed to safely extract upward and land its occupant from a grounded stationary position (i.e., zero altitude and zero airspeed), specifically from aircraft cockpits. The zero-zero capability was developed to help aircrews escape upward from unrecoverable emergencies during low-altitude and/or low-speed flight, as well as ground mishaps. Parachutes require a minimum altitude for opening, to give time for deceleration to a safe landing speed. Thus, prior to the introduction of zero-zero capability, ejections could only be performed above minimum altitudes and airspeeds. If the seat was to work from zero (aircraft) altitude, the seat would have to lift itself to a sufficient altitude.
These early seats fired the seat from the aircraft with a cannon, providing the high impulse needed over the very short length on the cannon barrel within the seat. This limited the total energy, and thus the additional height possible, as otherwise the high forces needed would crush the pilot.
Zero-zero technology uses small rockets to propel the seat upward to an adequate altitude and a small explosive charge to open the parachute canopy quickly for a successful parachute descent, so that proper deployment of the parachute no longer relies on airspeed and altitude. The seat cannon clears the seat from the aircraft, then the under-seat rocket pack fires to lift the seat to altitude. As the rockets fire for longer than the cannon, they do not require the same high forces. Zero-zero rocket seats also reduced forces on the pilot during any ejection, reducing injuries and spinal compression.
And yet, the pilots continue to die, and often for one reason – trying to save the favorite plane, delayed the decision to “exit with an umbrella.”
Parachutes and catapults in aviation has always been disliked …